#321. High-end 35mm lens shootout: Zeiss Distagon T* 1.4/35 ZM vs Leica Summicron 35/2 vs Sony/Zeiss FE 35/2.8

By pascaljappy | Review

Feb 05

Note: This is part two fo the ZM 35/1.4 review. Part 1, the full review, is here.


Dilemma. Having worked hard to establish what a formidable image-making machine the Zeiss Distagon T* 1.4/35 ZM is (see also here), I hesitate to feed it to a pixel-peeping community with shots made on a Sony A7r, a camera for which it wasn’t designed and on which it shows technical shortcomings that some will blow out of proportion.

However:

(1) I promised I would.

(2) The readers who are really interested in buying a 2000€ standard-wide will know what to make of what they see. What matters and what doesn’t.

(3) Even when pixel-peeped at, this is a great lens.

So, here we are with the ZM 35/1.4, the Sony-Zeiss Sonnar 35/2.8 FE and my battered old Leica Summicron 35/2. In the 90 minutes I managed to stay outside in the cold, I was able to make pictures for the following comparisons : infinity, close up and colours.

For other aspects of the challenger lenses, you can find reviews elsewhere on this site :

 

Infinity comparison

Infinity focus provides the worst-case scenario for M-mount lenses on the Sony A7r  because their rear lenses are closest to the sensor (and on the ZM 35/1.4, that is scary close!). I chose the scene below because it is a real torture test for all lenses: backlit, low-contrast and with a distinct blue cast.

Here is a B&W converted image, followed by the aperture series for all 3 lenses, uncorrected and all full-size.

The Sainte-Baume Massif in Provence - our "Infinity" target

The Sainte-Baume Massif in Provence – our “Infinity” target – Sony A7r & Zeiss ZM 35/1.4 @ f/5.6

What to look for ?

  • As you can see, a monastery is build on the cliff and a small building sits just above it on the ridge. Both have plenty of interesting detail to check out.
  • Below that, the forest provides very fine and low-contrast detail in the branches. This is a much tougher test than black and white lines in a well-lit lab.
  • The ridge is good for chromatic aberration
Zeiss 35/1.4 ZM Leica Summicron-R 35/2 Sony-Zeiss FE35/2.8
f/1.4 DSC00786-2  N/A  N/A
f/2 DSC00787-2 DSC00798-2  N/A
f/2.8 DSC00788-2 DSC00799-2 DSC00793-2
f/4 DSC00789-2 DSC00800-2 DSC00794-2
f/5.6 DSC00790-2 DSC00801-2 DSC00795-2
f/8 DSC00791-2 DSC00802-2 DSC00796-2
f/11 DSC00792-2 DSC00803-2 DSC00797-2

What does this tell us?

  • Don’t shoot landscape at infinity and f/1.4 (duh πŸ˜‰ ) The Summicron 35/2 and FE 35/2.8 need f/5.6 to be really happy and the ZM requires another stop.  From f/2.8 on, the ZM 35/1.4 seems the best in the center. The FE 35/2.8 is the best in the edges, throughout the comparison.
  • The 30 year-old Summicron is off the mark, colour-wise. It also seems to have a more curved field than the 2 others, see the green pine trees on the right (the FE feels like it has a flat field, the Summicron inward curving and the ZM slightly outward curving). It also has a slightly wider field of view, compared to the two others.
  • Chromatic aberration on the ZM is, how to put it, rather strong …
  • Unsurprisingly, as the only lens optimised for the Sony camera, the FE 35/2.8 is the best all-round performer on this “simulated lab” exercise.

Note: If it’s taking you time to compare 2 photos at 100% (6-9 foot-wide, depending on your screen), it probably means the differences are absolutely meaningless on a 16″ print πŸ˜‰

 

Close up comparisons

Different target, different goals. Here is a bush with no definite outline against a background of the same colour. Which lens separates the bush from the background best? Which has the best colour and the best bokeh?

Zeiss 35/1.4 ZM Leica Summicron-R 35/2 Sony-Zeiss FE35/2.8
f/2.8 DSC00847 DSC00851 DSC00849
f/5.6 DSC00848 DSC00852 DSC00850

At close range, the ZM 35/1.4 is a much happier camper. Yes, its corners still suffer at f2/.8 but the whole picture is superb with better colour than the Summicron 35/2, better bokeh than either competitor and ma more lifelike rendition of all twigs and branches. As far as I can tel, it is the best of the lot, the FE 35/2.8 coming up last, a bit lifeless.

This test also reveals the limits of autofocus, which locks on something, though I am not always sure what. Whereas both manual focus lenses are spot on.

 

Colour performance

This final test is more about colour and tonal rendition. Here are 3 scenes photographed with each lens in turn (hand-held).

What the photos don’t show is that shutter speed is always 1/3 stop faster FE 35/2.8 ZA.

Scene 1 : Backlit oaks with ruddy leaves and frost on grass.

ZM 35/1.4 @f/4

ZM 35/1.4 @f/4

DSC00772

Summicron-R 35/2 @ f/4

DSC00771

FE 35/2.8 ZA @f/4

All 3 are lovely. The Summicron seems to add a slight green cast to the scene and seems a bit flater (look around the bottom of the trunk). I’d hesitate between the FE35/2.8 and ZM 35/1.4 for best image here, but the ZM does look a bit ahead on micro-contrast (again, all the area arounf the trunk is telling).

 

Scene 2 : Exact same spot, looking 120Β° to the right. Same conditions, flatter side lighting.

DSC00776

ZM 35/1.4 @f/4

Summicron-R 35/2 @f/4

Summicron-R 35/2 @f/4

DSC00775

FE 35/2.8 @f/4

Again, 3 great results with the Summicron-R coming in 3rd because of slight cast, particularly visible on the grass below the brown tree. The other two are virtually indistinguishable, but the bottom left corner is a bit more mushy on the ZM’s rendering. The FE 35/2.8 gets this one.

 

3rd scene: building in the shadow

ZM 35/1.4 @f/4

ZM 35/1.4 @f/4

Summicron-R 35/2 @f/4

Summicron-R 35/2 @f/4

FE 35/2.8 @f/4

FE 35/2.8 @f/4

Here, the Summicron’s cast and greatest field of view (shortest true focal length) are most obvious. The other two are very close, with slightly better exposure on the FE 35/2.8.

 

4th scene: a small cemetery in the shadow. Focus on 2nd cross form the left, closest row.

DSC00782

ZM 35/1.4 @f/4

DSC00781

FE 35/2.8 @f/4

Summicron-R 35/2 @f/4

Summicron-R 35/2 @f/4

Again, the Summicron seems greener and a tad more muffled. I like the tree on the left best on the ZM, the rest being difficult to tell apart from the FE’s rendering. The FE does seem to have greatest depth of field at f/4, with the background appearing sharper, which is not necessarily a good think for 3D pop a f/4. The ZM takes this round but the differences are very small.

And your tastes/mileage may vary πŸ™‚

 

Conclusion

Although I love that lens dearly, the Summicron seems a bit distanced in this company. It’s an older design, not optimised for the Sony 7r (or for digital, for that matter) and, while it holds its own and shines in the sharpness comparisons, its colour and liveliness are a bit less convincing. It also suffers from coma and odd bokeh (see review: Leica Summicron 35/2).

The FE 35/2.8 ZA is a superb lens. I said so a year ago and still think so, even compared to the landmark ZM. At infinity, it comes out on top. At close range, falls to a very relative bottom. In terms of colour and dynamism, it’s almost on a par with the superb ZM. Ergonomics, well … Not in the same league. This is a plastic-feeling lens, and an AF design that leaves you very limited control on the lens itself. Some like that, others don’t. For the price, it is a no-brainer and could be my only lens. But it is 2 stops slower than the ZM, and not always quite as lovely and natural feeling. Brilliant lens, nonetheless (see review:  Sony Zeiss 35/2.8 FE)

Grand RandonnΓ©e - @f/1.4

Grande RandonnΓ©e – Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM @f/1.4

Which leads us to what may be the world’s best 35mm lens, period.

How can I recommend so highly a lens with such average sharpness performance at infinity, some will ask. Have you ever cycled? Not your leisurely stroll to the bread shop. I mean on a tough mountain bike or high-end road bike, doing arduous long-distance rides. If so, have you ever complained about your bike’s ability to shift while on the largest chainring and largest sprocket? Or both the smallest ? No, of course not. Because nobody rides that way.

Well, almost noone photographs landscapes at infinity and full aperture. And if a very, very, special application (astrophotography comes to mind, for instance) requires you to, I recommend a thinner filter stack or a different lens. Other than that, wide apertures in landscapes are more often used to isolate a subject close up from the background, an exercise at which the ZM fares much better. As you can tell from the photograph above, missing focus is more likely to be an issue than lens performance πŸ˜‰ But see how the twigs on the left of trunk are OK ? Not perfect, but quite OK (this is one of the pictures that make me believe the ZM 35/1.4 has an outward-curving best-sharpness surface, by the way). For better results than that at f/1.4, a new filter stack is needed (and tempting).

Concluding the conclusion : for the money, on the A7r, the FE35/2.8 may just be the best all-rounder, but it is “only” f/2.8 and the AF configuration doesn’t agree with me much. It truly is a superb lens. The Summicron, I like and keep for review comparisons and because of the more abstract look it gives to certain scenes. The ZM is the one my heart really wants and the one my wallet will open up for, unless the Loxia proves to be a real champ when I finally get hold of one. The real question is whether to change my camera’s filter stack or not … I need help πŸ˜‰

 


NEW: Signup for DearSusan’s new tutorial on lens testing in the field. 7 aberrations explained plus tips on how to test for them and how to fix their effects in post-processing. It’s totally free and totally awesome πŸ˜‰

  • Luca says:

    No, please stop this. I cannot fall for a 2000€ lens πŸ˜‰

    BTW, I guess the title should refer to the 35mm and not to an even more tempting (for me) 1.4/25 ZM πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Neither can I, really. But it’s worth it πŸ˜‰
      Ouch, made a mistake in the title. If I edit it, all subscribers will receive an email again. Stupid me … πŸ˜‰

  • Martin says:

    I love the FE 35/2,8. Really underrated.
    It has very high transmission, so f/2.8 is almost T2.8. This is why you are getting faster shutter speeds for the same aperture. These FE primes are really quite amazing…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Martin, yes, the DE lenses are tremendous. The FE35 gets my vote over the FE55, which has its uses but feels a little more sterile in daily use. But that FE 35/2.8 is a tour de force. My only gripe is about the ergonomics. Fly by wire isn’t my cup of tea. But that’s a minor thing when compared to the other qualities.

  • Philberphoto says:

    Whew, great work, Pascal! Though, personnally, I don’t read exactly the same into your shots. Because I have used the ZM (thanks to you!), I now recognize its footprint instantly: the colour differentiation, the 3D. And, unfortunately, it has taken some shine off the FE 35 f:2.8 by showing just how a better lens performs in these areas.
    One observation, to see if you concur: the building in the shadows. With the ZM (top shot), the emphasis in on the middle section, and the building in pointing upwards, as if in prayer. With the Summicron, the emphasis is on the middle section, but as a load on the wings, pushing them down. With the FE, the image is neutral, with no sense of dynamics. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like my FE any more, al the more so as I don’t mind its ergonomics at all, just, I love the drama the ZM brings out…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Philippe. I wish there was a lab test for storytelling. There, the ZM would blow others into the weeds. The interpretation of these differences is very personal and for me the ZM coveys the sound of Zen happening, tu put it jokingly. It is a lens with which I would be contempt to sit down in front of a wildflower for hours waiting for the right light, slow down, think, and make just one frame. And, although I still love the FE 35/2.8 for its imaging qualities and convenience (exif, AF – when it works, …), this is really where it cannot compete with the ZM. To quote from your previous article, the ZM would make a fondler out of me.

  • SteveG says:

    What you don’t refer to is the size. And here the FE wins hands down. As a walk-about lens, supported by your well-described all-round ‘goodness’, it is a no brainer. For any outdoor activity, on the A7, it is perfect for the ‘Wide Outdoors”.
    Although my FE 24-70 zoom ZA usually lives on my A7R, the FE 35/2.8 is always with me as well; on a hike or a bike ride, just the FE 35/2.8 (unless I take my A6000!)

    • pascaljappy says:

      True ! Small, very sweet and much more afordable. A great lens.
      The thing is, that ZM 35/1.4 is so lovely (and not that much bigger) that I’d happily sell most of my other gear to have just that one lens permanently on the camera. But, as mentioned in another reply, I’ll wait for the Loxia to turn up in this neck of the wook to make any decisions.

  • Sean says:

    Please, just wait for the Loxia 35mm F2 to walk around the corner, say hello and later it should be more of a level playing field – because you’ve had the opportunity to have all the family together for that all important comparative talk and conclusion … πŸ™‚

  • Sergey Landesman says:

    The ultimately best 35mm lens is Leica M 35mm 1.4 Asph. latest edition!And it is not just my opinion.
    I owned Sony RX1r for one year and can tell that 35mm f 2 Sonnar is a also a gem!

    • pascaljappy says:

      There’s only one way to know, Sergey: send the lens over so we can compare them πŸ˜‰
      Now that would be a lot of fun ad I’m sure both would be fantastic. “Better” would ultimately be a matter of taste, I guess.
      Don’t think I’m bashing Leica. I own more Leica lenses than Zeiss lenses. But I do like what Zeiss have been doing recently: matching or besting the competition at a more affordable price and with a less “in your face” look. It’s all a matter of taste.

  • Sean Cook says:

    Thank you for all of the photos and reviews! I just found one in stock and should have it tomorrow. I will send along some photos with it on the A7s as soon as I have some. πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Sean that would be brilliant! I wasn’t able to find an A7s while the lens was with me. Feel free to post an article here if you feel like it. I hope you enjoy the lens as much as I did! Cheers.

  • Abe says:

    In few hours sony is going to reveal The Sony – Zeiss FE Distagon 35 f/1.4 , and I’m so curious weather it’s thr same optics as the ZM lens – only with few changes to fit the E mount and the a7 sensor, or maybe it’s a totally different lens designed from the ground up by Sony. I hope it’s the former! I really do!!

  • P. Ip says:

    RE: “This test also reveals the limits of autofocus, which locks on something, though I am not always sure what.”

    Even though the FE35 has auto focus, it can be used in manual focus mode. With focus peeking, you should be able to set where to focus manually.

  • Aquila Nauta says:

    I am very happy to see Your articles, this one is next value one to me πŸ™‚ I believe there should be considered to renew this comparison with Loxia (Biogon) 2/35, Distagon ZA 1.4/35 FE and Sonnar ZA 2.8/35 FE. Best wishes and I hope to read more of You πŸ˜‰

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Aquila ! I should be able to review the Loxia 35/2 very soon, but have not been able to lay my hands on a Distagon ZA 1.4/35 FE, yet … I’ll try πŸ˜‰

  • Bill mag says:

    has anyone compared the zf2 distagon 35mm f2 vs the FE35?

  • Bruno Cha says:

    Hmmm, it is obvious that an f 1.4, f 2, and f 2.8 do not play in “the same yard”. That a 30 or more (which generation is the Summicron, a ROM, 3-cam, 2-cam one?) year-old lens may not perform as well as a computer-designed and manufactured one… It is also obvious that these are 3 lenses that any one can work with (RAW processing of the images can be corrected for the Summicron whose images have apparently been processed as if taken with a Zeiss (the 2 other lenses) lens.
    Then, for me it becomes more a matter of an f 2 or an F 1.4 lens according to usage and wallet. [not mentioning here the Summilux R 35 mm ROM!!]

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