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.
(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 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.
What to look for ?
|Zeiss 35/1.4 ZM||Leica Summicron-R 35/2||Sony-Zeiss FE35/2.8|
What does this tell us?
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 😉
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|
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.
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.
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 120° to the right. Same conditions, flatter side lighting.
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
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.
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 🙂
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)
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 😉 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 😉
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