Zeiss Distagon 2.8/15 ZF.2. These few words pack a whole lot of semantic value. But all I could think of when using mine during the first few days was that 15 part in the middle. This was not a review like any other.
Usually, Zeiss send along these lovely optical works of art, I make photographs with them over a period of 4 to 8 weeks, send the lens back and publish an article or two.
This time, 3 weeks into the process, I didn’t have a single interesting picture to show. Oops.
15mm. Wide. Very wide. I used and loved a Leica Elmarit-R 19/2.8 for years and imagined the 15 would simply be a slightly larger variation. It isn’t. 15 is a lot wider than 19 and much more demanding as a focal length. At least for someone who’s eye gets trained almost exclusively by 25mm to 85 mm lenses.
Still, after some effort and enough self-pity for the universe to take notice and send me a variety of interesting subjects, I finally got into my stride and started producing photographs interesting enough to warrant an article.
So here’s the menu for this one:
What can I say? Technically, this lens is as close to perfection as can be hoped for such a wide angle. But that doesn’t mean it produces perfect pictures time after time. This needs a little explaining.
From a purely technical point of view, there isn’t much wrong with this lens.
My main concern was distortion and there is very little of it. Zeiss state 2%, which is not negligible, but it is very rarely noticeable (see below and in final image on the page – both uncorrected) unless you are quite close to the subject.
Vignetting is likewise fairly benign. Quite visible on some subjects at f/2.8, it is mostly negligible at f/4 and easily corrected in post-processing.
More disturbing is the presence of very dark patches in the extreme corners at full aperture (see below). These occupy tiny surfaces and can easily be cropped out, but they are very difficult to remove if you can’t crop.
This same photograph illustrates the other unwanted characteristic of this lens that I find bothersome: “stretched bokeh“. This is also seen below, to a lesser extent. It is not a default in the lens design itself, simply the ugly effect of true out-of-focus capabilities and the stretched-out lines in the corners.
What this implies is simple: first of all, it’s actually very possible to use out-of-focus areas in your compositions, even with a 15mm lens but, secondly, when composing with strong lines in the corners, you will need to shut down to about f/5.6 for a more pleasing rendering.
But perhaps the worst offence is field curvature. It doesn’t show up very frequently and I hadn’t noticed it until contributor Boris Buschardt mentioned it. But focus on a nearby object (say 2-5 meters) as you might for the foreground of a photograph, and it gets very difficult to get the background in focus. The center will be perfect but both edges are thrown out of the sharpness range. So this lens is definitely happier in situations that do not require overall sharpness in near-far relationships, which is a major downside for landscape photographers. No worries in architecture (infinity focus) or close-up work or street photography …
Other than that it’s wide-angle perfection.
This lens does everything a good 15mm lens does. Tight places …
… unusual tight places …
… broad panoramas …
… broader panoramas …
… strong perspectives …
… even the odd bit of wide field astronomy.
Compared to other lenses, this specific 15mm has strong contrast and low distortion. I think it makes it particularly interesting for architecture and indoor architecture.
Indoor architecture is particularly great as images always pop, even in dull or difficult lighting.
It is in urban environments I had the most fun, playing with near-far relationships, contrasts and exaggerated perspectives that allow to create shapes were there are none, get real close to people …
There are far cheaper options out there. For instance the Voigtlander 15 version III. Is this one sufficiently better to justify the expense ? I honestly have no idea, as I’ve never tested the alternatives.
All I can say, is that 15mm is a difficult lens to use. And my feeling is that rigor is needed for a lens this wide to express its style. Mucky corners and bent lines would change the aesthetics completely.
So, although I probably wouldn’t buy a 15mm lens altogether (that’s too wide for my abilities), I would buy the best my budget could stretch to if I wanted to go ultra-wide. And the fact that today’s gear allows us to create this sort of results, handheld, sure is a powerful incentive to do so.
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