The guys at Zeiss make no secret of their satisfaction with the Loxia 21. Many even claim it to be the company’s greatest achievement of 2015, which is saying a lot considering the quasi-simultaneous release of the Otus 1.4/28 and 6 Milvus lenses, which were sold out in a matter of weeks, in spite of stock building prior to the launch date.
I approached this lens with a little less enthusiasm and hope. Having loved my Elmarit-R 19/2.8 II (and sold it to finance the Otus 85 acquisition) and still owning the Distagon 2/25 ZF.2 which I consider(ed) the best wide-angle I’ve ever tried, the Loxia simply comes across as a convenient addition to the range. Small, treated by Sony like a legacy lens (meaning EXIF data and in-camera corrections apply to it) and affordable. But not compelling.
Always keen to help, Christophe Casenave (Product Manager) and Marco Auricchio (Sales Manager EMEA) kindly loaned us (co-author Philippe and myself) a personal sample to play with for a couple of hours with the usual thirst for first-hand feedback. Much appreciated, gentlemen.
So, what do I think ?
Well, having recently published a lens field-testing tutorial, I feel obliged to say a few works about sharpness, colour correction, and other technical aspects of the lens’ personality. But I don’t want to. In the train back to La South of France, I find it hard to resist going bonkers with post-processing the really, really, lovely files this lens and the ever-stunning A7rII delivered shot after shot.
Still, here are a few reviewer comments, based on the brief 20 minute period I managed to stay focused on the task 😉
Let’s start with this as it seems to be the only detectable aberration.
Blue green fringes are visible in out-of-focus areas. Here’s a shot (from the top right of the photograph above) which illustrates this. Please note, this is 7 foot tall on your screen, and I increased contrast and saturation. Consider this a worse-case scenario, at full aperture.
And now, here is the same shot after some wriggling of the sliders in LightRoom. Good doesn’t begin to describe this kind result in the corner of a very wide-angle lens at full aperture on a 42Mpix sensor …
And that’s the worst I have to say about this little gem.
Essentially non-existent, which I assume is due to in-camera correction (?) Whatever the cause, results are stunning and the Loxia will undoubtedly please architects.
Vignetting is low, as suggested by the technical brochure. Here’s a defocused white wall photograph. Only on DS do you find such high quality art 😉
In real-life pictures, you have to look hard to notice vignetting. A great result, then, though this is “just” an f/2.8 lens and you’d expect reasonable performance from it. Still, un altra-wide with no vignetting is really good to own.
To be honest, I forgot to test this but this photograph of a leaf near the minimum focus distance and at full aperture shows no sign of problem (note: I added the strong vignetting in post-processing).
A is for astounding. Sharpness freaks are going to love this lens. It delivers a bitingly sharp image right into the corners at all useful apertures. Here is a full 42Mpix pic at f/2.8 (mainly SOOC with only darkening of the sky added) to download for you to judge this (it is a jpeg, so not quite as good as what I see on-screen). Focus is on the red tubes. What do you think of the rendering of these tubes? I expect lab test results for this lens to put it right up there with the OTUS and Sony G90 dream machines.
Moving into more subjective areas of lens evaluations, two things strike me: Colours are superb. Subtle but bold. Reminiscent of a Super-Elmar, possibly even better.
And the lens shines in dark situations, bringing a vibrancy to shadow detail.
In fact, it feels extremely transparent and direct. Compared to the Milvus 21 (based on the older, but legendary Distagon 2.8/21 Classic) the Loxia feels even more transparent and has more bite. The downside of this is that on some subjects, the Milvus feels more elegant, as if “draped in silk”. Both are superb lenses and the Sony user is fortunate to be able to choose between the two. Of the two, the Loxia 21 feels more modern, more edgy. Architects and landscape photographers will probably love it. Hopefully, we’ll be able to test one in the landscape in the coming weeks. When I do, I’ll compare it to the lovely Distagon 2/25 which I know to be less impressive in the corners but expect to feel a little more organic and natural. Coming from a set of retro-lenses, I must say I really love the rendering of this Loxia. It has a really modern feel to it, stark but not soul-less or clinical. It just lets you photograph things the way you want them to be without superimposing its own personality.
3D ? Good, very good. Although, on first inspection it doesn’t produce the same wormhole effect as the (Earth-shakingly brilliant) Distagon 1.4/35 ZM. When a strongly converging geometry leaves you no option but to see depth, it delivers in spades. But in photographs to do not exploit the ultrawide drama, the feeling is less pronounced.
Bokeh is mostly good, but not great. Pixel peeping on very difficult subjects such as specular highlights through tree leaves will reveal some harshness at 100%. But if you’re going for bokeh and not printing to drape a cathedral wall, you’ll find the result convicing enough. I just don’t think this is a bokeh lens. In my limited experience, the lens is at its creative best with everything in sharp veracity. But bokeh is possible and quite convincing in most situations.
If past history is anything to judge by, Zeiss will sell every Loxia 21 they build. It’s a *superb* optical achievement in a package that feels 100% intuitive and a natural extension of the Sony. If you crave sharp, transparent and accurate lenses with the Zeiss knack of spatial placement, get in line right now (but subscribe to DearSusan before you do 😉 ) Make no mistake about it, there is already a long line. If you dig a grungier or soft-focus look , then it’s not the lens for you.
Me ? Writing this several hours after the test, still in love with my 25/2 and usually more in tune with lenses that trade a little technical purity for a little more soul, I find myself looking for ways to justify yet another acquisition … Sure, it’s a stop slower, but the native connection to the Sony add 2-stops of IBIS. Files require so little touching-up that I’ll lower my post-processing time. And the photos created in about 45 minutes of less-than-inspiring surroundings are just so damn good …
In fact, I’d go so far as to say I think this lens alone is a compelling reason to invest in the Sony A7 system ! It is every thing the much-loved FE55 proved to be with added class and subtlety.
Oh goodness me, not again!
PS: As co-author Philippe remarked after testing this Loxia, the lens is proof that the forum pundits were correct: it really is impossible to design a good wide-angle lens with the short flange distance of the Sony mount! 😀
My considered opinion, after this brief walkabout, is as follows.
My initial impression was a bit “meh”. What are those Zeiss people so excited about? Nice and small, though, is it really a FF 21 f:2.8, it feels so compact? Part of that impression may have been due to prior testing of the humongous Otus 28, which really rattled my cage and rumbled my soul.
First pics showed that this lens does not emphasize fuzzy mid-tones, as is so easy on the eye with the A7R II (read: ZM 35 f:1.4, ZM 50 f:1.5, Leica R, most lenses from the film era). Lots of blacks and whites on either side, rather than just infinitely delicate and subtle B&W. The feeling is of a lens that is slightly clinical, verging on the cold (read: like a Makro Planar).
Then, as Pascal and I sat on a step munching on our sandwiches (oh what sacrifices we have to make for you, DearSusan reader!), I looked at the ground, and, in order to estimate MFD and see how the Loxia performs, I shot this leaf, and magnified the image. Wow! Great detail, great sharpness, and absolutely not clinical! remarkable short-range performance. Impressed with what I’d just seen, I then shoot a bit of tree bark. The same! Now wait… if a lens can be clinical in some cases, and not in others, then what? There can be only one answer. It is transparent. A quality I value very highly. Yes, it may not have the always-on charm of the ZM35 f:1.4 or ZM 50 f:1.5.
So, in a way, it is a very easy lens to use, because (a) it is so small and light, and (b) you don’t have to work around aberrations, quirks and idiosyncracies. But it also a lens that is not easy to use, because it leaves to you to your own devices. In a way, it is the opposite of a Leica Noctilux 50mm f:0.95 and other super-fast lenses (Mitakon, Hyperprime, Rayxar), where you have a “special-effects” position when you open them wide, at the expense of aberrations.
In a way, it is the next instalment in the history of Zeiss wide angle lenses. The original Distagon 21 was a landmark for sharpness across the frame. I owned one, and have fond memories and spectacular shots to show for it. Then came the 25 f:2.0. Less spectacular, less WOW! I traded my 21 for it, to many people’s surprise, because, in a direct face-off, the 25 showed it had less personnality and more subtlety, and therefore let me do more things with it. Neutrality won out, and I posit that this Loxia 21 is going further down that route. The legendary Mandler probably bristles in his grave and growls: “haven’t they learned anything from me?”, because he imbued his fantastic Leica designs with such awesome charm and personality… but at the expense of transparency and neutrality.
Oh, and before I sign off, as Pascal writes, this lens puts paid to the theory that you can’t design a great wide angle that is small and light for the Sony A7. I remember, a couple of years ago, when Leica were the “only” really top-end lens designer. Sure, “Zeiss” rhymed with “nice”, but not quite as upscale. The Otus twins were a nail in that coffin, beacuse their performance redefined what was/is possible. Complainers grudgingly conceded the point, but said “yeah, but Leica do it in a small format, as opposed to these Twin Towers”. Then Zeiss released the ZM 35 f:1.4, showing they could play the rangefinder game as well as anyone (you know whom I mean). Now the Loxia is one more addition to their display: small, light, transparent, great haptics, not stratospherically priced (but not cheap!). What’s not to love?
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Dear Susan, and Phillippe,
Thank you for quick review of the the Loxia 21! As Phillippe already knows, several of us on FM are very much looking forward to this lens!
Your initial review and sample photos give us something to look forward to! I really dig the “Pavilion” shot…has some very good pop!
Thanks a lot Greggf. I think the Fred Miranda community will generally be very satisfied with this lens. It’s not 100% perfect, but closer to it than could be hoped for in a lens of that size and prize. I really didn’t want to like it, but I’m now placing an order. It’s fantastic.
“I think this lens alone is a compelling reason to invest in the Sony A7 system”
I agree 100%. I had already pre-ordered the Otus 28. But when the Loxia 21 was announced I wasn’t so sure anymore if I really want to carry an Otus 55 and Otus 28 together with two D800E bodies and some other heavy lenses on long hikes. The Loxia 21mm finally convinced me to change to Sony. I have canceled my order for the Otus 28 and instead ordered the Loxia 21 together with the Loxia 50 and the Batis 25. When the lenses arrive (probably not before february) I will get the A7RII and sell my Nikon D800E.
Hi Boris, will you keep the Otus 55? If so, I think you will also find it more satisfying to use on the A7rII. I think you’ll like the Loxia 21 ! All the best, Pascal
Probably not. But before I sell it, I will test it against the Loxia 50 on the A7RII. I think an Otus lens is just too big for the A7, at least if there are good alternatives (knowing that both Philippe and you have a different opinion about this). I will also test my 21mm ZF.2 against the Loxia 21 before selling it.
Well Philippe carries all his lenses with him, whereas I go out with just the one, so it’s not a problem for me to carry an Otus. I really liked the Loxia 50 and doubt that you would see that much of a difference once shut down. Wide open, they are probably very different lenses.
I’vec never had the chance to use the 21mm ZF.2 but it seems to be a great lens as well. The Milvus 21 is very pleasant, with a slightly less abrupt rendering than the Loxia. But I only used both for a few minutes so … 😉 The Loxia has the benefit of great ergonomics, better stabilisation, and EXIF. I’m really tempted to get one myself …
Thanks for the review. I’ve already sold most of my none used glass in order to have significant funds to purchase this gem if the chance arises. I even refrained from jumping on a very very cheap ebay auction for the 18mm f4 Distagon. And I mean really cheap. Like 140€ cheaper than usual.
On the topic of sharpness and transparent rendering. For me, a portrait lens can be gentle and subtle in its rendering. It can have and imho absolutely should have character. I don’t need punch and transparency for that. (which is why my favorite lenses are the 75lux and also the sonnar-c as well as my very own 1959 canon ltm 50mm 1.4). But for wide angle or extreme wide angle, I’ll generally be using them for landscapes. And for that I absolutely want peak sharpness and transparency.
True. It can be argued that it’s possible to add soul to photographs made with neutral lenses in post-processing. But, somehow, it often looks better when you start with a lens that has character.
Still, I supposed transparency and neutrality have a lot going for them as well. It’s very personal and will depend on final use. Rural landscapes probably benefit from a sharp transparent lense wehere are urban landscapes or ruins will take more kindly to a strong personality.
All I know is that I loved the Leica-R lenses for many years but ended up tiring of the look on some of the lenses. I now rather fancy something like the Loxia 21, which is new for me 😉
All the best,
Nice first look Susan; had a quick question on how the 21mm compares to the Batis 25mm purely on image quality? Which do you prefer?
Thanks Steven. It’s hard to tell how the two compare withtout comparing them directly on the same subject. Both are high quality. I suspect the Loxia is a tiny bit more neutral, but that’s just gut feeling. I think the focal lenghts, AF / MF and aperture differences would be far more differentiating than any difference in quality. Both have great performance throughout the field.
If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a quick review of the Batis 25 https://www.dearsusan.net/2015/09/14/403-zeiss-batis-25-on-sony-a7rii-a-brief-review/
Thanks for your reply Pascal. Looking forward to the head-to-head article. Only room for one wide in my bag and these 2 are making it difficult to choose. Nice problem to have I guess.
Is the extra 4mm with Loxia a noticeable difference? Also, been reading that some folks have had issues rotating the aperture ring because of being so close to the lens mount. Have you had this issue?
Hi Steven, I’ve found all 3 Loxia to have really nice ergonomics, much nicer than the Batis (because the manual focus and aperture aren’t so intuitive). But people with very large hands and gloves might find the Loxia a bit small.
The 4mm is noticeable and 21mm is more sensitive to a correct horizon than the Batis. The Batis is defintiely the easier lens, particularly when traveling. But it seems to me the Loxia has that extra bite and nuance that makes me want it, while the Batis leaves me cold.
All very personal and subjective, I’m afraid 😉
Thanks, Pascal & Philippe, for your relatively WOW-less comments. (Philippe needs more work in this area. ) All the same, I really love your leaf shot and how you came to it and reflected on it afterward. Also, interesting comment about “transparency” vs “character” in respect to landscapes and cityscapes. Glad I put in my order a couple days after it was announced. I will then have the three Loxias, waiting only on something between 85-100mm.
. . . a completely beside the point postscript: To my astonishment, the first three prints I made from my recent trip to Washington state were all from my Canon 85mm 1.8, which were responsible for only 15% of my shots, and not either of my Loxias. I did not plan this, it just came out this way. I’m not sure what this means, perhaps only that I was in the mood for prints with lots of space rather than texture, or that I am still in the habit of finishing my meal with dessert. In any case, it demonstrated my complete satisfaction with the move to the a7Rii
Thanks Leonard. You’ll be a happy camper with all 3 Loxias on that A7rII 😉
Interesting note about the 85/1.8. Don’t know that lens at all. What’s it like ?
Yeah, DS forever 😉
The Canon 85mm 1.8 is what I believe what you would call “transparent and characterless.” It is therefore an ideal lens to use in the preparation of PhotoMerge frames, which is largely how I used it on my recent trip to the Olympic National Park in Washington.
As for the 21mm Loxia, this was the shortest effective focal length for the Canon 16-35mm on one of my early Canon DSLR, the camera I first shot Paris with.
As for that, may I use this opportunity to share my sympathies and outrage for what is happening in Paris now. A sad day, to be sure.
Thanks Leonard. Sad day indeed.
I look forward to seeing these photomerges!
This is the first of the Loxia lenses that seems to have a pleasant renderings me. While there is still something, a quality that I am not sure about, it is the first Loxia lens I am tempted by. Zeiss glass has been steadily growing on me more and more since the Sony A7 series; whereas, the appeal of some select Leica lenses have been on the decline… Granted, the Leica Super-Elmar 21mm and 24mm still have a quality I admire about their rendering. But, for me, I find it extremely hard to justify the cost. When I finally invest in the Sony A7r series level of mirrorless, the 85mm Batis will come first and then possibly the 21mm Loxia.
Hi msolea, it sounds like you enjoy sharp and bright lenses. If so, the Loxia 21 will be great for you. With 21 and 85, you’ll also be set for quite a few scenarions. Find yourself a good 50 (FE 55?) and you’re all set 🙂
Great review! I has increased my longing for the Loxia 21 that I have had on order at B&H for two months now. The idea of combining it with the the Batis 85 and the FE55 had not occurred to me but they would fit my small bag and be in tune with the way I look at things,
Thanks a lot, Jim. My feeling is that you’d end up with a smashing trio of lenses that have consistency of drawing and all the bells and whistles of native connectivity (EXIF, in-camera correction, profiles, better IBIS …) Feels like a winning combination to me. Let me know 🙂