#443. A 21mm for the 21st century: Zeiss Loxia 21mm

By philberphoto | Review

Jan 04

When Zeiss first announced the Touit line of lenses, people thought “OMG, what sort of name is that?” For, after decades of hallowed technical names like “Distagon”, “Biogon”, “Sonnar” and “Planar”, Zeiss had decided that the best names for their lenses were bird families. Not only that, but they forsook the obvious “Condor”, which would have gone down easily alongside their previous names, in favor of more exotic, less known birds. One such case is “Loxia”, the range of manual-focus lenses dedicated to the wildly successful Sony A7 family of cameras, for still photography as well as video.

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

After two releases of warmed-over ZM designs in 35mm and 50mm focal ranges (Hmm that lovely Loxia 50mm. I still can’t think about it without seller’s remorse…), the Loxia 21mm f:2.8 is the first fully original design in the range and, frankly, the market reception has been very positive indeed.

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

There are 3 reasons for this:

  • the Loxia 21 is the first native wide-angle prime lens for the A7 cameras
  • it offers traditional Zeiss performance in wide angles, this from the company that set the standard for many years with its legendary “Distagon 21mm” lens
  • it does so while combining this performance with a small form factor, further leveraging the mirrorless Sony’s small size and low weight compared to FF DSLRs.
  • Most importantly, it got a rave review from DearSusan (yes, people, we were the first past the post with that one!)

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

The grumpy among you will argue that I announced 3 reasons and that there are in fact 4. Come on, give me a break! Haven’t you read “Les 3 mousquetaires”? (the 3 musketeers, who were in fact 4)

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

So, now that I finally own one, what is the low-down? Is it as good as (a) the 2 other Loxia, and/or (b) the hallowed Distagon 21 for Canikon DSLR?

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

In a nutshell, the Loxia 21 will be what you want it to be. It has very little personality of its own. Not grand and spectacular like the older Distagon 21, though it can do that as well. Not warm and lustrous like the ZM 35 f:1.4, though you can make it do that too. Not neutral and very slightly laid back like the Otus 55, though it can indeed take on this character. It is the opposite of a specialist lens, or a character lens. Much more Robert de Niro than Jack Nicholson. Much more James Cameron than Akira Kurozawa.

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

But, those of you that are still awake this far into the post will notice that all my pictures are very conventional wide-angle pics, exactly the opposite of what I am talking about. Your wish for me to illustrate what I say is my command! So, here goes!

For example, the Loxia is so good that you can crop your shots with unbridled sadism, and the 21mm focal length is then totally unrecognizable

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

Another 100% crop…

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

Then you can avail yourself of one aspect which separates this Loxia from the other 2 namesakes. Not having been originally designed for a rangefinder, it has a short minimal focusing distance (25cm, or 10″)

 

Zeiss Loxia 21

 

Here is one such example, above. So, if you can crop, and you can do broad landscapes and cityscapes, and you can do closeups, what else can you do with it?

 

Zeiss Loxia 21 Zeiss Loxia 21 Zeiss Loxia 21

 

Medium distance, of course. A few more in a rather different atmosphere…

 

Zeiss Loxia 21 Zeiss Loxia 21

 

But, to illustrate this little gem’s potential, here are my favorite 2. They combine very short-range, medium distance, as well as width and depth. In conclusion, in a nutshell, the Loxia 21 will justify whatever you expect it to be/do for you. If you expect Zeiss goodness, you will find it. If you believe that newer Zeiss lenses tend towards the clinical and characterless, you will find reason enough to justify this preconception. As for me, I am very happy with it, even more that I got an early copy, ahead of the long wait-list, because, as I said, not only is it a jewel of a lens, but it is the only game in town if you are in the market for a native wide-angle prime for Sony A7.

 

Zeiss Loxia 21 Zeiss Loxia 21

 

PS: you will note that I have studiously avoided any reference to any scientific or performance criterion. No mention of field curvature, or corner sharpness wide open, or the relative nervousness (or not) of the bokeh, or CA, or 3D. I find spouting of so-called truths by self-proclaimed internet gurus less and less sufferable. Hopefully my shots, plus the ones in our previous report, show and demonstrate what you can enjoy and/or suffer if you decide to use this lens. So let’s pretend that you are adults, and that you can make your own mind from real-world examples. And, if you can’t, the answers don’t matter, because what you won’t see won’t do you any harm… But, of course, if you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask…

DSC07619

 

PPS OK, maybe I have been just a bit too radical in not wanting to emulate the know-it-all sites. Let me give you my own impressions after a couple of weeks.

Loxia 21/2.8

Haptics are excellent. Just the right size for this type of lens. Auto magnify as soon as you hit the focusing ring. The definite feel of a quality item (as well it should, after all it isn’t exactly a cheap lens). A couple of minor criticisms: focus throw between 2m and infinity is a bit short for my taste, and sometimes makes it trickier to focus than need be. Also the lens shade comes off altogether too easily.

DSC07476

Colour differentiation is remarkable. This lets the Loxia shots remain legible even when the subject is complex, diverse, chaotic. This helped by a strong micro-contrast, not unlike the latest additions of the Zeiss  Z* line (pre-Milvus, that is), the 15 f:2.8 and 135 f:2.0. That gives the Loxia a very slightly cool look (cool, as opposed to warm). Strong micro-contrast and great detail combine to give a rendering that tends towards the one displayed by the makro-planar twins (but only partially as strong).

DSC07479

As to how good it is, the answer is simple: there is no competition. The only other wide-angle native to the A7 system is the Sony-Zeiss FE 16-35 f:4.0 OSS. Obviously, it is stronger than the Loxia in the 16mm-18mm range. Just as the Loxia is the better performer at f:2.8. But, as with other lens ranges and camera manufacturers, if a prime can’t beat a zoom in sheer IQ, then it has no justification. And the Loxia can and does. Zeiss claim it is the best lens they designed in 2015. Check their other releases to see exactly how strong that claim is. They also claim it outperforms the legendary “classic” Distagon 21mm. Another huge claim. And yes, I agree.

As far as I am concerned, it is that good.

Zeiss Loxia 21mm Zeiss Loxia 21mm


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  • Leonard says:

    Mine has been on order since your first review. B&H Photo now says ETA mid-January. Life is on a kind of hold until then. Sigh.

    Aramis

    • philberphoto says:

      I know the feeling, Leonard. Not that long ago, I waited a year for a Summilux 50. But isn’t it true that the longer the wait, the greater the pleasure…?

  • Yeahhh says:

    May it be that 21mm is not your preferred focal length? It’s also not mine, do no problem with that ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • philberphoto says:

      Why do you come to that conclusion, Yeahhh? Is it what I wrote, or the pictures?

      • Yeahhh says:

        It’s the pictures – but no offense. I very much like the first 3 (including the intro) but the rest is meh to me.

        With that I was thinking: What do you do as a reviewer when you get gear you’re not comfortably with? It’s not the case of the gear but yours. I’m, for example, quite bad with 28mm. 35mm I’m perfect, 24mm is good too … but I suck with 28. Sometimes you also need special occasions to use, for example, that particular lens. You just can’t get out of your office/home and call it a day. You need to do a trip (city, mountains, sea, desert, studio…). Do you have time, money, other obligation …? Tough choice.

        • philberphoto says:

          First, Yeahhh, you have every right to your opinion on any one of my pictures, and that cannot be offensive. I go some way towards your opinion in the sense that a lens review, by nature, incorporates shots that demonstrate certain parameters of lens performance, and those shots may be of lesser artistic value. Hence the fact that many reviews include the proverbial “brick wall” shot. At least I didn’t do that..:-)
          But I don’t agree with you any farther than that. Some of the shots that are “meh” to you appeal to me, so we will have to agree to disagree. But your last point is I think of great interest. I think that it is part of a photographer’s ability to be able to make the most of what he/she has. That includes what subject materialises, and what equipment is at hand, including if it isn’t the conventional “tele for distant and narrow shots and wide angle for landscape”. Before I got my 135 APO, I had never been truly at home with a tele, being basically a 50mm man. Forcing myself to keep my 135 glued to my camera has changed that, and, now, I can go out with that lens alone and not feel overly limited. I posit that the same can be just as true with a wide angle. I am already there with a 28mm, and wish to extend that capability to a 21mm. So, yes, early on, there is a learning curve, but it is in my view a richly rewarding climb. And, by the way, my next post doesn’t incorporate a single 21mm shot, but your (fair) comment insures that my next outing definitely goes back to 21mm-only until I get no more complaints…:-). Incidentally, Pascal is a master at this independance from the dictatorship of the focal length, so may be he too would like to comment…

          • Yeahhh says:

            That’s what I meant: You have to learn that focal length for a quite bit of time. As a human being, you can’t do learn all focal lengths and with some you’re better, others not and with some you’re actually untrained. And now you get a focal length to test, you’re not familiar with. Or is so specialized in their use case that you can’t deliver a proper review. What do you do? Most reviews run around their local area and shoot like they normally do. But this might not be the right thing to this particular lens.

            For your photos: It came to my mind that 21mm is not your favorite focal length because, except the first 3 shots, the others lack of a subject and perspective that is supported by the 21mm FOV. Framing is sloppy, perspective distortion is distracting and the overall subject is not suitable for a super wide-angle lens. They look like they would be better off with a 35mm (eg.) and some even with any other lens. Actually, these look photos look like being done in a hurry. Yes, you can argue against it with creative freedom, misuse of intend and whatever you like. I’m just saying, I’m used to better example shots from DS in the past, some that make my mouth water, wanting that lens. This time, it caught my eye immediately – my opinion ๐Ÿ™‚

            Sorry. But hey, constructive reader feedback, no.

  • pete guaron says:

    LOL – I love your articles, Pascal – they are a breath of fresh air. I’ve also been suffering lately, with the views of those “internet gurus” you refer to – they seem to imagine there’s only one “right” and everyone who doesn’t click their heels & salute it is therefore “wrong”. My photography has always been a personal journey of exploration, scattered over decades, and trying all sorts of ideas & gear, and I really haven’t appreciated the bombastic & dogmatic “do this or you aren’t a real photographer” attitude of some, or the claims that “this is the only lens/camera/tripod/whatever in the world”.

    I look forward to reading the articles on Dear Susan, because they express a more liberated and free thinking approach to our profession/hobby and open our eyes to more opportunities to explore the world, light, shapes, colour and everything else that goes into photography.

    Oh – and thanks for the shot of l’Arche de la Dรฉfense – my only shot of it was a hand held shot taken from the other side, from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, with a standard lens – and I was amazed to find I could read the names on the buildings at l’Arche de la Dรฉfense, even at that distance. Digital has come a long way, and opened up a whole new world of photography which we can now explore.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for your kind comments, Pete! I am truly flattered that you should confuse me with Pascal, though he may be less chuffed! ๐Ÿ™‚ I am not surprised that my irritation with arrogant internet gurus, all of them self-proclaimed of course, resonated with you. Look at what we will soon write about the forthcoming DS workshop, and you will get more of the same. As to the Loxia 21, if what you are after is seeing fine detail in a very distant subject, the combination it makes with the Sony A7R II is awesome. Absolutely awesome.

  • Daniel Z. Bergwall says:

    If it only had the bokeh of the loxia 35!

    • philberphoto says:

      Daniel, as you know, bokeh is a “personal thing”, meaning that some like it this way and others prefer it another way. With wide angles, this is even more “personal”, because bokeh shots aren’t that common, compared to longer focal ranges. As for the Loxia 21, yours is the first comment I see objecting to its bokeh. Let me know which shots include what to you is bothersome bokeh, and I’ll take a look.

  • Steve McKenzie says:

    Mine’s due in the next 2 weeks I’m told. Doubt it will ever leave my A7r. Off to New Zealand in April and now just need to decide on a lens for my other A7r. Thinking perhaps my Contax 35-70. Can’t beat Zeiss glass.

  • Abe says:

    Any thoughts about this lens vs. the Batis 25mm? I know they’re not the same focal length and one is AF, but I’m asking in regards to image quality

    • philberphoto says:

      Ah the question I was afraid someone would ask. Because I have good friends who are fine photographers who own, shoot and love the Batis 25. Yet I chose to go the other way, not because of focal length, cost or delivery time, but in spite of these factors. So I have to say why I think the Loxia is better while maintaining that the Batis is very good indeed.
      So here goes: all new Zeiss lenses exceed the sharpness levels that we need. All of them are tolerably free of “shenanigans”, or “problems”. So what makes an Otus better than a Loxia or a Milvus, themselves better (IMHO) than a Batis? First, an Otus hits peak-or-near-peak performance across a huge range of the performance spectrum. More importantly, beyond sharpness and freedom from bugaboos, is character. The character of my Otus 55 is awesome. When I open the RAW on screen, more often than not, I get more than I can even hope for. The Loxia 21 does that too, but less often, and, for example when zooming in 100%, with its great detail. The Batis never disappoints, and always duly keeps its promise. Just, its brethren do even more. AndI expect the Otus 28 to push the envelope even farther. For a lot more money and weight…

  • Sean T says:

    No love for the plebian Sony 28 and 21 mm adapter?

    • philberphoto says:

      Sean, let’s be candid. If the IQ of the FE28 + 21 converter were close to as good as that of the Loxia 21, something would be seriously wrong. Why on earth would anyone buy a 21, when less money could get him/her both a 21 and a 28, with no loss of performance? And if Sony could swing this tour de force, then others coud as well, and the world would be filled with lenses mated to wide angle converters and/or close-up lenses.
      Unfortunately, it ain’t so. I like the FE28. I really do. It is a very good lens, and, at that price, there is no competition that comes close. Its one serious flaw, heavy distortion, is corrected in-camera, so it hardly hurts. But already as is, it is no Loxia, whether it be sharpness, colours, detail, or contrast. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t produce fine pictures, it does. Simply, the Zeiss delivers that little bit more. But I have seen a comparison between the Loxia21, the Distagon 21 “classic, the Zony FE16-35 f:4.0, and the 28+converter. The corner sharpness on the 28+converter was just not there, not even stopped down. But that is not unfair, given the parameters discussed above.

      • Sean T says:

        I understand. I knew the Sony 28 just can’t compete, but I didn’t remember seeing anything on this site about Sony’s only Sony (as opposed to Zony or true Zeiss) lens so I was curious for your thoughts. I think the 42 MP demands of the a7RII exacerbate its limitations too.

        I enjoy this site and I like your photos with the 21 too. Thank you Philbert.

  • Chris says:

    Thank you very much for your insights! I’ve read your test of the Leica R 19 mm 2.8 II, I also own this lens and use it on my A7R. I know you’ve sold yours, but what do you think how the Loxia stacks up to the Leica. I also own the 35 & 50 Loxia and now I ask myself if it is a good idea to sell the Leica in favour of the Loxia.
    Native lenses have some advantages but the Leica is so darn good, I don’t know if the Loxia is able to beat it. Image quality is more important to me than convenience.
    Thank you very much.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Chris, I’ll take this one ๐Ÿ˜‰ Philippe wrote the article on the Loxia and I wrote the one on the Leica-R 19/2.8 II. The Leica has an older design, which shows in a variety of ways. Coatings are not as good, so you’ll see far more ghosting. The style of the image is gentler, with a little more “delicacy” (tube amp top end, if you e,joy hi-fi ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) that I prefer. It is also a little larger and heavier. To be honest, I regret selling mine. Both have great image quality, and the Loxia will be better in some adverse situations (and in the lab). But I really think the image aesthetics are the main difference between the two. Starting from scratch, I may buy the more convenient Loxia. But if I had the Leica, I don’t think I would sell it. All very personal and subjective, obviously ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks,
      Pascal

      • Chris says:

        Thank you very much for the response. I recently got a good deal on the Leica and don’t expect the Loxia will be widely available the next few months. So i just wanted to use it in the meantime. But the Leica got me hooked after the first test, it’s so much fun to use.
        In addition the Leica will hold it’s value much better, even more when Leica will reveal an electronic Adapter for the SL.
        I think I will keep it for a while.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Exactly. You’ll probably sell it for more than you paid. And I’ve never used lenses with better ergonomics than that era of Leica. Pure utter joy. Enjoy ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Grant says:

    Hello, my comment made last week has not been uploaded, so I am re-submitting it, below.

    Do I correctly assume that you have applied a fair bit of vertical transform on some of these photos? I am especially looking at the photo just below the word ‘Kurozawa’, and the photo above the word ‘Haptics’, both being upward-tilted views, yet with no inward-tilted buildings as one would expect with natural perspective distortion.

    If so, it is a little bit unhelpful in a review article of a new lens, and makes me wonder how many other photos in the article are ‘doctored’ in a way not helpful to someone reading it as a lens review.

    • philberphoto says:

      All images shot with a wide-angle lenses suffer from so-called keystoning when the camera is held upwards or downwards. It has nothing to do with lens design, only with geometry. Meaning that the keystoning of all 21mm lenses will be the same, unless they offer a shift funtion. So, why did I correct this in post? Only because (a) that is how the picture looks more pleasing to my eye (you are free to feel differently) and (b) since keystoning is common to all WAs, it does not affect the validity and integrity of what you see, and (c) anyone seeing these images sees, as you did, that coorrection was applied. You write that this is “doctoring”, suggesting that there is an element of dishonesty in this. You are entitled to your opinion, but let’s just say that we’ll agree to disagree on this. Actually, there is less “doctoring” in correcting keystoning, since it is there for all to see and affects all lenses of the same focal length the same way, than there is in altering contrast, sharpness and other parameters in post processing, because those changes are individual to each lens, and post might then mask how the lens performs in and of itself. Are you then suggesting that reviews should show all shots straight-out-of-camera? There would be some logic in that, and, in some cases, I show SOOC shots because that can be informative. But I prefer to show pictures treated to reflect how I like them to look, because that is real-life useage. And, yes, I checked, the other architectural shots in this review are also corrected for vertical perspective. But if you let me know what you hope to learn from uncorrected shots, I can show/send you a couple, and I will have learned something in the process, for which I will be grateful.

      • Grant says:

        Hello, thank you for replying. Sorry if the word ‘doctored’ is value-laden. My issues with applying keystone correction to images used to demonstrate the qualities of a lens under review are several. First, KS distortion is a distortion, and if one distortion is evidently being corrected, how do readers know if it is the only one? Perhaps your image software has a ‘lens distortion auto fix’ button: without being told, we don’t know, but we assume it isn’t happening, not in a lens review. Also, vertical keystone correction changes the sharpness from the bottom to the top of an image, because an element that was, say 100 pixels wide is now spread over, say 125 pixels. The image sharpness also changes from the centre (unaffected) to the edges (most affected) with keystone correction, so it is possible to give the impression of the corners being sharper (compacted corners) or softer (stretched corners) than the native performance of the lens.

        As it is, armed with this knowledge of the partial correction of the images, it is difficult for me to know what to make of the curved edge of the building on the left side of the image above ‘Haptics’, for example.

        Thanks again.

        • philberphoto says:

          Grant, I agree with you that perspective correction can affect local-area parameters like sharpness or resolution. However, I wouldn’t call it a “distortion”, since it is directly produced by the laws of optics and not lens-dependent (all 21mm lenses should keystone exactly the same way, unless they are Canon TS-E for example, which allow in-lens adaptation).
          Then the choice becomes: should the reviewer include shots that are corrected, because that is how many readers are likely to prefer viewing them, or without, because that would leave them closer to raw lens performance? My guess is: some of both; that way each reader can find something to his/her liking. I will try to do that next time I test a WA lens.
          Cheers
          philber

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