My intuition and some available tests, online, hinted at the fact that the longer the focal length, the easier it would be for a lens to cover a wider sensor than what it had been designed for. In the case of this Distagon 25, I couldn’t have been more wrong …
I feel kind of bad even mentioning this unexpected combination. That’s probably reflected in the 16 months of camera-lens coexistence on the same shelf it has taken for the two to get together in my mind … And it would probably have been another 16 months, if not more, for me to attempt this combo, had it not been for the surprise performance of the little Nikkor 50/1.8 recently described in these pages. Here’s a quick hello from the little fella, by the way, just because, … What absolute class for fifty bucks!
The reason for not coupling the great Zeiss wide angle (which did so well on the Sony A7r2) and the Hassy X1D is not just technical. Granted, I expected this optical mashup to mainly result in one massive tunnel effect (some light in the middle and a lot of uncomfortable darkness all around).
But, mostly, it was a question of aesthetics that held me back.
Without digging too deep into my troubled psyche, so as not to bore you, it might bring light on the subject if I briefly explain my reason for leaving the comfort of my Zeiss home to navigate the cold shores of Swedish optics.
It’s no secret that Zeiss is my photographic heart throb. Get yourself an Otus 28 (or this humble Distagon 25), a Distagon 35/1.4 ZM and a pair of Milvi in sizes 50 and 85, whatever the host camera, and it’s hard to imagine what other combination of glass, metal and silicon could make you happier. Sex robots notwithstanding.
But Zeiss lenses make life prettier than it is. The optical wizzardry at Oberkochen is such that anything photographed through those wondrous creations turns out sexier than in reality. And the 3D on the best of them defies the imagination.
Can all this be too much of a good thing?
For me, it was. For two reasons.
One. I started feeling that the lens was making the photograph for me. Somehow, it’s difficult to be 100% happy with a photograph that whiffs a bit formulaic, because you rely on a lens that’s too gorgeous for words. I mean, does bark have any right to look as good as that? It was form over function, or aesthetics over content.
Two. Most of the photo artists I admire use extremely neutral gear, which seems to add or subtract nothing from the scene. That’s what Hassy glass brings me. Second to none in sheer quality but utterly neutral. A crappy photograph is my fault. A great one is my win. First world problems, right? Aslo, pretty dumb, now that I think of it. The X1D’s sensor/signal management is so good, it really brings the flavour out of different lenses, so the camera deserves to sample more legacy photons than I let it!
Still, this photograph illustrates the point. It is rendered with the abyssal depth of great Zeiss glass, there is atmosphere and contrast in spades. It feels a little too easy/much for me now.
To my eyes, of all the gems Zeiss have ever produced, the Distagon 1.4/35 ZM strikes the best balance between this orgy of depth, contrast and colour, and elegant airyness. It is a desert island lens for the ages, for that reason.
Compared to it, many modern recreations of that vintage vibe go way too far in one direction and nowhere near far enough in the other. They become syrupy and oppressive (to me).
In Hi-Fi terms, you could say Hassy lenses offer the best of transistor amps, maybe of some great hybrid amps (in the case of the glorious XCD 90) whereas Zeiss are more tube oriented.
Audrey (Distagon 1.4/35 ZM) is akin to a well fed 300D monotriode, or something recent from Vinie Rossy, light, airy but firm and colourful. Whereas some tube amps sound dark, heavy and unpleasant.
This ZF.2 Distagon 25/2 is very close to the Audrey look – it is, after all, both a distagon and a design very close in spirit to the might Otus range, which probably explains why it covers this sensor so easily – without being “quite there” in 3D pop. The photograph above would be utterly boring with a bad lens. It is sparkling beautiful, here (see, there I am, cheating again).
Put yet another way, turn to one final piece of human genius that comes in various quality grades: “Creme chantilly” (yes yesseuh, zis iz a French blog, afterrr alll). It can be heavy and revolting, in the wrong hands. It can be tasty, elating and breezy in the right ones. Audrey is whisked clouds with virgin vanilla.
And chantilly creme is white, which brings me to monochrome photography, which is all that matters in the artistic universe, really 😉
And, here again, the Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 is surprisingly at home on the Hassy. It makes the very complicated scene above look natural and pleasant. A lens with low resolution would mess that up.
And a lens with too much uncorrected vigneting and distortion would mess up this geometric scene. Really, it should. It has no right to work that well on a larger sensor. But it does 🙂 And it draws really nicely. Let me leave you with a few more pictures from my walk around home before moving on to part two of this “review”.
And, we’re back in colour 🙂 I drove to my fave beach in La Ciotat for these, in order to have access to a different type of subject, light and scenery.
Oops, colour I said! 😉
There. What do you think? Could you live with the vigneting?
In colour, it really bothers me. As lovely as the colours are in the center of the field, the corners really detract from my enjoyment. I reached the same conclusion with Audrey (Distagon 1.4/35 ZM) on the Hassy, which led to me saying goodbye to that jewel.
Here, the problem isn’t as bad. But it would trouble me to have to work around it (shooting at closer distances or cropping) systematically. Which is a shame because the lens corrects two of the biggest flaws in XCD lenses: autofocus and slow apertures.
Should I be making such a big deal of AF and the (perfectly OK) focusing rings on XCD lenses? I think so.
The X1D is a deeply misunderstood camera. The media, in all its collective dung-beetle wisdom, described the X1D as slow, cumbersome and power-hungry. And it does take 10 seconds to wake up. Doesn’t sound like much in writing, but it’s an eternity in the field. Never, ever, switch your X1D off.
And yes, it uses a lot of power. Three batteries a (long) day is routine for me, and those batteries ain’t cheap.
Slap a manual focus lens on this camera, and all those problems go away.
With manual focus, this thing is the nimblest camera I’ve used. It is utterly silent in electronic shutter mode (required for adapted lenses) and the screen/focusing aids are so good, you need to be serious drunk to miss focus. Kai Wong, of digitalrev tv fame, claimed he could focus faster with a rangefinder than with an AF lens. And I second that with this camera. I even backed that claim by photographing F1 cars at close range and football/soccer matches.
And without the heft of seriously big glass to move around to auto-focus, the X1D actually becomes quite frugal.
Of course, there’s no free lunch. And silent shutter brings on problems of its own 😉 😉 😉
But let’s move on to serious photography. By which I mean b&w, of course 😉
Below is a small set of photos grabbed in between work sessions, at various apertures ranging from f/2 (trees and benches) and f/8 (the two first, below) and a majority where this lens sings, f/4. And various exploratory post-processing stages (I will revisit them later 🙂 )
Time to conclude.
I’ve grown too fond of my XCD lenses to ever consider this as my everyday ride. But what a lens! You have no idea how nice it feels to get the Zeiss vibe on the Hassy for those occasions when it is the best option. And of all the Zeiss lenses I used to own on my Sony (35/1.4 ZM, Otus 85, Distagon 25/2, C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM) this is probably the one that delivers it with the fewer (sensor mismatch) compromises, the fewer strings attached. In fact, as illustrated by the pic of the big orange machine cleaning the beach, it can deliver that neutral look I crave, at f/4 and above. So it is by no means a one trick pony. And with the proper PP dosage (some above are too soft, others are too harsh, this subtle lens requires a sutble touch) black and white photos just sing.
Once again, what started off as a 10 minute “just for kicks” check has turned out to be an eye opening ride into new looks for the X1D. I’d grown very tired of gear reviews and those “old” lenses have just brought all the fun back into them again. The 25/2 definitely is a keeper! I feel like, with a tiny bit of cropping, I own the first Otus 21!! And that puts me in a great mood, although I’m now terribly late in my work 😉
Am I making this up or are you seeing grandeur in that lens as well? Is it just Zeisstalgia speaking, or is that a great combo for moody shooting?
(PS: as usual, those red image captions are all musical easter eggs, try to guess’em then go click’em)
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