#1012. Hasseblad X1D and Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2: More fun with legacy lenses

By pascaljappy | Review

Jun 05

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 …

Run baby run – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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!

Queen bee – Nikkor 50/1.8 on Hasselblad X1D

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.

Golden brown – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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?

Bark sonata – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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!

Mellow yellow – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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).

Green leaves – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D, every bit an Audrey, here!!!

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).

Gimme shelter. Or, maybe, Jungle (Steve, this one’s for you) – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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 πŸ˜‰

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.

Sharp teeth – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚ 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.

Life is a closed beach – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

Oops, colour I said! πŸ˜‰


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.

Maze star – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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.

Everybody hurts – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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.

The Citroen Blancmange – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

Of course, there’s no free lunch. And silent shutter brings on problems of its own πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

But let’s move on to serious photography. By which I mean b&w, of course πŸ˜‰

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 πŸ™‚ )


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 πŸ˜‰

Careless geometry – Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF.2 on Hasselblad X1D

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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  • Michael S says:

    DearSusan: arrive for the great photographs, enjoy the food, stay for the music.

  • Kim Howe says:

    I think you’re onto something here. I’m surprising the vignetting isn’t worse. It looks correctable. Your shots definitely have something.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Kim, I was very surprised, too. It’s hard to explain this look. The Zeiss signature is there but it seems more neutral than on my Sony. Which is very counterintuitive, as I was expecting a very strong vignetting.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Vignetting is not a serious problem – there are various programs available that get rid of it quite easily. Anyway, as you noted, sometimes it improves the image. Sometimes not, in which case get rid of it.

    But why blame the lens?

    I’ve been a devout supporter of Carl Zeiss for over 60 years. I’ve had 4 of their cameras, well over a dozen of their lenses, and even the lenses in my spectacles are Carl Zeiss lenses – great lenses, too!

    And I’ve had lenses from a dozen or so other manufacturers over the years, but none that could ever compare with my Zeiss lenses. The others might have different features – but their optics were mostly nowhere near Carl’s and one of them was so poorly adjusted that I simply had to get rid of it.

    Rumours I’ve heard suggest that Sony and Fuji sensors/processors/whatever induce colourings not prevalent in other cameras. Which leaves me wondering – have you had feed back on these lenses from other camera owners? Can they be fitted to a Leica and, if so, were those results similar to what you’ve been getting with the Hassie, or with your previous Sony’s?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, I too believe that Zeiss have achieved a level of optical and mechanical mastery that still eludes competitors. These days, they achieve it through computer simulation, but they seem to maintaint their upper hand even when software should help level the playing ground. As always, it’s not just about the gear (here, the software) but the person and the philosophy behind it.

      This specific lens could not be used on a Leica. Not a Leica M, anyway. The SL, maybe? But no, I’ve not found any other attempts to mount those on other cameras than Sonys and Nikons (not that I searched, mind you.)

      Lenses are designed to cover a certain angle. The greater the surface of the sensor, the greater the angle covered by the optics. Aberrations are harder to correct as you leave the axis. So putting a lens on a smaller sensor “helps” it shine in that only the central part of its image is sampled (although you could also argue the smaller sensor is also likely to have smaller pixels, another type of difficulty for the lens). Using the lens on a larger sensor puts it at a disadvantage. It’s not really about “blaming” the lens but being fair to its designer πŸ˜‰

      It appears that the X1D has a sensor that’s not large enough to hurt edge performance of some lenses too badly, and its larger pixels make it far more tolerant to any vintage softness. It’s turning out to be one fantastic base to explore oldies, blending a modern electronic look with an older glass look! More soon with far more ancient Leicas and very different results πŸ˜‰


      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Best of luck with the project, Pascal. Zeiss and Hasselblad famously partnered the first photographs ever taken on the moon. It’s lovely to see that the partnership continues, even if it’s loosely and ad hoc.

        And for me at least, photography has ALWAYS been a process of experimentation and challenge. I know it’s silly to aim at being excellent at everything, but it’s rather boring not trying, so it’s a choice as to which is the lesser of the two evils.

        Eg – yesterday’s treat was an attempt to photograph a baby praying mantis on one of my bougainvilleas, using a Laowa MACRO which I purchased as a result of one of Philippe’s postings. More practice required – the photo wasn’t perfect – but it was fun, trying. And with this blasted COVID thing, we ALL need a bit of fun in our lives! πŸ™‚

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Mellow Yellow, gorgeous image, old memories – but I stopped smoking banana leaves so long ago πŸ™‚

    You’re absolutely right about the XD1 being an ideal platform for the exploration of lenses that have that magic look – particularly some exquisite Zeiss or Leitz designs. And it’s not that complicated, it’s just about finding the best match between the circle of confusion and resolution of a lens and the rendering of the digital sensor of your camera. You brilliantly demonstrated that the Distagon is worthy to be adopted by the XD1.

    And, as you know well, Hasselblad has done just that, and very well, with their lens/sensor/software combos, resulting in a spectacular line of lenses.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you very much, Jean-Claude. I will start testing some old Hasselblad lenses as soon as an adapter arrives. Unfortunately, I only have one at home. If that proves special, I might buy one or two more. It would be intriguing to try the 120/4 Makro planar and the 100/3.5, possibly a longer lens. And I would love to try the Contaxt 645 range as well, though that might be trickier. Cheers

  • Mark Raugas says:

    Simply lovely.

    I had that lens in Canon mount before I switched over to Sony, and it is quite stunning what you are able to accomplish with it. The Loxia 25mm I found a bit too clinical to keep long term and but I am enjoying exploring the 35/1.4 with my Sony and on film.

    So, when a design is timeless. . .

    Also, thank you for the audio link β€” those tube integrated amplifiers look very interesting as well.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly. A timeless design is precious. For a long time, I thought the lens was the important part of the kit and bought whatever camera worked with it. In recent years, manufacturers have made that difficult by providing a lot of in-camera correction. But it turns out none of that diminishes the loveliness of uncorrected lenses (which should have been obvious πŸ˜‰ ) Thank you for the kind words πŸ™‚

  • Patrick says:

    Great to read and see the Pro at work….most interesting and educational.
    Thank you for sharing, Pascal !

  • Dallas says:

    Hi Pascal, great images on the Hassie using the ZM. I have to agree the Milvus 50/1.4 & 851/4 are magnificent pieces of glass nearly up to the sublime IQ of the 135/2. Looking forward to more of your compassions.

  • JohnW says:

    Pascal, this is waaaaayyyyy out of my league technically. But I will say this – my favourite film camera of all time was my Rolleiflex 3.5T with a 75mm F3.5 Planar. Paired with Agfa CT18 transparency film the colours were jaw droppingly gorgeous and the images had a depth that made you want to stick your hand into them and touch the objects. I “liked’ my Canon gear “LOVE” my Fuji gear and still miss that 75mm Planar.

  • I couldn`t agree more Pascal. I find my old135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZF.2 and 35mm f/1.4 distagon zf.2 work incredibly with my GFX100. More doors, more avenues to go down. Thanks for writing this review and sharing your thoughts

    • pascaljappy says:

      David, thank you for the kind words and for the additional information. The GFX being even more stringent on quality than the X1D, that speaks volumes for those lenses ! Cheers.

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