6 Oct 2011

Carl Zeiss Distagon 35mm f2 & 28mm f2 ZE Review (with pro wedding testing)

*UPDATE MARCH 2012* You can now view my video review of these lenses here

Just over a month ago I was looking to purchase some wider lenses for my Canon 5D MK 2, I looked into all the options, Canon, Carl Zeiss, Sigma and Tokina. I previously owned the Canon EF 16-35 f2.8 II lens which although proving very good I never used it wider than 24mm so there was a lot of wasted focal length and I wanted a faster aperture than 2.8 (f2 would be even much better for that extra stop of light), So I decided to sell it and invest in a faster prime wide angle as I knew the prime would give me better overall image quality and a wider aperture.

After doing plenty of research into all the different options I quickly ruled out brands like Tokina who don't have any full frame fast prime lenses in the 24-35mm range. Sigma have a 24mm f1.8 and a 28mm f1.8 which are quite dated now and from what I found weren't all that great when used wide open. I did look into older manual focus lenses being used via an adapter but the stop down metering (darkening of the focus screen when closing down the aperture) was a deal breaker as it made it nearly impossible to focus in lower light.  So that left Canon and Carl Zeiss in the running.

Canon have the L primes that everyone rates very highly, the 24mm f1.4 ( a nice fast aperture but at £1429) and the 35mm f1.4 (again very fast aperture at £1220). These lenses would obviously be a great choice, they have really fast apertures which is brilliant in low light and for isolating subjects from backgrounds, they are Canons luxury line so they are very pricey which I would pay if they produce the stunning image quality I was after.

Canon also have a cheaper range of lenses in this focal lengths, the Canon EF 28mm f1.8 (small, lightweight and is fast but not brilliant when used wide open) and the Canon EF 35 f2 (fast but an older design that is very noisy when auto focussing and has a horribly small manual focus ring). To be honest these two were never really an option as I know that they are not built great and I wanted lenses that would withstand a good few years of professional (ab)use.

I tried the Canon L lenses mentioned above and really liked them, the image quality was great and they felt good on the camera. I wasn't sure abut the 24mm though as I don't tend to shoot quite that wide as it distorts people a little too much for my liking. Then I got the chance to purchase a Leica M8 for a great price along with a Carl Zeiss 28mm f2.8 ZM lens. Although I didn't like the camera that much (very bad ISO performance and sensor problems) I loved the Carl Zeiss lens, it was built better than any lens I had used to that point, it felt great, rugged and best of all the image quality was amazing. This got me thinking about the Carl Zeiss lenses that fit on to Canon bodies.

I returned the Leica M8 and the Zeiss lens and decided to try the Zeiss ZE line that fits on to Canon bodies.  I decided to try out the 35mm f2 Distagon to see how it performed. It was built just as good as the ZM Zeiss lens I tried on the M8 (all metal and glass construction), it felt like it would last forever and felt great in the hands. I took a couple of shots at various apertures and was knocked out by the files straight out of camera, they were really sharp and wide open at f2 the images had such a dreamy but sharp quality (a significant but not ugly vignetting and that can be removed in post anyway if you don't like it). The lens is all manual focus but there is a focus conformation light/beep when your focus point is bang on. The manual focus ring is a dream to use,  it is very big and very smooth. Needless to say I was amazed at the images from the camera, the colours were natural, the sharpness was great from f2 all the way through the range (I don't shot more than f8/11 so didn't test higher than that) so I decided to just go for it. The price was £819 which was significantly less than the Canon 35 f1.4 at £1220, I know its a stop difference in light and there is no autofocus on the Zeiss but for me the image that came from the Zeiss had so much more character and quality so it was a no brainer.

After purchasing the Zarl Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE I tested it out for a few days and loved the results so much that I quickly looked into another Zeiss lens in the 28mm f2. The 35mm is a great focal length for me but I also wanted something a little wider to compliment it. I know that 28mm isn't that much wider than 35mm but for me it is all I need as I stated before I don't like the edge distortion of a 24mm and f2 instead of 1.4 is fine for the way I shoot with wider lenses. I didn't even test this one I just ordered it after how impressed I was with the 35, it cost £1049 which again is less than the Canon at £1429.

I was really excited to receive the 28mm in the post and instantly started shooting with it, its was built to the same high standards (obviously) infact it nearly looks identical to the 35 with only a slight size difference and the 28mm marking on the lens hood to tell the difference. The manual focus ring again was fantastic and the image quality was pretty much the same. There is some visible chromatic aberration in high contrast scenes at f2 (which is normal for a lens like this) but in real life use it is not noticeable. At f2 I don't think it is quite as sharp as the 35mm but all the rest of the range it is very sharp with great colour reproduction and contrast. Like the 35 it has significant vignetting at f2 which can be easily removed but is also quite artistic and natural, gives an extra piece of  creative ammo into your arsenal.

The one thing that is evident about the Zeiss lens when compared to other brands is the 3D rendering. Before I used a Zeiss lens I was skeptical of this legendary "3D Rendering" but having used them for a while now I can tell you that it is true, there is some sort of special rendering these lenses produce that no other I have used can match especially at wider apertures, maybe it has something to do with the coatings on the glass, the glass its self, I don't know and to be honest I don't care as I'm not into the technicalities of photography I just love the results.

Some examples just having fun with the lenses then a wedding test review after that.

World War Z film set at night, Zeiss 35mm f2

Zeiss 28mm f2.

In a pub in very very lowlight, Zeiss 35mm f2.

This one is just for fun, me and Cat being stupid before
heading out. I love this Zeiss 28mm. 

Me at the pub, taken by Cat, look at that lovely colours in the background.
35mm f2

Zeiss 35mm f2

A street shot in Glasgow
Zeiss 35mm f2

Street shot at the World war Z film set in Glasgow.
Zeiss 35mm f2

World War Z film set night.

Professional Wedding Test

So I had used the lenses for a few weeks and got used to the manual focus, I use manual focus most of the time anyway so wasn't much of a hassle but some other people not used to it may need a bit of practice to get it down before attempting to use it on Pro jobs. I had an upcoming wedding to photograph and was the main reason I wanted these wider angle lenses as up until then I had been using the EF 16-35mm and wanted better quality and a faster f-stop for low light use. So I am going to let you know how these lenses handled at a big professional wedding job and whether they I like them as much in actual practice as I do when just playing around with them for fun.

Kayleigh & Kenneth got married on the 26th August at Haddo House in scotlan and I was there photographer. Haddo House was an amzing place, you could have chosen anywhere in or around the venue to photograph and it would have been great with huge gardens, surrounding trees and the stone building. It would be a great test for the Zeiss lenses to prove their worth.

During the wedding I didn't actually shoot with a wide angle too much with the majority of images shot with the 50mm and 85mm. When I did need to go wide though the se lenses did not disappoint in image quality and infact produced the best out of camera results, the sharpness, rendering and colours made my work much easier in post production. In image quality I was extremely happy with the results. Now for how they actually handled.

In use they were pretty much as I expected, manual focus only is quite labour intensive for a whole wedding and with my other lenses I was using a combination of auto and manual focus. Auto when I needed speed or when I knew it would hit it's mark and manual when it wouldn't catch its focus or I wanted to compose quickly and freely and it worked really well (know your camera and lenses to know when the mechanics will work and when they wont). With the autofocus confirmation light/beep with the Zeiss lenses worked well when I used it and just using my eye to judge focus worked well in good light. Going into low light and using the EG-S precision focus screen in my camera wasn't as easy as I first expected with the Zeiss lenses due to them being f2 and made my viewfinder a little dark but for the most part I nailed focus and only missed a few. Again the auto focus confirmation worked great when I knew the camera would get it's focus (The 5D MK 2 has not got the best autofocus in the world in low light).

Here are some examples from the day with the Zeiss lenses:

Zeiss 35mm f2.

Zeiss 35mm f2.

Zeiss 35mm f2. 

Zeiss 35mm f2.

Zeiss 35mm f2.

Zeiss 35mm f2.

Zeiss 28mm f2.

Zeiss 28mm f2.

Above shot is probably my favourite, taken with the Zeiss 28mm f2.

Zeiss 28mm f2

Zeiss 28mm f2.

Zeiss 28mm f2.

Zeiss 28mm f2.

Zeiss 28mm f2.

Zeiss 28mm f2.

Random shot in my garden, very un-interesting but just a test shot to get an idea of how they perform. Taken on a rare really sunny day here in Scotland. 

35mm at f2

35mm at f2


Overall I was very happy with the lenses in a Pro wedding environment and was extremely happy with the images they produced. The images taken with the Zeiss lenses were great out of camera and made my life a lot easier in post production. The manual focus only for a wedding took a little to get used to but after a few shots I got into it and with the auto conformation light/beep it was a good backup. I loved having some wide lenses I could go to and knew that the quality would be awesome, some of my favourite shots from the day were taken with the Zeiss's. I would say anyone who is considering these Carl Zeiss ZE lenses and you know the shortcomings (no autofocus) then you won't be disappointed, I certainly wasn't and can't wait to get out and use them more.

Check out more wedding photo's from the whole day here

If you have any questions about the Zeiss lenses or anything else you can send me an email here

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Anonymous said...

Really great! I have the some question with you, I also think 24mm is too wide, and i choose to buy the 35mm or the 28mm, just buy one of them. and really thanks to your post, and i think the 28mm is my choose, although the 35mm is also a very good lens.

-- your reader from China, and across the GFW.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic pictures. Your favorite picture and the couple's photo in front of the fireplace where they taken with ambient lighting or you had other lighting arrangement?

Andrew Kelly said...

Hey thanks for the comments!

All images are just natural lighting.

Albert Chandra said...

Thanks for the wonderful review

Want to ask, I own a 50mm makro, and sigma 15mm, usually photographing food and travel (available light) thinking about getting one of the lens you review.
If you have to choose one, which one do you think is the better one.

From what I saw here, I kinda lean towards the 28mm

thehughman said...

Theses pictures are spectacular. How do you get such incredible color with a digital camera? Is there a secret? I had a Zeiss 50mm 1.4 lens for my Rollei Sl35E (film camera) that gave a very distinct 3D look. You could almost reach into the picture. I recently have gone digital and bought a Nikon D600. In a bunch of tests comparing the Nikon AF non-D 50mm 1.8 to the Zeiss 50mm using the D600 (I had to manually hold the Zeiss lens flush with the camera as it obviously does not have a Nikon mount). I found that the Zeiss BLOWS AWAY the Nikon. I actually have three Zeiss 50mm 1.8 lenses and one 1.4 lens. They all blow the Nikon away and the Nikon is VERY sharp. Do you think these colors that you have came from the lens or do you mess around in post? Needless to say I am busy trying to get one of my lenses converted to a Nikon mount.

Andrew Kelly said...

Hi thanks very much for the compliments. As far as Zeiss vs Canon and Nikon I too believe that the Zeiss in terms of image quality and feel are better. When it comes to color, yes I use post processing but it depends on the situation, some of the shots have had hardly anything done and some have had a bit more, it just depends on the desired outcome. I will say though that I have to do much less with the Zeiss images compared to my Canon's and that makes them invaluable.

dimzPhotography said...

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)