The Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 is a professional-grade fixed wide-angle lens targeted at enthusiasts and professionals that need high quality optics for different types of photography, including landscape, architecture, portrait and astrophotography. Similar to other Zeiss prime lenses, the lens is designed to work on both FX and DX sensor cameras (equivalent of approx 52.5mm on DX) and yields amazing clarity and contrast throughout the frame. The all-metal Zeiss 35mm has a very tough and high quality build and is sealed against dust and tough weather conditions. When compared to the latest generation Nikon AF-S lenses like Nikon 35mm f/1.4G with plastic exterior, it feels much more solid in hands – even the lens hood is made of metal. The focal length of 35mm is a good compromise between ultra-wide angle lenses and standard lenses. Thanks to the 9-blade diaphragm, the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 renders background highlights in round, circular shapes, making it a good candidate for portraiture and street photography.
In this review, I will provide a thorough analysis of the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 lens, along with image samples and comparisons against Nikon 35mm f/1.4G and Nikon 35mm f/2.0D lenses.
1) Lens Specifications
- Focal length: 35mm
- Tested Mount: Nikon
- Aperture range: f/2.0 – f/22 (1/2 steps)
- Focusing range: 0.3m – infinity
- Number of elements/groups: 9/7
- Angular field, diag./horiz./vert.: 62°/53°/37°
- Coverage at close range: 19 x 13cm
- Filter thread: 58mm
- Dimensions (with caps): 64mm x 97mm
- Weight: 530g
- Camera mounts: EF Mount (ZE), F Mount (ZF.2)
2) Lens Handling
Modern Zeiss prime lenses are all of a very high quality, all-metal build and the Zeiss f/2.0 is no exception. It feels rather heavy relative to its small size, and is designed to withstand tough weather conditions, including dust and moisture. I used the lens in very dusty and rainy conditions in Utah and it continued to function well without any problems. I carefully inspected the lens after the trip and saw no signs of dust inside, which indicates that the lens indeed has good sealing – and that’s with the extending front lens element. So if you shoot in extreme conditions a lot, you can certainly count on the Zeiss 35mm f/2 – it will surely survive and serve you well for years to come. The lens sports 9 optical elements in 7 groups and weighs a total of 530 grams, making it about 70 grams lighter than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G. Here is how the lens compares against other 35mm lenses (Zeiss is second from left):
The focus ring is located in the middle of the lens barrel and feels very smooth while focusing. The provided barrel-shaped metal lens hood attaches easily and securely on the lens, which I recommend keeping on the lens at all times. Filter size is limited to 58mm, which is expected given the thinness of the lens barrel.
3) Lens Operation and Manual Focus
The Zeiss 35mm is equipped with electronic transmitters that provide metering capability and full lens information back to the camera, making it easy to use it with all modern Nikon and Canon DSLRs. Simply lock the aperture ring to the minimum aperture that is marked in orange and you can change the lens aperture on your camera without touching the aperture ring on the lens. One of the biggest concerns photographers have with lenses like the Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2, is manual focus operation. Many photographers are either scared of manual focus, or just do not want to deal with it when using fast primes, especially when shooting handheld. Although manual focus can be challenging and frustrating for portraiture, especially when your subjects are fast-moving children or pets, focusing with this lens in all other situations is quite easy. The camera viewfinder gives an indication (a circle) if a subject is in focus and will show which way to rotate the focus ring if it needs to be adjusted.
Now let me talk about the real advantage of a manual focus lens. As photographers, we are often so spoiled by autofocus lenses and automated cameras, that we either inherit or develop the “point and shoot” mentality. Manual focus lenses require some extra work and I find myself putting a lot more thought to framing, composition, exposure, etc., instead of taking quick snapshots when using such lenses.
4) Lens sharpness, contrast and color rendition
As I reveal in my sharpness tests in the subsequent pages of this review, the performance of the Zeiss 35mm is outstanding. Center sharpness is top notch, even wide open, while the corners start out a tad weaker, but get much sharper by f/5.6 and beyond. Unfortunately, there is plenty of vignetting at maximum aperture and the distortion is certainly noticeable, but it is all fixable in post-processing. Contrast and colors are superb as can be seen from other image samples posted on this review. You can see many examples of lens sharpness taken in a controlled environment in the next page, along with comparisons against other 35mm lenses.
On the first day of trying out the Zeiss, I mounted it on my Nikon D3s and took a picture of my son Ozzy while he was watching TV. As he was sitting still, I moved the focus point on his right eye, set aperture to f/2.0 then started to move the focus ring until the camera set the image was in focus. I then snapped a picture and looked at the camera LCD:
Ozzy’s eye was indeed in focus and I got very impressed by the colors and the quality of the background this lens produced. Next, I zoomed in to 100% and saw this:
That’s one sharp manual focus lens!
The bokeh on the Zeiss 35mm looks pleasant for a lens of this class and focal length. While depth of field is not as shallow as on the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, background highlights look circular and soft, with a slightly visible edge. Nothing to worry about though, because this type of behavior is expected from a wide-angle lens, so there are no surprises here. Here is an example of bokeh shot at f/2.0:
Similar to other Nikon 35mm lenses I tested, the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/2 has a heavy amount of vignetting at largest apertures, especially wide open at f/2.0. As you stop down to f/2.8 vignetting starts to disappear and by f/4.0 onwards it is almost completely gone. This type of behavior is expected from large aperture lenses, especially when they are mounted on full frame cameras. Take a look at lens vignetting at different apertures:
And here is how it compares against the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G:
The Zeiss at f/2.0 has more vignetting than the Nikon 35mm at f/1.4. When the Nikon 35mm is stopped down to f/2.0, Zeiss looks considerably worse.
7) Ghosting and Flare
The amount of flares and ghosting will depend on where you position the light source in the frame. Shooting directly at the sun, you will most definitely get some flares and ghosting if the sun is in the middle of the frame, as seen below. As you move the light source towards the corners, the size and length of ghosting/flares can get dramatically bigger, so take this into consideration when shooting outside. If you see a strong amount of ghosting and flares, try moving the light source in your frame to see where the effect is minimal and acceptable. Take a look at this shot of the Mesa Arch at f/13:
While Zeiss shows a minimal amount of ghosting and flares at largest apertures, stopping it down to f/8.0 and beyond can yield some nasty flares. Note the left bottom corner of the frame in the above shot, where you can clearly see a large orange blob that is taking almost half of the frame and changing the color of the rock. This is the worst case scenario – when an extremely bright and small source of light reflects off the internal lens elements. There are also some purple colors right under the star-shaped sun.
The coating on the Zeiss lens works great when the source of light is larger or slightly diffused though. Take a look at the following shot, with the sun behind the clouds:
As you can see, there is only one small ghost in the frame and no signs of nasty flares throughout the frame. Please note that both images were taken without any filters. Using UV and other filters can potentially introduce more flares and ghosting to your images.
Distortion on the Zeiss is moderate, very comparable to that of the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G. If you use the latest version of Lightroom (3.4), it already comes with a lens profile for this lens and many other Zeiss lenses. Simply check “Enable Profile Corrections” in the Lens Correction sub-module of the Development module in Lightroom and all distortion + vignetting issues will be automatically taken care of. Here is an example of distortion on the Zeiss compared against the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G:
9) Chromatic Aberration
Lateral chromatic aberration is controlled well, but somewhat noticeable in high-contrast situations. Longitudinal chromatic aberration (which is the effect of color fringing in front of and behind the focused area) is very visible when shooting at large apertures:
See how the color on the front of the chart (where the number 6 is) is purple, while on the back of the chart it is green? That’s the effect of longitudinal chromatic aberration. While lateral chromatic aberration can be easily fixed in both Photoshop and Lightroom, this type of longitudinal CA is extremely tough to deal with in post-processing software due to different colors. But don’t worry – most wide-angle lenses including the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G have a similar problem, so once again, no surprises here.
Let’s now move on to the good stuff – Sharpness tests. Select the next page below.
10) Sharpness Test
Some technical junk:
- White Balance: Auto, changed to “Custom”: 3100 Temp, +10 Tint in Lightroom
- ISO: 200
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Lens was mounted on Nikon D3s Camera and Gitzo tripod
- Focusing was performed manually through Live-View
- Mirror Lock-Up mode with Exposure Delay set to “On” and remote cable release to completely eliminate camera shake
- Long exposure NR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Lightroom settings: Default settings
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- Testing was performed at f/2.0, f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0 and f/11.0 apertures
- Nothing was moved during testing
11) Sharpness Test – Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 Center Frame
The Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 is a very sharp lens, even wide open. If it was not for vignetting, it would be tough to notice differences between different apertures:
Diffraction starts kicking in beyond f/8.0 and the image sharpness suffers as a result at the smallest apertures.
12) Sharpness Test – Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 Corner Frame
The corner performance of the lens is not as good as the center and starts out a little weak at f/2.0. Unfortunately, stopping down to f/2.8 and f/4.0 does not help as much either. The situation drastically improves at f/5.6 and the corner sharpness reaches its peak performance between f/5.6 and f/8.0, as shown below:
The darker images are the result of vignetting – I did not adjust the exposure on any of the above images.
These image crops are meaningless without a comparison against other lenses. Let’s move on to lens comparisons.
Compared to Nikon 35mm f/2.0 D
Let’s see how the Zeiss 35mm f/2 compares against the old classic Nikon 35mm f/2D. If you are impatient and want to see my conclusion, skip over to the bottom of the page.
13) Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 vs Nikon 35mm f/2 AF-D Center Frame
Let’s take a look at how both lenses perform wide open (Left: Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 @ f/2.0, Right: Nikon 35mm f/2D @ f/2.0):
Right away you can see the sharpness difference between the Zeiss and the old Nikon optics – Zeiss is much sharper wide open. Let’s see what happens when both lenses are stopped down to f/2.8 (Left: Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 @ f/2.8, Right: Nikon 35mm f/2D @ f/2.8):
Nikon 35mm f/2D gets significantly sharper at f/2.8, but the Zeiss is still sharper. The performance of both lenses is about the same at f/4.0 and beyond. Here is how the lenses compare at f/8.0:
I cannot see any difference between the two at f/8.0.
14) Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 vs Nikon 35mm f/2 AF-D Corner Frame
What about the corners? Let’s take a look at how both lenses perform wide open (Left: Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 @ f/2.0, Right: Nikon 35mm f/2D @ f/2.0):
The Nikon has much less contrast in the corners and is less sharp. Let’s see what happens at f/2.8:
Again, not much difference, although the Nikon has a tad more contrast. Let’s now see how both perform at f/8.0:
The Zeiss is clearly much sharper at f/8.0, while the Nikon 35mm f/2D only improves marginally. The situation for the Nikon 35mm f/2D does not get any better when stopped further down.
15) Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 vs Nikon 35mm f/2 AF-D Conclusion
It should come at no surprise that the Zeiss is a much better lens than the Nikkor 35mm f/2D. As you can see from the above crops, the Zeiss is sharper in the center at large apertures, while the corner performance of the Nikon 35mm lags behind even when stopped down to f/8. While for normal photography this is not a big deal, landscape photographers should take the weak performance of the Nikon into consideration. Obviously there is a big difference in price, size and weight, so you have to decide what is more important for you. The wide open performance of the Nikon 35mm f/2D is rather weak both in the center and in the corners, so I cannot recommend it for portraiture. The Zeiss, on the other hand, is a superb lens for portraiture (as long as your subject does not constantly move), as it has impressive wide open performance in the center. Landscape and architectural photographers should stop down the Zeiss to f/8 for optimum sharpness in the corners. As for vignetting and distortion levels, both lenses have about the same amount of both. The Zeiss also handles chromatic aberrations better than the Nikon. Bokeh on the Zeiss looks better as well, due to the 9 blade diaphragm versus 7 on the Nikon.
Let’s move on to a comparison with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G.
Compared to Nikon 35mm f/1.4G
If you are evaluating the Zeiss 35mm f/2 lens, you will most likely want to evaluate the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G lens as well, despite the big difference in price. Let’s see which one of the two is sharper in the center and corners, wide open and when stopped down.
16) Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 vs Nikon 35mm f/1.4G Center Frame
It is always nice to compare wide open performance between lenses. Here are both lenses at their largest apertures (Left: Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 @ f/2.0, Right: Nikon 35mm f/1.4G @ f/1.4):
Wide open, the Zeiss f/2.0 is slightly sharper than the Nikon f/1.4G. Let’s see what happens when both lenses are at f/2.0:
The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G gets sharper by f/2.0 and the performance of both is now about the same, with a slightly better performance by Nikon. Here are the results at f/2.8 and f/4.0:
Sharpness-wise, both lenses look good, with a slightly better performance by the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G. The Zeiss 35mm f/2 has some purple fringing in the center, as can be seen from the above crops. Let’s see how the lenses compare when stopped down:
By f/5.6, the purple fringing on the Zeiss starts to disappear. However, the Nikon 35mm is still a little sharper and clearer.
Stopped down to f/8.0, both lenses are very sharp. The contrast on the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G still seems to be a tad better though.
17) Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 vs Nikon 35mm f/1.4G Corner Frame
What about the corners? Let’s see how both lenses perform in the extreme corners wide open (Left: Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 @ f/2.0, Right: Nikon 35mm f/1.4G @ f/1.4):
Both look equally good wide open in the corners – I cannot see any difference. Now let’s see what happens with the Nikon 35mm stopped down to f/2.0:
The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G does not improve much by f/2.0 and both lenses still perform about the same at f/2.0. Now f/2.8 and f/4.0:
We can see a dramatic improvement at f/2.8 by Nikon, while the Zeiss clearly lags behind. Zeiss also has a pronounced effect of vignetting at f/2.8, which is quite noticeable.
At f/4.0, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is almost as sharp as in the center. Even the smallest details are clearly visible. The Zeiss 35mm f/2 on the other hand, is still weaker at f/4.0 and the effect of vignetting is still there. Let’s see what happens when both lenses are stopped down further more:
Stopped down to f/5.6, the Zeiss gets sharper, but still not as good as the Nikon.
At f/8.0, both lenses perform about the same, except the Zeiss 35mm f/2 has a little CA, which makes the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G look sharper.
18) Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 vs Nikon 35mm f/1.4G Vignetting
As can be seen below, the Zeiss f/2.0 has much more vignetting wide open, at least by half a stop:
25) Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 vs Nikon 35mm f/1.4G Distortion
When it comes to distortion, both lenses have about the same amount of distortion that can be easily fixed in Photoshop/Lightroom:
19) Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 vs Nikon 35mm f/1.4G Conclusion
Before I ran the lab tests, I had a feeling that both lenses would be very similar in performance, based on my impressions from using them for a month. As it turns out, both lenses are very similar in performance at largest apertures, but the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G certainly does perform better than the Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 ZF2.0 when stopped down to f/2.8 and above. Distortion is about the same, but vignetting on the Zeiss is also worse, as can be seen from the examples above. Handling of chromatic aberrations, ghosting and flare is also better on the Nikon. All in all, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is a better lens in many ways and besides the tougher build of the Zeiss, my lab tests are showing that the Nikon is superior. However, lab tests and real life experience shooting lenses on the field can be different. And it certainly felt different for me – I certainly enjoyed the Zeiss, in some cases more than the Nikon. I don’t know what it was that made me like it so much. Perhaps it was the different colors that it renders, or the better feel of the lens on the camera, or the fact that I had to manually focus on every shot, think and compose before taking landscape pictures. And then I thought about the wedding that Lola and I shot. I remembered that I dismounted the Zeiss after a few shots when shooting indoors, because I just did not have the time to manually focus every time I shot and recomposed, or my subjects moved. The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G autofocused very well in dim light and I quickly realized the benefits of autofocus in those kinds of situations. On top of that, the large aperture of f/1.4 on the Nikon also gave me more possibilities to isolate subjects and having a shallower depth of field was certainly beneficial, especially with a busy background. That’s when I realized that these two lenses are good for different purposes. If you photograph people, you definitely want to use the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G. For stationary subjects like landscapes and architecture, the Zeiss is definitely a good choice, especially given that it is $600 cheaper. Vignetting, distortion and chromatic aberrations are easy to fix in post-processing nowadays and the slightly inferior corner performance of the Zeiss is not worth the $600 difference in my opinion. Again, both lenses are very good, certainly in the top tier of lenses for the Nikon mount (I have not had a chance to test the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 yet, because it is currently unavailable). Pick either one based on your needs and you won’t go wrong.
Summary and Image Samples
As I have pointed out several times in the review, I really enjoyed working with the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 lens. It is a very sharp and beautiful lens to work with and it very closely rivals the excellent Nikon 35mm f/1.4G that has recently been announced by Nikon. I now understand why some photographers go so crazy about the Zeiss glass. After coming back from a trip to Utah, I discovered that I used the Zeiss more than any other 35mm lens I had with me, including the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G. I just did not want to take it off my camera! Besides a couple of small things (like vignetting wide open and 58mm filter thread), there is really not much to complain about – colors, contrast and sharpness are all superb. To my knowledge, it performs well on all Nikon and Canon DSLR bodies, although I would probably go for cheaper alternatives when using a crop-sensor camera. In addition, the lens will have an equivalent field of view of a 53mm lens on DX due to the 1.5x crop factor, so you might not find it wide enough for your photography. If you are a landscape or an architectural photographer, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 is an excellent choice with great value. With its all-metal body, the lens is built to last a lifetime and handles extremely well on the field. If you are into people photography and mainly work with models in controlled environments, the Zeiss 35mm is also a great portrait lens that can beautifully isolate your subjects from the background. However, if you photograph children, weddings and other similar events, the manual focus part might limit your ability to work quickly, especially if you have never worked with a manual focus lens before. For those situations, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G might be a better fit. On the other hand, you should not be scared to use manual focus lenses. In fact, if you have never done it before, try a manual focus lens or switch your autofocus lens to manual focus and give it a shot – you might find yourself taking better pictures and paying more attention to focus, composition and framing.
Overall, I am very pleased with the performance of the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 lens. Going forward, I am planning to review more Zeiss lenses and add them to my arsenal of lenses for landscape photography.
21) Where to buy and availability
22) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.