This is an in-depth review of the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 lens, a manual focus prime lens for the Nikon F mount. The same lens exists in “ZE” version for the Canon mount, which shares identical optical design, but with a slightly different body design (no aperture ring). I had a chance to test the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 when evaluating other 35mm lenses, specifically the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and the Samyang 35mm f/1.4. Having already reviewed the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G and the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 ZF.2 lenses in the past, I wanted to cover most of the modern 35mm lenses for the Nikon F mount. After this and the upcoming Nikon 18-35mm review, I am planning to also cover the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX lens, along with two additional older Nikkor lenses – the 35mm f/2D and the 35mm f/1.4 AIS, which will pretty much complete the 35mm prime selection for the Nikon mount.
Zeiss is known to make high quality manual focus lenses for Nikon and Canon camera mounts. Because of a strong partnership with Sony, Zeiss has been making lenses with autofocus capability for the Sony / Minolta mount as well, and has recently started getting into the mirrorless market with its new “Touit” line of lenses.
The Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 was announced in 2010 at the Photokina imaging show in Cologne, Germany. Targeted at enthusiasts and professionals that want a high-quality manual focus lens, the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 is designed for a variety of needs, from landscape to travel photography. With its maximum aperture of f/1.4, the lens has excellent subject isolation capabilities and is well suited for portrait and low-light photography. Thanks to its all-metal legendary build quality and advanced optical design, the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 is one of the heaviest and sturdiest 35mm lenses on the market. The lens is designed to work on both APS-C / DX and full-frame FX sensors, so it will work on DSLR cameras like Nikon D7100 (with a similar field of view as a 52.5mm lens) and D800. At a price tag of $1850 USD, this is also one of the most expensive modern 35mm lens for the Nikon F mount.
Does the performance of the lens justify its $1850 price tag? How does it perform wide open and when stopped down? How does it handle? In this review, I will do my best to answer these and other questions and will show you image samples from the lens, with comparisons against the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and Samyang 35mm f/1.4 lenses.
1) Lens Specifications
- Mount Type: Nikon, Canon
- Focal Length: 35mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/1.4
- Minimum Aperture: f/16
- Lens Construction: 11 Elements in 9 Groups
- Angle of View: 63º
- Number of Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Minimum Focusing Distance: 30cm/11.8in
- Filter Size: 72mm
- Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 78x120mm
- Weight: 830g
2) Lens Handling and Build
When it comes to lens build, I cannot think of any major brand that can match the quality of Zeiss lenses. When you handle one of the Zeiss manual focus lenses, it will seriously make all other modern lenses feel plasticky and cheaply made in comparison. Zeiss lenses, without a doubt, set one of the highest standards in build quality, thanks to fine German craftsmanship. They are designed to last for many years and withstand a lot of abuse, something that cannot always be said about other brands. When you take the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 in your hands, you will quickly realize just how well the lens is built. With its all-metal, solidly crafted barrel and beautiful design, the lens stands out and distinguishes itself from the rest of the competition. It literally looks like a well-thought work of art, something we rarely see in lenses anymore. Check out my article on what makes exotic lenses special to understand what type of labor goes behind creating such lenses (definitely watch the Zeiss video). Hence, I absolutely love the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 in terms of lens build.
In terms of physical size, the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 is slightly taller than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G and the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lenses, but shorter than the manual focus Samyang 35mm f/1.4, as shown in the below image:
Since there is no autofocus motor, the lens is made mostly of glass and metal and hence weighs a lot compared to other 35mm lenses. At 830 grams, this is the heaviest of the four 35mm lenses, with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 coming in second at 665 grams, almost two hundred grams lighter in comparison! So this is certainly a heavy lens for its relatively small size. This does not bother me, but if you suffer from neck / back pain or have other problems like carpal tunnel, keep this in mind for long hikes or travel. Unfortunately, February and March were pretty cold months in Colorado with very little to see, so I did not enjoy much photography with the lens. However, I did take it outside in extremely cold temperatures and the lens worked like a charm. Although all current Zeiss lenses are not weather sealed (unfortunately, there is no rubber gasket on the lens mount either), you can rest assured that the lens will do well in extreme temperatures. Just try to stay away from too much water / humidity and keep that lens mount clean to prevent dust and other debris from making it into the camera or the lens. The only concern is the lens barrel, which can get too cold or too hot to touch with bare hands when temperatures spike above or below normal levels.
Just like the lens barrel, the focus ring is also made of metal. It is very smooth to operate and thankfully rotates in the same direction as Nikkor lenses. Since it is a heavy lens, I would not want to use it on light entry-level DSLRs. It will definitely be very front-heavy and put some stress on the lens mount when carrying it with a strap. Ideally, you want to use the lens with a pro-level DSLR like Nikon D800 and D4. It balances much better on heavier cameras for sure.
Unfortunately, the lens has a 72mm filter thread, which means that you will have to either use smaller filters or use step-up rings from 72mm to 77mm for standard-size filters. I wish Zeiss made a 77mm filter thread instead, although that would probably increase the size of the lens and add to the weight.
Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 is also the only lens in the group that comes with a metal lens hood. The petal-type lens hood is very nice, but can be a pain to mount. Unfortunately, if you do not start with the right side, it will mount at an angle and cause nasty vignetting issues. I don’t know how Zeiss overlooked this simple design issue. Once you secure it correctly, the metal hood stays locked and does not easily come off, which is good.
Overall, the lens build and handling are excellent (with the exception of the lens hood) – the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is a joy to use.
3) Manual Focus Assist Accuracy
Being a manual focus lens, the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 has an aperture ring on the bottom for full manual aperture control (note that the Canon version of the lens does not have an aperture ring). Having an aperture ring means that you can use it on older cameras with no aperture control, or you can set the aperture manually by hand on pro-level DSLRs (must be first configured under “Non-CPU Lenses” menu option). The ZF.2 label at the end of the lens name indicates that the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is designed for the Nikon F mount and comes with an electronic chip, which communicates with the focus system in your camera to assist in acquiring proper focus on your subject. All standard camera modes such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program Mode and Manual are fully supported. To enable this communication to take place, you will need to set lens aperture to the largest f-stop on the lens, which is f/16 (marked in orange color). Once set, you will be able to set lens aperture directly from the camera, just like you can on any other Nikkor lens. Unfortunately, the electronic chip is there for the very basic functions, so it will not transmit things like focus distance to the camera. When using the lens on all modern DSLRs, make sure to keep the aperture at f/16 on the lens or you will not be able to change the lens aperture from the camera. To prevent accidental changes, you can lock the aperture at f/16 using the built-in lock on the lens.
For focusing, when you look through the viewfinder, you will see that the camera will tell you which way to move the focus ring to get proper focus (using left and right arrows). When the camera thinks that focus is correct, it will show a circle instead of left/right arrows. This communication with the lens means that while the lens does not autofocus, it still needs to be accurately calibrated for proper manual focus operation. My experience with Zeiss lenses when it comes to focus accuracy has been pretty good when compared to other manual focus lenses. The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 did not need to be calibrated on my Nikon D3s and Nikon D800E camera bodies, which is good news. If you notice any problems with focus accuracy, you can actually tune focus through the same “AF Fine Tune” feature of your camera that you use to calibrate lenses with autofocus capability. However, this feature is limited to +20 to -20 adjustments, which may not be enough if the lens sample is severely misaligned.
I highly recommend to check manual focus accuracy when you first receive your lens copy, so that you could exchange it for a different one, if needed. The procedure for checking focus accuracy is pretty straightforward – set your camera + lens on a tripod, fire up live view, zoom in to a close distance to your subject, then move the focus ring until the subject is in perfect focus. Next, turn off live-view and try to half-press your shutter button. If focus indicator shows a green dot, then you are good to go. If you are seeing an arrow, use the AF Fine Tune feature to re-calibrate the lens and try again. If manual focus assist does not work beyond +20 or -20, your lens might be very badly calibrated, so it might be best to return it or exchange it for a different sample.
4) Lens sharpness, contrast and color rendition
Sharpness-wise, the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is generally a good performer, but not a stellar one. It is certainly not as sharp as the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 (which currently has no equivalents in sharpness) and it lags behind other 35mm professional lenses like Nikon 35mm f/1.4G and Samyang 35mm f/1.4 as well. But as I have pointed out earlier, sharpness is not everything for Zeiss – it knows that photographers pay close attention to excellent build quality, superb contrast, colors and other optical features. Another important factor to note, is that Zeiss lenses tend to be optimized for infinity focus and often exhibit field curvature and resolving issues at close distances. My lens sample did not show a “wavy” field curvature like the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G does, but it definitely has pretty noticeable “cone” type field curvature that significantly decreases resolution as you move away from the center. Stopped down to f/5.6, sharpness levels were restored to very good levels throughout the frame (since stopping down actually decreases field curvature), with f/8-f/11 range showing the best performance.
I tested the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 using the largest test chart printed by Imatest (44″ x 74″), which I use for testing lenses below 100mm. I also performed some measurements at infinity, but those were too hard to quantify and compare to my lab results. Looking at 100% crops, the shots taken at infinity were slightly better than what I was getting in my lab. The center seemed to be about the same wide open, but the mid-frame and the corners looked a little better. At infinity, field curvature is not as bad as at close distances, but it is still there.
One of our readers requested that I provide an image sample to illustrate what the field curvature looks like on the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4, so I updated the review with some image samples from my Imatest lab. Take a look at the below 100% crops that illustrate the effect of field curvature at f/2.8 (full EXIF data is attached):
Take a close look at the sharpness difference between the center and the mid-frame. You can clearly see that the two differ greatly in sharpness – that’s a very typical case of field curvature. If I were to focus in the mid-frame instead of the center, you would see a reverse situation – the center would be blurry, while the mid-frame is sharp. Now take a look at the corners:
As shown in the below MTF graphs, the corner sharpness is also pretty weak. When Imatest assesses each area, it measures the thickness of vertical and horizontal lines, not what’s inside the squares. Here is the way scores are computed. Imatest takes multiple horizontal and vertical lines from the center area, averages those numbers and that’s what becomes the score for the center sharpness. For mid-frame, it assesses all four areas surrounding the center, averages those numbers and then computes the final score. The same is done with all four corners of the frame for measuring corner performance. For the above examples, I took a crop from the left lower side for mid-frame and left bottom side for the corners, which only shows 1/4th of the whole picture.
So if we were to visualize the field curvature of this lens, here is how it would look like:
The above graph is from an analysis of 144 areas in the frame, which is why you are seeing a lot of rough areas.
As you can see from the graph, the center area of the frame is very sharp, but the image sharpness quickly deteriorates as you move away from the center. Mid-frames suffer quite a bit already and the corners are even worse. This is very typical of most lenses, especially fast prime lenses. Some really good lenses will have a minimal amount of curvature, where the peak won’t differ as much from the corners. But such lenses are extremely rare…
Some Technical Info:
- Camera: Nikon D800E
- Focus Method: Manual Focus via Live View
- Image Format: 14-bit RAW
- Workflow: Import RAW into Lightroom 4 with default settings, Export in JPEG format, 100% Quality
- Analysis Software: Imatest 3.9, Master Edition
- Testing was performed at f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11 and f/16 apertures
5) Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 MTF Performance
Take a look at how Imatest measured the sharpness of the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 in a lab environment:
The lens starts out rather weak wide open, with pretty average sharpness in the center, mid-frame and the corners. As you stop down the lens to f/2, center sharpness starts to improve considerably, but the mid-frame and the corners are still pretty weak. There is a very visible improvement in sharpness at f/2.8 in the center, and now the rest of the frame starts catching up as well. The lens reaches its peak performance at around f/8 on average, but the corners continue to improve at f/11. Finally, diffraction kicks in at f/16, diminishing the overall resolution across the frame.
When it comes to bokeh, the lens renders busy highlights with defined outer rings. The inner part of the ring is also quite busy with “onion-shaped” bokeh, as illustrated in the below image:
Bokeh does not look as bad when the background highlights are not as bright, but still, this is not something I would expect from such an expensive lens. For portraiture, you might find other 35mm lenses to be a little more suitable, especially the ones with an autofocus motor. Lack of autofocus is another huge negative for the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 – it is typically difficult to obtain critical focus with manual focus lenses, even when they are properly calibrated.
Most prime lenses heavily vignette when shot wide open, especially on a full-frame body. As expected, the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 lens vignettes quite a bit wide open, with vignetting levels falling sharply when stopped down beyond f/2. Here are the vignetting levels measured by Imatest:
Still, this is the worst result when compared to other 35mm f/1.4 lenses. Seems like vignetting levels normalize only at f/4 on the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4.
Here is an illustration of the worst case scenario at f/1.4 by Imatest:
The natural vignetting can look great on portraiture and other types of photography though, as can be seen from the below sample image (LOL, sorry for such a gruesome sample):
8) Ghosting and Flare
When it comes to handling ghosting and flares, the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is a mixed bag. If you put a bright source of light in a wrong spot, it can create visible ghosting and flare in blue/magenta/purple tint with some rainbow patterns. The tint comes from a different type of coating that Zeiss uses. Take a look at the green tint from the Sigma (Nikon has a little bit of green tint visible as well) – I actually prefer it to the blue tint in this particular example, since it is not as evident:
If you like photographing sunsets and sunrises with the sun in the frame, I would experiment with this lens more to see where to position the sun in the frame best. Some angles are always worse than others, so you should watch out for those bad spots. Light intensity and use of filters also affects ghosting and flare quite a bit, so keep that in mind. The above shots were taken without the lens hood or filters.
Here is a sample image that shows pretty good handling of ghosting and flare, with the sun positioned close to the center of the frame:
The Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 exhibits about the same level of barrel distortion as other 35mm lenses, with the exception of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, which almost has none. It is a little better than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, so it comes in second in the group. Here are some more Imatest results that show the distortion levels of the lens when compared to other 35mm lenses:
10) Chromatic Aberration
When it comes to handling chromatic aberrations, the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 is excellent. Take a look at the following comparison:
As you can see, CA levels are very low, way below what other 35mm lenses exhibit, even at the maximum aperture of f/1.4. If you see chromatic aberrations in high-contrast situations, those can be easily fixed in Lightroom and Photoshop. The Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 lens profile comes with Lightroom 4.4 and 5 versions, so you can easily fix CA and other lens issues using the Lens Corrections module.
As expected on fast aperture prime lenses, there is a visible amount of longitudinal chromatic aberration.
11) Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 vs Nikon 35mm f/1.4G
Let’s take a look at how the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 compares to the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G:
At the maximum aperture of f/1.4, the Zeiss has less center resolution than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, but better mid-frame and corner resolution. Stopping down to f/2 significantly improves center sharpness for the Nikon, but the Zeiss still lags behind quite a bit. The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 gets much better at f/2.8 in the center, but the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G pretty much kicks off from there, with visibly better resolution throughout the frame. And by f/4, both lenses do very well in the center, but the Nikon is still clearly better in the mid-frame and the corners. The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G has a noticeable “wavy” field curvature, with good center and corner sharpness and weaker mid-frame sharpness.
Overall, it is pretty clear that the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is weaker than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, especially at large apertures.
12) Zeiss Distagon T* f/1.4 vs Samyang 35mm f/1.4
Let’s compare the lens with the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 manual focus lens:
Looking at the above charts, the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is weaker than the Samyang 35mm f/1.4. Once again, large apertures and the corners is where the Zeiss suffers. Only at f/8 the Zeiss more or less gets close in performance in the center and mid-frames, but still noticeably worse in the corners.
13) Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 vs Sigma 35mm f/1.4
Lastly, let’s take a look at how the Zeiss compares to the excellent Sigma 35mm f/1.4:
This comparison does not need additional comments, since the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 just destroys the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 sharpness-wise, whether looking at the center, the mid-frame or the corners.
The Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is a very interesting lens. While its optical performance is not as stellar as on the twice cheaper Sigma 35mm f/1.4 (see my in-depth review) or other modern 35mm lenses for the Nikon F mount, it certainly deserves the high respect when it comes to its all-metal build, beautiful design and ability to handle extreme temperatures. As I have pointed out in my article on exotic lenses, Zeiss lenses have phenomenal build quality, thanks to fine German craftsmanship, and they are built to last for generations. I really enjoyed taking pictures with the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4, because it just felt right in my hands when mounted on my Nikon D800E. And the colors produced by the lens were outstanding, something unique to Zeiss optics.
However, even if the excellent build and craftsmanship try to balance out the somewhat weaker optical performance, it certainly does not address the fact that the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is a manual focus lens. So the first question you have to ask yourself is, what would you use a 35mm lens for? If you are a portrait photographer, forget about any manual focus lenses – you will be frustrated with them very quickly, especially when using such large apertures as f/1.4. Depth of field is so shallow at f/1.4, that any slight movement by your subject or you will result in missed focus. Newbies should also stay away from manual focus fast aperture primes, since they require time to get used to and some skill to nail focus. So for everyday and portraiture needs, I would just pick the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 or the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G (the Sigma is my top personal preference). If you are a working landscape / architecture photography pro and you need a lens that will deliver consistent results year after year, and will live through all kinds of abuse, the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is a good investment. Just spend some time with the lens before going out on a serious shoot and understand its limitations when it comes to field curvature, handling of ghosting and flare, etc. So it all depends – as I have said a number of times before, Zeiss lenses are a niche product and they are certainly not for everyone. If I were into landscapes though, I would personally pick the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 (see my in-depth review) over the 35mm f/1.4. It is also a very sharp lens that performs extremely well when stopped down and it has the same superb Zeiss build and colors. It is also significantly cheaper (by over $700 USD). Since you would rarely use apertures faster than f/5.6 for landscapes, why spend so much money on a lens that is only one stop faster? I know that some people love shooting flowers, various objects, occasional portraits and landscapes at large apertures, but is that something you would do very often? If yes, then by all means, go for the 35mm f/1.4. If the answer is no, then the 35mm f/2 would give you much more value.
15) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 lens for $1843 (as of 07/22/2013).
16) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating