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.