This is an in-depth review of the manual focus Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2, a second generation 35mm f/2 prime lens from Zeiss for Nikon and Canon mounts. The lens samples I tested were for the Nikon F mount, although you can get the same lens for the Canon EF mount. 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 field of view 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 lenses like Nikon 35mm f/1.8G ED 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 to a number of different 35mm lenses from Nikon and other manufacturers.
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)
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
2) Lens Handling
Modern Zeiss prime lenses are all of a very high quality, all-metal build and the Zeiss 35mm f/2 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, cold and snowy conditions in Colorado and it continued to function well without any problems. I carefully inspected the lens after the Utah trip and saw no signs of dust inside, which indicates that the lens indeed has good sealing – and that’s with the extending lens barrel. 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 how thin the lens barrel is.
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 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 at close distances, 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 green 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 “spray and pray”, point and shoot mentality. Manual focus lenses require some extra work and I find myself putting a lot more thought into framing and composition, rather than just taking quick snapshots.
4) Lens Sharpness, Contrast and Color Rendition
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 in perfect 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!
Now let’s take a look at how the lens measured in my lab with Imatest software:
As you can see, the performance of the Zeiss 35mm is excellent. Center sharpness is very good even wide open, while the corners start out a tad weaker, but get much sharper by f/5.6 and beyond. Contrast and colors are superb as can be seen from other image samples posted in this review.
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:
Here is another shot at f/2:
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. Take a look at lens vignetting properties, as measured by Imatest and compared to other 35mm lenses:
At maximum aperture, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 produces more vignetting than other lenses at f/1.4, reaching almost 3 EV in the extreme corners. As you stop down to f/2.8 vignetting starts to decrease and by f/5.6 onwards it is very subtle. Although this type of behavior is expected from large aperture lenses, especially when they are mounted on full frame cameras, vignetting on the Zeiss 35mm f/2 can be considered unusually high. However, this heavy vignetting does not bother me a bit – in fact, I actually like the way this lens renders images wide open. In addition, vignetting is reduced quite a bit when focusing at close distances, so the 3 EV results you see above are only seen when shooting at infinity. If you look at some of the images in this review that were shot wide open, it is the combination of clear colors and vignetting, which made images look more three dimensional and pleasant to look at in my opinion.
I have a feeling that Zeiss purposefully designed this lens to behave in such a way – moderate vignetting at close distances for portraiture and if one shoots at infinity, they would most likely stop down anyway…
Here is the worst case scenario of vignetting as illustrated by Imatest, at f/2.0 infinity focus:
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 other 35mm lenses. Let’s take a look at how the Zeiss 35mm f/2 performs in detail:
The clear winner is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art here, which shows the least amount of distortion compared to other 35mm lenses.
If you use the latest version of Lightroom, 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.
9) Chromatic Aberration
Longitudinal chromatic aberration (which is the effect of color fringing in front of and behind the focused area) is certainly 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. Most prime lenses including the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G have a similar problem though, so no surprises here.
Let’s take a look at lateral chromatic aberration and compare it to other 35mm lenses:
Unfortunately, the lens does seem to suffer from chromatic aberration problems, as seen from the above chart – the Zeiss 35mm f/2 performed noticeably worse than other 35mm lenses. At large apertures from f/2 to f/4, the lens showed over 2 pixels of CA, dropping down below the 2 pixel mark only at f/5.6. Although CA is rather easy to fix in post-processing, keep the above in mind when working in the field.
10) Zeiss 35mm f/2 vs Zeiss 35mm f/1.4
Let’s take a look at how the Zeiss 35mm f/2 compares to its bigger brother, the 35mm f/1.4:
The more expensive Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is not a very sharp lens at large apertures, as can be seen from the above graph. In fact, when I compared the performance of the lens at f/2 to that of the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2, I was surprised to see that the latter outperformed its bigger brother optically. Only at f/2.8 was the 35mm f/1.4 able to catch up. Stopped down to f/5.6 where both lenses perform the best in the center, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 still showed superiority in the corners, although it did show some issues with field curvature.
Overall, while both lenses are quite sharp optically, I personally prefer the Zeiss 35mm f/2 to the f/1.4 version – it seems to provide better value in comparison.
11) Zeiss 35mm f/2 vs Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
Let’s now take a look at how the lens measures against the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art:
Without a doubt, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art is a strong lens with serious performance characteristics. Look at its wide open performance and compare it to the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 presented earlier and you will see why it is such a great lens. Its optics are superb and the consistency of its performance at different apertures is quite impressive. Still, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 is a serious contender in terms of wide open performance and its sharpness in the corners is a bit stronger at large apertures. Stopped down to f/5.6, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 beats pretty much every 35mm lens optically, including the Zeiss 35mm f/2.
12) Zeiss 35mm f/2 vs Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G ED
Let’s see whether the Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G ED can challenge the Zeiss 35mm f/2:
It is pretty clear from the above that the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G ED just does not shine optically when it comes to sharpness – its performance is not good wide open and even when stopped down, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 clearly outperforms the Nikkor in the center…
13) Zeiss 35mm f/2 vs Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G ED
The last comparison is with the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G ED lens designed specifically for full-frame cameras:
At maximum aperture, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 is sharper than the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G ED at f/2. Stopped down to f/4 and smaller, both lenses behave very similarly in terms of sharpness, although my sample of the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G ED did demonstrate superb sharpness in the center at f/4 that surpassed that of the Zeiss.
As I have pointed out earlier in the review, I really enjoyed working with the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 lens. It is a very sharp and beautiful lens to use and it optically shines when compared to other 35mm lenses. After you use one of these lenses, you will 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 optical issues such as heavy vignetting and chromatic aberration (both of which can be fixed in post-processing), there is really not much to complain about – colors, contrast and sharpness are all superb. If you are a landscape or an architectural photographer, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2 is an excellent choice with great value, considering its solid craftsmanship. With its all-metal body, the lens is built to last a lifetime and handles extremely well in the field. If you are into people photography and mainly work with models in controlled environments, the Zeiss 35mm can also be 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. On the other hand, experienced photographers 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. If you are a beginner, I would not recommend this lens though, since lack of autofocus will most likely frustrate you quickly.
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, because many of those share the build quality and the optical characteristics of the 35mm f/2 reviewed here.
15) Where to buy and availability
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/2.0 ZF.2
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating