The Zeiss 100mm Makro Planar f/2 is one of those ‘exceptional’ lenses you read about online: the kind of lens, you often hear, that can take your photography to the next level. The kind of lens that can out-resolve the D800E’s sensor. The kind of lens that is relatively future-proof, that delivers that special, almost intangible ‘something’ to your shots that elevate them above the norm – that snap, that microcontrast bite, those Zeiss colors.
All of these things are true. But it isn’t a perfect lens, at all, and you should know what your use cases are for it, or, like me, you may go a year with it and then find you need to sell it because you just aren’t making use of it like you thought you would.
I really, really wanted to love this lens. I read reviews and first hand reports about it for years. I rented it twice. When I bought it I was determined to use it. And, in a way, I do love it – even after having sold it.
To use a baseball analogy, when you get a hit with this lens it almost inevitably knocks it out of the park. Those images where everything comes together – where you nail the focus, have the right light and are using a tripod (or have exceptionally steady hands – this lens produces those jaw-dropping images that make you fall in love with the Zeiss drawing style. But, then you strike out…over and over again…especially if you don’t have strong shot-to-shot technique discipline.
I had to be honest with myself: as much as I loved the results when I hit a home run, I was striking out too often with this lens. This is largely my own fault: I often just don’t have the luxury of shooting with a tripod, no matter how much I may want to, or of going slow and methodically enough to make this lens sing. It’s as much a matter of my particular place in life as anything else: I often have the best opportunities for shots when I’m traveling with my wife and (increasingly) out with the dog, where I don’t want to hold them up setting up the tripod and carefully adjusting everything (and using MLU, and Live View, etc) to get things just right. As a result, I hand-hold quite a bit, and while that can be creatively rewarding – freeing you from the shackles of the tripod – it also makes some lenses, like the Zeiss 100mm Makro Planar, less stellar than they otherwise would be.
The 100mm, like all Zeiss ZE and ZF/ZF.2 lenses, is manual focus only and lacks any kind of Vibration Reduction. On the D800/E, you are subject to a sub-par focusing screen for use with manual focus lenses (see my review of the D800E) that makes achieving critical focus through the optical viewfinder extremely hard, especially with a lens that has such low tolerance for error as this one. Additionally, at 100mm you need very steady hands – or a constantly fast shutter speed – to get usable results (realistically, though some may disagree, with the 36 megapixels of the D800E and the resolution of the Zeiss 100mm you probably need a tripod or at least monopod regardless of shutter speed).
Additionally, the Zeiss 100mm f/2 suffers from extremely high longitudinal chromatic aberration, especially wide open. Since you look through the OVF and focus at f/2, regardless of your aperture choice (the camera ‘stops down’ to your chosen aperture when you trip the shutter), this makes critical focusing even more difficult – you get thrown off by the purple fringes. I’ve read that the much newer (and even more pricey) Zeiss 135mm APO solves this by being a true apochromatic lens (hence the APO), and as a result is much more easy to focus accurately (all three major colors of light are aligned, preventing the LoCA and those purple/green fringes).
There were many times I thought I had perfect focus through the OVF with this lens, took the shot, even reviewed it on the D800E’s (crappy) LCD at high magnification, thought I had it…and then went into Lightroom and realized I’d missed the focus. Not the lens’s fault, but darn frustrating, especially since I’ve had the opportunity to own and use the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR and, now, the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR, and with those I’ve never missed a shot because of focusing error.
And that’s really the crux of it all. The Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro *can* produce really stellar results – even accounting for the drawback of the LoCA (which can be at least partially, and sometimes entirely, alleviated with the latest version of Lightroom) on high contrast subjects. But for me, often as not, it wasn’t getting me the shot. All conditions equal, the Zeiss will outperform the Nikon 105mm (tripod, MLU, carefully focused, etc); but I landed more shots in focus and with less blur from camera shake with the Nikon 105mm or the newer (for me) Nikon 70-200mm f/4.
So. Is this the lens for you? That’s a question only you can answer, but I think it depends a lot on your shooting style. If you take a lot of hand-held shots, if you run-and-gun or even if you take your time but still find you shoot about as often without a tripod as with one (as I do), then I don’t recommend this lens, especially with the zero-tolerance D800/E. If, on the other hand, you are a studio shooter or someone who always as a tripod or monopod attached to your camera, who can take the time to carefully focus with Live View and/or focus bracket, then yes, this may well be the lens that can take you to the next level and make your photos sing. Although I might recommend you also check out that new Zeiss 135mm APO – even though it doesn’t focus as close, it’s supposed to be a world-class optic, bettering the 100mm Makro Planar in almost every way.
I do want to make one thing clear: I always want to have excellent photographic technique/discipline. MLU, cable release, tripod, Live View and careful focusing, etc. But sometimes it just isn't possible to have the tripod handy, or the shot is only there right now and there's no time to set up. As a result, I want/need a lens that can excel in both scenarios.