This is a tough one. Not because this is a bad lens; in fact, it is an exceptionally good lens in nearly every respect. The difficulty in giving it a blanket recommendation, however, is due to the fact that the competition in this segment – fast 35mm primes for Nikon – is so fierce. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens, in particular, offers nearly the performance (and may actually be sharper) as the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 at close to a $1000 less retail, with the addition of autofocus. The Rokinon/Samyang is a manual focus 35mm f/1.4 that is well regarded for its optical performance and very affordable price, even if the build quality can’t compete with the Zeiss. The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is a solid workhorse lens that, while more pricy than this Zeiss, delivers solid performance as well as autofocus. And there is even a competitor within the Zeiss ranks: the older, slower, but still optically quite good Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2.
So there is a lot of competition here. Lots of reasons not to pick this lens when you are looking to buy a fast 35mm prime. But, all that said, this lens – particularly wide open or f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8 or so – has a certain magic that you only find on the very best of lenses from Zeiss and Leica and a few other manufacturers. It’s a combination of exceptional sharpness, high microcontrast and macrocontrast, brilliant color reproduction, vignetting wide open, and some of the best bokeh of any lens I’ve ever used, period – it all comes together to make something special.
This lens has a look. A feel; a method of rendering that makes it’s images stand out, especially when viewed large or printed large, and especially when used at large apertures. It delivers on its price with that little bit of mojo that you expect from the best of lenses. You might not actually like it – maybe you don’t really care for Zeiss colors or high contrast or vignetting. But if, like me, you do like those things when used with care on specific subjects, then this is a hot lens all around.
That said, it’s very heavy, and it’s manual focus only. The build is solid metal and it feels it – in both the good (solid) and bad (weight) sense of that concept. The focus ring is smooth and precise and lovely to use, but, of course, it had better be, since there is no autofocus. It can be very challenging to nail focus at f/1.4, especially when handholding and using the optical viewfinder – a split prism screen on the D800E would go a long way to help this, but, alas, such an option isn’t really available unless you are willing and able to perform some custom work on your camera body.
The lens extends slightly when focusing – not much, but it’s noticeably not an internal-focus design. I was worried about dust for a while but during a nine to ten month period where I only used two lenses on my D800E – this lens, and the Zeiss 100mm Makro Planar f/2 – in all kinds of environments, I never had any issue with dust getting into the camera. Actually it wasn’t until I started using the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 and Nikon 70-200mm f/4 that I began, all of sudden, having dust show up on my sensor – and those are supposed to be weather sealed lenses, whereas the Zeiss lenses are not! Take that for what you will, but it is an anecdote I find interesting.
The only optical drawback of this lens (unless you consider the vignetting at large apertures a major drawback – I see it as a style of the lens) is the moderate to heavy LoCA visible on high contrast out of focus elements when using the lens at large apertures, especially f/1.4 to f/2. Just like the Zeiss 100mm Makro Planar f/2, if you miss focus on a hard-edged subject that is backlit, you will see a ton of purple fringing. Nail focus? Then you’ll just see green and purple fringing in the fore- and background. It’s not great – I’d much prefer this lens was a true APO like the Zeiss 135mm f/2 or Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4. But with the right use of post processing, in Lightroom 5 or Capture One Pro 7, you can largely mitigate this issue. That means extra time at the computer, though, and LoCA can make focusing harder and cost some of the sharpness of the lens on those affected subjects.
And, really, that’s about all I have to say on this lens. It has tons of really good competition. It lacks autofocus, and it’s a heavy beast of a lens that can be a pain in the neck (literally) to hike with. But when you nail the focus, or when you have the time to set up a tripod and use Live View to carefully compose, this lens really delivers the goods. If end result image quality is your only concern, and you have the time and patience in your shooting to overlook the lack of autofocus, then this is, really, a brilliant lens.