Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm f/2.0 ZF.2 Review

March 14, 2015  •  1 Comment

Rusted TruckRusted TruckThe side of an old, rusting truck, slightly wet from morning dew

I’ve been on the hunt for a wide angle lens that I could truly fall in love with for some time. Wide angle lenses are notoriously difficult to design and manufacture, with even the very best plagued by some issues that can make their appearance at awkward moments or under close inspection. And, of course, the best are pricey, making any attempt to make a long term purchase into an investment – and we all want to get the most out of our investments as possible.

With that in mind, I’ve purchased (and subsequently sold) or extensively used the following Nikon mount wide-angle full-frame lenses:

  • Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
  • Nikon 16-35mm f/4
  • Zeiss 21mm f/2.8
  • Rokinon (aka Samyang) 14mm f/2.8
  • Nikon 24mm f/1.4G

All of which are “very good” lenses. The Nikon 14-24mm even reaches the “great” level. But all had drawbacks:

  • Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 – big, heavy, with the huge bulbous front element that made using filters difficult and expensive; but darn sharp, almost prime-level sharp (though if you tried hard you can find blur at the edges and corners)
  • Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR – I could just never make myself like the rendering style of this lens – it is sharp and VR is great, but it lacks the microcontrast “bite” and striking color I’m looking for, and as a result requires lots of post processing; and the distortion at the wide end is huge
  • Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 – Surprisingly (to me, after reading the reviews)  mushy edges and corners even up to f/5.6; great color though, and very sharp in the center (note: I tried three copies of this lens trying to get a copy with that corner to corner sharpness I’d always read about online, to no avail)
  • Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 – for the price there’s really nothing wrong with this lens. I will probably try to get it again someday. It’s manual focus, has a somewhat plasticky build, and has huge distortion but it’s sharp with pleasant rendering. And it’s cheap.
  • Nikon 24mm f/1.4 – see my long review on this lens. I really, really wanted to love this lens and in some respects it is great, but way overpriced (in my opinion) for what it delivers, especially wide open

I’ve also previously owned (for about a year) the Sony Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 for Sony A-mount. That’s also a capable ultra-wide to wide zoom with a tendency toward blurry edges at some apertures/focal lengths and a nasty case of green-blob flaring.

So, that’s the background leading up to my latest attempt/acquisition: the Zeiss 25mm f/2 Distagon.

Pros:

  • Razor sharp across 96% of the frame even at f/2
  • Beautiful Zeiss colors
  • Zeiss microcontrast and 3D “pop”
  • Flare resistant
  • Small, dense, and beautifully constructed
  • Manual focusing ring has just the right amount of resistance
  • Infinity hard stop

Cons:

  • Extreme corners get mushy even up to f/4 (and somewhat, if you are hypercritical, even at f/5.6 and f/8)
  • Pricey
  • Not weather sealed
  • 25mm isn’t “ultra wide” so you might end up having to stitch multiple frames for some subjects (or “zoom with your feet” or have another wide angle like the aforementioned Rokinon 14mm in your bag)

Like all ZF.2 (and ZE) Zeiss lenses, this is manual focus only. I’m not listing that as a “Con” because for some people it’s a “Pro” and really is just a fact of the lens. With modern Nikon cameras – even the D800E – the focusing screen isn’t designed for manual focus lenses and as a result it can be challenging to acquire perfect focus. So for truly optimal results you’ll want to use a tripod with Live View and close magnification combined with careful focusing.

All that said, I’ve found the 25mm f/2 to be relatively easy to acquire focus even through the viewfinder, comparable to the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO and much easier than the Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro Planar and the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4. I believe this is a result of well controlled chromatic aberration with the 25mm f/2 (very little green or purple fringing) and the high level of sharpness of the lens wide open.

And it is sharp. Very sharp, even at f/2, everywhere except the extreme corners. In fact, for 96% of the frame this is reference level sharp on the D800E, at the level of the superb Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO. It’s at those extreme corners that things start to look mushy. The falloff in acuity (which, to be clear, doesn’t affect the edges, only the extreme corners) is very stark indeed. If you look at 100% you *will* see it, even (to a lesser degree) up to f/8. This is the kind of thing that usually bothers me. A lot.

However, I’ve found that the mushiness at the extreme corners is a non-issue (for me). It is really the quarter 1% of the image in each corner (or even less), and for many shots (either close ups with a large aperture [so the corners are out of focus anyway] or when a landscape doesn’t emphasize the extreme corners [pretty often]) it’s entirely unnoticeable even for very large prints. Again, any imperfection in my lenses bugs me but this, thanks to its minor nature and the strengths of the rest of the lens, doesn’t.

Foggy SunriseFoggy SunriseRedmond, WA

It’s a small lens (great for hiking) – positively tiny compared to the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO. It has a great, dense heft and build quality to it. The Zeiss T* coatings and the lens design itself thoroughly suppresses flare. I’ve read elsewhere that the lens, while spectacular up close and at moderate distances, is less sharp for distant subjects, but I’ve found it just as sharp at infinity (impressively sharp, pinpoint star shots, for example, with very well controlled coma). Basically, like the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO, this is a lens that makes you want to get out and shoot, even just to see how it renders the subject, how it captures the minute details and brings out the color and texture and feeling and mood.

So: I love this lens. Yes, there are times when I wish I had something wider – so I have to stitch multiple shots together in post or, if possible, zoom with my feet. But that gorgeous rendering, lovely colors, “bite” and nearly three-dimensional “pop” to the images…it’s got me. I’m a fan. I recommend this for anyone looking for a wide angle that can stomach the manual focus and who doesn’t (consistently) need something wider.


Comments

1.Nat(non-registered)
Greetings,

Your review was influential in pushing me to buy this lens used rather than a used Sigma 24mm f1.4 art.

I have done some test shots and if you can live with the vignetting or manage it, it's an almost perfect lens. As you said 96% of the frame is quite sharp even wide open but what amazes me is the way the contrast of a photo is kept even under extreme lighting in the night.

No bleeding of night lights, no localized flares or ghosting. Just deep shadows and well defined light sources.(unless you have spot lights pointing at camera. Anything will flare)

It's a lens that will give better output with future higher dynamic range sensors, the out of camera contrast is unbelievable.

The weak corner issue is blown to high proportions on the internet. The real problem is that the falloff in sharpness in extreme corners especially for infinity shots wide open or at f2.8 is very abrupt.

However I would argue that the extreme corners are very strong and its only the extreme extreme edge of the frame that suffers. A design decision to maybe cut costs/ reduce size / improve color aberrations / improve 96% of the frame that matters most etc. Who knows. When I see the size of 28mm Otus I'm glad that they cut some 'extreme extreme' corners :)

Zeiss 135mm f2 APO was my reference lens for a perfect instrument and this wide angle belongs in the same group with some caveats.
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