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