Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF

Introduction

Carl Zeiss introduced Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF in 2007 in a lens lineup that would succeed its immensely popular Contax branded SLR lenses. The Contax brand was discontinued in 2005, after Kyocera which jointly owned the development rights on the brand existed camera business all-together. Due to some legal restrictions, Carl Zeiss could not renew manufacturing under Contax brand name, although the company still remains a legal owner of this brand and has indicated numerous times that it will not abandon this legendary brand. In the meantime, Carl Zeiss introduced the ZF, ZS and ZK series of SLR lenses for Nikon F, M42 universal screw and Pentax K mounts (respectively). The Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 lens is one of two macro lenses in the current lens lineup (the other one being Makro-Planar T* 50mm f/2) and is currently offered as ZF and ZK variants. All variants of this and other ZF/ZS/ZK series are manufactured by Cosina of Japan, better known for its Voigtlander branded SLR and rangefinder lenses and cameras. New copies of the lens are sold for ~US$1,600 at online retailers like B&H and Adorama.

Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 incorporates a completely redesigned optical formula, which does not even resemble the one used with the older, Contax branded version of the lens. When comparing the optical designs of Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF and Contax Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2.8, you will immediately notice the differences - the new version of the lens implements 8 groups with 9 elements instead of 7 groups with 7 elements. Like with the older version of the lens, Carl Zeiss decided to incorporate a floating lens construction in the new lineup - the floating design is typically introduced to improve image performance at close ranges and can sometimes be found in wide angle lenses, less often in telephotos/macros.

The build quality of the lens is simply superb - it's very encouraging to know that in the modern days of flimsy, plasticy barrels and wobbling cams, Carl Zeiss decided to retain high quality look and feel for its lenses. The barrel is all metal, as are the focus and aperture rings. There's absolutely no wobbling inside or out and the aperture ring snaps nicely and the focus ring is smooth (it's worth mentioning here that some users have been reporting a somewhat tight focusing action, which seems to persist with some samples - in the case of the lens sample used in this review, the focusing ring showed some resistance, resembling the focusing feel of Leica APO-Macro Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8 rather then your typical Canon lens with its 'spin-away' focusing).

Like all ZF/ZS/ZK series lenses, Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF is a fully manual lens, so both focusing as well as aperture settings are controlled from the lens, not the camera. The lens has the minimum focusing distance of 44cm (1.4ft) and the minimum aperture of f/22 (the aperture ring stops in half f-stop increments). The lens is somewhat bulkier in the front and narrower at the mount, which makes accessing and rotating the aperture ring, which is located at the base of the mount, somewhat inconvenient. Despite its bulky look, 76 x 113mm (2.99 x 4.44in), the lens is not terribly heavy, weighing 680g (1.49lb). The lens accepts 67mm screw-in type filters and since the front element does not rotate, you can freely use circular polarizers with the lens.

Image

The factory box includes Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF lens, bayonet type lens hood, manual, registration and warranty cards. The ZF series lenses are compatible with pretty much Nikon's all modern digital SLR cameras, although some functionality might not be available with lower end cameras. Specifically, aperture priority, shutter priority and automatic exposure control modes will not be available on consumer-grade cameras like D40, D70, D80. The high end cameras like D3, D300 and D200 will still fully support manual and aperture priority modes. Fortunately for Pentax users, the ZK series don't face such limitations and all primary function modes will work properly on the modern Pentax dSLRs.

As you might have already guessed it, Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF is a full frame lens, so when used on APS-C type bodies with 1.6x crop factor, the field of view of the lens will be equivalent to that of a 160mm prime on a FF camera. The ZF series of lenses are easily adoptable to Canon, Four Thirds and some other mounts. When testing the lens on Canon full frame and APS-C type bodies, I used generic Nikon F to EOS non AF-chipped adapter and switched the cameras into aperture priority mode.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 9 elements in 8 groups
Angular Field 25 degrees
Minimum Focus 44cm/1.4ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/2-f/22, manual
Filter Size 67mm
Lens Hood Metal (included)
Weight 680g/1.49lb
Dimensions 76x113mm/2.99x4.44"
Lens Case N/A

 

Field Tests

Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF is a classical manual focus lens. As such, the lens does not offer any particular bells or whistles in its design that make the lens handle any different then any other manual focus lens. Ok, one feature worth mentioning is the extremely precise focusing system - the focus ring has to turn ~360 degrees to go from infinity to the minimum focusing distance. This is obviously can be a double-edged sword - on one hand, such a long ring traverse would allow for accurate focusing fin-tuning; on the other hand, fast focusing on a moving target is going to be out of question. The latter might actually become a bigger problem then you think when dealing with non-still objects or live targets shot at macro distances.

As any other Nikon Ai-S mount lens, the lens can be easily adopted to a number of other SLR cameras, including Canon's FF and APS-C bodies, as well as any Four Thirds format camera (such as Olympus EVOLT/E series). The obvious advantage of using the lens on a native Nikon mount SLR camera is that one no longer has to deal with the entire issue of stopped down metering. Whether you use a plain adapter or one with AF confirmation chip on your favorite Canon body, you will have to compose your images with the lens aperture set at its widest in order to allow for maximum viewfinder brightness - as you stop down the lens, the viewfinder gets darker and by f/5.6 it is dark enough to make focusing practically impossible. Even an AF confirmation adapter would not help here - your cameras AF system will simply give up around f/5.6 and will no longer provide any focusing confirmation.

Another issue, which is quite common with many alternative lenses, including Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF, is incorrect TTL metering when used on a Canon body. Metering problems can arise due to many different factors and the most commonly reported 'after-effect' is an overexposure, the amount of which can differ not only from one lens to another, but also from one aperture to another for the same lens.

Still, even when used on a native body, manual focusing is not for the faint in heart - quite a few people will find the process pretty inconvenient compared to using a lens with a fully automatic AF. The hooplas with manual focusing might of course be mitigated by using focusing screens specifically designed for manual focusing (for example one having a split circle as a focusing aid). Alternatively, users of Nikon D3 and Nikon D300 can use Live View for improved accuracy of focusing (so can Canon 1Ds MkIII users).

Forgetting all these issues, the lens performed really well in the field. It produced images with excellent overall resolution - center as well as border quality were top notch on both full frame as well as APS-C cameras. Like many fast lenses, Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF showed a little bit of softness around borders at f/2, however, the difference between the center and border quality even at f/2 was quite small and often insignificant enough to even notice. From f/2.8 through the rest of the aperture, image quality across the frame was quite uniform - if there was any difference in quality, it was not visible to the naked eye.

 

ISO 400, 1/60, f/2, 100mm (Nikon D3, 1:2 macro)
ISO 400, 1/60, f/2, 100mm (Nikon D3, 1:2 macro)

Naturally, one of the major interesting aspects of Carl Zeiss Makro Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF is its macro capabilities. Compared to its previous Contax version, the Carl Zeiss Makro Planar T* 100mm f/2.8, the new lens does not offer life-size macro - Zeiss designers decided that 1:2 macro should suffice in this case. Is this really a problem? Depends whom you ask, but it does seem like a step back, especially when we take into consideration that Zeiss does not currently offer a 1:1 converter (unlike its main rival Leica). On the other hand, the lens offers larger maximum aperture - at f/2, both Makro Planar lenses (the 100mm f/2 and 50mm f/2) are among the fastest macro lenses available on the market.

So how does the lens perform at macro magnification? Visually, there does not seem to be any degradation in image quality across the frame and the aperture range, which is very pleasing to see. However, considering that at the minimum focusing distances, the lens has a razor thin DOF, 'eyeballing' images for imperfections might not be the most accurate evaluation methodology.

 

ISO 400, 1/125, f/2, 100mm (Nikon D3)
ISO 400, 1/125, f/2, 100mm (Nikon D3)

 

When shot with wide open aperture, the lens produced predominantly round and uniformly lit out-of-focus highlights, although the highlights occasionally carried harsh outlining around edges. Fortunately, the effect is not too distracting, considering that the harsh OOF edge outlining is relatively infrequent. Contrast transitions in the foreground and background OOF areas were not particularly smooth, but not too harsh either. There was no noticeable double-edging around background objects.

 

Vignetting @ f/2 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (135mm)
Vignetting @ f/2 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (135mm)

 

The lens produced unusually high amount of vignetting on a full frame body at the widest aperture setting. This is rather surprising and disappointing for a medium telephoto lens. Vignetting continues to persist all the way through f/4 and disappears completely only around f/5.6. On an APS-C body the lens takes advantage of a smaller sized sensor and does not show much vignetting even at f/2.

Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF showed excellent color handling - images carried good amount of contrast across the frame and aperture range. Colors were well saturated saturated, creating rich, 'popping-out' textures. The lens showed really good resistance to color fringing - yes, you could see minor traces here and there (check the door handle in the crop below), but the amount and frequency of appearance was quite minimal. Axial CA (halation) was non-existent for all practical reasons - at f/2 you could spot occasional halos in high contrast areas, but the artifact was quite well contained. Flare was also under control, even at widest apertures and the lens did not show any visible distortion, which should not be surprising for a medium telephoto.

 

ISO 100, 1/4000, f/2, 100mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/4000, f/2, 100mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.

 

Nikon FF: Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF showed quite an impressive performance on a full frame Nikon D3. Image performance in the center is very solid straight from f/2 and remains on a consistently high level throughout the rest of the aperture range. Border performance was quite impressive as well - there was a little bit of weakness at f/2, but by f/2.8 border image quality was practically as good as the center image quality. The lens exhibited very good balance across the frame in the f/2.8-f/11 range, although quality started to degrade slightly at f/11, due to the diffraction effect. Conclusion? Overall results are very, very good. Even for a medium telephoto. Even for a macro.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm

 

Chromatic aberration on a FF Nikon body was quite minimal - center CA did not exceed ~0.2px across the aperture range, while border CA hovered around ~0.25px throughout the most of the range. Minimal, and for all purposes insignificant.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 100mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 100mm

 

Here are 100% crops taken with a FF type Nikon D3, comparing image borders taken at f/2 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2 vs f/8
Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2 vs f/8

 

Canon APS-C: The lens demonstrated excellent results on an APS-C body, with outstanding center performance and very respectable border performance throughout the aperture range. Center image quality is excellent straight from f/2, with no weakness whatsoever. Border quality is suffering a little bit at f/2, but performance can be considered OK here - not really impressive, but not disastrous either. Fortunately, border quality improves quite nicely at f/2.8 and further at f/4, remaining on a consistently high level throughout the rest of aperture range. Results in the f/4-f/11 range were quite balances, with peak performance in the f/4-f/8 aperture range. Here Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF is capable of delivering outstanding 19in prints. You can also get decent 24in prints in the f/4-f/11 range, which can be considered quite good for prime lenses of this focal length. Conclusion? Resolution-wise, the lens can certainly be labeled as 'uber' - it would easily fall into the top quartile of all medium telephoto primes tested to date.

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 100mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 100mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm

 

Chromatic aberration on an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi was well under control. CA in the center was reaching ~0.4px at f/2, slowly dropping to ~0.2px by f/11. Border CA was slightly higher, but still remained quite manageable - at f/2 CA around borders reached ~0.5px, eventually dropping to ~0.3px by f/11. Nothing to worry about.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 100mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 100mm

 

Here are 100% crops taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi, comparing image borders taken at f/2 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2 vs f/8
Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF continued to impress even on a FF type Canon 5D. The lens produced top notch results in the center, where the lens shows very even performance across the aperture range. Like with Nikon FF as well as Canon APS-C bodies, Makro-Planar T*100mm f/2 ZF showed a little bit of weakness around borders at f/2 - quality here suffers, but it is certainly not going to spoil your experience. By f/2.8, the lens reaches pretty solid performance, and in the f/4-f/11 range, performance is simply exceptional. The f/4-f/11 seems to be the 'magical' range for this lens - results here are the most balanced across the frame and are at their peak. All in all, quite impressive. Conclusion? Very impressive - I keep saying this over and over, but based on the pure resolving capabilities, the lens deserves it.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 100mm

 

The lens showed minuscule amount of barrel distortion - at 0.08%, distortion is not going to be visible in basically any type of photography.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 100mm
Distortion (FF) @ 100mm

 

Chromatic aberration on a Canon 5D was quite low. CA in the center was barely even registering, mostly overing around ~0.15px across the entire tested aperture range. CA around borders while slightly higher then in the center, still was quite low in absolute terms, never exceeding ~0.4px.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 100mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 100mm

 

Here are 100% crops taken with a FF type Canon 5D, comparing image borders taken at f/2 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2 vs f/8
Image borders @ 100mm (100% crop): f/2 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

Assuming you are looking for a macro lens for your Nikon SLR camera, you might be interested in taking a look at another Carl Zeiss macro lens, the Makro-Planar T* 50mm f/2, which is available in ZF as well as ZK formats for Nikon/Pentax mounts. Nikon itself offers a few interesting macro lenses, including AF-S Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED as well as AF Micro Nikkor 200mm f/4D IF ED. Pentax users might want to consider excellent Pentax smc FA 100mm f/2.8 macro. And both Nikon as well as Pentax (as well as Canon and Sony) users should probably take some time evaluating Tamron's excellent SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro lens.

On the other hand, if you are looking for an alternative macro lens, then you can expand your search and include the now discontinued Contax versions of Carl Zeiss macro primes, including Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2.8 and Makro-Planar T* 60mm S f/2.8. No list of alternative lenses should be complete without representatives from the Leica camp, and here you should look at Leica Macro Elmarit-R 60mm f/2.8 and the now legendary Leica APO Macro Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8. One other interesting choice could be Voigtlander APO Macro Lanthar 125mm f/2.5 SL, which was available in Nikon, M42 universal screw, Canon and Sony mounts, although it is worth noting that this lens version has become really hard to come by these days.

You might also want to check out the Macro Challenge, which compares a number of top of the line macro lenses, including Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF, Leica APO Macro Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8 and Voigtlander APO Macro Lanthar 100mm f/2.5 SL.

 

Recommendation

Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF is an outstanding 'specimen' among medium telephoto macro lenses. The lens showcases very solid performance on both full frame (Nikon, Canon) as well as APS-C (Canon) bodies. Image sharpness, low level of artifacts, non-existent distortion, excellent handling of color... What else do we need here? Well, one issue is that vignetting is somewhat high on a FF body. And price... Price is outrageous - at ~$1,500, this is going to be one of the more expensive lenses in your arsenal. Do the characteristics of the lens justify the price? Yes, the do, but that still does not make it easier to swallow this 'price pill'. Naturally, there are more expensive lenses out there, so you can base your excuse to buy this lens on this 'argument'. Still, you should keep in mind that this is a fully manual lens and in the day of 'fully automatic this and fully automatic that' this might seem pretty archaic - you should be comfortable with a manual lens to begin with, so try to play with the lens first, before taking a plunge. And those of you who do get a copy - congratulations, you're one amazing toy richer and $1,500 poorer...