Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4

Introduction

Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 and the slower Distagon T* 35mm f/2.8 were two 35mm primes offered for the now defunct Contax/Yashica mount. Carl Zeiss discontinued manufacturing all C/Y lenses in 2004 when Kyocera, which was then its manufacturing partner and joint holder of Contax brand name, exited camera business all together. Carl Zeiss recently re-introduced a number of its SLR lenses, including Distagon T* 35mm f/2 in Nikon Ai-S (ZF), standard M42 screw (ZS) and Pentax K (ZK) mounts. Despite the recently introduced 'newer' 35mm lens, the old C/Y mount 35/1.4 Distagons remain in very high demand on used markets, with good quality copies fetching ~US$1200. The lens was manufactured as an AE and later MM variant, both in Japan as  well as in the West Germany. Thus you can encounter a total of four different variations of this lens: an  AE copy made in the West Germany or Japan, and an MM copy made in Japan or West Germany. There does not seem to be any optical changes between the AE and MM versions of the lens, at least according to the publicly available sources.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 9 elements in 8 groups, including a single aspherical element and a single floating element designed to correct various forms of aberration at close distances. The build quality of the lens is superb and is similar to other Carl Zeiss lenses of that period for Contax mount - all metal barrel, rubberized focusing and aperture rings. The focus ring is very smooth, the aperture ring is snappy and there is no wobbling of any sort inside or outside the lens. And like all Carl Zeiss Contax lenses, Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is a fully manual lens, meaning that there are no electronics of any sort in the lens and both focusing and aperture have to be set on the lens rather then through your camera. Speaking of the aperture - the ring moves in one full f-stop increments.

The lens looks a feels a little bit bulky (someone not familiar with this lens might even think it is a medium telephoto prime, not a wide angle), especially when compared to its slower brethren Distagon T* 35mm f/2.8. At 600g (1.3lb) it is one of the heavier wide angles I have seen so far. The lens measures 70 x 76mm (2.75 x 3in), but since the inner cam extends during focusing towards closeup, the actual length of the lens is slightly longer when fully extended. The minimum supported aperture is f/16, the minimum focusing distance is 30cm (1ft), while the filter size is 67mm (the lens accepts screw-in type filters).

Image

To mount the lens on Canon cameras, I used a generic non-AF chipped C/Y to EOS adapter. I ended up operating the camera in manual and aperture priority modes with all but center weighted metering disabled. The lens is designed for full-frame cameras, so if you're using it on APS-C type body with 1.6x crop factor, the field of view of the lens will be equivalent to that of a 56mm lens on a full-frame body, making it a standard lens rather then a wide-angle.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 9 elements in 8 groups
Angular Field 62 degrees
Minimum Focus 30cm/1ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/16, manual
Filter Size 67mm
Lens Hood G-14 soft or No. 2 metal (optional)
Weight 600g/1.3lb
Dimensions 70x76mm/2.75x3"
Lens Case No. 2 soft (included)

 

 


Field Tests

The original Contax Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 lens was first introduced in mid 70s, although the original design see in Contax branded version was first introduced for the Rollei 35 mount in mid 60s. While Distagon design spans both SLR as well as rangefinder lenses (for example, the 18mm Distagon is available for both rangefinder as well as SLR systems), the 35mm variant of the design, as far as I am aware, was only available for SLR cameras, with an equivalent rangefinder design being the Biogon. However, unlike the previous versions, Contax Distagon 35mm design was the first to use a floating element. The major benefit of a floating design obviously is the improved performance at close distances, although a floating design does not necessarily automatically guarantee a better performance. In the case of the Distagon, the floating element, which is typically placed as the  rearmost element in the last lens group, is the probable cause for numerous reports of incompatibility with some of Canon's full frame cameras, particularly Canon 5D and Canon 5D MkII. Now, I have had the opportunity to test both AE as well as an MM versions of the lens, and did not encounter any problems with the camera's mirror clearance. Not to say that the reports are wrong, since in many cases, the variance in the mirror  box assembly can contribute to the problem.

A more appropriate question however, is whether the floating design of Contax Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 actually delivers better image quality at close distances. Resolution-wise, at least, this did not seem to be the case, as the lens did not show noticeable improvement at close distances over the infinity. Generally speaking, center image quality remained more or less consistent throughout the aperture range, with no significant visible different for the supported focusing range. The border image resolution was though noticeably softer at wider apertures and to get a more or less visually uniform quality across the entire frame you'd have to stop down the lens to at least f/4. In many cases,  wide angle lenses show minor degradation in border quality because  of the field curvature, which changes the focusing distance from the film plane to the objects across the picture frame. Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4  is not an exception to the rule, as the lens does show some field curvature, but it's quite minimal, which leads me to speculate that floating lens design increases the overall complexity without significant noticeable benefits in resolution. As a matter of fact, the new version of the Distagon T* 35mm f/2 for Nikon and Pentax mounts actually moves away from the floating design, but manages to deliver equal if not better overall resolution..

While border image resolution at f/1.4 is not particularly impressive, many might still consider this to be a no issue at all. After all, the major reason for buying such a fast lens as Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35m f/1.4 is to benefit from a thin DOF and achieve nice, clean separation between the in-focus and out-of-focus areas. As I have been mentioning in other reviews, the hole topic of bokeh (out of focus area) is rather controversial, with many different variables affecting it. So since all these variables are impossible to account for in a regular field test, the examples below only demonstrate how the lens would work at close to the minimal focusing distances, where the blurring of background is typically the heaviest. The two shots below, both done at ~30cm, show the case.

 

ISO 400, 1/4000, f/1.4, 35mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 400, 1/80, f/8, 35mm (Canon 5D)

 

As expected for an f/1.4 lens, Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 excells in blurring the background. The depth of field in the left shot (done at f/1.4) is super thin and any detail quickly blends in into a smooth, almost uniform background mask. Small tonality changes in the background disappear completely, and the high contrast transitions actually get smoothed away as well, making the foreground in-focus object stand out very nicely. Note that for some, such a thin DOF might actually be a challenge (I'm in that camp as well), since it really requires you to focus very carefully on the area you actually want to be in-focus. Many camera AF systems would actually lit up an AF confirmation not at a particular distance, but rather thoughout a small range, which could make your picture look front or back focused. Why? A wide range of possible causes - an AF point in most cameras is not a single point, but rather a small area, which can cause the AF system to think it focused where you wanted it to focus, a miscalibrated AF system can or improper adapter (adapter thickness or AF chip itself), etc. When starting with fast alternative manual focus lenses I found myself surprise by how many times my focusing ended up slightly off, so I started using an old trick to minimize the possibility of misfocusing. I'd use focus bracketing while shooting in a burst mode. By varying your focusing ever slightly, you improve your chances of getting at lest one shot done at the right focusing distance. But you do end up with quite a lot of pictures this way, all of which need to be sorted through and majority of them discarded. Trade-offs, trade-offs...

Notice that as you stop down the lens, the DOF area expends (typically equidistantly around the point in focus, with the cut-off at the minimum focusing distance), bringing more and more definition first to close and then far objects. But take a look at the picture on the right side, taken at f/8 - the background is far from being in focus, although obviously you can now at least distinguish various object shapes. The background does not look particularly attractive to me here, but at such a small aperture setting, no lens is likely to produce a smooth background. However, considering that the background still remains blurred when shooting at such close focusing distances, you can safely assume that somewhat wider apertures would give you quite a decent background blur. In the case of Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4, f/2 and even f/2.8 produced quite a decent blur, while giving a somewhat larger DOF that can help you put your subject completely in focus and worry a bit less about super precision focusing.


ISO 100, 1/250, f/1.4, 35mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 100, 1/250, f/1.4, 35mm (Canon 5D)

 

To round up the discussion of DOF, let's take a look at two other properties of the lens, which typically affect the feel of quality of the out of focus area - the OOF highlights and OOF double-edging. Ideally, the lens would evenly lit OOF highlights with neutral or smooth blending around edges. Furthermore, the lens should not produce any double-edging around any OOF objects, whether the objects are in the fore-ground or back-ground. This is actually where Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 excels - OOF highlights are uniformly lit and blend into background qutie nicely and there is no sign of double-edging at all. Very nice results all in all!

 

ISO 100, 1/1600, f/1.4, 35mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 100, 1/60, f/8, 35mm (Canon 5D)

 

Let's now review some other properties of Contax Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4. As can be seen from the shots above, Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 fell prone to some flare in certain, rather extreme. situations. With the sun positioned close to the frame (peaking  over the top of the building from the left hand side), the lens shows some color shift as well as reduced contrast, pretty much throughout the entire aperture range. At smaller apertures, you can also observe aperture ghosting, which is clearly seen in the image on the right hand size (shot at f/8). Is there a reason for panic? Probably not, as long as you either use a lens hood or  compose your images in such a way that the strong light sources don't graze the front element of the lens under directly.

 

Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop
Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop

 

Carl Zeiss Distagon T 35mm f/1.4 showed moderate amount of vignetting on a full frame body with wide open aperture. Stopping down helps reduce vignetting and Distagon 35mm f/1.4 is no exception here - by f/2.8 vignetting is almost gone. On an APS-C body the lens shows basically no vignetting at all pretty much throughout the aperture range.

 



Lab Tests
Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for both types of cameras.

 

Resolution: Canon APS-C

Carl Zeiss Distagon T 35mm f/1.4 shows overall performance that can be considered pretty standard for most (good quality) ultra fast wide angle lenses. The lens is very sharp in the center straight from f/1.4. But like with many other wide angles, quality around borders suffers. This is especially visible at wide aperture levels - at f/1.4 border performance is iffy at best and does not reach acceptable levels until f/2.8. Border quality continues to improve as you stop down further and reaches its peak around f/8. Distagon shows its most balanced results in the f/8-f/11 range, and here it is capable of delivering outstanding 19in and very decent 24in prints. Conclusion? Resolution-wise, Distagon 35mm f/1.4 shows a pretty common for wide angle lenses performance pattern. Obviously that is not a bad thing and the lens delivers pretty solid results from f/2.8. It's just the border quality at f/1.4 that disappoints me - but you've heard this complain from me quite a few times by now.

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 35mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 35mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 35mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 35mm

Resolution: Canon FF

The lens showcased a very similar performance on a full frame body ((to performance on an APS-C body that is). Performance in the center was outstanding straight from f/1.4, while border quality lagged, especially at wider aperture levels. At f/1.4 border performance is unimpressive, but quality improves with stopped down aperture and by f/2.8 it reaches a more or less acceptable but still not stellar level. The lens performance peaks around f/8-f/11 where both center and border quality are simply outstanding. Conclusion? Well, what did you really expect here? A miracle? The lens shows consistent results on both APS-C and FF cameras and that counts.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 35mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 35mm

 

Chromatic Aberration: Canon APS-C

Chromatic aberration on an APS-C body was somewhat higher then what I hoped to get from a Zeiss lens. CA averaged 1px in the center with wide open aperture, dropping to a more manageable 0.3px by f/2.8. CA around borders was even higher, averaging ~1.3px at f/1.4 and dropping to ~0.8px by f/4.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 35mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 35mm

Chromatic Aberration: Canon FF

When it comes down to CA, the lens fared somewhat better on a full frame Canon 5D. CA did not exceed ~0.6px in the center. CA around borders averaged ~0.9px at the wider aperture levels (f/1.4 through f/2), but dropped to ~0.5px by f/4 - still quite manageable for a wide angle.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 35mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 35mm

 

Distortion

The lens showed minor degree of barrel distortion - at 0.69% distortion is unlikely to cause any major issues in general photography.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 35mm
Distortion (FF) @ 35mm

 

Vignetting

Vignetting was moderate for a wide angle lens. On a full frame body, Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 registered light falloff in the range of ~1.1EV at f/1.4 to less then ~0.3EV at f/11, which is not that bad. On an APS-C body, light falloff is even less, ~0.8EV at f/1.4, droping to ~0.2EV by f/5.6 and below.

 

Chart Crops: Canon APS-C

Here are 100% crops taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi, comparing image borders at f/1.4 and f/8.

Image borders @ 35mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 35mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

Chart Crops: Canon FF

Here are 100% crops taken with a FF type Canon 5D, comparing image borders at f/1.4 and f/8.

Image borders @ 35mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 35mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

 


Alternatives

As mentioned earlier, Carl Zeiss used to offer another 35mm fixed focal lens for its Contax mount system, Distagon T* 35mm f/2.8, which offers decent image quality and costs about 7-8x less then its faster f/1.4 brethren. Alternatively, you might want to consider a brand new version of Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 in Nikon or M42 mount. Speaking of M42 - if you're willing to look into M42 lenses, make sure you evaluate Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35mm f/2.4. Outside of the Carl Zeiss camp, you might be interested in taking a look at Leica's Summicron-R 35mm f/2, Elmarit-R 35mm f/2.8 or if you use a APS-C type camera, Summilux-R 35mm f/1.4 (various users reported Summilux-R 35mm f/1.4 to hit mirror on full frame cameras like Canon 5D and Canon 1Ds, so this lens is not going to be compatible with a full frame Canon body). Finally, you can also try expanding your search to Olympus OM mount lenses (Olympus OM 35mm f/2 for example) or Nikon F mount lenses (Nikkor AF 35mm f/2D). For a side by side comparison of a number of 35mm primes, including Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4, you might want to check out the 35mm Challenge.

 

Recommendation

Carl Zeiss Distagon T 35mm f/1.4 is one of those lenses that often creates a lot of controversy, with some people claiming that this is one of the best 35mm lenses ever produced, while others arguing that there's nothing special about it. Resolution-wise, the lens shows excellent center image quality but falls prone to some softer borders at wider aperture levels. While this is quite common among fast wide angle primes, it is still somewhat disappointing. From f/1.4 through f/2, the lens shows pretty mediocre border performance on both APS-C as well as FF cameras. Event at f/2.8 border quality is still average.  Naturally, one should look beyond just resolution when evaluating a lens. But is there anything 'beyond' for Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4? The lens shows rather mixed results when it comes down to handling various artifacts - chromatic aberration is somewhat high around borders, while vignetting is pretty moderate. and distortion is outright minimal The lens also shows pretty good handling of color. Overall, if you are looking for a wide angle with razor sharp borders at wider apertures, then Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is not for you. But from f/2.8 and on, the lens is quite a solid candidate among wide angle primes. But many who are considering such a fast lens typically want to shoot at wider apertures because they want to achieve good separation between the in-focus and out-of-focus areas and soft borders matter very little in such case. Hence teh recommendation also really depends on your needs - is this lens worth the 6x premium over its slower 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss variant? Tell me what you plan to do with the lens first...