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Introduction

Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 is the latest addition to the company's SLR lens lineup, first announced in September of 2010 and released in Q1/2011. Carl Zeiss offers this lens in Nikon and Canon mounts only, compared to its slightly slower f/2 version, which was also available in Pentax mount. As this writing, the lens is still in short supply as it seems to receive quite a lot of attention from the photo community. The list price for the Distagon 35/1.4 is US$1,843 and I don't expect the market price to dip much below that level any time soon.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 11 elements in 9 groups, including one aspherical and two floating element groups. The lens is fairly large, measuring 78 x 119mm (3.07 x 4.72in) and weighing a whopping 830g (1.8lb). The build quality of the lens is superb as with all modern ZF/ZE lenses - barrel is metal, as is the knurled focusing ring. ZF version of the lens has an aperture ring, which is absent from the ZE variant. Either of the versions support electronic aperture selection, but the ZF.2 version can also be used on older cameras that don't have electronic aperture control, in which case you will end up controlling the aperture manually. The lens has the minimum focusing distance of 30cm (11.8in). The minimum aperture is f/16. Filter diameter is 72mm.

 

Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested on a full frame Canon 5D Mk2. I am currently replacing my aged APS-C camera and will conduct additional tests on an APS-C body at a later point. As a reminder, on an APS-C type body with 1.6x crop factor, Distagon will have EFOV of 56mm lens. The manufacturer's box includes the lens, front and rear lens caps, lens hood, registration and quality control cards along with a manual book.


Summary
Lens Composition 11 elements in 9 groups
Angular Field 64 degrees
Minimum Focus 30cm/11.8in
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/16, electronic
Filter Size 72mm
Lens Hood Metal (included)
Weight 830g/1.8lb
Dimensions 78x119mm/3.07x4.72"
Lens Case N/A

 

Handling

The new 35/1.4 version of the lens is the direct descendant of Diistagon 35/1.4 originally launched in 70s under Rollei mount and later continued through 2005 in Contax mount. I never owned a Rollei version, but based on the data sheet, I believe that the only difference between the Rollei and Contax versions is coating. I owned two versions of Contax lens, first in my film days and later adapted to my Canon mount (using a third party adapter). Truth be told, Contax Distagon 35/1.4 was never my favorite lens - I found it too finicky and inconsistent, particularly at wide apertures, where the resolution, as well as rendering were not what I was looking for in a high speed lens. To be fair, I can't say whether this was due to the lens itself or the adapter added some variance, but either way, I ended up selling the Contax 35/1.4 and switching to Nikon mount ZF 35/2 version, which I found much more consistent.

ISO 800, 1/80, f/1.4, 35mm (Canon 5DMk2)

Comparing the data sheets of the new ZEZF.2 version to the  Contax variant, it becomes clear that Zeiss has tweaked the design quite extensively. The optical contraction has become more complex - 11 elements in 9 groups vs 9 elements in 8 groups. Both lenses have single aspherical element as well as floating groups, but due to the increased number of groups/elements, ZE/ZF.2 version is bulkier and heavier. Still, I welcome the native mount version, since I no longer need to fuss with various adapters. Plus, considering the recent prices for Contax version have climbed to astronomical levels (used copies sell for ~US$1,500-$1,600 on eBay now), there is very little reason to own the old variant.

With the release of the ZE/ZF.2 351.4 version, Carl Zeiss entered a fairly crowded and competitive market. It is not clear to me yet, whether the Distagon holds a definitive advantage over say Canon 35/1.4L and Nikon 35/1.4G, since I have not compared these lenses directly (something I would definitely want to do in the future), but Distagon is clearly the most expensive lens in the group and is the only lens lacking AF!

As mentioned, ZE Distagon 35/1.4 is a fairly large lens - the largest among 35mm primes I have ever owned or tested, bar the even bulkier CP.2 Distagon 35mm T/2.1, which is really a cine lens and so not directly comparable. On a larger body like Canon 5DMk2, the lens is still a little bit front-heavy - holding the combo with one hand is doable, but you would need your other hand to focus it anyway. Get a decent ball-head when using the combo on a tripod - while it is by no means as heave as a long tele, you would still want a ball-head with tight friction control to prevent the camera/lens from dripping downward. Adding the petal-shaped metal lens hood adds a few inches to the lens, making it look even longer. By the way, the lens hood actually adds a little bit of vignetting, which is rather surprising and disappointing - how come, Zeiss?

As with all manual focus Zeiss lenses, Distagon 35/1.4 sports an engraved DOF scale, although in practice it becomes kind of useless - there are only two markings and setting the lens at f/5.6 would give you focusing range from ~40cm to infinity. The focusing ring is very precise and rotates for ~200 degrees, with slightly more rotational space and hence more precision at closer focusing distances.

With the lack of AF, you obviously need to worry about the accuracy of focusing, which is somewhat tricky with this lens for two reasons. Firstly, while the lens gives you AF confirm capability, it is fairly noisy, meaning that as with any other lens, camera's AF system would give you an AF confirmation in a limited, but measurable focusing ring rotational range. At closer distances this focusing range will be slightly larger and at long distances it would be significantly smaller, to the point of converging it to a single spot around infinity. This is a well known issue with all manual-focused lenses (and even AF lenses focused manually). If you're shooting at smaller apertures, minor focusing errors will be masked due to larger DOF, but at wider apertures and closeup distances, you would encounter some variance, which might surprise you. The other issue with Distagon 35/1.4 is minor focus shift, which in my copy occurred at f/2.8-f/4. The shift is minimal though, and is easily observable at close focusing distances - 30cm to ~1m. How the combination of the two issues play out when you rely exclusively on the camera's AF confirm is any-body's guess, and so your best bet is really to use Live View to focus this lens.