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Zeiss 21mm Distagon ZE Review

Posted in Equipment Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2010 by macdanzig

A detailed look at the Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8 ZE lens


Well, it’s been a while since my review of the Zeiss 18mm ZE and since then, the good people at Zeiss Micro imaging graciously let me have a good, long-term extensive loan of the 21mm lens in EOS mount.

I will start out by cutting to the chase:  This is a brilliant piece of optical equipment.  It is capable of producing excellent images with today’s cameras under all sorts of different conditions and I do recommend it.   However, the $1700 price tag is steep, and with the versatile bargain-ish lenses out there today like Canon’s 17-40L producing pretty good results, we all want to know how this legendary 21mm lens stacks up…  People expect a lot out of Zeiss products, and they should.  Hopefully the following review can help you decide if this lens is for you.

When I reviewed the Zeiss 18mm, many people ended up pointing out the fact that the 21mm is Zeiss’ best ultra-wide lens and that if you truly wanted to give the 17mm TS-E a run for it’s money in the optics department, you’d have to use it, not the 18mm.   So, this ended up being a great opportunity for me to test the best against the best.   I personally like to be able to make extremely large prints of my landscape photos and although today’s DSLR sensors help me achieve that, the UWA lens lineup (especially for Canon) has been lacking in quality when the pixels are really pushed to the limit…   The TS-E 17mm has proved to be a real champion, but filters (even hand-held GNDs) are an impossibility, as I’ll show later in this review, and although it does a great job at reducing flare, that gigantic front bulb catches stray light from all angles.  Is there an alternative?

I know, I know, you’ve heard this from me before.  Well now is the time for all of us gear geeks to get our pixel-peeping on and decide what spend our hard-earned cash on.

Zeiss 21mm Distagon - 30 seconds @ F/8

Build Quality/ Construction/Functionality

Should I even bother to mention it?  Those of you who own a Zeiss already know.  Those who don’t should at least get your hands on one just once so you can tell the difference.  The 21mm ZE is just like the 18mm ZE, only heavier and with a longer barrel.  They are both equally the best-constructed wide angle lenses that I’ve ever used, period.  The hood that comes with it is metal and locks in place the way it’s supposed to.  The manual focus ring works with a level of precision that’s second-to-none, unlike most of the AF lenses out there who’s focus rings are loose and slide from end to end with so much as a finger-brush.   All-metal and glass, it’s built like a tank.  It’s heavy for a wide-angle at 23oz, but it’s still lighter than the TS-E, which is 29oz.  Honestly, if you’re one of those people who can’t handle a a few extra ounces on a wide-angle lens then you should probably just pick yourself up a point-and-shoot and call it a day…  (Sorry, but I have no sympathy for the weight-whiners.)

The front-filter thread is 82mm, same as the 18mm ZE.  Although the 82mm filters can be pricier and harder to find than the other sizes, this really helps with vignetting, as you’ll see…

Manual focusing only, like all Zeiss lenses.  One thing I like is the fact that infinity focus is achieved with the ring pulled all the way to the right.  If you know you are focusing at infinity, just turn it until it stops…      One thing to be aware of when dealing with a manual lens who’s optics are this incredibly sharp (just like the 17mm TS-E) is the fact that when you are dealing with anything closer than infinity focus, the in-camera focus confirmation may hit even when the lens hasn’t quite reached true focus.  Live-view, like on the 1Ds Mk III can be an essential part of getting your focus exact, rather than relying on your camera to beep or illuminate it’s focus point…

Bokeh & Close-up work

Many of the lenses in the Zeiss lineup are highly touted for their “3-D look” when used at wider apertures on nearby subjects.  The 21mm definitely brings that to the table…

@ F/2.8

100% crop of the above shot.

Of course, this isn’t a macro lens, and no photographer in their right mind should try to use it as such, but with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and a minimum focusing distance of 0.22 meters (about 8.5 inches) you can get some great effects that other ultra wide angle lenses out there can never reproduce.

f/2.8

f/2.8

After shooting some with this lens close-up and seeing minimal distortion, I do think that some talented people could definitely utilize this lens for creative portraiture.    The bokeh is excellent for this focal range.  Close subjects can definitely be isolated when shooting wide-open.

f/2.8

100% crop

Colors and Contrast

After using this lens and testing it up to some others in my arsenal, I have to say that it reproduces by far the richest colors and contrast straight out of the camera.

Below are two shots of the same exact scene, shot at ISO 400, seconds apart under the same exact lighting conditions with the camera tripod mounted.  The first is with the Canon 17mm TS-E and the second below it is with the Zeiss 21mm.  They were both converted to jpegs with the same exact default raw settings (no sharpening, contrast, saturation or any other adjustments) and they both had the same white balance and tint….

Feel free to click on each photo to see the full sized jpeg as well…

17mm TS-E

Zeiss 21mm

As you can see, there is a huge difference in colors and contrast straight out of the camera.

Using filters:

I ended up being pretty impressed with the Zeiss’ ability to avoid strong vignetting with a polarizer attached.  Below are a few examples of using a polarizer outdoors:

Example 1:

Zeiss 21mm without filter

Zeiss 21mm with B+W Polarizer

Example 2:

Zeiss 21mm - no filters

Zeiss 21mm with B+W Polarizer

In comparison to the 17mm TS-E, an aspect that is appealing to me about the Zeiss is the ability to use graduated neutral density filters.   The Zeiss takes front filters very well.  When I try to use GNDs handheld with the TSE, despite my best efforts, there always ends up being a certain amount of glare on one side of the frame, due to the bulging front element of the TSE.  It ends up looking like I’m shooting from inside a car with the windows up… Not the case with the Zeiss, which has a normal front element.    Below are examples of this, and I did my very best to position the TSE’s filter in a way which wouldn’t produce glare, but still, flat glass on an extremely convex front element doesn’t give good results…

Zeiss 21mm with handheld 3-stop Singh Ray GND

17mm TS-E with handheld 3-stop Singh Ray GND

100% crop of the TSE shot w/ GND

So, you can see that until some kind of convex filter system is developed to go with the TSE (which I’m sure would end up being very expensive), it’s best to just not worry about using any front filters with it…

Sharpness tests and 100% crops

So here we are where all of the finite details get scrutinized…  I will be the first to admit, I went a little bit overboard with all the tests here, but it’s better to have too much information than not enough IMO.

The three lenses that I tested the Zeiss 21mm with in these comparisons are 1) a very good copy of the Canon 17-40 F/4 L,  2) a Canon 24mm F/1.4 L (first version), and 3) the reigning wide-angle champion, Canon’s TS-E 17mm F/4 L.     Now, some people may feel that these are unfair comparisons, since the 17-40 isn’t a prime and the other two are of different focal lengths… But in my opinion, apples and oranges they are not.   If you are trying to get the very best detail out of your expensive camera body doing wide angle work, then there is a good chance you’ll consider one of these…

Left to right: Canon 17mm TS-E, Zeiss 21mm, Canon 24mm f1.4 L I

I did my best to physically move and “foot zoom” slightly during the making of these test shots to help make the 100% crops a little bit closer in reproduced size, but in all of them you should notice a difference in the focal lengths, even if only slight…

As always, all shots are tripod mounted, using mirror lock-up, remote shutter and are unprocessed jpegs, straight out of the RAW converter.

For the most part, I’ll let the following exhaustive series of test shots and 100% crops speak for themselves…  After all, if you’ve read this far and you are going to spend time looking at all of these, you probably know what to look for and understand the differences and variances.

So without further ado, here they are.  The first groups of crops are taken from the following indoor scene at the train station in downtown Los Angeles.

Test shot reference

**wordpress resizes the files for the blog format, so please click on the pictures to see the full size.**

Center of frame:

Try to not mistake a difference in focal length with a lack of detail or sharpness…

Top Left of frame:

Far Right side of frame:

Right side of frame:

Chromatic Aberration crops, Left side of frame:

We can see right here that CA is much better handled by the Zeiss and the TSE than the other lenses…

Outdoor tests:

Reference test shot for crops below

Center of Frame:

I told you I had a good copy of the 17-40… at least in the center  😉

Left side of frame:

I chose this part of the left side because of the high contrast and tendency for CA.   As you can see, the 17-40 falters away from the center, which is pretty normal for a wide zoom.    The Zeiss is right in second place behind the TSE for sharpness and CA control.

The above set of crops are all at f/8.  The Zeiss and 24L seem to have the best color rendition…

F/8

These ones are just for posterity…  I happened to see this Heron in the scene in a “Where’s Waldo” sort of way and figured I’d show my bird photography prowess off…

By now it’s pretty obvious that the 24L and 17-40 aren’t in the same league, so here’s the Zeiss head to head with Canon’s TS-E:

Reference test shot

On a dreary, overcast day the optics speak for themselves much better and the lighting stays consistent…

Center of frame:

I don’t see much of a difference in sharpness, maybe the TSE wins by half of a hair…  I do see a difference in color straight out of camera, in favor of the Zeiss…

Left Center:

Middle right side of frame:

Far right edge of frame:

The Zeiss doesn’t perform at it’s best until f 5.6 and smaller.  Even when taken down one stop to f/4, the TS-E beats it in edge sharpness wide-open, which isn’t that big of a deal when you consider the fact that there’s not much else out there that has sharpness across the frame like the TS-E…

Conclusion:

Overall, I’d say I’m still very impressed with the Zeiss.   The $2,500.00 17mm Tilt-Shift still out-performs it in the sharpness category, but not by a huge margin.  Color rendition is where the Zeiss wins big.  Microcontrast too.  Does this make my wide-angle lens decision any easier?  Nope.  Truth is, most people (myself included) can’t afford to own both the Zeiss 21 and the Canon 17 TSE.  It just doesn’t make practical sense in these times.   I would rather spend that extra money on a great photography trip.  But if I were a big-timer then yes, I’d own both of these and I’d use the Zeiss whenever a polarizer or GND was required.

Zeiss 21mm Distagon with 1Ds MkII - 30 sec - F10 - ISO 100

100% Crop - Far left edge... There's no way my 17-40 or 16-35 could ever give me the sharpness and distortion control at 21mm from corner to corner like this...

I still think it’s pretty cool that Zeiss has kept the same exact design on their lenses for so long..  Instead of trying to come up with a new superficial “modern” design, they’ve maintained the ability to produce a solid piece of optics in a rugged metal housing.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Hopefully this review has helped you decide whether or not this lens is for you.  But, if you’re anything like me, it only complicates matters.  We must realize that there will never be the ‘perfect’ piece of camera equipment.  As artists and perfectionists, some of us find it our duty to search for the flaws so that we can eliminate them.

In the end, if you’re willing to pay for it, you can get pretty damn close to ‘perfect’ in the UWA range with either the TSE or the Zeiss…  You need to decide which one fits your needs best.

Now, quit all this pixel peeping and go shoot!  😉

thanks for reading

-Mac

PS:  If you’ve decided to that the Zeiss 21mm 2.8 is for you, buying it through This Link will help support the site a little…   In addition, if you feel like showing your support, anything at all no matter how big or small you purchase after clicking through the Adorama link on the right column near the top of the blog helps out.   Thanks!

Zeiss 18mm Distagon Review

Posted in Equipment Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2010 by macdanzig

A first look at the Zeiss Distagon T* 3.5/18 ZE.   Along with tests vs the TSE 17mm and the 17-40 F/4 L

*(Updated 1/11/10 – added vignetting & distortion test)*

In a quest for the best possible optical quality in an ultra-wide-angle lens to accompany the high megapixels of today’s Canon DSLRs, I immediately became interested when Zeiss announced that it was finally going to release it’s legendary lens series in EOS mount.  This announcement came well over a year ago and a lot Canon photographers (myself included) have been waiting patiently.

As I have written before, the 17-40 L is a great lens and a great value, but the softness in the corners and edges is so apparent, especially with higher-megapixel bodies, that if one wishes to make large prints (the kind these bodies were designed for) they will be disappointed in the corner-to-corner sharpness…    This is what brought me to the TS-E 17mm and although that lens has proven to be quite possibly the answer in optical quality, it has a few inherent downfalls – most notably the lack of ability to use any front or rear filters.    This brings us to the Zeiss line.

Zeiss has been making high-quality manual focus lenses for quite some time, and Nikon users have been able to benefit from this, as Ziess has manufactured Nikon-mount glass for a while now… Nikon and Pentax users may be familiar with it, but Canon users often aren’t.  People with Canon bodies have had to use a third party adapter, often with inconsistent results.  Now with a full line of legendary Zeiss lenses in EOS mount, a lot of photographers who don’t need autofocus are going to be very happy.

Build and construction

Without a doubt, this lens has the best physical quality of any wide angle lens I have ever used.  The precision of the focus ring along with the weight and balance when mounted is second to none.  Nothing Nikon, Canon or Sigma makes in this focal range is in the same league.  If you are particular about your gear and the way it handles, you won’t be disappointed here.  This is a precision instrument.

One of the first things you’ll notice upon opening the box is the Zeiss hand-signed and checked inspection list.   I don’t consider myself as much of a gear fiend as many other photographers out there, but I’ll admit, I was very impressed at this lens fresh out of the box…  As pictured above, the 18mm comes with a well made lens hood that locks firmly into place.  Also included is a center-pinch front lens cap that makes removing and installing pretty easy with the hood attached.

The front thread for filters is 82mm, which can be a little more expensive and harder to find than the norm, which is 77mm.  But the 82mm filter size serves an important purpose: it controls vignetting when front filters are used.  Notice the picture below and you’ll see how the barrel dramatically widens at the front.

Short and compact, it weighs in at 470 grams (16.5 oz), which is about the same as the 17-40 L and much less than the TS-E 17mm which weighs 820 grams (28.9 oz).

From left to right: 17-40 F/4 L, Zeiss 18mm Distagon, TS-E 17mm F/4 L

Tests:

This is why we all came…  How does it perform optically against some other major players in the UWA range for Canon?

Zeiss 18mm vs 17-40 L vs 17mm TS-E

Above is the test shot where the 100% crops below came from.   All photos were taken with a 1Ds Mk III which is Canon’s highest megapixel camera body to date (tied with the 5D2) and really exposes the weaknesses of a lens’s optics, which helps for this test.  All shots were tripod mounted, with mirror lock-up enabled and cable release used.  They were all taken at ISO 100 and each shot at the same shutter speed per aperture down the line.  No sharpening or post processing was applied.    The 17mm TS-E was (obviously) shot with no tilt or shift applied.

You will notice at the extreme corners, the difference in focal length.  The 17-40 has enough distortion at 17mm to make it slightly wider than the 17mm TS-E, which is in turn just slightly wider than the Zeiss 18mm.

Note that the 100% test crops below may be slightly resized for the blog page.  In this case, click the photo for the full size if you wish…

Center

As you can see- in the center frame the playing field is very even, and although diffraction at F22 hinders all of the lenses, one could easily draw the conclusion that the 17-40 L is just as good as the other two much more expensive lenses in the center…   But the other areas are a different story as you’ll see…

Center-left

The main factor that becomes apparent with the above shots is the 17mm TS-E‘s ability to not only retain better detail than the other lenses, but completely control (if not eliminate) chromatic aberrations.  The red/purple fringe is nowhere to be seen on the TSE crops, and seems worst with the Zeiss than even the 17-40, although that may simply be due to the softness of the 17-40…

Center-right

Both Canon lenses slightly out-perform the Zeiss in sharpness on this side of the frame…   Trust me when I say that human error in focus is not the factor here, as I thoroughly checked the center point focus with live-view on all three lenses, even after in camera focus confirmation.    One must also remember that with lenses there is always copy variation, and when dealing with floating glass elements like in the Zeiss, a tiny fraction of difference can cause some slight softness…

Extreme left corner

(click on each photo group for full size)

This is where the Zeiss performs the best, and as you can see, it’s also where the 17-40 is at it’s worst…  Both Canon lenses clean themselves up with smaller apertures, but the Distagon still wins the corner sharpness test.  I’m not sure if it’s noticeable on these smaller crops, but I did once again notice a large amount of CA from both the Zeiss and the 17-40 on the edges of some of the mulch here.  The TS-E had no CA to speak of.

Extreme right corner

Once again the Zeiss performs the best.  Too bad it can’t keep the sharpness across the entire frame…

Another set of 100% Crops (from a different scene)

These are right side of the frame crops from the flare test shots below.   All lenses were focused to infinity.

Flare Control

The following shots are unsharpened full frames shot toward the sun at f8.  In fairness to the TS-E, I did not use the lens hoods on either the Zeiss or 17-40.

You will have to click on each thumbnail photo to see the full size image and do some zooming-in to see the flare spots (they are there) throughout each photo due to the dark scene.   The conclusion is that even with it’s bulging front element, the 17mm TS-E controls flare slightly better than the Zeiss, which is in turn, far better at flare control than the 17-40 L.

17mm TS-E

Zeiss 18mm

17-40

Vignetting / Distortion

All three photos shot tripod mounted with the same exact exposure at F/4

Shots were leveled with both a hot-shoe bubble leveler and tripod base-leveler.  I take no responsibility for the masonry.  🙂

(click on each photo to view full size)

Canon 17mm TS-E

Zeiss 18mm Distagon

Canon 17-40 L

It’s obvious the TS-E once again out-performs both of the other lenses in vignetting as well as barrel distortion, with the Zeiss in second place for distortion and third place for vignetting, depending on how you interpret the light fall-off…  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from the images…

Below are some more 100% crops.  These are from the bottom left of the frame in the above test.


Conclusions

I’ll be the first to admit I’m a just slightly disappointed in the Zeiss 18mm Distagon.    Not doubt it’s a great lens and a finely crafted piece of optical equipment, but I was hoping it could possibly replace my Canon 17mm TS-E for normal prime UWA use.   It will, however most likely replace my 17-40 L as the lens I’ll use when I need something that can take a front filter mounted on it.  (I rarely use the 17-40 at anything other than 17mm)

In almost all of the tests, it scores right in the middle, between the two Canons respectively.   Coming in second to a $2,500 lens is nothing to be ashamed of.

Zeiss 18mm @ F/8 - Handheld

If you are considering buying this lens, I’d weigh the options first…   Remember that Zeiss does not make an autofocus lens, so you’re stuck with manual, which shouldn’t be that big of a deal for most people since lenses in this focal length are not usually used for subjects that require quick autofocus and when dialing in an exact focal length, one usually does this manually anyway.   The 82mm filter thread can prove frustrating at times due to the fact that many manufacturers charge much more for this size and retailers are often out of stock as well.   The Zeiss won’t blow you away in optical ability, but it is still a decent step up from both the 17-40 L and 16-35 L, in my opinion.

If you find yourself dealing with subjects that produce a lot of chromatic aberration, you won’t find the Distagon to solve your problems there.  It is a great performer in corner to corner sharpness and flare, but not in CA control.

All in all, it’s a great lens and definitely lives up to the Zeiss reputation, but one should weigh the options before deciding.  If you are posting mostly on the web and rarely print your photos past 10×15, the 17-40 is a much better value and will save you some money…   But for my uses, it’s definitely worth keeping and although it can’t replace my 17mm TS-E as my main ultra-wide-angle prime, it does cost just over half of what the TS-E costs, weighs just over half as much, handles better and can hold it’s own in the sharpness department.

Thanks for reading

-Mac