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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


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…


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…


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…


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


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.


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



A first look at the Canon TS-E 17mm F/4 L (and a test vs the 17-40 L)

Posted in Equipment Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on November 7, 2009 by macdanzig

Canon 17mm TS-E Review part One

Canon 17mm Tilt Shift lens

Canon 17mm TS-E mounted on the 1Ds Mk II


As a Canon user who primarily shoots landscapes (and a large portion of the time at wide focal lengths) I like many of you, have become frustrated with the EOS ultra-wide lineup.  The 17-40 F/4 L and the 16-35 F/2.8 L may be fine lenses under many circumstances, but as megapixels increase with each generation of new bodies, flaws in optics become more and more apparent.

I have been a long time user of the 17-40 L and have found it extremely useful in the ultra-wide range.  After trying out several copies and comparing it to the 16-35 L, I came to the conclusion that although not perfect, it serves it’s function quite well and is pretty much Canon’s best bargain in it’s focal length.   But as I became more and more experienced and spent more time scrutinizing finite details of each image, both the 17-40 and the 16-35 left me feeling fairly disappointed.   Besides the major chromatic aberration issue with both lenses, and the 17-40’s seemingly uncanny ability to make a straight horizon crooked, there is the issue of soft corners at 17mm (the main focal length at which most users buy the lens for) at practically any aperture.

So what do you do if you shoot wide and want to take advantage of the new sensor technology and expect to get sharp images from corner to corner?   Well, until recently, you had about four options:  1) You could get the EOS 14mm 2.8 L II and still deal with the same problems as above, but have the ability to crop the soft corners out to about an 18mm equivalent…   2) Get your hands on a Zeiss 18mm Distagon and a third-party adapter…  3) Get your hands on the amazing Nikon 14-24 F2.8 and a third-party adapter…  Or 4) Switch over to the Nikon System completely to take full advantage of the 14-24…

Believe me, plenty of people chose #4 and it makes you wonder if the Canon corporation really cares how much of their professional DSLR customers they lose to Nikon, since the major money makers for Canon have always been business machines and consumer grade point-and-shoots…

Well, finally we have a fifth option. (Although you may have to take out a second mortgage to get your hands on it)

Enter the EOS TS-E 17mm F/4 L.

17mm TS-E Front Elelment

Front Element

Make and Design

As far as the lens’s physicality goes, it is made very well.  And it better be for the price Canon is charging.  It comes with a nice high-end lens cap that fits snugly and has an attached lanyard.   Canon boasts it’s SWC (subwavelength Structure Coating). I have no idea if this jargon is really what helps the lens control flare and ghosting, but something sure does, so we’ll just take their word for it.

The Tilt, Shift and barrel rotation all function smoothly and extremely precise.  (Having the ability to rotate the barrel 45 degrees from right angle to parallel for both tilt and shift is an invaluable feature and doubles the creative possibilities of a tilt-shift lens).  There are also tension/lock knobs for both tilt and shift that can keep each exactly where you need them for precise function.     The focus ring is easy-going and doesn’t give you the feel of the stiff manual lenses of years past, but it is not loose either and stays in place just fine.  This being a manual-only lens, you are relying on your eyes and camera body to indicate focus.  Live-View is certainly something that this lens will benefit from…

When you lock the lens onto your camera body, there is no play whatsoever.  It fits snug and tight…   As you can see by the protruding front element, there is no chance of putting a filter on the front, and unfortunately, there is no rear-filter holder either.   If your the kind of person who relies heavily on GNDs for your landscape photos, the 17mm Tilt/Shift isn’t for you.

Another thing lacking is any kind of a hood (built in or removable)…  This is kind of strange and I expected a built-in petal-style hood that most fisheye lenses have, but no dice.  And what does Canon have to say about this?  They actually mention 3 times in the lens manual to, quote: use a “piece of cardboard“…  It’s just a tiny bit unsettling to spend well over 2k on a lens and have the manufacturer tell you to simply use a “piece of cardboard” to cut out harmful rays that might enter the bulbous front element…  Lucky for me, I’m really a baby about my equipment and having this expensive glass just sit out there exposed doesn’t make me too nervous (at least that’s what I tell myself).

Tilt-Shift lenses have been very popular among serious photographers for decades now, but this is the first time a 17mm has been introduced to the modern DSLR market. In this part of the review however, I will not cover the Tilt/Shift functions of the lens, (that will be in part 2) but rather the optical capabilities when used as a normal wide-angle prime.





The following tests were done quickly, but also to the very best of my ability to attempt to show an unbiased look at the 17mm TS-E as compared to the 17-40L in exactly the same shooting conditions.   This is obviously not exhaustive, comprehensive or technically precise enough to be a “be-all-end-all” review or comparison and that was not my intent anyway.  I simply want to give my readers a good gauge as to whether or not the 17mm TS-E is worth considering adding to their arsenal.


TS-E 17mm L vs 17-40 mm L (quick comparisons)

TSE test shot

Reference test shot

The following crops were all shot in srgb as RAW files using the 1Ds MkII on Aperture Priority mode with evaluative metering at ISO 100.  They were all taken mounted on tripod and mirror lock-up was enabled... Images were all converted to jpeg using Lightroom 2 and were not sharpened or adjusted during raw conversion or export.

As with any test, one must keep in mind the occurrence of copy variation.  That being said, this particular copy of the 17-40 is my third owned and by far best optically.  You can take that for what it’s worth.





(click on each to see full 100% crop)


17-40 @ F/4


TS-E @ F/4


17-40 @ F/8


TS-E @ F/8


17-40 @ F/22


TS-E @ F/22

As you can see, diffraction takes it’s toll on both lenses at f/22, but the TS-E handles this much better.   The shots from the 17-40 appear a millimeter or so wider, at 17mm but this may be due to the natural distortion of the 17-40, rather than actually being a slightly wider focal length.  Keep in mind, no tilt or shift functions were enabled with the TS-E, so any barrel distortion you see from either lens is native.   You will notice this again in the other crops…





*(click on photos for larger views of the samples)


17-40 @ F/4


TS-E @ F/4


17-40 @ F/8


TS-E @ F/8


17-40 @ F/22


TS-E @ F/22

The difference in edge-sharpness becomes incredibly obvious in the corner shots above, at all apertures.






17-40 @ f/8


TS-E @ f/8





*(click on each image for full size)


17-40 @ f/8


TS-E @ f/8

In the center the playing field becomes more even.  I would say center sharpness is almost indistinguishable.   The 17-40 is certainly a great lens and it’s price makes it one of Canon’s best buys, but the optical shortcomings of the zoom really stand out at the edges…   Now, some people might say that this is an unfair comparison, and that may be so, but there aren’t many options at this focal length offered by Canon.  And if you’re anything like me, you shoot your landscapes with the 17-40 and you are desperately looking for a worthy upgrade and one that can hold a candle to the Nikon 14-24 and the Zeiss 18mm.





(click to view full size)


Reference shot


17-40 @ F/8


TS-E @ F/8




Pros & Cons of the TS-E




*Excellent optical quality and sharpness from corner to corner.  (Probably Canon’s best offering at 17mm)

*Build quality is exceptional.  All functions are smooth and precise.  It doesn’t get much better than this from a non-telephoto made by Canon.

*CA is much more controlled than it is with the 17-40 or the 16-35 L… I actually haven’t used many lenses of any focal length that handle CA as good as this one does.  If you have been having chromatic aberration issues with either of those zooms, the TS-E is a huge step in the right direction.

*Flare is also much better controlled.   Although I haven’t showed any examples in this test, my experience from using it and taking quite a few test shots reveals that even with the crazy front element bulging out and catching light, the flare gets dissipated into small color spots even at f/22.  The same scenes I shot with the 17-40 showed large bright un-clonable spots and the images were a complete mess of sun spots at f/22.

*Vignetting and light fall-off is very well controlled at all apertures

*Very little barrel distortion when compared to the 17-40 and 16-35.

*All of the tilt-shift options, which can give you all kinds of creative control. (I’ll cover that in part 2 of this review)



*Crippling price tag.  You may have to sell a foot to pay for this.  It’s up to you to decide whether or not you need your foot more than the lens.

*Inability to take front or rear filters of any kind

*Bulging front element is vulnerable to to damage of all kinds, especially without a hood available. (Canon’s suggestion of a piece of cardboard won’t help you avoid much damage either)

*Manual focus only.  Yes, you can get focus confirmation with a beep, but that depends on your body and how accurate it’s AF is.

*Did I mention the price?

*It’s a prime, so you’re stuck at 17mm… this shouldn’t bother most seasoned shooters.

*I suppose it’s a little heavier than most lenses in it’s range, (29oz) but I’ve personally never been the type to complain about that sort of thing.  I haul plenty of equipment over rough terrain for hikes dozens of miles at times and I never had a problem with the individual weight of my lenses or bodies…


It’s up to you whether or not it’s worth the cost, but one should remember that lenses are an excellent investment, and as long as you keep them in good condition, they will hold their resale value for a long time.  This lens especially, since it just came out, and the chance of a second version coming out within the next 6 or 7 years even is unlikely.  Buying a brand new body is a much less profitable investment.

At the end of the day, even with all of it’s shortcomings, the 17mm TS-E is the only ultra-wide lens Canon makes that has corner-to corner sharpness and optics solid enough to do all of the megapixels in your sensor justice.   If you don’t need that foot, I say get it.

PS- This lens has been on backorder since it’s announcement and there aren’t many copies floating around on the used market.  I haven’t heard when it’s going to be available on a consistent basis in retail stores.

Part 2 of this review will be up in a few weeks and I’ll have a good look at how the tilt and shift functions can be utilized.

Update:  This lens is finally available and in stock at most reputable photography stores.



Thanks for reading