It’s been a while since I last wrote a lens review. The last lens reviewed was the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm 1.2 ASPH VM II last year. Yes, I’d written a couple of revisit from my legacy Leica optics after they came back from Weltzlar but for a review, the Nokton was my last. As mentioned before, I am professional photographer and not a reviewer as such as I don’t get a lens for the sake of reviewing it. I purchase my equipment for professional use and I usually want to run it through its paces and give a personal opinion on how it performs in the real world rather than just a lap test or pixel peeping.
I cannot stress enough that a good lens will die with you, providing that you look after it. A good lens will also help you create your shot with the QUALITY that you want. What I mean is that expensive lenses doesn’t make you a better photographer, but a great lens will give you that extra edge when it comes to ultimate ‘quality’ of your images.
So here I am, writing one of the most anticipated lenses in the rangefinder camera world in 2014 (Yes, I am fully aware that we are in 2015 now… but the lens is so rare that it’s so difficult to get hold of one, at least in the UK anyway). But before I start, I would like to stay that while this review focuses on the new Zeiss Distagon but since I’ve the Voigtlander and used the Summilux before, I can make some remarks in terms of performance and construction. It will not be a side by side comparison however.
Although I am not a lab or spec comparer, I would like to present you with a simple table to have a look at these three amazing lenses for your Leica M or M-mount cameras (or your CSC for that matter).
|Zeiss Distagon T* ZM||Voigtlander Nokton VM II||Leica Summilux ASPH FLE|
|Focal Length||35mm||35mm||35mm (actual 35.6mm)|
|Lens Construction||10 Elements 7 Groups||10 Elements 7 Groups||9 Elements 5 Groups|
|Angle of View||62.15 degree||63 degree||63 degree|
|No. of aperture blades||10||12||9|
|Floating Elements||Yes||Probably (not declared)||Yes|
|Focus shift||None||None||Almost none|
|Closest Focus Distance||0.7m||0.7/0.5*m (* requires EVF or LV)||0.7m|
|Filter Thread Dia||49mm||52mm||46mm|
|Length***||65.2mm||62mm** (minimum)||46mm** (minimum)|
|Colours||Black / Silver||Black only||Black / Silver|
|Hood||Optional (Black only)||Optional (Black only)||Included (body color)|
|Hood Price in GBP||£165.00||£110.00||£0.00|
|Lens Price in GBP||£1680.00 ****||£1050.00||£3250.00 (B)/£3550.00 (S)|
** At shortest length when focus is turned to infinity, the lens front will move extend and retract during focusing but will not rotate. At closest focus distance, the lens will be at its lengthiest dimension. Zeiss length is fixed and doesn’t move at all as all lens groups movement is internal.
*** Length from mount to the front of the lens barrel (top of the front rim) and not to the cap and does not allow for lens hood.
**** Click my Amazon links at the bottom and you will find a very attractive alternative buying route via Amazon UK! I got mine there and it’s a very good dealer from Germany. Delivered in a few days!! Oh yes, after registering with Zeiss on the web, you will get 3 years International Warranty (though after 1st year, you will have to send it back to Germany).
So why this lens?
Well, I’d said it before and I am saying it again. I love 35mm for my work, mainly weddings and couples. Many loves 35mm for street and travel but I actually prefer 50mm for that matter (like HCB :P). 35mm is the ultimate ‘wow’ lens for weddings! Now the Zeiss is my third 35mm lens for my Leica. I still own my beloved Leica Summilux 35mm 1:1.4 Classic but it’s been with Leica in Wetzlar for the past three months for fine tuning for use on my Leica M. It did come back after a full restore last summer but the focus was off so I sent it back. Now I am looking forward to getting it back and get some shots with on my M and compare it with Zeiss!
Then I bought the magnificent Voigtlander Nokton 35mm 1,2 ASPH VM II last year. It was nothing short of amazing and it became a MUST use lens in every one of my wedding jobs. I loved it to bits but sadly I had to sell it to get this Zeiss (my business doesn’t allow me to own both at the same time). Now you may ask, if I love the Nokton so much, why would I sell it and get the Zeiss? Ok, here’s the crunch and the most critical reason for me getting the new Zeiss than continue using the Voigtlander: Optical performance and advancement. Something I will explain in detail later. But the Zeiss is indeed a super lens with very well corrected optical performance. In this respect, it wins for all. To my eyes and my experience with all three lenses, Zeiss, Voigtlander and Leica. I would rate Leica and Zeiss equally for optical performance and Voigtlander second. Well, that’s understandable given the Voigtlander is the cheapest by far. But if you haven’t used them all, you will be perfectly happy and amazed by the Nokton. If you don’t use it professionally or at weddings, it’s a great lens that will create stunning results. Check out my review for the Nokton HERE.
As a perfectionist who wants the ultimate image quality for my clients (and my greedy self), I need to find a better lens. Before the Zeiss, the only fast M compatible lens is Leica’s own 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE. I was so close of getting it until Zeiss announced the new Distagon. For just over half the price of the Summilux and equalling optical performance, it makes BUSINESS sense. Of course, my heart would still want the Summilux however 😛 But sometimes, as a working professional, business comes first.
Frankly, the Distagon is my first Zeiss lens ever so I cannot compare it with any other Zeiss’es when it comes to construction quality. However, I can compare it well with the Nokton and to some extend the Leica Summilux FLE. Like all M compatible lenses, the Distagon is metal constructed. It has a very solid and dense feeling, even more so then either Nokton and Summilux FLE.
From the outside, it looks rather like the Voigtlander Nokton (I am not surprised given that this lens is also made from the same Cosina factory in Japan). The silver front rings and the metal hoods were almost identical. Though the Zeiss has narrow top and bottom, a bit mango-sharped while the Voigtlander has a traditional cylindrical shape, straight from top to bottom. Among the three, Zeiss is the longest, then Voigtlander and Leica remains the most compact option of fast 35mm.
The focus is well damped and the aperture ring has a very solid and reassuring click. Voigtlander focus is by far the smoothest, buttery but perhaps a little too smooth for my taste for critical focus. Leica is in between. When it comes to aperture click, I rate Zeiss first, Leica second and Voigtlander third. Leica just a little too loose for me and often changed whenever I ‘touched’ it. May be it was just my copy. The Voigtlander is fine but it sounds cheap when turns. It has that very hollow echoey sound whenever it clicks. Still a little loose but a little better than the Leica.
Zeiss feels as dense as a good old 1960 Leica brass lens. It just has that solid touch to it. It definitely worths the asking price when it comes to feel and construction.
While both Zeiss and Leica advertised their fastest 35mm with floating element design to enhance close focusing performance, Voigtlander never confirms anything. Thought during my intensive use of the Nokton over the past year, I never experience any focus shift at any given aperture.
Using it in practice, good and bad
For 99% of the time, the Voigtlander is sharp wide open, contrasty with that classic Leica rendering. Yet, the remaining 1 percent is something that I dislike, especially for my work, chromatic aberration or purple fringing.
As you could imagine, majority of my work images are wedding and couple related. High contrast scenes, such as white wedding dresses, shirts and black suits, are very normal to me. I love to shoot wide open to get the effect I want and so any chromatic aberration along the edges of the dresses or shirts/suits just would kill the picture, though my clients never complaint too much but I am a perfectionist. To certain extend, these purple edging or fringing can be corrected in post via Lightroom’s brilliant correction tool but when the aberration is severe, then it will end up with a big grey meaningless patch in the picture.
Zeiss is the most modern lenses among the fastest 35mm for Leica M and it shows. Sharpness is second to none, even more so than the Leica Summilux FLE. It’s also very even all the way to the edges. The field of curvature is flat and distortion is almost non-existent. Chromatic aberration is also very VERY well control, better than Leica, only just. So despite its size, at least in optical performance alone, the Zeiss is better than Leica but this is only my opinion and the difference is marginal and to naked eyes, 99.9% of the time you won’t tell the difference.
The focus throw is also very short (fast), just like the Summilux. The Nokton was very very ~~~~ very long by comparison. Neither presents a problem for me but in terms of speed, the Zeiss and Leica would probably suit me better at weddings.
One thing that Zeiss is not as good as Leica is the size. It’s as big as the Voigtlander and despite it’s over 100g lighter, it’s still much heavier than the Leica. So when pairing with the M, it feels a little front heavy. I never minded the Nokton so I am not complaining about the Zeiss either. Another potential negative for the Zeiss is the light fall off at maximum aperture setting. It vignettes like crazy. I never measure in terms of light stop but it’s very visible, even more so than the Voigtlander. Leica is the best in this regard but this is common on any fast lenses anyway. I kind of like the effect if you wish to call it and it can be easily corrected in post should you wish to.
Then there’s the rendering. Here is the interesting part. I like all three lenses and I cannot and WILL NOT rate any of them. They are all DIFFERENT lenses with DIFFERENT characters. To my eyes, the Voigtlander is the softest but the most eye pleasing in terms of portrait works. Leica is the most clinical and has a very abrupt change between in-focus and out-of-focus area, so it ‘pops’ more. Then the Zeiss is kind of in between. Despite being the sharpest lens in my eyes among the three, the overall picture doesn’t present it that way. The rather classic rendering helps to ‘pull back’ the ‘pop’ and create a more ‘real’ photo. This is solely a personal preference thing but I quite like the Zeiss’ draw indeed. In terms of bokeh or out-of-focus rendering, the Voigtlander again is the softest, which also means the most ‘creamy’ and my personal choice for weddings. Zeiss and Leica are a little busy at times.
One final note on performance is that despite what the lens engraving says, the maximum aperture size doesn’t always translate to the amount of light gathered through the lens. On paper, the Nokton is the fastest but in real life, I actually find it’s a little less than 1.2. Why? I shot wide open pictures at the same shutter and often find the Nokton a little darker than Zeiss. So it may have the 1.2 rendering but in terms of light gather capability, it’s no better than either Zeiss or Leica. This is a correction to my previous review of the Nokton because I was using the theoretical calculation to say that I could use the 1.2 better at low light. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a super fast 35mm!!
Now my working 35mm on my Leica M is the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm 1,1.4 ZM. I will miss the Voigtlander Nokton dearly solely because of it’s rendering for my wedding work. But since the Zeiss is kind of in between the Nokton and Summilux, it’s more versatile so I can use it for just about everything rather than just weddings. Then the better corrected optics of Zeiss also almost completely eliminates chromatic aberration in high contrast scenes, so it’s a big win when I have to photograph those bright white dresses and those dark suits against the sun!
As always, I place Leica first and all its lenses are genuine investment and future proof. Zeiss is a brilliant lens and equally as the Voigtlander but neither will hold its value as well as the German made optics. However, given the small number of available fast Zeiss, it may well be a low production lens so the potential value could be higher than normal Zeiss lenses.
However, I am using the lens for work and this alone, I am truly happy and stunned by this extraordinary lens. Stay tuned for more photos in the future. Follow me on Facebook and Flickr to see more images in the future!
Thank you for reading my blog and please support my work and this site by buying stuff from Amazon via the link at the bottom (only if you need to buy stuff of course).