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Zeiss 35mm Distagon f/1.4 ZM

Zeiss 35mm

I’ve had this love/hate relationship with the Leica camera for the past few months since jumping into the digital Leica waters.  The M9 is bigger than my old M6, more bulky and it seems more fragile than the old M6.  Though, when everything is in sync, I love the combination of sharpness and bokeh you get with sharp lenses and a full frame sensor in such a tiny package.  What I have not loved is the unpredictability of the image focus.  Sometimes they were unpredictably out of focus, and it did not matter if I was using the Voightlander 50mm lens or the 28mm lens… about 20% of my images were simply out of focus which was maddening.  I even sent the M9-P back to Leica to have it calibrated thinking that was the problem, but it turns out the problem was the Voightlander lenses.  Perhaps for some, the Voightlander lenses work well, but for me, a combination of almost unpredictable focus shifting and what I can only describe as “play” in the focus mechanism of two separate lenses led to an unacceptable number of images that were out of focus.  The only way to reliably ensure that they were in focus would be to use them on a camera with live view, like the new M or on an adapter ring for one of my Fuji cameras.  Regardless, live view is something the Leica M-9, M-9P and Leica Monochrom do not have.

Where this whole thing turned around for me was I briefly borrowed a Leica Summicron 35mm f/2 lens from my friend Trent and tried a few shots nailing focus, every. single. time.  I then rented a Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH and was deliriously happy with the images from it.  The problem with this is that the Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH lens is a $5,000 lens.  I wanted the speed of the f/1.4 lens, but could not afford the Leica solution and therefore considered ending the digital Leica experiment and putting the Leica on the shelf or selling it until I heard that Zeiss had a 35mm f/1.4 solution in the  Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T* ZM for Leica mounts for less than half of what the Leica 35mm f/1.4 solution costs.  I had previously been very happy with Zeiss quality and figured it would be worth a trial run.

 

Sorensen Molecular Biology Building

Camera: Leica M9
Exposure: 1/90
Aperture: f/4.8
Focal Length: 35mm
ISO: 80

For me, the 35mm lens on a range finder camera is ideal.  It encourages intimacy and at the same time makes for an excellent street photography lens, seemingly to match how I see the world from my eyes.  But here is the trick… This Zeiss lens is at least as good as the Leica 35mm f/1.4 I rented and perhaps better for far less money.  It is an amazing lens with excellent build quality, nice dampening of the focus and the click-stop aperture ring.  It all feels *just right* and optically, I am ridiculously happy with it as there is effectively no distortion that I can find.  I also really like the fact that there is no focus shift with this lens and it is entirely internally focusing.  In other words, there is no element that is moving fore and aft when focusing.  I really like that feature in a lens.

This lens is so good, that it may be the last lens that ever goes on this particular camera.  Full stop.

 

John A Moran Eye Center

Camera: Leica M9
Exposure: 1/60
Aperture: f/16
Focal Length: 35mm
ISO: 80

Shooting a combination of straight and curved lines, then looking at any corrections shows that this lens is amazingly rectilinear with almost no chromatic aberration when stopped down.

 

BWJones flare

Camera: Leica M9
Exposure: 1/15
Aperture: f/1.7
Focal Length: 35mm
ISO: 80

Wide open, there is a little chromatic aberration, but even stopped down just a little bit, in this case to f/1.7, it starts to go away.  Lens flare is present, but totally acceptable particularly given the difficult lighting situations where I was trying to generate flare.

 

SCI blue on blue

Camera: Leica M9
Exposure: 1/2000
Aperture: f/2.4
Focal Length: 35mm
ISO: 80

The lens handles color transmission and fidelity amazingly well with much less chromatic aberration than I saw with the Voigtlander lenses even in saturating conditions.

 

Audi S7

Camera: Leica M9
Exposure: 1/60
Aperture: f/1.7
Focal Length: 35mm
ISO: 200

Low light though is where this lens really shines and why you would pay more for the f/1.4 Distagon version of the Zeiss ZM lens lineup than the say, the f/2.0 Biogon lens.  Wide open, there is a little vignetting that occurs, but I rather like it and it happens with a very smooth transition.

 

Sawyer Pangborn

Camera: Leica M9
Exposure: 1/45
Aperture: f/1.4
Focal Length: 35mm
ISO: 800

Wide open the lens is sharp right where it needs to be and smooth in the regions you want to be out of focus.  The quality of the bokeh is wonderful, leading to nice subject isolation like this picture of my friend Sawyer in my office.  If you shoot landscape or architecture, then f/1.4 will not mean much to you, but for those that like to shoot wide open with a Leica and don’t have $5k – $10k US to spend on a lens, *this* is your lens.  In fact, if I *had* a Leica 35mm f/1.4, I might sell it and buy this Zeiss lens, have money in my pocket and a better lens on the Leica.

This lens has saved the Leica experiment for me.  Otherwise, the Leica would be sold, or sitting on a shelf and I’d be (quite happily) back shooting the Fuji gear pretty much full time.

My only 2 complaints with the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon?  1) The lens does not come with a hood which seems like an absurd oversight, particularly from a company as reputable as Zeiss.  I can’t even find an optional lens hood for it which seems even more absurd.  2) A minor complaint is the lens is a bit large.  Larger than the Leica solution, but waaaay smaller than the 50mm Voightlander Nocton lens I had on here or the $10k Leica Noctilux lens.

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8 Responses

  1. Nice review. I should rent this lens one day too. I have the Zeiss ZM 35/2.8 Biogon. As good or better than my Leica ASPH Cron. My only reservation about the 1.4 is the size. But until I try it out….

  2. Thank You for the review! Is there any valid comparison between the Distagon 35mm 1.4 and the Summilux 35mm 1.4? There are a few reports, but they lack sample images, so I really would like see a comparison with lots of images, images, images. Of course I realised the Zeiss is heavier and cheaper and the Summilux is smaller and more expensive – I do not care price and weight. I am only keen on IQ, color rendering, micro contrast, et cetera.
    What do You know? Which one creates the crispier, the more 3D – Image?

    Kindest, Reza

    • Hello Reza,

      I do not have any real quantitative images from the Summilux 35mm. I did rent one and borrowed another, but I did not have any quantitative images comparing the two. The Summilux is a very nice lens indeed and I was happy with it, particularly from the size perspective. But the Zeiss image quality seemed just as good, if not better for less money, so I ultimately purchased that lens.

    • I have not seen a direct comparison, but the MTF data suggests that the Zeiss has a much flatter plane of focus and is sharper wide-open.

      I did run a comparison between my ZM on an M 262 and a Canon 5DIII with Sigma 35mm Art. The Zeiss+Leica was substantially sharper than the extremely well regarded Sigma. The Zeiss also has a really nice rendering of the out-of-focus areas,

      The only downside is the size, the 49mm filter, and finder blockage. However, for me the image quality substantially outweighs this. If I want a smaller, lighter 35mm would choose a summicron or biogon instead.



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