Sunday, May 03, 2009

Zeiss 21mm/2.8 ZF Distagon

This lens has lineage that can be traced to the legend that existed during the reign of the Contax/Yashica days. It was a lens whose performance is envied throughout the industry: high resolution, color accuracy and flare-free. Following the success of this legend, Carl Zeiss engineers decided to construct a new 21m Distagon for the new mounts, improving on the already high resolution and using only eco-friendly materials. The new 21mm Distagon arrived on the west coast United States in late March.

Physical Characteristics
Physically, the lens will make a lens fondler weep with tears of joy. The metal barrel is sleek and sexy.

The T* coating is a pure pleasure to behold. The calibrated markings on the lens are engraved, not the usual cheap printed version. And, the weight makes you feel like it means business. Just like a car, it must perform well but you must be able to live with the styling and the sound of door slam. If you slam the door, and it sounded hallow, what does it make you feel? Hallow, doesn't it? The door slam must sound solid. Well, when you turn the focus ring of this lens, it feels like you just slammed the door of a new Mercedes --- solid!

The smoothness of the focusing ring is as smooth or smoother than a Leica lens. We are talking buttery smooth with lots of inertia (damping) to give you complete control over fine-tuned focusing. There is no play or any element of looseness at all --- just pure smoothness with no play. This area has again exceeded my expectations.

The lens even look good. If styling is anything to you, this lens will fulfill that part of the bargain.

Finally, as if a hand has stretched out to offer you a welcome shake when you open the box that contain the lens, it even comes with a quality-control card that is personally signed by a Zeiss employee. That is a nice touch that tells me about one thing inherent in the Zeiss culture --- attention to details.

Over to the performance department, our Zeiss friend has once again not disappoint us.
Color rendition of the images produced by this lens will truly knock your breath away. As far as my experiences with other lenses is concerned, nothing among the wide-angle Nikon lenses can come close to it. The closest one is probably the latest Nikkor 14-24mm/2.8G AF-S. Again and again, the colors from this lens have exceeded what my eyes have come to expect from a wide angle lens. They are bold and richly catchy. Does this Cherry Tree remind you of Fujichrome Velvia RVP-50? I know my eyes had a big feast when I first saw it.

OK, you are probably asking me by now: the colors are good, what about the resolution? This lens is, undoubtedly, a high resolution lens. The resolution is good --- it is really good. It is so good, I think the published MTF is slightly underrating the lens. My experience tells me that the resolving abilities of this lens is consistent all the way to the edge. Anyone who is looking for a high resolution lens will not be disappointed by the performance of this lens. I know I am very pleased when I saw and examined my images.

Additionally, the performance of this lens at close range is as astounding as those shot at infinity. Currently, many lenses are tuned optically for infinity and it is easy to do that; in fact, many manufacturers these days have done it fairly well. On the other hand, not many lens makers can produce lenses that perform well both at infinity and close range.
 The mechanism needed for a lens to perform well at close range is the floating element (FLE) feature.Zeiss has been using this feature for decades and their implementation is very refined. The implementation of FLE in this lens is no different --- it is close to perfection and I am enjoying every single bit of it. The leaf on the floor is about 6 to 7 inches from the lens.

Because the lens is wide, a panoramic image shot with this lens will yield a perspective that is out of this world. I have included a couple images here that were stitched panoramas.

So, is there anything I do not like about the lens? Nothing that I am expecting from this lens has not been met. There are some rumblings among the early adopters claiming that if the subject is focused closed, there are more distortions compared to lenses with aspherical elements. That may be true but I did not buy this lens for macros. :)

OK, there was one small displeasure. The front cap of the lens is like a modern Nikkor front cap. Pinch it and the double-spring-loaded cap is released from the lens. Release the pinch, the dual springs will pop back out into place. It turns out that either the Zeiss manufacturing process or the outsourced company doing the cap has a "bug" in the assembling process. One of the springs was slightly crushed during assembly. And the front cap did not function well. It was not tight when it was capping the lens. I un-popped the mechanism and unbent the slightly crushed spring and it is working like new now. My dealer said all of their caps were like that in his shipment.

Alright, after more than a year and a half of using the Zeiss ZF line of lenses, I now have formed an opinion of the front caps. The depth of the pinch grip is too shallow. Whenever I tried to pinch it to remove the front cap, my fingers have slipped very often from the front cap while I was removing the cap and the cap will end up on the floor. I believe the Nikon ones have a slightly deeper groove for the fingers to properly engage the grip more firmly. Perhaps, Zeiss can re-work these front caps a little --- nothing serious --- and add some tweaking.

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