There’s quite a few lenses I’ve been asked to review by readers of this website over the years, but there aren’t many that I’ve been asked about as much as the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM Distagon. Ironically, it’s one lens that I’ve always been absolutely certain of the outcome of me writing about it. This lens was almost undoubtedly going to be optically awesome, the only real question that hung over it related to its larger-than-average size. In fact, this is pretty much the narrative of every review, blog post and forum thread out there. It’s incredible, but it’s big! What more is there to say? Of course, what I’d failed to comprehend prior to trying it is that I might stumble upon a character trait I’d really love…
This question about what I could possibly find to write about is the question I’ve asked myself every single time I’ve been asked to review it. I’m not a technical lens reviewer, I don’t go into the finer details and I often don’t even notice many of the “flaws” caused by the evils that a lot of reviewers get their knickers in a twist about. In fact, the flaws I do notice, I often see as reasons to shoot a lens rather than avoid it.
My Interest in lenses
To this end, my interest in lenses – at least when it comes to writing about the things – is often more around writing about those that have more of an impact on the photo in a way that can be creatively harnessed. It’s not that I don’t like well rounded, high-quality, clinical lenses, I just find them less interesting to shoot and share my thoughts about as part of this website.
Unfortunately for the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM – based on the reviews I’d read about it already – I had formed a chunk of prejudice about it. For a start, it did seem that it was regarded as being a very high quality optic, and so by that merit alone, I’d decided it probably wasn’t going to be that interesting a lens for me to write about. Additionally, since I’m not really a fan of making my rangefinder equipment any bigger than I absolutely have to, shooting a lens that’s design ethos is around a compromise in terms of larger size in favour of higher quality, it just didn’t appeal as an overall package to me.
Furthermore, I don’t really shoot 35mm lenses very often anyway. And, if I were to decide to shoot 35mm, I already have a Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 lens – a lens which is smaller and lighter. It is, of course, optically compromised – especially compared to the Zeiss – but it’s optically compromised in a way that I quite like and have rarely found to be detrimental to my photography in the way that I use it.
In short – at least as far as I’d prejudged it – the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM is not the sort of lens I would choose to shoot, it’s not a focal length I frequently favour, and to top it off, it’s not the even the sort of lens I really enjoy writing about. For all these reasons – despite me getting asked about it a lot – it’s taken a long time for me to get around to a review.
So why am I writing about it now, I hear you ask. Well, funnily enough, the thing that swung it for me was finding a lot of love for another slightly bigger lens – the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2. Don’t get me wrong, for a f/1.2 lens, the Voigtlander is fairly small. But, it’s a lot bigger that the tiny 50mm f/1.5 ZM Sonnar that I’m used to. I had never expected to find a lens that I liked even close to as much as the Sonnar, but the Voigtlander has come close – in fact, depending on the day you ask me, you might even find me saying I prefer it to the Sonnar.
So when I was recently contacted by yet another person suggesting I should review the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM, I thought it about time I got round to it! Maybe I can get along with larger kit? Maybe 35mm does work for me? Maybe I would enjoy some optical near-perfection in my life? Maybe I just need to push myself out of a comfort zoom a bit?
Conveniently, when I got in touch with Zeiss, my contact there was able to supply the lens to me quite quickly. Not only this, but it was just in time for a short trip away with the family and some friends. The benefit of this was that I could force myself out of a comfort zone for the weekend. I wouldn’t take a 50mm, I would just take the a digital and a film M-mount camera and the 35mm f/1.4 ZM and see how I got on.
As I’ve previously mentioned, I own a Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4. It’s not a lens often I shoot these days – but I used to shoot it a lot! In fact, I used to shoot it all the time. It was my go to lens attached to a Voigtlander R2a about 10-12 years ago. It went everywhere with me. I say everywhere, but mostly what I mean by everywhere is mates houses and the pub. I didn’t go many other places in my early 20s, but I did like taking photos, and the sorts of photos I liked taking were contextual portraits of my mates.
The evening prior to my trip away presented me with a moment to reflect on this previous style of photography of mine. I’d mounted the lens to my M262 and was pondering how I was going to get used to shooting a 35mm lens again in such a short period of time. The funny thing is, it’s not like I ever really stopped shooting 35mm lenses, I just started shooting them with my point & shoot cameras instead of with rangefinders. There’s a different approach of course, but thinking about how I shoot those cameras reminded me about how I used to shoot my Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4. It was all about snapping contextual shots of people in their environments.
So that’s what I started to do with the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM – I snapped some shots of the wife and kids around the house. And in doing so, I pretty much instantly stumbled across what I feel is this lens’s unique selling point: it has incredible three dimensional rendering.
Funnily enough, I didn’t expect this at all. What I expected is what I think of as modern-lens rendering. This lens is big because – at least as I understand it – it’s been designed to be optically superior. It has more chunks of glass in it than the average rangefinder lens, and with the increased amount of glass I just expected to see the sort of slightly-flatter less life-like rendering I find in my modern autofocus Zeiss lenses.
There’s nothing wrong with this sort of rendering, of course, and it’s fair to say that the modern Zeiss lenses I use are better than most when it comes to 3D rendering in my experiences. But the point is, I figured this 35mm f/1.4 ZM was going to be cut from that same cloth. In short, I didn’t expect it to share the sort of 3D rendering I get out of my ZM Sonnar and 28mm f/2.8 Biogon. I was absolutely wrong to make that assumption.
The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM has wonderful 3d rendering. In fact, it’s probably one of the best lenses I’ve ever used for capturing a really life-like picture. Of course, the interesting thing about 3D rendering, or “3D pop” as it’s often called is that it’s one of those subjects that divides opinion – mostly because it’s a very subjective topic. Some people don’t seem to observe it at all, some people refer to it as just a property of the lens being “transparent” and some associate it with various specific optical properties. Fortunately for the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM it has all of things going for it in terms of its ability to create this look.
High contrast (and resolution)
In terms of lens contrast, my experience with all of the Zeiss ZM range of lenses has been the same: they all have it in droves! Even the lenses that lack a little bit in terms of resolution – such as the 50mm ZM Sonnar – have very high contrast. The result of this is that the images it produces still look subjectively “sharp”.Add to this the high resolution found in the 35mm f/1.4 ZM, and you have what makes for a very transparent feeling bit of glass.
The beauty of this particular lens is that it still feels very sharp and contrasty wide open, meaning that the sense of transparency is even there when shot in lower light.
The other thing that that’s often associated with 3D pop is good Bokeh. To be honest, I’m a little on the fence with this one, as in my opinion, you don’t need good subject separation from the background to achieve an image that looks 3D. It’s perfectly possible for images that are almost entirely in focus to still look 3D – something this lens achieves quite nicely.
Regardless, some people hold the view that you do need good background separation to achieve 3D pop, and for them, this lens will definitely provide another tick in the box. It has, at least in my experience, really nice smoothly rendered bokeh.
Now, to be fair, I didn’t test is extensively with out of focus foliage (I had better things to do with the time I spent with it) so it’s hard for me to write conclusively based on my experiences, but other reviewers seem to speak quite highly of the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM when it comes to it’s “bokeh-ball” rendering.
Transition to out-of-focus
It also seems to have a nice smooth transition to out-of-focus. There’s no glowing or doubling of fine lines such as hairs in the just-out-of-focus areas. This makes for a very natural transition to out of focus. I don’t suppose this adds to what makes for good 3D pop, but it certainly adds to a sense that the lens is transparent to the subject matter, or at very least that it doesn’t impart too much of a distracting “character”.
Transparent image quality
Funnily enough, the discovery that this lens’s key selling point is this 3D look became the exact reason I continued to enjoy it throughout the rest of my trip. I shot the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM with the sense that I was using a highly transparent optic that would render loads of detail in my images in a wonderfully transparent way – and not that I was shooting with a dull near-perfect optic as I expected I might feel. I guess I felt like I’d found the hook, I’d found the thing that made this lens appeal to me, and for that reason I enjoyed shooting it enormously!
Shooting Film with the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM
The trip away was only for two days, so I shot one roll with the digital camera and one roll of Portra 800. You might say this is an inappropriate choice for a sunny day, but bloody hell did this lens help maximise the potential of the higher grain film. I think I got pretty much every ounce of potential detail out of the grain, with the only limitation being the resolution of my scanner. Look at the colours too – this is Zeiss-colour to me, and I bloody love it! Again, it just adds to the sense of real in the image.
In fact, I showed these images around to a few people at The Photography Show the other week. Most assumed they were medium format – which says a lot I think!
The bad stuff
So all good then? Well nearly… in fact more nearly than I expected. Predictably, I did find the lens to be quite big. It’s also internal focusing – again unusual for rangefinder lenses. In my experience rangefinder lenses are almost always unit focusing, and so are smaller when focused to infinity. Not this lens, it’s big and it’s always big (on a rangefinder, at least).
That being said, I didn’t find it the issue I expected to. Carrying it, it was only a little bit more awkward than what I’m used to. I found it to under my arm more often – if that makes any sense at all…? Funnily enough though, I got used to it very quickly. Possibly because despite its size it’s actually a real pleasure to shoot with. The larger size does give more to hold on to and – combined with the fantastic build quality – this pleasure in use fairly quickly overruled my issues with its size. Especially as I knew how good the results were going to be…
And quite genuinely, if I haven’t already made it clear, in terms of the results I can’t fault it at all! It vignettes a bit wide open (what lenses don’t), but apart from that, as expected, I didn’t find any of the flaws other reviews report.
A few more photos
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So surely, I’m buying one then? Who wouldn’t buy a lens that they like as much as this? Well, despite this glowing review, I didn’t find myself too disappointed when I had to hand it back to Zeiss. In fact, when I was asked by my contact at Zeiss at The Photography Show what I thought about it, I didn’t even find myself waxing lyrical about how amazing it is in the way I have throughout this review.
Whilst I think it’s quite possibly one of the best I’ve ever mounted to an m-mount camera – objectively speaking at least – I just don’t feel like I need it in my life. It sold me on it, it just hasn’t sold me on what I’d use it for. Funnily enough, I’d even go as far to say that it’s encouraged me to dabble more with 35mm lenses. My Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 is out on loan at the moment, but when it comes back, I might give it a run shooting lower-light contextual portraits of my family and friends like I used to. I suspect, I will find it perfectly adequate for that task too.
As for shooting 35mm lenses in other situations, this experience has definitely sold me on the idea of shooting with a Zeiss lens. I forget just how much I love the rendering the Zeiss ZM lenses commonly share. I’m just not sure I could justify the size, weight and cost to achieve the look I enjoyed so much from the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon. Especially when I suspect I could get much the same look from a one of the smaller Biogon 35mm lenses. In fact, I’ve often found myself very intrigued by the f/2.8 c-Biogon. It is tiny, and can be had for a fraction of the price of the ZM f/1.4. It and the Voigtlander f/1.4 would probably collectively take up less room in a bag than the ZM f/1.4 does too. Between them they give me enough of what I’ve found here to keep me happy I think – especially given how little I actually shoot the 35mm focal length.
This all said, none of my personal preferences would get in the way of me wholeheartedly recommending this lens to anyone who feels like they need a fast 35mm lens – especially to people who favour Zeiss lenses, or seek a 3D look in their images. It might be big, but as expected, it’s awesome. In short, not for me, but I’m pretty certain the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM Distagon is up there with the best lenses I’ve ever shot!