Over the last 6 or so months I’ve really bought into the Zeiss ZM system of lenses. I’ve gone from owning 2 of them to 5, and in combination with film and digital cameras they mount to, I now feel like I have all I “need” from my photography equipment. Significantly, the last three of these lenses have been bought at a time that I’ve been describing as a bit of a “low ebb” in my photography. So I thought I’d write a bit about which lenses I’ve chosen and why I’ve chosen them at this particular point in my photography journey.
The most recent two new acquisitions are the Zeiss ZM 85mm f/4 Tele-Tessar and 25mm f/2.8 Biogon. Both of these have been bought within the last month or so. This year I have also bought the 50mm f/2 Planar and 35mm f/2.8 C-Biogon. These 4 are to sit alongside the 50mm f/1.5 C-Sonnar which has been a longstanding favourite of mine. I’ve also owned the 28mm f/2.8 Biogon, but I recently decided to sell it. I’ll come to why a bit later.
This dedication to Zeiss lenses isn’t something that will come as a surprise to those who know me well. I’ve long felt that the contrast, 3D rendering and colour that Zeiss lenses produce most fits my tastes – I’ve mentioned this fact on this website often. The Zeiss “look” I’ve just described is something that some other photographers question, don’t see or simply don’t appreciate. But for me, it doesn’t seem to matter how much other kit I use, ultimately I always seem to favour the results I get from modern Zeiss lenses.
This was really brought home to me in the spring of this year when I borrowed a 35mm f/1.4 Distagon. I took it on a short break to the Welsh Borders, and got some absolutely stunning results with it. I quite genuinely couldn’t have been happier with the photos, but as much as I liked them I concluded that the lens wasn’t for me. Whilst I’d liked the results I’d achieved shooting the lens in low light, the images that really appealed to me were the ones I’d taken in daylight. They really encapsulated everything I felt I could possibly need from a lens for that type of photography. I just didn’t need the weight, size, or indeed speed advantage that came with the Distagon.
I returned the lens to Zeiss knowing exactly what my next step was to be. I needed to buy myself the 35mm f/2.8 C-Biogon. This is a lens that’s regarded by many as a bit of a master stroke by Zeiss. It’s tiny but – and I say this fairly objectively – has exceptionally high quality rendering. Significantly for me, it does everything I love about Zeiss lenses in droves: wonderful rich slightly warm colours, high contrast and absolute peak 3D pop. In short, it did all of what the larger faster Distagon does, but it small and slow.
I should add, I know some people can’t “see” 3D pop, and I do appreciate that it’s one of those things that’s just a bit too subjective and hard to define. But I do wonder how it’s possible to look at a photo like the one above and not see how 3 dimensional it looks.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, I bought that lens with a certain amount of hope and expectations, and they were absolutely met. Whats more relevant to this particular story about that photo is that was taken on an outing that I previously wrote about here. It was actually one of the first articles where I talked about my aforementioned low photography ebb. In brief, I’d had a helicopter ride bought for me as a gift. I was initially really excited about it, and had high hopes for it being a great excuse to take some photos.
In actual fact, by the time it came around, I was feeling fairly morose about photography. I didn’t find myself particularly inspired to shoot much, and certainly wasn’t bothered about messing about with cameras and lenses in the way I often am. In the end, when it came to choosing kit for the day, I just wanted a camera and lens that I could trust not to let me down… so I took my digital rangefinder and the 35mm C-Biogon. I only took a few shots, but I was more than happy with the results and indeed the experience of taking them.
This experience sealed a bit of a deal in my mind. I’d long been thinking about buying a set of Zeiss ZM lenses, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t ever bitten the bullet. I decided soon after that I needed to take the plunge and complete the set. I decided that for all my messing about with other kit, I needed a default fallback. A set of kit that I could always rely upon to not let me down. I’ve had this sort of set of kit at work for use within my “professional” photography for a long time, but I wanted this at home too.
It’s fair to say the 50mm f/1.5 C-Sonnar started this Zeiss fetish. I bought that lens after a lot of indecision, but if you’ve read my 8000+ word love letter to the thing, you’ll know that ultimately I became completely besotted with it. This hasn’t changed since, but with the 50mm focal length being my most common choice, I’ve regularly felt that I needed other lenses to compliment what it offers.
I actually made a bit of a YouTube video about this. In the video I talk about how I like to use the Sonnar for certain types of photos, but like to also have an even more “classic” rendering lens and more fit-and-forget lens options alongside it. At the time, the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 was the fit and forget lens, but a few months back I decided to replace it with the 50mm f/2 Planar.
I must admit, the Voigtlander was plenty good enough, but the experiences I’d recently had with the Zeiss 35mm lenses sealed the deal on the Planar. The Planar has a bit of a reputation for being almost too “sharp”, but so far I’ve not found an issue myself. In practice, it offers me something I can shoot at mid-apertures easily, and gives results that I don’t really have to think about. In short, it’s basically the 50mm equivalent of the 35mm. It gives me a fit and forget option for results I can rely on to look how I like them. You might be noticing a bit of a trend in my thinking here…?
The 85mm f/4 Tele-Tessar
The problem of a longer-lens for my Leica cameras is one that’s been hanging around for a long time. I don’t shoot at these sorts of focal lengths often with my m-mount cameras, though oddly considering that fact, I use my 85mm Zeiss Batis more than any other lens on my Sony cameras. The Batis gets used so much because I shoot a lot of corporate events and office reportage photography. The focal length gives me what I need to not get in people’s faces at events, and has almost defined my style as a corporate/office reportage photographer. As such, I’m very familiar with the field of view.
Within my hobby work, I only tend to use longer lenses for landscape photography and initially – at least for the most part – felt that this was what I wanted the 85mm Tele-Tessar for.
Now, I’m not sure I believe in “fate” as such, but I’ve read The Alchemist and so I can’t help sometimes thinking that it’s important to take note when it feels like the “universe” is telling me something. The 85mm came to me from a regular reader and friend Des who’d decided it wasn’t for him. I’d been thinking about buying one, so when he offered me his I figured it’d be daft not to jump at it.
A week or so after it landed on my desk, I found myself shooting a project I’d been thinking about starting for a while. The details are a story for another day, but it’s essentially a personal project that involves photographing people in a similar way to how I shoot at events with the Batis. I’d chucked the 85mm in the bag purely for the fact that it was new. I’d actually intended to use the 50mm Sonnar. But when I got there, it became very clear that the 85mm was not only the right lens for the job, it was actually the perfect choice.
I’m not entirely sure Paulo Coelho was writing specifically about signs that point to the continued ownership of lenses when he wrote The Alchemist, but if this wasn’t a sign that buying the 85mm was a good idea, then I don’t know what would be…? To top it off, the results were spot on. I didn’t miss focus once, and they were reliably how I like my photos to look.
The 25mm f/2.8 Biogon
The final piece in the puzzle was the 25mm f/2.8 Biogon. Once again, Des has a lot to answer for. He’d bought the 25mm and had decided it wasn’t right for him. I offered to sell it for him through the shop, but when it landed, I noticed it had slightly uneven focusing for a Zeiss ZM lens. He’d bought it ex-dem not long before too, so between us we decided to take advantage of the warranty send it to Zeiss for repair before it was resold.
Before it went though, I thought I’d tease myself with it. I had this little nagging feeling that I might favour it over the 28 – not because the 28 isn’t great – but more because I’m used to shooting with a 25mm Batis lens. As it turns out I was right. I think I’ve spent so much time with the Zeiss Batis lenses now that 25 and 85 just feel like the right fit me. Of course, 25 isn’t a natural choice for a rangefinder camera that only has frame lines as wide as 28mm, but actually I find that 25 works really well. It only takes a little bit of imagination to guess the framing, but the field of view advantage seems quite significant. I decided I wanted the 25mm for certain not long after Des’s lens went to Zeiss, so promptly bought a slightly tattier older (cheaper) one off eBay, and sold the 28mm. Now I have the 25mm, just like all the others, I’m satisfied that I have a lens that does exactly what I need and very little more or less.
The speed compromise
As far as I understand it, lens speed hasn’t always been quite as important to photographers as it seems to be these days. In fact, I think I’ve grown up in an era where lens speed has been something that’s almost universally highly prized. For me – at least in the early days of my photography – fast lenses were things that I sought out too. Back then, I was shooting a lot more photos of mates in bars late at night than I was shooting landscapes when out taking the dogs/kids for a walk – so I can argue a case that I did actually need the speed. Things have changed. I’ve grown out of that need for a set of ultra fast lenses, though it’s fair to say that my mentality has grown slower than that real terms need.
I’ve written about this a few times on this site, but a previous post that sticks out in my mind as being particularly relevant here is one I wrote about a Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9 lens I used to own. It stuck around in my collection for a long time waiting for a moment that I’d need a fast wide angle lens. That time never came, so in a moment of rational thinking I eventually sold it.
Yet, despite this, one of the mental hurdles I’ve had to overcome when committing to the idea of the Zeiss ZM line of lenses is that in the 25 and 85mm focal lengths, the options are only a f/2.8 and f/4 respectively. (I know Zeiss made an 85mm f/2 Sonnar, but those things go for a fortune and I just can’t justify that sort of cost for a focal length I don’t use that much.) For a long time, especially when it comes to the 85mm, I felt that these lenses were going to be just too slow for me.
Some practical thinking
What’s happened with my “low ebb” recently though has adjusted that mentality. It’s had me thinking a lot more practically than I have been for a while. It’s not that practical-Hamish didn’t exist, he was just being squashed by a different Hamish who could be a little too easily motivated by other less practical desires. In short, rather than buying these lenses through looking for something unnecessarily fast, different, unique, novel – or even just as something to write about – I’ve bought them quite simply to allow me take that sort of photos I actually take reliably and without too much thought to the kit.
Yes I like the way they render, but more than that, for me they are solid trustworthy workhorses that function as I need them and consistently as a set. It’s taken me a long time to get here, and has – somewhat ironically – taken a bit of a dip in my positivity about photography to get me here… I’m pleased I have got here now though. I feel like I have a bit of a cornerstone in my kit now. For all the other stuff I decide a “want” for whatever reason I can dream up at the time, behind it all I have what I “need” to fall back on when I just have a desire to be able to trust my kit to produce images at the peak of my requirements. And in a period of otherwise-grumpiness about photography, that feels quite reassuring.