The Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 T* Distagon is is often referred to as being one of the best 35mm lenses available, combining high sharpness as well as microcontrast and smooth bokeh in a small yet very pricey package. But is it really worth the asking price when used on the A7 series cameras? Let us find out!
Update 03/06/17: sharpness section updated (performance with 5m PCX filter included), sample images added, bokeh section updated, alternatives section updated, conclusion updated
This lens was also featured in my fast 35mm manual focus lenses comparison you might want to have a look at.
Specifications / Version History
The ZM 35mm 1.4 T* Distagon is the latest addition to the ZM/Ikon lineup by Zeiss, introduced during Photokina 2014. This lens features a very complex retrofocus design: 2 aspherical elements, 3 anomalous partial dispersion elements, floating elements, you name it. The lens has the following specifications:
- Diameter: 63 mm
- Field of view: 62.15° (diagonally)
- Length: 87 mm
- Weight: 381g + adapter
- Filter Diameter: 49 mm
- Number of Aperture Blades: 10 (straight)
- Elements/Groups: 10/7
- Close Focusing Distance: 0.7 m (~0.3 m with VM-E helicoid adapter)
- Maximum Magnification: 1:16.9 (~1:5.7 with VM-E helicoid adapter)
- Mount: Leica-M
You may also have a look at Zeiss’ official page.
Handling / Build Quality
Build quality is very nice, as is to be expected from a lens with such a high price tag. It feels very solid as it seems to be an all metal construction, which of course also adds to the substantial weight of the lens. The aperture ring has distinct 1/3 of a stop click stops and travels ~120° from f/1.4 to f/16. Personally I would prefer full or at least half stop click stops, but that might just be me. The focus ring feels very nice and from the minimum focus distance of 70 cm to infinity it travels 90°.
Unlike most of the other rangefinder lenses this one features an internal focusing mechanism, meaning nothing moves externally when focusing. There is no hood included in the package which is a bit ridiculous considering the price of the lens, but we will check later if a hood is actually necessary in the first place.
Vignetting / Colorcast
Wide open there is strong vignetting of roughly 3.1 EV, stopped down to f/2.0 it improves to 2.3 EV, at f/2.8 it is 1.7 EV and at f/4.0 still 1.2 EV. This is not an unusual performance for a rangefinder lens with these parameters, but the small diameter certainly takes it’s toll here. There is a Lightroom lens profile for correcting the vignetting.
Unlike with many other rangefinder wide angle lenses I can barely see a color cast towards the edges with the A7rII and the A7s. I can’t speak for the A7(II) and especially A7r though, the latter being especially known for encountering theses issues.
The ZM 35mm 1.4 is a rangefinder lens developed for the Leica-M digital cameras. Similar to the Voigtlander Ultron 28mm 2.0 it is not optimized for the thick filter stack in front of the A7 sensors which leads to some problems, especially a significant field curvature. This means for a flat subject when focusing at the center of the frame the corners will look blurred.
This is not the lenses fault as you can focus on the corners and still get decent sharpness at f/1.4 there, but your center will be blurred then. By f/8.0 you will be able to get excellent performance across the frame though, check out the next section “Achieving optimal focus at infinity with rangefinder wide angle lenses” as well.
Furthermore you can improve the corner performance of rangefinder wideangle lenses on A7 series cameras by the use of a 5m PCX “front end filter”, see this article for further reference. This filter has a dramatic influence on the across frame sharpness, as you can see here:
Unfortunately the use of a 5m PCX filter will give you slightly worse resolution in the midframe wide open, but already by f/2.8 you can get very good across frame sharpness which is otherwise not possible on an A7 camera as you can see above.
close focus (70 cm)
close focus (30 cm with VM-E helicoid adapter)
At the native minimum focus distance of 70 cm there is nothing to complain about, good at f/1.4 and very good by f/2.0. If you reduce the minimum focus distance with a helicoid adapter (like I did here with the Voigtlander VM-E close focus adapter (affiliate link)) the image gets a bit soft at f/1.4 and f/2.0 but improves considerably on stopping down to f/2.8. Keep in mind the lens was never intended to be used at these focus distances by the designers.
Achieving optimal focus at infinity with rangefinder wide angle lenses
In the sharpness section you have seen it makes a big difference whether you are focusing for the center of the frame or for the corners. If you want to get best across the frame sharpness neither is the optimal solution, so let me explain, how to achieve optimal focus here.
Let us imagine you are shooting a flat subject at infinity (a city from far away or some landscape) at f/1.4. The plane of focus is very thin, and as you have already seen, in our case it is also curved. Remember for all the following pictograms: Wherever the blue line merges with the red line our subject is in focus.
As you can see, at f/1.4 the thin curved blue line can’t merge with the thin straight red line everywhere. So we have the choice: sharp corners or sharp center, but not both at the same time (just as you have seen in the sharpness section).
Now we stop our lens down to f/5.6. The blue line gets considerably thicker, meaning the depth of the plane which is in focus increases significantly:
But you can also see, the blue line still doesn’t merge with the red line everywhere. Bummer. The problem is, we focused wide open and the depth of the plane which is in focus increases in both directions on stopping down. Our center at infinity was already sharp at f/1.4, so do we need to extent the plane of focus beyond that? No!
So what we can (and should) do is this: stop down first and then focus. The important thing here is: we have to check the center and the corner (or border) each time we adjust the focus. I checked this once with my lens in combination with the corresponding adapter carefully and I do know now that I have to set the lens to the left end of the infinity mark, stop down to f/8.0 and then can expect great performance across the whole frame at infinity.
So, by a clever positioning of the plane in focus you don’t need to stop down as much to get good sharpness in the center and the corners at the same time for a subject at infinity.
Kind of a mixed bag as with most lenses. The shot above is the worst I could produce showing some small ghosts. With a different framing (shot below) I could completely avoid them. A hood wouldn’t really help here, as I tried shading the lens without success.
focus on corner
focus on center
Because of the field curvature caused by the thick filter stack in front of the sensor this one is hard to address properly. In case you have been paying attention in the Sharpness section you already know: you can’t get great performance wide open in the center and in the corners at the same time on an A7 series camera. So we will again differentiate between focus on center and focus on corner.
Wide open coma performance isn’t particulary great, regardless of where your focus lies. Same goes for f/2.0 and f/2.8. When focusing on the corner, by f/4.0 things start to look good, when focusing on the center it takes f/5.6 for the corners to be mostly free of coma. This is not a lens you would want to use wide open for astrophotography or cityscapes.
Distortion without (before) and with correction (after)
There is very slight barrel distortion which I would describe as mostly negligible. You can also use a Lightroom profile to correct this if necessary for critical shots.
As this lens design incorporates 2 aspherical elements I was a bit skeptical at first, but when comparing this lens to the Loxia 35mm 2.0 you see things are not always just black and white: the ZM – despite the aspherical elements – has much smoother bokeh than the Loxia without aspherical elements. There is slight outlining and at 100% magnification you might even spot some subtle structure in the light discs. The cat’s eye effect – describing light discs becoming ovals towards the borders and corners – is also quite pronounced. Still, many 35mm lenses fail badly in this category, but the ZM looks very pleasing to my eyes. Take a look at the sample images and decide for yourself.
Comparison ZM 35mm email@example.com <-> ZM 35mm firstname.lastname@example.org:
Before: ZM 35mm 1.4 @ 1.4 | After: ZM 35mm 1.4 @ 2.0 (focus distance 70 cm)
Comparison ZM 35mm email@example.com <-> Loxia 35mm firstname.lastname@example.org:
Before: ZM 35mm 1.4 @ 2.0 | After: Loxia 35mm 2.0 @ 2.0 (focus distance 70 cm)
Comparison 100% crops ZM 35mm email@example.com <-> Loxia 35mm firstname.lastname@example.org:
Before: ZM 35mm 1.4 @ 1.4 | After: Loxia 35mm 2.0 @ 2.0 (100% crops, focus distance 70 cm)
Unfortunately the field curvature can also have negative influence on the bokeh. While in the center of the frame everything is alright the blur lessens towards the borders. Have a look at the tree branches on the left, where the one towards the border looks less out of focus. Same goes for the bridge on the right, whereas here the effect is even stronger, as the right part of the bridge is in fact also closer to the camera. This only happens at certain focus distances, so far I would narrow it down to 2 to 4 m.
Update: this issue can also be mostly solved by the use of a 5m PCX front end filter, as I have shown in this article.
In close up shots you will rarely notice this though:
The ZM produces the same beautiful 10-stroke sunstars as do the Loxia or the newer Voigtlander lenses. Nothing to complain here 🙂
You can also see in this article what influence the aperture diaphragm has on how these sunstars come out.
Sony A7rII | Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 | 50% crop | before: f/1.4, after: f/2.0
Longitudinal CA (loCA) are definetly present wide open, much better stopped down to f/2.0 already and hardly field relevant from f/2.8 onwards. I would describe the performance here as average, there are very few 35mm lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 that would perform better. Below is a real world “worst case” example. As you can see in the following before/after comparison you can still correct this with Lightroom, but this may not be possible for every shot without sacrifices.
Sony A7rII | Zeiss ZM 35mm 1.4 | f/1.4 | loCA 100% crop before/after from photo above
Voigtlander Ultron 1.7/35:
The Voigtlander VM 35mm 1.7 is a very strong competitor, flare resistance and off center sharpness in the midframe are actually better compared to the Zeiss. So what are you giving up compared to the ZM?
Obviously half a stop of speed, which might matter for some and not for others. Corners at infinity are not as good. Performance wide open at closer distances is visibly worse. Focus shift is much more apparent. Coma correction is worse.
But the most obvious difference might be contrast, and it depends on your taste and your subjects what is “better” here: the ZM is very contrasty in general while the VM is a little more subtle.
For architecture and landscape I prefer the ZM for portraiture one might prefer the VM.
Zeiss Loxia 35mm 2.0:
They share some qualities: great build quality, great contrast and sharpness stopped down, same 10-stroke sunstars. The Loxia is a bit lighter (especially when taking the necessary adapter for the ZM into account), smaller and it pretty much costs half of what the ZM does. The Loxia also offers full Exif data. I have been using the Loxia for almost a year now and wasn’t unsatisfied with it for landscape and architecture photography, but the ZM has nicer bokeh and offers a stop more, when it comes to flare resistance I might also give the point to the Loxia, but I have to take more shots with the ZM here to make up my mind. So if the maximum aperture of f/1.4 and the bokeh alone is worth the premium over the Loxia really depends on what you want to do with the lens.
Sony Zeiss Sonnar 2.8/35 ZA T* FE:
This is a full two stops slower, which is a lot. It is also smaller, has autofocus (and a fly-by-wire focusing ring), only 7 aperture blades, distortion is a little higher and bokeh seems to show more obvious onion rings. This lens is not for me, but in case you rely on autofocus this is your cheapest 35 mm option for the A7 cameras right now (albeit I think it is pretty expensive for what it offers).
Sony Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZA T* FE:
I still haven’t laid my hands on one of these yet. It is heavier than the ZM including adapter and more importantly it is huge by comparison. I have also seen some sample images showing very bad onion rings. If you want/need a 35mm with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and Autofocus this is pretty much your only option right now (the Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art still seems to not working properly with the MC-11 adapter).
Older manual 35 mm lenses:
There are simply too much options here to cover them all but you may start taking a look at our Canon FD 35 mm comparison in case you are looking for a cheaper option.
Despite no less than 3 native FE 35mm lenses (all carrying a Zeiss badge by the way) quite a few people swear by this lens on their A7 cameras.
What it offers is high micro contrast from the start with nice bokeh, which can help create an impression of depth (some might want to call it “3D pop”). But having used it alongside the Loxia 21mm 2.8 and Loxia 85mm 2.4 – which are both technically nearly flawless lenses in my book – this one requires a little more attention. You have to work your way around the filter stack issues (which are mostly resolved by using a 5m PCX filter), the minimum focus distance (you can use a helicoid adapter for this), sometimes also the purple fringing, but if you do the results can be very rewarding.
If this lens is worth the high asking price is a question only you can answer. If you don’t care for f/1.4 in a 35mm lens and your main interest is landscape/architecture photography it might make more sense getting the Loxia 35mm 2.0 and if you can get by with f/1.7 the Voigtlander 35mm 1.7 is a great alternative. If you need AF you might be better off with the FE 35mm 1.4 Sony/Zeiss.
With a 5m PCX filter stopped down to f/2.8 this lens comes very very close to the optical qualities of the 21 and 85mm Loxia lenses, which I consider pretty much the best native lenses you can get when contrast and resolution matter. On top of that you also have the option to use this lens at f/1.4 which is the reason this lens is now part of my kit instead of the Loxia 35mm 2.0.
This lens was also featured in my fast 35mm manual focus lenses comparison you might want to have a look at.