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Field Review: Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE (Day 3 – Around Town)

by Mike Pouliot on 07/06/2011

Canon 5D with Zeiss 35mm f/4.0 - shot at ISO 400, f/5.0, 1/1000 sec

I love shooting with primes and I love street/urban photography, so I was excited to get out and shoot with the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE. With a focal length of 35mm, the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE should feel right at home on the streets.

Equipment

The 35mm Focal Length

Canon 5D with Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 - shot at ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/2000 sec

The Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE feels great mated to my 5D. A 35mm lens on a full frame body is great for environmental portraits and street photography. The 35mm focal length really is a must-have for anyone interested in shooting street/urban photography. It’s a very natural focal length and by that I mean it produces a perspective that is close to what the human eye sees. I feel that this is important when reproducing photographs that depict everyday life. When paired with a crop body, the Zeiss 35mm F/1.4 will end up being closer to a 50mm lens which is what I personally prefer to shoot with. If you shoot with a crop body, I would consider checking out the Zeiss 35mm F/1.4 for your 50mm equivalent lens.

Handling

Canon 5D with Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 - Shot at ISO 400, f/7.1, 1/200 sec - No signs of flare

After using the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE for a few days, I’ve started to get used to having to manually focus ALL of the time. As I stated in the last post, without focus confirmation or a different focusing screen, I wouldn’t be able to use this lens. While the Canon 5D does have a nice big and bright viewfinder, I cannot always tell when I have my subject 100% in focus. I have rediscovered that the markings on the lens can be your best friend. They allow you to zone focus or you can even preset your focus if you can guesstimate your distance from your subject before you bring the camera up to your face. This will drastically reduce your focus time once you have the camera up to your eye.

Canon 5D with Zeiss 35mm f/4.0 - Shot at ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/500 sec

Instead of using my Camdapter hand strap, I decided to go back to my beloved Black Rapid RS-7. As I said in my last post, at over 3lbs., this lens has a bit of a weight problem. Carrying this lens and a camera in your hand for an extended period of time can get old very quickly. I strongly suggest you pickup some sort of padded sling strap if you are going to carry a lens of this weight.

Image Quality

Canon 5D with Zeiss 35mm f/4.0 - Shot at ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Now that I’ve had this lens for a few days, I’ve been able to feel out this lens’ strengths and weaknesses. The good part is it only has a few weaknesses and one of them is dealing with back-lit subjects. Like most lenses, when you have a large amount of light pouring directly into the lens, your images are going to come out with less than ideal contrast and they will look washed out.

Canon 5D with Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 - shot at ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/1600 sec

As I said in the last post, Chromatic Aberration is apparent at the lenses widest apertures but it is not as bad as some of the other lenses I’ve tested (e.g. Sigma 85mm F/1.4). I know this is a very expensive lens and many people will expect perfection from Zeiss (and I can’t say that I blame them) but I try not to worry about things that can easily be fixed in post processing. So the lens has a hint of CA, I personally don’t have a problem with this because the lens excels in other areas that make CA a non-issue for me.

I personally think the Zeiss 35mm‘s biggest weakness when compared to the competition is the lack of AF, but I’ll get into that in the next section.

Don’t get me all wrong, the Zeiss 35mm is not all bad. Beyond the build quality and great looks, this lens produces excellent results. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, this lens produces images that have an unexplainable uniqueness to them; subjects seem to really pop from the background areas. Also, I enjoy having to slow down and put thought into what I’m shooting.

Concerns

Canon 5D with Zeiss 35mm f/4.0 - shot at ISO 400, f/5.0, 1/125 sec

I honestly thought this issue would come up before day 3 of the review, but it really reared its ugly head when I was out shooting in town. The issue I’m talking about is the lack of AF. I know, I know, AF isn’t everything and there was a time when AF wasn’t an option but there are times when AF really comes in handy. I missed a few shots that I would have love to have nailed but the lack of AF really restricted me from getting the shot. Maybe if I had more time to practice with the lens I would have nailed the shots, maybe not. I’ve become so accustomed to AF that I couldn’t react quickly enough in order to get the shot.

So should the lack of AF be a mark against the lens? Honestly, I don’t think it should be. This lens is what it is. It may not be the ideal lens in all situations, but what lens is? I think if you can live with occasionally missing a shot or if you want to dedicate time to perfecting your manual focusing technique, then you will be more than happy with the Zeiss 35mm F/1.4.

Be sure to check back for day 4 of the review when we take the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE to a birthday part.

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