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Complete Review of the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE

by Mike Pouliot on 07/10/2011

The time has come for me to say goodbye to the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE. Even though this lens is not perfect, I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time I’ve had to shoot with the Zeiss 35mm F/1.4. But is it worth the money?

Testing

Likes

  • Build quality: This lens is built like a tank. I honestly can’t think of a lens that I’ve used that can even come close in terms of build quality.
  • Looks: While it’s not terribly important, I do like when my gear is pretty to look at and this lens is a looker.
  • Image quality: Let’s face it, if you’re going to drop this kind of cash on a lens it better produce some stunning results. Luckily, the Zeiss 35mm F/1.4 doesn’t disappoint. While it is slightly soft wide open, the results are still very usable and this lens is razor sharp at F/2.8 and beyond.
  • Unique, unquantifiable image characteristics: As I’ve said before, there is something unique and awesome about the images produced by this lens. The areas in focus pop out with a 3D like effect.
  • Bokeh: Creamy and delicious
  • AF confirmation: I’m pretty sure I couldn’t use this lens effectively without this feature.

 

Dislikes

  • Weight: Weighing in at over 3lbs., the Zeiss 35mm F/1.4 is easily one of the heaviest 35mm primes on the market. If you plan on carrying this lens around all day, you better make sure you have a good bag or a good strap, I prefer the Black Rapid RS-7.
  • Cost: There is no way around it, this is a very expensive piece of equipment. Not everyone has the money to drop on a 35mm prime that doesn’t have AF. Is it worth the price? That’s a tough call and it will really depend on the photographer.
  • Lack of AF: In addition to cost, I think the lack of AF will ultimately stop people from buying this lens. Honestly, I think the weight and cost bother me more than the lack of AF. Focusing screens and the AF confirmation help a TON plus you can always use zone focusing or hyper focal distance if you are ever in a situation where focusing manually is simply too difficult.

Conclusion

Every photographer has different needs so it’s hard to say what someone should or shouldn’t do but here’s my $0.02. I wouldn’t use a Zeiss lens to cover a focal distance that I didn’t already have covered by another lens with AF, and here’s why: I feel that Zeiss lenses are almost like a specialty lens (think tilt-shift lens). Use this lens when the conditions are right, i.e. when AF isn’t of utmost importance, and you’ll love it. If you try to force the lens to do something it’s not designed to do, you are going to get frustrated and dissapointed quickly. If I already had a 35mm prime or a zoom (with AF) that covered this range, I would consider buying the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE because I could use the Zeiss when AF speed wasn’t a concern.

The Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE is a very expensive lens and most of you are probably thinking why would I ever drop that kind of cash on a lens that doesn’t even have AF? Well, I would say you need to look at this lens differently than you would if you were considering another 35mm prime, like the Canon 35mm F/1.4L for example. The Zeiss 35mm F/1.4 is very different from the Canon 35mm F/1.4L so it’s hard to fairly compare the two. It’s like trying to compare apples and oranges. The Zeiss is about quality craftsmanship, control of your images, and unique results. The Canon is about speed and image quality. Here comes another car analogy. It’s like a Rolls-Royce (Zeiss) and a Ferrari (the L glass). Both are very well made and both are impressive machines but the Rolls is known for it’s superior luxury and handcrafted quality while the Ferrari is known for it’s speed and performance. Both cars are impressive machines and provide a thrilling driving experience but in very different ways.

If you simply want a fast focusing, relatively lightweight lens, the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE is not your lens. If you’re looking for top of the line craftsmanship and a lens that will produce stunning and unique images and you already have the 35mm focal length covered by another AF lens, the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE should be on your short list.

I had a great deal of fun shooting with the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE, so much so that I’m actually considering picking up some Zeiss glass for my 5D. I personally enjoy shooting with a 50mm lens, so I would go for the 50mm F/1.4 lens over the 35mm which just so happens to be cheaper. Lucky me.

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