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Review: Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 for Nikon

by Andy Hendriksen on 03/30/2012

When I got my hands on this lens a few weeks ago, I was really excited to pop it on my D7000 and take some shots with it. The build quality is truly as good as it gets, and Zeiss’ history of top-notch optics assured me that this lens would be lots of fun to shoot with.

I’ve now shot with this lens a handful of times, and have come up with a pretty clear conclusion about it. Does it live up to my initial expectations?

Build and Ergonomics

I touched on this in my hands-on video, but it cannot be overstated. So, here it goes again: this is one of the finest feeling lenses on the market. Zeiss lenses have always been known for a quality build, and this is absolutely no exception. Made entirely of brass, and constructed of 13 elements in 11 groups, it has an incredibly solid feel. It’s not a light lens by any means, but it has a comfortable weight, and feels very well balanced on my D7000.

The front element is quite large, and requires a gigantic 82mm filter to fit inside the even more gigantic lens hood. With a front element this large though, you’re going to want to use that hood all the time, as it’s awfully susceptible to flare.

The lens cap is just about the only part of this lens that I don’t have utter confidence in. It’s made of cheap plastic, and is difficult to remove and replace. It feels more like something you’d find on a cheap Sigma lens than on Zeiss. I wish they included one of their more common metal lens caps with this lens.

The overall feel of this lens is great. The focus ring is buttery smooth, and the aperture ring clicks with confidence. This is, of course, a manual focus lens, but you’ll be happy you get to fiddle with such nice feeling controls.

Optics

I shot this lens with my Nikon D7000, which is a cropped sensor DSLR. Because of that, the 18mm lens ends up behaving like 27mm due to the field of view. I will be reviewing the optics of this lens from the perspective of using it on a cropped sensor DSLR, and your mileage my vary if you’re using it on a full-frame sensor.

First off, like I mentioned before, this is a fully manual focus lens. That said, the Nikon version is chipped, which means it will transfer information on auto exposure and focus confirmation between the lens and the camera. This allows you to use any sort of auto exposure mode on your camera, and also use Nikon’s “digital rangefinder” functionality to aid in focusing with this lens.

Because this lens is ultra-wide, it’s often very difficult to tell in the viewfinder what is actually in focus, particularly with a relatively small viewfinder of an APS-C camera. Nikon’s digital rangefinder focus confirmation system helps a lot, but definitely isn’t perfect. I had a pretty good hit-rate for in-focus shots, but the focus confirmation can be thrown off pretty easily. Just something to keep in mind when shooting an all-manual lens.

Optically, this lens is just as good as you’d expect any Zeiss lens to be. As most wide angles go, there tends to be some stretching and distortion in the corners, but certainly nothing out of the ordinary for an 18mm lens.

This lens is very contrasty, as I’ve found a lot of Zeiss optics to be. Color reproduction is fantastic, but I’ve found that it also converts to black & white quite well. When you nail the focus, this lens is ultra sharp. It stays sharp throughout the aperture range, with its peak at about f/5.6. Light falloff is kept to a minimum, and I also detected very little color fringing, even wide open at f/3.5.

Bokeh from this lens is difficult to come across, as it’s super wide and not particularly fast, but if you do manage to get some, you’ll find it to be about average in quality. It’s not buttery smooth, and can be quite busy at times. It’s not the worst I’ve seen, though. Fortunately, it’s rarely an issue. You don’t buy an 18mm f/3.5 lens for the bokeh.

Conclusion

This lens has pretty much lived up my expectations of how a Zeiss lens should work. It’s built to only the highest standards, it’s a joy to use, and optically it’s fantastic. There are certainly a few issues, one of which being that it’s awfully difficult to tell what is in-focus in a tiny APS-C viewfinder, and Nikon’s focus confirmation isn’t always reliable. There’s also the somewhat poor quality of the bokeh which fortunately only rears it’s ugly head in rare situations.

Lastly, there’s the price. At $1,395 for the Nikon version, it can be difficult to justify when there’s other great autofocus options available at the price, like the wonderful Nikon 16–35 f/4, or for a bit more, the incredible Nikon 14–24 f/2.8G. There’s a lot of great options out there for wide angle lenses, and while the Zeiss is no exception, you need to be sure you the positives outweigh it’s shortcomings. If you’re looking for a fantastic wide angle prime, this lens certainly won’t disappoint.

Check out the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 on Amazon or B&H.

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