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Review: Zeiss 21mm f2.8 (Canon EF Mount)

by Chris Gampat on 12/07/2012

We’ve reviewed lots of Zeiss glass here on the site, and we’ve fallen in love with every optic. The 21mm f2.8 is a lens that one can describe as luxurious, sharp, and clinical. The lens is really quite a beauty and the perfect compromise between 24mm and 15mm. This focal length has also been very popular with street photographers and landscape photographers for a while.

Being a Zeiss optic though, it will surely command quite the price tag at around $1,843. But is it right for you?

 

Gear Used

For this review we used the Canon 5D Mk II and Zeiss 21mm f2.8 in Canon EF mount.

Tech Specs

Specs taken from the B&H Photo listing

Performance
Focal Length 21 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/2.8
Minimum: f/22
Camera Mount Type Canon EF
Format Compatibility 35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor
Canon (APS-C)
Angle of View 90°
Minimum Focus Distance 8.66″ (22 cm)
Magnification 0.2x
Maximum Reproduction Ratio 1:5
Groups/Elements 13/16
Diaphragm Blades Not Specified By Manufacturer
Features
Image Stabilization No
Autofocus No
Tripod Collar No
Physical
Filter Thread 82 mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 3.43 x 4.29″ (8.71 x 10.90 cm)
Weight 1.32 lb (600 g)

Ergonomics

The Zeiss 21mm has an extremely large 82mm filter thread for the front element. It also has a permanently attached lens hood just like the 15mm f2.8. (Correction, it does come off…I’m just weak.)

The lens is a tad bit heavy and large at just over a pound, and is made of all metal just like all other Zeiss lenses.

Like all other Zeiss lenses, there is a simple formula to its magic. There is a focusing ring that is large and beefy. This ring also has distance markers and a depth of field scale down below it.

Don’t want to zone focus? That’s fine because the lens also has autofocus confirmation.

Focusing

The Zeiss 21mm f2.8 is actually very simple to focus. If you’re using the standard focusing screen on a Canon DSLR, then you’ll need to half press the AF button while focusing in order to gain confirmation. Most of the time, it hits its target; but sometimes it won’t. In my experience, it almost always hit the target except for the rare chance in the photo above. News Editor Peter Walkowiak and I were out and about in Williamsburg and I couldn’t nail his in focus. However, with a bit of editing the photo still ended up looking really cool.

It really can be a bit tough to focus the lens in low light situations, but overall it is still very accurate. This is also partially dependent on the DSLR’s focusing abilities. Towards the center (and the center focusing point) are all strong. Even with the 5D Mk III, this lens may be a bit tough to focus at times as the outer focusing points aren’t the strongest.

If you like to zone focus (using the hyperfocal length) then this lens will be a breeze to use as all the focusing distances and the entire depth of field scale are very well set up.

Ease of Use

Zeiss lenses are overall very simple and straightforward to use. For those used to autofocusing lenses, you’ll need to remember that you have to manually focus with this one. To be fair, this is also a lens designed for a more experienced user (as are all Zeiss lenses.) There are two primary ways of using it as have been outlined previously:

– Hyperfocal length shoot (zone focusing using the depth of field and distance scale). This is my preferred method for street photography.

– Use AF confirmation after composing your scene and placing your subject on the specific focusing point you want. After that, hold down the AF button and focus. When the dot blinks red, you’re all set. I’d encourage you to use good judgement too though and if it tells you the subject is in focus, ensure that you look at the entire scene in the viewfinder first.

Image Quality

This lens has to be one of the absolute sharpest optics I’ve used at this range. Coupled with the 5D Mk II’s already excellent sensor, the lens works to resolve tons of detail.

Not only are the images sharp, but Zeiss proceeded to add in their extra little magic that I’ve seen called, “Micro Contrast” across the web. Zeiss optics often have the most of this. Basically, what it is is applications to the elements and lens design that makes in focus subjects pop even more. This boosts apparent sharpness, but the lens is already super sharp as it is.

Many Zeiss lenses will look best and also deliver the greatest color when shot wide open. In the case of the Zeiss 21mm f2.8, this wasn’t true. No matter what F-stop we shot at, every image looked simply spectacular. To be fair, we were also using our own custom color profile.

Either way, color accuracy was also very accurate and in many ways better than when using Canon glass as well.

The lens can be very contrasty, but overall looks very nice. Additionally, any issues with colors or contrast can easily be dealt with in Adobe Lightroom 4.

Bokeh quality was simply out of this world. One may argue that one wouldn’t use this lens to get bokeh, but if you’re a documentary photographer I really have to beg to differ. Often, you shoot close to your subjects and depending on what creative effect you’re going for, you may or may not stop down.

Distortion was also kept down quite a bit except for around the edges. But Lightroom also has a lens profile to correct this. Vignetting is seen wide open but is nearly all gone by f4. Lastly, the lens does a decent job of controlling flare as well in most situations.

Here are some other images samples from this lens processed in various ways. Overeall though, it had to be one of the best wide angles that we’d ever tested here on the site.

Conclusions

Zeiss’s 21mm f2.8 is quite an excellent lens, but with that said we’re not sure who exactly this lens would be for. Though Street Photographers would love this lens, many of them these days opt for rangefinders or mirrorless cameras due to the small size and awesome optics designed for them. Documentary photographers that like to go slow and take their time with the process may want to spring for this lens. Additionally, landscape photographers may also want to try this lens.

Despite the high price tag, the lens earned excellent marks for sharpness, image quality, color rendition, contrast, and build quality. There really is nothing to fault with this lens except the high price tag.

But even then, it really is an awesome optic.

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