Field Review: Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE (Day 1 – Initial Thoughts)

Zeiss products have always interested me. How does a company that produces manual focus (along with some AF) lenses survive in today’s world of bigger, better, faster? Most major camera companies manufacture lenses that can focus in a split second while producing stunning results. So why would I ever want to buy a lens that costs more and takes even longer to focus than Canon’s 35mm F/1.4L?  Honestly, I don’t know but thousands of people do every year when they purchase a Zeiss lens. There has to be something special about these lenses. So what is it? I intend to find out by testing the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE.

Specs

A Lens Without Auto Focus…Really?

When I first started researching Zeiss lenses, I think I was immediately intrigued by their products because they appear to be a marriage of yesterday’s rugged yet meticulous build quality and today’s technology. I’m not sure what it is, but there is something romantic about manual focus lenses. It takes me back to when I was first learning about photography on my father’s AE-1. I enjoyed dialing in my settings and working with the camera instead of just having the camera figure everything out for me. For me, shooting with a manual focus lens is like driving a car with a manual transmission. I’m a “car guy” so I often compare things to the automotive world. Stick with me here.

Today, we have dual-clutch transmissions that can shift faster and more accurately than any human ever could, so why do people still opt to buy sports cars with manual transmissions? It’s because you feel more connected to the car and the overall driving experience. I think the same thought process can be applied to manual focus lenses and photography. Turning the ring and seeing your image come info focus makes you truly aware of what is in the frame. With today’s camera technology, I feel like many people simply set their camera to full auto and machine gun away. If you shoot enough images, you are bound to get something, right? But if you slow things down and take time to know your camera and feel out your environment, you will take fewer images but the content within the frame will be more substantial. I think this is why many people are drawn to a Zeiss lens instead of something that may be considered more cutting edge.

Look and Feel

The first thing you’ll notice is this lens is heavy. When mated to my Canon 5D it feels a little top heavy and when mounted to my Rebel XT it just feels ridiculous. Because of the weight, I wouldn’t want to shoot this lens on anything smaller than a Canon 7D. This lens is heavy for a reason though; its build quality is second to none. Everything is metal, like lenses used to be. From the aluminum filter ring to the aluminum mount, it’s all metal. If that isn’t good enough for you, they also went ahead and made the included hood out of metal. The precision metal construction makes the lens feel like a piece of scientific equipment.

After admiring the lens for a few minutes, I popped it onto the Canon 5D and took a few test shots. The focusing ring on this lens is like butter. There is just the right amount of resistance and there is a good distance between stops; this makes focusing easier as it allows for precision. One thing I’ve noticed that differs from my Canon glass is that once you hit a stop on the focus ring, the ring completely stops turning. On most of my Canon EF lenses, you can still turn the focus ring after you have hit a stop but you feel some additional resistance to let you know that you have hit either the max or minimum focusing distance. I wouldn’t necessary say I like one better than the other, it’s just different.

Other than the lens, the only other item in the box was a lens hood. I was happy to see Zeiss included a lens hood along with the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE; it drives me nuts when lens manufacturers dont’t throw in a lens hood after you drop several hundreds of dollars on one of their lenses. Once I picked it up, I noticed that this wasn’t just a regular cheap-o plastic lens hood, this one was a little special. First off, the lens hood is all metal. This simply adds to the quality, look, and feel of the product. But what really impressed me was the way the hood clicks into position. Most hoods lock into place, but this hood has some sort of precision ball-bearing type fitting that makes you feel like you have just assembled something that NASA is going to shoot into space. The level of craftsmanship with this lens is really outstanding. It may seem strange to you that I just rambled on about something as simple as a lens hood but I assure you that you will be impressed if you ever have the chance to click a of Zeiss lens hoods into place.

Features

Even though auto focus is not on this lens’ list of features, it doesn’t mean that the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm F/1.4 ZE is void of any features or technology. All Zeiss ZE mount (Canon mount) lenses have on-board electronics that allow the camera and lens to talk to each other. The lens can pass EXIF and metering data to the camera body and you can set the aperture value using the body just like you would any Canon EF or EF-S lens. On top of that, the in-lens electronics work with Canon’s auto focus system to provide the user with focus confirmation. Pick your focus point and once focus is sharp in that area, you will get the same confirmation as if you had used an EF or EF-S lens. This is a great feature that may help calm the nerves of someone that may not have experience shooting without AF.

Other Notes and Observations

While I will be reviewing the ZE (Canon mount) version of this lens, Zeiss does offer the same lens in Nikon F mount. I have to say, I’m a little jealous of the Nikon users as their version of this lens includes an aperture ring. The inclusion of an aperture ring makes makes this a great choice for any DSLR videographers out there.

I’m excited to shoot with this lens! Be sure to check back for more on this review.

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