First Impressions of Carl Zeiss ZF.2 21/2,8 T* Distagon

I have been shooting with 20mm primes and wide-angle zooms for fifteen years and back in the film days I used the compact Nikkor Ais 20mm 2,8 and later the AF version. I've also had a Nikkor AF-S 17-35/2,8 and until recently the Nikkor AF-S 16-35/4,0 VR. I really like the field of view and perspective of a 21mm lens, composing with such a lens is very natural for me...   

Why not go wider?
The 21mm focal-length is roughly equivalent to your peripheral vision and it is not possible to achieve a natural-looking perspective with anything wider because of the configuration of our eyes; the human brain is not trained to interpreting anything wider on a regular basis! One of the things I really like about the 21mm is its way it renders, its field of view and I'm sure that it is about as wide as one can go without the perspective starting to render subjects unnaturally, so long as you carefully place the foreground in your images. It’s wide enough to convey space, but not so wide that it will appear unnatural, which is a problem I’ve always experienced with other ultra-wides.

Design, Ergonomics & Handling
Mostly, this lens has great handling and it is a joy to use! it want you to make images and to be creative, but the large front element has a whopping filter thread for 82mm filters and the design of the lens is rather ugly in some peoples opinion, but I like the interesting look - it has personality!. Unfortunately the huge front-lens makes this lens rather cumbersome to pack and it can be a real "pain-in-the-a.." to fit in a small backpack.

What I really like about this lens is the focus ring, which is simply perfect and dead easy to make precise focus with, the amount of damping is perfect, it spins softly enough to change focus distance quickly, but not so loose that you can not set the distance precisely. The focus mechanism is the best of my Zeiss lenses! my 50/2,0 makro-Planar mostly a bit too heavy in feel for my tastes, especially with fast moving subjects and my 100/2,0 Makro-Plarnar is a bit to light and changes focus quite easily, but they are still superior to any autofocus lens I have used!

The large front element has a whopping filter thread for 82mm filters

The 21mm lens has internal focusing, so the physical size of the lens does not change during focus, nor does the front of the lens rotate. This is keeping the size more compact and improving the handling of the lens, when using filters or accessories mounted on the front of the lens that may require careful alignment. One issue internal focusing lens can have is that the true focal length of the lens is reduced when not focused at infinity. An internal focus lens (known as IF) is a photographic lens design in which focus is shifted by moving the inner lens group or groups only, without any rotation or shifting of the front lens element. This makes it easy to use together with accessories like a polarizing filter, Lee filter holder or the supplied petal shaped lens hood.

The near focus limit is only 22cm, Great close-up possibilities - get a new perspective on things!

The near focus limit is just 22cm, which makes for some very dramatic close-ups indeed; however don’t be expecting fantastic magnification because it is, after all, a 21mm lens. More importantly, however, is that optical performance across the frame is maintained even at this focusing distance; undoubtedly thanks to the floating rear group that compensates for near aberrations.

Build Quality
Like all Zeiss lenses, this is a piece of glass that is extremely solid, moderately heavy 620g and very well built all-round, with no plastic on this lens - it’s like an old-fashioned scientific instrument. Carl Zeiss has paid a lot of attention to detail and all text and numbers on the lens barrel are engraved like in the good old days and I really like that instead of modern lenses where everything is printed and might peel off after years of intensive use. Useful hyper-focal focusing markings are provided on the lens barrel. The barrel is black-anodized aluminium, with chrome front bayonet for the hood, the hood is made of metal, it is solid and locks into place on the front bayonet thread with a reassuring click and doesn’t move thereafter; However, it has very sharp edges that are prone to to wear and tear.

Manual focusing is silky smooth and precise, focusing the lens is such a pleasure, that the lack of auto-focus is a non-issue. The ZF.2 version has a metering chip with electronic contacts is included so matrix metering is supported on all Nikon cameras. This is not a lens for everybody; Carl Zeiss lenses does not have weather sealing, but the lens is not as fragile as modern lenses equipped with Image Stabilization and an autofocus motor, so I think the Zeiss lenses are very durable in the long run; I have used my Zeiss lenses in the rain, blizzards and sandstorms without any mechanical problems!

Lovely wide-lens that is Sharp, very very Sharp indeed! - The sharpest wide-angle lens I have ever used!

Performance
The Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T* is a fairly complex telecentric design with 16 elements in 13 groups and a floating rear group for close range correction. The lens is based on the legendary Contax 21/2,8 Distagon lens, which was one of the last lenses made for that brand/mount. The current version has been updated and as far as sharpness is concerned, this lens lives up to the reputation that Carl Zeiss optics have rightfully earned. Sharpness and resolving power are excellent, I'm using a Nikon D700 and this lens easily outperforms the cameras resolution. The center is already extremely sharp at maximum aperture, the clarity in the centre of the image is already outstanding, and the sharpness towards the edges of the frame is good, the extreme corners catch up at around f8,0 and stopping the lens down further improves sharpness across the frame, with outstanding clarity being achieved across the frame between f/8,0 and f/11. At f/2,8 I would say that 90% of the frame is pin sharp on FX!

Great handling and it is a joy to use! it want you to make images and to be creative!

Chromatic aberrations towards the edges of the frame are reasonably well controlled and shouldn't pose issues for most images, even with high contrast areas towards the edges of the frame. There are very mild traces of lateral CA wide open in the corners with high contrast subjects, but you have to look hard to find it using a 12MP Nikon D700 camera. Distortion is relatively mild for a lens with such a wide field of view, it has some barrel distortion and a slight wave is present in the distortion pattern, which makes critical corrections in image editing software impossible. The wave is only very mild, and is only noticeable if you really go hunting for it! Light falloff towards the edges of the frame is quite severe at maximum aperture as the corners of the frame darker than the image centre. This level of falloff is so severe, that it can lead to issues with metering as the lens is stopped down, and the corners brighten up relative to the centre of the image. This happen as the camera meters from the light it reads at maximum aperture and more compensation may need to be applied to exposures the more the lens is stopped down. Visually uniform illumination isn't achieved until f/11. Finally, a quick word on that famous Zeiss microcontrast - it’s present as expected. Microcontrast is the visible result of several optical properties: high resolution; even and high spectral transmission, and as little chromatic aberration as possible. The 21 has all of these things.


Alternatives
As a Nikon landscape photographer you have plenty of other options to the 21mm Distagon lens. I sold my flexible Nikkor AF-S 16-35/4,0G VR when I bought the Zeiss lens, I used that zoom for a couple of years and really liked it!. I think 90% of the images I made with that lens were photographed using the 20mm setting, the optical quality was high, but nothing compared to the 21mm lens, it simply lacked micro-contrast!, but it had an outstanding VR optical stabilizer, which I was very fond of!. Another option is the Nikkor AF-S 14-24/2.8G that offers the flexibility of a zoom along with a reputation for optical quality. The 14-24mm is a monster, overshadowing everything in the same focal length, I have borrowed the 14-24mm lens a few times, but I'm not impressed by the mechanical quality, the enormous front element or the heavy weight; that made it uninteresting for me! The Zeiss 21mm has such a wonderful and precise feel about it, that the 14-24/2,8 sadly lacks and it is much smaller and only half the weight. The only real alternative in my view is the Nikkor PC-E 24/3,5 ED, which is my favourite lens for landscapes with huge DOF (depth of field) the tilt function is worth every penny!. The optical quality is also very high, but it is a bit soft compared with the Zeiss lens, but is has a tilt and shift mechanism and I really love that for landscape work. If you are a wedding photographer or do documentary work you might be better of with the Nikkor AF-S 24/1,4G, but again this lens lacks the micro-contrast of the 21mm Distagon. Finally the Carl Zeiss T* 25/2 Distagon offers better bokeh in a more compact design, but with less resolution in the corners.


Summary
What can I say? it is very very Sharp with excellent microcontrast, it has hardly any Chromatic Aberrations, which is impressive for a lens in this class, it has great handling and it is a joy to use! it want you to make images and be creative!. The 21 somehow manages to be an excellent balance of technical competence and personality, it definitely lends a positive influence to any images shot with it. Why I didn’t get the 21 sooner? it’s one of those truly great lenses, that is a must if you’re a wide-angle addictive photographer like me, but its price is quite steep!. It isn’t the most discreet lens for documentary work, but the results are truly beautiful and it is an absolute no-brainer if you’re a landscape photographer. Nothing is perfect and this lens has a few optical setbacks, but still it is one of the best wide lenses money can buy for modern high resolution DSLR's.

Rating: Build Quality: 10/10 - Handling: 9/10 - Optical: 9/10

Conclusion - Pros:

+ Sharp, very very sharp indeed! - The sharpest wide-angle lens I have ever used!
+ Hardly any Chromatic Aberrations! - impressive for a lens in this class!
+ Great handling and it is a joy to use! it want you to make images and to be creative!
+ Manual focusing with a smooth feeling (IF internal focus) - The best of the Zeiss lenses!
+ Durable compact design - All metal with precision mechanics gives long-life
+ Beautiful Sun-star, when the sun is partly hidden behind trees and branches. 
+ The near focus limit is 22cm, Great close-up possibilities - get a new perspective on things!
+ Perfect for Video making! 

Conclusion - Cons:

- Soft corners on wide apertures
- Arc flare is evident when the sun is in the frame!
- Wave-distortion can make strait lines look unnatural
- Stop down to f/8,0 to get optimal sharpness in the outermost corners on FX!
- Vignetting is extremely high on FX although it has a Huge front with a 82mm filter-tread 
- Slight blue colour shift toward the corners, which is an optical limitation of wide angle lenses
- Manual focus only! - I don't use autofocus for landscape work anyway!
- The "flimsy" front lens cap - replace it with a better third-part cap!
- Do Not lose the lens hood! it is very expensive to replace!





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