If you’ve followed my website for more than a few months, you’ll have probably picked up that I shoot only with old lenses adapted to my camera body. They’re cheap, easy to use, and most importantly they have wonderful character. Many of the lenses I shoot with can be exceptionally sharp but what I like most about them is that they have something special about them in the way they render an image. Interesting bokeh, gorgeous rendering of color, or a desirable vignette are just a few of the features I find interesting and what counts toward what I’ll deem a good lens.
Recently, I ordered from eBay a Minolta W. Rokkor 35mm f/2.8. When it finally arrived from its long journey from Japan, I was pleased to see that it appeared to be in outstanding condition. Everything worked and, despite its age, looked about brand new. It took all of a few moments inspecting it to realize that all was not what it seemed. The front element looks as though it’s been through a sandstorm… everyday… since it was manufactured in the 1970’s. The scratches and chips are super tiny but there are so many of them that when shooting with it anywhere other than in the shade, frontal lighting causes such a glare across it that the photos are nearly unusable. Bummer. The 35mm focal range was what I was after when I bought the lens so I decided to keep looking. Yesterday, I stopped by one of the local camera shops to see what they had. A Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 in rough shape for $1500. Nope. A Nikon AI 35mm for $300 but with as many scratches as my Minolta. Definitely no. Then they brought out the E-mount Zeiss 35mm f/2.8. The guys working there know that modern lenses are not how I roll anymore but with no other options they at least wanted me to know about it. I decided that since I was there I would at least attach it to my camera and see what it could do – fully expecting it to be mediocre at best like the other Zeiss I’ve owned and used. Many modern lenses I’ve owned and tested do really well at shooting brick walls and test charts but fail to excite when looking through the viewfinder at a real subject/composition. A few test shots in with this Zeiss 35mm and I could tell something was up with it. This lightweight, metal facade, plastic-guts, over-priced lens was good. Ok, it was stellar! Wide open at f/2.8, it was sharper than the Leica Summilux f/1.4 stopped down to f/5.6. With much hesitation and trembling, I slid across the counter my beautifully restored Leica 3.5cm Summaron f/3.5 as trade and walked out of the store wondering what the heck I was doing with this modern piece of plastic.
Today, my family and I took a drive out to one of our favorite places: Stone Mountain State Park in North Carolina. The only lens I brought with me was the Zeiss. Manual mode on the camera, and manually focusing the lens was my modus operandi the whole day. If this stupid lens is going to work for me, it’s going to have to happily function outside of its autofocus comfort zone.
The foreground is sharp and the out of focus background is creamy. Color is excellent as is the contrast. Entry level checks complete.
In the full-size image, you can count the nails on the barn.
I wouldn’t say this lens is bursting forth with personality like the Magnificent Minolta 58mm f/1.2, but it does have a nice warmth to it without calling it a color cast. Out of focus areas do have a nice feel to them and are absolutely free of any sort of nervousness in the highlights.
Controlling the lens was a little maddening at first since it does not have an aperture ring or a real mechanical focusing ring (ridiculous electronic encoder), but after about an hour of working with it, it was beginning to get easy. One plus with the controls is that the aperture has a good number more f-stop points. In the camera menu you can tell it if you want it to roll in full stops or half or thirds. This makes it a tiny bit simpler than the clicked aperture ring on my old lenses where you have to try to stop it between the clicks for finer control of depth of field.
In the full-size of this image below, every flake of rust is visible on the wire holding the posts together. Note how clean and comfortable the background is rendered.
This turned out to be my favorite shot of the day. I sat on the ground in front of the hub of this wheel to try to get the most head-on, symmetrical composition. I really like the out of focus tines on the right side in the background. My first shots, the aperture I had set too wide and they were just an uninteresting blur. In the final shot I had stopped down enough to get at least the basic shape of the tines sweeping across the frame. I really like the gradually softened layers of spokes around the hub. The hub and its cotter key are desperately sharp and rich with detail. As soon as I finished with it in Photoshop, I made a big print of it just to see how it would look. The print looks amazing! One for the wall to be sure.
My final image from the trip was one of my oldest daughter. We came across this stretch of thick vines dangling between two trees. She sat down for a moment while I grabbed this candid.
My thoughts on the Zeiss lens so far:
- The images it produces are touch sterile looking – like I was expecting – but it more than makes up for it in showing me just how good the 42MP sensor can be in the A7rII. No other lens I have used has the edge-to-edge resolving power of this little thing.
- The lens feels like a toy compared to any of the classic lenses in my cabinet. The upside to that is it’s easy on the neck if you’re going to carry it around all day.
- It has some measure of weather sealing. This makes it a prime candidate for my trip up to the arctic here in a few days.
- I have lenses that can be as sharp as this lens, just not wide open and not from edge-to-edge. Don’t misread that as a blanket “you win” compliment to the Zeiss though. Some of my most cherished lenses also happen to be not amongst the sharpest. I see the Zeiss for what it is – a technical feat of optical engineering where the end goal of the designer was to eat test charts for breakfast and brick walls for lunch. If I need a good copy/reproduction lens, this is the first one I’d grab. If I was shooting a landscape that absolutely required every square inch of it to be sharp in order for it to be good, this would be the lens I’d go for. For everything else, I’m perfectly content to continue using my classics. Check out the post, ‘An Evening at Thean Hou Temple‘ to see some examples of the character this Zeiss lacks.
- At $700 this lens is not cheap but it also is not what I’d call terribly expensive either. When you consider the optical performance of this lens, and the fact that DXO Labs rated it the 2nd highest performing 35mm they’ve ever tested, it would not be unreasonable to call it a bargain when you look at the price of some of the lenses it beat out.
- Lastly, it is native mount for the NEX and A7-series of cameras. This means no adapter and the little bit of extra weight associated with that. Traveling for a month at a time, weight becomes an issue and something I regularly consider.
For now, I’ll keep shooting with this lens to see how it grows on me. As I get more images with it, I’ll post some updates. Who knows? I may wind up eating my own published words. Then again, I may not and will instead post a screenshot and link to its post on craigslist. Until then, peace!