I really want to hate this lens…

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.

Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8
Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8

In the full-size image, you can count the nails on the barn.

Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8
Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8

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.

Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8
Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8

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.

Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8
Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8

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.

Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8
Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8

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.

Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8
Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8

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.

Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8
Sony A7RII w/ Zeiss 35mm f/2.8

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!

Tom

 

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “I really want to hate this lens…

  1. Interesting write- as always- and beautiful pictures- as always! That wheel shot is indeed an amazing picture. Can only imagine it blown up full size!!

    Like

  2. I love all of them, but my favorites– the doorknob, and the wheel. I just love all the age you can see on them. Great job! It was such a nice trip, too~ 🙂

    Like

  3. I am considering this lens or the Sony FE 28/2 lens for my Sony A6000. I have the Sony Zeiss 55/1.8 lens and love it for portraits. I will be upgrading to an A7rii in about a year and will keep my A6000. Did you try the FE 28/2 lens?

    Like

  4. Hi Chris, thanks for stopping by OutFor30. In answer to your question, no I never tried the 28mm. I’ve had the Zeiss 55mm, the Zeiss 35mm, and the Zeiss 24-70mm f/4. The primes were fine but the zoom I was not at all impressed, especially considering the price. The Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 (I paid around $150 for in perfect condition) runs circles around the Zeiss zoom. Regarding the two Zeiss primes, I found that I much prefer the Minolta Rokkor 58mm f/1.2 in every way, and the same for the Konica Hexanon AR 35mm f/2.8 and Vivitar 35mm f/1.9. When you compare prices it really is a no brainer unless of course you require/desire AF. For me, I prefer the pleasure and control of manual focus. I’ve since sold all the Zeiss lenses I purchased for the FE-mount. If you want a 28mm lens and can handle manual focus, I recommend you look at the Olympus OM Zuiko 28mm f/2.8. I’ve found it to be incredibly sharp, well-corrected, it renders beautiful color and has very close-focus capability. For a fraction of the price, it would be worth trying out before delving into the Zeiss offering. I will say you have the right idea to keep the a6000 after getting the A7RII. It’s a great camera and it will give you the option to carry two bodies with different focal length lenses. Before leaving home this time, I went to a bird park with my family. I carried the A7RII loaded with the Rokkor 58mm f/1.2 and the NEX-5T loaded with a Nikon 180mm f/2.8 (equivalent 270mm). A handy way to carry two lenses without all the swapping.

    Cheers,

    Tom

    Like

Feel free to leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s