I recently decided to replace my Canon wide angle zoom lens with a fixed prime lens. I shoot mainly portraits and it’s worth bearing this in mind as you read this out of the box review. My decision to go prime for my super wide shots was an easy one to make.
When I’m shooting with my 16-35mm I nearly always end up at the 20mm mark. I find that the 16 – 18mm settings adversely stretch the scene or my clients legs. I used to own a 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor many years ago and I loved it. More recently I owned a Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One P25 back and I shot using just 3 prime lenses for all my work, weddings and portraits over a period of 3 years. I love to compose my shots using my feet, and so the exciting journey of finding a replacement lens began.
Top tip: If you don’t know what focal length to choose when going prime, tape up your zoom at say 24mm for a few shoots and see how you get on. If you find yourself regularly needing to zoom out a bit you can re-tape the lens at 21mm. I use electricians black insulation tape. It stretches into the nooks and crevasses and leaves no residue when it is removed.
Manual focus on a super wide lens is fine for me because I tend to pre-focus my wide angle shots anyway. I’m often shooting from ground level or above my head so pre-setting the focus is an ideal way of shooting. When focusing the Zeiss I can make use of the focus confirmation green dot in the viewfinder too.
With this in mind I needed an autofocus lens that has an AF/MF switch or a manual focus lens with a CPU for my TTL work. My options were fairly limited. In the Canon line up I could choose from the fabulous 24mm f/1.4L, or the less well specified 20mm f/2.8 lens. So I decided to broaden my horizon and research the Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8. I looked at the deadly dull MTF and transmission curves and the shock was the illumination across the frame at f/2.8. It showed outrageous vignetting and this excited me. I’ve always found optical vignetting looks much better than that created in Lightroom or Photoshop. If I was shooting landscapes this factor might put me off the Zeiss optic although I expect there are very few landscape shooters that work at f/2.8. Another point of note was the edge to edge sharpness that just never seemed to drop off even wide open. Chromatic aberration was fairly non existent too so I thought it was time to dig deep and give the lens a go. I’d had enough of the techno twaddle and wanted to shoot pictures.
I was not going to be able to hire this lens for a weekend so I turned to the world marketplace for optics called Ebay. Don’t ask me how it happened but I ended up bidding on and winning two of them. Only one has arrived so far, the other one coming from the States is due with me by Wednesday. The great thing about Ebay is you can re-list lenses and get pretty much what you paid for them, even more if you trade globally.
First observations: The lens was well packed and its box was sealed with a hologram sticker bearing the serial number and metaphorically speaking the DNA of the Zeiss brand. Although the lens is made in Japan it feels like a German lens with it’s precision machined brass barrel, silky smooth focus mechanism and the tingle it gives you just holding it. I’m not talking about an electric shock, I’m on about the buzz you get handling something special. A decent Mont Blank pen and a new Rolex both deliver that same buzz.
The Zeiss lens is weighty for it’s size and that caught me by surprise. At 620g it is lighter than the 630g of the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L mk2 but only just and as the Zeiss 21mm has physical dimensions of about 2/3rd that of the Canon zoom, it feels substantial.
I set up a studio shot to check my copy of the lens performs as it should and I couldn’t help comparing it with my Canon at the same time. I had to move my black sticky tape a bit because my guestimate setting of 21mm hadn’t been quite right. It’s still not perfect and the Exif tells me I shot at 22mm. I chose a subject distance that I tend to shoot at and popped the camera on a tripod. So here are the results at f/2.8 and f/8. Please bear in mind I will be shooting with this glass for the foreseeable future so over the next days, weeks and months you will be getting many real examples of what this lens is capable of in the real world.
Click on the main pictures above for the full frame images and make your own judgments on what you see. It is not entirely fair on the Canon zoom lens to be comparing it with a prime lens but the Canon lens is the one in my bag being replaced, so I felt it okay to compare. The Canon shows far better illumination across the frame but suffers from a slight loss of resolution at the edges. The Zeiss pictures lead the viewer in and are nearly 3D in their rendition. I was not expecting such clarity and focus of subject. The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L mk2 lens at mid zoom is a great performer in the central region and is only just beaten by the Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8 prime lens in my opinion. At the edges and into the corners is where the Zeiss really shows up the Canon.
I am not a pixel peeper by nature and once I have established that a bit of kit is up to the job I just get on with the picture making process. I can confirm that the 21mm f/2.8 Zeiss distagon is now part of my lens line up. At the end of the day it’s what you shoot with the lens that matters. A great lens wont make a bad photograph any better but it will inspire confidence in the shooter and deliver edge to edge clarity in the picture.
Please feel free to comment on the pictures or write up as you feel fit. Damien.