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Mini Review: Zeiss ZF/ZE 21mm f/2.8 Distagon

The Zeiss 21/2.8 Distagon offers very high imaging performance. Undoubtedly it’s the best performing 21mm prime lens available today. Wide open, image quality is outstanding, improving only modestly upon stopping down, with peak performance reached at f/5.6 for all but the extreme corners (which may be due to slight field curvature in the extreme corners).

Like the rest of the ZF line, contrast is outstanding, background rendition (bokeh) is very pleasing, and images have a very three-dimensional look.

Like all ultra wide angles lenses, the 21/2.8 Distagon does have some distortion. In a similar vein, it also has slight color shift to the corners, commonplace with ultra-wide lenses on digital cameras, though most users won’t notice.

Canon users take note

Wide angle fans should be very excited about the 21/2.8 Distagon, especially Canon shooters who really cannot do any better than the 21/2.8 Distagon.

Recommendation vs 18/3.5 Distagon

After shooting the ZF and ZE 18/3.5 Distagon and 21/2.8 Distagon extensively, I’ve concluded that while they both share strong familial traits in terms of overall image rendition and brilliance, the 21/2.8 Distagon is the better first choice for most users, with the 18/3.5 Distagon a useful complement for those who need even wider angles. However, the 18/3.5 Distagon is more compact (shorter), and this might weigh into the decision for some users.

Specifications

The 21/2.8 Distagon is a very well corrected lens, with an amazing 16 elements, very unusual for a “prime” (fixed focal length) lens. Versions for Canon and Nikon are optically identical.

Specifications for Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon
Focal length: 21mm
Aperture scale: f/ 2.8 – f/22 (1/2 stop clicks)
Focusing range: 0.72’ (0.22m) – infinity
Angular field, diag./horiz./vert.: 90 / 81 / 59
Coverage at close range: 4.9 x 7.5” (12.4 x 19 cm)
Image ratio at close range:            1:5
Number of elements/groups: 16 / 13
Filter thread: M 82 x 0.75
Weight:

21 oz (600g)

As weighed: 583g, 661g with hood and caps

Dimensions (with caps): 3.4” (87mm) diameter
4.3” (109mm length
List price: $1732 street price

Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon distortion

The distortion is strong wave-type distortion: first barrel distortion (bowing outwards), then reversing to pincushion distortion (bowing inwards). This is one of the few real drawbacks of the 21/2.8 Distagon.

Distortion — Zeiss 28mm f/2 Distagon

Examples

The hallmark of the Zeiss 21/2.8 Distagon is outstanding sharpness even wide open, and a brilliance matched by few lenses. It’s great as a night-shooting lens because of its performance wide open at f/2.8.

Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon in Yosemite, f/2.8

The Zeiss 21/2.8 Distagon can focus down to about 1:5, so it can be used almost like a macro lens. This further extends its incredible versatility.

Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon in Yosemite, f/8
Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon in Yosemite

If you need or like ultra-high quality in a wide angle at f/2.8, then the Zeiss 21/2.8 Distagon was made for you.

Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon @ f/2.8 — sharp to the corners wide open!

Conclusions

The 21/2.8 Distagon is a reference lens for ultra wide angle lenses. Its versatility and clarity of definition are astounding.

Get this lens now if you like wide angle shooting. You can get the 21/2.8 Distagon at B&H Photo for Canon or Nikon.

As a friend of mind said after shooting the 21/2.8 Distagon on his Canon 5D : “I can’t make images that look like that with my lenses!”.

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Learn more

For in-depth coverage to these Zeiss lenses for Nikon and Canon, please subscribe to our Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses.

The Guide has numerous examples at much higher resolution, along with actual-pixels crops for each and every lens, in most cases several pages of examples per lens.

New material is constantly being added to the Guide, so don't wait, subscribe now!


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