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Overview of Zeiss ZF.2/ZE Lenses

In this era of plastic-barreled mass-produced lenses, the Zeiss ZF/ZF.2 and ZE lenses stand out in sleekly-elegant fashion, with their beautiful and durable all-metal design.

For the past two and a half years, I've used the entire Zeiss ZF lens line extensively on both Canon EOS and Nikon, with outstanding results. In late 2008 I also began using the ZE models for Canon, and in late 2009, the ZF.2 lenses for Nikon.

The question that will invariably be asked is whether the Zeiss lenses are "worth it"--are they actually "better" than an equivalent Nikon or Canon lenses? There is no unequivocal answer to that question unless priorities are specified. Here are just a few of the considerations:

  • Wide-open vs stopped-down sharpness and contrast throughout the frame;
  • Ability to distinguish subtle tones, particularly in highlight or shadow areas;
  • Color rendition, distinguishing fine nuances of color;
  • Maximum aperture;
  • Bokeh;
  • Flare spots and veiling flare (haze);
  • Distortion;
  • Automatic vs manual operation;
  • Compatibility and ergonomics, especially focusing;
  • Build quality;
  • Cost.

Photographers who prize bokeh (rendition of out-of-focus image detail) will be strongly motivated by the 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar, which offers stunning results. By comparison, photographers who need to shoot rapidly will find the lack of autofocus a show-stopper. Still others might be put off by the cost. There is no scoring system that can yield an answer appropriate to everyone.

Photographers who prize consistently high image quality (especially wide open), pleasing bokeh, and first-rate build quality will find the Zeiss offerings very attractive, so long as fully automatic operation is not a key requirement.

Available lens mounts

The Zeiss line is available in these mounts:

The “ZF” and “ZF.2” can be used with a lens adapter on Canon EOS in manual-stop-down mode (focus, stop the lens down, shoot). This can be a useful advantage for those who work with both Nikon and Canon so as to maintain one set of lenses; it’s how I shot them for almost two years! But most Canon users will prefer the native Canon mount “ZE” version.


Click on the lens for a mini review (if available).

Click on the caption below the lens for the Zeiss specifications.

Lens Focal length
Filter size
18.5 507g

Weighs 459g without the 47g len hood, add 30g for front and rear lens caps.

Harder to focus in dim light, vignetting and corner color cast on full-frame cameras, wave-type distortion on full-frame cameras.

21.? 630g

Outstanding control of color fringing, and brilliance in its imaging results; very sharp even wide open at f/2.8. Focusing is easy even in low light.

Vignetting and color uniformity very good for a 21mm prime lens. Moderate wave-type distortion. Field curvature absolutely minimal.

Read the mini review.

25.7 486g

Superb image quality at longer distances.

Color fringing can be moderate on high-contrast edges and field curvature must be reckoned with at close range, but is actually superior to most lenses at distance.

28.5mm 529g

A workhorse lens that is easier to focus in dim light than the 25/2.8 Distagon while giving up only a modest amount of coverage. A superb choice for all-around indoor/outdoor shooting where apertures f/2 - f/4 will be used. Field curvature should be understood.

35.0 533g

A superb performer even wide open, this lens will not disappoint under any conditions, except perhaps for faint color fringing on high contrast edges. Well-corrected for aberrations across the field.

51.7 361g

Very sharp and contrasty lens by f/2.8, but focus shift can fool one into thinking otherwise. Stopping down to f/4 results in outstanding image quality with exceptionally natural-looking results.

Lightweight and compact, a wonderful standard optic, though the 50/2 Makro-Planar offers greater versatility and lower distortion.

51.6 534g

Exceptional image quality wide open, only the far corners on full-frame cameras might require stopping down. A versatile performer from close-up to infinity.

Bulkier and heavier than the 50/1.4 Planar, it nonetheless might be a better fit for larger cameras, offering tremendous flexibility.

Very low distortion.

84.8 ZF: 620g
ZE: 721g

Outstanding images result from f/2.8 - f/8, but focus shift can fool one into thinking otherwise.

Moderate size and relatively heavy, but a terrific balance and ergonomics on larger cameras.

Near-zero distortion.

97.5 717g

A world-class must-have lens for the macro or portrait photographer offering bitingly sharp images wide open with beautiful background blur. The f/2 maximum aperture is unique among macro lenses.

Near-zero distortion.

Read the mini review.

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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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