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Carl Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon initial impressions

Late in the day FedEx delivery along with some other obligations restricted my time with the new Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon today, but I am already forming some impressions based on the ZE prototype lens using my Canon 5D Mark II (I would have preferred the Nikon D3x, because the 5DM2 image quality interferes with the artistic effects delivered by the lens, particularly the noise and color).

The ZE 35/1.4 Distagon is a large chunk of glass and metal, and your neck will let you know this in short order, even when mounted on the relatively light weight Canon 5D Mark II. I think it would feel more at home mated to a Nikon D3x or Canon 1 series, but of course that’s purely a subjective feel thing, and then your neck would protest even more.

The first thing I noticed upon inspecting my initial shots is the color rendition, which is really gorgeous, especially so when combined with the crisp contrast. Classic Zeiss color. This is the very first shot I took, tomatoes from my garden picked that morning. I’m not thrilled with the 5D Mark II color rendition, and perhaps the small size doesn’t make things apparent (or JPEG), but it has something I like. This is a click-and-process example, nothing done to it.

Morning’s harvest
Canon 5D Mark II + Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon @ f/1.4

The next thing I noticed is a wonderful bokeh (out of focus rendition), and I had the unexpected feeling that I was looking at a medium format Zeiss lens, a very classic out-of-focus rendition. Though very sharp at f/1.4 with an apparently high level of correction, this is not a harsh-transition rendition as you’ll find with some designs; rather my instinctive reaction was that this is a real artist’s lens, one exceptionally well suited to “feel”, and a lens ideally suited for wide aperture landscapes, and portraits and anything of a thoughtful character. Get it for use (mainly) at f/1.4 - f/2.8 would be my advice.

The video folks are going to love it when they see the way the 35/1.4 renders, along with its silky-smooth focusing. A Zeiss CP.2 cine version of this is not planned though. I should have gotten the fish tacos, because the beef ones were awful.

Fish Tacos
Canon 5D Mark II + Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon @ f/1.4

You’ll find the usual amount of color bokeh and axial color as with every f/1.4 or f/2 design, so don’t expect any miracles (even the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M doesn’t have any miracles to offer, and has far worse axial color). Fast apertures are always a compromise in some way.

The Canon 5D Mark II “green dot” focus assist was frequently in error, and could not be counted on for crisp results. I have not yet investigated this in any rigorous way, but I obtained a number of front-focused images, suggesting that there might be significant spherical aberration (a topic covered in Making Sharp Images). Or it could also be that the prototype is not “chipped” as it will be. I have no judgment to render on that point as yet.

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