Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZM Review
In the last few years I tried or tested over 500 lenses. Only in few occasions though, I experienced instant excitement after seeing first results. I vaguely remember that feeling from my teen ages, when the girl who I was trying to bewitch from a safe distance, finally looked at me back. While subject of excitement changed, it is great to know, that there is still a little flame of passion somewhere deep inside me.
From those 500+ lenses, magic happened just few times… 8,9 or maybe 10 times. Not that other lenses were bad, most of them were just fine, but that is not enough for the feeling I wrote about.
Zeiss is certainly most frequent producer name in my collection (lot of lenses being from Eastern German Carl Zeiss Jena) and two of its legacy lenses are among my top 10 – Biotar 50/1.4 made for Pentaflex camera and Biotar 75/1.5.
There are another 3 modern Zeiss lenses that belongs to my Top 10 list too. Both Otuses – 55/1.4 and especially 85/1.4 and 135/2 APO. They are very expensive (135 is most affordable), large and heavy but I simply don’t know better corrected optics than Otuses, while 135 APO is not far behind.
Recently I got the chance to spend 5 weeks with new Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM.
If you don’t like long reviews (and this one is going to be very long), here is my short conclusion – it is by far, best 35mm lens for my shooting style that I ever tried.
For those who kept reading, let me say few things in advance…
a) When I say “best lens” it is important to take it in the context with the rest of the sentence – “for my shooting style”. Every lens has to give something to gain something else. Size, weight, price, optical corrections, bulb element, short focus throw, long focus throw, AF, manual focus, good flare control, good corners, sharp center, even sharpness, etc. are different ingredients in the final mix. There is no lens that will be best in all departments, and even if it comes one day, lenses like Lansbaby will always have its place among creative photographers. In other word – sharpest pencil is not always best for drawing. Sometimes simple piece of charcoal, will create master piece.
So, Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM is best 35mm lens for me, because it feature a combination of characteristics that suits my shooting style best.
b) I don’t have Leica digital camera (will appreciate if you guys send me one), for which this lens is primarily designed. You will find later in the review few comparison shots taken with Leica M-E, which I got shortly borrowed from my friend Martin Zeljak (thanks Martin) but most of the test images were captured with Sony A7/r cameras.
c) There will be a lot of images in this review, but some of them are posted on my Flickr service site in order to save space and make uploading of the page faster. I hope that it won’t bother you much.
Enough talk, let’s see what Zeiss have to tell us:
Optical design and specification:
Here is what Zeiss says about 35/1.4 Distagon ZM lens:
Master of variety
If you’re a fan of classic rangefinder photography, then you’ll love the Distagon® T*® 1,4/35 ZM. Showing no compromises in image quality, this lens also shines with its high-speed and universal angle of view.
In dimly lit rooms or at twilight, this top-of-the-line lens performs brilliantly, even completely wide open at f/1.4. And thanks to its perfectly level field of view, it offers completely even sharpness and contrast all the way into the corners. Add to that the precise manual focus, perfect for bringing out the subtleties of your subjects, and you have a lens that allows you to give each image a uniquely personal touch.
Full technical specification for Zeiss.com:
Unfortunately, lens hood is not included, which I think its pity, considering the price.
I got for the test silver lens, which looks nice on my Leica M6 camera,
but on A7/r, black version will be better fit.
Build quality is typical for Zeiss ZM lenses. High quality metal, glass and precision in every detail. Lens is very similar in size and weight to CV Nokton 35/1.2 II, made in the same Cosina factory. For better idea about lens size, I shot it together with few other 35mm lenses.
Of course, when compared to Sony FE 35/2.8 ZA or Zeiss Loxia 35/2 Biogon, we have to include also Leica M to Sony E mount adapter.
That would add some 6-7 mm extra in length. On the other hand, adding adapter to Minolta, Canon or Nikon, will add even more length to already much bigger lenses.
On its native Leica camera, lens is balanced well, even if it is bit on the heavier side. Rangefinder is coupled well, at least on my M6 from 1 film role test that I’ve done.
On Sony A7/r, lens is slightly front heavy and it will be tricky to operate it with one hand, but it is fully manual focus lens (thanks God) and thus you’ll need both hands in most scenarios anyway. Supporting the lens with your free hand is easy and because focus ring is well dampened, you can operate it with one finger. Full focus throw is 90° and minimum focus distance is 0.7m. Of course, you can use helical Leica M to Sony E mount adapter, to decrease minimum focusing distance (get closer to the subject). This is good idea and advantage of mirrorless cameras, because it can help subject separation is some cases.
Aperture ring has decisive 1/3rd f-stop clicks and it feels very solid and precise. Ten aperture blades help creating rounded highlights even when stopped down a bit.
All in all, Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4 ZM another greatly built lens from Zeiss, that is joy to use.
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Great work, as usual Viktor. The lens is now on my shopping list.
By the way I like your new slider tool, quite interactive:)
Just 2 comments:
1) I was dissapointed with a performance of Loxia at f2 studio test (outer zones were not much better than tested lens)
2) Also Voigtlander 35/1.2 seems to be not great, however the character and bokeh will be I guess its strong weapon.
I know that announced sony 35/1.4 will be great in the corners with AF, but as an manual shooter I will always prefer this beauty.
Thanx mate. Loxia 35/2 improves quite a lot stopped down and even wide open is actually much better in the corners than Distagon on A7. But Distagon on Leica M-E is another story 🙂
CV 35/1.2 is definitely not best corrected 35mm lens on the market, but wide open, it has great character (not about sharpness) and stopped down to f/5.6 and smaller it become actually very sharp across the frame.
Distagon is sharper lens with higher micro contrast of course. It depends what you prefer more – Blade sharpness or teasing Mystique.
I am glad you like our slider. It’s not perfect but for the proper comparomoetr IT guys here asks for over 4000 EUR. No way to jake that much with the blog yet…
Best regards to Scotland,
“Use slider to move between images.”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work! Nothing happens when you click the images in the three browsers I’ve tried: Safari, Firefox and Chrome.
You don’t have to click on images, you have to move the line (slider) left or right to reveal image bellow.
the lens looks definitely tempting. Anyway, guess I will wait for the sont FE 35/1.4 distagon….any guess if it might be actually the same design?
one of topic question: In your A7/A7R review you bashed A7 cameras quite heavily and commented that you dont like any of them. Seems that you changed your mind on the topic? Or just kept one for reviewing?
I expect the Sony FE 35/1.4 ZE to have basic Distagon construction scheme but not the same design as ZM version. Lens will be much larger and heavier too. Most importantly, new Sony Zeiss will be AF lens with manual focus by wire, which is big minus for my use (90% of shots are MF).
I haven’t changed my mind regarding Sony A7/r cameras that I still own. All of my critics stands but the new A7MII seems to improve on the sensor reflection issue, so that particular camera can be significant improvement and if I would have one, I could possibly change my conclusion. However, until Sony gives possibility for lossless RAW compression, I am not going to buy any new Sony body, so I might never know how good cameras they will become.
Thanks for the reply Viktor
Well, I’m aware about the size/AF differences. My question was pointed to the optical formula 😉 Guess we will have to wait some weeks till its out for comparison.
Hm, I see this “lossless compression” ranting quite often. Is it really such a big deal?
my answer was commenting optical formula mainly, and I am sure they are not going to be completely the same. Distagon design is strongly asymmetrical and it is not based on exact number of elements inside, nor about their shape or type. From the first look at both lenses, it is clear that they are not of the exactly same design, but they still might be close in performance. However, looking at how 35/1.4 ZM is small and how greatly it performs on native Leica body, I am simply impressed what Zeiss engineers were able to put together. Sony E version look much more in line with other Zeiss Distagons 35/1.4 (ZE,or old C/Y).
The lossy compression of Sony RAW files has two consequences for my use…
First it’s not only about compression, but also about lens software corrections that are applied during compression, especially vignetting correction. This is done within A/D conversion on the hardware level, same as noise reduction, in order to improve efficiency. While for users, this is basically welcomed technology, it makes for me unreliable platform (which otherwise would be almost perfect) for cross lens comparisons among brands and types.
Second, I am often shooting products for living, where I have to go to the very edge of contrast and DR. When I tried to boost the chrome line in the product design and push everything else into dark black e.g., I experienced compression artifacts.
In any case, I understand why Sony did it and I doubt they will change it soon, but for me it means to look for other testing platform or to leave cross platform lens testing aside if there is none that can set even conditions. (Or at least to not include native E mount lenses in my tests).
Another reason why I didn’t buy A7 MII is IBIS being the main difference. Because I use tripod for 90% of my work, I don’t need IBIS (and faster battery drain) and thus I will rather wait for really new sensors.
so the FE 35 monster is out, Steve Huff published his “first look” review and the guy is absolutely raving: “this lens may just be the best 35mm lens I have ever shot when it comes to IQ, pop, color, detail and overall rendering. It is gorgeous. Really”. So it looks promising. Are you planning to have a look on this beast too?
Thanks for the explanation, I have a clearer picture now about the whole thing 😉 I persnally am waiting for the new version of A7r. I still hope for a 36mpix version with electronic 1st curtain which would address the shutter shock issue. If the rumors are true and the A7RII will be a 50mpix beast, then I go for the A7II (dough I dont really care about the IBIS that much either)
with all respect, Mr.Huff is raving about everything lately. “Best I ever used” is kind of motto of his pages. But he has lot of traffic for sure and he knows the positivism is what makes people happy. BTW, he also saw and talked to ghosts…
I most probably won’t try this lens (even if I would like), because I can’t get it from Sony for testing and I am not planning to buy it.
I am working on Zeiss APO Sonnar 135/2 review right now and that will be followed by shot out of 135mm on A7 – where five of most prominent 135s will be compared (including new Samyang 135.)
If I somehow succeed in getting in touch with someone from Sony international and they send me the lens/lenses, I will be happy to test them though.
🙂 well, for some reason the guys name is recently downgrading to the lights of Ken Rockwell :D. However its not entirely true, especially regarding the sony lens. His FE lens reviews were always like: “yes its nice, but I still prefer to slap a voigtlander on the a7”, he called the 55/1.8 boring-the lens that all sony shooters love and rave about. Its really first time he is enthusiastic about a FE lens.
The 135 battle sounds interesting, I hope you wont leave out the Sony/Zeiss 135/1.8, that would be a sin! Looking forward for the review
Sony Zeiss Sonnar 135/1.8 will be included in the shot out part together with EF 135/2 L, APO Sonnar 135/2 ZF.2 and Samyang 135/2 Nikon mount. (I might manage to make one or two shot comparison including Nikkor 135/2 DC and Sony 135/2.8 STF, but it all depends of time and weather conditions).
great, looking forward for the comparison…
BTW, I thought you are joking about the ghosts thing, but here I see this: http://huffparanormal.com/ 😀 😀
I am never joking. But I saw ghosts too 😉
Thank you- Viktor. Very nice review. I ‘m waiting your another reviews. 🙂
Thank you Vasil I am glad you liked it.
Thanks for the good work. As usual, it is extremely well done.
Can’t wait till you do a comparison with the new Sony Zeiss 35 F1.4 FE lens. Any chance that you may publish the comparison anytime soon?
Thank you Simon for your kind words. Unfortunately, I can’t get in touch with Sony International and we are not on their PR list. On top of that in the last period Sony seems to slightly ignore Europe and especially Czech Republic with new products supply, so we have to wait. All this means, that while I would love, I can’t test Sony lenses until I decide to buy one for myself, and I recently have no plans of doing so. I hope that we will somehow break this limitation in the future, because I believe that Sony Camera division deserves attention and publicity.
But it’s not all negative. I am working now on comprehensive review of Zeiss APO Sonnar 135/2. While this is not new lens, it is considered to be one of the best in its class. I hope to manage to make few direct comparisons against rather new Samyang 135/2 and another famous 135 – Sony Zeiss Sonnar 135/1.8 ZA on Sony A7r.
Oh, and there should be new Zeiss lenses announcement very soon. But pssst 😉
Thank you very much for such a thorough, informative review! There seems to be very little information about this lens on the internet.
(I especially like your “mover slider to compare” tool)
The ZM 35mm F1.4 seems like the perfect 35mm lens, but unfortunately the price is too much for me… And the Sigma 35mm Art seems like a very good value!
I was wondering how the sigma lens handles when used as a manual focus lens on a sony A7 or A7m2?
I am just an amateur and 90% of the time I shoot environmental portraits (I am considering buying a canon mount version since I already have a 70D, so I can use it on both bodies)
How is the feel of the focus ring for MF? Would the Sigma lens be a good option to consider?
Thank you in advance!
Sigma manual focusing is quite good for AF lens. You might lack that extra precision in the final stage of acquiring critical focus (on the eye e.g.) at super shallow DOF, but it is still possible.
There is also Sony A mount version which will AF with LA-EA4. Between Canon and Nikon, you are deciding between convinient settings of aperture, fully functional metering and TTL, EXIF record and AF (even if terrible slow) and versatillity of Nikon mount, which can be used on most other mounts recently…
Thank you for your input! Even though my brain is telling me that the Sigma is a much better lens for me, I spent the last couple of nights fantasizing about getting the ZM 35mm f1.4!
I would love to get one, but probably not worth the price difference for my usage.. 🙁
But I might thank myself later for not buying a completely manual lens with no electronic contacts..LOL
many thanks for your reviews and comparison.
The Distagon ZM seams to be a great performer. I would love to use it for technical subjects.
Your comparison with your model guides me to the Loxia instead. Inside the building the ZM 1.4 and the ZA 2.8 show a pritty face, long hair, a nice coat, jewelry and hands. For me the Loxia 35 shows me a pretty woman instead. For me the wow is on the whole person first until I loose myself into the details. The unretouched parkside pictures give me the imagination, that she would choose the Loxia 35, or the Nokton picture, while she might argue to have no Make-up, hair wax used on the ZM and ZA. Since you proved that the Loxia sharpens up very quick when stopped down i prefer this as a multi purpose prime 35 for natural subjects and nature.
Best regards: Juergen
thank you for your comment. It represents the way I would like my reviews to contribute to the community. Trying to give as much field related information as possible and some comparative shots, I let the readers to make their individual conclusions. I rarely score or describe the lenses in general terms and I don’t believe in one lens being better than the other in all aspects. It is not most popular approach, people like to read that their lens is “better” than others, but it’s at least another point of view.
With the choice of Loxia, I am sure you won’t make a mistake and I wish you lot of nice images with that nice Zeiss lens.
Your exhaustive comparison might have been decisive regarding the Distagon ZM had you attached the ZM to the camera for which it was designed–The Leica M Series. Comparing like brand lens (D810+ZF.2) and then mixing brands to evaluate the mismatched pairing is a mistake that others also too often commit.
Legacy lenses attached to foreign bodies simply will not perform optimally.
The IR cut filter etc. sensor stack attached to the SONY A7 Series (Including the A7R) is at least 2mm thick and its degrading effect nullifies all your hard work. The ZM was in fact designed to interface with the far thinner sensor stack of the Leica or the even thinner surface of photo film.
Any refracting element placed between the lens and sensor not originally designed to be there severely degrades the final outcome–especially at the field edges. Moreover the sensor stack renders the MTF useless as a guide.
To your credit you have arranged a PROPER FORMAT for comparison and I look forward to future efforts.
You might be very surprised if you compare the A7 Series to the Leica with this advanced Zeiss ZM lens.
If you have read the review carefully (but who will actually) you’ll find lot of notices about sensor cover composition and its influence to the final image quality. Don’t forget however, that recently applied software correction, “hard coded” in RAW files (by many producers including Sony and Leica) are another factor that influences image quality. Finally, on the page 3, you will find comparison images between Sony A7 and Leica M-E body with the same lens. You need to use slider to reveal left or right image.
We couldn’t use Leica for more tests as it was borrowed body that we had to return. We are not interested in Leica digital cameras, so we are not planning to use them in the future either. Zeiss is putting ZM line on hold, so there won’t be many of their lenses to test on Leica bodies anyway, and there are way better review pages dedicated to Leica fans.
Thank you for your critic and for your encouragement. If you’d like to add something more to this discussion, please use our forum section, where you can open related thread. We are limited in number of comments bellow the article, so I will have to exclude any new contributions related to this topic.
This is literally the best ZM 1.4/35 review on the internet. I’m currently have the CV 35mm 1.2 and amazed how the ZM can outperform it.
Like @Li Yan: Best test for the 35 ZM 1.4, thank you very much!
I use it since six weeks on a Monocrome 246 and it has become my #2 lens on this body (close behind the C-Sonnar).
By the way: the best lens I ever had imo is the Apo Sonnar 135 you are referring in your ZM 35 test…
how did you retouch it? i like it. since it is just hobby, i would like over-retouch it.
Hi alan, I am not sure witch image do you have in mind?
I know this is an older review, but quite recently I had a chance to compare ZM 35/2.0 with Loxia 35. I was surprised, to see how well ZM lens performed. It was a bit sharper than Loxia up to F4, had a tiny smoother bokeh wide open. Then I added FE 35/1.4 and this lens was better then either Biogon. But that made me think of ZM Distagon 35/1.4. I love small format of A7R, and while FE 35 is gorgeous, is also huge. I was wondering, if I may be happy with having ZM 35/1.4 Distagon instead. I don’t mind manual focus and having helicoid LM-NEX adapter will give me additional benefits of shorter MFD.
Enough about me, my question is: did you have a chance to compare ZM 35/1.4 with FE 35/1.4? If so, what was your opinion/conclusion?
Thank you again for your continued effort to help others.
when you say that ZM 35/2 was sharper than Loxia 35/2 (not my experience, reading MTF50), was your impression from the center of the image or averaged MTF reading? I am asking, because Biogon 35/2 was notably behind Loxia (smeared corners) at the image edges at any aperture in my test published here.
Regarding ZM 35/1.4 and FE 35/1.4 I didn’t compare them directly but you can see results of the ZM 35/1.4 in my review – http://www.verybiglobo.com/zeiss-distagon-35mm-f1-4-zm-review/
FE 35/1.4 is very similar in performance, except that it is much bigger and there are some sample variations too. FE 35/1.4 reminds me of a Sigma 35/1.4 Art with somewhat smoother bokeh.
Thank you for reply Victor.
ZM was sharper in center, but only at F2 (visible) and F2.8 (barely). From F4 Loxia was bit better. Outside center, Loxia was just a bit sharper. Meantime, FE 35 was sharper then either Biogon in center, but much smoother outside, it was actually as sharp WO as ZM or Loxia at F2. Should you care I can send you RAW,s for your own conclusions. I am attracted to ZM Distagon, because of its size, but having good copy of FE, I am little hesitant, unless there are some other advantages. If I decide to go ZM route, I would probably do Kolari mod on my A7R, although not sure, if this wouldn’t affect performance of native lenses. Choices, choices…
The only thing I can say, is that you maybe had a bad copy of Loxia, because as you can see from my tests, my sample was much sharper toward edges than old Biogon at any aperture. Stopped down to f/2.8 it compares favorably to the FE 35/2.8 but with less vignetting. Loxia overall has a more organic rendering, meaning that the micro and global contrast are well balanced with the transferred tonal range, which results in a sort of more natural tonal response of the captured image. It also has smoother background blur than FE 35/2.8.
The biggest downside of the Loxia is very pronounced coma. Loxia is IMHO great lens for live subjects – street, concerts and event photography and stopped down to f/5.5-f/11 it becomes very usable for landscape too. No other manual focused lens will give you same comfort on Sony Ax cameras.
If you look on my ZM review, you can see that the level of smearing in the edges on Sony A7r is not really big, nothing like with Biogon design e.g. Kolari modification will reduce this smearing but will involve some other issues that you won’t read much about, including increased sensor flaring in some situations. Not the best thing to do with your camera, but if you need better corners with UWA lenses on A7r, probably only way to go. ZM will give you sharp edges at f/5.6-f/11. FWIW ZM 35/1.4 was for my taste, the most appealing 35mm lens that I shot with across the platforms. There are sharper lenses in the center (not by much), sharper at the edges, lenses with slightly smoother bokeh such as yours distagon FE, but as the overall package for the lovers of the manual focus, it is probably the best you can get. For the Techart adapter it might be slightly too heavy however, and Techart might show deformation in time. resulting in the mount plane decentering.
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Thank you very much for this review, I’m considering the voigtlander 1.2, I do have on the mail box coming the 40 mm 1.4, and own the zeiss 2.8. Of course will keep only one.
I like manual focusing but I got the techart pro which give me eye AF on my a7iii!..wow, is fantastic.
Would like to see if the voigtlander’s at 2.8 equal the sharpness of the zeiss.
Great review,smashing pictures of the lovely silver version of the lens.
Thanks for the size comparison picture.
Every review says that this is a top lens but maybe a bit big on an m camera.
When so many reviewers rate a lens so highly it must be true.