Lens Test: Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 ZE

A pedigreed lens that can open doors


The fastest Zeiss wide-angle for today’s DSLRs, the full-frame 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T* ZE is in the Canon EF mount ($1,843, street) and is similar in most respects to the ZF.2-mount lens for Nikons; both have been on shelves for about 18 months and are garnering impressive word of mouth from professionals and serious hobbyists. Together with the equally impressive 50mm and 85mm f/1.4s, it makes up a troika of unusually fast, unusually sharp manual-focus tanks from Zeiss.

One of several traits that set this 35mm apart is its pairing of wide focal length and exceedingly large maximum aperture. Usually, the wider a lens, the deeper the apparent depth of field, making it difficult to separate a subject from its environment by defocusing foregrounds and/or backgrounds. As a result, we get used to seeing almost everything sharp (or nearly sharp) in wide-angle scenes. That is not the case with this lens, whose shallow depth of field at f/1.4 lets you draw attention to a sharp subject by drastically defocusing other parts of the scene. The effect is as rare as it is instantly recognizable.

While lacking autofocus, our Canon-mount lens coupled electronically with our full-frame test camera’s autoexposure system, allowing full metering, all AE modes, and focus confirmation. Used on an APS-C body, it becomes equivalent to a classic normal lens (56mm on a Canon), producing little or no apparent perspective distortion across the focusing range.

At nearly 2 pounds, with an all-metal barrel, chassis, and hood, the lens is large and heavy by 35mm standards, but the robust construction quality guarantees an heirloom instrument. The manual-focus ring, partially ribbed, runs more than half the length of the lens—when you reach up to manually focus, you can’t miss it—and turns with a luxurious smoothness, thanks to a finely machined focusing helical. The focus control is extremely fine, due to the collar’s long 150-degree turning radius.

On our optical bench in the Popular Photography Test Lab, the lens produced Excellent-range sharpness and contrast scores, with only Slight barrel distortion (0.22%)—a top-notch performance for a 35mm. For evidence, see the recently tested 35mm f/1.4s from Rokinon (0.28%) and Nikon (0.26%). Edge vignetting departed the corners by f/2.5, matching the Nikon and beating the Rokinon (f/4).

If you typically photograph fast-moving, active subjects, you need autofocus. (If f/1.4 is your reason for considering this lens, be forewarned that it's difficult to nail even slow-moving subjects consistently sharp at that aperture.) Likewise, if you’re not willing to obsess a bit over manual focusing, stick to AF lenses. At f/1.4, depth of field at near and middle distances is shallow enough that meticulous attention to focus—if not a viewfinder magnifier—is required. If you don’t have the patience, there's no point in paying for f/1.4, because you’re not going to get adequately sharp subjects at that aperture. Get a slower lens, such as the Zeiss 35mm f/2 ($1,117, street).

Another consideration: Although Zeiss promotes this lens for video because of its smooth and silent focusing, in shooting clips we found it difficult to keep the eyes of a relatively motionless adult in sharp focus at f/1.4 with a 4-foot subject distance.

But for still photographers who are willing to focus manually—it’s easy to get accustomed to—and want to produce distinctly beautiful wide-angle images, this lens could be the vehicle. Are you bored with the pictures you're making? Rent this lens for a weekend. Its photos will remind you of what it felt like back when photography was new.

35mm (36.02mm tested), f/1.4 (f/1.46 tested), 11 elements in 9 groups. Focusing turns 150 degrees.
Diagonal view angle: 63 degrees.
Weight: 1.95 lbs.
Filter size: 72mm.
Mount: Canon, Nikon.
Included: Lenshood.
Street price: $1,843.

Distortion: 0.22% (Slight) barrel.
Light falloff: Gone by f/2.5.
Close-focusing distance: 11.75 inches.
Maximum magnification ratio: 1:4.77.