Trust me when I say - You will love this lens.
I'm a confessed pixel peeper, obsessed with sharpness and image quality, which is why I rented the Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZF (ZE) wide angle lens for a recent trip to the Midwest USA.
I slapped this sexy piece of glass on to my Canon 5D MKII and ventured forth into the spectacular scenery of Utah, Arizona and Nevada.
I'll also share with you some of the better images I created using this lens as well as my experiences in the field.
I'll start by summarizing the good points and the bad points.
- Very sharp from corner to corner
- Excellent contrast
- Excellent colour reproduction
- No noticeable chromatic aberration
- Superb build quality
- Silky Smooth focus wheel
- Terrible lens flare when shooting into the sun
- Mustache distortion
- You have to zoom with your feet because it's a prime
- Forget stitching multiple shots for panorama's, it won't work well.
If you can overcome those minor bad points and are prepared to shuffle your feet this is the lens for you.
I'd read that the Zeiss is not 'weather sealed' so I was concerned about shooting in Antelope Canyon which is notorious for dusty, sandy conditions. Either I got lucky or I did a good job of shielding the lens because no dirt found its way into the lens and I continued taking crystal clear shots for the rest of the road trip.
My Usual Glass
My standard glass is the Canon 16-35mm zoom which for the price is something of a let down. I got sick of the fuzzy corners and the horrific chromatic aberration so I thought I'd see how the Zeiss 21mm Distagon performed as my replacement wide angle lens for landscapes and outdoor photography.
I was not disappointed with the Zeiss. Gone were the fuzzy corners and the chromatic aberration I'd suffered from my Canon lens and the Zeiss had more sharpness overall. I admit this is not a fair comparison as a zoom lens will never deliver the same clarity as a prime lens but this was my situation.
Weight was not a concern as I'd gotten used to the super heavy Canon 16-35mm but it's worth mentioning that the Zeiss is not a lightweight lens. If you hold comfort in higher regard than image quality this is not the lens for you.
Build Quality and Handling
Have you ever lost 5 minutes of your life faffing around with those crappy plastic lens hoods that come with your Canon lenses? I have and it's often an exercise in rage management just to get those poxy things on the right way. Not so with the Zeiss. The Zeiss is so beautifully engineered that even a ham fisted lummox like myself gets it right every time.
The smooth action of the focus wheel will spoil you. No rubber or plastic, just precision engineering and excellent results. The Zeiss 21mm Distagon couldn't be easier to use. No auto-focus, just one manual focus ring and that's it. I didn't miss my auto focus at all. I also did lots of 'focus stacking' shots and the Zeiss made it easy. You'll really appreciate your cameras 'Live View' mode for manual focusing when using this lens.
How it Performed in the Field
It took me all of 5 minutes to feel right at home with this lens and It stayed on the camera for two whole weeks before I felt compelled to use my old zoom instead for distance shots.
I used a Heliopan polarizer which give me great colour saturation and really made the contrast of the Zeiss stand out. Things were going great with this lens and I was mentally creating plausible excuses to give my wife in preparation for my announcement that this lens would be a great ''investment'' - until I tried shooting into the sun.
Lens Flare Problems
I like creative lens flare effects and I like striking looking sun stars. What i don't like is the nasty looking red ring that appears in my shots when pointing the Zeiss at the sun slightly off-axis. This was so bad that I had to abandon many creative compositions that otherwise would have worked.
You can see how it destroyed my Mesa Arch shot above. Never mind, it's a lame cliche anyway.
It's known that wide angle lenses are not ideal for doing stitching shots and panoramas in Photoshop because of the distortion caused by the shape of the lens. That being said I can usually get a decent pano when taking multiple shots with the much wider Canon 16-35mm even when fully zoomed out.
For some reason the shape of the Zeiss glass does not produce images that are easy to stitch in Photoshop. Almost all of the panos I shot with the Zeiss were a crushing failure with the exception of the one pictured above. This was a huge disappointment because I'd gone to great lengths to shoot a vertical pano of Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona. Had I used my old Canon 16-35mm I would have gotten a great shot. Not so with the Zeiss.
I guess this might be related to the mustache distortion that is characteristic of the Zeiss.
Did I mention the sharpness? That's what this lens is all about and by-heck does it deliver the goods. Here is a shot I made at Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab, utah.
This next shot is a 100% Photoshop blow up from a focus stacked image that you can view underneath. This was shot at f/5.6.
Here is the full image but at a lowly 72dpi.
Zoom with your Feet
Using a prime lens for landscapes is both liberating and frustrating. Forget zooming in on a point of interest, primes force you to visualize your images in a bigger way. Either fill that big old picture frame or get closer to your point of interest. There are times however when you'll seriously miss your zoom and even loose out on certain shots because of the distance. Then there are the times when the 21mm is just the right size and it's those moments that make you fall in love with the Zeiss and forgive its few minor quirks.
Rent it, then Buy It
If it wasn't for the fact that I'm currently considering a major camera upgrade I'd probably go ahead and buy the Zeiss 21mm Distagon. If you are settled with your current camera and are considering getting this lens, my recommendation would be to rent it for a couple of weeks and force yourself into some uncomfortable shooting situations to see how well it copes. If you love it, buy it. I expect it will hold its value for many years to come.
I hope you found this review useful. Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.