Review of Zeiss 21mm Distagon

Carl Ziess 21mm F2 Distagon Lens ReviewTrust 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.

Good Points

  • Very sharp from corner to corner
  • Excellent contrast
  • Excellent colour reproduction
  • No noticeable chromatic aberration
  • Superb build quality
  • Silky Smooth focus wheel

Bad Points

  • 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.

Zies 21mm Distagon Lens Review - Antelope Canyon

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

Canon 5D Mkii with the Ziess 21mm Distagon 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.

Ziess 21mm Distagon - Bad Lens Flare

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.

Stitching Problems

Panorama Stitiching with the Ziess 21mm

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.

Sharpness

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.

Dead Horse Point State Park, 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.

100% Zoom of a Ziess 21mm Focus stacked image

Here is the full image but at a lowly 72dpi.

dead horse point state park focus stacked image

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.

Published by Gavin Hardcastle

Gavin is a professional landscape photographer from Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, BC. He teaches photography workshops all over the world and writes extensively about his experiences on location. You can read his photo guides and tutorials here at Fototripper.com.

15 Comments

  1. […] ‘auto-focus’ controls and pick your focus point carefully. I focused manually with the Zeiss 21mm Distagon and it was a joy to use. Typically I would pick a contrasting rock line about a third of the way […]

    Reply
  2. […] this shoot I used the Zeiss 21mm Distagon wide angle lens and I had some serious issues trying to stitch the images together in Photoshop. I’d almost […]

    Reply
  3. I think you will find the flare was from the Heliopan and not the lens

    Reply
    • I’d have to disagree with that Sean for two reasons. While in Antelope Canyon I removed the polarizer and had some very quirky lens flare effects. I also use a polarizer on all my other lenses and never have they caused flare or visibly altered the sunstar in any of my shots.

      Reply
  4. acording to dxomarck is this lens not that Sharp (resolving megapixels) the smyang 14mm is on dxomarck way sharper lens it even outperform the hyped 15mm distagon i have zaiss 85. 55,and 100 macro they are not as Sharp as maney branded lenses zaiss is made by COSINA in japan not in Germany it is a cosina but zaiss branded lens

    Reply
    • And that’s why you’ve got to actually use a lens yourself rather than reading a web sites test scores. Also, note that all those Samyang lenses are not created equal. The build quality is abysmal and you get what you pay for. I own the Samyang 14mm and I find it only usable at f/8 which has a very sharp centre but soft corners. Any other aperture will give you a noticeable loss in sharpness very quickly. I’d love to know more about the Cosina.

      Reply
    • Also CANNOT do hyperfocal focusing, everything gets out of control. Got this lens after getting mesmerised by all nice information from forums and articles. Did not find much difference between this Ziess lens and Nikon AF 18 – 35 2.8 – 3.5 lens. Only difference is in WEIGHT and PRICE- Ha ha.
      Needed mainly to shoot machine pictures where we do not have much room to go far.

      Reply
  5. Love the lens, sold it and missing it terribly, but waiting for the new 21mm version and see if that one is any better, then buy it again! Nice images!

    Reply
  6. this zeiss 21mm is a disaster for 5dsr and d810 highend sensors it onley resolves 19mg pix on the 50 mg pix canon 5dsr and onley 18 on my d810 that says its not made for highend sensors With many megapixel my zeiss 135mm zf2 is resolving 35 out of 36meg pix onley 85mm otus and the 135mm zeiss can do that

    Reply
  7. this zeiss 21mm distagone has serius issues after a while the front comes loose there s a wid on utube that shows how to fix it here is the name on the wid
    : Loose front in Carl Zeiss Distagon 2.8-21 ZE T Canon…Nikon,, etc.

    Reply
  8. What is •Mustache distortion

    Reply
  9. Hi!
    what sort of aperture best for this lens. I owned one but i like my EF 16-35 II better. it has better contrast and color rendering?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read previous post:
Focus Stacking
Focus Stacking in Photoshop VS F/22 for Landscapes

I heard about focus stacking a few years ago but never took the time to experiment with it. A recent...

Close