Friday, January 1, 2010

Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 ZF Review

(aka. Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 2,8/21 ZF)


Mount used for review: Nikon (ZF)
Focal length: 21 mm
Aperture range: f/2.8 – f/22 (1/2 steps)
Focusing range: 0.22 m – infinity
Number of elements/groups: 16/13
Aperture blades: 9
Angular field, diag./horiz.: 90°/81°
Coverage at close range: 18 x 12 cm
Filter thread: M 82 x 0.75
Dimensions (with caps): ø 87 mm, length 109 mm
Weight: 600g


If you read my previous reviews, you know that I’ve been asking you to take the review as my personal opinion only, and the result may vary depending on your equipment/skills.
Also, this review does not show the optimum lens performance. Why? Because when I’m the one holding the camera, it is not going deliver optimum result, I can tell you that, haha...

No seriously, it’s because of my method of shooting and the equipments I use. Check the Zeiss 100mm review for the full disclaimer before reading this review.
And if you’re wondering whether I am being subjective or not, damn straight I am!
Well at least even though I’m subjective and biased, I’ll still try to back it up with some examples or some sort of BS.


Just like when you found a nice restaurant, if you loved the food, you’d feel obliged to return to the restaurant and try the other dishes right? That’s exactly how I felt after using the Zeiss 100mm f/2 – it is definitely one of Zeiss’ “signature dishes”. I couldn’t resist – I needed to try another one.

So the plan was to get another Zeiss lens (wasn’t sure which one at that stage), but my initial plan was to get the lens maybe sometime in 2010 because I already bought quite a few lenses already within the past few months. But then Zeiss announced that they will be gradually “refreshing” their ZF lenses with .2 version that comes with a CPU contact so that it can communicate with the camera.

‘Not really a big deal for me, but that’s great’, I thought… Then I found out that the street price of the .2 version is actually more expensive than the old version – roughly around US$200 to US$300 more than the old version depending on the model of the lens.
Oh snap! $50 bucks more is okay, but $300 more is quite a big increase for someone like me. So I figured out I might as well fast forward my plan so I can save myself 300 bucks. So which Zeiss should I get?

The Candidates

The ones that attract me the most are the 18mm and 21mm because they just look awesome with those enlarged fronts. My Tokina 11-16mm is a DX, so I thought I'd just get another wide because I wouldn't be able to use the Tokina when I go FX. That means it’s either 18mm or 21mm.
Unfortunately it is not that easy to find that much info on these two lenses, so I had to rely on owners’ feedback and also many hours on the net checking impressions and judging picture quality, trying to find the ‘real’ capability of the lenses.

So, 18mm or 21mm?

18mm is cheaper. Roughly around US$250 cheaper. If you don’t mind losing the 3mm width, I suggest you go all the way and get the 21mm instead of trying to save $250. I know $250 is quite a lot (at least for me) but if you are already swimming in a $1K+ MF lens zone, why let 250 bucks stops you from getting the better lens, especially when you know that this lens will stick with you for possibly the rest of your life? (Unless Nikon changed the F mount format - that’d be horror)
I know the 18mm is more compact and lighter, but the 21mm is not that terribly large and heavy anyway, it just weighs more or less like what a solid MF lens supposed to weigh.

By the way I also thought about Nikon 14-24mm, but I didn't really want it. It's not about the price, but the two main reasons why I didn’t get Nikon 14-24mm are: first, that lens is huge, I am not prepared to lug that thing around just for a zoom that can only travel 10mm – not to mention the attention I will be getting from carrying that beast around (well if you like attention, then maybe it’s a good point). And 1kg lens does not actually make it a walkaround casual lens anymore.
Secondly, I love working with manual focus lenses. And the 21mm is one sexy looking lens. Call me shallow, but it does look great, I can’t think of any other lens that looks as good as the Zeiss 18/21mm. I mean, cmon, have you seen this lens with a hood on? That’s like one of the sexiest looking lenses I’ve ever seen around.

So I decided that it would be the 21mm, and I placed my order with my usual, trusty dealer from New Jersey. Had to wait for a few days because they were getting it from the distributor, but it took only two days for it to arrive to Sydney (gotta love FedEx International Priority)
By the way, I also need to eat cardboard boxes for dinner from now on for at least a few more months because my wallet just got another hit. Although I was quite surprised that I didn't get into that much trouble from my partner... I was 100% sure that I saw it coming, but it wasn't that bad... I wonder why.

(Note - from this point onwards, please click on the picture to view it on larger size because this website auto minimizes all pictures to thumbnail sizes. Also, depending on the size of your monitor, after you click the image and it appears in new window, you might still need to click the image one more time to fully expand the image - if not, the picture would be in much lower quality because it's compressed)

The box is a bit smaller compared to Zeiss 100mm ZF box. I must be because of the hood for 21mm is shorter than the 100mm hood. The colour of the sticker is green. I am not sure if the colour means anything or Zeiss is just putting random coloured stickers on the boxes.

The following is the picture of the outer box that came with the delivery:
(PS. the brown outer cardboard box had since been eaten.)

Inside the box, you will find the usual things like lens manual, warranty card, and the QC card. Speaking of QC card, interestingly, my card was signed by the same person who checked my Zeiss 100mm ZF. It might be just a coincidence or maybe Zeiss only employs a handful of people to do the QC for all the lenses (human QC on every lens is an expensive practice after all).

Apart from those papers, they also include a Carl Zeiss lens and the lens hood as a bonus. Following is a closer look of the lens and hood sitting in the box. It's a very interesting experience to look at the open box and see the lens sitting in the Styrofoam box there. It’s like when you just adopted a baby and looking at him/her/him-her sleeping in the cradle and you just can’t wait to pick the baby up and hold the baby in your hands (and the difference is, with lens I don't have to pay for the damn education)

I am not sure whether my dealer (gotta love the word dealer, so gangsta) opened the box to inspect the lens before shipping it to me, but notice that the word “Carl Zeiss” is nicely lined up on top and the lens’ rabbit ears is also nicely aligned right on top? That’s a nice attention to detail and whoever put it like that, thanks!


When I picked the lens up, I got the same feeling as when I picked up and played with the 100mm for the first time. It reassures you why you’re paying quite a lot of money for a manual focus lens when you can easily get an AF lens for the same (or less) price.

Everything just oozes solidness and first class build. The manual focus is so smooth, and every time the focus ring reaches the end of focus, it clinks like a solid metal clink. Even my Ai/Ais lenses don’t sound like that, let alone the AF ones. This is something you just won’t get from AF lenses. As I mentioned before in my previous review, you have to look at the manual focus as a privilege, not as a drawback. People seem to get it the wrong way, they hear MF and all they think about is, "ooo.... not worth the price, it can't even AF...". Well the thing is, for this lens, I don't want it to AF, I want it to have solid MF.

This lens is almost the same size as the Zeiss 100mm ZF, weighs almost the same too (the 100mm is slightly heavier). I am actually quite surprised, considering the 100mm is significantly fatter with extending metal barrel and all that. Maybe it’s because of the amount of elements the 21mm has inside?

From the picture above, you can see that the front diameter is much larger compared to 100mm (100mm uses 67mm cap, whereas the 21mm uses 82mm cap). But unlike Nikon 14-24mm, it doesn’t have that humungous Cyclops-like super massive jumbo bulbous front element that looks like some sort of laser-emitting weapon used by Megatron from Transformers movie.

So in other words, you can still use a filter if you want to. The Zeiss’ front element looks more subdued yet cool at the same time. It sort of does not want to attract attention, but it does attract attention because it looks hot. Sort of like Robert Pattinson when he's playing Edward Cullen from that Twilight movie.

Anywho, back to the lens' front element, although it is not very bulbous, it is still awfully close to the edge of the filter thread though, so you still want to be careful because it is still easy for you to accidentally touch the front element with your fingers if you are careless.
Attaching the hood will significantly protect the element from your fingers or accidental bump, but just be careful when taking on/off the lens cap with the hood on (lens cap is still crap).
You can see closer look of the front element here:

By the way I notice that the lens has different colour of reflection compared to Zeiss 100mm. I mentioned that the 100mm has this pink coloured hue, but the 21mm has a rather greenish/bluish reflection. I am not sure if they actually use different coating or maybe it’s just the way the lenses are designed or maybe I am just going blind, I am not sure, but it’s definitely not pinkish.

Now let’s talk about the barrel. But I am afraid I am just repeating myself here, because the barrel has exactly the same build quality as the 100mm. Here are some pictures, regardless.

Superbly-built barrel? Check.

Engraved font? Check.

Crappy lens cap (but just a bit bigger this time)? Check.

Now this is something different - the rear side actually looks different from the 100mm. The 100mm has this sort of square-ish looking rear (refer to my 100mm review if you forgot how it looks like), but the 21mm has a round rear.

The lens hood is also different. It uses a petal-shaped hood to prevent vignetting. I also believe that they chose petal-shaped hood so that it won’t scare the flowers when you get close to them (this thing can focus very close). Looks like Zeiss is sharing this hood with the 18mm lens too.

You can also reverse-mount the hood but I strongly advise you not to do it because if you do that, it will be such a pain to remove the hood. Mainly because there is not much room to hold steady the lens while you are twisting the hood. The reverse hood will block much of the barrel space and in the mid-body you have the focus ring and aperture ring beneath it, which you can't use to hold steady because they rotate (duh...). So the best way is just to leave it attached in normal position if possible.


So…. the lens arrived and I used it a bit indoor.... Couldn’t wait til I could go out and start shooting with it outdoor. So I got everything prepared- charged both of my Fuji S5Pro batteries, prepared my bag, decided which clothes to wear, ironed my underwear, I’m ready to go, baby!
Unfortunately I don’t have access to many locations around here, so the test images would be taken mainly from Sydney metro area. I like Botanic Garden because I won’t feel out of place carrying a big camera around.
When I arrived at Botanic Garden, this is the first thing I encountered:

Anyway, let’s continue the review and cover the optical performance now.


I had a look at Zeiss website, and there I found the latest brochure for their 21mm Distagon lens. On the brochure it says:
1. Ideal colour resulting in colour-fringe free pictures even along high-contrast contour-edges.
2. Optical design with floating elements for high performance at all focus distances, right up to the image edges
3. Optimal control of glare and stray light ensures brilliant and brightly coloured images. (Glare? But I did still receive ‘optimal glare’ from my partner as soon as she found out I got another lens.)

Now usually I am very skeptical with claims from brochures because they are usually just marketing talk, but in this case, I must say that I bloody damn agree on all those three points mentioned in the brochures. When you read that, it sounds like one heck of a lens, and guess what? It is one heck of a lens indeed.
Now, let’s see some of the lens’ performance.

Chromatic Aberration

Oh great, this topic again. To be honest I don’t like to talk about CA. It reminds me of the days when I was at primary school with my math teacher. Talking about CA is as annoying covering mathematic subject. I wanna take pictures, damnit! But anyway let’s talk about CA….
Hang on, did I say CA? What CA? I couldn’t get this lens to show obvious fringe! I know the 21mm ZF is supposedly good at handling CA, but I didn’t know it would be that good.

I shot the same object again as I did with my previous reviews. If you’ve been reading my other reviews you know that shooting this tight-clustered wire fence with strong light at the back will show CA very easily.
So I took some shots, came home, transferred the files and tried to look at the damage done… and I was so surprised by the amount of CA it shows. It’s almost negligible, and we’re talking about 100% view here. I am impressed.

Look at the picture below, very minimal amount of fringing and you can pretty much say that it’s not visible. That’s wide open picture we’re talking about there. Very, very impressive. Now I know why this lens is famous.

I also shot back-lit twigs with bright light behind them; this also will bring CA like no tomorrow. Again, I was very surprised with the result. It is there, but very controlled.

If you relate this finding to real life shooting (not stress-test), that translates to the fact that you can use this lens wide open without having to worry about CA.


Using my Fuji S5Pro, I don’t think I am entitled to talk about sharpness here. That’s because I read a post from a guy who uses D3X and even with his D3X shooting 21mm ZF wide open he still feel that the camera is still not showing the full extent of the lens' sharpness. Talking about sharpness of the Zeiss 21mm using my S5 is like a colour blind person talking about colour gamut of EIZO monitors. Or like Britney Spears talking about real singing. Or maybe Sarah Palin talking about global financial crisis.

But regardless, the 21mm is (surprise surprise), very sharp across all edges even wide open.
Do you still really want me to show 100% crop and all that using my S5? Oh well, one picture should be enough. But you have to trust my word on this, this lens is very sharp wide open even on edges… some people said it’s actually sharper than Nikon 14-24mm wide open, but I’ve never done the test, so just take it as it is.

For this I’m gonna use this underexposed picture to do some quick sharpness example. Why underexposed picture you ask? That’s because I suck at taking pictures alright? Are you happy now? Haha..
Actually I couldn’t find any other more suitable picture that was shot at infinity (I don’t do infinity too often). But I’ve looked at focus around edges from my other normal pictures, they are all very sharp across the edges. Regardless, I am just being lazy.
I have to admit the shot that I have below is very far from optimal (handheld, ISO400, and underexposed) but the details are still there (I think).


Before reading this, you might have already heard about the mustache distortion from this Zeiss lens. As you know I really don’t want to do a distortion test because it’s difficult to do a very proper one and I don’t want to mislead people by giving out samples with lots of variables introduced in it.

What I can tell you is, I don’t find distortion in my normal shooting. But then again, I am shooting DX and I don’t shoot perfect straight lines all that often.
But you will find it if you shoot a perfectly straight line just right on top or bottom of your frame, or vertical lines on both left and right edge of the frame. How often do you shoot those kind of objects, only you can answer that. I don’t. So distortion is really not an issue for me personally.

Even if you do once in awhile shoot this kind of object and the picture turns out to be the best picture ever made by you, you can always fix it via post processing. Again, I wouldn’t use this as a reason not to get the lens. The pros far far outweigh this.


I also don’t notice this in real life shooting. If you read other reviews, some mentioned that you can actually find vignetting from this lens wide open. I don’t notice this on my pictures, so I don’t know what the point is because I don’t spend more than a grand for a lens to use it to shoot charts or blank walls. Haven't heard people with FX complaining aboout vignetting either.

By now you are probably thinking I only talk about the good side of the lens and don’t really want to talk about the negatives. I will talk about negatives if it can actually affect real life performance. So yeah, don’t let this bother you. Okay, distortion, vignetting, CA, all the topics that I don’t like are already out, phew. Let’s talk about something else.

Colour and Contrast

Indoor or outdoor, they both show very good contrast even wide open. Colour wise, it’s typical Zeiss – warmish but with character.

Colour is pleasant as usual. Here are some of the colours straight from camera:
(But bear in mind that I am using S5 – it’s well known to have excellent colours straight from camera)

Bokeh / Background Blur

Bokeh? Yes I know it’s a wide angle lens, and usually people don’t talk about bokeh in wide angle lens. But the lens is a 2.8 and can focus as close as 22cm; so I think we really should talk about its bokeh and background blur.
Bokeh as in point of lights maybe not as nice as say, Nikon 85mm f/1.4, but the background blur (the non-point of lights) and the transition between blur to non blur are excellent. Hard to make sense I know, but that's how I see it.

I have a couple of sample pictures showing the point of lights. You can still see the donut rings but fortunately they can look better depending the way you shoot it, the focus, and the strength of the light source, etc...
Notice that even after it is well stopped down, the point of lights still quite circle-like, thanks to its nine bladed apertures. But for those of you are not very familiar with point of lights, please don’t look at my following pictures as the ‘set in stone’ look of the point of lights, because they can always change depending on so many factors. And the sample below is a rather harsh one.

If you shoot wide open, focusing on short distance, you do still find point of lights quite often in your images (especially Christmas time, haha…), but those point of lights are not going to be as apparent as shooting tele wide open, obviously. With wide angle, the light sources that will turn into point of lights will be the ones further away (obviously) hence under regular shooting, they won’t appear as often and won’t be as large most of the time.

I personally think the rendering of point of lights is not really the lens’ strong suit, but I have to say that it can render background blur and its transition very nicely. Actually at the end of the review under sample pictures, there is one flower shot with a very nice background blur, the little details of the blurred flowers at the background are very nicely drawn.

But in the mean time, here are several samples of the background blur. They are either focused at short or rather medium distance. The reason why I didn’t include pictures with focus at longer distance is because in that case, almost everything will be in focus already.

Lens Flare

Unlike Nikon 14-24mm, flare is not an issue for this lens. I did several wide open shots without the lens hood, some of them shooting right at the sun, some of them with the bright sun shining from the top side corner, and the results were either I didn’t get any flare, or only a tiny bit of flare crept in to the picture. But maybe if I used the hood, there wouldn’t be flare at all…
If even after I pushed it and I still couldn’t get any meaningful flare, I can confidently say that you won’t be getting any flares from this lens even wide open under normal shooting, especially if you use the hood.

Minimum Focus Distance

According to the paper, the minimum focus distance is 22cm. It gets you very close to the object. Below is a rough approximation of the closest the lens can focus, just to give you an idea how close it can do.

I think that pretty much covered all the general lens characteristics as far as I can remember. I don’t actually have graph or chart for you guys this time. Oh okay, let’s just use the ones I got from Zeiss website instead.

Here is the picture showing the elements – you guys most probably already seen this one anyway, but regardless, that’s some serious amount of glass cramped in one lens there. Actually on top of my head, I can’t quite recall any other prime lenses that have more elements than this Zeiss 21mm ZF – it’s really impressive if you think about it.

Here are some graphs also taken from Zeiss website.
I’m not a big fan of graphs/charts, really. But it’s there if you want to read them.


Handling is also one of the best points of this lens (or any other Carl Zeiss lenses in general). It has a generous size focus ring, and the size/weight is also nicely balanced.
Let’s start from the enlarged front part first. If you never handled the 21mm or 18mm before, you probably wonder if the enlarged front part actually makes things awkward while operating the lens.

Surprisingly, that front enlarged part (which is non-moving part) is actually very handy in its own way. When you are framing the shot and ready to press the shutter, you can actually sort of lean some part of your fingers against the enlarged front to get additional stability.
The enlarged front also makes it easier for you to grab the lens because you can actually use it to help support the lens – it works sort of like the cross-guard of a sword when you are holding a sword.

Next to the front part is the focus ring. In fact the focus ring covers most part of the body. The focus ring is actually not only the ridged part, but the smooth parts sandwiching the ridged part are also the focusing ring, so you can imagine how easy it is to focus using this lens.
The focus ring turns very smoothly and the focus throw is long enough for you to fine tune your focus. It is not as long as Zeiss 100mm of course, but that’s because the 100mm is a macro lens and a large part of the 100mm’s focus throw is concentrated around the macro part. You won’t find this kind of manual focus feel from current AF lenses.

Next to the focus ring lies a small section that does not move. It is the one engraved with the scale to indicate your aperture. Next to it is the aperture ring itself. If you look at the picture below, the aperture ring is actually quite thin. I can imagine it would be hard to operate if it didn’t have that ridged part around the aperture ring.
Luckily it is still easy to turn around thanks to the raised part. The aperture ring clicks on every half step in-between aperture stops, so it allows ‘fine-tuning’ your aperture.


It’s a 21mm, sort of explains itself - you can use it for all-purpose photography. But of course not for fast moving action because it’s a manual focus lens.
The interesting part is this wide angle lens can focus very close so you can actually get quite interesting pseudo-macro shots with it. So naturally, this lens is actually very good for shooting flowers; but maybe not for shooting insects though.

If you live in Ireland/Scotland (think of those places from Braveheart movie) this lens will be great to use there; eg. for the landscapes, grassy hills, etc… or those tall grass area from Gladiator movie, this lens will be great to shoot those. I am sure it will be handy to use when walking around the streets in a small town in Italy too.
Unfortunately we don’t have that kind of scenery here in Sydney. All we got is grumpy people everywhere and unreliable non-air conditioned trains. Oh actually you can use this lens to shoot trains in Sydney - if they actually come at all, haha...

Anyway, you can use the lens for portrait too but it won’t have the same feel as longer lens though. But for travel (tourist-style pictures), eg: shooting your partner across the table at the restaurant, and all those kind of stuff, you can still do it without the lens messing up your partner’s face.
Well, come to think about it, actually you can still use it for making nice portraits in photo-journalistic kind of style. As with everything it all depends on how good you are at utilising the equipment you have.

To conclude, you can use it to shoot portraits, your dogs, your cats, or brickwalls if you are that sort of person, it’s fun to use as long as you are not lazy with your feet and vision.
Here are some examples of miscellaneous things I shot. Sorry, I didn’t shoot real life people with reason already mentioned in previous reviews. I did shoot quite a few pictures of my partner, and they turned out really nice, but unfortunately I can't post them here.

For Shooting Flowers (Processed)

Great for taking flower pictures because you can get pretty close if you need to. The lens has nice colour rendering, so flower pictures look very sharp, contrasty and vibrant.

For Shooting Portraits (Slight post processing involved)

Wide angle provides extra field of view in an interesting way, making it suitable for portrait that shows interaction and connection with the subject’s surroundings. (damn, I sound like a brochure….)

For Shooting Duck Pictures (Processed)

Now you know this lens is wide, notice how close I framed this duck (I didn’t crop this picture). The duck literally posed for me. I am serious – ducks love decent lenses. You can see from the picture, I was literally pointing my lens right in front of its face and it didn’t really mind. I was actually worried that the duck would get up and peck my front element but luckily she stood very still and happily posed for me.
Last time I went there with my point & shoot camera, the ducks looked very disturbed. Not so with this Zeiss lens. Ducks, they have good taste, I tell you.

For “What the Heck??” Pictures (Unprocessed apart from cactus one)

Yep, with this lens, you can shoot all sort of crappy things with no sense of aesthetics whatsoever but at least you are having fun.

Okay, enough meaningless pictures. Let’s talk about something else.


For me personally, the reason why I am using this lens even though I don’t have top of the range FX DSLR is because, to me sharpness is not everything. I know this lens is crazy sharp and no way I can see the real sharpness using my S5, but at least I know my S5 will perform at its max.
And the main reasons why I have this lens are the colour, the way it renders objects and background, also the build and the feel you get from using the lens. And I don’t need top of the range camera to experience that.

Speaking of which, it also relates to the reason why I think those ‘scientific tests and reviews’ with graphs and charts don’t really mean so much to me. Yes to some extent it can be useful, but real life photography is not about shooting boring measurement charts under lab lighting. It’s about taking your gears outside, shooting different three dimensional objects, shooting living and breathing objects under different lighting conditions, it’s about the feel you get from using the equipment, etc etc… Damn I sound like a hippie…


If I got no choice and only .2 version was available at around $300 more expensive, I’d still purchase it without having to think twice. But as mentioned earlier in the review, I did actually have the option between old and new version one, and I chose old one because it’s cheaper and for me, it doesn’t really matter if the lens is with or without chip. Well, the good thing with chip is, the lens now can actually communicate with the camera and able to send the actual information to the camera. This is important to some people, but for me, not really a big deal.

But in my case, apart from being able to save $300 or so, it will also be awkward if I have to set aperture manually via aperture ring with my Zeiss 100mm but with 21mm I have to use my camera’s front wheel dial. And I actually prefer setting it manually using aperture ring anyway.

In case the old ones have been phased out by the time you’re ready to make the purchase, I would still suggest you not to be discouraged by the price increase because even with the new price, this is still one impressive lens and it’s still definitely worth it. As of the time I am writing this review, there is no similarly or lower-priced lens out there that can perform as good as this Distagon. Well the other Zeiss offerings are good (28 or 35mm) but they are not 21mm.

If you’re wondering whether to get this Zeiss or Nikon 14-24mm, only you can answer that because they are actually very different lenses and suit very different type of shooter. I know I would have great fun with Nikon 14-24mm, but the lens is too big for me and I like shooting manually using a solid all-mechanical lens (for the reason mentioned in my Zeiss 100mm review), and I like Zeiss’ rendering better.
Some people might prefer 14-24mm, some might prefer this Zeiss - it's all about understanding the lens (knowing what's good about them, and whether you can accept the shortcomings) and matching your shooting style with the lens based from the information you have.

But if you insist on getting the ‘old’ one but a bit irked by the fact that your camera will always display your Zeiss 21mm as “20mm”, and this makes you embarrassed to share your EXIF data with other people, well don’t worry – I have a solution for you.
Like me, you can always photoshop the EXIF from 20mm into 21mm quite easily. See the example below. Nobody will notice that you have the ‘old’ Zeiss or be suspicious of your EXIF.


The Good

- Impressive CA performance
- Highly resistant to flaring
- Very vibrant colours and contrasty
- Super sharp across the edges even wide open
- Very nice rendering of background blur (not point of lights) and blur transition (this is subjective)
- Built for real manual focus work
- Also built to last, construction is very solid – as long as you don’t abuse it, it will probably last longer than you
- It’s a Zeiss – cool people use Zeiss lenses
- And it’s a cool Zeiss lens because of the interesting look
- The box has a holographic sticker on it
- 9 bladed apertures – so stopped down point of lights look more round
- You can still use filter if you’re a filter guy
- Size and weight – not as big as some other fast wide lenses out there and the lens is very well balanced
- Lens is manually inspected by human before leaving the factory

The Bad

- Lens cap suck – might want to get third party one to replace the original
- Distortion? But all wide angles have distortion anyway. But if you desperately need to fix the distortion, the uneven distortion might be harder to fix.
- Point of lights still show outer rings
- If you bought this lens, your partner might ask you to sleep on the couch
- Lens is on the pricey side but fully justified by its built and performance
- Not the widest lens – can be good or bad depending on what you shoot more often and your style of shooting
- Shows as 20mm under EXIF (remember, photoshop it!)


This Zeiss 21mm and the 100mm are the two lenses that I desire most from the whole Zeiss line-up. I think my impression on this particular Zeiss 21mm is very identical to my impression of Zeiss 100mm f/2. When you hold them, they both will make you feel like taking pictures and they let you experience the intimate side of photography, while at the same time delivering superb results.

If you are an old-school film shooter, you will feel right at home with this sort of lens. And the ducks seem to like this lens too. But this lens is probably not for spoiled users who only like auto this and VR that. And if you are one of those who keep ranting why Nikon hasn’t got a VRII-based AFS wide angle lens, don’t bother with this lens, seriously.

But anyway, I am afraid I won’t be getting any more Zeiss lenses (at least at this stage) because the other focal length offerings are too similar to my current lenses collection at the moment. But who knows I might sell my other lenses and get the Zeiss version instead - only time can tell.

So, til my next review, happy shooting and goodluck convincing the other half to let you buy the lens!

PS – If you liked my review and think that it can benefit other fellow photographers (no I'm not asking for donation), please feel free to link it to your website or posts because I actually made a huge mistake when I started this blog – I stupidly named it as “Tokina 11-16mm”, so this review might be harder for people to find when they type in the keyword search.

I also tried registering it to Google index so that it will appear when people search for eg. Zeiss 21mm review but I might be doing it wrong. So if you are familiar with that indexing thing, please help me and try indexing it for me – that’d be awesome, thanks.

Oh and below are some of the final product of images taken with the lens. I only went out a few times with the lens, so not many pictures yet (the picture that shows the 21mm ZF itself was not taken with the 21mm ZF of course…)

Thanks again for reading the review!


mfbenedict said...

I am so happy to start the new year with a review from my favorite lens reviewer. Thank you Albert! It is even more delightful to read because I recently acquired this same lens. Mine was purchased used from a rental place, so I enjoyed your detailed unboxing documentation immensely, having missed out on that ritual.

I agree completely with your decision to bypass the Z2 version. For a few hundred bucks, you'd be buying a trivial convenience. In fact, I was prompted to get the 21mm after reading Lloyd Chambers' warning that the new versions might make the cheaper unchipped lenses scarce. It was a great excuse to give into a longstanding temptation.

I know you and your partner are determined to make no further lens purchases for a long time. So would you write reviews of lenses you already own? Such as the Nikon 50mm f/1.2? I've been fighting the urge to get that one and you can help push me one way or the other. I have the amazing Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f/1.4 SL-II (you would love this one) and feel the 50mm f/1.2 would be redundant, but it seems so special.

I'd like to know if you miss your Nikon 85mm f/1.4? I have also been drawn to that one and conflicted about the Zeiss 855mm as well.

Looking forward to more of your excellent observations in the new year!

Albie said...

Hi Mfbenedict, happy that you enjoyed the review, and congrats on the purchase! It's one great little lens isn't it?

I was actually planning to review my 50mm 1.2, I think I will at some stage when I am not lazy.
I'm sure you don't really NEED 50mm 1.2, but like the rest of us, you are probably tempted to have a 1.2 lens in your collection. At least that's what happened to me.

I don't miss my 85mm f/1.4 optically, but I do miss it in a nostalgic sense. It's never easy to let go such a nice lens like the 85mm 1.4.

If you already have 100mm, It might not be so relevant to have a 85mm 1.4, especially if you already have a Nokton 58mm f/1.4 for low light purpose, but that's just my personal opinion though, you might have different needs and preference.

I am also tempted to have at least one Voigtlander in my collection, but the focal length offering is also too close to what I have at the moment...

Thanks again for your time and comment, Mfbenedict!

oneANT said...

Were you once a choir boy Albert, such a wonderful singing voice.
I am so pleased that you got your 21. I understand that the silence from your sweetheart might be a precursor to a new cat or something but suspect that someone just wants you to be happy. How cool is that, a sweetheart and a bag full of zeiss, we might be twins ...are you really handsome too?

Albie said...

Haha... unfortunately I don't think I am as good looking as you, because your partner let you buy even more Zeiss than mine. You're right she might be up to buying something herself.

Anonymous said...

Hope that you get a chance to use this fabulous lens with a full frame camera. If you can't afford a D700/D3s/D3x right now, 35mm film cameras are very inexpensive - perhaps a Nikon FA, F100, or F4.

The whole point of a 21mm lens like this is to be able to take wide angle images, so it is a shame to limit yourself with a crop sensor - although being able to eliminate the portion of the image that might show some waveform distortion leaves you with essentially a perfect lens.

Albie said...

Yes I bet this lens would be so good to use with something like F5, but I don't really wanna spend money for film/processing.

That's also one of the reasons why I want to get FX - to get more coverage. We'll see what D800 brings to table.

My Tokina is very wide even though it's a DX, so for the time being I can still use my Tokina if I want to go ultra wide.

Zed said...


Thanks for a great review. Since you use a few MF lenses, are you using a focusing screen like a Katz-eye?

Albie said...

Nope. I actually want to have one but hesitate because of the price and I also need to DIY it.

I do use DK21M most of the time, it helps a bit in trying to find the right focus, but the thing is if your object of focus is right at the edge of the corner, it's difficult to judge because I assume because the magnifying screen is actually on top of the viewfinder, it sort of distort the screen a bit.

What I should really have is a Fuji S5Pro with a viewfinder as big as Nikon F5's viewfinder.

Albie said...

I finally could change my blog name to lenses-review. So the old address might not work anymore.

mfbenedict said...

Right, the old address goes nowhere now. This change will get you more readers. Excellent move. Congratulations, Albie!

Gen Kanai said...

Hi, I just wanted to echo the comments from others about the quality of your reviews. There aren't too many people out there who are reviewing ZF lenses so yours, which you have obviously invested so much time and consideration, is really valuable information.

I ended up going for the 14-24 as I have been dreaming about that lens for a long time. However, with a lot of older MF Nikkor glass, I'm wondering if I might end up with a ZF piece in my arsenal at some point.

Rumor has it that Nikon's going to release new fixed-focal length lenses in Feb. of 2010. That's been a rumor for years but Thom Hogan hints at that and he's usually got good info. Lord knows FX users need more options because the existing FX lineup, at least from Nikon itself, leaves much to be wanting.

My thanks from Tokyo.

Anonymous said...

Hye there !

I love your review, well thought of and very detailed. I'm in need of a wide angle lens, and I don't like the size of the 14-24mm, the price and weight too! There are a few things that I wanna ask about this 21mm f/2.8 since you have a copy of it yourself. I'm using a Nikon D700, I don't use my D60 much now. What I'd like to know is if this lens will carry out the regular functions such as meter, and focus on my D700. I understand that I can use the 4 exposure modes with the ZF.2 model. but it will not focus on my D700 am I right?


Albie said...

Yes it will meter just fine with D700.

Nguyen Duc Trung/Vietnam said...

It's a joy to read your writing. My impression is that there is something special about Zeiss lenses that cannot be spoken out loud until we have some experiences on them.
Hope to read more reviews from you about Zeiss lenses (but you have to acquire them first haha.)

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Rick said...

Hi. I hope you are still monitoring this blog. If you have moved elsewhere, let me know. I enjoyed reading your review of the 21. I have the 35/2 and a Voigtlander 58/1.4 and now want to purchase a longer lens to complement the range. I've read so much about extremely high quality of the 100/2 and wonder if you can comment a bit more about ease of focusing with it. I have no problem with focusing the 35 and 58, though there was some practice involved at first for the 58 wider open. So, if you can, how do you find focusing the 100 without live view? Also, do you miss the extra shallow depth of field that an 85/1.4 would bring as an alternative to the 100? I can't justify owning both. The new Nikon 85/1.4G looks very tempting also and it doesn't have the backfocus issue with the Zeiss 85, but I still love the Zeiss colours of the 35.

mfbenedict said...

We'll see what Albert says, but take it from me, if you like the Voigtlander 58mm and the Zeiss 35mm, you will LOVE the Zeiss 100mm. It focuses effortlessly. The Nikon 85mm f/1.4 has a different character and application, so you may want to get both. I'd get the Zeiss 100mm first. It is my favorite lens.


Albie said...

Rick, sorry for such late reply.
To be honest I don't monitor this quite often anymore since I don't have new lenses. But I plan to move all my review to a standalone website or something so it's easier to find.
Back to your question, 100mm f/2 is easy to focus, don't forget these lenses are designed for MF in mind (well, it is MF only lens after all, haha...).
When working macro, the focus throw is very long as how it's supposed to be, and shorter when you work on normal range. But I have never had any problem with fine tuning focus with either Zeiss, both are very smooth.
What I have a bit of trouble is with my viewfinder. Ideally you should have a viewfinder as good as Nikon D700's one so that it's easier to nail the focus. I am still using my old trusty S5pro by the way.

Anonymous said...

Great review, so in depth that it covered quite a few of my questions.. I can't wait to get my copy, i've been reading quite a few reviews and they are pretty constantly good so I think I'll purchase. I found this one pretty much in line with your thougths

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