ZEISS DISTAGON T* 18MM F/3.5 REVIEW
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ZEISS DISTAGON T* 18MM F/3.5 ZF.2 REVIEW ON THE NIKON D800E: IS IT THE PERFECT SUPER WIDE LENS, USED ON THE KING OF THE HIGH RESOLUTION DSLR?
This Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review on the D800E examines a lens that is unfortunately not particularly popular, overshadowed for Nikon users both by its longer sibling, the Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2 and by the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S.
Always looking for the best equipment for my landscape & Fine Art photography work, in my recent NIKON D800E VS SIGMA SD1 MERRILL REVIEW PART II: THE WIDE-ANGLE BATTLE article I compared the classic, legendary Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S on the Nikon D800E against the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 HSM on the Sigma SD1 Merrill.
As a result, I came to the conclusion that if you intend to take full advantage of the Nikon D800E’s high resolution, the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S isn’t up to the task anymore. That camera and lens combination offered results comparable (minus lens speed, of course) with those obtainable with the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 HSM on the Sigma SD1 Merrill, a smaller & lighter kit costing far less.
Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am not affiliated with Zeiss or Nikon in any way. I am a professional photographer looking for the best equipment for my work, I buy all my gear with my hard-earned cash and I don’t get paid by anyone to write articles for my blog.
Having to print very big for my VIERI BOTTAZZINI FINE ART PRINTS business, while the Sigma SD1 Merrill’s files are good enough if you prepare them for print carefully, the Nikon D800E’s 36 Mp with its file quality is something I am not ready to give up just yet. So, I decided to keep looking for that elusive, perfect super-wide-angle lens that seems so difficult to find.
Why choosing the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 rather than the Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 ZF.2 or the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2, both of which enjoy a somehow better reputation? I considered both of them but decided to discard them in the end.
First of all, filtering the Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 ZF.2 is at least as painful as filtering the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S, and I want to be able to use my 100mm square filters in the easiest possible way. The Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2, on the other hand, while easy to use with filters isn’t wide enough for my need. So, that left me with the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2.
BUILD & OPERATION
Build is simply first class on this lens. The Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 is built like a tank and perfectly assembled. The lens is not particularly big, except for its unusually large front ring. Since the lens’ front element is actually much smaller than the lens barrel’s outer diameter, I can only assume Zeiss decided to keep it so large in order to avoid vignetting (especially when using filters).
Despite its relatively small size, the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 is quite heavy at 470 gr (16.5 oz), thanks to its all-metal construction. The Zeiss 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 features a metal filter ring, which should guarantee it a long lifespan in use.
The lens comes with a black-lined, all-metal lens hood, which smoothly slides and clicks into place. While some people prefer plastic lens hoods, and with good reasons, Zeiss included a beautifully made lens hood with the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2; kudos for that.
The only hiccup in the lens’ built is the front lens cap: it is a flimsy affair; it doesn’t stay firmly in place; and, mine broke down during the first week of very mild use (!). I bought an original Zeiss replacement cap to include in the box for resale, and a third-party one to use day-in day-out. As it turns out, the offbrand one is way better made than Zeiss’ own, which is a shame.
In this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review, I found the lens to be a joy to use. The focus ring is smooth but firm and easy to operate. Of course, this is an internal focus lens, so nothing moves when you focus; this is great news for filter users like me. The aperture ring, should you decide to use it, has very positive clicks and is also very easy to operate. With my Nikon D800E and Nikon D3x, of course, I just set it to f/22 and used the control wheel on my camera body, as I would with all modern Nikon cameras.
Autofocus lenses generally either don’t have a depth of field (DOF) scale or have a ridiculously ineffective excuse for one. While I would love to see a real DOF scale on any serious prime lens, no matter if they are autofocus or not, this is particularly important on a manual-focus only lens.
Luckily, the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 has a great DOF scale, including an infrared mark. Well done.
USE OF FILTERS
Luckily for us landscape photographers, the lens in this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review accepts filters easily. Filter size is a huge 82mm, which is larger than the 77mm used nowadays by pro lenses. If you use a 100mm square filter system like I do, I’d recommend the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest filter holder and, of course Formatt-Hitech Firecrest Ultra filters.
When all is said and done, what really counts in the end is how a lens performs, both in general and compared to its competitors. In this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review I’ll compare it with the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S. The Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S is Nikon’s best alternative in this focal length, it’s one of Nikon’s legendary lenses and it’s considered to be one of the best WA zoom ever made, which should make this comparison interesting. All files have been processed with the exact same settings with Nikon Capture NX2 and Photoshop CS6.
To analyse the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2’s sharpness, I shot my usual uninspiring scene, creating 900 x 600 px, 100% crops out of the center and the lower left corner of the image. Let’s start by looking at the full test scene (click on the image to enlarge):
Let’s examine now sharpness in the center (click on the images to enlarge):
The Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 is already impressively sharp in the centre of the frame at f/3.5, where is just perfect, and stays that way all over the aperture range. Let’s compare it now with the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S’s results at 18mm (click on the images to enlarge):
In the center, the zoom holds its own, outputting a very good performance.
Let’s now examine the lower left corner, starting with the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 (click on the images to enlarge):
The first thing we’ll notice here is the heavy vignetting of the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2. As you can see, the first crop, with the lens wide open, is way darker than the crops at f/11 and f/16. However, making an effort to see through the darkness we can see how the lens is actually pretty sharp wide open in the corner. For your convenience, and to make it easier to see, I prepared a series of corner images adjusting luminosity to make sharpness more clearly visible, at the expense of some noise though (click on the images to enlarge):
Despite its serious vignetting, the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 is amazingly sharp in the corner, starting wide open. Let’s compare it now with the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S’s results at 18mm. The crops are from the right corner, not the left, but this should give you an idea nevertheless (click on the images to enlarge):
While the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S at 18mm controls vignetting much, much better than the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2, when it comes to sharpness there is simply no comparison. The Zeiss is on a different league.
The lens in this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review shows a lot of complex distortion, unfortunately not very simple to correct. For best results, you’ll have to use a lens profile, and apply some more additional corrections according to your shooting distance. Luckily, Adobe Photoshop CS6 offers a lens profile for this lens, which is a very good starting point to neutralise the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2’s distortion. Below you’ll find a comparison between an uncorrected and a corrected version of the full image, corrected version first (click on the images to enlarge):
While it will help fixing distortion to a very good degree, applying lens correction in post-processing will rob you of some of the lens’ field of view. On the other hand, as far as sharpness goes, I couldn’t detect any perceivable loss after applying Photoshop’s lens profile.
VIGNETTING AND COLOUR
Vignetting. It is quite normal for wide-angle lenses to show some vignetting, especially at large apertures. However, not only the results of this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review aren’t surprising, but as you could see in the corner crops above the lens shows a pretty hefty amount of vignetting wide-open, around 3 stops. Vignetting never goes away completely: faint traces of it are still present at f/11.
Colour. Processing my images for this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review, I applied a custom WB by clicking on the exact spot in both the Zeiss and the Nikkor images. All other post-processing parameters are exactly the same in both images. As you can could see in the full images above, the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 renders the test scene a little cooler than the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 AF-S.
CHROMATIC ABERRATION & FRINGING
The Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 shows good contrast even when shot against the light, and just a bit of fringing wide-open that goes away completely at about f/8. A very good result for such a wide-angle lens.
REAL WORLD SAMPLES
Here you can find a few samples for you from a real-world real estate job I did about a month ago with my trusty Nikon D3x and the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2. Since architecture is one of the most hostile fields of assignment for this lens, given its heavy distortion, I thought it’d be of interest to see how it behaved in the field. All images have been processed in Capture NX2 and the in Photoshop CS6, where a lens profile and other lens corrections have been applied to correct the generous distortion of the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 (click on the images to enlarge):
If you use a full-frame Nikon or Canon cameras, since the lens is also available in Canon EOS mount, and you mainly shoot landscape & Fine Art like I do, the lens in this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 offers a very compelling option. It’s built like a tank while being very compact, thus taking very little room in your bag. It’s impressively sharp both in the center and on a large portion of the frame all over the aperture range. For such a wide-angle lens, it shows very good micro-contrast as well. It draws with plenty of character, and it’s very good used against the light. It’s contrasty and behaves nicely in respect of chromatic aberrations. Finally, you can easily use filters with it.
On the other hand, the lens shows a hefty amount of vignetting that never goes completely away even when stopped down. More, it has quite a bit of complex distortion, that requires the use of a profile and some extra acrobatics in post-processing in order to get rid of.
As a result of this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review, I would say that it all boils down to what your intended use for this lens will be. The Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2’s distortion would definitely not make it my first choice for Architecture, or even for Landscape when you have straight lines in the frame. However, it can be corrected easily enough if you use Photoshop CS6 and if you know what you are doing, even if at the expense of some field of view. On the other hand, it’s a very good lens for artistic effects and it would be a good choice, on modern cameras with good high ISO, for a PJ super-wide-angle lens.
Overall, on full-frame cameras I find the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 an impressive lens for what it does best: sharp, contrasty images with the classic Zeiss-colours. At the same time, this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review showed some serious technical flaws, such as vignetting and distortion, that might be show-stoppers for some.
If you shoot APS-C cameras, on the other hand, things change. On the smaller sensor you get rid of pretty much all the distortion and of quite a bit of the vignetting as well. Choosing the Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 on APS-C cameras, you’ll get a 27mm FOV equivalent lens performing extremely well, albeit an expensive one at $1.395 US. It is worth considering that for a little less money you can get the $1.256,95 US Nikon 16-35mm f/4G ED VR II AF-S, which is a very good performer, features AF and VR and it covers a range of very useful focal lengths (both prices are B&H’s, as of December 15, 2013) .
My personal verdict? I will try the lens in this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review in the field some more, before deciding whether or not I will be keeping it for my VIERI BOTTAZZINI FINE ART PRINTS work. In the meantime, looking for that elusive “perfect kit for my needs” that we all fantasise about, I will test the Pentax 645D with the 25mm (19mm equivalent) soon, together with a few more 645 lenses, to see if that could suit my overall requirements better.
Thanks for reading this Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 ZF.2 review, I hope you enjoyed it! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?
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