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A new point of view: the Zeiss Distagon 35mm F1.4 ZM

Even though 35mm is one of the most used focal lengths by photographers all over the world, I somehow never really clicked with this way of seeing the world. Over the last years, I have mostly used either a single camera with a 50mm lens or a three camera & lens setup (I hate changing lenses, more on that in another post), usually 28mm + 50mm or 75mm + 135mm. I loved having the option of a wide angle that isn't too wide and a short tele for compression to flank my trusted 50mm or 75mm. And because I did not want to compromise on the wide or tele end, it did require me to lug around three cameras which was not always convenient. So recently, I have been trying a two camera setup, one of them full-frame with a 35mm, and the other camera with an APS-C sensor having a 50mm (75mm FF) or 75mm (112mm FF).

The size of the Zeiss 35mm matches well with the Leica SL

So I went on the hunt for a good 35mm option for my Leica SL. I wanted a manual focus lens which led me to look in the direction of M-mount lenses. The Leica 35mm summicron or summilux might have been the obvious choice here but I chose to look elsewhere. Mainly because I wanted something a little brighter than the summicron and something a little less expensive than the summilux. This pretty much narrowed the field of contenders down to Zeiss and Voigtlander, with the latter offering multiple options. Actually, Voigtlander currently offers four 35mm lenses for the M-mount, two of which I looked at; the 1,4 Classic Nokton II and the 1,2 Nokton III. One of my criteria was that I wanted sharpness and crispness as in this two lens setup, the 35mm would have to take on landscapes and scenic overviews where I want a clean look, regardless of how I choose to play with the depth of field for a particular shot.

South African morning sun

I ended up not picking one of the 35mm Voigtlander options because I felt both had a bit too much softness wide open. The 35mm Nokton has a new version coming out though I understand it resembles the 40mm 1,2 Nokton which I owned in the past and liked very much. I was quite sharp and full of character (I might look at adding it back to my collection...). The lens I ended up buying was the Zeiss Distagon 35mm F1.4 ZM. It really does tick all the boxes with regard to sharpness, character and I always liked the ergonomics of Zeiss lenses. The focus nob is easy to use and the 3-increments in the aperture ring does not bother me like it does some other people. Actually, the haptics of the Zeiss aperture ring are the nicest I have ever felt. It might be a bit bigger than the Leica options and it does create some viewfinder blockage if you use it on an M camera but as mine was intended for use on the SL only, this was not a problem. If anything, the size of the Zeiss matches the SL perfectly.

Overlooking the peninsula at the Robberg reserve

The lens renders beautifully and can give you edge-to-edge crispness if you want but also has enough capability to bring some mystique to a scene. The shot at the Robberg nature reserve in South Africa highlights both, I find the out of focus zone in the front very pleasing while maintaining crisp sharpness on the horizon. I won't pretend to do any kind of technical reviewing here, I just look at what comes out of my camera and whether it pleases my eyes. You might have a different point of view.

Evening falls in the Nambiti nature reserve

One of the benefits I enjoy of all manual M lenses, including the Zeiss, is how easy they are to use on the Leica SL. For a shot like above, you don't need to mess around in any menus, just turn the aperture ring, focus on infinity, balance it on a wet stone in the stream and off you go.

The Zeiss 35mm did a great job in wintery Norway as well

So is it all good news? Well, mostly it is. I hope my photos give you a sense of what the lens is capable of but as always, there are a few drawbacks. I did mention size already and there are two other aspects of the physical appearance of the Zeiss which are less than ideal. First, the lens cap. I don't know who is in charge of those at Zeiss but someone really needs to take a look at producing better lenscaps. The cap is loose when on, and remarkably also hard to properly stick back on, and a pain to use in general. The other thing to mention here is the lens hood. I bought my Zeiss second hand and the previous owner sold it to me with a lens hood included but when you buy this lens new, it does not come with a hood. For a lens that costs over 2000 euros, it feels like a hood should be included.

Catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights

My two camera experiment with the 35mm Zeiss as the lens I used the most is working out well so far. I enjoy the simplicity of having only two focal lengths to pick between when I want to capture something. The 35mm view is warming on me. I am really not missing the extra width from a 28mm (or even a 25mm) and it is tight enough to nice environmental portraits.

Dogsledding in Norway

This is of course, a snapshot in time. I have learned that whatever photographic setup I like at any point in time, it somehow seems to evolve which might make me end up with other choices further down the road. For now, the Zeiss 35mm is stuck on my SL most of the time and I am truly enjoying the output from it.


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