Zeiss “Nikon-Fit” ZF Lenses; Manual Focus For “F” Mount Cameras Page 2

The unusually close focus of the 25mm; the unusually large aperture of the 50mm f/2 macro; and the choice of f/22 as the minimum aperture; all this suggests that these are lenses that are designed to be pushed to their limits, and even in a sense misused, rather than used only under those conditions in which they deliver the best possible image. This is something of a departure for Zeiss, who had sometimes been inclined to say, at least implicitly, "Our lenses will not give the best results if they are focused too close, or stopped down too far, and of course a macro lens would not give enough depth of field at f/2, so we have saved you from yourself and built lenses where you cannot do this."

Granite cross. Flare is extremely well controlled in all three lenses (this is the 50mm macro). Shooting winter twigs against the sky is always a demanding test. I desaturated this scan of Kodak Portra quite a bit for a faded, wintry, nostalgic look. (Nikon F.)

Patsie's spinning wheel and chair, Caleb in the background. For years, a fast 35mm lens has been my "standard" so of course I was immediately at home with the 35mm f/2. At full aperture depth of field is not really adequate here--only the chair and wheel are sharp--but even if you rarely use the maximum aperture, an f/2 lens is easier to focus than an f/2.8 or slower. (Nikon F, Kodak Portra film.)

Like the ZM-mount lenses for the Zeiss Ikon, Leica M, and current Voigtländers, all can deliver more resolution on the film than is permitted by the precision with which the camera can locate the film. This limits the resolution to around 125 lp/mm unless you are lucky. You can "bracket focus," moving the lens a fraction either way to compensate for the degree of "float" in the film location, but you still cannot be sure that the film won't "float" up or down as you wind on between brackets. In the real world, at middling apertures (f/5.6 or so) you are unlikely to find anything better.

Horse. I don't use 50mm lenses all that much but the sheer versatility of a reasonably fast macro lens would tempt me to buy the 50mm f/2 Makro-Planar if I still used reflexes. This is an absolutely straight, unmanipulated scan: the colors seemed to me to capture the cold, misty weather perfectly. The crop of the horse below was scanned at 5400dpi: you can see that the grain of the film (Kodak Portra 400) is the limiting factor for detail, not the lens. (Nikon F.)

What is more, these lenses all exhibit the kind of "sparkle" that is seen only with the finest lenses, and not always then. "Sparkle" is easier to recognize than to quantify, though research by both Ilford and Zeiss indicate that it corresponds to very high MTF figures at relatively low spatial frequencies, rather than (as used to be thought) to maximum possible resolution or contrast at the higher frequencies. "Sparkle" also makes the lenses easier to focus: the picture seems to snap in and out of focus more rapidly than with other lenses of the same speed.

Many users report that the results from Zeiss lenses are uniquely "three-dimensional." This is probably a matter of the quality of the out-of-focus image ("bokeh"), which is affected by optical design, diaphragm position, diaphragm shape (these diaphragms are more circular than most), and, it sometimes seems, the phases of the moon and the photographer's mental health.

Suffice it to say that although I am not especially sensitive to bokeh, the images I shot with all three lenses were superbly "rounded."

Spring and shrine. The perspective changes with the three focal lengths should be apparent, despite slight changes in viewpoint made in the interests of composition. Each focal length covers roughly one-half (or double) the field of view of the next focal length. Color matching between the three is excellent, though this is hard to see except when comparing original transparencies. (Nikon F.)

As well as trying them on old Nikon Fs (still, surely, the ultimate Nikons for purists) and a Nikon EM (because it's the lens that makes the picture, not the camera), I also tried them on a Nikon D70, where of course they correspond to 38, 53, and 75mm as a result of the 1.5x magnification factor imposed by the smaller sensor. Although it was inconvenient to have no metering--how hard would it have been for Nikon to install stop-down metering on the D70?--and although the screen of the D70 is not optimized for manual focusing, the lenses were as much a pleasure to use on the digital camera as on the "real" camera, and the results were similarly excellent. If you run both film and digital side by side, as we do, this is a real bonus.

The bottom line is this. If my wife Frances Schultz and I still used Nikon 35mm SLRs as our main cameras, we would buy as many of these lenses as we could afford. The only reason we don't want them is that our main cameras are now rangefinders, and we don't use the SLRs enough to justify the cost of new lenses. If you still like "real" manual-focus SLRs, these lenses are as good as the best ever made, and better specified than most of the best ever made. They are built to last; they are a pleasure to use; and they deliver superb results. How much more can you ask than that?

The MSRP for the 25mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/2 is $874; the MSRP for the 50mm f/2 is $1124.

For more information, contact Carl Zeiss MicroImaging, Inc., Photo Division, One Zeiss Dr., Thornwood, NY 10594; (800) 543-1033; www.zeiss.com/photo.