During the month of April, Zeiss USA generously loaned me 2 lenses, the Carl Zeiss 28mm f2 ZE and 35mm f2 ZE. I tested them in Death Valley National Park, Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve, Carrizo Plains National Monument, and Olympic National Park. I needed a static subject with even light so that I could effectively compare several lenses at once. I found this scene for my tests during my recent Olympic National Park Photography Tour. This is my favorite image.
I've generally been content with my Canon 17-40mm f4 lens, but have always wondered about the benefits of sharper glass. While investigating my options, I learned about the Zeiss lenses designed for Canon. I contacted Zeiss USA about borrowing a few of their lenses and was pleased that they agreed. I requested the 28mm f2 and 35mm f2, because they are the focal range that I most often shoot.
The Zeiss lenses are manual focus and designed to fit directly on a Canon EOS mount. I liked the smooth action when adjusting the focus barrel, but especially liked the hyperfocal focusing scale on each lens. Ever since I switched over to shooting digital landscapes, I've missed my Pentax 67 prime lenses which had hyperfocal scales. On my Canon 17-40mm f4 lens there isn't one since it is a zoom, so I just bump the ∞ mark to the right slightly of the focus line to accomplish the same effect. I typically push my depth-of-field more than a lot of photographers. I don't mind the foreground being slightly soft as the viewer enters my composition, but it quickly becomes sharp throughout the majority of the image. I make sure that my background subject is always in focus by reviewing my images at 100% and adjusting my ∞ mark if necessary.
A lot of photographers prefer to shoot landscape images backed off from the foreground so that they can shoot closer to f11 to avoid lens diffraction. I prefer my compositions to be super tight and down low, so I compromise by using smaller apertures to get more depth-of-field. At f16-f22 lens diffraction occurs. It is clearly visible in my results, but I prefer it to losing depth-of-field.
When reviewed on my Canon 5DmkII's LCD, the images I took with the Zeiss lenses appeared bolder than the images I had taken with my 17-40. When I downloaded them to my laptop, I could clearly see that the images were much sharper edge-to-edge than when I had used my zoom. Whereas my 17-40 only felt in focus in the middle 60% of the image, the Zeiss lenses were sharp throughout 90% or more of the image.
I also compared the Canon 16-35mm f2.8 II and Canon 35mm f1.4 to the Zeiss lenses. My test results are available on my blog. Please feel free to download any of these sample images and view them side-by-side. All of these test images are from my un-adjusted RAW files that were created in real world shooting conditions. I took the same image using the same settings. I also used a Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer on all of my test images to reduce the glare on the leaves.
My biggest surprise was that my Canon 17-40mm f4 lens created images that were not as disappointing as I would have thought compared to those created with the Zeiss lenses. However, now that I can see the difference I don't care for the barrel-distortion created by my zoom. I was not impressed with the Canon 16-35mm f2.8 II. Perhaps my hyperfocal approximation was slightly off since I was unfamiliar with this lens? However, I was conservative in my hyperfocal focusing in that I barely moved the ∞ mark to the right of the focus line. I was totally disappointed with the Canon 35mm f1.4, which was the least contrasty of the lenses I tested and nowhere near as sharp as the Zeiss lenses.
I am so impressed with the Carl Zeiss 28mm f2 ZE and 35mm f2 ZE that I am purchasing them (with a modest discount from Zeiss USA). They cost $1283 and $1004 respectively. The 35mm f2 is a significant improvement and the 28mm f2 is a slight improvement over my Canon 17-40mm f4. This corroborates the general buzz that I have heard about these lenses. My test results convinced me that the Carl Zeiss lenses are a better investment than upgrading to the Canon 16-35mm f2.8 II, especially if one doesn't require auto-focus. For anyone not in the market to upgrade their lenses, I think that the Canon 17-40mm f4 is still a great value. I will continue to use it to shoot super-wide landscape scenes until I can test/afford a better lens. However, if you are in the market to upgrade your lens arsenal, you won't be disappointed with these Carl Zeiss options.