A new player has entered the arena of digital SLR nature photography. While it’s a name synonymous with exceptional quality and performance in its optics, that reputation has mostly centered on medium-format camera lenses, binoculars, spotting scopes and motion-picture lenses used by Hollywood’s movie industry.
Enter the Zeiss Camera Lens Division, which has produced a line of top-notch manual-focus lenses compatible with the standard Nikon F (AI-S) bayonet-mount system, including the Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro. This makes the lenses compatible with all F-mount cameras, both digital and film, produced over the past 40 years.
The Distagon T* 2.8/25 ZF, Makro-Planar T* 2/50 ZF and Makro-Planar T* 2/100 ZF are precision-crafted lenses, featuring all-metal construction with carefully engraved—yes, engraved, not painted—scales. The ƒ-stop settings are calibrated in half stops, and each lens is "super color matched" for optimal color rendition and extraordinary flare control.
I was fortunate to test-drive these lenses. While they require manual focusing and manual setting of apertures, that didn’t deter me in the least, especially after seeing the quality color performance and sharpness of the images on my screen.
Distagon T* 2.8/25 ZF
Makro-Planar T* 2/50 ZF
Makro-Planar T* 2/100 ZF
For use on my Nikon D2X, I used aperture priority for metering, which is the setting I use for nearly all my photography. To ensure that the metadata effectively recorded the correct aperture and focal length, I went into the camera menu and entered the focal length and maximum aperture information in the non-CPU lens data settings.
My first impression of these lenses right out of the box was how solid they are. These aren’t lightweight lenses, and with quality craftsmanship, they’re durable enough to withstand the rigors of nature photography in all conditions.
Initially, I had to remind myself to manually focus and set the aperture via the aperture ring instead of the camera’s command dial. But like riding a bike, it all came back to me, and it was actually enjoyable using the techniques that started me on this career path more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t that much of an inconvenience, especially for capturing landscape images and stationary macro subjects. The butterflies I photographed proved to be a little more of a challenge, but I soon became reacquainted with the quick focusing that I used prior to the advent of autofocus technology. Additionally, the focus confirmation in the LED also let me know when the subject was in focus.
The Distagon T* 2.8/25 ZF lens provided edge-to-edge sharpness in the frame. With its ability to close-focus up to six centimeters (2.36 inches) from the front lens element, this lens is great for getting near flowers and other close-up subjects. For landscape photography, the lens is perfect for acquiring a three-dimensional perspective to the composition and for including a tight anchor in the foreground to draw the viewer into the composition.
The Makro-Planar T* 2/50 ZF yields distortion-free images. Combined with a fast speed and extraordinary image quality from infinity to an image ratio of 1:2, sharpness is achieved even under poor lighting conditions. For the bumblebee image, I used the lens with the Nikon R1C1 macro flash system. With a little post-processing via Nikon’s Capture NX, the image was razor-sharp and crisp.
While I enjoyed the close-up capability of this lens, as a nature photographer, I really became excited using the Makro-Planar T* 2/100 ZF lens. It’s the first photo lens with the legendary ARRI/Zeiss Master Prime optics from Hollywood’s movie industry. Simply stated, this lens’ optical performance is superior, enabling exceptional selective focusing even at ƒ/2 from infinity to the close-focus limit at half life-size.
What I liked most was the longer focal length, however, which gave me a much more effective working distance between the subject and myself. The resulting narrower angle of view helped frame the composition to reduce clutter and ensure a complementary background.
Again, I used Nikon’s R1C1 macro flash system to photograph butterflies on a sweltering July afternoon. After downloading the images and editing via Nikon’s Capture NX software, the resulting images were crisp, and the color just seemed to pop off the screen.
Zeiss, welcome to our neck of the woods!
Estimated Street Price: $787 (Distagon T* 2.8/25 ZF); $984 (Makro-Planar T* 2/50 ZF); $1,507 (Makro-Planar T* 2/100 ZF).
Contact: Carl Zeiss MicroImaging, Inc., Photo Division, (914) 747-1800, www.zeiss.com/photo.