The Zeiss 21mm f2.8 (on a Nikon D3)

Zeiss Distagon 2.8/21 ZF.2 (21mm f2.8)

The Wide Lens

I love my wide lenses, have loved my Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 since day one several years ago.  A wide perspective offers unique atmosphere, spaciousness, and depth to an image.  Shooting with a wide pulls a photographer closer to the subject and creates a strong feeling of interaction when compared to longer focal lengths.  I think wide lenses, and I’m thinking of 35mm focal length or less, make us better shooters.

In the Nikon world, there are many options for professional quality, full-frame, wide glass, including the beefy zooms: 14-24mm f2.8 and 17-35mm f2.8, the prime 24mm f1.4, and a novel tilt-shift 24mm f3.5.  In fact, in the current Nikon catalog – counting only auto focus and full-frame offerings – there are 7 prime lenses and 7 zoom lenses capable of shooting between 14 and 35mm.  Does this Zeiss merit consideration for a Nikon shooter?  Oh yes.  And for those shooting FE-mount Canon and K-mount Pentax, take notice.  This is a hot wide.

The Design

It is a unique-looking lens, to be sure.  It is a straight, thin barrel, ending in a flared-out, chrome-rimmed front element.  It is completely metal and glass with purposefully-rendered white and red lettering.  A broad front element is surrounded with a shiny chrome ring that accepts screw-in filters and the lens’s beautiful velvety-lined all-metal hood.  The hood bayonets into place with beautiful affirmation and precision and can be attached in reverse for compact storage in a camera bag.  It would be a nice conformity to have 77mm filter threads like 3/4 of my Nikkor lenses, this lens accepts 82mm filters.  This is a compromise to allow vignette-free filter use; potential purchasers who use filters (and don’t already have an 82mm set) should weight the added cost.

It has only two controls.  The first is a precise-clicking, metal aperture ring that locks on f22 with a small button.  Once locked in place, aperture is controlled by the camera for seamless integration with aperture priority, program, shutter priority, and manual exposure.

The second control is the metal-ribbed focus ring.  It turns like smooth fluid, as if riding on oil and ball bearings.  I find it to be perfectly dampened, enough to firmly hold it’s position and ease precise adjustments, without being tiresome.  It has none of the feeling of gears or plastic-on-plastic we find with lenses that compromise between manual and automatic focus.

To conclude, it’s a beautifully-designed lens that feels both futuristic and timeless.  It is thoroughly purposeful, uncomplicated, and serious looking.  It’s weight and precision leave not doubt about it’s quality.

The Operation

This is fun to use.  I find 21mm to make for atmospheric shots that make the most of surroundings.  Also, a wide lens with this little distortion allows it to actually serve as a unique portrait lens, unusual for this focal length.  21mm is a nice sweet spot, balancing distortion and atmospheric perspective.  So far, I’ve used it for a portrait shoot, an architectural shoot, and a wedding.  It serves all three purposes very well.  I find it to be especially at home in architecture, where it captures space elegantly.

Wedding photography, and other forms of “run-and-gun” shooting require quick composition.  I suspect the lack of auto focus will prevent this lens from finding wide-spread use in the wedding arena.  Sometimes, the extra beat counted while manually focusing will loose the shot, especially compared to the instant focus of modern Nikon glass.  Granted, at 21mm, manual focusing is easy.  It is not at all the delicate game of an 85mm lens (like the Zeiss 85mm f1.4, reviewed here.)  My source at Zeiss has said that autofocus will only be added in the future if permission is given by Nikon.  It’s certainly a trade off, though low-distortion, sharp images make a nice argument for skipping AF at this length.

Shooting, it feels great.  It’s a good balance to the shape and heft of my Nikon D3.  EXIF data includes aperture setting and focal length and every exposure mode works perfectly.  The focus-confirming dot in the D3’s viewfinder works for any of the camera’s 51 points and offers good confirmation that the shot is in focus.  Very handy.  This lens also allows abnormally close focusing.  It will focus on subjects less than 4 inches from the front element, offering unique perspective  and creative composition even for small subjects.  It’s fun to use.

The Results

Wide lenses, I believe, are not easy to design.  Distortion, especially, plagues the smaller focal lengths with weird bulging, pin-cushioning, or bow-tying.  Light falloff and strange, streaky corners are not uncommon.  Careful composition is needed to avoid bizarrely warping subjects and their surroundings, though bizarre warping, of course, can be great fun.

With that in mind, this lens is exceptional.  I put it up against a killer test: shooting a wall with a tight, regular grid of wooden planks.  It shows a noticeable bow-tie, wobbly bend along the top and bottom edges of the frame, particularly in the corners.  Distortion, overall, is much less noticeable than with the deeply respected 17-35mm f2.8 I know so well, but, in the toughest of geometric shots, it is certainly noticeable.  Very impressively, the vast majority of the frame is spot-on to a grid overlay.  Architectural shooters may plan to crop slightly into frames that include strong horizontals at the top and bottom.  And slightly-cropped or not, I don’t see any bulging or pin-cushioning beyond the outwardly flared corners and extreme edges of frame.

Color-rendering, a particular interest to me when exploring new camera and lens combinations, is top-notch.  It tends towards a true-to-life golden saturation.  Like every other area of this lens’s design and function, it is precision without distortion.  To my eye, and very subjectively after reviewing a million photos, it renders with more warmth and saturation than most Nikkor lenses.  It cooperates nicely with the D3’s auto white balance.  I tend to automatically add warmth, vibrance, clarity, and contrast in Lightroom, not excepting this lens.  It captures landscape color with beautiful precision, true-green to Nikon’s yellow-green, which I suspect will make this a strong candidate for landscape shooters.

As for the less-subjective area of sharpness, it is spectacular across the frame.  It visibly betters my Nikkor 50mm f1.4D and 17-35mm f2.8D, as well as the compact 35mm f2.0D that I enjoy using.  It is very much a wide counterpart to the tack-sharp Zeiss 85mm f1.4.  Both Zeiss lenses must be carefully utilized to maximize results, clearly pushing the D3 into a higher form where technique is critical.  As manual focus lenses, both run a higher risk of being out of focus, but when either is on, it is on like nothing I’ve experienced from Nikon.  [I have a request in with Nikon for a copy of the new 24mm f1.4D, which stands a better chance of competing with the Zeiss and adding Nikon’s perfect AF-S autofocus.]

The Conclusion

This is an elegant and very sturdy lens capable of the very best wide-angle imagery.  It renders color, contrast, and sharp detail as good as anything I’ve experienced in the 35mm world.  It displays noticeable distortion in the extreme corners, but is nearly perfect across the majority of the frame, a unique trait at the 21mm focal length.  It is limited by it’s lack of auto focus, forgivable in a wide lens, but a limitation none the less.  Also there are options in the Nikkor line with faster apertures.  Few offer such close focusing.  It’s results are sharp, clean, clear, contrasty, and vibrant.

For event shooters, it is a fun tool to have, grabbing whole rooms of people and large group shots with little effort.  Also, it makes dancing look more fun and can breathe energy into an edit.  It’s close-focus ability makes for unique detail shots.  All this must be weighed against it’s lack of autofocus.

I would readily recommend this lens to architectural and landscape shooters shooting full-frame Canon or Nikon, at the very least for a weekend rental.  For portrait shooters, it is a unique tool with a very wide, but relatively distortion-free capture that makes subjects look active and fun.  It is a useful focal length for integrating surroundings into location work.  I like that subjects don’t drastically balloon into weirdness at it’s extremities, another unique trait at 21mm.

A great tool, highly recommended.

Here is a Recent Post using this lens for architectural photography.  It better shows the lens’s geometric abilities.

The Zeiss Distagon 2.8/21 ZF.2 (21mm f2.8) at B&H

The Zeiss Distagon 2.8/21 ZF.2 (21mm f2.8) at

2 Responses to “The Zeiss 21mm f2.8 (on a Nikon D3)”
  1. paul sherar says:

    I’ve wondered about these. Image quality compared to the 17-35? differences?

    • Paul. It’s an interesting comparison. Image quality, sharpness, and color; its no contest. The Zeiss is in a different league. Much less distortion too. The 17-35mm has some distinct advantages, though. It has awesome AF, fast and dead on (especially if I remember not to bump the manual focus ring which switches the lens automatically to MF for the shot.) Also, the zoom range offers a very usable 35mm where the 21mm of the Zeiss is permanent very wide. Thanks Paul. I hope things are going well for you up there. I’m in Alabama shooting a wedding. Good times!

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