You know that Zeiss is serious about lenses when they retain the German spelling of “Macro.” And pixel-peeping, lens-lusting photographers are very serious about this lens, telling tales of its optical prowess almost mythological in scope. So while I waited (not so) patiently for my Nikon 35mm f/1.4 (which I will have in my hands in about an hour), I decided it was time to run this bad boy through its paces, with the help of Adorama Rental.
There are two major factors that keep the Zeiss 100mm from being more popular. First, it’s expensive, more than $1800 (although with Nikon lenses skyrocketing in price due to the Yen, that seems a lot more reasonable than it used to.) Second, it’s manual-focus only, thanks in part to some patent issues regarding AF mechanisms. Now, I recommend shooting manual focus almost all the time you do macro anyway, so for close-up work that’s irrelevant. But with the fast aperture and sparkling clarity, this also makes a heck of a portrait lens, and how you feel about that will definitely depend on how much you like focusing manually. Even though I’m a relative whippersnapper, I’ve done a lot of manual focus work. My first camera was my Dad’s Minolta SRT-101b, manual everything, and I’ve done enough work managing to focus the paper-thin DoF of the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 and 58mm f/1.2 that anything else seems easy. But even I think to myself, “I paid $5,200 for a camera with a top of the line focusing array. I’d sure like to use it.”
The good news is that the newer model does communicate electronically with the camera, so lower-end cameras can get exposure readings with it and you can control the aperture through the camera controls instead of that smooth-as-silk aperture ring.
Your mileage may vary.
A quick note on my lens reviews. I realize that the best thing to do when reviewing a lens is to take a bunch of unprocessed photos of brick walls. And the last thing you should do is do a lot of hard-to-reproduce, crazy things with it like panoramas and freelensing. But I am not a reviewer first, I am a photographer. So I will note anything I’ve done to the images and try to provide a good cross-sample. All of these images are at f/2 unless otherwise noted.
For instance, this is a twenty-five-image Brenizer method panorama. It has a MUCH wider FoV than a 100mm normally would, but you can still see the amazingly creamy bokeh of this lens:
But here’s a normal, single-shot photo. f/2, ISO 6400 1/100th:
Now let’s get down to it.
You get a lot for your money here — everything says that this lens is well put-together. All of the exterior, including the hood, is metal. The hood is reversible for packing, which is good, but the lens is impossible to focus when the hood is reversed, which is not so good, given that the lens is manual-focus. The focusing ring is butter smooth, and since they don’t have to worry about autofocus speed, the lens has a nice long focusing throw which makes it easier to be accurate. The aperture ring is also incredibly smooth — it’s actually a real pleasure to use in a way that I don’t normally talk about aperture rings.
The only downside here is that without an extension ring, the lens is only 1:2, half the macro power of competitors like the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR. But their design choices, which makes the lens extend a great deal at close-focus, also means that there is very little “focus breathing” (when the focal length of a lens appears to lessen as you zoom in), so it’s still fairly powerful, as you can see from its clear read of a ring’s inscription here:
Now, most of the time in macro photography, the trick is how to get your depth-of-field as WIDE as possible, so the fast f/2 aperture isn’t really a help. But it does make for some really interesting impressionistic effects:
And it also gives an otherworldly feel to detail photos that aren’t quite at macro level:
This is the Mary Poppins lens, perfect in every way. At medium apertures it is simply ludicrous, clearly outresolving my 12 megapixel D3s sensor at every edge of the frame. You can see a full-res JPEG at f/11 here for pixel peeping. (It’s not very exciting, one part of a panorama, but it sure is sharp).
Wide-open, it’s STILL insanely sharp, especially in the center. There’s a reason this lens is so well-regarded. It will draw every bit of detail out of your photos.
But nothing is perfect.
Now this is a true stress test, with blown out background against thin black lines, and this sort of blooming is more about the relationship between the sensor and the lens than just the lens itself, but still, that green isn’t meant to be there. But I can’t think of a fast lens that wouldn’t have some difficulty with that part of this shot.
But now let’s get a little crazy. You see, in my testing, I found that this was also a GREAT lens for freelensing — shooting with the lens slightly unmounted for varying focal planes. You have to manual focus these anyway, and this lens was made to be a pleasure to do so. I recommend taking the hood off before trying for less vignetting.
or like so:
If you have a bit of money and love manual-focus Zeiss lenses, then this is one of the prime ones to get. But that’s a pretty small sample set. For the rest of us, I would perhaps recommend this most to people with high-resolution cameras like the D3X* who want to get every last one of their many, many pixels nice and sharp, particularly for studio work at smaller apertures where the depth-of-field would make manual-focus fairly painless. For most of us, though, the competing Nikon and Canon lenses may lose a stop, but they are also optically amazing and have autofocus and vibration reduction. If Zeiss ever does manage to bring AF into this segment, these lenses will see a huge surge, but for now it is a niche product that is a pleasure to use. Give it a rent at Adorama!
*(PS, if you’ve been planning on buying a D3X, doing it through that link will buy my mother a really nice Christmas present, Mr. Moneybags.)