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Carl Zeiss ZF, ZK, and ZM Lenses

First-Class Optical Alternatives for Your Nikon, Pentax, and Leica

By Allan Weitz

The name Carl Zeiss has been synonymous with fine photographic optics for well over a hundred years. Today, in a world dominated by the likes of Nikon and Canon (not that there's anything wrong with that mind you), the Zeiss nameplate not only continues to survive, but continues to represent the highest standards of lens design and optical performance. For SLR and DSLR enthusiasts, Zeiss currently manufacturers a short lineup of manual focus, fixed focal length optics that produce imagery that has a look and feel quite different from most all of the optics available from OEM and third-party lens manufacturers.

Though no longer physically manufactured in Germany, the current offerings from Zeiss are manufactured in Japan under the supervision of Zeiss technicians whose job it is maintain a century old reputation of building the finest optics.

The current offerings from Zeiss are available in two SLR mounts: ZF for Nikon F-mount cameras, and ZK for Pentax K-mount cameras. Designed to cover a 24 x 36mm surface area, these lenses are compatible with both full-frame and DX-format camera systems. The lenses we road-tested for this review were in ZF and ZK mounts, and were used on a Nikon D700 and a Pentax K10D.

From a construction standpoint the new Zeiss lenses speak to you the moment you pick them up. Unlike most lenses made these days the Zeiss optics are manufactured from honest-to-gosh metal alloy and have the heft and solidity of lenses made back in the pre- polycarbonate days. The focusing barrel is tight and smooth throughout the range, and the aperture rings (remember aperture rings?) are equally smooth with clearly defined detents in half-stop intervals. Each lens features a depth-of-field scale, aperture/center index scale, distance scale, and infrared scale. The word 'Oooooh' is commonly heard from those picking up any of these lenses for the first time.

Optically speaking, the Zeiss lenses we tested maintain the highest standards of resolution and bokeh qualities. What's in focus is dead-sharp - even wide open - and what isn't in focus displays the loveliest qualities of tone and color gradations. Each lens utilizes 9 curved aperture blades to best ensure natural looking, circular characteristics in out-of-focus highlight areas. In a nutshell, these lenses are awfully sweet to use, and you can ditto these comments for the photographs they produce. All of the lenses in this series feature Zeiss T* coatings to ensure neutral color, high contrast and color saturation levels, and minimal flare.

The widest lens we tested is a Distagon 25/2.8 T*, which will truly delight wide-angle enthusiasts. With a minimum focus of only 6 cm from the front element, the 25mm Distagon is capable of producing incredibly dramatic close-ups of most anything you aim it at. The Distagon 25/2.8 contains 10 elements in 8 groupings.

For wide-angle shooting under lower light levels not to mention very cool selective focus imaging with a wide-angle perspective we highly suggest you take a look at the Distagon 28/2 T*. Consisting of 10 elements in 8 groupings, the 28 Distagon incorporates a floating element design to help maintain consistently sharp imagery from corner to corner throughout the lens' focusing range.

Long a favorite focal length for journalists, street shooters, and those who prefer their wide angle lenses on the moderate side, the Distagon 35/2 T* is a fast 'traditionalists' lens in every sense of the word. With 9 elements in 7 groupings, the 35 Distagon focuses down to under a foot (0.3 m) and the fast f/2 maximum aperture allows for creative selective focusing and low-light shooting.

The Planar 50/1.4 T* is one of two f/1.4 lenses made in this series, and is reputed to be one of the sharpest 'normal' lenses currently made. Focusing down to well under a foot (0.24 m), the 50/1.4 Planar contains 8 elements in 6 groups.

If shooting portraits is something you are prone to, you'll be hard pressed to find a finer piece of glass than the Planar 85/1.4 T*. In a word, this lens is absolutely amazing for maintaining sharp eyes and allowing other facial features to 'melt away'. Hefty in the hand, this lens makes you want to press he shutter button every time you peer through the finder. Consisting of 6 elements in 5 groups, the 85/1.4 Planar focuses down to 1 meter for tight headshots.

Close-up shooters have a choice of two rather fast (f/2) lenses for macro imaging. The first offering is the Makro-Planar 50/2 T*, a compact 'normal' lens that features 8 elements in 6 groups, a floating element design. The 50/2 Makro-Planar T* focuses down to half-life size.

Originally designed for the motion-picture industry, the Makro-Planar 100/2 T* contains 9 elements in 8 groups, focuses down to half-life size, and is capable of producing amazing imagery with wicked selective focusing options thanks to it's wide f/2 maximum aperture. In a word, this lens is a joy to shoot with.

The most recent addition to the ZF/ZK-series of Zeiss optics is the Distagon 18/3.5 T*, which features a whopping 13 elements in 11 groups and a floating element design for sharp, edge-to-edge images down to 0.3 meters. For interiors and landscape shooting, this wide-angle honey should prove to be a popular passenger in many camera bags.

The Nikon-mount ZF-series Zeiss lenses have an external AI coupler and are compatible with most all Nikon cameras produced after 1959, and the PK-series lenses are compatible with most all Pentax K-mount cameras manufactured after 1975. These lenses contain no electronics and are manual in every sense of the word. On the F-mount cameras, the aperture priority AE is only accessible on the professional camera models (D200 & higher, including the Fuji S5) by entering the lens focal length and maximum aperture via the 'Non-CPU' lens setting in the camera menu.

In the case of the D3, D700 and D300 models, a memory setting allows up to 9 different lenses to be stored and the settings can be accessed via the programmable button at the front of the camera. On the models below the D200 (such as the D80), the ZF lenses can only be used in the manual mode and the metering has to be read with a hand-held exposure meter or by using the camera's histogram display.

In the case of the ZK lenses, there is a contact with the camera body. This allows aperture control via the camera and access to all of the automatic exposure modes.

As for autofocus, all I can say is you certainly 'ought to focus' the lens before pressing the shutter button. (Forgive me, but I couldn't resist). Trust me though; the results are well worth the manual effort.

Zeiss also manufactures a ZS-series of lenses for cameras using Pentax/Practica Universal M42 screw mount lenses, and ZM-series for Leica 'M' and Zeiss Ikon rangefinder cameras.

Each of the above Zeiss T* lenses comes with a dedicated, bayonet-mount metal hood and a guarantee your pictures are going to be a continuous source of picture envy from your peers.

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