Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's available in black or silver.
The Long Version: Not many people in 2005 would have thought that the world needed another f/2.0 35mm lens in Leica's M-mount, but then some people thought that the iPhone wouldn't be that big of a deal. You can't always trust the pundits.
The Carl Zeiss 2,0/35mm – to use their preferred sequence – uses their Biogon design which marks a mostly-symmetrical wide-angle lens. It's an M-mount lens, meaning that it fits on Leica and Voigtländer rangefinders in addition to the current Zeiss Ikon. Made with 9 elements in 6 groups, this rear-focus design simply isn't possible for cameras that use a reflex mirror. The similar-specified 35mm f/2 lenses in Nikon and Canon mount use the Distagon design, and are radically different lenses.
Film rangefinders have a couple of advantages over digital SLRs. Their lenses can sit much closer to the film plane, making for simpler and smaller designs, and film doesn't really care what angle light hits it at. Falloff is reduced, chromatic aberration is minimized, and blooming is outright impossible. So when I decided that I wanted a high-quality system that would take me off of the digital photography upgrade train, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 lens was my perfect stop.
"Flawless" is a difficult word to use, because there's always an exception. Indeed, the Zeiss 35/2 Biogon does vignette rather heavily when wide open, and it's still sometimes visible at f/2.8. There are brighter 35mm M-mount lenses out there, and there may be sharper ones, not that it matters. What the 35/2 offers is even rendering and phenomenally low geometric distortion that's better than any other wide-angle lens, and among the very best of any focal length.
For the photo above – see it larger – the lens is wide open and focused on the metal gate, about five or six feet from the camera. There is some falloff at the edges, which is easy enough to remove if the negative is scanned by one of those newfangled computers, although any wide-angle scenic photo that's ruined by vignetting probably wasn't very good in the first place. But look at the line in the tile at the very bottom of the frame. I wouldn't dare to use that composition with most telephotos.
It's quite exceptional to have a 135-format lens where film flatness becomes the largest source of geometric distortion. To really absorb the very best from the Zeiss 35/2 needs either a digital sensor or a scanner that can hold the film under glass. That makes it one of just a handful of small-format lenses that really deserves to have its film put through a drum scanner, much like my Hasselblad and Fuji medium-format equipment. That's pretty lofty company. My Nikon Coolscan V is very good generally, but sometimes I'll re-scan my negatives after they've spent some time under a good book.
The 35mm focal length is a classic for rangefinders and street photography. The Biogon has the technical perfection that's typically reserved for telephoto primes like the CZ ZM 4/85, but without losing the wonderful sense of space that only a wide lens can give. It has consistent sharpness across the frame, giving a beautiful and consistent rendering even as subjects fall out of the depth of field. While many people – perhaps three or four total, but all prolific internet writers – are passionate about "good" or "bad" bokeh, the only OOF characteristics I really care about are "offensive" or "inoffensive". The 35/2 is certainly inoffensive in a way that will look completely natural to photo-viewers even though it may not excite certain photo-takers.
In my experience, the more sophisticated and experienced a photographer becomes, the more they gravitate to simple lenses that behave nicely without any special effects. Primes instead of zooms, modest sizes and apertures, and no extreme focal lengths. The good news is that anyone who's likely to be offended by my saying that probably won't have read this far into a review of such a classic lens.
Physically the ZM 35/2 is large for a rangefinder lens, but smaller than an equivalent for a reflex camera. The body of the lens does intrude slightly into the frame at all focusing distances. The lens barrel is entirely made from metal, and it focuses from 0.7 meters to infinity with slightly over a 90 degree twist. It has a 43mm filter thread and is topped off by the standard-issue Zeiss lens cap, which is abysmal. Come to think of it, the ZM tail caps aren't all that great, either.
The 35/2 shares its hood – sold separately, $84 each – with the 50/2 Planar, and it's a ventilated metal reverse-slope design that attaches to a bayonet around the exterior of the lens. It needs to be removed to attach filters, and can't be reversed for storage, although it's so small that space is hardly an issue. Rangefinder hoods are a personal matter, but I prefer the look of the camera with the hood attached, and there are some incidental flare-prevention and protection duties as well. Most importantly, it stops the camera from tipping forward when it's put down on the table at Starbucks.
I suspect that Zeiss doesn't really intend for people to actually use their caps. One huge upgrade that I made with my 35/2 is to replace the lens cap with the micro-size hood hat, which gives better protection from damage and is much harder to forget about. One rite of passage with a rangefinder is to take a photo with the lens cap still on. On an aperture-priority camera like the Ikon this results in an extremely long exposure, which is usually enough to announce the mistake. On a fully manual camera, especially one without a built-in meter, the all-black frames can go on for quite a while.
An aspect of the rangefinder culture that amuses me is that "Made in Japan" can be treated like a derogatory label. Nikon users endlessly quest for cameras and lenses made there, but with the Zeiss lenses it's used to mark them as somehow inferior, or inauthentic, compared to products made in Germany. It must be based on that fine German tradition of quality automotive craftsmanship. I can't say that I've noticed any quality differences between my Zeiss lenses and the Leicas that I've used, but I'll update this section if someone ever looks at one of my photos and says "it's too bad your lens only has ten aperture blades instead of eleven."
The Carl Zeiss Biogon T* 2/35mm ZM – to give its full name, including university degrees, for the benefit of the search engines – just gets out of the way of the photographer. I don't think I've ever heard anyone call it "dreamlike" or use any other mystical terms to describe it; while that kind of lens can be quite nice this simply isn't one of them. With its neutral angle of view and its optical fidelity, it's about as far from a Lomography camera as you can be while still using film. But for those who may worry that the technical excellence of the lens might somehow compromise its artistic ability, rest assured that there's always vignetting.
The Zeiss 35/2 is the main reason why I bought my ZM Ikon. There's simply no match for it, not from other rangefinders or in other formats. The lens and camera suit each other perfectly, and offer something genuinely different from the parade of DSLRs that become obsolete every two to four years. Yes, the Ikon and 35/2 cost as much as the currently-heavily-discounted Canon 5DmkII and 24-105 lens, but it's the battle of the ephemeral commodity with a modern – yet timeless – classic. This is a lens that's worth stepping off of the upgrade path for.
last updated 8 oct 2011