We jump on the bikes and ride down to the harbour, kids in the back. We had been working in the sun all day to tear the roof off of the guest house. A swim sounds pretty good about now.
– Leica M Typ 262
It’s safe to say I have a preference for compact gear.
For years I’ve pursued equipment as small as possible that’s still enjoyable to shoot while also providing appealing image quality. Lately that’s mostly meant seeking out small lenses for Leica M- and LTM-mount cameras.
Small lenses are usually compromised – offering slower speeds, substandard performance or poor ergonomics. Still I’ve found many of my favorites among them*.
* A recent example is the Voigtländer 50/2.5, and there are plenty more in my archives.
Lately though, I’ve been thinking that this strive towards smallness has perhaps been overly stubborn. Maybe by having been so stuck in my ways I’ve been missing out. Maybe – if the performance is good enough and the rendering is nice enough – I can feel ok with a heftier lens?
I don’t think there’s a better lens to answer that question than the Zeiss ZM 35/1.4. A big lens that’s, by all accounts, also an exceptional performer.
Can this lens sway my preferences? And how well does it stack up for people that don’t mind a larger size? Let’s dive in.
There’s a lot of ground to cover in today’s review. The ZM 35 Distagon is an unusual lens that I’ve found fascinating to get to know, both from an academic and a practical perspective. There is a good number of topics to cover as a result. Though depending on your interests, not every deep dive included might be super relevant. In that case – feel free to skip ahead.
The Distagon is a high speed, moderate wide angle, lens.
It’s designed by Zeiss and manufactured by Cosina (which is notably also parent company of the Voigtländer brand). It’s available in black and silver chrome finishes. Launched in 2014 it’s not seen any changes over its production run so far.
The ZM Distagon has a good number of unusual characteristics for a rangefinder lens. Let’s run through the big ones*.
* These characteristics are mostly of academic interest, so if you’re more interested in the practical aspects of the lens, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.
Front and rear mounts of the ZM 35/1.4. Samples shot using the Leica M Typ 262.
If we start by diving in to the optical design there’s a sense that Zeiss pulled out all the stops to deliver outstanding performance.
For starters the lens consists of 10 elements with no less than three of them being made out of glass with anomalous dispersion characteristics. Two of the elements are aspherical and everything is coated using Zeiss’s highly regarded T* process.
Moving on to the layout this is where things get even more interesting. It’s quite unusual by rangefinder standards. Now I do want to preface this by stating that I’m by no means an expert in the field of optical design, but reading up on the lens I found some interesting aspects that felt relevant to cover.
To understand why the Distagon stands out, it might be relevant to look at the common design approach for wide angle M-mount lenses. Thanks to the short flange distance of these cameras it’s possible to design wide and normal lenses using very symmetrical layouts. This comes with a number of advantages – small sized lenses and solid performance without the need for many elements. Because of this most M-mount wides use this approach in their designs*.
* For retained performance on digital cameras this puts a number of requirements on the design of the sensor, reportedly making manufacturing more difficult. Leica has taken these aspects into account on their cameras, but most other manufacturers have understandably avoided heading down this path, which is why it’s rare to see compact, symmetrical designs for other mounts.
With the 35/1.4 however, Zeiss headed in a different direction – taking the approach of a retrofocus design (also known as an inverted telephoto, referred to as a Distagon by Zeiss). This type of design is more commonly used in wide angle SLR camera lenses where it’s needed to get the optical path to clear the longer flange back distance occupied by the mirror. However it’s rarely seen in rangefinder lenses as it’s not traditionally required.
This sort of layout results in a larger lens, but there are some clear upsides with the choice.
Chiefly – it’s easier to increase the speed of the lens without sacrificing performance.
There’s also better compatibility with digital sensors (due to avoiding severely tilted ray angles) and lower vignetting.
* It’s worth noting that the Distagon design in the ZM 35/1.4 is very different to the Zeiss SLR lens of the same spec, despite sharing the same name. The rangefinder lens is significantly smaller and lighter (381g for the M-mount lens vs 1131g for the SLR-mount version) as it can use a few tricks similar to those a symmetrical wide uses to keep the size more reasonable.
To make this talk about different lens designs a bit more tangible, have a look at these two lenses side by side. The Voigtländer 40/1.4 on the left uses a traditional, symmetrical design based on the double gauss formula. It results in an incredibly compact piece of kit, but it’s nowhere near as well corrected as the ZM 35 Distagon, seen here on the right.
If you take a look at the diagrams for these two lenses below you can sort of see where the size difference comes from – the Zeiss lens uses a lot more glass!
Voigtländer 40/1.4 diagram
Zeiss ZM 35/1.4 diagram
The Distagon’s particularities doesn’t end with its design though.
Most rangefinder lenses use what’s known as unit focusing – where focus is changed by moving the entire optical assembly. The lens housing moves out as you focus closer and the lens is at its shortest when focused at infinity.
The Distagon however, uses internal focusing. This is where focus is changed by a subset of lenses moving inside the lens barrel and as a result the lens stays the same size regardless of focus distance.
This means there’s less glass/weight that needs to be moved around when focusing (the reason most AF lenses these days use internal focusing as it allows for more rapid focus movement). This should lead to a lighter focusing feel, though this next feature counteracts this.
The Distagon also includes so called floating elements – a feature where one or more elements move at a different rate compared to the other elements in the focusing group.
This is added to keep optimal performance at both near and far focus. Once again signaling the high level of ambition that Zeiss has had with this lens.
I’ve seen a few sources stating that the ZM Distagon does not include floating elements, but reached out to Zeiss and got confirmation that indeed it does.
While improving performance the inclusion of this feature results in a slightly higher degree of friction when focusing – a trait we’ll get back to.
This amounts to the ZM Distagon being unusual for a rangefinder lens in quite a few ways. But academic points aside, let’s dive in to how these characteristics bear out in practice.
Let’s start with the obvious as there’s no getting around it.
The ZM Distagon really is a big lens by rangefinder standards. And heavy too. At first glance it comes across more as an SLR lens or a long focal length one (pretty unsurprising now that we’ve learned that it uses a design approach common in SLR lenses).
For many I’d wager it’s the sort of size that they get into the M-mount system to avoid.
Personally one of my big uncertainties when picking up this lens was how I’d feel about the size. Would it be unwieldy in use? A pain to carry around? Or would I get used to it? I’ll get back to some of my personal views on this under the In Use section.
But yes – it’s chunky compared to the average M-mount lens. However comparing it to similarly specced alternatives its actually not too bad.
Sure the old double-gauss design Leica Summilux 35/1.4 pre-asph is smaller (as is the Voigtländer 35/1.4 and 40/1.4 that use basically the same formula), but the performance of that lens isn’t in the same league.
For a more apt comparison it’s more relevant to look at the current version Leica Summilux or the different versions of the Voigtländer 35/1.2 – while the ZM Distagon still doesn’t rank as small, it’s in the same ballpark.
|Zeiss ZM 35/1.4
|Leica 35/1.4 FLE
|Voigtländer 35/1.2 II
|Voigtländer 35/1.2 III
If we cast a wider net and look at the ZM Distagon in relation to comparable lenses for other systems the Zeiss lens actually starts to look like a rather compact offering.
|Zeiss ZM 35/1.4
|Sony FE 35/1.4 (mirrorless)
|Nikon Z 35/1.8 (mirrorless)
|Nikon 35/1.4 G (SLR)
|Zeiss Milvus 35/1.4 (SLR)
Though it’s also clear that if you give up a bit of speed you can get a far more compact package with slower M-mount lenses (or compromise on performance).
|Leica 35/2 ASPH
|Zeiss ZM 35/2
|Zeiss ZM 35/1.4
The ZM 35 Distagon (far right) towers over a few other ~35mm M-mount lenses, listed from L–R above.
We’ll get back to all of this in the Alternatives section, but for now it’s safe to say that the Distagon is a big lens for an M-mount lens, but only moderately so considering its spec and performance.
Size aside, the ZM 35 Distagon certainly is a nice looking, well put together lens. Note the clear markings and scales, including the third stop increments for the aperture settings.
The Distagon looks a lot like the rest of the ZM line lenses, just slightly larger (and with the increased size it’s quite reminiscent to the older Zeiss ZF/ZE line of SLR lenses).
It’s a refined looking lens with clean lines. It doesn’t give quite as a cohesive impression as some of the smaller ZM lenses due to its undulating diameter, but it still looks rather fetching. Compared to the more utilitarian appearance of Leica lenses there’s a slightly more elegant impression, a matter of taste what’s more appealing.
The Distagon has clear markings, engraved and painted using a bespoke version of the DIN typeface.
There are usable scales for aperture, focus distance (metric and imperial) and depth of field (including an IR index marking).
The focal length label and imperial distance scale are painted in a subdued shade of red, somewhat hard to see in low light.
Everything else is painted white and legible even in very low light.
The Distagon is basically all metal and glass. Everything is put together with tight tolerances, giving a clear sense of quality.
The majority of the barrel is made out of anodized aluminium (for both the silver and black versions). It’s a slightly matte and quite durable finish.
The finely ribbed focusing ring feels great in hand. It moves smoothly throughout the range, though as mentioned there’s more resistance than what I’m used to. This is probably mainly a result of the additional helicoid required by the floating elements. It’s a trait I’m not overly fond of as there are some practical implications of this that I’ll get back to.
The aperture settings change with clicks that are somewhat more distinct and less dampened than in the other ZM lenses I’ve shot. It’s a more precise feel compared to those other lenses, but to me comes across as a little less sophisticated. It’s a matter of taste though.
My copy is ever so slightly inconsistent, occasionally giving me a little extra resistance at the wider settings. I doubt this is a problem beyond my copy however and I’m sure that a service would take care of the issue.
The ZM Distagon has a nice 10-bladed diaphragm, resulting in pleasant looking sun-stars and minimal interference with the bokeh stopping down. The front cap is really awful however.
In terms of extra bits and bobs there’s a bit of bad news.
The lens cap is unfortunately the same design as with the rest of the ZM line. This means it’s one of the worst in the business. It’s somehow both fiddly to put on and really loose once fitted.
With the ZM Distagon it’s felt even worse than with the previous ZM lenses I’ve used, perhaps due to the larger diameter. I’ve lost count of how many times that it’s fallen of the lens when taking the camera in and out of my bag or just handling it. I’m perplexed at how Zeiss haven’t come up with a better design by now. In particular since everyone else in the industry have managed to figure out better caps decades ago. Well, at least better aftermarket caps are cheap and easy to find.
There’s also no hood included with the lens. And it’s a really quite expensive additional purchase. This feels a little stingy considering the price of the lens.
At least it seems to use the same design as with the rest of the hoods for the ZM lenses and going by my experience with those it’s bound to be a very nicely made, well functioning accessory.
I personally rarely use hoods though, especially on larger lenses. The ZM Distagon is also resilient in terms of flare. So overall I don’t feel it’s too big of a detriment.
Compared to smaller and lighter lenses the Distagon feels a bit front heavy on the Leica cameras I’ve been shooting it on. The cameras tend to dig in to my hand a bit more with a slightly less comfortable experience as a result. I’ve even considered adding an accessory grip to my Leica M Typ 262 to balance the handling a little, something that’s never crossed my mind with smaller lenses.
The camera also feels like it gets in my way a bit more when carrying it on my shoulder or across the chest with the ZM Distagon mounted compared to something smaller.
That said the balance isn’t as bad as I had expected. In active use the lens does a good job of getting out of my way and the handling is surprisingly transparent.
One aspect that plays into this, that’s actually a benefit of the Distagon’s larger size, is that there’s plenty of room for the controls. This leads to more distinct, comfortable manipulation of both focus and aperture settings.
The aperture dial is a little wider than on the other lenses in the ZM line and more comfortable as a result.
It moves in third stop increments, just as on the other ZM lenses. To me this level of granularity has always felt like overkill. I prefer half-stop settings since that’s quicker to work with and matches with the half-stop shutter speeds on modern Leica cameras.
The ZM Distagon offers the familiar ZM line ergonomic traits, including the third stop aperture settings and focusing nub.
Like the aperture dial, the focusing ring is also wider than on other ZM lenses making it even easier to get a solid grip. The increased diameter of the lens barrel also gives a quite comfortable feel.
The focus throw is around 90° from close focus to infinity. This is fairly short considering how well defined the plane of focus is (something I’ll dive in to under Image quality).
The more dampened focusing travel makes it a little harder to work quickly, despite the short throw. Making large adjustments feels a little sluggish.
There’s also a slight bit of stiction when focusing, that’s particularly noticeable when making smaller motions. It can be easy to overshoot minor adjustments as a result (especially since the focus throw is short and the plane of focus so well defined).
I don’t find this problematic when working at a more considered pace, but when trying to shoot quickly I prefer a lighter focusing feel (I’ll get back to this with a few additional observations under the In use section).
Just like the rest of the ZM lenses the Distagon is equipped with a little focusing nub that’s an attempt to bridge the gap between the experience of focusing with a ring and focusing with a tab.
On the other ZM lenses I’ve shot I’ve appreciated the addition, making it easier to set focusing distance by feel.
With the higher dampening on the focusing ring on the Distagon it doesn’t make as much sense as on those other lenses however. And as the ring itself is so comfortable I’ve not felt too compelled to rely much on the nub.
At the minimum focus distance a significant part of the framing area is blocked by the lens. It’s slightly less intrusive at farther distances, but certainly still noticable.
One last downside with the Distagon’s larger size is that it’s quite visible in the viewfinder on most M-mount rangefinder cameras.
The lens intrudes and blocks a large fraction of the lower right part of the framing area. It’s particularly noticeable at closer focusing distances.
I don’t often find this a major issue in practice however. If I’m working quickly I tend to previsualize my framing and not worry too much once the camera is at my eye. If I’m working in a more considered pace it’s easy enough to move the camera around slightly to see what’s in that part of the frame.
Still it’s clearly a more frequent distraction with the ZM Distagon than most other lenses I’ve used.
Back when I reviewed the Zeiss ZM 35/2 Biogon I wrote that its image quality was a credible raison d’être for that lens – it’s a competent performer. However that lens has a few characteristics at wider aperture settings that often results in an aesthetically less favorable impression than many of its peers, dragging down my overall opinion of it quite significantly.
With the ZM Distagon such missteps would be even less excusable. Due to the even more significant trade offs in other areas I feel there’s even more riding on the performance and that it needs to deliver strongly.
Fortunately the ZM Distagon impresses. Overall it’s among the very best performers I’ve seen. It offers output that manages to be both incredibly competent as well as aesthetically appealing without any major reservations.
It’s not quite perfect – in a few areas the level of correction has been compromised to reach the specification, but the tradeoffs are sensible and the overall impression is often stunning.
In terms of definition the Distagon is a seriously impressive performer. High contrast is a common Zeiss trait, so it’s not too surprising to observe. Still the performance is admirable here, even for a ZM lens.
Already wide open it looks just about perfect throughout vast majority of the frame. Resolution is splendid, with rich contrast across all frequencies. Micro-contrast is excellent, mid-level definition is very high and the global contrast is exceptional. There’s also very good field flatness without nasty surprises.
This all results in output that has a very strong sense of clarity and definition.
You have to really scrutinize the output closely to spot the very minor shortcomings – slightly less distinct edges and corners. There’s also a subtle touch of astigmatism in the outer mid frame, but it’s usually barely visible.
I would’ve been pretty much happy with the overall output here regardless of aperture setting and considering that this is what’s coming out of the lens at f/1.4 is massively impressive* to me.
* A higher resolution body than the 24MP Leica M 262 I’m using might reveal minor shortcomings, but at this point it’s basically academic. In practical terms the ZM Distagon is close to as good as it gets in terms of wide open contrast. And that’s just part of the story.
Stopping down to f/2 and then f/2.8 gives subtle but noticeable performance boosts. Resolution increases slightly, most noticeably from the mid frame out. Contrast gets a little higher too, with the moderate frequencies seeing the clearest rise. Deep corners are still a hair short of perfect.
By f/4 there’s basically nothing to remark on with an exceptional level of clarity across the frame. Looking at the MTF graphs provided by Zeiss suggests a bit of mid frame astigmatism remaining here, but in practice I have a hard time seeing any detrimental effects.
Still f/5.6 and f/8 increases clarity ever so slightly and results in extraordinary definition in all areas of the frame (though to be fair most lenses do well at these settings and the aforementioned ZM 35/2 Biogon might even surpass the Distagon in some parts of the frame under certain conditions – that lens is rather incredible stopped down).
Thanks to the floating element the performance holds up equally well at closer range as at a distance.
Below I’m including a number of sample images with crops to illustrate a few points discussed in this analysis. However a few crops from a few images shouldn’t be seen as a basis for evaluating performance. To get an understanding of what this lens can do, focus on the written analysis that’s based on tons of images shot in tons of different conditions. Treat these images and crops more as illustrations to give a feel for what’s going on.
Shooting this image wide open was totally unnecessary except that I wanted the overlapping foreground as much out of focus as possible. Incredibly the ZM Distagon offers just about perfect definition across the frame already at f/1.4. The deep corners are a hair less distinct, though the drop is a tad exaggerated here, due to a slight bit of longitudinal chromatic aberration around the branches. That this level of clarity is even possible at f/1.4 is really impressive.
Another example of just how impressive the ZM Distagon can be. Even in this extremely high contrast situation tiny details are reproduced with basically no frigning or color bleeds in the plane of focus. Definition is exceptional across every frequency band. Everything from eyelashes and strands of hair to the texture of the rock and waves in the background is depicted with a sense of realism that at times suggests a larger capture format.
Also note how well defined the focal plane is, despite my kid being a few meters away here, with the closest strands of hair visibly out of focus, but the eye and hair farther back perfectly sharp – a trait we’ll dive in to in a sec.
Appealing color reproduction is a common trait among the ZM lenses and the ZM Distagon is no exception. The palette is rich and strong with faithful reproduction of subtle color differences. The color response trends slightly warm and the overall color rendition is generally exceptionally appealing.
Plenty of wide angle lenses have poor rendition of out of focus areas. But the ZM Distagon actually does rather well in this regard.
Shooting wide open renders light discs reasonably smooth with only moderate outlining, even in high contrast scenarios.
There’s a very slight bit of texturing due to the aspherical elements, but you have to look quite close to spot it and I’ve very rarely found it distracting.
Towards the frame periphery a touch of mechanical vignetting can be observed. This truncates blur discs a bit and extends depth of field slightly as a result. Generally it’s not enough to cause distracting effects though (such as with the ZM 35/2 Biogon where this effect is more noticeable and at times problematic).
Stopping down doesn’t change the out of focus rendition significantly. Still as blur discs become smaller the bokeh can become a little nervous at times. The shape of the discs also becomes slightly polygonal at mid aperture settings. The mechanical vignetting becomes less noticeable once you stop down, as expected.
Bokeh is particularly smooth at close to mid distances. At mid to far distances out of focus areas can look a little more nervous. The impression still holds up surprisingly well under most conditions though, especially for a wide angle lens.
The focal plane is exceptionally well defined with quick drops in sharpness outside of the focus point. I’ve come to understand that this is often a trait present in highly corrected lenses and it’s certainly very pronounced here. This leads to very rapid transitions and a clear sense of depth and separation.
Nailing perfect focus consistently becomes a little more challenging as a result. More so than with lenses that should, on paper at least, require greater focus precision.
The rapid transitions are most noticeable wide open, but even stopped down quite a bit the focal plane is more well defined than you might expect. Even at small aperture settings there are distinct planes and a strong dimensionality to the output. This tends to look nice, but makes the lens rather unforgiving for zone focusing.
The transition zone usually looks smooth, though under harsh conditions a slight grittiness can occasionally sneak in.
In general then the sense of depth offered by the ZM Distagon’s output is a very appealing aesthetic quality, though it does make the lens slightly more challenging to use than you might expect.
Bokeh is generally quite smooth, especially for a wide angle lens. The transition zone can look slightly unruly in challenging situations, so at mid to far distances the impression can occasionally suffer slightly. Overall it’s still solid. Combined with the extremely well defined plane of focus and rapid transitions images tend to have a very strong sense of depth.
While the ZM Distagon is very well corrected overall it’s not completely without compromise. For that an even larger, more complex design would be needed (such as the examples for other systems, brought up earlier). Still I think the choices made are hard to argue against as the output reaches an appealing balance between its traits.
Longitudinal chromatic aberration is perhaps the most clear compromise. It’s present when shooting wide open and slight color fringing can be observed in high contrast areas as a result. Under extreme conditions it can become slightly distracting, but under most scenarios it’s not noticeable. It’s generally easy to correct enough to not be off-putting, even if it can result in a slight loss of clarity in extreme cases.
Another trade off is the significant vignetting at f/1.4. Here almost two full stops of light lost at the frame periphery. This trait is reduced rapidly when stopping down and is at very low levels by f/2.8 – a quicker improvement than in many other wide angle lenses. It’s an easy aberration to correct for and to my eye rarely detrimental to the overall impression (quite often I actually find it beneficial to the character when shooting wide open).
Flare is rarely a problem. Zeiss coatings are considered among the best in the business and with the ZM Distagon you can see why. Despite the complex design it’s very uncommon to see any flare, even when in challenging scenarios. Granted, it’s not totally immune to issues. Under very specific and extreme conditions the lens can be provoked to the point of showing a few small ghosts. At a few occasions I’ve seen lowered contrast around extreme contrast highlights (though in a way that I’ve honestly found quite appealing) and on a handful of occasions I’ve observed a large rainbow colored ring that can certainly become distracting (I suspect it can be partially attributed to the chrome front mount). Overall though these occurrences are so rare that I don’t tend to worry about it.
There’s a very slight amount of complex (aka mustache shaped) distortion that can easily be corrected with a profile. It’s not enough to be visible in general use, let alone to at distracting levels.
Coma is reasonably well corrected, though I’ve not stress-tested this particular trait. It’s certainly more well behaved in this regard than the ZM 35/2 Biogon where this aberration could be quite distracting.
Longitudinal chromatic aberration is clearly present at wider aperture settings – a likely compromise to keep the size of the lens down. This frame for instance looked somewhat messy out of camera with the high contrast provoking a lot of color fringing, as seen in the first crop. The second crop as well as the full frame shows the image after a one click correction in Lightroom.
Flare is rarely an issue, though on a few occasions I’ve seen effects as in these examples. The first image shows the sort of graceful failure you can expect in all but the most extreme of conditions.The second example shows significant ghosting and a case like this is difficult to recover from. Thankfully this a rare occurance – in the vast majority of situations, even challenging ones, there’s no flare, ghosting or loss of contrast at all.
The above evaluation is of course applicable regardless of medium, but certain nuances come across differently depending on if film or digital is used. So I feel a few observations on the rendering on different mediums are good to include.
The ZM Distagon can really shine on digital. It’s easy to get sucked in by the incredible contrast and definition. There’s a sense of clarity and transparency that’s really impressive. At times it feels like it can be a bit tricky to tame here though – even minor miss-focus is quickly visible. Occasionally the exceptionally high contrast can result in a slight harshness in the output that can be challenging to get rid of. But given the right conditions it really offers stunning output.
I’ve not used the ZM Distagon all that much on film (getting film developed has been cumbersome around here during the ongoing pandemic). But from the results I’ve seen, I feel like the lens really shines on the medium. The high contrast combined with high definition results in impressive looking negatives and images that have a solid sense of presence. The harshness that can creep into digital results is less pronounced here and focus accuracy is ever so slightly more forgiving.
I’ve not shot any black & white film using the ZM Distagon. However from doing a bunch of digital conversions I think the lens can really offer quite appealing monochromes. The exceptional contrast and high level of clarity carries over very well to B&W.
While I have a few gripes with the ZM Distagon in other areas, it’s hard not to gush about the performance. The worst I can say is that the exceptionally high level of contrast can sometimes leave the images looking a little high strung. In particular when shot stopped down in harsh light on digital cameras.
Other than that it’s incredible.
Just one of what’s turned in to countless images I’ve shot using the ZM 35 Distagon where I’ve been impressed by its performance. Despite being shot wide open and in very low light it’s managed to capture the detail and color of the scene in an exceptionally true to life way.
Wide open the ZM Distagon has a wonderful signature with a great sense of presence, depth and transparency. Here the performance rarely feels overly indulgent or exaggerated, just really impressive and natural. There can be this slight bit of subtle suggestiveness that can often be missing from even more highly corrected lenses and a reason that I feel Zeiss struck a great balance with the rendering.
Stopping down just a hair gives you results that are practically perfect on the technical level. The suggestiveness in the rendering quickly dissipates and you’re left with an exceptionally transparent signature.
Regardless of aperture setting the output feels true to life in a way that often makes me think of images captured on larger format cameras.
Overall then, it’s one of the most impressive lenses I’ve shot on a technical level, as well as one of the most appealing from a purely aesthetic standpoint.
The image quality offered is a real triumph – a clear and appealing raison d’être for the lens.
In use the ZM Distagon is pretty much what you’d expect. It feels a little cumbersome to lug around, but handles really well.
The viewfinder blockage is occasionally annoying. And the very rapid focal plane transitions can make it more challenging to nail focus than you might expect. Just because it’s a high performance lens it doesn’t mean that getting higher quality results is any easier than using something less ambitious.
The performance really is something though and for most people I’d bet it makes the trade offs less bothersome.
Add to that the easy-to-get-along-with focal length and the fast aperture that means it’s possible to shoot the lens under almost any sort of light imaginable and you’ve got a piece of gear that starts to look really appealing. Objectively it’s certainly got a lot going for it.
I do want to round it out with a few subjective observations before moving on though.
Whenever I pick up this combination it’s made me feel ambivalent – torn between being encumbered and inspired.
I’ve been of two minds over the ZM Distagon ever since first picking it up.
For most of my use it feels like utter overkill.
I don’t often need the light gathering it offers. It’s also hard to get around that it’s a much larger lens than I’d like.
On the other hand I must say it’s grown on me more than I had expected.
Having such high level of performance so readily available – as well as that fantastic wide aperture rendering – has proven somewhat exhilarating.
Unfortunately, despite enjoying the Distagon a lot, it has a few traits that has meant I’ve frequently felt keen to shoot with something else.
So despite bringing it up a lot over the course of the review I’ve been skirting around how I personally feel about the larger size of the ZM Distagon. The reason is that I’ve found myself ambivalent on the topic and like there are a few rather subtle nuances to it. I feel it makes sense to dive into this a little further, even if these nuances are highly subjective.
If we start with how the lens is to shoot, the size doesn’t pose any major issues. The lens handles very well. The larger size affords it comfortable controls and while the finder blockage can be annoying it’s usually not too bad.
Beyond when actively shooting, my camera tends to spend a lot of its time in my bag. And once in the bag the slightly larger size and higher weight is unnoticeable.
So, all good then?
Well, much closer to it than I expected. I haven’t found myself annoyed by the size most of the time.
When giving it some thought I’ve figured that the biggest difference then, is that I’m more quick to put the camera back in my bag after using it.
Whenever I sling the camera around my chest or carry it around my neck the larger size really becomes noticeable and it feels like the camera is prone to getting in my way. So as soon as I grab a shot or two, back in the bag goes the camera.
With a smaller lens I’m much more likely to keep the camera on me more of the time, rather than in the bag.
This probably sounds like something that doesn’t have any wider implications. However with my shooting habits as of late I’ve realized that this can have a detrimental effect on capturing images I’m happy with.
Obviously with a slower paced, more considered type of shooting, spending a few seconds to bring the camera out of the bag doesn’t matter. But a lot of what I try to shoot these days is fleeting moments with my kids. And in those cases a second or two is often all it takes to miss an image.
So in this scenario, which lens is better? The higher performing one that’s more likely to be in the bag at the decisive moment - or - the lower performing but more compact option?
An argument could certainly be made that this has more of an impact on the number of keepers I’m able to make than the performance gains in other areas.
This is of course a sliding scale and very dependent on what you’re setting out to do. I don’t think I would’ve felt this as much of an issue a few years back, when my shooting habits looked different to today. And maybe I’ll feel otherwise a while down the line. But as it stands I feel that at the end of the day this is an aspect of the ZM Distagon that has a negative impact on my experiences with it.
Another aspect I’ve found bothersome is the focus experience.
As mentioned, the dampened focus feel gives a good sense of accuracy when working slowly. However when I’m trying to keep up with my kids the experience instead feels rather sluggish.
Combine this with the extremely well defined plane of focus (even slightly stopped down) and the resulting experience feels more unforgiving than with many of my other lenses.
And despite spending a lot of time shooting the lens I’ve still not been able to fully adjust to these traits (something I otherwise feel is pretty common with ergonomic niggles). It’s been a frustration that’s stuck.
Now, once again this depends on what you set out to do. If I was spending more of my time shooting in a slightly more considered fashion I’d wager this wouldn’t cause me any issue. But with my current wants and needs the ZM Distagon simply feels a little bit difficult to deploy confidently when things move quickly.
35mm is one of the easiest focal lengths to get along with in my experience. There are very few situations where you can’t make a solid image using a 35 – it’s both flexible and forgiving and I think there’s a strong argument to be made for building a kit around the focal length.
For the way I like to work lately however, I’ve been gravitating towards longer lenses, mainly at the 50mm focal length. I’ve begun to feel like a 35 is neither fish nor fowl for my use.
Now I’m not opposed to shooting a 35 and I can certainly make images I’m happy with using the focal length. But to feel like I fully cover the ways I want to shoot I want to complement a 35 with something longer, like a 75. But that sort of pairing makes more sense with two more compact lenses. As the ZM 35 Distagon is so big, I sort of want it to work as an only lens for me, but then I’m once again going back in my mind that for a single lens kit I’d just prefer shooting a 50.
I’ve found it challenging to keep up with my kids when shooting the ZM Distagon. I must admit to having way more near misses than I usually do. When everything comes together it’s often sublime though.
I shot with the ZM Distagon exclusively during summer. But as the air cooled, hinting that autumn was coming, I removed the lens and mounted the Summicron 50 instead. It felt like such a revelation.
The camera suddenly felt much more balanced again, focusing so much more effortless and the focal length that just feels chef’s-kiss-perfect for my day to day use. I also love the way it renders.
Sure, the images out of the ZM Distagon have a bit more definition and pop, and it’s easier to use as light gets low. But I’m not sure how much that matters to me currently.
Every piece of gear has tradeoffs and to me, a lot of the time, the balance struck by the ZM Distagon just isn’t quite as appealing as I had hoped.
* I sort of feel like I could stick with the Summicron 50 indefinitely at this point, and for the sake of making my best work I probably should. Still the restless streak in me has resulted in me picking up another 50 that’s actually not too far off from the ZM Distagon in level of ambition. More on that another day though.
Solid. The lens handles well even if the combination feels a bit front heavy. There’s also a noticeable amount of finder blockage. On the other hand the rendering is really nice on film and you can shoot the combination in really low light thanks to the fast aperture and fairly wide angle of view.
This is the combination I’ve spent by far the most time shooting. The lens handles well on the camera even if the combination feels a little front heavy and bigger than I’d like. The noticeable finder blockage is occasionally annoying. Thanks to the fast aperture, wide angle focal length of the lens, as well as the solid high ISO performance of the camera, the combination can be shot handheld even in extremely low light. The rendering is often exceptionally appealing and the overall performance is outstanding.
This is an interesting combination, on paper at least. With the retro focus design of the ZM Distagon it should be less sensitive to ray angle induced issues on cameras with thicker filter stacks (which most cameras other than Leica’s have). Thanks to this you’re giving up less performance when shot on the Sony A7 than you do with many other wide rangefinder lenses. It’s still not a perfect match however – compared to when shot on a Leica you don’t get quite the same level of performance off axis. Since many of the other full frame mirrorless options are significantly larger and heavier I still think it’s a combination that can be worth considering. Especially since there are a few techniques to mitigate the issues. For a deep dive on the performance on the Sony A7 there’s a great review over on Philip Reeve’s site.
35mm is a popular focal length, and and as a result there are quite a few alternatives that are worth looking into.
Depending on what you’re looking for and if your main consideration is size, performance, light gathering or price what options to consider changes somewhat.
The variety of lenses available for the M-mount is one of my favorite aspects with it. Depending on what you want to prioritize there’s likely a great fit available. In the 35mm range, if you prioritize speed and a small size but are willing to compromise on performance, then the Voigtländer 40/1.4 on the left here is an excellent choice. If you want something really well rounded it’s hard to beat the Summicron 35 ASPH, seen here in the middle. If you want speed and performance and feel ok with a larger size, then the ZM Distagon on the right is very compelling.
To me, these are the most relevant options:
This, the most recent version of the Summilux, is the gold standard in the range. I’ve not had a chance to shoot it myself, but from all accounts it’s an impressive lens. It’s significantly smaller and lighter compared to the ZM. It comes equipped with a focus tab, something I personally prefer, but I know there are different opinions in this regard. Optically it seems to perform on a broadly similar level to the ZM though most direct comparisons seem to give the edge to the Zeiss lens. As the Zeiss is significantly less expensive I feel it’s the easier recommendation, though if you value handling over performance and money isn’t a consideration the Leica is a better choice.
For just around the same price as the Zeiss, you can pick up a used copy of this lens. While you give up a stop of speed I feel the Leica is more well rounded. It’s smaller, is equipped with a focus tab and the aperture is set in half-stop increments – all contributing to a better overall handling (to my tastes). The performance is on a roughly similar level at the shared f-stops, though I personally feel that the Zeiss often gives a slightly more pleasant rendering, particularly the look offered at f/1.4. I used to rate the 35 ASPH as my favorite 35 by far, but I’ve got to say that there are days when I prefer the ZM Distagon.
Read my full review
Going for an older Leica lens can also be a compelling option. There are a few versions to look into, but generally they’re far smaller and lighter than the Zeiss lens, while still offering great handling. The performance won’t be on the same level, but in terms of rendering these older lenses still tend to do alright. I’ve not shot any of the 35mm iterations, but the Summicron-C 40/2 is reportedly somewhat representative of the sort of performance you’d be looking at (i.e. so-so contrast at wider apertures and problems with flare, but an appealing signature and solid output stopped down). With a lot of the versions the price difference is pretty small though, and the Zeiss is far more impressive in terms of output.
This low cost option can be an interesting alternative if you’re set on a fast 35 but have a constrained budget. I’ve not shot it myself but from all accounts it seems to offer a lot of bang for your buck. It doesn’t perform on the same level that the Zeiss does but the rendering looks alright and the handling seems solid too.
This slightly faster lens has been released in three versions, all worth considering. See below for comments on version 3. The first two versions are rather similar and are close to the same size and weight as the ZM Distagon. Ergonomics and build quality are comparable to the ZM. Performance lags the ZM. You can get these versions at a quite reasonable price though, so it’s perhaps an easier recommendation than the ZM. Still the Distagon offers image quality that’s a step beyond what’s possible with the Voigtländer’s.
This, the most recent iteration of Voigtländer’s high speed 35, looks really compelling. It’s smaller and lighter than the ZM Distagon but looks to offer broadly similar performance. The Zeiss seems to render with slightly more pop, the Voigtländer looks a little smoother – a matter of taste which is better. Ergonomics is probably a little bit better on the Voigtländer. As it’s cheaper than the ZM Distagon this feels like an easier recommendation despite the fact that I’ve not had a chance to shoot it myself. In fact of the high performance 35’s listed here, I think this is perhaps the most sensible alternative for most people.
If you spend most of your time shooting at less extreme f-stops, but still want the option to occasionally open up to a really wide aperture, this is a compelling alternative. Based on the first version Leica 35/1.4 it uses a much simpler design than the ZM Distagon and is much more compact as a result. It’s definitely not in the same league as the Zeiss when it comes to performance and the lens design is obviously overstretched at f/1.4. It has a pretty pleasant character though and once it’s stopped down a bit you’re getting very respectable output. To me the ergonomics of the Voigtländer are far better. It’s also very reasonably priced. I’ve not shot the 35/1.4 but the closely related 40/1.4 is still among my favorites.
Read my full review of the 40/1.4
I’ve not had the chance to shoot this recent Voigtländer lens but it looks really nice. Performance seems to be very solid and at the shared f-stops you’d probably be hard pressed to see a significant difference between it and the ZM Distagon (though I’d expect the Zeiss to come out ahead when compared directly). It’s slower though and ergonomics looks like a step back. As it’s very reasonably priced it looks like a compelling option if you want something more compact.
This stablemate to the ZM Distagon is an obvious alternative to consider. It’s of course slower than the Distagon and more compact as a result (it’s still pretty big for a rangefinder lens of its spec however). Ergonomics and build quality are comparable between the lenses. In terms of performance it’s a bit of a mixed bag to my tastes. It has quite a number of positive traits, but also a few characteristics that makes the f/2 rendering less appealing than a lot of the other alternatives (mainly messy bokeh with strong mechanical vignetting and pronounced coma). Once you stop it down a bit it’s an exceptional performer that might even surpass the ZM Distagon in some areas. But for the way I like to shoot I think the ZM Distagon makes a much stronger case for itself, despite being larger. The Distagon offers a more balanced rendering and appealing character wide open with much smoother bokeh. And if I were to pick a 35/2 I’d go for something more compact. Still, these comments are based on my very specific preferences and the Biogon is certainly a well rounded lens at a reasonable price, worth considering.
Read my full review
A somewhat left field option is the X100 series of cameras from Fuji – one of my favorite ways to shoot at 35mm. They handle and shoot really well. The entire camera with lens also isn’t far from the weight of the ZM Distagon alone. It’s obviously an apple and pears comparison, but since you can get the latest iteration for quite a bit less than the price of the ZM Distagon it’s an interesting thought exercise. Make no mistake though – the Zeiss lens performs in a completely different league with the addition of being far brighter. Plus shooting on a rangefinder is also a unique experience.
Read my editorial “Revisiting the X100T”
Read “Fuji X100T – The Current Peak of Continuous Improvements”
Uncompromising is a word that often pops up when people talk about the ZM Distagon (and other similarly ambitious lenses for that matter). To me that’s the wrong way to think about a lens like this though.
Because just as a race car is uncompromising in terms of performance, but impractical for grocery shopping, a lens like the ZM Distagon won’t be the most sensible choice in a lot of situations.
There are always compromises with gear, the question is only how those compromises align with what you want to achieve.
With the ZM Distagon you give up quite a bit of practicality for excellence in performance. You get incredibly impressive and appealing rendering, among the best I’ve experienced, as well as outstanding low light usability. In this regard the ZM Distagon is rather exceptional.
If it’s worth it? If the tradeoffs make sense? I think with the ZM Distagon that’s even harder questions than usual to answer.
A simple little moment and an image I like a lot. I quite enjoy capturing mundane scenes like this one and the ZM Distagon, with the incredible rendering it offers, makes it all the more enjoyable.
For most people something less ambitious will probably strike a better balance for day to day use.
But for someone looking for the specs and performance offered by the Distagon and isn’t too put off by the practical tradeoffs it might just be the last lens they’ll ever need.
Personally I’m mostly in the first camp. To me the compromises often don’t feel quite worth it and there are other lenses I feel strike a better balance for my typical needs.
However I’ve still been exceptionally impressed with the ZM Distagon. I’ve enjoyed it more than I had expected and rank it in the top tier of lenses I’ve ever shot. It’s certainly something a bit special.
Photos in this review were taken using the Leica M Typ 262. Photos of the lens were made using the Sony A7. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.