Lenses (Manual Focus)

Zeiss Optics + Specialized

For precision landscape work, as well as the cleanest macro work, using manual-focus (MF) lenses, with well-dampened focus rings, creates a more intimate photographic experience, and they (almost without exception) offer superior build quality, focus throw, and results, than do most of today’s AF lenses.

Zeiss lenses are the finest MF optics available in the Nikon mount. While the newer Otus optics represent the epitome of this, they’re a bit too heavy and fragile for long nature hikes in rough terrain. They also have poor reproduction ratios. While the new Milvus optics are excellent also, aesthetically I prefer the ‘Classic’ Zeiss lenses, with their all-metal construction, over the newer ‘Milvus’ version. Classic Zeiss glass not only perform at a superb level, they also rovide an inner satisfaction to implement and own.

For beyond 1:1, an added bonus is all of the Zeiss lenses I own reverse to become ‘super-macro’ lenses in the field. However, I have recently added the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro for high-mag field use and no longer need to reverse lenses for this type of macro work.

Here is my MF lens lineup today:

Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar T* ZF.2

The World's Premium Telephoto Lens (1:4)

This lens is essentially redundant in my lineup, which is probably why I have bought and sold it half-a-dozen times. My Voigtländer 125mm APO does just about everything this lens can do, and then some, having twice the focus throw (620° compared to 310°), as well as four times the reproduction ratio (1:1 compared to 1:4), all the while offering comparable image quality. However, the Zeiss 135 APO is a little faster @ f/2, and it is also a little sharper, and contrastier, wide-open. Both offer sublime bokeh. Each lens is untouchable in its own way. From Ephotozine, to LensTip, to Optical Limits, the Zeiss 135 APO Sonnar seems to make everyone’s “Top 3 List” of quality optics, including the late Michael Reichmann. While the new Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art appears to be comparable on paper, the truth is, for close-up work (which happens to be my specialty), the Sigma isn’t even in the ballpark. (Refer to Dustin Abbott’s video for clarification.) All in all, this is a very special lens which, although I don’t use it much, always provides a singularly-satisfying experience when I do so.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar T* ZF.2 

Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar SL

The Connoisseur's Macro Lens (1:1)

This is the quintessential lens for artistic macro imagery in the field, despite being over 15 years old. It is a collector’s item for this reason and is highly-sought-after by macro connoisseurs, due to its delicate color rendering, its very low chromatic aberration, and for its ability to produce a “3D-effect” in its images compared to today’s modern ‘plastic macros.’ The Voigtländer 125mm APO-Macro has an interesting history behind it—it’s manufactured by Cosina, who produces every single Zeiss lens made today. While not quite as sharp and contrasty as the Zeiss 135 f/2 APO Sonnar T*, above, it beats the Zeiss handily as a macro lens (it’s a true 1:1, as opposed to 1:4), and it also delivers more subtle and delicate color graduations in optimal light. If you’re truly serious about your macro work—and especially if you like to hand-stack in the field—give this lens a try and you won’t be disappointed.

Find on Ebay: Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar SL

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x Ultra Macro

The Best Über Field Macro (2.5:1 to 5:1)

This unique and special lens was introduced by Venus Optics right about when I finished my blog post on “The Ultimate Super-Macro Field Lens.” While this specialty lens isn’t an all-around macro, it is simply the best most versatile high-mag macro option I’ve tried, especially for the field. Its compact size + razor-sharp optics make it an invaluable field tool. Surprisingly, it’s even sharper than all my Zeiss lenses, when reversed, and it also out-performs Canon’s legendary MPE-65mm lens as well.

Find @ Venus Optics: Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x Ultra Macro

Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

The Most Useful Wide on Earth (~1:2)

There are two “Classic Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm lenses”: the f/2.8 and the f/2.0. Almost every “lens rating site” will discredit the f/2.8 version and laud the f/2.0 … for the simple reason the f/2 has better “corner sharpness.” What the review sites don’t tell you is, while the f/2.8 version may be weaker in the corners, it is just as good in the center. More importantly, the 2.8 version has a 1:2 reproduction ratio (compared to a 1:6 reproduction ratio in the f/2), as well as a 6.69″ minimum focusing distance (compared to a 9.84″ MFD in the f/2). Finally, the 2.8 version has 330° of focus throw, for precision-focus, compared to 120° of focus throw in the f/2. The takeaway is this: if you’re a pure landscape shooter, then yes, the f/2 version is the superior choice. However, if you’re a multi-dimensional wildlife shooter, particularly if you’re into macro (close-but-wide perspectives of flowers/insects), then you don’t care about ‘corner sharpness,’ as much as intimate proximity. In this respect, the f/2.8 version will be the clear choice for you … as it was for me … where the field curvature + corner softness actually enhance the overall image presentation.

This lens can also be reversed to achieve 2.7x magnification as a super-macro lens.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

The Defining Lens for Wide-Angle Quality

With this lens, I have replaced the last of my old Nikkor AI-S manual-focus lenses with Zeiss ‘Classic’ MF equivalents. The reason I have dropped the older Nikkor MF AI-S glass for equivalent Zeiss MF glass is both due to superior image quality as well as more flexibility that I get with the Zeiss. For example, the old 20mm Nikkor AI-S allowed me to come up to 9.84″ (for only .12x magnification), while this 21mm Zeiss Classic allows me to come up to 8.66″ (for .2x magnification)—producing superior resolution, color, and contrast the process. I do miss the lighter-weight of the Nikkor AI-S lenses while hiking; however, the superior image quality + added versatility I get back from these Zeiss MF upgrades is more than worth the trade-off.

This lens can also be reversed to achieve 3.9x magnification as a super-macro lens.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2 

Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

The Reference Lens for Premium Ultra-Wides

The Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 offers the kind of color & contrast most ultra-wides will never achieve. This was my first venture into ‘Zeiss Quality,’ which ultimately made me part with all my Nikkor AI-S MF lenses in favor of the Zeiss classic equivalents. While bulky and heavy, this behemoth always proves to be worth its weight by producing sharpness + color & contrast results no other option currently offers. That said, all of these Zeisses (15mm to 25mm) will likely be replaced next year by the forthcoming Nikkor Z-Mount 14-24 f/2.8 S lens, which (according to Nikon) should exceed any/all values possible in the F-Mount. Until that happens, however, I continue to enjoy these all-metal Zeiss classics immensely.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2