Product Review: Carl Zeiss 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 ZE lens

Wide and fast…and perfect?

Zeiss has recently introduced a series of spare-no-expenses, top-quality manual-focus lenses optimized for today’s digital SLR cameras. Let’s put one of them through its paces.

Key features:
•    Maximum Aperture: f/2
•    Minimum Aperture: f/22
•    Angle of View: 64 degrees (horizontally)
•    Minimum Focusing Distance: 9.5-inches
•    Manual focus
•    Half-stop click indents on aperture ring
•    Lens Hood included
•    Filter thread: 58mm
•    Size: 3.75 x 2.85-inches
•    Weight: 1.28 pounds
•    Available mounts: Canon EOS, Nikon F, Pentax K-mount
What’s missing?:
•    Nothing
Best suited for:
•    Available Light Photography
•    Architecture
•    Environmental and outdoor portraiture
•    Landscapes
•    Travel photography

  • $1,033.00 - $ 1,080.00, depending on mount

As a film photographer, I used Contax SLRs because I liked the performance of their Zeiss lenses. As that camera company became a second footnote in history and digital photography came along, I took refuge in the Canon marque, but missed shooting those splendid Carl Zeiss optics. Recently, Zeiss began making a selection of manual-focus lenses for photographers Canon, Nikon, and Pentax cameras; The 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 is the latest offering in their superb line of SLR lenses.

Optical Excellence

The 28mm Distagon T* f/2 ZE lens has a maximum aperture opening of f/2. This, combined with its moderately wide-angle focal length, makes it a great all-around lens especially under low-light conditions. It is not a small lens, as might be expected from one with such a large aperture, and and uses retro-focus construction. Wide-angle lenses are typically composed of glass elements whose shapes are symmetrical in front of and behind the diaphragm but as the focal length decreases, the distance from the rear element of the lens to the film plane or digital sensor also decreases. A retro-focus design solves proximity problems by using an asymmetrical design that allows the rear element to be further away from the plane of focus than its effective focal length might ordinarily suggest.

The use of floating elements also produces the kind of high-performance imaging you expect from Carl Zeiss, from close-ups—it focuses to less than 10-inches—to infinity, enabling you to make sharp images of even tiny objects. The T* anti-reflective coating deals with reflections and stray light, and Zeiss includes a metal lens hood to seal the deal on flare.

The wide maximum aperture isn’t just for focusing in dim light, it also provides more control of depth-of-field allowing you to keep foreground objects sharp, while letting the background go pleasingly soft—making it useful for environmental and outdoor portraiture. That also makes it ideally for shooting HD video because of its wide focus rotation, superb image quality, and minimal breathing. Breathing occurs when a lens’ optics change the apparent focal length slightly when shifting mechanical focus. This makes the 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 ZE well-suited for videographers using the EOS 5D Mk II or EOS 7D and want a lens with manual focusing control.

The almost “normal” lens equivalent of 44.8mm when used with cameras such as the EOS 7D used here, make this lens useful for photographing people, such as this snapshot of Mary wearing her Luna Lovegood sunglasses. And although the EOS 7D does not show confirmation in the viewfinder (more later,) the 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 focuses just like any other manual-focus lens. Exposure was 1/80 sec at f/8 and ISO 125 with the camera’s pop-up flash used as fill.

Out in the real world

The lens I tested was provided in Canon EF mount, and I shot it with several different EOS cameras, all with different lens multiplications factors. Like other Zeiss ZE lenses, the 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 ZE incorporates a CPU and data contacts for communication with the camera body. This means the aperture setting is controlled directly from the camera body and all of your camera’s exposure modes including E-TTL flash metering are supported and all lens and exposure data can be accessed via the captured image file’s EXIF data.

Focus confirmation—this is a manual focus lens—is provided in the viewfinder complete with audio chirps from affected focus points. This was true for all the Canon cameras I tested it with, except for the EOS 7D.

Focusing is smooth, using a finely knurled metal focusing ring—no rubber coated rings here—and it worked perfectly as long as the weather was dry. When it got wet, as during a fall snowstorm, the fine knurling on the focusing ring that made it so delightful to use in the dry became slippery when wet. More coarse knurling would make it better in the wet but not as good as the dry.

It was 31 degrees and snowing when I made this shot in my backyard. That’s when I discovered that the focusing ring of the 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 was not so grippy with my bare hands. Perhaps gloves are the answer? Exposure with an EOS 5D was 1/200 sec at f/16 and ISO 320.
©2009 Joe Farace


In addition to having a white engraved depth-of-field scale, the 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 features an infrared focus indicator. Because infrared light waves have a slightly different focusing point than visible light, perfectionists should use the infrared focusing mark when using opaque IR filters with the lens. When using an IR-converted SLR, I just shot at f/16 or smaller and focused normally or used the camera’s focus confirmation feature and let depth-of-field compensate for any focus shift.

I tested the 28mm Distagon with an EOS Digital Rebel Xti that had been converted to IR by LifePixel and the balance with the not-so-light lens and lightweight (18 ounce) Xti body wasn’t too bad. What was most surprising was what happens when using the lens with a camera with a 1.6x multiplication factor. For openers, there’s the obvious change in effective angle-of-view to the equivalent of 44.8mm, which is a big difference. I was not prepared for the beautiful view seen through that small viewfinder created by the f/2.0 aperture that overcomes many of the problems of shooting with cameras that have 1.5x and greater multiplication factors.

Digital infrared image made with the 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 and an IR converted EOS Digital Rebel Xti. Exposure was 1/100 at f/18 and ISO 400. ©2009 Joe Farace

With a wide-angle lens like this one, you might be tempted to use it with cameras with lens multiplication factors greater than full-frame; there’s nothing wrong with that. The Distagon worked perfectly with EOS cameras having lens multiplication ratios of 1.6x, but keep in mind what you’re losing.

To demonstrate, I headed to Fort Collins, Colorado (home of the infamous “balloon boy”) and made a photograph of a municipal building using two different cameras: The first was a full-frame EOS 5D (non-Mark II) and the second was a new EOS 7D that has a 1.6x multiplication ratio. Each camera was placed on a tripod that was not moved while the lens was changed to the other body. As you can see from the comparison, the results are two completely different images: One usable, one not so much. You are free to draw your own conclusions but mine is that you’ll get more image value for your money from this wonderful lens if you shoot it with full-frame cameras.


What do you lose when shooting the 28mm Distagon T* f/2.0 in a camera that has a lens multiplication factor greater that 1:1? Take a look: The top shot was made using a full-frame EOS 5D and the bottom with an EOS 7D that has a 1.6x multiplication ratio. Each camera was placed on a tripod that was not moved during the shoot while the lens was changed to the new body. ©2009 Joe Farace

If you’re not used to working with Zeiss lenses, you may be initially surprised at the weight of this lens, but you will also be impressed by the precision construction. This is a solidly built optical device combining the finest materials and construction, along with an optical design that is time-tested and even legendary. If you don’t mind focusing, with maybe a little assist from your camera’s focus confirmation feature, you’ll discover Zeiss has produced the best combination of optical performance and low lighting versatility that can be found in this focal length.

Joe Farace is author of a book called “Creative Digital Monochrome Effects” published by Lark Books is available at Barnes & Noble and

Share this: 

Facebook Comments Box

Subscribe to our email updates is top rated for customer serviceHACKER SAFE certified sites prevent over 99.9% of hacker crime.