Ahhh, the modern age of digital photography. Blazing fast autofocus lenses and digital processors that make ISO 6400 shots look like they were shot on Kodachrome 25 back in the old days of film. However, there is one frustrating aspect with modern cameras—a thing that should make our lives easier—autofocus.
Sometimes, but not always, autofocus lenses will focus surprisingly on the wrong thing. When encountering low-contrast subjects, they may hunt for focus. Finally, no autofocus system will ever keep up with the rapid change of a busy environment, no matter how good it is. You will occasionally lose a shot. Just ask any street or sports photographer. So how does one solve this issue?
In the Zone
If you read my article f/8 and Be There last month, I mentioned a technique called Zone Focusing. This is a simple manual-focusing technique that allows for a more responsive way to shoot. Unfortunately, most modern autofocus lenses are not well designed for manual focusing. This would include Canon’s L series primes and Nikon’s top-grade prime lenses. They just don’t have the resistance that the lenses of yore had, and instill little confidence that they will stay where you focused them.
Thankfully, a cottage industry has cropped up catering to this niche, manufacturing wonderful manual-focus optics for modern digital systems. First let’s discuss a few caveats about selecting a manual-focus lens for your DSLR, and some of the things to look for if you wish to try this out.
Modern DSLR viewfinders just are not as bright as their old manual-focus ancestors. My old Olympus PenFT’s finder is easily a full stop brighter than my Canon 7D’s, and since the FT’s finder is dim for a manual-focus SLR, that is saying quite a bit. Modern finders must direct light to serve more functions than film SLRs. Because of this, they used half-silvered mirrors, making the finder dimmer. This places a greater demand on a lens to provide good contrast in the finder to make focusing easier.
Another issue is the fact most DSLRs do not have split-image finders with microprism collars. This little focusing aid worked remarkably well in the days when all focus was manual. Today’s viewfinders lack this aid, so manual focusing is done as if you are using an aerial focus screen. Canon does make split screen for the 1D series, not all manufactures do. There are third-party sources, however, that will also install the screens for you, which is especially useful as many of today’s DSLRs do not have easily user replaceable screens.
So let’s take a look at the contenders in this shootout and I’ll give you my opinion on each one…
ProOptic/Rokinon 35mm f/1.4
First up is the Rokinon 35/1.4. The Nikon version of this lens will communicate aperture information to the camera. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Canon version that I used. Without the electronic contacts you get no information to the camera about aperture, nor do you get to use the AF system to give you focus confirmation like the Zeiss lens tested. This really doesn’t affect usage when zone focusing at around f/8, but wider apertures become difficult to use unless one resorts to Live View for assistance. Another issue is the effect the lack of communication has one the metering system. When in evaluative metering it tends to overexpose. Switching to center weighted metering usually clears this up, but the occasional error still creeps in.
The build quality is very good, and the focus ring has the right amount of resistance to instill the confidence that the focus will stay where you set it. The aperture ring gives a nice, satisfying click for full and half-stops when turned. Since the Canon version is pretty bare bones, the aperture is a stop down variety, i.e. the aperture is stopped down 100% of the time giving you a DOF preview 100% of the time while looking through the lens. This of course makes focusing a bit more difficult, dimming an already dim viewfinder. If you are using zone focus, there really is no issue, but if you need critical focus the Live View function is your friend here.
Image quality when stopped down is not bad for the price, and on par with the Canon 35mm f/2. When handled properly about the only complaint I can give is using larger apertures is a bit of a chore. One of the other issues of not being chipped in the Canon mount is that the camera has no real idea how to handle flash exposures in E-TTL. Here you’ll also need to go old-school and use guide number calculations or use the “Auto” mode and hope. Overall, if you are willing to deal with the limitations, the Rokinon does represent a good value for the dollar.
Zeiss 35mm f/2 Distagon T*
The first thing you notice when you pick up the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/2 is heft: This is a very well-built lens. Made like the lenses of yore—all metal and glass—the Distagon instills confidence the second you pick it up in your hands. Unlike the Rokinon, all versions of this lens are chipped, and the aperture can be set from the camera, much like any other lens you may be used to, the focusing scale is an added bonus.
The image quality of the Zeiss is far better than the Rokinon’s, but considering the price, it should be. More on par with the Canon 35mm f/1.4L, the Zeiss delivers performance in spades. The fact that it is chipped for in both Nikon and Canon mounts allows the use of the camera’s autofocus system for focus confirmation. While not always perfect, this does let you shoot wide open with a good number of keepers. These examples were shot at f/2:
Since the lens communicates its aperture to the camera, metering becomes quite a bit easier, even in situations like the image below:
Is the lack of autofocus worth the price of this lens? For only a small amount more, you could buy the Canon 35mm f/1.4L and get nearly identical performance plus and a full stop more light gathering along with the benefit of autofocus. The largest benefit of the Zeiss over the Canon is the fact that you can zone focus with ease allowing for a more responsive experience in situations where that is useful, such as in documentary photography, or situations where you may be trying to create a documentary look to your work.
Conclusion and Recommendations
So, which lens is better? They both have their pluses and minuses. The Rokinon is priced to sell, gives adequate performance for most but the most discerning user, and has the benefit of a full stop on the Zeiss, and on a Nikon body, will give you focus confirmation. The Zeiss has superior image quality, much better build quality. However at the price, one could spend just a little more and use either the Canon or Nikon pro level equivalent and get an autofocus lens. You really have to like the draw of the Distagon to justify the price. Personally I prefer the Zeiss, but if the Rokinon was available in a chipped Canon version, as a Canon user I would certainly be tempted.