Zeiss Manual focus lenses for DSLR’s

Zeiss manual focus lenses for Nikon, Canon and Pentax

Zeiss are manufacturing their classic manual focus primes with mounts for Pentax “ZK” Canon “ZE” and Nikon “ZF”. I was intrigued to try out these legendary lenses.  I  spent a couple of hours at a Zeiss test day at UK importer “Robert White” where I tested all of the lenses on my Canon 5d mk2, and subsequently poured over the images in Lightroom.

The lenses are basically updated from the  manual focus Contax RTS range from the ’70’s to ’90’s based on very old (but good) designs. In the manual focus era, these lenses with their T* anti reflection coatings were probably the best SLR lenses available and had characteristics of being very sharp, edge to edge and  most resistant to flare. Why would anyone be interested in these retro lenses now you may be thinking? Two reasons, the introduction of HD video onto DSLR’s and increasing popularity of full frame sensors.

At the Focus Show in Birmingham recently  I saw a few people walking around with Canon 5D mk2’s with Zeiss lenses, steadycams and optical viewfinder eyepieces for the rear LCD screen. On further investigation it seems that the Zeiss manual focus lenses are selling to videographers, because they don’t like the manual focus feel of Canon lenses with very limited movement for large changes in focus – the Zeiss lenses focus rings have large rotations allowing for more precision and smooth transitions.

The introduction of the first digital SLR’s  started out with cropped “APS-C” sized sensors, (due only to  manufacturing cost issues) lens performance was less of a priority simply because edge to edge sharpness isn’t an issue if the edges of the image circle are not in the picture. Camera sensors have also only recently reached the point where lens resolution is becoming an issue. A 21 or 24MP sensor on a full size 35mm size sensor out resolves film and many lenses but also exposes all the problems of edge definition and distortion.

Many people have been using old Contax mount Zeiss lenses modified with an adapter on their Canon and Nikon bodies, and making do with the inconvenience of stop down metering and manual focus, with no electronic connectivity with the camera. Either they are mad or there is something in this. I have a Zeiss Mirotar 500mm Mirror lens with adapter  (watch this space for subsequent review). One Canadian manufacturer even modifies Contax N mount Digital Auto-focus lenses to fit on Canon EOS bodies – with auto aperture and auto focus (for a large fee). The Contax N mount lenses were made for the ill feted Contax full frame DSLR – way ahead of it’s time but it ceased production before many were sold, lenses are therefore very rare.
All the Zeiss lenses look and feel great, particularly in Canon mount as they are so simple – minimalist, with proper depth of field scales. (The Canon lenses don’t have an aperture ring, as they are controlled from the camera). They are made of  metal and glass, no plastics, and frankly feel like it – quite heavy – and cold.

Robert White had arranged a studio setup where we were photographing a model, and a strawberry for the macro lenses inside a white light tent. This probably didn’t show some of the lenses off to their best – where a landscape scene would have been better – but much more difficult to fit in the premises!

I tried all the lenses and while this range must be top of your list if you are a videographer,  in my view some make a much better case for the still photographer than others, based on their performance, price and availability of competitors.

I looked at the images in Lightroom once I returned home, and was a little disappointed. Focusing on the 5D mk2 manually was hopeless, I got about 1 in 4 sharp, the focus indicator light illuminates but doesn’t guarantee accurate focus. Live view of course helps as you can multiply the image by 5x or 10x, but it is not always convenient. I have investigated changing the focusing screen to a split image type, to help focus but as ever there are serious issues with this. Canon don’t make one for the 5D but do for the 1D series. The third party screens made by a whole range of companies cause a NON LINEAR change in exposure – some by a stop at wide apertures and 4 stops stopped down! Useless then! 😦 If you search the forums there are a large number of disgruntled customers of these screens.
Looking at these lenses as a value proposition compared to Canon alternatives.

Zeiss 21mm f16

21mm 2.8 – best wide angle for Canon according to tests, (along with the 17mm Tilt /Shift) and less need for accurate focusing due to depth of field. Corner sharpness is great though “mustache” shaped distortion noticeable on straight lines but easy to fix in PT Lens. This is interestingly one of the newest lenses. Great lens – Makes sense. (I was so impressed that I have bought one).

Zeiss ZE 18mm f3.5 note strong distortion and vignetting

18mm f3.5 Lots of distortion and less sharp compared to the 21mm – not as highly thought of and Canon’s own 17mm f4 Tilt/Shift is the master at this focal length.

25mm f2.8 this is an old design and has serious competition from the excellent Canon 24mm f1.4

28mm f2 Highly regarded by landscape photographers but lots of competition at this focal length – worth a try.

35mm f2 – good for landscapes – virtually distortion free – makes sense if you are not in a hurry, I wouldn’t use for street or as walkabout as heavy and too limited in range and speed of operation, getting to a point where I was struggling with manual focus.

Zeiss 100mm f2 Makro-Planar - f11 - note lovely transition to out of focus areas

100mm macro – images are lovely, and focussing surprisingly easy (if subject target area is large) – images “snaps” into focus. Virtually zero distortion and perhaps the best 100mm lens however,  this is an insanely expensive lens at £1400 – double the price of the new Canon L autofocus and image stabilised macro, which also goes to 1:1 – Zeiss only 1:2.  The Canon has excellent – near flawless image quality, as does the Zeiss. Diminishing returns have certainly set in here!

50mm Macro – really good quality and no focus shift issues, unlike f1.4. It makes particular sense on a crop camera – as a portrait lens! Only 1:2 magnification so not strictly a macro lens.

85mm 1.4 – A legendary lens and I found this easy to focus on portraits – eyes were quite large in frame. Focus shift issues negate any minor advantage in quality this may have over the Canon 85mm 1.8. If you focus on the eyes at f1.4, then stop down to apertures between f1.6 and f2.8 the plane of focus moves away from you by enough to give blurred eyes in a portrait. This is OK at f4 and smaller as greater depth of field hides this effect. This is a well known problem, described on the Zeiss website. Their suggestion is to stop down – focus at the aperture that you want to use,  focus on something in front of the thing you want in focus and focus bracket. (I think I’ll stick to autofocus at this focal length particularly as Canon has a good basic 85mm and a stunning L lens)

50mm f1.4 Very sharp lens when stopped down, very soft at f1.4 and suffers from the same focus shift issues. (Note the Canon 50mm f1.2 has focus shift issues too)

All the lenses are beautifully made and lovely to operate and most give low distortion sharp images with low chromatic aberration – but for some of the lenses that doesn’t appear to translate into tangible image quality advantages compared to the Canon or Nikon equivalent primes,  These lenses are compared to Canon and Nikon zooms on various sites on the internet and in magazines. Not surprisingly, the Zeiss are optically superior. The 21mm, does appear to be the best wide angle around that focal length. My conclusions for the others is in general they make less sense the longer the focal length, when price is considered. The lack of auto-focus and the difficulty of improving that on the 5D, left me feeling that the 21mm f2.8 was the pick for me, followed by the 28mm f2, the 35mm f2 and the 50mm f2. The others are less interesting (for me), unless I move up to a 1 series Canon DSLR with the ability to use a split image focusing screen. I put my 85mm 1.8 Canon on the camera at the end of the day – and what a relief – I could concentrate on the composition and not the focusing!

Canon 85mm 1.8 @f2

n.b. These Zeiss lenses are made by Cosina in Japan, NOT Zeiss in Germany. It doesn’t seem to make any difference looking at comparison tests between the old German made Contax mount lenses and the ZE/ZF. Some of these lenses are available in autofocus for the Sony Alpha cameras, and are made in a different Sony/Zeiss factory in Japan but as yet The 21mm is not available.


I have since had the opportunity to use the AUTOfocus Zeiss 85mm 1.4 on the Sony Alpha 900 – a fullframe camera. It puts in an impressive result. This image was focused on the right eye and is shot at f1.4.

Zeiss / Sony Alpha mount AF 85mm 1.4

7 thoughts on “Zeiss Manual focus lenses for DSLR’s”

  1. Thanks for the blog on Zeiss manual lenses. I have been contemplating getting the Zeiss 35mm f2, but the cost had me thinking twice. I’m going to try out the Voigtlander 40mm Ultron f2 “used” for 1/5th the cost of Zeiss.

    1. I’ve not tried that myself, but I have heard good reports about it. Of course you cant compare new and used prices, but 1/5 of the price sounds like a bargain. Let me know what you think of it.

  2. Thanks for this article. Zeiss lenses have an extraordinary bokeh, but the quibble is they are a bit hard to come by and are not exactly affordable. All hail the budget shooter.

    1. They are easy to buy if purchasing new, my local dealers have them and they are available from online resellers. For the Canon and Nikon mount they have only recently been launched. As for cost, I did point out that they are pricey, but the quality is exception. Not for the budget shooter of course. My advice for budget shooters is to buy the fixed focal length lenses from your manufacturer, e.g. Canon 50mm 1.8 as these are much sharper than the kit zooms that come with budget cameras.

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