Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA in Japan

One of the reasons I picked up the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA was so I'd have a high-quality wide-angle for a trip I was taking to Japan. I got some nice shots with it like the following ones, but my final verdict is that it's just too big and heavy for a 35mm lens. The thing that bothers me most about the size of it isn't the inconvenience, but how much attention it draws. Candid street photography is a lot tougher when everyone is noticing what looks like a giant zoom lens.

So I'll be (probably maybe) selling it at some point. I'm not particularly into native lenses for my camera anyway -- I don't like using autofocus, and I don't mind changing the aperture manually (which you have to do with this lens anyway). Plus the cost was like 10 times what I'm used to paying for vintage lenses.

But I can't say I wasn't very happy with some of the shots it caught, like these five...


This is the great Mistral Bleu Bar in Tokyo. The Zeiss was very nice here wide open at f/1.4, with a 1/80th shutter and 1250 ISO.

Zeiss confidently calls their 35mm Distagon the "master of light." It does handle various exposures wonderfully, such as this overexposure on the very scenic Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima. Shutter: 1/250th, f/2.0, ISO: 100.

This was peeking into a record store in Osaka. I loved the Lightin Hopkins poster on the wall. The lens gave me a pretty flexible depth of field considering it was wide-open at f/1.4. Shutter: 1/125th, ISO: 100.

Another from Osaka, also wide open. There's a lot going on here between the bright lights and the bits of night in the background, but the lens did fine with all of it. The bicyclist isn't as sharp as she could be, but that was only due to her movement, and my zone-focusing being a tad off. Shutter: 1/100th, f/1.4, ISO: 500.

This was on a train from Nara to Kyoto. Obviously this one is more a matter of content than anything special photographically -- I might've been just as happy with a phone photo of the moment. I always feel self-conscious taking shots like this. That raises the question: Is it creepier to overtly grab shots like this with a big lens like the Distagon, or to be stealthy about it with something smaller? Shutter: 1/250th, f/6.3, ISO: 500.

Three Silhouettes

Turner Classic Movies has, to my joy, been running film noir classics all summer. In keeping with their summer of darkness, here are 3 black and white silhouette shots.

The first was selected for Explore on Flickr. That mostly just means bragging rights, but the image got over 6,000 views so that's neat I guess. I was walking up Wisconsin Avenue in Washington DC, and I noticed a guy walking into the light of the alley I was passing. I was shooting the Zeiss Distagon 35mm wide open at f/1.4.

Zeiss Distagon ZA 35mm f/1.4. Shutter: 1/60th, f/1.4, ISO: 400.

The next is with the Helios 44-2. Not the type of shot that lens is best for, but I was happy that the bird waited there long enough for me to move until I was catching it against one of the brighter bits of cloud.

Helios 44-2. Shutter: 1/1000, f/11, ISO: 100. Extra tweaking in editing to turn the gloomy up!

Next is Hemlines playing against the sunset at Fort Reno here in DC. This one goes back to the Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5. I talked about that lens in my last post, but I have to say again what a bargain it is to get this kind of performance from a lens that can bet found well under $200. The sharpness is so crisp that it picked up individual hairs here very clearly from 15+ feet away.

Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5. Shutter: 1/2500, f/7.1 (or something close to that), ISO: 250.

Warming Up to the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4

I'm starting to get a feel for this lens. It can be tough shooting well with a 35mm vs. a 50+mm, as Henri Cartier-Bresson explained beautifully...

"The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see. But very often it is used by people who want to shout. Because you have a distortion, you have somebody in the foreground and it gives an effect. But I don’t like effects. There is something aggressive, and I don’t like that. Because when you shout, it is usually because you are short of arguments."

Here's a shot where I had good luck. The colors were quite nicely handled by the lens -- the reason the sky is so pink is that 4th of July fireworks were going off over the National Mall, a couple miles from my location of Dupont Circle in DC.

The Distagon was at f/3.2 here.

The Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 as a Concert Lens

The Helios 40-2 85mm (actually 85.18 mm) portrait lens is very much a cult item. A new one from Russia runs for about $450 and vintage Soviet copies will often run over $300. Photographers have even started taking them off of the Soviet night-vision devices that utilized stripped-down versions of them, even though those are locked into wide-open f/1.5 aperture.

Everyone who isn't trying to sell you one is in agreement that there's nothing great about its image quality. It's also not very convenient to shoot with. It's quite large for an 85mm, and it's absurdly heavy at over two pounds -- almost twice the weight of the Sony camera body I hooked it up to.

So why is there a market for it? Because of its very unique, weird, swirly bokeh. Click here (all links open in a new window) for a great example from the lens's flickr pool. If you've got just the right background - usually branches and leaves with abundant light - then the out-of-focus light will melt and funnel around the center. Another typical example. Even when you don't have the perfect background for that effect, you'll still get unique results. Not usually pleasing in my opinion, but unique.

I gave the lens a try for concert photography. I've never seen anyone else use it for that, but I figured it's not an all-bad fit. The fast f/1.5 is good for a concert's low light, and I like using portrait lenses for concerts. You usually won't be able to fit the whole band in your shot, but a lot of concert photography is ultimately one or two-subject portrait photography anyway.

I took it to a small-venue show and decided to shoot exclusively at f/1.5. Obviously focusing at that setting was a challenge, especially since the focus ring has a fairly long throw. And even when you do get it in focus, it's soft at f/1.5...

Upcoming Washington, DC band Nox. The focus was't quite perfect on the eye and face, but the lens's softness worked well with the backlighting here, giving a bit of a dreamy halo. Shutter: 1/60, f/1.5, ISO: 1600.

Puff Pieces. This was as good as I was able to get from the lens in terms of image quality performance, and I thought it was pretty decent for a wide-open shot. Nice color and respectable sharpness - other than the lens flare circle below the spotlight and a few hints of lens's bokeh style, it looks like a shot you'd expect from pricier modern Canon or Nikon glass. Shutter: 1/60, f/1.5, ISO 500.

Chain and the Gang, one of my favorite bands to see live. Nice little lens flare center right, and as well as some interesting flaring far left. Shutter: 1/50, f/1.5, ISO: 1000.

Ian Svenonius is a tremendous frontman. Shutter: 1/50, f/1.5, ISO: 1000.

Favorite shot of the night. I like the subtlety of the light coming off the wall behind them. And all three of them look so sincerely happy and unaffected, like they forgot they were onstage in front of an audience. Shutter 1/50, f/1.5, ISO: 1000.

Three Soviets

One of the main reasons I got on the mirrorless bandwagon with the Sony a7ii is so I could use legacy lenses with the M39 and M42 screw mounts. After finding some candidates, I searched Flickr for groups dedicated to them, choosing the lenses based on the results others were getting with them.

These included 3 Soviet lenses, seen below in the order: Industar-69 28mm f/2.8, Industar-22 50mm f/3.5, and the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2. All three were picked up on eBay from Ukrainian sellers. All three cost less than $50 each (including shipping) and all arrived in decent condition. The only catch was having to wait 2-3 weeks for them to reach me in Washington, DC. Some first impressions:

Industar-69 28mm f/2.8: Pancake wide angle lens on an M39 mount. What's great is that the profile is so low that I can keep the a7ii in the pockets of my larger coats while using it. I find it to be way too soft at f/2.8 (though that could be just the one I got -- you never know with inexpensive vintage lenses what is or isn't due to an issue with your individual copy), but it gets nice enough at around f/4 up. I get excessive vignetting with my adapter -- unlike my Fotasy M42 adapter, the length of my Fotodiox M39 adapter is not adjustable, otherwise I'd lengthen the adapter when using it with this lens. So uncropped daytime shots can look a bit silly...


But for lowlight and night shots, the vignetting can fit in very nicely...


Industar-22 50mm f/3.5: M39 mount. Aesthetically this is the coolest lens I've ever owned. Yes, having a steampunk-y chrome vintage Soviet rangefinder lens adapted onto your digital camera is exactly the sort of thing hipsters get mocked for, but you can't look at it and not love it. And I really like the way this lens handles. I like focus levers -- the one on this one will accurately lock at infinity and has a push button release that works well. The lens barrel itself locks in place at full extension when in use, but is collapsable for storage....


I try to keep it always locked forward when it's on my camera -- it's rather scary knowing a jagged ring of steel is shooting back within your camera right in front of the sensor (or in the Sony a7ii's case, the anti-aliasing filter over the sensor). To make sure this $25 lens wouldn't ruin my $1700 camera, I measured using the a7ii's sensor plane mark, and found there's a small window of safety.

The performance has been a nice surprise. It's fairly sharp across the board, the vignetting isn't bad, and some of the lens flaring can be quite pleasing...



I'm also pleasantly surprised by the sharpness. A long exposure night shot, taken somewhere around f/6...


Not totally up to par with my brand-new Zeiss, but again, keep in mind that this lens was had for less than $50!


Helios 44-2 58mm f/2: This one goes on the longer M42 mount. Optically, it's also a terrific bargain...



It's also taught me how to use preset stop-down lenses. These are lenses with 2 aperture rings -- one that clicks and sets your minimum aperture, and another non-clicking ring that actually controls the aperture. The point used to be that if you wanted to shoot at, say, f/8, then you could set the clicking ring to f/8, and then set the controlling ring to wide open (in this case f/2) so you'd have the most light for focusing and composition. Then when you're ready to shoot, you could quickly turn the aperture control until it stopped at you desired f/8.

That aspect is anachronistic for most of us, but I've found I really like it otherwise. Most modern manual lenses have clicking aperture control rings -- the advantage to clicking in place is that you can be sure of the exact aperture and you're less likely to accidentally change it. But one disadvantage is that you usually can't set it between stops (say at f/3 or 3.1 ish). And if you're shooting video it makes it tougher to change the aperture during the shot because of the lens vibration of the clicking, as well as the noise if you're also recording audio. This is why you'll see some hacked "de-clicked" lenses out there. This double-ring setup (which still exists on a few still-in-production lenses such as the Helios 40-2 85mm) gives you the best of both worlds -- smooth aperture control with one ring and the exactness of a click-stop with the other.