There are so many options in the rangefinder world beyond Leica. That was the idea of the early-2021 Macfilos series, The M Files. Yet, surely not enough has been said about Zeiss ZM lenses. That’s why we turn to the subject once again — this time with the two Zeiss Distagon lenses 35/1.4 and 18/4, both very interesting options (not only) for rangefinder photographers.
1. What are we talking about?
When Zeiss re-entered the rangefinder market in 2005, this came as somewhat of a surprise. Without a doubt, the company had a long-standing reputation for its excellent (and technologically advanced, especially compared to the contemporary Leicas) Contax rangefinder cameras. But for some decades Zeiss had shown no interest in the rangefinder world. This was no surprise: Leica was quite alone there for a long time, and many people found that a stubborn attitude because the future (surely) belonged to the SLR.
Zeiss, Voigtländer, Cosina: The German-Japanese connection
But then, Zeiss made a new attempt with both a film camera, the Zeiss Ikon, and several lenses. They worked together with Cosina who had considerable expertise in the field through the Voigtländer lenses and cameras. They were manufactured by Cosina for the German Ringfoto Group. So, Zeiss and Voigtländer lenses are somehow siblings. And they come from a well-renowned production plant in Japan. If you want to read more about that, I recommend my Macfilos article in The M Files.
From down-to-earth to very exotic lenses
Long story short, Zeiss started with an ambitious lens line-up which consisted in its heyday of no fewer than 13 lenses. Some have been discontinued since, while others have reached enduring popularity. Nine lenses have survived at the time of this writing. Three wide-angles were of the Distagon type (more about this in a moment). The Zeiss Distagon ZM 15/2.8, a one-of-its-kind lens in the rangefinder world given its focal length and speed, is still available but exotic. I guess they sell (or better: offer) it as long as supply lasts. It has no rangefinder coupling, and it more or less needs a special radial ND filter to compensate for vignetting. This 15-millimetre lens is made in Germany as was the 85/2 Sonnar, a lens that was produced only in very small quantities.
The one Zeiss Distagon ZM had to go, the next one was to come
The other two Distagons are less exotic and more accessible. The 18/4 had been in the line-up for quite a few years until around 2014. It was easily available new for a long time afterwards at prices around €1,100. Coincidentally, the latest (and, I fear, last) addition to the Zeiss ZM line came around the time the 18/4 was discontinued — the Distagon 35/1.4. This lens is still available new at street prices of around €1,750. So, both lenses costed roughly a third of their Leica counterparts (the last price tag of the Super-Elmar 18 before being discontinued was €2,950, the current listing of the Summilux 35 black is €5,000).
The retrofocus principle and its merits for rangefinder cameras
According to Zeiss, the Distagon designation stands for a retro-focus design or at least an optical formula that is close to it. Rangefinder lenses traditionally do not need this complicated and expensive principle because rangefinder cameras have no mirror, and the rear element of the lens can theoretically be pretty close to the film or to the sensor. In either case, you need to get to terms with rays of light coming in at a very steep angle. No big issue for film, but a problem with a sensor. The result is colour drift, visible in colour-cast towards the margins of your image. Often, this cast is red or purple, but blue and green can also occur. If you want to learn more about this, I heavily recommend Sean Read’s site. It is worth every cent of its moderate subscription fee.
Back to the Zeiss ZM Distagon lenses and their optical design: The retrofocus-type should largely solve the colour cast issue in principle, as I had assumed. With the rays of light coming in more or less at 90 degrees to the sensor surface, the files should not be affected. We will see about that later when we discuss the two lenses in detail. And these lenses tend to be a little larger on a camera body, another point I will come back to. All in all, you would hope for an interesting lens if you start dealing with any of these Distagons.
2. A Summilux rival? Zeiss Distagon ZM 35/1.4
First impression: Weight, sizes, filters and hood, scope of delivery
The ZEISS Distagon 1,4/35 ZM T*, to give the full designation on the front ring of the lens once and for all, makes an impressive impression. For a rangefinder lens, it is quite long (65 mm from bayonet to front ring, without front and back covers) and it has a considerable diameter (63 mm). Weight “as-in-my-bag” (that is, with both caps and hood) is 420 grams (Zeiss states 381). There was much discussion about the size and weight of this lens, and yes, this is not a compact optic. But you would not do it justice by reducing it to that, so let’s leave it at that.
This Zeiss Distagon ZM (choose silver or black according to your taste) comes in a thin carton box. Hood or case are not included, paperwork is minimal. The hood costs another €160 which, frankly, is a rip-off. You can buy a simple vented screw-in hood for little cash, but this might interfere with your usage of filters. These are of size 49, and this brought me to the idea to try the Voigtländer LH-13 lens hood instead. This one is thought to be for the new 35 and 50 mm Apo-Lanthar lenses which also require a 49 mm filter. In brief: it works, without vignetting, at two-thirds of the investment (still considerable). Another part, in this case cheap, you might want to add is a decent front cover. The Zeiss lens caps are the worst I have ever seen. Putting them on is fiddly, and then they don’t hold properly.
Handling and practical use
There are many reviews about the Zeiss Distagon ZM available online, and the better ones have more to say than that this is a big and heavy lens (by rangefinder standards). Here on Macfilos, Mike Evans’ review of the lens seems to be one of the best-read articles of previous years, and I thoroughly recommend it. Mike used the lens on various bodies (including Leica CL and a Panasonic MFT camera), so I will restrict myself to the use of the lens on rangefinder cameras.
In practical use, the Distagon is excellent. The big aperture ring is easy to find, and even if I do not really like the one-third stops (one half is enough), you will not have any difficulty in finding the appropriate f stop. The lens makes the camera a bit front-heavy, so I enjoyed using a thumb rest in the hot-shoe (as long as I did not need to change over to the 18/4 and the Visoflex). Together with any M body, the Distagon makes a considerable package, but the combo is still small enough for a really small camera bag — for your coat pocket, if you fancy this, it’s too big.
However, there is one downside. Being so long and large in diameter, the Distagon blocks a considerable segment of the Leica M viewfinder. The lower right quadrant is not fully visible and removing the hood brings only a little improvement. The super-large viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon handles the problem somewhat better, but there is also quite a degree of obstruction. If you are keen on accurate framing (as I am, having learned photography mainly with slide film), you will need some training.
Optical quality as seen on an M10
Above all, the Distagon is a lens for taking photos. And the 35/1.4 fulfils this purpose with aplomb. I note excellent sharpness right into the corners of the image at all apertures. Focus shift is not an issue, and stray light or backlight does not seem to affect this lens. That is really impressive. Excellent coating (Zeiss T* is famous for a reason) and a no-compromise optical design are paying off here.
What struck me above all is a characteristic that has been described several times as “transparent”. Even in the brightest lights, the optics draw through (as long as the sensor keeps up — with the M10, it’s better to underexpose a little if in doubt), and even in the shadows, there is still plenty of detail to be seen. It looks a bit like—natural-looking!— HDR images straight from the camera. By the way, it cannot be the M10’s algorithms, because I switched off the lens detection.
Sharpness is beyond all doubt. Aspherical lenses, floating elements, special glass with anomalous partial dispersion: They pulled out all the stops in the engineering department. But with this lens, even the out-of-focus areas show an extraordinary pattern. Together with the steep transition between sharp/contrasty and blurred/soft, the much-cited 3-D pop really does appear. Hamish Gill described this very well on 35mmc, I think. Other in-depth reviews come from KJ Vogelius, Joeri van der Kloet and Jack Takahashi.
Zeiss Distagon ZM 35: Alternatives
I did not make any one-to-one comparisons with the current Summilux 35. I have been using the Summilux 35 FLE for years, and it is still one of my favourite lenses. It offers excellent rendering but beware of the risk of focus shift when the lens is stopped down just a tad (fully open, it didn’t occur to me; stop down to 8 or so and you have enough depth of field). The Summilux is more compact and less heavy (334 grams “as-in-my-bag”, that’s 84 grams less, only you know can decide if this makes a real difference), and it obstructs the finder significantly less. Optically, I could not state with ultimate certainty which is the better lens.
Another option is the Voigtländer Nokton Classic 35/1.4 Version II. This one costs about a third of the Zeiss, is much smaller and lighter (228 grams with hood, that’s a considerable 192 grams less than the Distagon), but the Nokton in no way comes close to the Zeiss in terms of optical quality. I have written quite a bit about the small, fast Voigtländer in the M Files. But whichever option you chose, there is a good chance you will love your 35/1.4. I am convinced that no rangefinder user — even more so, no serious photographer —should be without a fast 35.
3. A Super Super Elmar? Zeiss Distagon ZM 18/4
First impression: Weight, sizes, filters and hood, scope of delivery
The Carl Zeiss Distagon 4/18 ZM T* (as inscribed on the front ring) is a compact rangefinder lens with an efficient design (47 millimetres long without front and back covers, 65 millimetres diameter). Weight is 364 grams with both caps and hood. The Zeiss Distagon ZM 18/4 was delivered with an included, tulip-shaped, bayonet-mount, beautiful lens hood (dear folks at Zeiss, why did you not follow this example?) and in the usual utilitarian package with some paperwork.
The snap-on front cover is Zeiss-ZM-like, that is, it’s bad. Search carefully for an alternative because you need a really slim one if you prefer to leave the hood attached (as I do essentially for mechanical protection). The Zeiss Distagon has a standard 58-millimetre filter thread. If you chose slim filters, vignetting is no issue despite the very wide angle. I tested this earlier with a Heliopan orange filter with a designated slim mount.
Apropos my earlier experience, I have to confess that I bought this lens twice. I traded it in for another lens some years ago, and I let it go without pain back then because I had too many problems with colour drift on the digital rangefinder cameras I used in these days. But somehow it didn’t leave me alone, and when I discovered another 18/4 ZM at a reasonable price, I couldn’t resist. By the way, I didn’t lose any money on these transactions. Since it was discontinued, this lens has been very sought after second-hand and prices have risen. This is especially true for the rarer silver version. I have already written quite a bit about Zeiss ZM lenses in the M Files, and I still maintain that the silver version ages with more dignity.
Handling and practical use
The Zeiss Distagon ZM 18/4 will quickly grow on you once you have used it a few times. It is uncomplicated, and unless you want to shoot indoors in very low light, the f/4 speed is also quite sufficient.
The rangefinder of your camera cannot cover this extreme angle of view. So, you need either an electronic external viewfinder (Visoflex) or live view on a digital camera. Or you put an external optical viewfinder on the hot-shoe of the camera (if you shoot on film, this is the only option). Zeiss offers such an external viewfinder. It is expensive, but only half the price of the Leica one. And it is at least as good because it draws a large and clear picture and (it is equipped with T* coating) has no problems with backlight. I can really recommend the Zeiss viewfinders.
Optical quality as seen on an M10
I have already written about my experience with the 18/4 on a Leica M, Typ 262. Here, I will focus on the combination of Distagon and M10. And it is striking how different the outcome is. Colour drift, resulting in red/purple areas toward the margins of your image, is almost no issue at all (always with all lens correction profiles turned off). Corner sharpness seems remarkably better when mounted on the M10, too. Chromatic aberrations can occur, but not excessively, and they are easy to correct in Lightroom.
What I probably like most about this super-wide-angle lens is its resistance to flare. With a 100 degree angle of view, you are very likely to have light sources in your image. Don’t worry if you do with the 18/4 Distagon. Ghosting occurs only rarely, a veiled image I was not able to produce despite some effort. It must be a combination of the optical formula with the T* coating that makes these qualities possible. The other strong point of this lens is high micro-contrast which gives the images a special punch. It is not as excellent in keeping the details in very bright and very dark areas as the 35/1.4, but the performance is still impressive.
This Zeiss Distagon ZM offers 0.5m minimal focusing distance
The same is true for distortion (almost non-existent!) and close-up performance. The Distagon focuses down to 0.5 metres — that’s beyond the lower rangefinder coupling limit. But it works quite well with a Visoflex or live view. When used wide open, you will have to focus pretty precisely at the closest distance (yes, even an 18/4 can’t offer an unlimited depth of field). Focus peaking can be helpful in such cases, and the same is true for the 35/1.4 of course).
Of course, this Zeiss lens has no six-bit coding. Your digital camera (M or also SL with the original Leica adapter) does not know what lens is mounted. So, no corrections will be made to your files. Unfortunately, you cannot manually select the lens profile for the Super-Elmar 3.8/18. I think this is because all copies of this lens were manufactured with six-bit coding, so there is no need to offer a manual setting. You can try the profile for the Tri-Elmar (aka WATE, or wide-angle Tri-Elmar) at 18 mm. Or you choose the correction profile in Lightroom with the advantage that it corrects not only for vignetting but also for the little bit of distortion the 18/4 Distagon shows. The third option is the profile for the Elmarit 28 pre-ASPH (11134), it is the most powerful (and sometimes: too mighty) weapon for correcting colour drift.
Zeiss Distagon ZM 35: Alternatives
Speaking of the Super-Elmar, this is the Distagon’s natural competitor of course. However, before it was discontinued, it cost almost three times as much as the Zeiss. Leica’s only 18 for M Mount (so far) has a good reputation for sharpness, distortion and flare control. Size and weight differences are far less significant than in the case of the 35 mm lenses discussed above. The Super-Elmar weighs 327 grams (as-in-my-bag), 37 grams less than the Distagon. The other dimensions are very similar, with the Zeiss being a bit bulkier because of its round hood whereas the Leica one is more square.
Leica has two options of 18mm
The Super-Elmar is equipped with the excellent new type of screw-on hood, but you need an extra adapter to mount a 77 mm filter. Unfortunately, this adapter is vented for the users who want to use the camera’s rangefinder for focusing, and there are several reports online of light falling on the back of the filters. You can figure out what that means for veiling and glare. And mind you, this is not only an issue for black and white shooters. Especially on super wide lenses, grey filters are popular for long exposure times, creating a nice rendering of waves, clouds and so on.
Another alternative is the aforementioned WATE with its 16, 18, and 21 mm focal lengths. It has f/4 as maximum aperture and is quite similar to the Distagon in this respect. I shall cover this lens in greater detail in a later Macfilos article, but I can already tell that this one is worth considering (furthermore, it is the only 18 mm option currently available new from Leica). Other 18-mm M-mount lenses were not made to the best of my knowledge by any manufacturer.
4. Conclusion: Two lenses that you just shouldn’t underestimate
We have seen that both Distagons are very good lenses, the 35 even being superb. They are excellent choices for all work on film where there are no EXIF files and where you have no issues with colour drift. Both Distagons are equally recommendable on newer digital full-frame cameras. By the way, if you want to document in your EXIF what lens you used, you can use a Lightroom Plugin called LensTagger. Or you write the info about the lens used manually in your caption.
Distagon or Super-Elmar? It might depend on your camera
The 18mm Distagon’s biggest drawback is colour drift. I have seen a lot of it with M240 and M262 models but almost none when used on the M10 (and the M10R is considered to be even less susceptible to colour drift, according to Sean Reid). On the monochrome models, things are even easier. Here, the Zeiss 18 is way ahead, because it’s much easier to screw on a yellow or orange filter. With the M240/262 family, it obviously depends on the circumstances. In my first Zeiss ZM review, I described how much the effect depends on the subject and the lighting. So, it may well be that you never really experience the problem.
Zeiss Distagon ZM or Leica Summilux? It’s in your head… and in your heart
There is not much to complain about with the 35. It is an excellent lens with outstanding sharpness and contrast performance. At the same time, it still draws reliably in very bright and dark areas and handles backlighting with flying colours. It can be focused precisely at all apertures and distances and allows very creative play with the bokeh. So, if you are not a die-hard Leica person, the question it all comes down to is whether you can cope with the fact that it is heavier and larger than the Summilux. And if you accept a substantial amount of finder obstruction, or, better, if you are ready to learn how to handle it.
Zeiss Distagon ZM lenses 18 and 35: A kit to travel around the world with
Both these lenses are products for the working photographer and not objects for the showcase. They don’t have the excellent value retention of Leica lenses, and the whole package is not that luxurious. But there would be many photographers for whom just these two lenses, the Distagon 18/4 ZM and the Distagon 35/1.4 ZM, would suffice for a trip around the world. Any other wishes?
What do you think? Distagon or Summilux? Blue logo or red dot? How much Zeiss do you see in the Cosina-made lenses? Or the other way round: Are these expensive Voigtländer substitutes or affordable Leica alternatives? How unique are Leica products really? Do you see an investment for future decades especially in original Leica M lenses? Or do you buy what promises to be good value for money? And do you have a hidden champion in your collection or (better still) in your everyday photo bag?
Editor’s note: Our Macfilos series, The M Files, is to be continued in loose order this autumn and winter. We will look at even more Zeiss ZM lenses. Our plan is to connect the episodes number 5 (ZM lenses 25/2.8; 35/2.8; 50/2), number 11 (ZM lenses 18/4; 35/1.4) and the one to come (ZM lenses 21/4.5; 28/2.8; 85/4) plus eventually another one to come (would cover 21/2.8; 35/2; 50/1.5) to a pretty comprehensive compendium of ZM lenses. If any Macfilos reader is interested in sharing experience and/or images related to the extremely rare ZM lenses, 15/2.8 and 85/2, feel free to contact Jörg-Peter via the editor.
My work for Macfilos is entirely non-commercial in nature. I receive no benefits from the companies or stores mentioned. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Lichtblick Fotofachgeschäft and Leica Store Konstanz for their support in providing accessories used for this review. Both are to be recommended. They are happy to take phone or mail orders (the staff are English speaking), and they are familiar with shipping outside the EU. However, if there still is one, please do not forget to support your local photo equipment dealer in these challenging times.
The M Files: Get in-depth knowledge of M-Mount lenses, cameras and suitable accessories
The M Files is an ongoing project on Macfilos that focuses on photographic equipment with or for Leica M-Mount, made by companies other than Leica or which are otherwise not part of Leica’s M system. It follows a more or less encyclopaedic approach without being scientific. The focus is always on the real-life use and useability of cameras, lenses and other items. Products covered by The M Files include cameras, lenses, viewfinders, light meters and more. Some of the brands in the growing list are Contax, Konica, Minolta, Rollei, Voigtländer and Zeiss.
Die M-Files: M-Mount-Objektive, -Kameras und passendes Zubehör jenseits von Leica M
Die M-Files sind ein Langzeit-Projekt, das sich auf Foto-Ausrüstungsteile mit oder für Leica M-Bajonett konzentriert, die von anderen Firmen als Leica hergestellt wurden oder die nicht zum M-System von Leica gehören. Es verfolgt einen mehr oder weniger enzyklopädischen Ansatz, ohne wissenschaftlich zu sein. Der Schwerpunkt liegt immer auf der praktischen Nutzung von Kameras, Objektiven und anderen Produkten. Zu den in den M-Files besprochenen Produkten gehören Kameras, Objektive, Sucher, Belichtungsmesser und mehr. Einige der Marken auf der wachsenden Liste sind Contax, Konica, Minolta, Rollei, Voigtländer und Zeiss. In deutscher Sprache erscheinen die Inhalte auf www.messsucherwelt.com.
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