Ok I’m just going to start out by saying I absolutely freaking love the Loxia lens lineup from Carl Zeiss. So the TL:DR version of this review is: get this lens if you have a Sony a7. Just get it.
Anyway I know the Loxia lineup has been out for a while but I’ve spent a bunch of time with them on all sorts of jobs, especially the 35mm which was the first one that I purchased. I may not be able to provide the most technical review on the Internetz but I can definitely give you a sense of how the lens performs and feels working in the real world, where MTF charts matter less than how comfortable it feels in your hand.
So to keep things concise right from the get go:
Reasons why this lens is awesome:
– Superb rendering and contrast
– Super compact
– Solid all metal construction
– Manual focus throw is intuitively spaced
– Great close focus
– De-clickable aperture ring
– Out of focus areas have a characteristic look
Reasons why you may want to think twice:
– If you can’t live without autofocus then you might not like this lens
THE MANUAL FOCUS ISSUE:
Ok so let’s go into specifics. The big elephant in the room that we need to address here is the lack of autofocus on a pricey modern lens. I can imagine that this would make more than a few people think twice about going in on this series of lenses. So let me attempt dispel your fears a little bit here. Firstly, in the vast majority of situations in which you’ll be photographing, manual focus lenses are in no way inferior to autofocus, in fact they are often better. This may seem like a bold claim but think about it this way – even if you completely master the autofocus system on your camera, there is still an upper threshold of speed and accuracy at which the camera can perform autofocus. With manual focus there is no threshold – the skill ceiling is as high as you want to make it. Plus you’ll never have to stop to dick around with your AF settings because your camera’s dumb software refuses to grab onto the right focus point. In addition to these mirrorless cameras making it easier than ever to nail critical focus with manual lenses, and the superiority of manual focus lenses is fully realized.
I’ve used these lenses on high budget portrait shoots, editorial, reportage, street photography, and not once have I felt held back by the lack of autofocus – on the flip side I’ve found it incredibly liberating not to have to reposition my focus point every time I change up my composition. Not to mention that these Loxia lenses have been designed with manual focus in mind, so the throw (ie: the amount you need to twist the barrel to refocus on something else) is very intuitive. Zeiss has been designing manual focus lenses for over 100 years and the depth of their experience really shines through when you pick up one of these bad boys.
ALL IN ONE:
With the Loxia lineup, I think Zeiss is trying to do something that really has no precedent – they’ve made a premium quality compact lens that is amazing for both stills and video. It’s perfect for run-and-gun film making but to call it a run-and-gun lens would be doing it a disservice – this thing is solid and the optics are quite simply stunning. When you factor in its super compact size and relatively fast f/2 maximum aperture you have a lens that performs at an extremely high level on every front. Of course, the compromise was that they had to ditch autofocus but as I explained above, you no longer need that with mirrorless systems these days.
So on paper you have an ultra compact, fast high performance lens equally suited for stills and video. It sounds too good to be true but it is true. This lens does all of those things and it does them well.
BUILD IT NICE:
Before I get into optics, let’s talk about how this lens feels in the hand. Now I’m not one of those nimrods online who would call a lens sexy (well, maybe I am), but the Loxia series really kicks ass in terms of aesthetic and overall usability. The body is milled from…some kind of metal, I don’t really know the atomic number and it doesn’t really matter; what matters is that it feels solid, has good heft and the focusing action is smooth as Hokkaido butter.
Now, I’ve seen some people complain that the focusing ring is too close to the aperture ring and that sometimes they twist both by accident or have trouble differentiating between one or the other. I can see how this may be true for a person with less than an average level of coordination or ham hocks for hands, but I have never once had a problem with operating this lens even with gloves on. Maybe it’s due to my exceptionally nimble and tiny Asian hands, who knows. But honestly people, it’s not that difficult. The focusing ring is perfectly situated for your thumb and index finger to grab it without overextending, and the aperture ring can be clicked over with a small application of pressure from the middle finger, meaning you never have to reposition your hands to change anything.
The field of view is perfect for including wider context within a street snap…
Did I mention this lens is also super duper compact? I think it bears mentioning. Yep. A fast, small FULL-FRAME premium prime lens, thank you very much. Everything fits perfectly in my Domke bag with a whole lot of space to spare for strobes, Pocket Wizards, ND filters, whatever I need. And that’s whether I’m shooting video or stills.
...or it can be used for detail shots like this.
Ok, now we come to the most subjective part of the review – the optics ie; how the lens renders all the things. So I’m just going to say stuff and hopefully people will take what they will from it and maybe we can all walk away from this without there needing to be a unnecessarily emotional conversation about what constitutes ‘good bokeh’.
So, here are the things you’ll want to know about this lens. Firstly – this lens does not produce mega ultra silky smooth bokeh, so if you’re the guy who jerks off to that, go buy a massive L lens or something. Rather, the out of focus areas are rendered with a little more character – it is not messy bokeh by any stretch, but point light sources translate nicely into faded but distinct blotches, and focus fall-off is pleasingly gradual. The look and feel of the bokeh is a little bit like what you’d get using a small-barreled rangefinder lens, with the cool bonus of being able to close-focus.
Let’s talk about the close focusing ability for a little bit – these Loxias are surprisingly good at it and this 35mm goes as close as 0.3 meters, so you can really get right in there for your daily Facebook post of your cafe latte. It goes without saying that this is an extremely beneficial feature for both stills and video. I mean, obviously right? I used to have a Voigtlander M-mount close focus adapter for one of my Leica lenses and dicking around with that extra focusing ring is a royal pain in the ass, trust me.
Now let’s consider the way the lens renders the in-focus parts of the frame. Wide open at f/2 the lens is sharp but loses contrast, which is quite typical for a prime lens. Stop down to 2.5 or 2.8 and the lens regains punchiness as well as good micro-contrast – which helps the in-focus parts of the frame pop out at you a little more. The color and vibrancy from these lenses are also really amazing – something which is less relevant when shooting RAW stills but which really really makes a difference when shooting video. Straight out of camera, your video files will look amazing, which is just really nice.
A perfect lens for documentary or reportage
Am I bothered by the maximum aperture being only f/2? Nope. It’s still a damn fast lens and to be honest, who has ever actually been on a shoot and said ‘wow, I really need f/1.4 now, otherwise this whole thing won’t work’? f/2 is a really comfortable max aperture and especially given the small size of the lens I feel like I’m having my cake as well as eating it. Like, really eating it in a messy, gluttonous way.
Classic focal length and user-friendly manual focus, what more could you want?
Ok that was the long version of basically me saying just buy the lens already, so hopefully you skipped all that. Anyway the Carl Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2 sits in a really interesting spot amongst the other 35mm offerings for Sony Alpha 7s. On one hand you have a really compact Sony/Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 which at $800 is a little bit pricey for what it is. On the other hand you have the monstrous 35mm f/1.4 which in addition to being huge is also really, really expensive. The Loxia kind of sits in the Goldilocks zone in the middle – really compact while not sacrificing image quality and still fairly speedy. Now, if you shoot video as well as stills then this is an absolute no-brainer of a choice, what with the de-clickable aperture ring, super smooth focusing action and great image quality. If you like to take photos one-handed then this lens probably is not for you.
Ideal for travel, documentary, portrait, you name it
In my own opinion, Zeiss has really hit it out of the park with their Loxia concept, optimizing them for photos and video especially since the Sony Alphas are already amazing at both. The 35mm is traditionally a very versatile focal length, made even more versatile with the design choices Zeiss has made; consistent filter ring diameters, de-clickable aperture ring, awesome portability and user-friendly manual focus. I’m really enjoying using this lens and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Loxia lineup in the future.