A Small 35mm Shoot Out

An Intro

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I love trying and shooting new adapted lenses. It's always enjoyable to put a lens through it's paces and see what it's capable of. Still, for some time now I've found myself gravitating towards 35mm as my go to. 50mm is nice, but it's too tight when you're shooting a family gathering etc. indoors. I remember a great shot of my daughter dancing with her grandmother. At the time I was shooting the Nikon D300S and had the trusty 35mm f/1.8 on it. I couldn't back up any further in the small restaurant, so Nana's head ended up chopped in half. To me 35mm is the perfect balance. Not too wide, not too tight. After switching to Sony (A6000) I found the 24mm f/1.8 which was a great lens and very enjoyable to use. But when I moved up to the A7 series things got trickier. For one, the 35mm f/2.8 was never all that attractive. I know it's very close with equivalence, but I didn't go full frame to shoot a slower lens and have the same look. It also doesn't focus near as close as the 24mm f/1.8. Secondly, I started shooting a lot more legacy glass now that I could use it at its native focal length. Thus began the quest for a great 35mm.

Minolta HG 35mm f/2.8 - Actually not bad, but slow and lens/adapter combo flared a lot.

Contax Distagon 35mm f/2.8 - Good color and a bit of 3D pop, but f/2.8 and nervous bokeh.

Contax G 35mm f/2 - I ignored the reviews and gave it a try. Worst. Field. Curvature. Ever.

Minolta Rokkor-X 35mm f/1.8 - Looked so flat and dull compared to the Zeiss. Not a bad lens, but didn't excite me to use it at all.

Nikon Series E 35mm f/2.5 - In fairness I didn't expect a lot, but this was one of the worst 35's I've used.

Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f/1.4 - This was my first Voigtlander and M mount lens. Great color and 3D pop. Bad bad edges until stopped down. It was a love affair that didn't last.

Canon FD BL 35mm f/2 SSC - This lens is fairly impressive. I still have it, but it's still only f/2 and bokeh is fairly nervous.

I wrote this in December of 2015 after the failure of the Contax G:

"So, what to try next? A C/Y Distagon 35mm f/1.4 would be nice but its cost is more than I can swing now. Otherwise a few candidates I've come across and some questions:

Zeiss ZF 35mm f/2. Someone said the ZF had a great reputation... Any of the Other Zeiss 35's worth a look? ZM looks a little pricey and the 1.4's are too much.

Voigtlander 35mm f1.4 Classic: Didn't love the samples I saw of the outer areas, potentially limits framing options?

Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7: Might try this one, biggest concern was field curvature that Phillip Reeve mentioned.

Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2: This would probably be amazing, but at that price might be best to save a little more for the Contax 35mm f/1.4. Anyone ever compare them?

Minolta 35mm f/1.8: I occasionally look at them, but much prefer the color and contrast of the Zeiss, which Voigtlander seems to compete with.

Nikon & Canon fast 35's: Same as Minolta above. They just don't hold up in color and contrast."

Fast forward about a year and I'd tried the Voigtlander 40mm and the Canon SSC. As luck would have it, a busy fall gave me the resources and four deals materialized on the remaining lenses. I'd finally get to shoot all of them, and compare side by side. Yes, there are other great 35's that maybe I'll shoot someday (RX1 Sonnar, ZM 35mm f/1.4, Sony 35mm f/1.4, etc...) but these are lenses I've been looking at for quite a while.

The Contenders

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The Contax C/Y Distagon 35mm f/1.4 MMJ Version: This has been my dream lens for a long time. A nick in the aperture ring made this significantly more affordable than normal.

The Zeiss ZF Distagon 35mm f/2: This has the reputation for some of the best 3D pop out there. It's only f/2 but maintains fairly smooth bokeh.

The Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2 V1: If you like good, fast 35's you have to try the only f/1.2, right?

The Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7 VM Version: Glowing reviews also made this a must try. 

A note about the Zeiss ZF 35mm f/2. Why the odd photo? Well, it's already moved on. I'd originally picked ZF so I could possibly use it on a Techart Pro adapter. After handling it for a bit, I'm confident that I'd never use it that way, so I'd much prefer a ZE version. Since I personally bought all of these lenses, when I had a chance to sell the ZF I took it. Sorry if that disappoints you. Admittedly I have a touch of sellers remorse. Who knows, maybe I'll go buy it back in a week...

Results

Okay, this is what you're all here for, right? Let's go straight to the crops, but first a couple of notes. Some might take issues with some of my tests, save it. I'm going to test how I normally shoot, which is hand held most of the time but I'll use a tripod for longer exposures. For these crops to keep the same framing a tripod was used with a 2 sec release. AWB was generally used, but where the FD is included I (sometimes) adjusted it in post due to some yellowing. For the close focus bokeh test I had to hand hold the M mount lenses because it wouldn't fit on my Tripod with the TAP close focus adapter being used. Down below there are galleries of hand held shots comparing them as well. WARNING: Large Files Ahead!

Landscapes

This scene was shot focused on the red sign in the center of the center crops. It's about 950' from the camera, and the docks run nearly perfectly parallel to the sensor. All shots were focused wide open then stopped down. If a lens has focus shift it'll be penalized and I'm okay with that. It'd affect my real world shots or drive me crazy trying to nail it. I included the Contax C/Y 35-70 here as it's a great landscape lens and a good benchmark to compare against. Large files ahead - These crops are large, click on them to load the images in a new window. 

Image Centers

Image Midframes

Image Corners

Thoughts

Nokton 35mm f/1.2: Image centers are pretty useless at infinity and f/1.2 which isn't surprising. By f/2.8 it basically matches everything else. In the midframes I think it's still showing a bit of smearing at f/2.8 but it's looking better at f/4. At f/5.6 or better yet f/8 the corners would be perfectly usable (and it's good, really) but never match some of the other lenses. But you don't buy this to shoot f/8 landscapes do you?

Ultron 35mm f/1.7: Very sharp in the center from wide open. At f/2 the ZF is the only thing close and it shows more fringing. The Ultron lives up to it's sharpness reputation. The midframes hold up well even wide open. It's not perfect but it's worlds better than the Nokton 40mm f/1.4. At smaller apertures its right there with the C/Y 35-70, much better older RF wides. Corners are another story. I actually lifted the exposure on this whole set by 1 stop so you could see details (stop complaining, you'd do it anyway in a photo).  Both the Nokton and the Ultron look like it's after sunset. This vignette never goes away completely, even at smaller apertures it's the darkest. The level of detail never catches up to the DSLR lenses. Probably partly due to design and partly due to field curvature. Still, it's slightly smeared at f/5.6 but pretty decent at f/8.

Zeiss Distagon ZF 35mm f/2: I wanted to compare this side by side with the Ultron. The Ultron is sharper in the center wide open with less fringing and generally looks a little better at all apertures. Head to the midframes and the Ultron is still ahead or at least tied at all apertures until diffraction starts kicking in around f/11 or f/16. Look at the midframe fence pickets just under the red roof at f/4. At f/8 they are pretty much identical This surprised me, I didn't expect the Ultron to be competing away from center. In the corners though the RF design meets its limits. The ZF is better at all apertures and usable at f/4, where it looks better than the Ultron even at f/11.

Contax Distagon 35mm f/1.4: First off, apologies, I forgot to shoot this one at f/1.7 to compare, so we have f/1.4 floating all by itself up there. at f/1.4 it's not great but it's a lot better than the Nokton at that aperture. By f/2.8 it looks about the same as the ZF in the center. In the midframes it seems to trail the ZF by a hair and both are a bit behind the Ultron in terms of detail. In the corners it trails the ZF pretty badly until f/5.6 but even then the contrast never seems to catch up. Not shocking given what then lenses are designed to do, and I'll actually call it a good showing from the Distagon.

The C/Y 35-70 and FD are included for reference. The 35-70 needs f/5.6 for good corners, but it's reputation seems warranted as it's sharpness is right there with some primes. The FD does well for a legacy lens but it needs f/8 or f/11 to get where the Zeisses all are by f/5.6 at the latest.

Bokeh

Two different scenes from the Bokeh crops. The first is one I did with some trees in the back yard. Camera was on a tripod with 2 second release. I wasn't sure about my focus on the C/Y 35/1.4 though so I wanted to redo it regardless. Also, I only shot in whole stops, so first row is f/1.2, then f/1.4 with the Ultron at 1.7 instead, then f/2 and f/2.8. After doing this I realized I wanted to compare at f/1.7 so did the second indoor sets differently. I'll clean up and label the first set one of these days... Fortunately in between the first and the second the season of lights arrived at my house. Perfect! I included two sets of crop here. One near the minimum focus distance of the Nokton 35/1.2, and one at about 14", which is closer to the Zeiss', and near the limit of the Voigtlanders with a close focus adapter. The FD SSC 35mm f/2 is included as well for my own edification, it performs reasonably well, though outlining is present wide open. 

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Nokton 35mm f/1.2: I'm going to nickname this lens the King of Onion Ring. You can see with the trees in the background it provides a nice blur, but throw in some OOF highlights and things get rough quick. It shows a little bit of outlining but no worse than most of the others. The 10 blade aperture keeps things fairly round, interestingly, the blur disks show rough edges at all apertures, even stopped down, the result is it appears more round than the Ultron, which has more clearly defined aperture blades. 

Ultron 35mm f/1.7: It doesn't have the highest quantity, but the Ultron makes up for it in quality. No onion rings, very little outlining and 10 blades keeps it pretty round but not perfect. Outdoors I'd generally say it looks a little more nervous than the Distagon and Nokton, but for what it's worth, while actually shooting with the Ultron, I really do like it's bokeh. It has a painterly quality to it that I haven't seen very often. Also, I suspect the nice clean edges to the Bokeh are the same quality that helps modern Voigtlander lenses have a great reputation for sunstars.

Zeiss Distagon ZF 35mm f/2: The first thing that jumped out at me with the Zeiss was the LoCA. Sure it cleans up pretty well and pretty easily in most any editor, but I wasn't expecting so much of it in an optic like this. Back to the Bokeh, no onion rings, very little outlining, only slightly more than the Ultron. At f/2.8 it also holds its round shape better than the Ultron does.

Contax Distagon 35mm f/1.4: Honestly I had never bothered to check, but I hadn't realized the Contax was aspherical until shooting these tests. The onion rings surprised me, but they're a lot better than the Nokton. It has some outlining wide open but cleans up slightly better than the Nokton. The largest draw back is probably the eight straight blades that form noticeable octagons stopped down.

Other Thoughts

Handling

Nokton 35mm f/1.2: This is my favorite handling lens. It's a dense little thing, but focus ring has a good feel and it adequately wide. Aperture stops are firm clicks and it's easy to find both rings by feel. On the camera it's a compact fast package. Other than the wear to the body of my copy, it just 'fits' the A7II the best. Minimum focus distance is the biggest problem at about 3'. Use of a close focus adapter helps it compete with the SLR lenses, but adds weight and cost.

Ultron 35mm f/1.7: The Ultron is very smooth in use and makes for a nice small package. Honestly though I feel its a touch too small, and I think other reviewers have agreed. The aperture ring is about perfect, its got a softer click than the Nokton but I mean that in a good way, it's perfect. I much prefer the scalloped focus ring to the tab that I had on the Nokton 40mm f/1.4, but it needs to be about 1cm wider. It's very easy to find by feel and manipulate with one finger, but it's not overly enjoyable (but admittedly perfectly functional.) MFD is better than the Nokton but still longer than the SLR counterparts. Again, a close focus adapter evens the playing field.

Zeiss Distagon ZF 35mm f/2: I started shooting on Nikon. I used to laugh off reviewers who talked about Nikon being backwards. Having long since migrated away from Nikon, this damn thing is backwards... Now it didn't really affect usage, I shoot so many different things, I tend to be more flexible, but it's there. Still focus was smooth and aperture was nice. Despite being an f/2 I found it to feel the same as the Distagon, and have about the same dimensions, it's not a small lens. 

Contax Distagon 35mm f/1.4: A hefty lens, the Distagon is the largest of the bunch, about as long and heavy as the 35mm f/2 but wider. It looks good on the camera, but it isn't petite. I don't take long hikes etc, so this doesn't really bother me, but it's worth noting. I had trouble fitting the lens and camera in the Contender's crops. The aperture ring only has whole stops, but it's easy to park it half way. I might consider engraving half stop detents into it. Purists might not like that, but I think it'd be a nice benefit in use. Also worth noting the focus is very smooth and goes to about 12", but from about 6' to infinity is a very short focus throw. Zeiss clearly intended this lens for usage in tighter quarters. Infinity performance is fine, but you need to take care while focusing.

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Other Qualities

What about vignette, flare resistance, distortion, etc. As you can see from the landscape crops above they all vignette and the Ultron is the worst by a large margin. I didn't specifically compare, it's not a trait I worry too much about. It's easy to edit and I add it as often as I fix it in the real world. As to flare, I deleted the files somewhere along the way but these all offer good performance in this regard. I was able to elicit small colored blobs but all of them, but that was a worse case scenario. All hold their contrast well while shooting into the sun. I don't shoot architecture with these (at least not critically) so I don't worry too much about it. I think it's seemed the Distagon was probably the worst in this regard but it was simple and easily correctable. Still, I'd need to go find a brick wall to verify.

Final Thoughts

After shooting all four of these lenses (even my short time with the Zeiss ZF) I could honestly say I really, really like all of them and had difficulty settling on just one to keep. As of this writing I think I'm keeping two. I think that choice ultimately needs to come down to what you shoot the most and how you travel. 

Contax Distagon 35mm f/1.4 This lens is one of my keepers. It's been my dream lens for a long time, it would also be the hardest to replace in the future if I decided to sell. So full disclosure, things which have no bearing on its quality are influencing my decision. Even so, personally I think it's the best "people" lens of the bunch. Great color and contrast, but with a gentleness that compliments skin tones. The focus fall off just wraps around faces and looks great. You'll just have to trust me on this as I'm sure you don't want to look at a bunch of photos of me, and I don't regularly post photos of my daughter.

Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7 As of this writing this is my other keeper, though I have both the Ultron and Nokton for sale, so who knows. The lens has a sharpness and crispness to it that's just enjoyable. I need to get a close focus adapter for it though, I'd rather avoid using the Techart Pro unless I'm shooting where I really need AF. That aside it's a great lens for shooting nature and things, just be aware of the vignette at infinity. It's also the smallest and lightest of the bunch, for when that's important.

Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2 If the Ultron were to sell first I'd have no problem keeping this as a second one either. Although it has a faster aperture I'd still prefer the Contax for shooting people. The Voigtlander lenses have more contrast to them, which looks great on things, but a bit harsh to me on people. It's easy enough to fix in post, but it's something to consider. It's also a great deal smaller than the Distagon, though it isn't a whole lot lighter in use.

Zeiss ZF 35mm f/2 Well obviously I've already sold this lens so it isn't the keeper. I may find a ZE version again in the future, but I'm probably least excited about this lens even though it fits what I shoot fairly well. It's only f/2 and though it's Bokeh is nice it doesn't have the quantity that you sometimes want. It's the best landscape lens of the bunch, but then I'm not shooting landscapes at f/2 and at f/8 the Distagon isn't far behind and the 35-70 isn't leaving my bad any time soon, so it's a bit pointless in that regard. Throw in the LoCA that would bother me to constantly clean up. It's a fine option, and anyone should be happy with it, but I think the other three lenses here bring more to the table, for me at least. 

Final Samples

Edit: I managed to find one set that had the Zeiss images intact. The FD SSC isn't included, but who cares! I'll include a few apertures since its the only one.

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I spent an afternoon shooting the same shots in a park with all four lenses plus the FD SSC. As luck would have it, I can't find the Zeiss copies... I guess it was never meant to be. I did have a chance to review them after taking them and can say it wasn't an extreme difference. It had good sharpness edge to edge, color and contrast was in line with the others.

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