Now the 35/2 Distagon that Zeiss designed in the 1960s for the Contarex system was not only fabulous for its f/2 aperture – making it the prototype of all later high quality fast wideangle SLR lenses. Also, it incorporated a whopping 0.21 m close focus. Note that this figure gives you the distance between your subject and the film or sensor plane, so the actual distance between the subject and the front element of the lens is even much, much smaller. In the case of the 35/2 Distagon we’re talking about 8-9 centimetres here.
So this is a shot I took recently with the lens focused to its minimum distance, resulting in a magnification of about a 1:3. That’s really cool. The fly on this shot was just a few millimetres big. And as you can see, the sharpness and the Distagon’s trademark high contrast and freedom of color fringes are retained!
It’s an amazing achievement that Zeiss designed both that fast aperture and that astonishing close-focus ability into this one single lens – at a time where only standard spherical glass elements were available and also no “floating elements” were used in the focusing mechanism. Those were to be introduced first by Nikon in 1968 with their Nikkor 24/2.8 super wideangle lens: When focusing, the front lens elements would move relative to the rear ones, instead of that all the lens elements are just moved as a whole forward or back.
The 35/2 Distagon is, therefore, the absolute climax of really classic, if you want so, pure and basic, lens design. Now you have to realise that especially those floating elements are not just a gadget but rather a very useful, important achievement in giving a lens equally great performance both for very distant as well as for very close subjects. With that in mind, it is absolutely clear that the close-focus quality of the 35/2 just has to be somewhat compromised. To find that out, I gave it a little test.
The performance test with a 1:160 scale model loco
I chose a 1:160 N scale Minitrix model loco to take a shot that probably would not look too boring but could still be used as a kind of lens performance test. The model is about 10 centimetres long and full of any kind of really small details. To get it on the picture, I had to focus to about 0.32 m – please note that this reading is probably not 100% accurate due to the lens being used on the Kipon Contarex-NEX adapter on the NEX-5. The preview images will already be bigger than life size, even when you read this post on a 13″ or 15″ notebook display.
I did all my best to align the lens really correctly to not introduce any focus errors on the left and right of the frame. But of course it’s not laboratory conditions here. Same goes for the lighting, well, yes: A single 20 watt halogen desk lamp directed to the ceiling, the camera set up on a tripod where it would record a full 30 seconds at f/11 – erm, so what! That’s it.
This was taken with all apertures from f/4 to f/11 – anything more open really would be just too shallow a depth of field for this subject in my opinion – and you can download all these pictures at full resolution below for your personal evaluation!
This time, I decided to leave all settings for sharpness, contrast and noise in Lightroom at their default settings. As the NEX-5 only can shoot at ISO 200 and I also had to bump up the shadows of that dark model loco a bit in post, you will see some noise this time and not the same biting sharpness that, this time, would need some additional effort – not just a simple overall sharpening and de-noise adjustment – in post processing.
As you can see, there is corner sharpness missing and even f/8 is not perfect in that respect. This is just what you would expect given the “ridig” lens design without floating elements. But, hey: It’s not a dedicated macro lens. It’s just a fast – in its day, even a super-fast – wide-angle that was given that additional amazing close-focus ability in case you’ll really need it. If you require it to do so, it gets the job done, and it always gives you an image with a quality look and feel to it. That’s what this lens is all about.
And as you can see, closing down it does sharpen up nicely. The center of course is crisp at the more open aperture settings as well – also see that 100% crop of the fly above. An impressive overall performance that this very impressive lens gives, even when pushed so hard to its limits. Oh and before I forget it: There’s no distortion correction applied to the shots above. Freedom from distortions makes images that much cleaner to look at! In the 1960s, you would not correct weird distortion with a few lazy clicks in your RAW converter, instead it was yet another quality aspect that had to be designed right into the lens. Again, that’s just what the Zeiss Distagon 35/2 was about.
By the way, close-focusing 35s became somewhat of a fashion in the 1960s. As an example, the Eastern German 35s from Zeiss Jena – the Flektogon 35/2.8 and its successor, the 35/2.4 – would even focus down to 0.18 metres. All this was amazing stuff back in those days – and as you can see the pictorial and technical quality, when used within reasonable parameters, is still top-notch even today – and it made best use of the possibilities that a SLR system camera gave over all those earlier mighty rangefinders.
(If you wonder about the background in the shots above: It is a small part of one page of Nick Brandt’s amazing book “A Shadow Falls” comprising of black&white, really epic Eastern African photographs.)