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Twenty questions about Zeiss ZF/ZS  
Tuesday, January 31, 2006 | by Rob Galbraith

Shortly after the announcement earlier this month by Carl Zeiss of new Nikon F-mount ZF and screw-mount ZS lens lines, we sent a series of questions to Kornelius Mueller, Marketing Manager in the German company's Camera Lens Division. In his response, Mueller describes how ZF lenses will operate on a Nikon camera, acknowledges the desire among Canon shooters especially for crispy-sharp wide angles, discusses the decision to contract Cosina in Japan to manufacture ZF/ZS lenses and more. We posed 20 questions; here are Mueller's 20 answers:

Q. How would you compare the optical quality of ZF/ZS lenses to existing Zeiss lenses for Contax 35mm cameras?

The new ZF lenses are improved in two ways over previous Contax RTS versions: better straylight suppression, leading to cleaner, crisper color, and improved aperture geometry, leading to more pleasing, more natural looking circular out-of-focus highlights.

Q. How would you compare the optical quality of ZF/ZS lenses to the same or similar lenses from Nikon and Canon?

The same superiority applies in comparison with similar Nikon lenses. Contax users have been raving about the 3-dimensional look of their pictures taken with ZEISS lenses, when compared with Nikon or Canon photos. So ZF should make this difference even more apparent.

Q. Is there any electronic communication or linkage between a ZF lens and a modern Nikon SLR body (and specifically a Nikon digital SLR)?

There are no electronics in the ZF lenses, no electrical interchange of functions between Nikon camera and ZF lens.

(See For Nikon users, what will be the advantage to using a ZF lens over a ZS lens with a Nikon adapter? ahead for more on the interoperability between a ZF lens and Nikon body.)

Q. There are two other lenses shown in the ZF product pictures, both f/2 primes, one a wide angle lens and the other a macro lens. What can you reveal about these lenses?

The other ZF lenses you see in the pictures are supposed to show that more is to come. Future ZF lenses have no counterpart in existing Contax lens ranges.

Q. Both Canon and Nikon make some fine normal to telephoto fast aperture lenses, but both camera makers' lines fall short optically in the wide angle range for users who need superlative centre-to-edge lens performance. This has led to the development of multiple new Contax-to-Canon and some Contax-to-Nikon lens adapters for sale on the Internet, and a brisk business especially for those selling used Zeiss wide primes that can be attached to Canon full-frame digital SLRs via an adapter. At points, the Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 in particular has sold used on eBay for several times its price when new. In short, there seems to be a demand for Zeiss wide angle prime lenses by Canon shooters in particular. What are the wide angle plans for the ZF/ZS line?

We do have wide angle plans in the ZF range and we are aware of the demand for the Distagon 2,8/21 among Canon users. However, it is too early to announce specifics.

Q. Why are the first two lenses a 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4? As the question above suggests, from our perspective it seems like the greatest demand for Zeiss glass is at the wide angle end.

We have been facing a strong demand from the Japanese market for the two lenses that we announced first. This is why we started with those. Of course, we keep hearing/reading the help cries from DSLR users. And we are working on solutions.

Q. We own a Distagon T* 28mm f/2.8, and have experienced shooting with the Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 also, both on Canon full-frame digital cameras. These lenses are superior optically to any similar-focal-length Canon wide angle lens we've used by a fair margin. But the 28mm f/2.8 isn't perfect: there is some softening at the edges, and some chromatic aberration, more than is ideal for our use of the pictures at times. Will future ZF/ZS wide angle lenses be even better optically than the Distagon T* 28mm f/2.8, to maximize the detail-rendering capabilities of high-resolution digital cameras like the EOS-1Ds Mark II and presumed future Canon and Nikon full-frame models with even higher pixel counts?

We intend the ZF lenses to be used on both analogue and digital SLRs and industrial imaging systems. Therefore, we will consider the technical aspects that face DSLR photographers. In particular we are convinced that today's best analogue imaging systems are clearly superior to their digital counterparts in terms of image quality. We intend to elaborate on this topic in forthcoming issues of ZEISS Camera Lens News. As a logical consequence, we do expect the performance of digital cameras to develop and to get significantly better in the years to come. And ZEISS lenses will be part of the best digital - civilian - systems, as they are the eyes of today's best analogue systems and digital systems for aerial reconnaissance.

Q. Why is Zeiss not releasing lenses with a Canon EOS mount on them?

Patent considerations keep us from doing so for the time being.

Q. For Canon users, what will be the advantage (optically and otherwise) to purchasing a ZS screw-mount lens and placing an adapter on that, relative to purchasing a used Zeiss lens for Contax and mounting that to a Canon EOS camera with an adapter?

The ZS lens will show superior straylight suppression, a technology recently developed by ZEISS for cinematography lenses, and now made available to still photo SLR lenses. Also, ZS come with the new and almost circular aperture, which will produce much nicer out-of-focus highlights than the hexagon or octagon shaped apertures which were used in Zeiss lenses for Contax RTS.

Q. For Nikon users, what will be the advantage to using a ZF lens over a ZS lens with a Nikon adapter?

ZF lenses come with everything the user of a classical Nikon SLR expects, like fast change Nikon F bayonet, automatic close-down aperture, rotation direction of focus and aperture ring like on original Nikon lenses, including that tiny second aperture scale to enable optical readout of the aperture in the viewfinder, and AI coupling fork. With a ZS and an adapter, all these commodities would be missing.

Q. Will Zeiss be making adapters for ZS lenses?

Carl Zeiss leaves the adapter issue to specialist companies like Novoflex, Zoerkendoerfer, Foto-Huppert, and the like.

Q. When will the 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 ZF and ZS lenses ship? (The January 2006 Camera Lens News newsletter says both spring 2006 and early summer 2006.)

As it is so hard to predict the future, we prefer to remain a bit vague about the release date. Optimists here at Carl Zeiss would suggest: May 2006. However, we cannot really guarantee it from today's perspective.

Q. Where will ZF and ZS lenses be sold (in Europe and North America in particular)?

Every manufacturer wants to see his products widely availably, anywhere in the world. We are currently setting up a distribution network for Carl Zeiss. We have just appointed a sales manager for Europe - a European, and not a German - and are about to do the same in North America. We are speaking with a native American, well known in the North American photo market. We consider North America a very important region in the world of photography and have placed it accordingly high on our priority list. We want to distribute our products through photo specialty dealers and pro stores, both of which understand high performance optics and valuable, durable products. Some of them have mail order and internet sales divisions. We do not consider mass merchandisers an appropriate outlet to serve ZF customers.

Q. Where will ZF and ZS lenses be serviced (in Europe and North America in particular)?

Setting up a service network is part of building our own distribution system around the world. We plan to have a capable service facility in the continental US.

Q. What is the warranty on ZF and ZS lenses?

We will announce warranty details prior to the release date.

Q. When will the two mystery lenses shown in the ZF product pictures be announced officially?

The two "mystery lenses" will be disclosed at Photokina in September 2006, latest. But I can imagine that I will take demo photos with them prior to photokina and report on the results as soon as I have them.

zeiss_zf.jpg
Zeiss ZF 
Planar 85mm f/1.4 and Planar 50mm f/1.4 plus two mystery lenses (Photo courtesy Zeiss)

Q. How many lenses in total will comprise the ZF/ZS line by Photokina 2006?

We expect to have six ZF lenses at Photokina, and an official view on how we extend the line from there.

Q. Are there plans to develop autofocus lenses or lenses that have a greater level of communication between lens and camera than the just-announced ZF with Nikon?

It is too early to talk about autofocus ZF lenses today.

Q. Was Zeiss aware, before Nikon announced it, that Nikon was ceasing production of many of its manual focus lenses?

Yes, we have been quite often contacted by industrial users of Nikon manual focus lenses over the last year, asking us for Contax RTS manual focus lenses to replace Nikon types which were discontinued. This gave us a clear indication that a change was going on in Nikon's lens range.

Q. Why are the lenses to be manufactured by Cosina in Japan, and should photographers be concerned about a reduction in optical or build quality as a result?

We want the ZF lenses to be available for as many photographers as possible. This requires a price which - although reflecting the high quality level of the lenses - does not render them luxury items which only a tiny few people ever will find access to. Also, for industrial useage, the price point has to be in line with the Nikon lenses to be replaced by ZF. We therefore decided to use Cosina in Japan, that same factory which is producing the high performance ZM lenses, the ZEISS lenses for  Leica M mount. We are sure that ZF lenses made in Japan deliver a performance even better than the ZEISS lenses for Contax RTS. And those were found superior by numerous Nikon and Canon photographers, clearly superior to what they had available for their own cameras.

Update, February 14: We posed additional questions, and received additional answers, after this article was first published. Among the new information from Mueller is the fact that both the focus ring and aperture ring will operate in the same direction on ZF and ZS series lenses. They are operationally identical in these respects, which means that both focus the Nikon direction. If a ZS lens is used on a Nikon camera, rather than ZF, two things in total are different:

  • there is no automatic stopping down of aperture
  • the tiny second aperture scale on the lens barrel, the one that gets mirrored up to the viewfinder in older Nikon cameras, isn't present

And, no particular mechanical or optical problems are expected when using a ZF lens + adapter on a Canon EOS camera, though this would likely be more a function of the adapter design rather than anything that Zeiss might be doing in making the ZF, since they're attempting to mimic precisely an older Nikon F-mount. As noted earlier in this article, Zeiss won't be making adapters for either its ZF or ZS models.

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