I realized with sudden terror that I’d been yanked away from everything I loved. My family, my cappuccino, the delicious key lime tart I’d been eating just moments before raising the camera to my eye, all were now millions of miles away. Had I been abducted? Drugged and strapped into some sort of Sputnik machine, launched into orbit against my will à la Laika? No, that couldn’t be it. And then I understood; I was looking through an 18mm ultra-wide.
What a relief.
That’s the shocking perspective that comes from shooting ultra-wide angle lenses, and the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm F/3.5 is no exception. Open spaces become cosmically empty, subjects transform into specks on the horizon, buildings spaghettify. In the right hands and on the right camera, ultra-wides can do amazing things.
Originally offered in four configurations (Nikon F mount with Pre-AI coupling, Nikon F mount AI with CPU connection, Canon EF mount with CPU, and Pentax K mount), it’s now available from retailers in just Nikon F with CPU (called ZF2) and Canon’s EF mount (ZE). And even though this lens is nearly ten years old, it’s still a fantastic performer and an excellent value for shooters who need an ultra-wide. These shouldn’t be confused with the Zeiss 18mm Distagon rangefinder lens for Leica’s M mount, which is a completely different beast with a unique optical formula and spec.
This offering from Zeiss is pretty simple to wrap our brains around, especially given the sort of gear we’re typically smitten with here at CP. It’s a massive chunk of metal and glass. Focus is manual, controlled via hands and fingers. There’s an aperture ring (on the Nikon version) to close and open its lovely, nine-bladed iris. The lens hood is a gorgeous metal piece that mounts to the lens’ filter bayonet with a simple twist. All of these old-school details point to a lens that’s very much a throwback, and not just because it was released in the late ’00s. It’s got the quality we love in legacy lenses melded with modern optics. That’s exciting.
In the hand, the Distagon 18mm feels the same as any of the Japan-made Zeiss lenses of the modern era. It’s dense, solid, cold, and precise. Knurling of the focus ring is of the straight-cut variety, deep and clean. The mount is gorgeous chromed brass, a look repeated in the beautiful filter threads (82mm diameter). The barrel is smooth and finely finished, engravings are resilient and highly legible in white and red. In short, everything about the product exudes quality (even the packaging).
Mechanically, the lens is a symphonic suite of clicks. Mounting the lens, selecting aperture, and locking the aperture ring (for use with cameras with in-body aperture controls or for modes like Program) all produce the lovely sounds of spring-loaded bearings or locks flicking into their detents. And while appreciating these sorts of sensory inputs is admittedly absurd and surely the sign of a simple mind, I like them.
Focus action is beautifully weighted as well. With its extremely short focus throw, it’s easy to rotate from infinity to the minimum focus distance of just under twelve inches in one, succinct motion. The depth-of-field scale helps for zone focusing, useful since when shooting at F/8 it’s possible to focus on subjects anywhere from infinity to three feet away. This makes the Distagon a perfect F/8 and be there street photography lens (if you don’t mind some of its unique personality traits – more on these later).
Optically, this thing is a performer. Better than most of the offerings from the brands on whose cameras this lens will be mounted, it’s a truly world-class optic. The complex formula (13 elements in 11 groups) combines with Zeiss’ legendary multi-coating (T*) to render images of incredible clarity, color, and punch.
Ghosts, flares, chromatic aberration – these gross problems don’t factor when shooting this lens. Even wide open, all of these optical issues are non-existent in normal shooting situations. Even when shooting directly into sunlight or on a harsh bias with sunlight directly landing on the front element (which is not small), only the tiniest of flares may appear (but more likely they will not). These extremely rare anomalies evaporate when stopping down even a third of a stop (between F/3.5 and F/5.6 the lens stops in one-third increments and half-stops for the rest). At F/5.6 or F/8, everything is crystal clear.
Sharpness is superb throughout the entire image area. If the corners of the frame show any decrease in sharpness, this is minor and can be mitigated by closing the aperture just a stop or two. Again, at F/5.6 or F/8 we are shooting a sharper-than-anyone-needs lens.
Where the lens shows imperfection are in the same areas in which every ultra-wide shows imperfection.
First is in the heavy light fall-off seen when shooting wide open. The corners of the frame are notably darker, and while this is expected of an 18mm lens, it still must be noted. Stopping down to F/5.6 does brighten up those edges quite a bit, and at F/8 light fall-off is pretty well handled. Shooting digitally it’s very easy to fix vignetting via post-processing, and on film it shows less dramatically.
The second inherent imperfection is found in the way ultra-wides create greater apparent distortion when the focal plane isn’t aligned perpendicular to the subject (ie. when the camera is tilted upward or downward from the subject). Parallel lines seem to converge more drastically as they approach the edges of the frames. This is most noticeable when shooting architectural or interior shots, where buildings and the vertical lines of a photo seem to fall away into the distance. To counter this, post-processing adjustments will need to be made. This is less a knock on the Zeiss and more something of which to be aware anytime we’re shooting an ultra-wide. The Zeiss additionally shows very minor pincushion distortion, which can also be corrected in Lightroom and other editing software.
Lastly, shots made with the 18mm show purple fringing on the very corners of the frame when shooting the lens with a full-frame digital sensor. Though images aren’t as egregiously tinted as with some other ultra-wides I’ve profiled, the Zeiss does make us photographers suffer the same heavy burden. How to alleviate this agony? Don’t take pictures of brightly lit grey walls. In normal photography this color shift simply won’t show (why did I even mention this?).
Okay, it’s a technically sound lens. Should we be surprised? Not really. It says Zeiss on it and it was designed and manufactured just a handful of years ago. But is it a lens that’s worth shooting?
That’s the bigger question. And the answer depends greatly on what sort of images we want to make.
This is a terrible lens for portraits. To fill the frame with a human being, this lens will need to be floating about twenty inches from the tip of their nose. At that distance they will look truly hideous. With children and dogs, the effect can be a bit fun. Stretched noses and wacky faces look good on little kids and animals. But we shouldn’t expect to make flattering images of a wedding party or winning headshots for our aspiring-model friends.
Make no mistake; the Zeiss Distagon 18mm is a specialized lens. It’s made for landscapes and cityscapes, architectural shooting and indoor photography, and astrophotography. And even when making these types of images we won’t be getting an easy ride. Distortion native to ultra-wides means we’ll be adjusting every “keeper” until we’ve straightened towering buildings, fixed that vignetting, and made those stars pop just right. But when we do this, the reward is pretty powerful. The view from an 18mm lens can be astounding, there’s no other way to make images like the ones made with an ultra-wide, and this particular ultra-wide is pretty damn great.
If we want to make ultra-wide shots with a Nikon or Canon film camera or DSLR, or even with today’s modern mirrorless cameras via F mount or EF mount adapters, then this lens could be a great fit. The Zeiss rather astoundingly costs less than comparable lenses from the brands that make the cameras on which it mounts. Sure, it’s manual focus and about ten years old, but do either of those things matter? I’m guessing our typical reader will think not.