Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM Lens – Review

I love ultra wide angle photography. Most people think of ultra wide angle photography as landscape or architectural photography but it is more than that I like to photograph people especially when the background calls for attention.

You see, there is some magic with a lens like Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM because you can photograph just about anything and everything will fall in focus creating a magical transition of spacial elements.

Back in the day of Akira Kurosawa’s films, the world became familiar with the concept of multiple layers of information being conveyed through a single two-dimensional plane. What I mean by that is, in a film scene there would be a mother lamenting the death of his son in the foreground, about the middle would be a monk praying and further in the back of the frame would be samurais watching the unfolding of events. Kurosawa used this type of imagery to convey depth and meaning which would have been almost impossible with a single concentration of focus. This revolutionary approach to filming was later copied by filmmakers in Hollywood then at many later stages; photographers searched for layering of images in a single frame.

Unfortunately, most people are not able to compose images of this type because a through an understanding of perspective and lenses are required to compose this type of image accurately. In fact, most photographers choose to have only a single element of interest in a composition whether it is a landscape or a portrait. Then there are those of us who wish to push the limits of a composition by providing a depth of field that conveys more than just a single focus point.

Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM is a type of lens that can do pretty amazing things given that this type of photography appeals to you. For one, you will see a distortion in a spacial presentation in the images that enhance the relationship of objects placed within the frame. By that I mean, the objects in the foreground will appear closer while the ones at a distance will be further ‘condensed’ into the composition. The result is a strong presence of the subject in the foreground with a background that provides depth.

This type of photography can be best described by what the photographer is attempting to convey, for example, a fisher man holding his fresh catch with his boat and the sunset in the background will provide a fantastic composition. In the frame, everything will pretty much be in focus, especially, if you are using this lens at f/8 or f/11 which is ideal aperture setting for a landscape scene with Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM.

There is, of course, a limitation that creeps in which is using an ultra wide angle lens creates almost no shallow depth of field. This means the photographs will have an almost uniform ‘feel’ which is unattainable at other focal lengths.

Here are the best part of this ultra wide angle lens, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM features ‘macro’ capabilities which allow you to photograph at a minimum distance of 0.3 meters that is 30 cm or 11.8 inches. This means you can photograph someone’s face with incredible detail and step back to capture the grand expanse of the space behind the subject without changing the lens.

What you might be asking is doesn’t Leica have a similar product. Well, Leica does have something close to Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM, but it is an entirely different type of lens. It is a Leica Tri-Elmar featuring 16, 18, 21mm focal length lenses built into one lens with a minimum aperture of f/4.0.

Comparatively speaking Leica lens cost much more than Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM and has a very different feel even though at 16mm the focal length is about the same as 15mm.

Zeiss has several advantages over Leica, for one, it has F/2.8 which is one full stop faster than Leica Tri-Elmar which can be a critical advantage if you are doing night time photography. In fact, if you are going to photograph in low light situations Zeiss is somewhat incomparable to any lens out there because of its speed.

Voigtlander does produce a 15mm lens with f/4.5 which doesn’t compare either in speed or sharpness with these two lenses. So, unless you are on a tight budget, I would recommend opting for either Zeiss or Leica.

If you research, you can find many reviews written about Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM. In almost all reviews you will read all the reviewers’ praises about the quality of images attained with this lens, sharpness being unbeatable by any other lens at this ultra-wide angle focal length. However, I am not here to do another article about how sharp this lens is. For the record, you can be assured that this lens is the sharpest lens out there for this focal length or similar.

What I would like to tell you is about the way this lens renders colors and how you may best use this lens for photographic purposes. So let’s start with the colors. Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM has a very specific way of creating colors which I find as ‘super saturated.’ I could say the photographs straight out of the camera can be compared to HDR photographs.

For some this is amazing, they can use very contrasty photographs to convey a feeling. Personally, I feel this may work to a photographers advantage if he/she was photographing Rio Carnival with all the colors and costumes. This lens will make already very colorful surrounding almost ‘dream’ like or ‘surreal.’

You can use this lens for landscape which will give you a very wide space condensed into a frame. This can be especially beneficial if you are photographing, for example, Victoria or Iguazu Falls. Beyond that, I think there are disadvantages to using such a wide angle lens because of the distortion.

These disadvantages begin with spatial and geometric distortion. For example, if you are doing interior space photography or architectural compositions, rounds will become oval, squares will be skewed, and buildings will often lean back.

Technically speaking, the distortion of buildings ‘leaning back’ can only be corrected by using tilt shift lenses which of course is not being produced by any of the lens manufacturers for Leica M cameras.

So, what a photographer can do with Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM lens is understand the limitations and distortions that this lens produces and turn them into positive attributes. For example, I would recommend photographing staircases, the ones that are rapidly climbing. They give an amazing spacial feeling that works in favor of this ultra wide angle lens. For example, you can be photographing the staircases of a Parisian apartment building, or you can be capturing train tracks at a local ‘Gare’ (train station) the effect of ultra wide angle lens will produce a ‘separation’ between the objects that will convey a feeling of ‘grandness’.

Needless to say, macro capabilities open other venues of experimenting with this focal length. You can be photographing hands of an older person, or features of a child or a woman that convey a feeling that is very intimate or ‘in your face’ experience. This is because the objects will appear ‘closer’ than they really are, an illusion created by the focal length. Actually, the photographer will need to get much closer than the lens depicts the image on the viewfinder to capture the image as he/she would imagine it.

What that means is that Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM is no lens for beginners, you have to go through the learning curve and understand what this focal length will produce. Even at 18mm or 21mm, you can be feeling very close to the subject but at 15mm you have to be literally at a ‘nose’ distance to capture the composition as you would have imagined.

I find that if you photograph unusual places and people, especially, in foreign lands, this lens will help you to create artistic compositions which will make them stand out. I have found that if the people who are viewing the images are from the same country or area, the ‘wow’ effect is greatly diminished because our eyes become used to the images around us. But, if you travel to India or some exotic land, colors and unusual appearance of the surroundings will produce results that will further enhance the capabilities of this lens.

One thing you should know is that Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM is not rangefinder coupled. Yes, that is the bad news for those who were looking to use this lens on a CCD-based camera like M9. So, how do you focus? You don’t… At f/8 everything is in focus if you place the focus dial at around 3 meters. What that results in is that the camera begins to function as a point & shoot camera without the need to focus. Is not that great?

Those who need to see what they are photographing can opt to use an EVF (electronic viewfinder) or Live View function on the back of the new CMOS sensor cameras from Leica. For example, Leica M-P240 will show you exactly what you are capturing through the back LCD screen if you engage the Live View function.

Personally, I think this is the greatest advantage of CMOS based cameras, they allow that lens that is not rangefinder coupled to be used quickly.

Some of you who may not be owning this lens may be discouraged with the way this lens is not rangefinder coupled. But, let me point out that this lens creates images that are very artistic and compelling. I find that each image can produce powerful emotions if the photographer has managed to frame the composition correctly.

On technical grounds, this lens is extremely hard to produce. So much so, that while Zeiss has every lens, it has on its M mount series being produced in Japan, this lens is the only one being manufactured in Germany.

It has amazing 11 lens elements in 9 groups which translate to a very complicated design and an engineering achievement that has not been matched yet by any manufacturer of rangefinder lenses including Leica.

If you hold this lens in your hand, you will immediately feel that it is rather big, in fact, it takes a 72mm filter thread meaning it is much larger than the diameter of Leica Noctilux which is only 60mm. The weight is about 370 grams, less than a Noctilux more than a Summicron. I like this lens because it feels well balanced on a Leica M camera Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM.

I often get asked about my experience with Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM. I must tell you, and it is not an easy to use lens because you will have to be familiar with the way this lens composes photographs. Although this is the most expensive lens in Zeiss M mount line, it suffers from certain issues like I get purple fringing because the lens hood does not provide enough shading to the wide 72mm lens.

Another issue is the colors, I find them to have too much saturation but I ‘correct’ them in the post-production stage. I love the way the composition conveys a feeling that with all the shortcoming of this lens it is one lens that I like to use under certain circumstances.

In fact, the other day when I was packing for an assignment to photograph motocross competitors, I thought, ‘yes, Zeiss 15mm, this is the ‘star’ of the show.’ What I am attempting to point out is, if you can use this lens, you will begin to love it. So much so, you may find that it has become your favorite lens.

If I ever travel to Nepal, India or some exotic place in a remote region in the world, this is one lens I would pack in my bag because I like to create artistic images that are beyond ordinary. Combined with the unique surroundings of these exotic lands, I say why not create something more, this lens allows me to just that.

Price wise this lens is expensive because while other lenses Zeiss lenses cost considerably less than Leica counterparts, this one, incorporates exotic lens elements and a very complicated production process which results in a higher cost. I think it still is a bargain. If you are a professional, you will benefit greatly from having this lens in your arsenal.

If you are an intermediate level photographer who would like to deviate from the tried and true path of 35mm lenses, then this lens is for you. Because as you become familiar with composing images with this lens, you will find that your photographs will improve at the same time.

You will seek out opportunities to expand on the strengths of Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 ZM which will add artistic value to your photographs because no other lens at any focal length will give you something that can compete with the way this lens produces images.

I believe this lens will not remain in production for much longer because it is hard to produce and I think Zeiss does not sell enough of them to make a profit from their sales. So, just like Zeiss 85mm which was also made in Germany, this lens too may become a collector item.

The level of sophistication in lens design should be one reason to buy this lens. It has ten aperture blades and floating elements that will impress anyone with knowledge and understanding of lenses.

I hope this article has been informative and interesting to read. I look forward to receiving your comments and questions as well as requests to review another lens.

Thank you

OZ YILMAZ – Leica Review Team

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