Speed. That’s what many people would agree a DSLR definitely gives us, and it’s true of course. Dazzling autofocus capability and ten frames per second have their uses, don’t get me wrong, but for the landscape photographer they don’t hold much value…
I used to draw a lot in my teenage years, I learned the rudiments of art with a pencil in my hand but at the same time spent many years being very frustrated with the speed of being able to see the finished result, even the speed of my overall progress, not helped by the fact I’ve set an impossibly high competency bar for myself throughout my life. But that’s where digital photography suited me so well years later – I got instant feedback from my camera LCD and with the advent of the internet, knowledge, learning and my digital progress was all quickly attainable, trackable and visible.
Last year I had something of an epiphany however, it was time to slow down. A lot. Many of you reading this will know that a couple of years ago I spent a year as a full time professional landscape photographer. It was damn hard work – to cut a long story short it simply didn’t work for me because it became about chasing what everyone else wanted, running workshops where I thought there were gaps in the market, it became an all-consuming commercial pursuit, even shooting meaningless stock images for a while – my creativity and artistic soul left the building and the overall quality of my photography certainly suffered for it. I was left hating what photography had become to me, to the point where all was nearly lost. Since then I’ve slowed everything down including the time taken to compose and shoot every single image. Composition is meaningful again and my connection with photography (and the landscape) has been fully restored. I’ve recently completed one long standing project, The Elegance Of Winter, with two more currently in flight titled Backwater and Fallen, both of which are feeding my enthusiasm and creativity lately.
In recent months, part of that journey has unquestionably been the advent of my Nikon Df. It’s fair to say it’s a camera with its share of critics – personally I’ve liked its concept from the start, it’s definitely not a “me too” retro camera because at the heart of it comes a killer component: its superb full frame sensor, stolen from the Nikon D4, particularly known for its class leading high ISO capability, there really is nothing else like it on the camera market today.
I’d mulled over the Df for more than a year since its launch but somehow avoided buying it, right up until I had a few conversations with Mark Littlejohn who merely confirmed everything I thought I would get from it. So I dived in towards the end of 2014 and all I can say is that it has been a revelation ever since, opening up a dimension of flexibility and control that I had somehow failed to properly appreciate previously.
Its ISO capability is a key advantage. I mean it’s incredible – trying to detect any sensor noise in images taken at ISO1600 is like a game of hide and seek, this means one hell of a weight saving: no tripod, and I admit that’s been very liberating at times. Match that capability with a lens like the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 with its VR (vibration reduction) system and you can go hand held all day, even in poorly lit locations – the Df sure does open up new horizons in this respect. I’ve said this before, there is no such thing as the ‘one size fits all’ DSLR, regardless of what anyone will try and con you with, this is why I now have three: my Nikon D800E for outstanding detail and resolution, my 720nm infrared converted Nikon D800 and the almost iso-less Nikon Df. It’s quite a team.
With the Df comes the opportunity to really strip your photography back – there is a plethora of manual control, it doesn’t do video, even its top LCD is almost analogue in its application. You can take or leave as much manual control as you want, personally I’ve gone with the ‘all in’ approach when I shoot with it. In that respect I decided to make an aspect of my landscape photography a more tactile affair and bought three all manual focus Zeiss primes – the 25mm f/2 ZF.2, 50mm f/2 ZF.2 and 100mm f/2 ZF.2, all incredible lenses.
What is particularly nice about these ZF.2 (Nikon only) versions is that they replicate an aspect of control I love on my all manual Nikon 45mm f/2.8 PC-e Tilt Shift lens – they all have manual aperture rings, unfortunately missing from the Canon variant ZE equivalents. This means that shooting manually can be a bit more effort, it makes you think and consider what you’re doing properly, what look you really want and removing some of those decisions from the camera completely. I generally set the aperture on the lens, manually focus of course, I set the shutter speed and ISO with the top dials, I often use a manual white balance and I even use a mechanical cable release. It feels good and slowing down has reaped rewards when I’m using my other cameras too.
I must say that the all three of these Zeiss primes get a top recommendation from me. Those who know me, know how picky I am too, so these words don’t come lightly. I personally love every aspect they bring – the 50mm & 100mm both bring renewed macro possibilities too with their incredible close-focussing capability and all three also share a 67mm front filter thread which is very handy too.
In use I found only three issues which are of note:
- When used wide open, the 100mm has a tendency to show some Chromatic Aberration (CA) when the scene is high contrast, an issue I ran into once over the last 4 months and overcome by stopping down the aperture at the time.
- The light fall off (vignetting) can be quite noticeable at f/2 on all three lenses. However, this is also something of a point of debate as there are times when this assists in drawing the eye into the centre of the frame, something of an artistic choice perhaps – it very much depends on whether you see it as distracting or adding to the overall feel of an image. There are times when it could go either way for me.
- Although the 50mm & 100mm f/2 ZF.2 performed spectacularly on my 720nm converted D800, the 25mm f/2 ZF.2 did not. In fact it did rather poorly, very much akin to the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2 which I previously owned. Clearly there is an issue with the way infrared wavelengths react with the lens, but there is a pretty big hotspot which is apparent very quickly from wide open, rendering it a challenging proposition for this particular purpose. A disappointing outcome but a long way from the end of the world.
Quality wise, I don’t think there is anything else on par with the build of a Zeiss lens. They are all metal construction, (including their lens hoods), built to last – you pay for it of course but they are tools fit for their craft, precision instruments. Focussing is beautifully dampened in all cases and their colour rendition is something a little different too…
This might be a contentious area, but there really is something about the colours from Zeiss lenses which are a little different. I can never entirely put my finger on this, it’s occasionally subtle, but there really is something more attractive there. Is it increased saturation perhaps, a little more contrast, deeper reds maybe? I don’t know entirely. What I am aware of is the hue of the glass – I genuinely don’t know if there is anything in this but when I look into my Nikon lenses from the front they all have more of a green hint running through the elements, on Zeiss there is more of a reddish orange; I’m sure that’s part of the rendering intent that Zeiss go after in the lens construction and it must have an effect somewhere.
So here’s a side by side test. It’s a long way from being scientific but I’ve taken my Zeiss 100mm f/2 ZF.2 and shot it with the same settings as my Nikon 70-200mm f/4. Both set to f/4 and both obviously set to 100mm. Remember this is really about the colour. The two shots are a few seconds apart and both with identical manual white balance. The first image below is the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 followed by the Zeiss 100mm f/2:
It’s subtle but I can see it – there is a marginally warmer tone and more saturation to the Zeiss image. Look at the water droplets on the window behind too – the Zeiss bokeh is perfectly round while Nikon’s gets misshapen towards the edges. Of course, this doesn’t render my 70-200mm f/4 obsolete for my purposes, quite the opposite – it’s my workhorse lens that gets used more than anything and frankly I couldn’t do without it.
In The Field
So far, I couldn’t be happier with the results and as I said further above, I love the way the Df and manual controls make me slow down and think. Nonetheless the final result is critical, so here are some images I’ve taken with all of the lenses over the last four months or so, between my D800E, infrared converted D800 and my Df…
The 25mm f/2 ZF.2 is an absolute joy to work with, incredible sharpness and resolution, its field of view and lack of distortion are both wonderful:
Shooting backlit subjects is also a boon with the 25mm, it doesn’t seem to have any problems with controlling flare, a style of photography I very much enjoy:
I mentioned already the relatively poor performance of the 25mm with infrared, fortunately both the 50mm and 100mm work spectacularly well with it:
The 50mm also controls flare very well indeed, perfect for those misty mornings:
The 100mm needs more care in controlling flare, but its long lens hood comes in handy here and stopping down also helps in scenes where it’s just too much:
All in all, the Zeiss 25mm, 50mm & 100mm f/2 ZF.2 all get high praise from me and when matched with the Df gives you an opportunity to slow your photography down to a genuinely thoughtful level, certainly akin to that approaching an almost analogue state. Whether used with the lower resolution 16MP sensor of the Nikon Df or the more demanding 36MP Nikon D800/E, these lenses positively shine, sharpening in post processing is certainly to be used extremely sparingly, if at all, it’s just not necessary. Rendering of colours is magnificent and all provide great artistic companions in the landscape – worth every penny if you ask me. Thanks for looking.