Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 – Distagon Lens Review

This Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 Lens review is based on my user experience having owned the lens since it was first released in Europe. It is an incredible Distagon lens unique to Sony e-mount mirrorless users.

Introducing the all new Zeiss Distagon lens

I bought the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 manual focus lens for its wide aperture, small size and the signature image quality Zeiss is known for; it is my second lens from Zeiss and I absolutely love it :). The Zeiss Loxia series consists of five lenses so far–this being the third. It is the first with a completely new optical design. At the time of writing, Zeiss also make a 25mm, 35mm, 50mm and an 85mm lens. I had previously bought the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 lens and I returned it only to buy it again later. I initially felt it was slightly uncomfortable to use and at the time, it felt too easy to accidentally turn the focus ring when I was trying to frame and take the shot. This was user error and I soon learned this can be negated by resting a finger or two on the lens hood–Zeiss Loxia lens hoods do not rotate.  I bought it again and I won’t be selling it. I digress…

As stated in my Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 lens review, I noticed there was slight “play” in the aperture ring. I am re-iterating what’s been stated there to save you the trouble of reading it all; I emailed Zeiss about the play in the aperture ring and they said it is due to the de-click feature of the lens (for those unfamiliar, the aperture ring has positions which click and this is useful for still photography, but you can disable the clicking if you do videography). In comparison to the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 lens, the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f2.8 lens has slightly less “play” in the aperture ring but it is present. It is extremely minor and I mention it for those that already own the lens as they might be curious or alarmed by it–it is normal and nothing to worry about.

The nice thing about these lenses, and mirrorless lenses in general, is that they can be designed differently—often smaller—to DSLR lenses. I won’t bore you with information about retrofocus lenses and whatnot. Keeping things simple: the sensor on a DSLR camera is too far back for a lens design like this as the lens element would hit the mirror. When I initially wrote this section, I predicted we will see more compact lenses in the future and Zeiss announced several more lenses. I’m not sure where their plans lie now because the 52mm thread might prove different for longer focal lengths. If I was to suggest, I would expect to see an even wider lens at some point.

Lens Haptics

When we’re to judge a Zeiss manual focus lens as opposed to some of the Sony or Sony Zeiss native alternatives, or even the Zeiss Batis line up, in my opinion, we should be looking at the feel, size, and the experience of using them. This doesn’t apply to all lenses, for example I consider the Sony 12-24mm f/4 lens as nothing more than a tool, and I only care about the end result with it. The end results with the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens are strikingly good–in the right hands–but I don’t believe the enjoyment from a manual focus lens on a Sony mirrorless camera can be overstated. Hiking 20 miles with it is a pleasure, especially because of its small size and weight.

The handling of a Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens is nothing like a focus-by-wire or even the “L” lenses made by Canon (they are not focus-by-wire); Zeiss Loxia lenses in general feel significantly nicer to use than anything made by Canon or Nikon. Zeiss Loxia focus rings are also well dampened, and the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 feels just like the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 in regards to the resistance of the focus and aperture rings. The oil and threads they have used are wonderful. If you feel the zoom ring of the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 G master lens for example, you can almost feel how big the teeth are on the cogs. With the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens, it is buttery smooth.

Focusing Characteristics

When I initially used the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens, I immediately noticed the vastly different focus throw in comparison to the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0—there’s only a 90 degree turn from the nearest focus point to infinity. I have not found it to be a problem, and I feel that on such a wide angle lens it doesn’t really matter because there’s such a large area to focus with. I think it would be more of an issue on a portrait lens where you have to get the eyes in critical focus. My muscle memory with it is pretty good now and my opinion hasn’t changed since when I first owned it. In an ideal world, perhaps it would have made more sense for the lenses to have similar focus throws, but it’s a difficult argument to make because the subject distances are vastly different i.e. it is possible Zeiss have chosen this method for a reason e.g. different focal lengths require slightly different focusing requirements. As stated, I own the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 lens and I have never once thought “oh damn, I wish the focus throws were the same, this is so confusing!” This lens leaves little room for criticism—it is that good. One of the main reasons I dislike acceleration on focus-by-wire lenses is because it’s difficult to acquire accurate muscle memory. It’s nice to escape that.

Upon focusing, you’ll notice the barrel extends or contracts slightly and there’s fairly minimal focus breathing—especially in comparison to the 55mm f/1.8 FE. I am pleased about this because focus breathing is extremely easy to notice with a wide angle lens. Focus breathing seems to be a big of a mixed bag and it totally depends on what lens you own; I used to think Sony lenses were worse than others, but there’s some that have minimal focus breathing. On a case by case basis, the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens is far better than average. Many reviews fail to mention this and it is a particular problem with videography—something the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 excels at, even excluding its other features e.g. de-click and manual focus.

The Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens is slightly more comfortable to hold than the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 without hoods, and in pictures, you wouldn’t think so. The lens isn’t much longer, but it is long enough to be noticeable; however, I leave the hoods on at all times and this difference goes away. There’s only ridges on a part of the barrel, but the entire barrel rotates which is why you should use the hood as it is non rotating, just like the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 lens. It is fairly small and inconspicuous. By laying your finger to rest on the lens hood, you can easily negate the issue of accidentally turning the focus wheel. The lens hood is mostly metal but it has a plastic mount—this is the way a lens hood should be made. Metal on metal is not good and it is why I am in favour of plastic lens caps. Any part strengthened means something more important takes impact or can be scratched. Real cars are designed with this in mind and that is why they have points that break easily or cannot scratch as easily as others. I wish people would not give Zeiss negative comments for plastic parts in their lens hoods or plastic lens caps. It’s not good to have metal scraping against black paint. This design seems to keep the metal fanboys happy as it has metal, and it keeps fussy people like me happy as it’s not strictly metal on metal–Zeiss’s design is ingenious.

Sharpness and other attributes

I have examined the sharpness of this lens thoroughly, and one test I found quite useful was to take a photograph of a wall covered in wallpaper—this allowed me to examine fine details and judge whether the photograph is sharp throughout the entire frame. The Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens does not disappoint in this regard.

The colours are superior to the Sony lenses I own but Adobe Lightroom does such a weird job of handling colours and I like to make my own profiles anyway. It’s a mild difference, overstated by some and understated by others, but you’ll definitely notice the difference after taking many photographs under different lighting conditions. I believe that it’s only through using a lens a lot that you can judge its characteristics properly, especially colours—unless you’re to use more objective measures e.g. colour charts. However, colour charts do not give you a feel of how a lens looks. The colours with this lens look accurate.

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The photographs above are poor but they’re the best examples I could find to demonstrate what the sun stars are like. The sun stars are pleasant and it handles flaring extremely well. Even if you shoot at a specific angle deliberately to get the lens to flare, in harsh lighting, add a filter and remove the lens hood, the flaring is still minimal. As previously stated, the hood is small and there’s no reason not to use it at all times, aside from forgetting to attach it to the lens properly–this might happen if you’re forgetful–the lens hood can also sit reversed on the lens for storage.

Chromatic aberration and other lens anomalies

The chromatic aberration is well controlled and there’s no real distortion to speak of. Lightroom might make a tiny, tiny change but nothing major. Even the vignetting is very good. A few Sony lenses have made compromises on purpose, knowing the files have the flexibility to correct these errors upon import, but I think there’s something nice about the fact this doesn’t sabotage some of the data upon import, so to speak. It’s all around a very good lens.

Infinity stop

The infinity stop is not completely at infinity and this is normal for a manual focus lens. This accounts for atmospheric differences. I found it slightly annoying at first but now it’s not a problem and it does make sense. Moreover, the focus point on the majority of lenses changes slightly when you change aperture. This is why it can be a bad idea to open up a lens, focus, and then stop down the lens—in most situations, it doesn’t matter. Auto-focus cameras and lenses are notorious for this. I believe that while this would be deemed a “landscape” lens, you should still focus on your subject and not just blindly focus on the background. My point here is that if you are focusing on a subject close up using a small or even large aperture, then the infinity focus is not going to make a huge difference given the wide angle nature of the lens. Foreground subjects help to add depth to landscape shots. In other words, it’s considered a landscape lens but that doesn’t mean you should always be focusing on those mountains in the distance :).

Sealing

The Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens is not sealed, but it does have a gasket towards the mount. I find it odd that the manual focus, non-sealed lenses have gaskets and the auto focus “sealed” lenses made by Sony, do not have gaskets—excluding the GM (G Master) series. It is bizarre but there’s nothing to complain about here, just don’t get it completely soaked.

Mounting

Mounting and dismounting the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens is simple but it is often done incorrectly—some reviewers have said that you should hold the lens near the aperture ring. This means you have to grip it unnecessarily hard and you’ll probably damage the o-ring at the back, at some point. Do not do this. The easiest way to mount or dismount any Zeiss Loxia lens is to simply turn the focus ring to infinity or closest focus, and then twist as you normally would. Zeiss have confirmed this method won’t damage or “unscrew” anything.

Loxia vs Batis Comparison

It’s possible that if you’re interested in buying the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8, then you’re also considering the Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2.0 as the focal lengths make them arguably similar lenses. There’s also a Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 to consider.

The focal lengths seem similar but in practicality, zooming from 21mm to 25mm makes a huge difference; it’s vastly different than 50mm to 55mm for example. They might not be exactly as advertised i.e. the Batis might be slightly wider; however, you’ll still notice the difference. The newer Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 isn’t quite as good optically but it’s still a stellar lens. The flaring on the Zeiss Batis 18mm isn’t quite as good as the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8, and the Zeiss Batis 18mm does have more distortion. Both the Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 and the Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2.0 both have more chromatic aberration as well. The Zeiss Batis lenses are great though and should not be ignored.

A wide aperture, wide angle lens opens up creative opportunities unavailable to those that shoot with narrower aperture lenses; it not only takes skill but also a certain surrounding to capitalise on this. Moreover, the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 is still a somewhat wide aperture lens. Being able to manually change the aperture means you won’t have slight focus shifts due to the auto-focus (auto aperture?) system automatically opening the aperture. To my knowledge, this isn’t usually a problem with the Sony mirrorless system but it can be a problem with a DSLR, and if you are thinking about buying into a full frame DSLR system and you’re also considering the Sony mirrorless, then you should definitely think about that. If you already own a Sony mirrorless camera, then you can discard this paragraph somewhat.

The Zeiss Batis lenses might be slightly easier to focus with but the Sony a7rII is extremely easy to focus with, unlike a DSLR. In a lot of cases, you can crop to a 25mm equivalent but you obviously cannot crop to a 21mm equivalent.

Consider the Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2.0:

  • Creative opportunities not possible with the slightly narrower aperture (these are few and far between)
  • If you only shoot in extremely cold temperatures (this only becomes an issue if you’re physically shaking or your fingers get stuck to the metal)
  • If you’re super concerned about rain (in which case you should cover up the camera and lens somewhat anyway)

Consider the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8:

  • It’s a great size
  • It balances with the camera well
  • I think it’s a perfect focal length for a wide angle; it’s not too telephoto and it’s not so wide that distortion becomes a huge problem
  • It’s still a wide aperture lens it’s just not quite as wide as the Batis
  • It has a good field of view in crop mode (32mm equivalent) for video purposes

Sony 24mm f/1.4 lens

I don’t own the Sony 24mm f/1.4 lens so it’s unfair of me to make too many comments. What I can say is that 24mm seems significantly longer to me, and f/1.4 wouldn’t be that useful for the photographs I take. I think you need a specific purpose to benefit from the wide aperture e.g. nighttime photography. Its flaring, colour rendition, general image quality, etc. probably isn’t as good–excluding bokeh. I’m guessing here a bit but personally I’d stick with the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens.

 

Conclusion

I planned on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern America. I bought into the Sony system because it is lighter weight than my previous Canon camera. The Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens is no exception, and it is small enough for my needs. I took it with me to Canada hiking a lot and it made me really happy, as it was considerably lighter than the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 g master lens I had mounted a lot of the time. I always enjoy using the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens, and I’ve never once thought “should I sell it?” even after I bought the Sony 12-24mm f/4 lens (which I also love). The G Master lenses are heavy but with something like this in your bag, you can spread weight differently when you’re exhausted. It is really nice to have a compact wide angle, wide aperture prime lens made by Zeiss. The Sony mirrorless system is modular by design and I like it.

 

Pros:

  • Size
  • Weight
  • Manual focus
  • Gasket
  • Extremely sharp
  • Good colours
  • More comfortable to use than other manual focus lenses of its calibre
  • Minimal focus breathing

Cons:

  • The barrel extends and contracts slightly when you focus
  • It is not fully sealed

I haven’t mentioned the price; a review cannot tell you whether it is out of your budget. Zeiss lenses are all quite expensive but their prices are not too dissimilar from Canon’s top of the range glass. There’s not a camera and lens, size, weight, focal length and quality combination like this for a DSLR. There are other small lenses for a mirrorless camera such as a Voigtländer Color-Skopar 21mm f/4.0 but it won’t compare optically. That said, Voigtländer are creating more lenses for the Sony e-mount system and I applaud them for that.

I would really like to see a macro lens from Zeiss, perhaps a Zeiss Loxia 85mm f/4.0 macro lens or a Zeiss Loxia 100mm f/2.0 1:1 macro lens.

 

Here are some more examples of photographs taken with this lens.

Here are some unedited RAW files converted to JPG to show the colours.

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2 thoughts on “Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 – Distagon Lens Review”

  1. Hi,

    Love your blog! Stumbled across it while looking up lenses for real estate photography, and found your page. Mostly I do travel and family photography, but I am planning to break out into the real estate photography and film world. If you don’t mind me asking, did you use the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens for most of the photos shown in your portfolio?

    1. Hello,

      Thank you! It has been used for a few of them. If you highlight the photograph (this might not work with some screens), anything marked with a focal length of 21mm is taken with the Zeiss. Alternatively, if you click the “About” section, it should bring you to my flickr. That should show what photographs were taken with which lens.

      I would recommend the 21mm Zeiss lens for everything you have suggested. I don’t know that much about real estate, but for indoor shots, you might also want to consider the voigtlander 15mm. It’s going to be available in “E” mount. I see it as more of a supplementary lens rather than a solo lens because I think 21mm is a more useful focal length in general.

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