Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 – Distagon Lens Review

This Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 Lens review highlights the benefits of such a Distagon. It is a 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 obviously the image quality Zeiss is known for; it is my second lens from Zeiss and I absolutely love it :). The Zeiss Loxia series consists of three 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 35mm lens and a 50mm lens. I had previously bought the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 lens and I returned it. My main concern was that I found it 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. In hindsight, this can be negated by resting a finger or two on the lens hood. I still miss the way the photographs looked but I like my Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens too. As expressed in my Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 lens review, I am probably going to buy the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 lens again one day and keep both. It was not returned for being a bad lens.

Also 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 I owned, the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f2.8 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. A retrofocal lens element group can be used to minimize size, whereas with a DSLR, the sensor is either too far back to have light hit it at a steep angle or the mirror physically gets in the way of the rear nodal point. Should we expect to see more compact Zeiss lenses to come? Yes, I believe so.

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, the size, and the experience of using them. Some photographers will see a lens as nothing more than a tool and they only care about the end result—that is fair enough and they’re not necessarily wrong to do so. The end results are strikingly good, but I don’t believe the enjoyment from a manual focus lens on a Sony mirrorless camera can be overstated.

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 that are not focus-by-wire—Zeiss Loxia lenses feel significantly nicer to use than anything made by Canon or Nikon. Zeiss Loxia focus rings are 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.

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. I think it would be more of an issue on a portrait lens where you have to get the eyes in critical focus. It is possible I do not have the muscle memory or the skill to make an adequate judgement as to whether it matters but I can say that I have used this lens since the day of release. I prefer symmetry and I believe symmetry helps with muscle memory. For this reason, in an ideal world, I think it would have been nice if Zeiss kept the same focus throw on their Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens as they do with their Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0. Without meaning to contradict myself, it is possible Zeiss have chosen this method for a reason e.g. different focal lengths require slightly different focusing requirements. You should know a product is good when you have to nit-pick the focus throw in order to criticize the product; it is pedantic at best, but 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. However, without said acceleration, I think people would notice the lag and other issues associated with focus-by-wire lenses–such issues are not present on a manual focus lens like this.

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. Both Canon and Zeiss lenses do not seem to focus breathe quite as much as the native Sony lenses I have seen, especially with their zoom lenses (excluding the G Master series; I have no knowledge regarding them). 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. I am surprised Canon do not advertise the fact they are superior to the competition in this regard, for example, their 70-200 IS II L lens is sharper and breathes less than the Nikon equivalent–their main DSLR competitor.

The Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 lens is more comfortable to hold than the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0, and in pictures, you wouldn’t think so. The lens isn’t much longer, but it is long enough to be comfortable. There’s only ridges on a part of the barrel, but the entire barrel rotates which means you can accidentally knock the focus if you are not careful; however, the hood does not rotate and it is fairly small so as not to be conspicuous. 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. Those that ever had the opportunity of owning a radio controlled car, helicopter or plane as a child, will know that any part strengthened means something more important takes impact. Real cars are designed with this in mind and that is why they have points that break easily. 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.

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. It’s perhaps 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.

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Please excuse the poor photograph above but it is a good example of 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, add a filter and remove the lens hood, the flaring is still minimal. The lens 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.

The chromatic aberration is well controlled, as is the distortion. 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 99% 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.

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.

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. 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

 

Conclusion

I plan 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’m glad to add it to my system. Most importantly, I always enjoy using it. The G Master lenses are heavy but when I do eventually own one of them, I won’t be forced to take them everywhere I go—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
  • It is possible some people won’t like the focus throw but I don’t mind it

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.

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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