Carl Zeiss Biogon T* 35mm f2 ZM Lens Review
I plan for this to be a straight to the point review. Just as this lens is straight to the point, in your face, fist to the stomach, leg punch to the genital area, lens.
Zeiss Biogon 35mm f2 is for all intents and purposes a modern lens. Both in terms of the release date and rendering. It was released in 2008. I wanted to say that it's the most modern lens I have but that would be a lie as I have two 7Artisans lenses and they were released after 2008. Whilst this lens is new, the Biogon design is not. The name "Biogon" was started in a time that is closer to what I'm used to when talking about photography stuff. Around 1934. It's a name that Zeiss uses for many of the wide angle lenses and this is no exception.
Modern Zeiss lenses are made by Cosina that also makes Voigtländer lenses and many other things. It's not a bad thing as the quality is not bad and it has a consistent feel across the multitude of brands. Even though it's made by Cosina, the optical formula is Zeiss through and through. It's not a rebrand of some sort.
35mm focal length is not my favourite on the 135 format but this lens forced me to use it a lot more often than I'm used to. I've had it for about a year now and have become familiar enough with it to form an opinion.
As this is a modern lens, you can buy it new for around $1200. To keep the "vintage" credentials I recommend going second ( or n + 1 where n is at least 1 ) hand. You can find it for $700-900 used and sometimes a deal can pop up and surprise you for even less than that. Ebay is where I got my copy from and it was a slight surprise kind of a deal. The visual condition on mine is nowhere near mint but the optical condition is. Plus it came with a hood!
Appearance & Build Quality & Usability
The lens comes in silver and black. Black is the color of my dreams so I was glad to get the black version. I'll start by saying that the quality of the paint is not great. It's rubbing off revealing a brass-like color underneath. I say brass-like because I doubt that it's made from brass as the lens is not very heavy. Brassing ( or patina ) on a camera looks fantastic but the same can't be said for this lens. It looks like somebody painted the lens with a marker and now it's coming off. As a man who doesn't value minty-visuals, I am not affected by this but I can see that it could be annoying.
The build quality itself is also not the best. It's good but not much more than that. Especially considering the price. The focus ring has developed some play and the travel is not consistent. It's smoother when going from infinity to close focus distance and more sluggish when going the other way. I definitely prefer the smoother version. It's a common thing with these lenses but I've read that it might've been fixed in later released versions. Buying new might have some benefits after all. In use the wonky focus ring doesn't make a huge impact. There is a small pimple like "focus tab" that can be used for quicker focussing. It's OK but I would've liked a proper focus tab. Not a pimple.
Aperture ring is a better story. It's consistent and has the right amount of resistance. Clicks are nice although lacking a bit of the crispness that I love. The only negative for me is that it has third stops. It means that there are two positions between f2 and f2.8. Or f2.8 and f4. And so on. Extra flexibility may seem like a good thing but I never use a third of a stop increment. Half stop increments is the most I can see myself using but I would prefer plain, old full stops. In practice it means that it's more difficult for me to change the aperture without looking. For example on full stops I would only have to count 3 clicks when going from f2 to f5.6. With this lens I would have to count 9. I don't carry around calculators when I take pictures so it's impossible for me to count that far.
It's by no means the smallest 35mm lens but I like the size. The 35mm Summicron is smaller but this is not that much bigger to cause annoyance. There is some viewfinder blockage but I have never found it to be an issue in practice. And that is me who uses this lens with a hood 95% of the time. The hood does move the lens into a "pretty big" territory but that is what lens hoods do. They are the "hitting puberty" equivalent for the lens world. As the lens is made by Cosina, you can use Voigtländer hoods. I have a Voigtländer LH-6 hood and it fits like a glove that fits your hand well. This lens doesn't need a hood much for photo taking reasons but it acts like a good protector as I don't have a front cap for this lens.
Moving on to the best part of this lens which is what pictures it can make. You can tell it's a Zeiss lens. It has all the characteristics of one.
The lens is SHARP. As you would expect from a Zeiss lens. It's sharp from wide open although f2 does have a bit of a glow. It softens the razory-sharpy nature that begins pretty much from f2.8 / f4 and stays there.
I don't have much else to add here. Sharpness won't be a complaint you can raise about this lens. Unless it causes bleeding in your eyes. Center is sharp. Corners are sharp. It's one pointy lens. Only the f2 has a somewhat degraded performance but it's still not bad. I enjoy a good glower. This is not the best glowing lens but it can add some character in some circumstances. And even with the glow the sharpness is there. The glow just makes it harder to see all the crispy edges.
The lens has CONTRAST. As you would expect from a Zeiss lens. You won't need to touch the contrast slider when post-processing photos made with this lens. If only to dial it down.
The story is the same as with sharpness. f2 has a little less contrast but f2.8 and beyond has the modern Zeiss look through and through. As this is Zeiss it also has the mythical "micro-contrast" that gives images that nice pop. I can't say whether micro contrast is a real thing or not but there definitely is something about Zeiss lenses that gives them their signature pop ( I mistyped it as "poop", felt like I had to tell you this ). That poop seems to come from the sharpness and contrast so I am subscribing to this alternative-medicine-like concept.
This lens has COLORS. As you would expect from a Zeiss lens. You already know that contrast is there. Well now you know that saturation is there as well! I can only describe the colors as vivid. Once again the slider in the post-processing only wants to go down, not up.
Color balance has a tendency for coolness but not by too much. This, together with other aspects of the rendering, can give the photos a metallic feeling. It sounds weird but I can almost taste metal when processing photos taken with this lens. Or it could be from all the Vildhjarta that I'm listening to.
Subject Separation & Bokeh
This lens has SUBJECT SEPARATION. As you would expect from a Zeiss lens. Wide angle lenses ( of which 35mm is part of ) aren't used much for bokeh shots but 35mm is close enough to normal that it's not uncommon to have some blurry bits in the background or foreground.
Actual bokeh is OK but there's nothing to write love letters about. It can look good but for the most part it doesn't offend and is on the boring side. Subject separation is a different story. The subjects will pop out into the third dimension and if we could perceive more dimensions, I'm sure they would be impacted as well. I don't know what Zeiss do to achieve this but their lenses have a way of making the subjects "pop" ( making them poop would be worse ). The same was true for the Zeiss Sonnar 55mm f1.8 lens.
The subject pop is there from f2 all the way until you can't blur backgrounds anymore. I particularly like to use the f2 for cases when I want to separate a subject out with intense force. The "softer" f2 rendering doesn't reduce the pop you can get which ends up as a less harsh image in the end.
It's a very good lens. It could be great but the build quality and small usability issues mark it down. The rendering, while very appealing, can be seen as clinical which in turn means boring. It's definitely not a character lens but I like it. And it's coming from someone that prefers classic lenses with all their flaws. Zeiss has found a special modern-spot in my otherwise classic heart. I still want a 35mm "character" lens though as poopping all the time can be too much.
Finally as I've grown to like 35mm more, it's still not my favourite. I do enjoy cropping the images down to 4:3 aspect ratio but 50mm is still my go to focal length in 135 format. And it has to remain that way unless I want to buy another domain.