Zeiss 4/18 Distagon

This is, perhaps, a different kind of review from what you are used to reading. It takes the performance of the lens pretty much for granted: resolution, contrast and distortion are dismissed in the paragraph immediately below the first illustration. We do not consider this unreasonable. It is, after all, a modern Zeiss lens, made by Cosina in Japan under Zeiss quality control. It is therefore capable of taking far better pictures than most photographers. If you are concerned with the fine details of its performance -- with the miniscule extent of its technical advantages or disadvantages as compared with lenses that might be seen as competitors, in terms of lines per millimetre or percentage distortion at the edge of the field -- then you may be happier with another review.

stairway & door

Staircase, Chateau de Berrie

The most important thing about any piece of photographic equipment is not what it can do, but what it can do for you. It is all very well to ask about resolution and vignetting and the like, but the real question is, what need does it fill in your photography? What will it enable you to do that you could not do with your existing equipment? Roger used Kodak Portra 160 NC in a Leica MP for this picture, with the camera meter set to EI 125.

 

Technical considerations

 

The 4/18 Distagon (Zeiss habitually presents the aperture and focal length in this order) consists of an impressive 10 glasses in 8 groups: a symmetrical derivative, with some reverse-telephoto (Retrofocus) influence. Resolution is up there with the best. Distortion is negligible (under 1% at worst), so it is imperceptible even when you deliberately line up a door-frame or something similar with the edge of the frame. Contrast is very good. MTF is high, especially at low frequencies (10 lp/mm), which is the classic recipe for 'sparkle' in an image. Vignetting is about what you would expect from an extreme wide-angle without a centre-grad filter, i.e, almost never a problem except for a few highly specialized shots. To see a lens section, MTF, vignetting and distortion figures, etc., go to www.zeiss.com

18 on sw
Will it suit you?

What we are more concerned with here is whether it is the sort of lens that will suit you. Of course we can't tell you what you will prefer, but from what follows, you should be able to get a fair idea of whether it might suit you, or not.

To begin with, it is a compromise. This is both its strength and its weakness. It is neither a super-wide like the 15mm lenses from Zeiss and Voigtländer, to say nothing of the 12mm Voigtländer, nor is it a classic 21mm (sometimes 20mm) such as has for decades been the limit of wide-angle ambition for most photographers. It is not particularly fast: the Zeiss 15mm is an f/2.8, after all, and Leica manages f/4 even with their 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar. It is comparatively bulky; the prototype Cosina 18/4, seen at photokina long before the Zeiss 18/4 came out, was comparable in size with the tiny Voigtländer 21/4.

On the other hand, it is quite remarkably versatile and easy to use. It accepts normal 58mm filters; it is rangefinder coupled (unlike either the Voigtländer f/4.5 or the Zeiss f/2.8); and it is, for want of better words, 'handy' in use, rather than 'fiddly'.

All right, it is not as wide as a 15mm; but it is significantly wider than a 21mm. This is the first point to address.

buggy

 

What is 'too wide'?

The whole question of lenses that are 'too wide' has changed considerably over the years. When the first 28mm lenses came out for the Leica and Contax in the 1930s, they were regarded as ultra-wide and were condemned by traditionalists for their 'violent perspective'. Another common comment was, "Very few people need a lens this wide, and even fewer can use it successfully."

Much the same was said in the 1950s when 21mm supplanted 28mm as the widest lens in common use (Canon's 19/3.5 was never common, and the 20/5.6 Russar was seldom available outside the Soviet Union).

 

Buggy, Rochemenier

 

Even a 21mm will give 'extreme perspective' if parts of the subject are much closer than others and offer a ready basis for comparison, as is obviously the case with the wheels on this buggy; an 18mm will be the same, but more so.

One way to deal with this is simply to accept it: some people will find the perspective 'violent' here, while others (more conditioned by modern photography) will not even notice.

Another possibility is to exploit the perspective 'distortion' (in truth, simply a consequence of viewpoint) for dramatic effect. And yet a third is to compose your pictures so that it does not matter very much. Frances used the Distagon on a Zeiss Ikon SW body here, shooting on Ilford HP5 Plus. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

When 15mm lenses became readily available, the same happened all over again; they were condemned as 'too wide' and 'seldom needed'. The rare, expensive, fixed-aperture f/8 Zeiss Hologon was treated as a curiosity, but the eminently affordable f/4.5 Voigtländer Super-Wide-Heliar was another matter. Then came the 12/5.6 Ultra-Wide-Heliar, which really did seem to be too wide for many people: it has remained the widest full-frame 35mm lens available for rangefinder cameras to the time of writing (early 2008), though wider lenses are, in fact, theoretically possible.

Each generation of photographers, in other words, seems to have found it easier and easier to deal with ultra-wide-angle lenses. The 'too wide' of one decade is the merely the 'ultra-wide' of the next. It is disputable whether (or at least, how much) non-photographers worry about such things: either a picture works, or it doesn't.

As compared with the 15mm and 12mm, the 18mm may be regarded as a step backwards, but not as far backwards as 21mm. It is not a lens that many people are likely to want to own as well as a 15mm or 21mm, but equally, it may appeal to a large middle ground that is not especially comfortable with either.

Frances finds 15mm too wide, but regards 21mm as neither one thing nor the other: a 'blah' or 'so what'? focal length. The 4/18 Distagon therefore suits her perfectly. Roger, on the other hand, regards 21mm as his normal wide-angle (after a 35mm 'standard') but sees little merit in a 28mm, which is a focal length Frances likes. Whether the 18mm focal length attracts you will depend very much on your personal mind-set as well as on the depth of your purse.

 

Bread oven, Rochemenier

 

 

There is some distortion in the bucket on the right, but it is hardly obtrusive, not least because of the lighting. Likewise, the roof-beams splay out quite smartly, but there is not enough of their length in the picture for this to matter very much.

A big difference in the way we use the 18mm is that Frances tends to use a tripod, levelling carefully, whereas Roger is likelier to use the camera hand-held. Unless you use a tripod, or at least, level the camera carefully, 'drunken' verticals are by no means unlikely. This is Frances again, with the Zeiss Ikon SW and Ilford HP5 Plus, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

fireplace 2

 

How many (wide-angle) lenses do you need?

There are at least two schools when it comes to choosing lenses.

One argues that it is always best to have precisely the right focal length for every shot. That way, even if your choice of viewpoint is severely constrained, you can always frame the picture perfectly, without cropping.Taken to its extreme, this becomes an argument for zooms.

The other says that it is better to limit your choice as far as possible, or you will spend more time agonizing about which lens to use, and changing lenses (or zooming, or re-setting a Tri-Elmar), than you will spend on taking pictures. Far better, this school says, to choose a viewpoint that allows you to use the lens you have, and if you miss a few shots, well, you will miss fewer than if you were forever changing lenses or focal lengths. This school also points out the expense, weight and inconvenience of having numerous lenses. Taken to its extreme, this line of argument advocates 'one camera, one lens'.

wine cellars

Wine cellars, Chateau de Berrie

The Chateau de Berrie is an extraordinary place, an ancient fortress (complete with dungeons) that is partially ruined but currently in the course of restoration. The moat is now dry, and extensive cellars have been excavated into its sides, beneath the chateau. Roger is 99% sure that he took this (on Kodak Portra 160) with the 18/4 Distagon, but there is a faint possibility that he used the 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar. The point is that it doesn't matter very much: a couple of paces forwards or backwards would have given a very similar composition, and a fairly similar perspective. He'd rather have the considerably more expensive Tri-Elmar; but as explained below, the decision is not as clear-cut as it might seem, for several reasons.

Diminishing returns

Obviously there is a good deal to be said in favour of both schools: on the one hand, those who advocate as many lenses as possible, versus those who advocate as few lenses as possible. We lean towards the latter, on the simple basis of diminishing returns.

We are each perfectly happy to use just one lens per camera for the great majority of our pictures: for 35mm film, it's 35mm for Roger and 50mm for Frances. This principal lens accounts for 60-70% of our pictures.

Of course there are pictures for which the principal lens is unsuitable, and a lot will depend on the subject matter when it comes to the lens we pick next. As a very general rule, Roger finds his 75mm the next best, while Frances goes for 90mm. Again, these account for 60-70% of the pictures not taken with the principal lens. This means that 85-90% of our pictures are taken with two lenses each.

wine cellar

Wine cellars, Rochemenier

Obviously, we'd both go for wide-angles here; but in the open air, where we do most of our photography, we find 35/75 and 50/90 more useful. Of the lenses we own, we would both choose the 21mm over the 15mm for this picture, mostly because of true wide-angle distortion at the edge of the field. True wide-angle distortion is an optical fact of life, and remains constant regardless of the design of the lens: it means that spheres near the edge of the image are distorted into ovoids.

This is clearly visible in the right-hand barrel, which is 'pulled' well out of true here: such effects are glaring enough with a barrel, but can be downright distressing with human heads and indeed with wheels, as we know the latter to be circular. But we both agree, without demur, that the 18mm works a lot better than 15mm, while getting more in than 21mm. Technical details as above: Frances put the Distagon on a Zeiss Ikon SW, shooting on Ilford HP5 Plus and printing on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

When you have more than two lenses, the proportions change somewhat. Perforce a third lens will account for all the pictures that are not taken with the other two focal lengths, but with 4- and 5-lens outfits, the third, fourth and fifth may be of roughly equal use: ten per cent each for numbers three and four, or five per cent each for numbers three, four and five. We suspect that six focal lengths are about as many as most people are likely to use, at least with a rangefinder outfit.

Although (including discontinued lenses) there are more than two dozen focal lengths available for modern rangefinder cameras, from 12mm to 135mm and possibly beyond, many are so close in focal length as to be all but indistinguishable: 15mm and 16mm, for example, or 73mm and 75mm. Variations in viewfinder coverage blur the distinctions still further: when we tested the Zeiss Ikon camera, we found that its 85mm viewfinder frame was identical to the 90mm frame on our MP, and slightly smaller than the 90mm frame on an M2.

foot of stairs

Spiral stairs with chair

Yes, the Chateau de Berrie again. Odd though they look to modern eyes, slanted doorways and windows like this were relatively common on spiral stairs in the early-to-mid 16th century. Roger took two versions of this (on Kodak Portra 160, using the MP), one with and one without the chair. The chair seemed to him to add an extra element of surrealism. The stairs wind up from the cellars and stables (here) to the upper main floor; wooden staircases complete the journey to the topmost floor.

The Distagon is, we suggest, likely to be a third or (more likely) fourth lens for most people, though probably not a fifth or sixth; it if wasn't important enough to be third or fourth, it is unlikely to appeal much as a fifth or sixth. We'll come back to this at the end of the review.

A pause for reflection

If you have read this far, it seems fair to assume that you are at least moderately interested in the lens. You may be on the point of buying it; you may be thinking, "Maybe I'd buy one if I won the lottery"; or you may be looking for a reason not to buy it. If the last seems odd, it's something we do. We think, "Wow! That looks really nice!" But then we think, "Yes, but would we actually use it?"

Handling

When it comes to the question of "Would we use it?" one of the most important things as far as we are concerned is the handling and 'feel'. If a lens (or camera or anything else) is fiddly and feels cheap and nasty, it's not as pleasant to use as a sweet-handling, solid-feeling piece of kit. That means we won't use it as often, which in turn means we are unlikely to take as many good pictures with it.

18 cutout

 

 

The 18mm Distagon is a substantial lens. It weighs 320g, eleven and a quarter ounces; it's 65mm (2.6 inches) in diameter; and it's about 60mm (2.4 inches) front to back, bare, minus caps. About 13mm of that length (half an inch) is inside the camera when it is mounted, so it sticks out about 47mm. A lens cap adds about 6mm or 1/4 inch to this -- the usual poisonous, easy-to-drop pinch-grip type -- and the unique-fitting bayonet-mounted petal-type hood (supplied as an extra) is about 23mm (0.9 inches) deep at its deepest.

With or without the hood, this is not an especially compact package, but conversely, this makes the focusing and aperture rings big and easy to operate. The camera clicked smoothly onto all the M-bayonet-compatible bodies we tried, calling up the 50/75 frame lines on a Leica and 50mm on a Zeiss Ikon. The filter, as already mentioned, is 58mm; as the front glass is only a little over 30mm diameter, this means that vignetting with filters is not a problem.

Focusing is 'quick', but not too quick, at about 100 degrees from 50cm/19 inches to infinity. A feature missing from the 18mm, though, is the focusing 'nub' that appears on many other lenses in the ZM line-up. Many rely on this for focusing by touch, so it is an unfortunate omission: Roger missed it a lot more than Frances did. It goes without saying that the focusing movement is silky-smooth throughout its travel.

On the silver lens supplied for review, the engraved distance scales in feet are paint-filled in blue and all others are filled in black. There is no infra-red focusing mark. The rangefinder remains coupled down to the limits of the camera in use: about 62cm or just over 2 feet on a Leica M8, about 65cm (28 inches) on an M4-P, and so forth. Any closer than that, and it's guesswork. There is no real need for rangefinder coupling on a lens this wide, and coupling is omitted on both the Zeiss and Voigtländer 15mm lenses; but we both find it curiously disquieting not to have the rangefinder image move when we focus a lens, and to have to take it away from the eye to scale-focus. Coupling is, therefore, a major plus in our eyes.

The big knurled aperture ring has the now-trademark Zeiss 1/3 stop click stops from f/4 to the minimum f/22 and operates (of course) smoothly with positive stops. Depth of field is immense: even at f/4, with the lens set at the hyperfocal distance, it is marked as approximately 1.3m (4 feet 6 inches) to infinity. The engraved d-o-f scale only goes to f/11, but as this is about 55cm (21 inches) to infinity, there is no need for a lot more.

gatehouse

Gatehouse, Chateau de Berrie

In the part of France where we live, there are quite a lot of troglodytic and semi-troglodytic homes and farms. The former are entirely excavated from the soft local stone (our own well is at the end of a 5-metre [16-foot] tunnel in the solid rock) while the latter are part-excavated but also rely on partial roofs as well as on walls to close the mouth of the excavations (as here). The enormous depth of field of an 18mm lens makes it easy to keep everything in focus, even at wide apertures.

 

Handling: For

 

Handling: Against

 

 

Solid feeling in the hand

Super-smooth focus and aperture controls

Rangefinder coupled

Fast-operating bayonet lens hood

Easy filter fitting

Big, easy-to-operate controls

Surprisingly big and heavy

No focusing nub

No IR scale

Expensive bayonet lens hood

Pinch-type lens caps

 

Viewfinders

The Zeiss 18mm accessory bright-line finder is exactly like the others in the Zeiss line-up: uncannily bright and clear, with very little barrel distortion and good eye relief, though eye centring is fairly critical. It is however the only fixed focal length 18mm game in town, and it is expensive; though a lot cheaper than its only competitor, the Leica 16-18-21 'Frankenfinder'.

 

A much cheaper solution is to use a Voigtländer 21mm finder, and go outside the 21mm frame-lines. The field of view of the 18mm lens is slightly smaller than the Voigtländer 21m 'all in', and we can only recommend this solution as either a stop-gap to save money, or if (as is often the case with rangefinder cameras) you acquire an almost instinctive awareness of the field of view of your favourite lenses.

With a Leica M8, of course, a 24mm/25mm finder is required; the difference between the two is more a matter of the manufacturers' opinions about what a finder should show, than a matter of actual focal length. At this point you have a choice of Leica, Zeiss (which is a 25/28 twin-frame finder) and Voigtländer.

18mm vf
Hood

The (non-reversible) bayonet-mount hood is interesting from a marketing viewpoint. Top-of-the-line Leica lenses mostly offer a built-in hood, by definition at no extra cost. The Summarits and most Voigtländer lenses have external screw-on hoods, though other hoods are available for some Voigtländers. The Zeiss bayonet mount neatly splits the marketing difference, with the added advantage (to the manufacturer) that it can be sold at quite a high price, consisting as it does of 'real engineering' rather than a simple tube with a thread at one end. But if you use screw-in hoods and bayonet hoods side by side, there is absolutely no doubt that bayonet hoods are a lot more convenient, especially when you want to change filters. The advantages are not, therefore, only to the manufacturer.

fireplace 1

As with many hoods for ultra-wides, the hood on the 4/18 may be regarded as being of at least as much use for mechanical protection (against knocks and fingerprints) as for shading against light. At its shallowest, after all, it adds only 6mm (a quarter of an inch) to the shading already afforded by the filter-thread around the lens. It can be mounted or demounted with the lens-cap in place, but getting the cap out with the hood on is fiddly. A simple push-on cap, fitting over the hood, would be useful. We often use an OpTech 'shower cap'.

 

 

Fireplace, Rochemenier

 

 

Unless there are strong light sources in a room, a lens shade is rarely of much importance for interiors. But although most people think of a lens shade as protecting principally against visible flare caused by internal reflections (as in the picture below), the truth is that it is often most useful under an overcast sky, where there is a great deal of bright light outside the image area. This can very easily degrade contrast, and it is a tribute to Zeiss's coating technology that they can keep flare in an 8-group lens to the very low levels seen in the Distagon.

Then again, Zeiss were pioneers in both single coating and multiple-layer coating, using the latter in a few lenses as early as the 1940s.

 

 

Chateau de Berrie

Not an especially interesting shot, but one that was taken to illustrate the very high degree of flare control in the 4/18 Distagon. The sun is just out of shot -- look at the shadows -- and was visible in the viewfinder, outside the frame lines, The only evidence of flare is the small conical patch in the lower right hand corner, with a paler, white-light oval patch surrounding it.

Of course flare can be used creatively, and there are even times when it can be useful in reducing overall contrast: this is why uncoated lenses remained popular well into the 1950s. More flare might have been an advantage in the gatehouse picture, above; but equally, it would have made a very different picture.

flare
Results -- and the bottom line

In a sense, we have already set out our stall for this: we say that the conventional qualities (resolution, etc.) can be taken for granted. But there is more to a lens than this. Has it 'sparkle'? Yes. Did we see 'magic' in it? Well, sort of.

For this is where we diverge. Frances sees it as the best general-purpose extreme wide-angle of fixed focal length she has ever used on 35mm: a happy combination of focal length and image quality. To Roger, although it is an excellent lens, there are no real advantages over 15mm or 21mm (which we already own). For Frances, it comes third or fourth after her two most-used lenses, 50mm and 90mm. Together with a 28mm lens (she has a 28/1.9 Voigtländer Ultron), it gives her a very useful and comprehensive 4-lens outfit at 18-28-50-90.

Roger's corresponding five-lens outfit, on the other hand, has no place for the 18mm. His 'big three' for 35mm are 21-35-75, and these are extended at either end with 15mm (Voigtländer f/4.5) and 135mm (f/2.8 Elmarit-M): neither sees a great deal of use, and neither is a particularly expensive lens. Nor is his 21/2.8, an old Kobalux that is far better than it has any right to be. If he did not already have the 15 and 21, though, he might be tempted by the 18mm: a sequence that goes 18-35-75-135 is as close as you can easily get to to a run of four lenses, each with one-quarter of the field of view of the next widest. The actual sequence, of course, would be 18-36-72-144.

loose boxes

Loose boxes, Chateau de Berrie

Perhaps the strangest thing about this review is that as we were putting it together, Roger found that he was almost talking himself into the Zeiss 18/4 Distagon instead of the Leica 4/16-18-21 Tri-Elmar which we see as its natural competitor. Sure, there is nothing the Distagon can do that the Tri-Elmar cannot; but equally, we could afford the Distagon a lot easier, and we have both the 15mm Voigtländer and the 21mm Kobalux, with the twin advantages that the Voigtländer is a tiny bit wider and the Kobalux is a full stop faster. It would be Frances's lens, very much, but Roger would hope to borrow it... Leica MP, Kodak Portra 160 NC.

The example of our four-lens and five-lens outfits well illustrates the way in which, when we review equipment, we are in a sense handicapped by what has gone before. Specifically, here, we have some difficulty in putting ourselves in the place of someone who does not already have an ultra-wide. We already own two 21mm lenses (Kobalux f/2.8 and Voigtländer f/4) and one 15mm (Voigtländer f/4.5). Until it was stolen in Moscow we also had a 21/2.8 Elmarit-M (second version pre-aspheric), and we have either owned or had for review three 21/4.5 Biogons (two old, one new), the current 21/2.8 Zeiss, the current 15/2.8 Zeiss, the 12/5.6 Voigtländer and of course the 16-18-21 f/4 Tri-Elmar. Inevitably, we cannot 'disremember' any of them: each has left memories of its strengths and weaknesses.

It must be said, too, that Frances would cheerfully forego the Distagon 4/18 in favour of the Leica Tri-Elmar 4/16-18-21. The choice is however more finely balanced than it might seem, even if cost were no object (which it most assuredly is, with the Tri-Elmar costing over three times as mich as the Distagon). There is the question of finders with the Tri-Elmar; there is the difficulty and expense of using a filter on the Tri-Elmar; there is the point made earlier about time spent selecting focal lengths; there is the fact that if we got the 18mm, we wouldn't be fighting over a single Tri-Elmar (assuming we could afford one). Two Tri-Elmars (one each) really might be a bit extravagant, though it would mean that Roger could drop from a 5-lens outfit to 4-lens as his Tri-Elmar replaced both the 15mm and the 21mm.

church interior

As we said at the beginning, this is probably not the sort of review that you normally read. You may even find it unsatisfyingly lacking in a firm conclusion. On the other hand, it is a genuine assessment of what we see as the advantages and disadvantages of a fairly specialized lens, given our different preferences and our background of having been able, over the years, to try almost anything we like, including many of the finest lenses in the world.

We aren't trying to sell you the lens, in order to please advertisers (not unknown in some magazines). We aren't trying to sell ourselves the lens, in order to justify having spent a lot of money on it (not unknown in some web 'reviews'). All we hope is that we may have struck a few chords in helping you to decide, by helping you to analyze your own interests and background. Oh: and, of course, we hope that you will like the site enough to subscribe, if you are not already a subscriber.

To sum up, the 4/18 Distagon is not a lens for everyone, and it is unlikely to be the first or even second lens you buy for a rangefinder outfit, though it has a pretty good case for being the third or (more likely) fourth. It is a lens that Frances wants to keep, and maybe it is one that you will want to keep, too.

 

Church, Rochemenier

 

For both of us, the 4/18 Distagon is an interior lens par excellence. Frances shot this (once again) with the Zeiss Ikon SW loaded with Ilford HP5 Plus, printing on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks