So, you have old lenses left from the analogue era? Can they have a second life in the digital World? Spoiler: Don’t throw them out yet!
Today we have two contenders in out quick & dirty quality test, and they will both be put up to the modern kit zoom lens for comparison. The direct reason for bringing them out of the closet, was a rise of mirrorless cameras. Why? Because, manual focusing with these old lenses on a DSLR cameras was always very tricky. With the manual focus aids inside the new generation of MILC (mirrorless cameras), that job is much easier, and they are becoming useful again. But then, what can we expect from the old optics made for film?
Today we have, in the red corner:
Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/2 a.k.a NIKKOR-Auto, AI and AI-s, made in several variants from 1965 until 2005.
|Summary||Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/2|
|Mount||F mount, metal|
|Optics||8 elements in 6 groups|
|Min. focus||30 cm / 1 ft|
|Diafragm||7 blades (stops to 22 at full stop)|
And in the blue corner:
Carl Zeiss Jena MC Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 (M42 screw mount), also made in B version, Praktica mount with electric contacts, starting from some 40 years ago.
|Summary||Carl Zeiss Jena MC Flektogon 35mm f/2.4|
|Mount||M42 universal screw mount, metal|
|Optics||6 elements in 6 groups|
|Min. focus||19 cm / 7.48 in|
|Diafragm||6 blades (stops to 22 at half-stop)|
The test came rather unexpectedly, and I didn’t have the time and space to prepare a serious test setup. Computer screen and equal conditions should give a proper relation between optics. Do not expect an absolute quality estimation. Thank you.
The Dull Part — Pixel Peeping
This is a test of the lens sharpness. Both lenses are manual focus only, so the results may depend on my old and not too certain eyes. However, I have tried several times, and I think the conclusion is a fair one. Let’s start with the comparison of those oldies. Both have beautiful full metal construction, with smooth focusing rings. Key difference on f-stop ring is that Zeiss gives you a half-stop clicks, while Nikon goes only for a full stop. Both are joy to use, especially with a mirrorless cameras of new generation, which have very nice choice of focusing aids. Focusing isn’t quite so beautiful like with Leica rangefinder cameras, but on the other hand, your wallet won’t experience a heart attack either. All test photos were made at ISO100. We are going to start with Nikon at f2.0…
|Nikon f2.0, 1/85, Center||Zeiss N/A|
|Nikon f2.0, 1/85, Lower Right||Zeiss N/A|
Center sharpness fully open is not spectacular, but it is not bad at all. Contrast is not impressive, which is understandable for such old optics. Edge sharpness is visibly softer and darker due to an inevitable level of vignetting.
|Nikon f2.8, 1/52, Center||Zeiss f2.4, 1/60, Center|
|Nikon f2.8, 1/52, Lower Right||Zeiss f2.4, 1/60, Lower Right|
Now, since Zeiss starts at f2.4 and Nikon does not have half-stop clicks, we have to compare Nikon at f2.8 with Zeiss at f2.4. Center sharpness is just a tiny bit better with Nikon (go ahead and give that to the f-stop difference), but the edge sharpness is visibly better with Nikon. Center contrast is improved, while edge contrast is lagging, especially on Zeiss, where we have a visible portion of vignetting. Both have chromatic aberrations well controled.
Here, we will make a little diversion. At f3.5, we are going to compare old Zeiss with a modern day Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4, at 35mm and f/3.5, just to see how much the technology has gone forward in the last 40 years:
|Fujinon f3.6, 1/26, Center||Zeiss f3.5, 1/38, Center|
|Fujinon f3.6, 1/26, Lower Right||Zeiss f3.5, 1/38, Lower Right|
Now that difference is staggering. Modern kit zoom is far better in every aspect comparing it to the oldies. If you have old lens, use it, by all means, but if you want to buy an old one, check first if it is worth having it together with available modern entry-level AF optics, made specifically for digital cameras.
Let’s continue now with the Nikon-Zeiss match at f/4.
|Nikon f4, 1/27, Center||Zeiss f4, 1/27, Center|
|Nikon f4, 1/27, Lower Right||Zeiss f4, 1/27, Lower Right|
At f/4, center sharpness is very good on both lenses, and edge shapness is improved on both, with Nikon still in an obvious lead.
|Nikon f5.6, 1/14, Center||Zeiss f5.6, 1/14, Center|
|Nikon f5.6, 1/14, Lower Right||Zeiss f5.6, 1/14, Lower Right|
At f/5.6 center sharpness is really good (again very slightly better with Nikon), and at much better the edges, with Zeiss closing on Nikon, but… no cigar.
|Nikon f8, 1/7, Center||Zeiss f8, 1/6, Center|
|Nikon f8, 1/7, Lower Right||Zeiss f8, 1/7, Lower Right|
At f/8 Nikon is almost perfect, and Zeiss is not far away. That would be a sweet spot on both.
|Nikon f11, 1/3, Center||Zeiss f11, 1/3, Center|
|Nikon f11, 1/3, Lower Right||Zeiss f11, 1/3, Lower Right|
Almost the same story at f/11…
|Nikon f16, 1/2, Center||Zeiss f16, 1/2, Center|
|Nikon f16, 1/2, Lower Right||Zeiss f16, 1/2, Lower Right|
At f/16 a diffraction problems begin to show, and although they are not heavily pronounced, use f/16 and f/22 only with a good reason.
In summary, contrast and vignetting are relatively easy to correct, so both lenses are optically still very usable. Nikon has clearly better sharpness, especially edge sharpness, but also has a slightly warm tint, while Zeiss is more color neutral.
Real world examples
While pixel-peeping can give you a technical answers, you didn’t do your homework if you do not show a real world pics, which are the only way to show you what lens really can do. And since we are at homework… here is our favorite model, Alex, doing his math homework:
Fujifilm X-T20, Nikon, f2, 1/125, ISO2500
Fujifilm X-T20, Zeiss, f2.4, 1/125, ISO4000
Fujifilm X-T20, Nikon, f2, 1/125, ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T20, Zeiss, f2.4, 1/125, ISO1600
Examples above are made under the incandescent light, and are slightly color corrected. Correction confirmed that Nikon gives slightly warmer tone. Optically, Nikon is clearly better, but Zeiss has one unique feature — very close minimal focusing distance. It is actually shorter then on some dedicated macro lenses! You almost have a macro function with it, and you have true macro function with the macro reverse ring. Here we have a few photos of the tiny Autumn flowers at the closest distance (non-reverse), and with the open diaphragm:
Fujifilm X-T20, Zeiss, f2.4, 1/850, ISO200
Fujifilm X-T20, Zeiss, f2.4, 1/3500, ISO400
Fujifilm X-T20, Zeiss, f2.4, 1/3000, ISO400
Nice bokeh was always Zeiss trademark, so you have it here also. On the closest distance and wide open, Zeiss lacks sharpness and contrast, but for macro shots you will have to stop it down anyway, to increase depth of field (DOF). If you reverse mount it, you will have to take it to f8 and further. For example:
Fujifilm X-T20, Zeiss 35mm (reverse), f11, 1/90 sec, ISO12800
More than enough sharpness, wouldn’t you say?
Nikon’s Nikkor 35mm f/2 lens was kindly provided for this test by the professional photographer Zoran Marjanović, whose works you can see at this link. Thank you!
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