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Zeiss Loxia 21mm F2.8 Distagon Review

Dustin Abbott

October 15th, 2018

When the idea of mirrorless cameras was first floated, one of the main advantages that was touted was the ability to have an optically excellent camera system in a smaller, lighter configuration when compared to a typical DSLR/lens combination. That reality has proven to be somewhat inconsistent, as it isn’t atypical for some Sony E-mount lenses (I’m looking at you, 24-70 G Master!) to actually be larger than competing lenses for Canon or Nikon DSLRs. I’ve long argued that size should not be the primary reason to consider a mirrorless system (there are other intrinsic advantages to the technology), but that doesn’t change the fact that many people are mostly interested in mirrorless because of the potential of having a compact, light camera system without compromising image quality. Fortunately, if you own a Sony mirrorless camera, the Zeiss Loxia series actually delivers on that potential. These are beautifully crafted, optically exceptional lenses that are essentially tiny versions of the Milvus series, complete with gorgeous, all-metal construction, weather sealing, and brilliant Zeiss optical designs.  

Case in point is the lens being reviewed today, the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 Distagon. It’s a beautifully made lens that feels premium in every detail, but fits in the palm of your hand. It’s a full inch shorter than the equivalent Milvus lens (2.83”/72mm vs 3.74”/95mm), much narrower (2.44”/62mm vs 3.76”/95.5mm), and weighs nearly 2.5x less (13.9oz/394g vs 300z/851g). And, it does all of this while delivering an optical performance that is the equal of the bigger, heavier, and more expensive Milvus/ZE lens. Up front it takes a relatively tiny 52mm filter size vs an 82mm filter size for the Milvus, which leads me to another observation.

A real strength of the Loxia line is that they have been designed to work in concert with each other. Each of the 5 lenses in the lineup (2.8/21mm, 2.4/25mm, 2/35mm, 2/50mm, and 2.4/85mm) all share a common filter size (52mm) and a roughly identical diameter. This allows them to come in a kit for filmmakers like this one, complete with a fantastic hard case:

They are also each designed with the option of quickly “declicking” the aperture (a common preference for video work as it allows one to have smooth control over the aperture iris) and they can also be quickly/easily “geared” with the Zeiss LensGear Mini due to a common diameter. This accessory allows you to quickly set them up for focus follow systems (gearing), which is the preferred focus protocol for filmmaking as it gives one complete control over focus. What I like about the LensGear compared to other systems that I’ve used is that it is completely tool-less and can be very swiftly loosened or tightened by gripping the front ring and rotating it.

The ability to “declick” the aperture makes the Loxia series more useful for filmmakers, as many filmmakers prefer smooth aperture iris control to be able to change aperture values on the fly to control what is in focus or even do an “aperture rack” where one’s “vision” is increased by moving to a smaller aperture value where more is in focus. You may find that a declicked aperture is your personal preference even for stills work.

Even when the aperture is “clicked” there is an advantage for the Loxia series over many manual focus lenses that I’ve used. Some have detents (and thus allow you only to select) the full aperture stops (like f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc…). Others might have a half stop in between some apertures. The Loxia series allows you to select aperture in one-third stops (i.e. f/2.8, f/3.2, f/3.5), which gives you more finite control over aperture. I personally find that a manual aperture ring often causes me to be more intentional about aperture and to think about it a little more. If you aren’t confident in the relationship between aperture and depth of field or light gathering, however, a manual aperture ring does preclude the ability for the camera to automatically select aperture, which might be a serious issue for you.

On the plus side, a Sony body and a manual focus lens like this is a great place to learn, as the electronic viewfinder shows you true depth of field, so you can easily see how the depth of field is impacted by the aperture that you have selected.

On that note, the Loxia series is fully manual focus, though there is no easier a place to shoot manual focus glass than a Sony mirrorless body…particularly those with Steady Shot Inside (In Body Image Stabilization). One great asset is that as soon as input is detected on the manual focus ring, the camera will automatically zoom in the portion of the image where the active focus point is (the default is the center of the frame if no other area is selected). This makes it very easy to visually confirm focus. I find that I have a near perfect “keeper rate” with MF lenses on Sony mirrorless bodies. Because the lens does have electronic contacts all EXIF data will be communicated to the camera. The lenses work exceptionally well and are some of the better examples of manual focus lenses out there, but yes, they are manual focus only.

So, if you aren’t put off by manual focus (and have fairly deep pockets), then read on, as the Loxia lenses are a treat reserved only for Sony E-mount shooters!

Prefer to Watch your reviews?  Check out my visually packed video review replete with some video footage captured with the Loxia 21 as well:

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Zeiss Loxia 21mm F2.8 Build Quality

There is next to nothing to complain about when it comes to the build quality of the Loxia series.  These are absolutely gorgeous lenses, with a classic sense of style that looks good now and will look good in 50 years.  They are built to last that long, too.

Take a closer look at the build, design, and features in this hands-on video breakdown:

The materials of the Loxia 21mm f/2.8 are all metal and glass, with that lovely satin anodized metal finish that Zeiss does so well.  Subtle blue accents (Zeiss badges and the blue of the weather sealing gasket) help to give the lens a uniquely Zeiss look.  The lens hood is petal-shaped, made of metal, and has a flocked interior.  It seems to do the trick just fine, as the lens’ flare resistance is really quite good.

I love the front facade on Zeiss lenses.  I like the lens designation information that is there, and, in this case, it is practical, as it does help to distinguish the lens from other lenses in the Loxia series that have a similar diameter and shape.  The Loxia 21mm identifies the classic Distagon optical design of the lens.  Like other lenses in the series it sports a 52mm filter thread in metal.

The main portion of the barrel is occupied with the ribbed focus ring.  This ring also has a smooth portion with all of the distance markings.  The damping on the Loxia 21mm is the heaviest of the set, and the focus throw is also shortest.  The damping is extremely smooth (in typical Zeiss fashion), and very precise, though one valid complaint is that there is very little focus throw between 2 meters and infinity.  Precise focus at f/2.8 in that range can be a little tough (it’s easy to move past the correct focus point), though when the lens is stopped down it becomes less of an issue as depth of field will be very large.

The smaller portion of the lens barrel is filled with the manual aperture ring.  The byproduct of everything being able to rotate like this is that there is no fixed portion of the lens to grasp for mounting and unmounting.  You have to grasp the lens more as a whole to be able to apply pressure to twist it free.  That’s the tradeoff for having such a small lens!

At the rear of the lens you will find a metal (of course!) bayonet mount along with the gasket to help seal the lens from dust and moisture.

All in all, these lenses are as nicely built as anything you’ll ever find.  I’m particularly impressed with the compact nature of the Loxia 21mm f/2.8.  To have such a wide focal length along with a moderately wide maximum aperture in such a tiny, well-built package is truly useful for a lot of reasons…not the least is the fact that this is a lens you will be FAR more likely to bring along due to it being so compact.  Larger lenses require you to evaluate whether or not you will actually use them on a shoot, but the Loxia 21mm encourages you to bring it along and not feel bad at all if you don’t happen to shoot that particular focal length!

Zeiss Loxia 21mm F2.8 Image Quality

Here is where Zeiss lenses typically justify their price tag (at least for some people).  Pretty much everyone agrees Zeiss glass is special; the only disagreement is whether it is special enough to validate its price tag.  The Loxia 21mm Distagon is no exception; it comes with a steep price tag.  It also comes with an amazing optical punch for such a compact lens.  

I would encourage you to watch this video episode to get the whole story on the optical performance of the Loxia 21mm Distagon:

First, let’s take a quick look at the distortion and vignette.  Neither is particularly strong, and the standard Lightroom/ACR profile makes quick work of correcting for the vignette and distortion that are there.  In camera corrections will also deal with these factors for JPEGs.

Wide open (f/2.8), the Loxia 21mm shows fantastic sharpness and contrast in the center of the frame with only a mild drop-off at the edge of the frame.  The extreme corners are the only parts of the frame that show any hint of softness.  This is an impressive performance, and compares favorably with the Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Distagon.

I also good evidence of centering, with both sides delivering a similarly good performance.  This was true for real-world shots, too, allowing me to get crisp results when shooting events indoors.

Stopping down to f/4 both clears up the vignette and also allows the sharpness to push into the extreme corners.  You have essentially perfect sharpness from corner to corner at f/4, and a noticeable improvement in the extreme corners from f/2.8:

I would call f/5.6 the optimal aperture for landscape work, though the lens is still nicely sharp at smaller apertures like f/11:

Real world landscape shots are fantastically sharp, as are cityscapes:

What really sets Zeiss lenses apart is the incredible color rendition.  Zeiss’ color is uniquely special, and that was underscored by the fact that I was simultaneously testing a similar focal length from another company and noted that the images often felt a little “flat” compared to the Zeiss results.  The color rendition from the Loxia 21mm is rich, constrasty, and deeply saturated while retaining a very natural feel.

I’ve noted that Sony’s color science isn’t as appealing (to me) as Canon, but Zeiss’ glass certainly helps to bring out the best in the system.

The Loxia 21mm isn’t entirely flare resistant, but it does a great job of making flare a virtual non-issue.  I saw a minimal amount of veiling at wide apertures and a little bit of ghosting at small apertures, but this is another area of strength for the lens.  The ten-bladed aperture delivers nice sunbursts (see the middle photo below).

Another area of strength is the chromatic aberration control of the Loxia 21mm.  I saw no CA in actual field use, and this highly contributes to the excellent wide open contrast from the lens.  These little blossoms are often places where chromatic aberrations cause the edges to be either purple or lost in haze, but you can see nice clarity and a lack of CA in the crop:

Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate with me during my review period for shooting stars, with essentially every night becoming overcast.  I had to shoot a manual test of coma (using a laser pointer for my “star point” at different places in the frame.  What I saw was encouraging, however, as the shape of the “star points” stayed nicely even on the edges and corners.  If comatic distortion is there, it is mild and shouldn’t be a major factor in shooting astrophotography with the lens.  

P.S. I was able (at a later date) to get a quick few shots of the night sky.  It was far from optimal conditions, but it was enough to reinforce the findings from my test above.  There is a bit of “stretching” of the stars here due to the length of the exposure, but not much evidence of coma itself.

All in all, there’s a lot to love in the optical performance of this lens.  I would recommend that you check out the Image Gallery page to see many more photos that wouldn’t fit into the review.

Loxia 21mm Video Performance

I recommend that you check out the video review here to see some actual visual evidence of the Loxia 21mm’s video performance, as it is somewhat hard to portray in a text article.  As I noted earlier, however, the Loxia 21mm (as are all the Loxia lenses) is designed with video in mind.  The standard diameter (ready for geared systems and focus follow), the ability to declick the aperture, and even the purposeful design of the shared filter threads all point to the intentional inclusion of video in the design.  I found the compact nature and relatively light weight made it an easy lens to balance on a motorized gimbal, and the focal length is great both in full frame or Super 35 modes to give a genuinely useful perspective.  This is the kind of lens I would think most cinematographers would enjoy having in their bag.

The great color, sharpness, and contrast of the lens (along with the relatively low levels of distortion and vignette) make it a natural fit for these Sony mirrorless cameras that double as such capable vehicles for getting great video footage.  I found the footage in 4K looks just great!

Conclusion

If you envisioned mirrorless cameras as being a platform where you could travel small and light while still retaining excellent image quality, then the Zeiss Loxia series is probably just what you are looking for.  The Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 Distagon is my favorite lens in the series for the simple reason that it seems you are literally losing nothing from the bigger, more expensive DSLR version of the lens.  It’s an incredibly useful focal length, and having such a competent optical instrument in such a compact package is a true delight.  The lens is also very easy to use, and so getting great results is fairly effortless despite the manual nature of the lens.  The only real barrier is the price, which at nearly $1500 USD seems pretty steep.  If there is any consolation, it is that the DLSR version of the lens costs nearly $400 more.  There are cheaper alternatives to this lens, though there none I’m aware of that so strongly deliver in the packaging (small and light) along with the optical performance (excellent).  This is what more mirrorless full frame E-mount lenses should be like!

Pros:

  • Beautiful made and beautifully compact
  • Has some weather sealing
  • Distortion and vignette fairly low
  • Very sharp wide open, sharp from corner to corner by f/4
  • Beautiful color rendition
  • Very low chromatic aberrations
  • Good flare resistance
  • Clickless aperture option and gearing design makes it a great video lens

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Focus throw could be a little longer from 2m to Infinity
  • Manual everything isn’t for everyone
  • Takes some practice to easily mount/unmount

Thanks to Zeiss Canada (Gentec) for the loaner!

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