New Zeiss wide angle SLR Lenses – and how they stack up against their Canon EF counterparts

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One of the most questions I get asked by HDSLR filmmakers is:

Should I buy Canon EF lenses or Zeiss ZE lenses for HDSLR video?   

I recently tested two wide angle Zeiss ZE SLR lenses – one that is currently available (25mm 1:2), and another that won’t be available until May of this year (15mm 1:2.8) and thought that this would be a good time to partially help answer this question.

First – Canon EF lenses obviously have incredibly high speed (USM) Ultrasonic autofocus motors built in, whereas Zeiss ZE lenses are purely manual focus lenses.   For still photographers this is going to be a big factor – needless to say, the edge goes to Canon if you need autofocus.  

But with Ultrasonic autofocus comes a significant problem for filmmakers:  given that the Canon lenses use magnets to make the connections between the lens focus ring and the inner focusing mechanism – it is common to have the lens be far less consistent with focusing marks.  

Furthermore, if you continue to rotate the lens past either the infinity or the macro limit on a USM Canon lens – you will effectively lose all of your focus marks as the lens focusing ring will turn indefinitely.  This can be costly in terms of the time you’ll lose by having to remeasure the marks on set.   Zeiss lenses are purely mechanical (no magnets) and therefore they stop at infinity, and at the macro points.   Therefore you will never loose a focus mark, nor will one "drift" over time as Canon EF (magnetic) lenses often do.  This should be a pretty significant consideration for HDSLR filmmakers in my opinion – I know it is for me.    

Canon lenses are also designed for autofocus use and they are not as clearly marked (in terms of distance markings) and generally do not have as much of a rotation on the focus ring as the Zeiss optics do either – meaning that they are harder to focus manually.  This is especially true (and an important factor) when it comes to wide angle lenses.

Last but not least:  the optics:  

This is a general statement – but the Zeiss and Canon lenses tend to be pretty even when you look at the focal lengths from 85mm and longer.   That being said, Zeiss lenses are generally sharper amongst the wide focal lengths.  You’ll notice this pretty significantly when you look at the edges of your frame, and when you shoot wide open (when you compare the Zeiss and Canon lenses that is – see below for examples that illustrate this point.)   As you close down your aperture, this distinction becomes less apparent (you’ll also notice that there is less chromatic aberration with the Zeiss lenses when compared to the Canon EF lenses, especially with wider lenses.)

Therefore – wide angle Zeiss ZE lenses are pretty much the way to go for HDSLR filmmaking in my opinion – notably with anything from a 15mm through a 24mm lens.  

Of course the big brothers to the Zeiss ZE lenses – the Zeiss CP.2 lenses are BUILT for cinema and they are also at a significantly higher price point.   With CP.2 lenses, the rotation of the lens focusing barrel is 300 degrees and very clearly marked when compared to the Zeiss ZE and Canon EF lenses, which makes focusing SIGNIFICANTLY easier by a large factor.   The aperture ring (or iris) is also fluid –  whereas both the Canon EF and Zeiss ZE lenses can only make 1/3 stop jumps which is far too noticeable with video if you are trying to close the iris down or up while you are shooting video.    

I am very much looking forward to testing the new series of Canon Cinema Prime lenses (they have announced a 24mm f/1.5, a 50mm f/1.3,  and an 85mm f/1.3)  But there is one thing that is surprising:  they are only being released with EF lens mounts.   The Zeiss CP.2 lenses have a kit that allows you to swap mounts – from EF to the cinema standard PL mounts.   This is a HUGE advantage – as you can use all CP.2 lenses on both Canon cameras as well as ALL CINEMA cameras in the world regardless of brand.  I use my CP.2s with the C300 for example – as well as the RED Epic camera and other cinema cameras with the PL mounts.   Swapping the mounts takes but a few minutes per lens and can easily be done out in the field with just a TORX screwdriver.   This makes the CP.2 lenses fantastic long-term investments.

The PL Lens mount is also significantly more suited for cinema – the lenses don’t flex when you focus (unlike the Canon EF mount which does flex when you focus the lens with a follow focus or motor, given the way it is designed.)   Therefore I see the CP.2 lenses to be a clear solution in terms of a solid long term investment.    Check out the LENS section of this blog for more information on these lenses.   If you can’t make the type of investment in the CP.2 lenses – your next best option are the ZE lenses. The optics in the ZE and CP.2 lenses are identical for those that are curious – although I am told the "pick of the litter" in terms of optics are chosen for the CP.2 lenses.  The ZE lenses cannot be converted to PL mounts to be clear.

So back to the new lenses from Zeiss:

The first is the Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 ZE, which won’t be out until May.   I was fortunate to have gotten my hands on this lens recently, and the optics are incredibly sharp – perhaps the sharpest wide angle still 35mm SLR lens I have ever tested.  Unlike  the 15mm f/2.8Canon lens (which has been discontinued in favor of the 8-15mm f/4 zoom) – the Zeiss lens isn’t a fisheye, it is a rectilinear lens,  and the distortion is minimal, despite its 110 degree field of view.  The lens should actually be compared to the Canon 14mm f/2.8, which also uses an aspherical lens element.  

Look through the pictures of my tests of these two lenses below:

 Here is the Canon 14mm 2.8 - click on the picture for a full resolution image.

Above is the Canon 14mm 2.8 – (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)

Above is the Zeiss ZE 15mm 2.8 – you’ll notice the 1mm difference is more noticeable than one might think…  (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)

Here is a crop of the edge of the Canon 14mm 2.8.  You’ll see that the image blurs on the edges losing significant detail relative to the Zeiss 15mm below.  (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)


With the Zeiss 15mm 2.8 crop of the wide image above – you’ll notice that while the lens is not as wide, it is significantly sharper on the edges, this is a huge plus for landscape and landscape photographers and filmmakers in general.  (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)

The second lens that Zeiss is releasing, is the new Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZE, which is currently available.  Like the other ZE lenses, this lens is Manual focus only – but incredibly sharp.  It’s faster than it’s CP.2 counter part, which is T2.9, but slightly slower than the Canon 24mm, which clocks in at f/1.4.   But the performance wide open is hands down better than the Canon at either  f/1.4 or f/2.0.

There are more examples after the break below.

Above is the Zeiss 25mm 2.0 full frame.  (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)

Notice how sharp the edge detail is on the top left corner.  (I did not have a Canon 24mm 1.4 version II  on hand to make a comparison unfortunately – but I can speak from experience and past tests that the Zeiss lens is sharper on the edges hands down.)   (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)

Here is an other example of the Canon 14mm 2.8 vs the Zeiss 15mm 2.8 below.

Canon 14mm 2.8 full frame  (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)

Crop of the top right of the image on the Canon 14mm 2.8 –  (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)

Zeiss ZE 15mm 2.8 full frame (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)
Crop of the top right of the image on the Zeiss ZE 15mm 2.8 – notice how much sharperthe cables   (Click on the picture for a full resolution image.)
Therefore as you can see – there is a significant different along the edges of the frame between the Canon EF lenses and the Zeiss ZE lenses.