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Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 and Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 lenses are put to the test Review

David Clapp compares the two heavyweights of the wide angle world.

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Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8I am somewhat over the moon about the lens combination on the Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII. Not only has it already pushed the boundaries of what I can imagine creatively with my photography, but the working method (which some doubt they will ever feel comfortable with) has become almost second nature.

All this in just a few months. The honeymoon period is certainly not over, but one question has been nagging me since I bought it - would my money have been better spent on the legendary Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8? Well here's my answer, a resounding no, which I concluded before I bought the Nikon.

I would have never felt particularly comfortable spending up to £1500 on one focal length for my line of photography. 21mm just isn't wide enough when I'm at the coast, where I shoot mostly wide angle imagery. It would be put back in the bag yet again, like a beautiful classic car kept in the garage. But just like you, oh boy am I curious. Does this lens wipe the floor with the  Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8? Is it a comfortable win or do they struggle for supremacy?
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 & Carl Zeiss  21mm f/2.8
At the weigh in which one is your money on?
Size and Handling
As you can see the 14-24mm is a monster, overshadowing everything in the same focal length. The 'All Seeing Eye' is a much larger in comparison with an enormous front element. Tiered barrels of metal rings stack wider and wider like a the floors of a period tudor house. The 21mm on the other hand is much smaller, denser and only half the weight. The large front element takes 82mm filters and is fluted, rather ugly in some peoples opinion, but intriguing in mine.

The Carl Zeiss 21mm has such a wonderful and precise feel about it that the Nikon sadly lacks. The focus barrel is weighted and smooth, the aperture ring clicks into the notches with confidence. All Zeiss lenses are just a joy to use and like Mark Welsh said to me once, you feel you are going to take a good photo before you have even looked through viewfinder.

The Nikon feels like all modern wide angle zooms, like it could do with some extra dampening in the zoom and focus rings to give a more confident operation. Movement feels a little lacking in comparison and the adapter and its operation is discussed at length in my first article.

Lens type Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8
Weight 100g (35.3oz)  515g (18.2 oz)
Size 3.8x5.2in. (Diameter x Length)
98x131.5mm (Diameter x Length)
 85x90 5mm
(3-3/8x3-9/16 in)
Fstops f/2.8-22 f/2.8-22
Minimum Focus 0.27m (10.8 in)   0.22m (9in)
Elements 14 elements, 11 groups  15 elements, 13 groups
Filters Cannot be used easily  82mm
The Test
The biggest problem with finding a test shot for a 21mm focal length is getting a picture that contains lots of detail, edge to edge, but without a foreground. As the lenses need to be tested at all apertures, any hint of a foreground can confuse image softness in the lower half of the frame with simply being out of focus. It is this misconception that I see inaccurately reported on forums all too regularly.

Setting up the tripod as high as possible still won't combat this problem at wide apertures (f/2.8 has a greatly reduced depth of field even at 21mm) so I found a view from a bridge that was just about perfect. Lots of fine detail edge to edge, no shadows and bright sunlight.

The tripod I use is the heaviest and most robust Gitzo there is. This ensures all the kit I use from wide angle to super telephoto is perfectly stable and produces the sharpest of shots. Don't compromise the tripod ever!
Landscape test
What a landscape! Perfect for the job; busy, lots of fine detail in ever area of the frame.
The lenses are going to be examined in areas A, B and C. In case you are unaware, most lenses can resolve great detail in the centre of the image with the aperture set wide open, but as the magnifying glass is cast towards the edges of the frame, problems begin to occur.

Wide angles are notorius for losing sharpness in Zone C in particular and it is this area that really sets super-wide angle lenses apart. Landscape photographers are meticulous about edge to edge sharpness. Having a lens that requires f/16 before this criteria is achieved can be terribly limiting and it is for this reason alone that many photographers (like myself) will hunt high and low for alternatives not matter what the working method.
Landscape showing sharpness areas
Zones A, B and C are concentric circles expanding from the centre of the image.
Equipment and Use
Here's a list of camera and computer equipment and how I set it up for the test, so you can perform tests on your own equipment:
Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII 21Mp of unsurpassable image quality, this camera will eat lenses alive.
Gitzo G5540 The sturdiest tripod I own, vital to image sharpness.
Kirk BH1 Looking like a hand grenade to all airport scanners, this ball head is rock solid.
Camera Settings Mirror Lock Up, Cable release, ISO100, Daytime whit balance (for consistant WB values on all shots)
Software Capture One 4, all images processed with standard 'capture' sharpening settings: Amount - 180, Radius - 0.8, Threshold - 1.

With modern high pixel DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII, EOS 5D MkII and Nikon D3x on the market, there has never been a greater need for super high quality glass. Testing the lenses methodically with a rock solid tripod is utterly vital. The slightest of camera shake at these resolutions can translate into a flawed image and a flawed test.

Mirror lock up is switched on without question, a cable release rather than a 2sec timer will ensure the tripod and camera are free from any vibration. The lowest ISO without in-camera interpolation (such as ISO50) is necessary for maximum detail, necessary for 100% examination.
Both lenses were set to infinity and checked using Live View.  I chose a day with unbroken blue skies, simply to avoid fluctuations in light levels, setting the camera to a Daytime white balance to keep each image consistant with the rest.

The Results are In - You're going to be surprised if you champion the Carl Zeiss 21mm, as there's a new contender for the title. To see the results skip to the verdict or you can carry on reading to view the comparisons.

Put to the test
Be prepared to be slightly miffed if you own the Zeiss 21mm and still think it was a lens created by 'God' himself. You're in for a surprise to say the least, because the devil now works for Nikon! Despite holding its own for many years the lens, despite still being utterly impeccable, it now has an immediate rival. Below are 100% crops at corresponding apertures for you to examine.

Before we get started, have a look at the distortion and colour characteristcs by comparing the two lenses (see images below). The Zeiss has me reaching for my jumper, despite the same white balance, almost too blue in my opinion. I think this is not a very accurate example to play with as I did my best to line up images and ensure the Nikon was set at exactly 21mm, but the main thing is to explore the differences in distortion. Notice the vignetting that the Zeiss exhibits....controversial.

Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 landscape distortion
The characteristic Zeiss distortion is rather apparent here.
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 landscape distortion

f/2.8 - Both lenses are reported to perform extremely well wide open but there is a clear winner here, without a doubt.
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 centre resolution

Zone A.
The Zeiss is a hands down winner, just look at the centre resolution and detail.
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Zone B resolution

Zone B.
Again the Zeiss is just excellent in this zone, the detail in the mesh railing is flagging on the 14-24mm.
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Zone C resolution

Zone C.
Not as bad as I had thought it would be, both lenses resolve a great amount of detail in the extreme edge, considering the Nikon's performance in A and B, I thought C would be much worse, but there is good detail here.

f/4 - This is an incredible result, both lenses are literally identical but the Nikon exhibits less vignetting.
Nikon 14-24mm f/4 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f4 Zone A resolution

Zone A.
Wow, the 14-24mm has just made an impeccable increase, both lenses are literally indestinguishable at this aperture.
Nikon 14-24mm f/4 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f4 Zone B resolution

Zone B.
Both lenses are performing beautifully here, I almost want to give it to the 14-24mm but there is literally nothing in it.

Nikon 14-24mm f/4 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f4 Zone C resolution

Zone C.
The Zeiss pulls a fraction more detail in the extreme corner, but still vignettes significantly, whereas the Nikon seems much more balanced - Outstanding.

f/5.6 - I had heard that the Nikons peak was at the wider end, but just look at these amazing results. It has the lead over the Zeiss at this aperture.
Nikon 14-24mm f/5.6 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/5.6 Zone A resolution
Zone A.
I would almost say the 14-24mm has reached a definate gold here, there is more contrast and maybe a touch more edge sharpness, but both lenses are exceptional in this zone. Fabulous.
Nikon 14-24mm f/5.6 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/5.6 Zone B resolution

Zone B.
The 14-24mm has got the lead in contrast, I would also conclude that the Nikon is just sharper too. This was rather unexpected.

Nikon 14-24mm f/5.6 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/5.6 Zone C resolution

Zone C.
The 14-24mm is pulling incredible definition for a zoom in Zone C, this is completely unexpected and I have to hand it to the 14-24mm which appears marginally sharper and full of contrast.

f/8 - Its almost the same story as f/5.6, both lenses perform incredibly well at f/8 right across the frame but I prefer the Nikon again at this aperture. Amazing sharpness and less vignetting at the edges.
Nikon 14-24mm f/8 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/8 Zone A resolution

Zone A.
Both lenses are super sharp but I still want to give it to the Nikon by a hair, which again has slightly more contrast.
Nikon 14-24mm f/8 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/8 Zone B resolution

Zone B.
Both lenses are performing extremely well at this aperture, if it wasn't for the cool tones that the Zeiss exhibits, I wouldnt know which was which.

Nikon 14-24mm f/8 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/8 Zone C resolution

Zone C.
Supersharp in Zone C, both lenses are excellent in the extreme corner, who would have thought the Contax would have such an immediate rival.

f/11 - Its sad to say that it is at this aperture that I would consider using my 17-40mm. Both lenses are unquestionably better. Again the only way I can tell them both apart is from the cooler Zeiss tones.
Nikon 14-24mm f/11 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/11 Zone A resolution

Zone A.
Just amazing, I want to give it to the Nikon yet again, but there is nothing in it except a tad more contrast.
Nikon 14-24mm f/11 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/11 Zone B resolution

Zone B.
I feel like I am repeating myself! The Nikon is so good for a super wide zoom.

Nikon 14-24mm f/11 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/11 Zone C resolution

Zone C.
Spectaular edge sharpness at this aperture from both lenses. Nothing in it whatsoever.

f/16 - Now the party is ending for both lenses, f/16 marks the arrival of lens diffraction. The centre and the edges are beginning to suffer but this is a punishing test, not an example of real world shooting.
Nikon 14-24mm f/16 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/16 Zone A resolution

Zone A.
Although the sharpness is now dropping both seem as though they are dropping equally, but I still want to give it to the Nikon
Nikon 14-24mm f/16 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/16 Zone B resolution  

Zone B.
I still feel the results are indistinguishable and both are still resolving a wonderful amount of detail.

Nikon 14-24mm f/16 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/16 Zone C resolution  

Zone C.
Corner sharpness is still looking extremely good on both lenses.

f/22 - Diffraction has really kicked in now, but neither lens is showing a remarked advantage over the other.
Nikon 14-24mm f/22 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/22 Zone A resolution 

Zone A.
f/22 begins to show a distinct loss in sharpness, but both are dimishing equally.
 Nikon 14-24mm f/22 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/22 Zone B resolution

Zone B.
Same again, an almost identical result in image sharpness and contrast.

 Nikon 14-24mm f/22 & Carl Zeiss 21mm f/22 Zone C resolution  

Zone C.
Again the lenses continue neck and neck.

The conclusions
Well I am surprised to say the least, elated and overjoyed all in one. The Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 was a dream lens that I had speculated was the holy grail of all wide angles, but I am very glad I didn't buy one, especially now. The Nikon is an exemplary performer in the 21mm focal length, if not a gnats hair sharper when comparing the two, which is a total surprise to say the least. Mark Welsh's orignial comparison of the Carl Zeiss 21mm and the Nikon 14-24mm showed a distinctive difference, that the Zeiss was still top of the tree, but all I can say from examining my test carefully is that this is not the case with my own Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and the Carl Zeiss 21mm.

Sharpness and contrast winners table:
Aperture Zone A Zone B Zone C Overall Contrast
f/2.8 Zeiss Zeiss Zeiss Zeiss
f/4 Equal Equal Equal/Ziess Nikon
f/5.6 Nikon Nikon Equal/Nikon Nikon
f/8 Equal/Nikon Equal Equal Nikon
f/11 Equal Equal Equal Equal
f/16 Equal/Nikon Equal Equal Equal
f/22 Equal Equal Equal Equal

Overall the Nikons weakest aperture is f/2.8 where the Zeiss is exceptionally sharp. Working through the apertures, the Nikon just takes the lead but both are stunning performers. The 14-24mm also exhibits a marginal lead in contrast, as well as a giving a warmer look to the images, which seems more balanced than the almost colder look of the Zeiss. As expected, the lenses both begin to suffer from diffraction at f/16, but the loss of sharpness does not make either unusable in the slightest.

Some further thoughts and test considerations
After buying the EOS 1Ds MkIII, all manner of imperfections became noticeable with the L series wide angle lenses which I had been happy with on my EOS 5D. The worst perfomers were the Canon EF24-105mm f/4L and then the EF17-40mm f/4L. The results are very poor shooting then lenses wide open in anything other than Zone A, but it was the lacklustre sharpness in Zone C up to f16 that is the biggest let down.

The Canon's suffer from diffraction all over the frame at this aperture, so it leaves you feeling a little cheated; that there is no single aperture that can unveils the true capabilities of the 1DsIII sensor. That's why the search began when I bought the EOS 1Ds MkIII and why lenses of this quality should be something you also consider, especially if a purchase of a 21Mp camera is on the cards. The 24-105mm and 17-40mm stay at home since I replaced their focal lengths with the Nikon G14-24mm, Zeiss 28mm f/2 and the Zeiss 35-70mm, a dream team if ever there was one.

I wonder how many photographers who say "my Canon lenses are fine" have ever unleashed the sensors potential? It's a fair question.

Buying the Nikon for use on a full frame 21Mp digital body is an exceptionally good idea. There is no other wide angle in the 21mm range that can deliver the impecable standards except the Carl Zeiss 21mm and the Nikon 14-24mm. Both are superb lenses that I would be happy to own, but it is the additional focal lengths and the cheaper cost that keep me waving the Nikon flag more vigorously than ever. It's a truly stunning lens with such an incredible array of performance capabilities, I cannot hesitate in recommending it to everyone I meet.

I have only tested one lens of each as I don't know any camera shop staff or have a limitless wallet. Copy to copy variation is something of a closet skeleton when testing lenses because the tester is always left feeling there is a was technical issue with one lens or the other, especially when the results sway somewhat against preconception.

I'm not endeavouring to compare company reputations here, just to publish results and unravel some questions I needed answering, and give them to you. Casting assumptions aside, I seem to have an exceedingly good copy of the Nikon. This test has shown me that I would never need a second hand Zeiss 21mm as a compliment or an alternative to the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 because, as the results show, there is literally no difference whatsoever except shooting at f/2.8, which something I would rarely do.

Visit David Clapp's website for more details.

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cameracat 18 8.6k 61 Norfolk Island
4 Mar 2009 10:45AM
Perhaps a side by side test on a Nikon D3X would be interesting, Based on the assumption that Nikon spent some considerable resources to produce a lens fine tuned to thier system.....!
Mila 16 2 Australia
4 Mar 2009 2:23PM
I don't understand something, how come are you using a Nikon lens in a Canon camera?
Is this just for the EOS 1D cameras?
A bit confused
Leif 17 777
6 Mar 2009 10:53PM

Quote:I don't understand something, how come are you using a Nikon lens in a Canon camera?
Is this just for the EOS 1D cameras?
A bit confused

He is using a special adaptor that allows use of Nikon AFS lenses on a Canon EOS body.
DRicherby 13 269 726 United Kingdom
8 Apr 2010 3:26PM
OK, this is possibly the most bizarre lens test I've ever seen. A Zeiss prime versus a Nikon zoom on a Canon camera? And would it not have made more sense to use the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II as a comparison, rather than the much cheaper 17-40mm f/4L?
tincup 11
6 Nov 2010 12:09AM
A useless test setup, all you have shown is mount tolerances in a single lens/mount sample. Even you subject target is wrong. Get your focus right then compare and not the reverse.
18 Aug 2011 6:55AM
Good test thanks for this.

There's some seriously silly comments here - please don't bother if you don't know...

The fact is that the Nikon 14-24 lens is quite a popular option amongst EOS users to get the best landscape lens they can get - and the ziess 21 also has legendary reputation. So this is a very meaningful comparison for Canon shooters (and even Nikon shooters).

Don't worry David - some of us do appreciate it! Smile
18 Aug 2011 6:57AM
David I'd be interested in your thoughts regarding the 17 & 24 TS-E's as options for natural landscapes - I'll check your site to see if you've mentioned them.
6 Jun 2012 8:26PM
djambalawa is absolut right in everything he writes 18. Aug. 2011 0655 - and we really aprreciate this test.

I sold my 14-24 because of the filter-problem and bought the 24mm f/1.4 G, and stopped down to f. 5.6 or 8/11 on my D3x I can not see it is not in the same class as the zoom, even you call the other the best, .....I am not sure, and you get the very fine bokeh wide open from the 24G

Any comment why you did not consider this also, so there were 2 primes (but I am still happy for this test, of course, also because the Zeiss was a very interesting lens) ?

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