Updated Jan-18-2016:

After using the Zeiss 35mm F2 ZF.2 and Zeiss 50mm Makro ZF.2 F2, I’ve seriously a Zeiss attack!  It is just a bit easier to do post-processing with the images taken with these Zeiss lenses.  Never mind the sharpness, which I think, if you compared just the sharpness parameter alone, Nikon lenses have plenty of that.  However, one thing is clear, and this might be a personal one, with the manual focus instead of the auto-focus of the newer Nikon lenses,  it feels more natural, and is actually easier for my types of photography (landscape and stationary objects, sometimes even with slow moving objects).

I’m seriously thinking of acquiring the Zeiss 135mm APO Sonnar F2, which is supposed to be the sharpest Zeiss lens excluding the OTUS line.

The Zeiss 135mm F2 would replace my Nikon 70-200mm F4 on travel.  I’m still keeping my Nikon 20mm F1.8 since it is very, very sharp, however, I’ve not been too happy with its micro-contrast during post processing, whereas I don’t have problems with the Zeiss lenses in this area.  Will update this post more when I have a chance to use the Nikon 20mm F1.8 more.  I might get the new Milvus 21mm ZF2

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Original Post:

I have the 16-35mm F4.  When I got my Zeiss 21mm F2.8, I was sold on using prime lens for landscape purposes, mainly, and I just love the lens, and I still do.  However, in some situations, the Zeiss did pose a few challenges, mainly, it couldn’t be used for most other purposes besides landscape photography.  Yes, I knew that when I bought it and I’m still glad I bought it.  For landscape, it was hard to beat.   I also have the Nikon 16-35mm F4, and it served its duties well for a few trips I made back in 2014.   Then came this new Nikon 20mm F1.8, which was released back sometime in late 2014.  I didn’t pay attention about this lens, until in the last few weeks, when I’m preparing to go light-weight for my next trip sometime this Summer 2015.

Since I’ve been trying to go lighter on my gears without either compromising too much in terms of image quality nor flexibility, and since my direction has been to go with more primes, instead of zoom lenses, this seems like a perfect time to do so, and mostly due to the advances in lens technology, I could get better lens quality + lighter weight, have the cake and eat it too!

I’m not one who spends time doing too much technical tests and personally, don’t have the patience (and knowledge) to try, so if you want to read up on lens tests and technical data, there are plenty of sites out there who are doing a great job at that, which I did the same before I decided to invest in some lenses.  The only thing I’m doing here is to give you some data on my own experiences, when using the lenses, which basically the realm in which most of us belong, and I hope that this helps you a bit in deciding which lens is best for you (or confusing you some more…hope not).  Sometimes, one has to go on his/her own trials in order to come to the decision as to which one is best for us, but before that, we could only read from others’ experiences and deduce from that, and sometimes, it turns out to be not what we read…but that is life.

These are the pros for these lenses:

  • Zeiss 21mm F2.8

    • The best quality among these three.  All metals, no plastic, therefore, it exudes quality and pride when you hold it in your hands.  It seems to last longer than most of us will.
    • A pleasure to use when shooting landscape.  The zoom throw is long and precised, once you set the focus, then you don’t need to touch it again until you want to change focus again.
    • The color and contrast is the best.  The image just looks balance straight out in RAW.  When I work on post-processing, most of the times, when I look at its raw images, I didn’t need too much work because they look pretty much right.  The sharpness is even across the frame, and that is very important.  You don’t want a lens that gives you super sharp quality in the center, but mediocre in the edges or corners, at least for landscape, unless that is what you want.
    • Take 77mm filters.
    • The best at chromatic aberration and color fringing at the corners.
    • Looks cool when using it…a snob factor (you know who you are!).
    • Lens is made in Japan (not a pro, just a fact).
    • Best uses:  Landscape.  Some travel portraits with stationary objects.
      Also See a new post on Zeiss 50mm ZF.2 F2 Makro here
    • This images below was used with this lens:
      San Diego Pot Hots, San Diego California

      San Diego Pot Hots, San Diego California

  • Nikon 16-35mm F4
    • Good sharpness once stopped down to 5.6 or 8.
    • Good range of coverages, from 16mm to 35mm which is mostly what you would need when going out to shoot landscapes or seascapes.
    • Not was heavy as other highly regarded lenses like the 24-70mm or 14-24mm.
    • Can take filters, unlike the 14-24mm.
    • Weather seals and good quality build, can last a long time.
    • Has VR, which works extremely well.  I can get a good sharp shot at 1/24sec, most of the times, however, not for action shots.
    • Good contrast and colors.
    • AF speed is good but not excellent.
    • Take 77mm filters.
    • Good control at chromatic aberration and color fringing at the corners.
    • My lens is made in Japan (not a pro, just a fact).
    • The image made below used with the 16-35mmMaligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Canada

Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, Canada

  • Nikon 20mm F1.8
    • Light weight.
    • Fast F1.8, therefore, good to use for low light actions or street photography.
    • Reasonably priced, even though I think the price should have been a bit lower, but I guess Nikon has done some research and believes that there is currently no competition in that price range.
    • 20mm is a bit wider than 21mm but that would not be an issue.
    • Little distortion for a 20mm.
    • Good contrast and colors, even though I notice a light color cast to the raw images, when using AWB on the Nikon D800E, which I didn’t notice too much with the other two lenses.  I will do some comparison to make sure that it is not my eyes or certain conditions during my first shooting test.
    • AF speed is excellent, better than the 16-35mm, especially in low light using it wide open..  The manual focus seems to be fine, despite of some reviews mentioning the contrary.  I have the Zeiss 21mm, 35mm and 50mm Makro, so I know what good manual focusing play should be, or maybe they got a defect copy.  Of course, you can’t expect the feel to be the same as these Zeiss full manual lenses, but this Nikon manual focusing does work pretty well, without too much issue.
    • My lens is made in China (not a pro, just a fact).

And the cons:

  • Zeiss 21mm F2.8
    • Heavy.
    • Only manual focus, but you already know before getting into this lens.
    • 82mm filters, which costs more than the 77mm of the 2 Nikon lenses.  However, I bought good 82mm filters like the ND filters and the adapter rings for the smaller size lenses, which works out well, less money, less weights.
    • Expensive, about $1800 compared to $1100 for the 16-35 (when there is a rebate), and $800 for the 20mm f1.8.
    • Terrible front cap.  I had to use the Nikon front and rear caps, just to keep the originals undamaged, and good for resales.
    • This one is made in Japan.
  • Nikon 16-35mm F4
    • At 16mm, the edges are not too sharp, even stopped down at F8.  Center is quite sharp.  But this is knit picking because you need to blow up your images to 100% to see this.
    • At 35mm, it is definitely not as sharp as at 21mm, across the frame.
    • Terrible distortion at 16mm.  I had to throw all of my images out from the previous trips, when I had to use the lens at 16mm.  This is when I’m talking about taking images at some structures, like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Myanmar.  I could only keep about 5% of the shots from these trips in these situations.  Yes, I learn my lesson!
    • A bit heavy compared to the 20mm, but probably same weight as the Zeiss 21mm.
  • Nikon 20mm F1.8
    • All plastic, except the mount area is in metal.  This probably is the reason why it is light, and reasonably affordable.
    • Price should be a bit lower then $800, but this is what it is, unless you could find something else similar and cheaper or maybe wait for the rebate?
    • A bit more color fringing than the other 2 lenses at the extreme corners when opening wide, however, if you use DxO Optics, which fixes this issue almost completely.   DxO Optics seems to be the best RAW converter for this lens, whereas the Lightroom/Camera Raw do a good job, but not CaptureOne for this particular lens, not sure why.
    • More vignette at F1.8, but mostly will go away at stopped down.  But sometimes I do like the vignette for some images, but if you don’t want it, it can easily be removed during post.
    • A bit blurry at the corners at F1.8, gets better when stopped down to 4.0 – 11.

You could see this is  a difficult decision to make.  If you have lots of money, keep all 3.  But in reality , most of us don’t have that luxury, and therefore has to make some choices.

For me, I had decided to ditch the Zeiss 21mm from the start, just because my references now a day, not just only landscape, but more of a mix of landscape, travel, and street photography, even though more percentage in landscape than the others.  And the Zeiss 21mm is a bit heavy and could mostly be used for landscape or stationary objects.  However, I do miss it.  If I have the funds later on, I might acquire it again.

So the choice only narrowed down to the Nikon 16-35mm and the 20mm F1.8, and I vacillated between these 2 lenses, since each has its virtues.

Not until I took the 20mm F1.8 out for a test shoot in the back hills of my house.  The 20mm is just a very versatile lens.  It allows me to handhold it and make some creative shots that I wasn’t able to do with the 16-35mm, in large part, because of the fast F1.8, light, and wide-angle with auto-focus.   The 20mm auto-focus is pretty quick and accurate, which allows me to save time, especially when I’m not able to or can spend too much time in one place, and still let me get the shots that I want.  It is also very sharp, for opening wide to F2, I was able to get some good images, hand-held (please see images below).  As to the 16-35mm, I have already determined that I won’t be taking it with me on trips to abroad anymore due to its distortion at the 16mm end, and at 35mm it is just OK.  In addition to that, it is also not a fast lens for moving objects, which I can use it for street photography also.

What if I need something wider than 20mm?  Most of the times, when I needed something wider than that, I would take many images then stitch them later for pano’s which I’ve done all the times, even when I used the 16-35mm.  I know that in some very few cases, that is not possible, however, nothing would give you 100% coverage anyway, regardless of what lens that you have.

So the bottom line is that depending on your requirements, your shooting styles, what are more important to you, then you can pick one of these 3 good lenses.  For me, at this point, the 20mm F1.8 seems to satisfy most of my requirements, plus it is lightest among the three, therefore, it is definitely what I need now.

I buy my lenses in either of these places below:

Link to Amazon for the Nikon 20mm F1.8G
Link to B&H for the Nikon 20mm F1.8G
Keep in mind that these images below mostly made hand-held and just for tests, and not for any other purposes except to demonstrate its versatility, capability and ease of use.  The first 4 shots were hand-held, the last one was using the new lightweight Gitzo 1544t.  It was so easy to compose in the spur of the moment and snap the shots without having to setup the tripod.

F2, 1/640, ISO 400

Nikon 20mm F1.8

Nikon 20mm F1.8

 

Nikon 20mm F1.8

Nikon 20mm F1.8

 

Nikon 20mm F1.8

Nikon 20mm F1.8

 

Nikon 20mm F1.8

Nikon 20mm F1.8

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