Having purchased the Zeiss 50mm F2 Makro for a while, but it had been sitting in my drawer mostly for a while because I never thought that I would be using it mainly for landscape photography work, and oh boy, am I wrong!

The reason why I bought it in the first place was that I knew this lens is very sharp, the only one in the Zeiss lineup that might be sharper is the 135mm F2, so I purchased it for this purpose, and then some…such as if I could use it for studio portraits, macro work (even though it is not long enough for practical real macro work…for that purpose, I would purchase the 135mm instead, another insanely sharp lens, and it is in my mind now after seeing the landscape results of the 50mm!) or some arty work using the wide open aperture at F2.  However, all of these reasons, beside the landscape purpose, have not been in my next interest…yet.

Furthermore, the reasons why I didn’t think of using it extensively yet was the amount of work involved in having to take multiple images and assembling them later for pano, in case when the lens coverage is not wide enough.  The other reason, that seemed to discourage me was in the case where I had to take multiple, bracketed exposure for dynamic range coverage, which in addition to the area coverage reason above, would be a tremendous burden.  But again, having seen some of the pano’s that I have created after this trip to some of the Balkan Nations, I’m sold.  Of course, in many other cases, whereby this lens can be used for a single image, the results are also, of course, stellar, to say the least!  The contrast, colors and sharpness are just there, and not much work in post-processing is needed to make them stand out, like other Nikon lenses that I have, including the excellent Nikon 20mm F1.8 that I recently acquired.

Here are my knowledge on how to use this lens also some techniques that you’d need to know when using this lens for landscapes, which I hope will help you overcome some of the potential issues you might face using it:

  • First of all, keep an open mind that no lens will be perfect for all situations!  With that in mind, don’t get frustrated because in some situations, you’ll be frustrated with the 50mm area of coverage and tempt to reach out for the wider angle lens in your bag, just for convenience sake!
  • The distance from where you stand to the targeted subjects should be appropriate.  It can’t be too far nor too close.  Too far then you’d lose the details of the scenes and in turns, sacrifice your composition accordingly.  Too close, then you’d have to shoot too many shots to cover the area of interests.  For these pano’s that I’ve shown below, I did shoot a bit more images than I’d like to, however, the result resolution is quite large (one image pano, The Mostar Old Bridge, resulted in a 15,000×6000 size), and they’d be nice to be used for large print, without having to be enlarged software-wise, and hence will be very sharp, like a medium-format camera.  In some cases, the Zeiss 35mm F2 is more appropriate and will minimize the work for you if the target distance is closer to you, but it is not as sharp nor contrasty as the 50mm Makro.
  • The lens manual focusing is actually a plus, instead of a minus, when it comes to landscape photography.  Even with the Nikon auto-focus lenses, I always set my camera (Nikon D800E) to use the focus button on the back, instead of the shutter release button as focus+shutter release.  The manual focusing actually is very accurate and in my experience, one of the nicest focusing feel in all manual focusing lenses that I have, and I’ve never missed focused with this lens.  Of course, I almost always use F8 for landscape work and sometimes, if necessary I use F11, but never more than that, in order to retain the ultimate sharpness and good depth of field. AND, most importantly, I always check the first resulted image from front to back, at 100% for sharpness before settling down using that focus setting.
  • Use tripod this this lens for landscape, especially when we mainly need more depth of fields for landscape purpose, and this lens doesn’t have VR as you already know it.  However, even with VR, for landscapes, I always use tripod.  The one that I highly recommend is this very light Gitzo tripod.  This tripod has served me so well so far, without any need to have a heavier tripod, in my last few trips that I’m so glad that I bought it!  At first I did have some reservation about its lightness and the ability to take sharp pictures, but rest assure, that issue is non-existent!  If you have good lights and intend to use it wide open and also don’t mind using high ISO, then be my guest in using it without tripod, which also works quite well in some situations, but again, I don’t recommend it without tripod for landscapes.
  • Use remote release shutter devices such as this one that I’ve been using.  This is one of the best release trigger that I’ve used, and I bought so many before, all would fail within a few weeks!  This one has lasted me since I bought it and never failed, and is so convenient to use.  The only warning is that, DON’T leave the battery in the trigger module since it might corrode if storing it for a long time.  This is true for all electronics devices that use internal batteries anyway.
  • Use Mirror Lockup mode.  For my Nikon D80oE, that makes quite a noticeable difference in sharpness, which I didn’t see with other cameras before the Nikon D800E (and now the Nikon D810…it is on my list, but I’ll probably wait for the next generation, since the D800E is still an awesome camera for my intended uses).
  • Take more images while panning to cover at least one more layer outside of the intended composition or area that you want to capture because after merging these images for pano’s, you’ll need to crop out the incomplete edges for your final resulting pano’s.  This is extremely important to remember and when in doubts, take more shots to cover outside edges because if you don’t, you’ll regret it!  For me, I only travel to each location once, and probably won’t ever come back again, so a few more images makes sense, and memory is so cheap now a day, compared to the expenses of going to these locations and the amount of work and efforts to be here.  Furthermore, for me, each time I stop and take these images, it only takes me a few seconds to setup the tripod, mount the camera and take these shots, and usually it only takes about 5 minutes for me to finish.
  • Bracket your images when in doubts.  This will allow you to pick and choose later which images to be used for merging.  Usually with my D800E, its dynamic range is so good that I have seldom need to merge part of the pano’s using HDR first and then merge the pano’s.  In fact, I would say 95% that I’ve not needed to do so.  Some might say this is a sloppy photography, I say this is my insurance to make sure I have what I need later for post processing, which saves me time by not having to judge thru the camera’s display if my images are absolutely perfect.  Do what you feel comfortable, it is your call for this suggestion.  When bracketing or panning, I usually use Aperture Priority mode, and just make sure that the histogram of each one is within the range, especially no highlight blowout.  A bit dark is OK since with my D800E, the dynamic range is so good in terms of recovering details from the dark end.  This is in essence is saying that “I don’t have lots of time to fiddle with my settings to catch a perfect picture, but I have lots of time to fix some minor issues when doing post processing”.  This philosophy is contradictory with the expert teaching that you do everything perfectly right in the camera first…. Well, I wish that I have the time to stay in a place for hours, and come back again day after day to get the perfect picture in the camera, and especially when I usually travel with my significant other and friends who don’t think photography are their top priority and I have to be abide by this law :).   Hence my method of madness that goes against the grain here.  With that being said, part of my fun and interest also lies with doing post-processing of the images and so it is a challenge for me to get the final results that I like, and I want to point out that this is not the “shoot and pray” approach, but a methodologically way  to capture what I’ll need for later post processing and nothing wrong with getting the perfect pictures in your camera first either…do what you’d like and whatever works.

Benefits of using this lens for landscape:

  • There is very little distortion from the resulted picture, either a single-shot image or a pano.  Even in landscape situations, the distortion at the edges, usually the bottom corners, looks smeared and unacceptable to me.
  • The resulted picture has a natural sharpness that you can discern comparing to other zoom lenses and or even prime Nikon Lenses.  There is such a natural look to the image that I do believe that some of us can readily identify, at least it does to me.  The color rendition is also very natural and the micro-contrast is better than most of other lenses, even a bit better than the other Zeiss lenses that I have, the 35mm F2 ZF.2.  I’m tempting to look at purchasing other Zeiss lenses such as the 85mm or the 135mm based on my experiences with these 2 lenses.  Currently, Zeiss has just released the new versions of these lenses, the Milvus lineups, from 21mm, 35mm, 50mm and 100mm.  There is no new 135mm Milvus…yet, however, there are other ones that I’m salivating right now!
  • Very easy to process in Photoshop or Lighroom and the resulting images look very natural in terms of colors and sharpness that can’t be duplicated by other lenses.  You don’t feel like you want to sharpen it or use too much contrast since the images already look good.

Some drawbacks:

  • Difficult to use them for moving objects such as street photography or moving people where taking pictures happen almost instantaneously.  If you can do it with manual focusing lenses, power to you, of course, unless of course you’ll crank up ISO and/or stop it down.  I’m not street photographer so this is not a big concern for me.  Prior to buying these Zeiss lenses, I was thinking that this is a deal breaker since of course everyone wants to have everything with their lenses, however, we would need to pick and choose the priorities which are important to you.  They don’t make racing cars for normal people like us to drive to work either, right?  Special lenses for specific purposes where they work best.  So to me it is not an issue.
  • The older Zeiss version, the Distagon ZF.2 for Nikon or Canon (ZE), they’re not weather sealed, and the new Milvus lenses are.  However, I’ve used these ZF lenses in adverse conditions and they’ve been performing flawlessly without mildew, foggy, etc.., issues.
  • A bit more heavy than the new Nikon lenses, which mostly are plastics.  However, these are built like a tank.  You can feel the quality and pride, even though this is not a criteria for decision to buy these lenses, but they are nevertheless very nice to look and to hold.
  • The Zeiss 21mm uses a 82mm filter size, which I don’t like too much since I have to carry more filters and/or filter adapters, and the 82mm polarizer is very expensive.
  • The Distagon lens cap is basically useless.  They fall out easily and expensive to replace, therefore, if you own one of these older version, you would need to get the Nikon lens caps,which I did.

So even though these are drawbacks, they’re not something that prevent you from fully enjoying these beautifully made objects, which also create better images for you, and if you’re serious about the results of your work, then I think they’re worth every penny.

Below are some images that I’ve taken in the last trip to Balkan states (Please click on the images to see larger sizes):

Mostar Old Bridge, Bosnia

Mostar Old Bridge, Bosnia

Rovinj, Croatia

Rovinj, Croatia

Rovinj, Croatia

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