In the early days of Instagram I had the opportunity to work with some amazing brands using my telephone camera as a primary shooter. During these projects I felt a deep sense of pride knowing that I was supplementing my living as a designer by pointing my telephone at something and pressing a button. However, as time passed I became more enamored with photography as an art form, and I quickly developed an uncomfortable awareness that I knew very little about the craft.
The desire to learn more sparked my return to shooting film, and since then I’ve bought and sold numerous cameras in an attempt to find the one that would best complement my shooting style. After shooting SLRs exclusively for roughly six months, I finally decided to try a rangefinder. Suddenly, everything changed. I was in love. I purchased a mint black Canonet QL17 GIII and quickly began to understand why so many great street photographers opt for the rangefinder as their weapon of choice. They’re discrete and fast to focus, leaving one’s keen eye to compose and do the heavy lifting.
After owning a handful of QL17s and various other compact and inexpensive rangefinders, I found myself wandering dangerously close to the precipice of Leica ownership. My foot slipped into the void when I purchased a Leitz Minolta CL, and I knew the mythical world of M-mount glass was about to open up to me. But reality isn’t without a sense of humor, and I quickly discovered that the price of Wetzlar-made M-mount optics meant Leica glass simply wasn’t in the cards for me.
Fast forward to just a few months ago. My wife has an uncanny ability to memorize and catalog everything I blather on about and truly knows how to cut right to the core of me, and for our latest anniversary she dealt a whopper of a surprise. On that day she gifted me a gorgeous Zeiss Ikon ZM and a Zeiss 35mm F/2.8 C Biogon T* ZM lens (the latter being the focus of this article). The C Biogon is a special lens (both sentimentally for me, and optically), and I simply want to shout its praises from the top of a mountain. Hopefully you aren’t deafened by my shrill.
Intended for use as a system with the now discontinued Zeiss Ikon ZM (where ZM stands for Zeiss M-mount), the C Biogon will work on any M-mount body, including the Leica M series, CL, and CLE, some of which lack native frame lines for this wildly popular focal length.
The “C” stands for compact, and how wonderfully compact it is. Any 35mm street shooter will find the C Biogon’s size and weight (178g) an absolute delight. Even on my lighter weight CL, the lens feels balanced and playful, not front-heavy and awkward as do some larger lenses. Finder blockage is a non-issue; even with the hood on, it barely eclipses the finder window (that goes for the more compact CL and CLE as well).
In a sea of outstanding 35mm manual focus M-mount lenses there are those that ride a wave above the rest. Surely anyone who’s done even the smallest amount of research knows that there are varying degrees of optical precision and unique characteristics harped on by all in-the-know. Chromatic aberration, distortion, and sharpness are frequently muttered terms in certain circles, however, in the case of the Zeiss C Biogon, the conversation becomes much simpler.
Let’s begin with what many say is the greatest claim to this lens’ fame – sharpness. If sharp images are important to you, this lens should definitely be on your radar. Many experienced shooters say that it outperforms lenses thrice the price, and while I can’t attest to that personally, I can say that it has produced some of the sharpest results I’ve ever seen from a lens. Even at its widest aperture of F/f2.8, images are extremely sharp corner to corner.
While there may be minor instances of chromatic aberration and distortion, they are completely inconsequential to my eye. Technically, I consider this lens to be outstanding; and while I haven’t shot it on a digital body (and don’t ever plan to), I suspect that similar results will be achieved by anyone stacking it in front of a digital sensor.
I find it renders clean and crisp, but not entirely clinical. For a modern lens, it carries with it a certain classic charm. It goes without saying that a near optically perfect lens like this will exhibit loads of contrast, and for someone who likes to push film, this can work favorably. I often choose to push black and white 400 speed film to 1600 in order to get the contrast I’m looking for; however, when shooting with this lens, a one stop push is generally all I need. This allows a great degree of flexibility when moving from indoor to outdoor environments; especially if your shutter tops out at 1/1000 of a second.
Out of focus objects are still discernible yet rendered in a non-distracting and surprisingly pleasing manner, but if you lust for a bit more bokeh then perhaps the lens’ faster F/2 brother is worth a look. That said, bokeh (or shallow depth-of-field) isn’t typically something I stress over given my fondness for street shooting, so I don’t need this lens to be the fastest 35 around. It does pretty well at isolating foreground subjects, but if bokeh is your ultimate metric for what makes a lens amazing, certainly do more research before committing to the F/2.8.
If Zeiss is well known for optical fidelity, they’re equally lauded for their craftsmanship, and this carries through in the 35/2.8. Every angle, curve, and detail of this lens emanates quality. From the subtle details of the font weighted lens barrel to the laser-etched knurling on the focus ring, we’re constantly reminded that we’re shooting with a precision instrument. The focus ring and integrated nub provide a nicely damped tactile feedback, and rather than rely solely on a finger-notched tab as with some other lenses, focus can be controlled via the ring’s protrusion or in the more traditional grab-and-twist method. It’s quite gratifying to quickly find focus with either technique, and I never feel as if my fingers lack grip. Coupled with my Zeiss Ikon ZM, it’s apparent that the design culture within camp Zeiss is one of innovation. While other brands are content to rehash or relentlessly exhaust tradition, Zeiss seems to be staring forward with only subtle glances to the past.
The third stop aperture click from f2.8 to f22 provide a utilitarian feel that no other lens has been able to match for me. Each turn of the aperture ring floats smoothly and consistently until unambiguous clicks inform the user of its intended destination. And if you’re looking for a lens that offers more precise exposure control than most, the C Biogon has a clear advantage over lesser lenses’ half-stop aperture adjustments.
The lens is offered in both silver and black finish, and while lens color is often a personal cosmetic choice, in the case of the C Biogon the silver version’s paint makes for higher contrast and easier viewing of the lens’ markings. This can be especially useful when on-the-fly focus adjustments are necessary in order to match the appropriate zone scale marks on the inner barrel.
Accolades noted, this lens does bring with it a few nagging issues. First, the Zeiss lens cap is absolute rubbish. It’s cheap, flimsy, and really doesn’t match the quality that we expect from Zeiss. While it conveniently snaps on to the lens with the hood attached, I can’t help but feel like one wrong move and it’ll end up in pieces. Second, I’m shocked that a lens of this caliber doesn’t come with a hood in the first place. Am I foolish to think that Zeiss could have easily padded a wonderful resume of touch points by including a relatively inexpensive piece of metal in the box? Lastly, the 43mm filter thread is a bit of an oddball size. I personally don’t use filters, but if you’re already invested in Leica glass, you’ll need to purchase a new set of filters, or perhaps a step down ring as an alternative for any 39mm filters you may already own. But that’s about it for complaints.
And a quick bit of advice should you decide to add this fine piece of glass to your M-mount arsenal. Unless you absolutely need to match Zeiss branding, do yourself a favor and opt for the less expensive Voigtlander LH-6 lens hood over the Zeiss hood. It’s literally the same hood, roughly twenty dollars cheaper, and it’ll pull double-duty if you already own the Voigtlander Nokton 40mm F/1.4.
After months of shooting it, the C Biogon has earned permanent placement on my Zeiss Ikon ZM. Zeiss has created what I consider to be the perfect 35mm street lens, and unless you’re a brand loyalist or have a lot of money to spend, I can’t see why anyone would pass this lens over for a higher priced alternative. Sure, there are faster 35s for less money, but none of them are as sharp or technically astute as this little marvel.
Then again, it’s not as if the lens comes cheap. At $900, you’re going to have to decide if the Biogon is worth it. If you own an M-mount body with 35mm frame lines, it is. Its performance to price ratio is arguably better than any other 35mm M-mount lens available. If you’re a CLE or CL owner the decision will be trickier. Without native 35mm frame lines, shooting this lens on these camera will involve a fair bit of guesswork. In my own experience with the CL, the 35mm framing equates roughly to the entire viewable area in the viewfinder, and that’s perfectly fine by me. Besides, any rangefinder fan knows that frame lines can’t be trusted anyway.
For those who choose to buy, expect to be impressed. This lens is wonderfully sharp, built with precision, and extremely compact. If you’re like me and enjoy street photography more than any other photographic discipline, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more sensible 35mm candidate for your M-mount body. And if you value practicality over prestige, then the Zeiss 35mm F/2.8 C Biogon T* ZM is the best manual focus 35mm M-mount lens money can buy.