Complicated lenses; time-consuming test, simple conclusion: don’t buy the Nikon; if you can afford it, buy the Contax – if you can’t, get the Olympus.
The Zeiss PC-Distagon really is special: it just does everything brilliantly – but it is expensive. No more expensive relative to its competition than, say, a Mark Levinson amplifier, but it just won’t be on the shopping list for many users. If you need the best 35mm shift lens there is, there’s no question that the Zeiss is it. Having said that, the first thing I did after crowning the Zeiss was to attempt to knock it off its throne with the Zörk PSA-mounted Pentax FA35mm . . . more on that later.
The Olympus is a great little lens, though, and the nicest of the bunch to use: it’s the only one that connects to the camera without the shift mechanism trying to rotate – no arthritis-inducing contortions are required when demounting it. Also, it shifts 13mm in the vertical, which is a real boon. However, for optimal results, it is strictly limited to f11/f16. But in its sweet spot, with the sun in the right place, it comes so close to the Zeiss that you might wonder whether the extra spend is a wise investment. And if you can find a multicoated one, you might not even have to worry about pointing it at lights . . . .
Tested apart from this pair, you might like the Nikon: the flare resistance and distortion and pretty good, and it’s not bad at f8-f16, but you do not want to shift this lens into the Forbidden Zone, which I would suggest is about 7mm even at optimal apertures. This sample, at least, just fell apart optically at this point.
So it’s got to be the Contax: crisp like nothing else designed for 35mm, impeccable distortion control and flare resistance, peerlessly CA-corrected, resolution to spare for that 22MP sensor upgrade, and all the Zeiss trademark colour and microcontrast. It’s the balance of strengths and virtues that justifies its price tag, not just the ‘sharpness’.
A question now arises, however, as to how the biggest fish in the little pond compares to the biggest fish in a bigger pond: will the CZ35 PC outperform the finest medium format ultrawide: the tragically discontinued Pentax 645 FA 35mm? We’ll be finding out . . . .