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Zeiss / Contax SLR Lenses

by Tom Shea, 1998

Like most photographers attracted to the Contax SLR system, the reputation of the Zeiss lenses was a major inducement to me. Many photographers seem to know of the attractiveness of the Zeiss / Contax SLR lenses, but far fewer know of the attractions of the Contax bodies. After having used this system for a while I actually have found that the bodies are as attractive as the lenses.

All of the Zeiss / Contax SLR lenses are designed by Zeiss in Germany. There are approximately 30 optics available, including five zooms, four special order lenses and three teleconvertors. You can compare this to Canon, which has about 50 optics in its lineup, including a number of lower grade lenses. The range of optics is actually larger than most people think. The only weakness is in long telephoto lenses. With the exception of two very expensive mirror lenses and a special order 600 mm lens, there is nothing over 300 mm in the line. As a practical matter, the Zeiss / Contax system is not very attractive for long telephoto photographers. Since I also use Canon equipment, I find that Canon's strength in long telephotos complements the Contax system. Other than this, the range of quality lenses is a match for any other system. Presently, seven of the Zeiss / Contax optics are manufactured by Zeiss in Germany. All of the others are manufactured under a secretive arrangement by Kyocera in Japan. Kyocera also manufactures all of the Contax bodies.

The mechanical construction of the lenses is excellent. They all have satin black metal barrels with textured rubber grip surfaces. Since they are all manual focus lenses, the focusing action is firm and smooth. The feeling is much different than manually focusing most AF lenses. Since there is no concern about a small motor having to do the work, a substantial damping can be applied. All of the lenses look the same - that is to say, they all have the same finish, the same texture, the same design and the same layout. The engraving and finish quality is outstanding. I am very picky about such things, and these lenses impress me. Occasionally, the Kyocera quality control lets a bad one slip through. I have sent back two of them for defects - one substantial and one trivial. The sturdiness of the Contax lens mounts / camera coupling connectors have sometimes been called into question. They are not as rugged as the Leica or Canon mounts and banging them about can result is misalignment. They are very secure on the camera. The problem comes when left unprotected off the camera. The aperture rings are smooth but do not use ball bearings like the even smoother Leica lenses.

There are two types of Zeiss / Contax lenses - MM and AE. The MM lenses fully support all camera functions, including manual, program, aperture priority and shutter speed priority modes. The AE lenses lack the mechanism that allows the camera body to control the aperture diaphragm in the lens. Accordingly, AE lenses do not function in program or shutter priority modes. Zeiss has gradually been eliminating AE lenses. Only certain specialty lenses are available as AE. The great majority are now all MM lenses.

Now for the real meat - the optical quality. These lenses are excellent - almost uniformly. While some are better than others, there are no "consumer grade" and no poor performers that I have used. However, these lenses are not magical. They are as generally as good as the best Canon L lenses, but past that point I cannot say. I cannot find a meaningful pattern of distinction between these Zeiss lenses and the L lenses in either sharpness, contrast, distortion or light fall off. I would like to be able to say that I have discovered a unique family trait that makes these lenses distinctive, but I cannot. Others may be able to but I cannot. For me there are damn fine lenses but the gods as likely use Nikon or Canon as Zeiss. For what it is worth, each lens brochure has a set of MTF curves and these curves generally bear out these conclusions in comparison with the MTF curves for other lenses. I also note that the published test reports for Zeiss lenses (for what they are worth) also provide the same general perspective. These are almost entirely excellent lenses.

Zeiss has rather quietly continued to upgrade these lenses over the years. On average they seem to have come out with a new lens or two every year. This seems significant to me. Lens technology has developed over the years. Even Leica experts admit that the best 60's vintage lenses are not the standards of today's lenses. Zeiss has not sat on the sidelines, relying on its reputation. Rather, it has kept in the fight, continuing the development of its lenses. Zeiss uses fewer aspherical elements and fewer low dispersion elements than other manufactures such as Canon and Nikon. However, they do use some of each. Perhaps more than any other lens designer, Zeiss uses symmetrical design to minimize distortion. It is also evident that Zeiss thinks they have superior coating technology, which they call T*.

A word about prices. They are all over map and make no sense. A number of fine Zeiss lenses cost under $600 -- relatively reasonable. Some of them are out of sight. For example, the 300 f2.8 is about $12,000, compared to the Canon EF equivalent at under $5,000. The special order lenses like the 600 f 4 are beyond the horizon.

On to the individual lenses

18 f4.0. This is one of the older lens designs, but it works well. There is some light falloff and some distortion. It does not use an aspherical element. It is better for close range photography than at a distance. I like the very wide perspective for occasional dramatic shots. It is relatively inexpensive compared to its two more extreme 16 and 15 mm brothers, which I have not used.

21 f2.8. This a new design and is a gem. It is funny looking, with a very wide (82 mm) front end. It is a long lens for a wide angle - about four inches (an inch longer than the Zeiss 135). It uses low dispersion glass and controls distortion well. This is the best Zeiss wide angle lens in my opinion. However, I have seen a comment that someone thought his was prone to flare. The 92 degree angular field is wide enough to provide drama, and is still remain useful in a broad range of applications.

35 f1.4. This is one of the newer Zeiss lenses. It probably is not as good as the Leica M 35 1.4 aspherical lens. It is a little soft in the corners at 1.4. By 2.8, it is quite sharp across the field. Distortion is well corrected.

35 f2.8. It is easy lens to overlook since it is not very expensive, but its quality is very nice - as good as the 35 1.4 at about one third the price. If you do not need the extra speed, this is a good Zeiss for a basic system.

45 f2.8. The 45 is a tessar 4 element design. It is so small it almost looks like a large lens cap. It is only 11/16 inch in depth. I recommend it for use with the S2 or S2b if one wants a very small SLR package. The lens is surprisingly sharp for such as simple design. but it is not as sharp as either of the 50 mm lenses.

50 f1.4 Could this lens be the sharpest 50 mm lens? It might be, but most 50's are so good, that it is tough to tell.

50 f1.7 By 2.8 I cannot tell the difference between this lens and the 50 1.7. Normal lenses seem to be making a comeback. This one is hard to beat for quality and reasonable value.

85 f1.4 This is the most famous and most often talked about Zeiss SLR lens among Contax users. It is quite sharp for such a fast lens. It is a fine lens, but there is slight softness at the corners when wide open. An 85 is generally considered as a very good focal length for portraits. I don't use it too much because I like tighter head portraits, so I usually move to the 100 or 135.

100 f2.0 The lens is slightly longer than the famous 85. It is not as popular, perhaps because it is so close in focal length to the better known 85. However, it is a newer design and is even slightly sharper. This would rarely if even be evident in a practical sense. For those who care, CDI gave this lens five stars. The decision between this and the 85 is a choice that depends on personal preference of focal length rather than quality.

135 f2.8 This is another forgotten lens. Doesn't anyone use a 135 anymore? I do - for portraits and other general photography. Most people like a shorter focal length, but I like the perspective by staying back and getting in very tight. This is not quite as sharp as the 100 and in fact is not quite as sharp as the Canon 135 2.0. One may be able to see the difference on 16 x 20 prints.

180 2.8 Another famous Zeiss lens here. A sonnar design without low dispersion glass, it received four stars in CDI. It seems very sharp to me, but despite its wonderful reputation, does not seem to be better than the best Canon and Nikon glass at this focal length. This lens does not have a tripod mount - a significant omission in my opinion. While this lens works well with the Mutar III (1.4x) teleconvertor, the omission of the tripod mount makes it unsatisfactory for critical use. It is too heavy and long to use on a tripod, relying on the camera tripod mount.

60 2.8 C macro This is a new, smaller design for a 60 macro. It is about half the size of its big brother 60 2.8 (non c) macro. Additionally, it only provides a magnification ratio of 1:2. It is as sharp a macro as they come. However, it does not have internal focusing so the barrel extends when focusing. Like most macros, if you are very critical, it is not quite as sharp at distances as it is up close.

60 2.8 macro This is the older, bigger brother of the C version. The magnification ration goes to 1:1, as the barrel extends with its very long and precise focusing travel. However, this does not mean that it gives up anything in terms of performance. It received five stars from CDI. How could there be anything sharper than this lens (this side of preparing masks for IC's).

100 2.8 macro I prefer a 100 mm length for a macro because of the increased working distance. This lens has similar performance to the 60 2.8 macro and also provides a magnification ratio of 1:1. Very sharp and heavy. The barrel extends when focusing

28-85 f3.3-4.0 zoom This is one of only five Zeiss / Contax zoom lenses. All of the zoom designs are conservative, and while a zoom lens almost never matches the quality of a good prime, Zeiss has done a good job of producing these zoom lenses. This lens is one of the newest Zeiss lenses and its performance is very fine. It will not quite match the Zeiss primes in the focal length range, but up to 11 x 14, I have great difficulty telling the difference.

35-70 f3.4 zoom The design is even more conservative than the 28-85. However, I can detect no quality difference between the two. Interestingly, Zeiss says that the performance of this lens is equal or superior to that of a fixed focal length lens throughout the zoom range (Humm). It is significantly smaller than the 28-86 and focuses as close as 25 cm.

35-135 f3.3-4.5 zoom This lens is very large and very heavy for the focal length range and speed. It is a very conservative design. Its quality is very excellent, sharp throughout the range. But it does not seem to be very popular, probably because it is so heavy and large. It really needs a tripod mount, which it lacks.

80-200 f 4.0 zoom Although the least sharp of the Zeiss zooms, it still is sharper than the typical consumer zoom. This lens almost seem tiny to me. It is much lighter than the Zeiss 180 2.8. For enlargements up to 8 x 10, any quality difference is difficult for me to detect. I would much rather carry this around than the higher quality 35-135.

100-300 f4.5-5.6 zoom This is one of the newest lenses and it is commendable. It uses three elements of ultra low dispersion glass. It is reputed to be significantly sharper than the Zeiss 300 4.0. The quality is very fine throughout the range. The lens is very light and small, considering its quality performance. For critical work it really needs a tripod mount, but does not have one.

500 Mirotar f8 I have always been wary of mirror lenses. However, when Zeiss recently introduced this one, I bit. It is fairly sharp but is not really in the same league as a good quality telephoto lens. This does not mean it is not useful. It is and I enjoy it, within its limitations. It is fine for enlargements up to 8 x 10. The real challenge to me is using this lens without getting the donut hole effect for out of focus highlights.

Mutar II 2x teleconvertor The quality of this teleconvertor is typical of good 2X convertors. There is no magic here. There is a noticeable reduction in sharpness.

Mutar III 1.4x teleconvertor This is a new design. It is designed to work primarily with the longer focal length Zeiss lenses. It is a very good quality teleconvertor and the images are quite good, although there is a slight degradation of image quality.

Article created 1998

Readers' Comments

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Bob Royse , February 04, 1998; 01:55 A.M.

Like all of Tom Shea's reviews this one is also excellent. I'd like to add some more of my own opinion, though.

The mounts themselves are very rugged. As he mentioned, the aperture couplings can sometimes be awry with a certain camera and lens. If all your equipment is purchased new, then you have a 3 year warranty to have the Contax technicians to set everything right. If not under warranty, Contax will set up all your gear to your satisfaction for a reasonable price.

A good ball head and quick release plate on the camera is all that is necessary to secure the 100- 300 and 180+mutars. Contax camera mounts themselves are secure enough to handle these lenses. The 100-300 really is an amazing optic that deseves to be used like a macro lens - on a tripod with a cable release with the mirror locked.

michael przewrocki switzerland , March 04, 1998; 08:00 P.M.

i have the 35/2.8 pc-distagon. i have never had a better lens. razorsharp even at 2.8 in the corners. i was told that a 25mm PC-shiftlens will come soon. i bought olympus om-system more than 20 years ago. when i had troubles with camera and lensquality-i had to test every lens i bought-i decided to change the system.even leica tells that you have to jump over every second or more pictures when you restart shooting because film is not flat coming out of the cartridge. we have rtsIII with sucking system.contax told they saw differences even at f-stop 5.6. canon/nikon or contax. i made a table with all possibilities/ adavantages/disadvantages. then i weighted/ calculated, and contax/zeiss came out 1978.

Gisle Langslet , May 01, 1998; 06:52 A.M.

Being a contax user since 1980 I would like to add some comments. I started out with the RTS which sure had its quirks, the electronics were unstable, but one feature was outstanding, the shutter release. Large and rounded with ultrashort travel and very light pressure needed. They have compromised this in later models (except the RTS II) and added slightly more travel and pressure to the button. The RTS lacked a shutter release lock and an on/off swithch and I have heard stories of the camera firing off a whole roll of film when left in a bag with winder attached and the button inadvertently pressed. As for later camera models I agree with Tom Shea that the ergonomics is excellent, especially the AE lock feature in combination with exposure compensation and AE-bracketing and in RTS III mirror lock-up, which makes for very efficient triopod shooting. With some practice the AE-lock feature is nearly as fast and foolproof as the evaluative metering systems in the more common SLR cameras. No need for continuous button pressing or finger gymnastics, you just lock the exposure, forget it and concentrate on focusing, composing and shooting. As for the Zeiss lenses contax has deservedly a greater reputation. The Swedish foto magazine Aktuell Fotografi (later splitted in two magazines, Foto and Fotografi) has from 1990 made extensive MTF testing of most of the 35 mm SLR lenses on the market. No. 2/91 tested the zooms 35-70/3,4, 28-85/3,3-40 and 80-200/4 with excellent results, the 28-85, outstanding. In fact I have seen no normal range zoom tested, included Canon EF L zooms, which outperforms it. I bought this zoom in 1994 and it has since been my most used lens. Pitcture quality is excellent. Handling in my opinion is very good, although long at the wide end this is no problem. Focusing and zooming is excellently balanced with just enough tension and dampening. The only drawbacks are the large front element and tiny lens shade which makes it a little prone to reflexes when shooting against the sun, although it is far better in this respect than the Canon 28-80/2,8-4 L which I used for a period. Of course weight may also be a concern, but the weight is less than a 28, 50 and a short tele combined. Handling of the 80-200 zoom on the other hand is in my opinion not so good. The lens is very long, especially with the metal hood 5 mounted it looks like a bazooka. Balance is neither so good and the focusing action is too loose. In the 200 mm end it focuses beyond infinity so you have to be aware when handholding it because it is very easy for the focus to drift when supporting the lens with the very broad focusing ring. As others also have commented on, the contax bayonet is a little to loose withe heavy lenses which makes for visible slippage in the bayonet mount. For my 80-200 this has been even more pronounced after the camera with mounted lens on tripod dropped to the ground resulting in distortion to the bayonet ring on the lens, although I have straightend it, still it is quithe slippy. Picture quality with the 80.200 though is flawless. As for the primes in the wide to short telephoto range, most of them simply are outstanding. Akutell fotografi 1/91 tested 49 wide-angle lenses of all brands, manual focus and autofocus, winner was zeiss 28/2,8. In the same test the 25/2,8 came out rather bad though. I have had this lens for some 15 years, a german AE version and it is as sharp as any other zeiss lens I have used. MTF-testing doesn`t tell everything as we know. No 7/92 tested 34 short to medium tele enses, including all the leicas, winner was zeiss 85/1,4. No 12/92 tested 27 normal lenses, again winner zeiss 50/1,4. A little talked about zeiss lens is the discotinued 100/3,5, a little unobtrusive lens as opposed to the bazooka 80-200 zoom. Picture quality in terms of sharpness and contrast is OUTSTANDING, get one if you can. For prime lens lovers a kit consisting of 28/2,8, 50/1,4 and 100/3,5 is unbeatable in the 35 mm SLR world in terms of picture quality, add to it the new Contax Aria body with evaluative metering and a weight of ca. 450 grams and you have a nice travelling kit. Good luck!

T C Khoo , September 18, 1998; 11:51 P.M.

I use both the Minolta and Contax systems. The Minolta is my workhorse, I use it for day to day shooting. The Contax is for special occasions when I feel self indulgent and have time to think about my photography.

I have the 167MT with the 35/2.8, 50/1.7, 85/1.4 and 135/2.8 primes. Recently I acquired a 2nd Hand 28-85/3.3-4.0 at a very good price.

I like potraiture and people/street photography. The Zeiss lenses are simply excellent, and very much my cup of tea. Sharpness, contrast and overall brilliance are top notch, but for me, it is the colour rendition and bokeh which I find truly outstanding. Compared to my Minolta glass, sharpness and contrast at times are equal, but it is in the colours and the quality of the background where the CZs just pull away.

Overall, I love both my Minolta and Contax systems, but in different ways. The Minolta is technologically advanced, solid, dependable and purposeful. The Contax and CZs feel wonderful to the touch, a little quirky, but have brilliant performance. How do you choose between Porsche and Ferrari. At the end of the day, it really depends on the photographer/driver. I'm just glad to say that I am lucky enought to be able to access both.

PS...Just bot a Contax T2 compact, after much deliberation. Although I have owned and use numerous compacts, including some posh ones, for me, nothing sits quite in my hand and stirs my soul as this little beauty. And I haven't even run a roll thru it yet.

bo war , October 03, 1998; 03:55 P.M.

Great page. I am a Zeiss Contax fan from the word go. I just recently bought a near mint 40-80 zoom, and although I am aware that they have not been made for 10 or 12 years, I haven't been able to find any test reports in any of the older issues of POP or Modern . Any idea of the quality relative to the other Zeiss zooms?

Dave Kemp , January 21, 1999; 12:22 A.M.

In his review of Contax Zeiss lenses, Tom Shea asks of the 50/1.4 lens, "Could this lens be the sharpest 50mm lens?" Well, Tom, as a matter of fact it seems that indeed it is. For anyone interested in the Contax Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50/1.4 lens, the Feb. 1999 issue of Popular Photography contains an intriguing article/comparative test, "The Great 50/1.4 Shootout" (p. 66), in which this lens is pretty comprehensively tested against the comparable lenses from Canon, Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax, and Schneider. Details of the tripartite testing procedure are given. The results were that the Zeiss lens "delivered the best overall image quality of any of the seven 50/1.4 SLR lenses in our test group." (The runners up were the Canon EF and the Leica Summilux-R.) Clearly this is one hell of a lens.

Bob Shaw , June 03, 1999; 02:47 A.M.

It ain't easy once you take the T* plunge. One becomes a sort of photo-Ronin. Not really an outcast, but definately not one of the guys. You'll take a lot of ribbing about what you paid, how much they weigh, what you coulda/shoulda bought for the same money.

And it has taken more than a year for me to get past the Leica Anxiety Syndrome (LAS). Call me Lacking in Character, but this is a confession, after all.

By LAS, I mean I started buying Contax and Zeiss T* a little more than two years ago and had to reckon with the, "wonder if I should have bought Leica?" thing.

At the end of the day, I have sort of covered the waterfront on this matter and have made my bones with Contax and Zeiss T*. I'm presently pretty much done buying and am using the following products:

- RTS II Body - RX Body - 21mm f2.8 - 50mm f1.4 - 100 f2.0 - 100/300 f4.5 Zoom (all reviewed by my betters above).

And my constant companion, the T2. Not even a cool black one. Just an older eveyday shiny titanium model (How such images come from such a little lens in such a clunky, chunky point and shoot, I'll never know.)

So, what's my point?

My point is, that, after many rolls of Kodak ASA 64, 100 and 200, Fuji NPH, Kodak E100 chrome, Ilford XP2 and Kodak B&Ws, I seem to have made most of the really dumb, classic composition, focus and exposure mistakes. All with this admittedly spendy gear.

But wait - when I remember the basics, use my tripod, think about what the big, bright Contax finder shows me, the T* lenses never, ever let me down.

Like a really good restaurant, they provide consistent, delicious results. And after a while, you just don't give a damn about what you paid for them.

And pretty soon, the Leica anxiety reaction fades away. Great stuff, Leica. But I'm finally in the T* rhythm, forgetting about the number of elements, bokeh, flare, vignetting (guaranteed with the T2 in an intense blue sky shot) and just think about the shot. Took me two painful yearsto let go of that baggage.

So in case you're wondering, these lenses work well, deliver as advertised and seem to perform better the more you use them. Yes, they are heavy, low-tech (they don't look at your pupil or into your cerebral cortex a la Canon) and sometimes look funny (the 21mm Distagon, for example).

But if you use them on a regular basis, they start making it easy to know when you got a good exposure, and never seem to be the reason the shot failed to develop or print well.

Evey time I attend a camera show or swap meet and pick up other brands, other lenses, something seems to be missing (unless it's Leica or older Nikkor or Zuiko glass; somewhat similar feel).

What you've read above in this fine web site from other T* users also came true for me:

- Superb bokeh (especially with the 100 f2.0) - Uniform image density edge to edge (all lenses I presently own) - Color remembered through the finder (except for some bad lab work) - Very predictable sharpness regardless of the focal length - even the mondo bizarro-looking 21mm f2.8) - The only 100/300 Zoom I might use for portraits

When I do my job right, these lenses produce results that make me smile when I open the envelope - every time. They do exactly what you tell them to do.

If I was into photography for a living, I'd have to have a larger set of these lenses, if only to be sure I had the best possible tools.

Many thanks to Mssrs. Greenspun, Yamamoto, Shea and Royce (I bought Bob's 100/300) for their comments and ongoing support. I'll be happy to discuss my experience with each of these lenses (and bodies) and fess up as to why I ended up with each one.

Robert Gordon , August 05, 1999; 08:29 P.M.

I have used a Zeiss 28-85mm lens for three years. It is first rate mechanically and optically. However, for travel photography, it's quite a load. Six months ago I bought the Zeizz 28-70mm lens. It is far smaller, as good optically, and much easier when travelling. The loss of 1/2 f/stop is ordinarily not a serious problem--unless you are using a Polarizing filter. The macro feature at 70mm is a bonus. I will keep my 28-85 because until I buy the recently announced 85mm f/1.4 macro lens.

Vince Farnsworth , April 07, 2000; 04:25 P.M.

For those who may be interested, I have posted an evaluation of some Contax 200 mm lenses at the "Neighbor to Neighbor" section of this site.

Meryl Arbing , June 28, 2000; 11:26 P.M.

Thanks to the contributors on this forum. I have read all the comments and suggestions very carefully and I have proceeded to build a system based around Zeiss lenses. I have the 50/1.4, 28/2.8 and the 135/2.8 which all have been reviewed and commented upon here. Needless to say, I have been very happy with them. I have started with a cheap body (Yashica 108MP)to get myself started and concentrated on getting the best glass I could afford. A true Contax body will come soon (with the Yashica becoming a backup). I think I can afford a 167MT I saw used in my local camera store. What can I add to the words that others have already said except to affirm that the lenses are exceptional. Of course, I have received strange looks and questions from more mainstream camera users who ask "You think those lenses will make you take better pictures?" Well, I don't think that using Zeiss lenses will make me a better photographer but I know that if the pictures are not as good as they could be, I will have little cause to blame the equipment and more reason to look at my application of the principles of composition; my understanding of exposure...etc. When I look at my shots that have not worked (and there have been lots of them) I can see where I went wrong but not where the lenses have let me down. These are NOT my only Zeiss lens cameras. I have the Yashica T4 Super (with the Tessar 35/3.5) as well as the Sony DSC-F505 with a Vario-Sonnar 7.1-35.5mm (equivalent to a 38-190mm on a 35mm camera)/f2.8-3.3 and I have also had great experiences with these cameras as well.

Henrik Rundgren , November 10, 2000; 03:42 P.M.

Hi folks. Having used Contax lenses extensively for some years I must add my angle of view... ...so to speak. Contax is unsurpassed in terms of performance when it comes to the wide angle lenses and up to 100mm. Yes, some other brands lenses will tie the Zeiss glass for sure, and some might even be better - but the consistency of Zeiss performance throughout the range is hard to beat. Except for the 25mm, which I found very disappointing at full aperture, all wides are as good as they get. (Have or have used: 18/4, 25/2.8, 28/2.8, 35/2.8 and have for the G the 21/2.8 and the 28/2.8.) Well wandering astray, from my the point I was trying to make, I am. Back on track. The point is, from 135mm and onwards the Zeiss lenses for Contax aren't that great, in my opinion. Not the lenses the mortal man can afford at least. (the 200/2 and 300/2.8 are arguably among the best lenses ever made, but at a rocky horror pice tag...) Have had the 135mm2.8 which isn't very sharp wide open but gets near decent stopped down. Good value for money? Maybe. But when you are used to flawless performance wide open from the other lenses this one sticks out in a negative way. The 180mm2.8 is heavy and not very sharp wide open or even stopped down to f4. Down to f8 it gets better but never pops your eyes out. The 200/3.5 is equally heavy and I have had some very nice shots at close range with this lens, still I cannot say its a splendid performer. The Tessar 200/4 is lightweight and this lens is good value for money - performance wide open though is... ...need I say it? Still, a bargain lens from the Zeiss line up. The Vario-Sonnar is Vario good. As a travellers lens this is a good lens, 55mm filter size, lightweight and very good performance for a zoom. Between 80-135 this is a very good performer only to drop significantly at the long end. Kyocera (I.e Contax) also make the Vario-Elmar 80-200/4 for Leica (!) at the same plant, but the Leica version is optically and mechanically superior. If only they could change the mount... Yeah I am whining but the preiss of Zice calls for some great results don't you think? Have you managed to read this far? Then I have great news for you; there IS an affordable telephoto-lens that matches the very best: the 135mm2.0 Zeiss Planar... Wide open (what did you expect?) it isn't splendid. But stop down and you can't help but fall in love with this short but hefty lens! It is RAZOR-sharp, as good as teles get! If only I wasn't so poor so I had to sell this beauty in order to finance my travelling... I miss it big-time, and over here in Sweden you can't find them. One MAJOR drawback though, is that the glass is so heavy that the barrel is very unpleasant to focus as the weight of the glass grips the barrel and makes focusing a pain at close range! A service rep told me he couldn't fix it; the lens was as well lubricated as it gets. For portraits the focusing was very awkward. Pity. If you shoot landscapes/infinity range THIS IS THE LENS FOR YOU! If you ever saw enlargements (24x30cm) made from this lens compared to the others above you would agree. And if you cannot see the difference, change lab. Or get a grip on your manual printing.

Well, held in comparison to other brands the Zeiss glass excels, except for the aforementioned teles except for the 135/2 Planar. I have used Nikon 180/2.8ED both AF/MF and they were as good as or better. Also had a brief play with the Leica APO-Telyt 180/3.4 which is simply the best tele lens I have tried so far - wide open or stopped down doesn't matter! (Stopped down I really cannot tell the 135/2 and this one apart, but wide open it's easy) It delivers... It only focuses down to 2.6 meters though, which sucks, but still I am on the lookout for this lens. I guess I'll have to live with getting the cheapest Leica body to accommodate this lens (R3?) and haul it around to complement my Contax setup (no I am not switching brands) because once you have seen the difference there is no going back...

Thank you for your time. I expect to get executed for my disregarding the Zeiss teles, but hey - it's just my opinion... ...and I do love the other lenses.

Jonathan Brewer , November 10, 2000; 06:47 P.M.

I would like to address two issues. The Leica versus Contax/Carl Zeiss debate and the autofocus/ax/N1/MF issue.

There are many owners of both these systems who waste time arguing about which system is better, sharper, worth the money, and on and on. A true mesurement of the performance these systems involvles the right film, mounting the camera/lens on a tripod, remote shutter, mirror up, the right test target, color chart, and on and on.

How we measure the performance of a lens doesn't approach the conditons under which we somethimes shoot. Sometimes we have to shoot handheld, in lowlight, with slower shutter speeds, faster than we would like, and guess what? We still on occasion end up with great shots! Sometimes these less than optimum conditions under which we shoot contribute to the nuances, the patina, a special look, that gives the greatness to a shot.

It does't make any difference that your lenses optimum aperture is 5.6 when you got a shot in front of you ready to take and the sun has gone down. What are you going to do, not take the shot? You take the shot anyway and may something magical happens that you hadn't anticipated. That has happened to me. It can and will happen to you, but not if you're wrapped up in numbers and what the lens technically will and won't do.

After a certain amount of study and then subsequent experience, you will be able to take a look at your work, and along with some feedback from other knowledgeable photographers, and a reasoned comparison of other work in relation to your own, you will eventually know deep down whether you are going to be as good as you want to be and whether it is really worth it to upgrade to a top tier system. This is not to be confused with the behavior of the compulsive gearhead who buys for reasons other than need.

The learning curve is such that after working with the equipment you could afford, you get good enough to approach the limits of system. It is now time to start thinking of Leica or Contax/Zeiss or some other brands. You will not always use these systems to their performance limits but it's there when you need it. You purchase these systems because you will grow into them and grow with them. When it gets down to Leica or Contax/Carl Zeiss, these are two of the best systems on the planet, and whichever one you choose should be because of feel, comfort, ergonomics and availability. One of these systems or one of the other fine systems on the market will enable you to do you best work.

A camera/lens combination should be an extension of your arm, eye, and mind. I've been doing this for 27 years and I have a camera that I am so use to, that I will take shots and I will not remember lifting the camera to my eye or focusing or firing the shutter. There are time when it becomes a reflex that I'm not consious of, and it has resulted in some of my best pictures.

You want to find a system that becomes part of you. You are going to have to physically handle the system, take pictures, and see the results. It is human nature and nothing to be ashamed of to acknowled the fact that we all perform better, and feel more comfortable around thing we like, and awkward around things we don't like. Same with cameras.

I read the thread where someone comments "do you really think those lenses will make you a better photographer". This snide comment reinforces the notion of how obnoxious some people can be when they think they are right. There is nothing wrong with buying a system that you intend to grow into. You don't have to wait till you're Scavullo to upgrade to leica or Contax/Carl Zeiss. Yes, there are people who strut around with these systems who have point and shoot ability and they are only fooling themselves or are so wealthy that it does'nt make any difference.

I've read a lot of the comments on various autofocus systems. I'd like to bring up the art of selective focus. Selective focus is as important to an image as exposure and framing.

I have an AX which in addition to autofocus also has an amazing amount of features which I don't think a lot of folks consider when thinking of it as only a autofocus camera. I heard comments on various posts about how primitive the autofocus is on the AX. I've heard people brag about the do everything autofocus and do everything autoexposure features of some systems.

Using a camera totally on autofocus and autoexposure unless you're a sports or news photographer is not utilizing the most creative tools you have which are your brains. Selective focus and manual exposure can create some nuances, emphasis, shading, patina, and a look that you cannot get with the camera on auto. Isn't that the whole point?

Jeff Lorriman , December 02, 2001; 04:26 P.M.

I got rid of my CZ 300 f4 because I could get a decently sharp photo from it. I replaced it with a CZ 100-300 that is far, far better in my opinion. Jeff L

Sing Lo , October 22, 2002; 11:30 A.M.

I would like to add my comments on the Mirotar 500/F8. Like most people I was sceptical of Mirror lenses because there are many badly made models in the market. However, the Zeiss Mirotar is an absolutely stunning performer. It is my favorite Zeiss lenses apart from the 85F1.4. It is very sharp with good contrast right to the edges. The image illumination is very uniform right to the edges (less than one stop loss of light). Previously, I used the Yashica mirror 500/f8 Contax mounted lens, it suffers light loss over 2 stops at the edges!! Reflective opitics does not suffer from chromatic abbreviation which commonly occurs in refractive super telephoto lenses. Therefore, Mirotar can only be outperformed by conventional super-telephoto lenses made with special expensive UD or fluorite glasses. Regarding the out-of-focus dognut highlights, I agree they can be annoying but I have taken many pictures with none of them appearing at all (in fact the quality are so good that they can fool people thinking that they are taken with a very good conventional refractive super-telephoto lenses). Many people got poor pictures from Mirotar lenses because of mainly focusing errors caused by the dim viewfinder and using slow films while handheld the camera. I find it is not difficult to get pin sharp pictures handheld using ISO 400 films under sunny conditions.

Daniel Geiger , November 24, 2003; 02:28 P.M.

I put a few comments on Zeiss lenses (50/1.4, 21, 100 macro, 180/2.8, stacking 50 on 100) under the general Contax discussion. Have a look if you're interested.

Daniel Geiger

Laszlo Horvath , April 22, 2004; 07:08 A.M.

I've just bought into the Contax manual focus system. Why did I do that? I've already owned german made lenses that is old Pentacon and Carl Zeiss lenses from the '70s and '80s. Those lenses had almost the same mechanical design and layout of the present Carl Zeiss lenses. The most significant difference between those and newer lenses is that on the older lenses the gripping surfaces is not rubberized and the apperture ring closes down when turned from left to right.

The construction of the older East-German lenses was all metal as well, with the same very fine black finish. Those lenses were (and they stilr are) as rugged as hell. They are almost indestructible by normal use. I used them for about four years (but I bought them used), for jurnalism and travel photography on a Praktica camera. I fell in the water with the 50mm/1.8, during a flood, I dropped them several time. Among those dropped several times was a 135mm/2.8 as well. The ring supporting the filters deformed so I cannot attach a filter on it any more, but no lens have been broken or affected in any other way except the filter ring on the front of the lens. Remember I dropped is twice from 1m on concrete and no lense broken or even misaligned. The same happend with each lens I owned. The only reason for wich the lenses had to be dissasembled was that they needed cleansing (after more than 10 years of use and non use) and lubrication of the aperture blades.

I've read some comments that the best lenses from the 60's are not the standard of todays lenses. That is probably right, but my lenses from the end of the 70's and beginning of the 80's have had great optical quality, I could make enlargments of 30x40cm without any significant problems. Actually my enlarger has been a very old Polish Krokus, wich I inherited from my Grandfather. I upgraded it with one of my 50mm Pentacon lenses and I obtained very good results with my B&W enlargments. I had several succesful exhibitions from the pictures obtained in said way. Sharpness was no problem even at that size, the only problem wich I noticed was slight softness in the corners with my Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35mm/2.4.

The lenses had a lot of appeal, so that when I left Romania for Germany and I lent my entire equippment to my father, he hasn't given it back to me any more. I needed a camera and lenses, so I decided to go again for Zeiss lenses because I was in love with the old ones. Luckily I have a good job, so I could afford to buy in a new Contax/Zeiss system. I said that if the new lenses would be at least as good as the old ones, I would be pleased.

The all metal construction of the Zeiss lenses (almost not at all different from the old Jena and Pentacon lenses) was one of my strongest reason for buying them. I new for sure that they would last at least twenty years, since I had the twenty years old lenses. If you look at the Canon range you will find that only the most expensive lenses are made of metal. The finish of the manual Nikkor lenses is rougher and they do not creat that strong impression of fine qouality as the Zeiss range. I know because I also thought of buying the Nikon FM3A wich is also an attractive camera.

I was also very confident of the consistent optical quality of the Zeiss lenses based on my previous experiences with the older ones. The only Pentacon lenses with a lower quality were those assembled in Romania and rejected by the Pentacon quality control wich were later on sold on the Romanian market. Except of the latter case I have never met anybody dissapointed by the East-German lenses.

So, about two weeks ago I bought a Contax Aria, with a Distagon 25mm/2.8 and a Planar 85mm/1.4 to start with. These lenses cost approximatly the same amount of money in Germany as the comparable manual focus lenses from Nikon. The only thing wich I found unusual was the opposite direction in wich the aperture ring closes down the lens, wich I still haven't got completly used to.. In rest everything has the same feel and touch as the Jena/Pentacon screw mount lenses. I find that great and this prooves the high standard wich these brands have always employed.

Let's get to the optical quality. Let's say that it is AMAZING! I shot slides for the first time in my life. I shot about 20 rolls of Fuji Sensia 100 in Amsterdam, The Hague, Leiden and some other Dutch cities. I scanned the positives with a Nikon Coolscan 4000 at a resolution of 3000dpi. I could count the bricks in those beautiful Dutch buildings and bridges. I found no softness in the corners with any of the two lenses wich I have. There is a slight distorsion thorugh the edges with the 25mm lens but I don't find that bothering. I haven't tried the 25mm lens wide open, I have only shot at aperture values of 4, 5.6 and 8. O.K. I know that most of the lenses have the maximum performance around these aperture values.

I used the 85mm lens at the aperture value 2 and smaller, since there was too much light. But I find that performance is great, the backround blur is beautiful.

I cannot compare the optical performance of these lenses to the other systems, since I haven't used anything else but Zeiss and Pentacon, all my life. My father also used only Zeiss and Pentacon. But the simple fact that I have the material proof that these lenses will last for very many years in normal use without developing any significant problems (normal use meaning even occasional abuse, like accidentally dropping the lens when changing them and also intesive journalism) is a reason good enough for me to spend the money on them. It is like with the Mercedes G series or the Puch Pinzgauer all terrain vechicels. You pay a lot when you buy them, but you will need very little maintainance, over the twenty or more years of life span, reliability (I never missed a picture because of the malfunction of any of my old lenses. The camera body had lots of problems, but not the lenses. I used them in freezing winter, let them in the hot sunlight, fell in water and so on), and uncompromised optical quality.

So the if you divide the preis of the lens by the number of years they will last they are not so expensive any more. And it is almost sure when you buy, that you will not get a faulty lens, or one which has a lower quality because the lenses do not optically fit well together.

I recommend this system to anybody who does not necessarily need the autofocus feature.

Vincent DiPietro , June 01, 2005; 11:40 A.M.

"35 f2.8. It is easy lens to overlook since it is not very expensive, but its quality is very nice - as good as the 35 1.4 at about one third the price. If you do not need the extra speed, this is a good Zeiss for a basic system. "

This was the last lens that I purchased and the only Zeiss lens that I ever bought new. I wanted to use it for street photography and have been using it for that. Much to my surprise it is very good for street portraiture as well as street scenics. I think it is a very versatile lens. It is very sharp and one of my favorite lenses.

The 45 Tessar to me is a stunning lens. I think it renders the image in an almost magical manner. I love this lens!

The 50 1.4 & 1.7 are both superb. In fact the 1.4 AE is what got me back to using prime lenses again instead of Zooms.

Not mentioned above (I guess because they were no longer in production)are the 25 2.8 and the 85 2.8 . Both are very fine performers. The 25 is great for scenics and the 85 for outdoor portraits or indoor with proper lighting. THe 85 is about the size of the 50 1.4. I find as I get older that it is much easier to carry around small primes than the larger heaftier Zooms.

28-70 CZ This lens may not be as tack sharp as some other Zeiss offerings but it still has that warm, romantic Zeiss rendering to it. At 28 there is noticable distortion. But for travel on bright days this lens is fine.

35-135 This lens is as sharp as any of my primes. It is a very heavy lens but it is one of the great lenses of all time. I used to use it extensivly but as the years go on I tend to use my primes. Also for street photography a small lens may be less intimidating than a huge lens like the 35-135 Zoom. But for special occasions this lens is top notch.

Hank Hanacek , August 17, 2006; 10:19 P.M.

Reading the review above has me puzzled... I have several Zeiss lenses, which I use with my Nikons (Russian adapter) and find them excellent. My 180 Sonnar 2.8 DOES have a built-in tripod mount on the barrel, and I don't believe I would ever use it hand-held for many shots, due to its weight.

Were some early models supplied without the mount?

Mark Maxon , November 23, 2006; 12:17 A.M.


Where can I get an adapter like the one you have for your Nikons?

THanks, Mark Maxon osfania@yahoo.com

Claire Senft , May 08, 2007; 10:01 A.M.

I have 8 prime Zeiss lenses that I use on an RTSIII..21 2.8, 28 2.8, 35 2.8, 35 pc 2.8, 50 1.4, 60 2.8, 100 2, 200 2. Additionally, I have a 28 pc 2.8 Super Angulon from a Leica R which has had the adapter changed from Leica R to Contax C /Y. Not a clinker in the bunch. Just as an aside. The Zeiss 35mm PC, is in my opinion, is superior to the Leica PC but I find 28mm to be a more generally useful focal length than 35mm for the work I enjoy doing with a pc lens.

J Sevigny , November 07, 2008; 11:05 P.M.

I have the Contax 50mm 1.7 (the only Zeiss glass I've ever used) and it´s definitely the sharpest 50mm I've ever owned.

As Shea mentions, 50mm lenses are really good in general. Even the worst Nikkor at that focal length is more than enough for most photographers.

I'm hoping to find a reasonably priced 35mm lens, but unfortunately, with so many people now buying adaptors and using Zeiss glass with their canon SLRs, it seems like the prices are going up.

Hello Hello , January 29, 2010; 01:48 P.M.

i'm thinking about getting an early Leica-R 35mm Summicron, but wanted to know first how it compares against the Contax Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.8.

I know with the Leica I''ll have one more stop, and I do shoot low-light, but I can accept the compensation in shutter or ISO.

so which do you prefer? thanks!

Roger Qiu , August 01, 2010; 04:48 P.M.

sun flower

I have the 35mm 2.8 Leica. Small, solid and great lens. It is great for close-ups, streets but not for landscapes so far according to my short period of use. (Few weeks)

The bokeh shooting close in large apertures are amazing. Here is an example shot yesterday-a sunflower

Rob Oresteen , January 20, 2011; 11:06 P.M.

I have a 25 2.8, 50 1.4, 85 1.4, & 135 2.8.


All are excellent...if they are "soft" in the corners wide open, I haven't noticed. And really, who would?

Wilson Laidlaw , May 03, 2013; 06:31 P.M.

Does anyone know if you can or has tried stacking a Mutar I and Mutar II. I was thinking of trying this on my Tele-Tessar 300mm. The II would need to go nearest the lens due to its mechanical configuration. I don't think I could damage anything. This would give me a 1200mm lens on my Leica M240 - spectacular. I got both Mutars as the II works on the T-T 300 and the I works on my 28-85 Vario Sonnar. These are great performing lenses on the M240 with an Adriano Lolli Contax to Leica M adapter, which I have modified to bring up the R lens menu on the 240.

The Tele Tessar is distinctly better than either of my Leica Telyt 280/f4.8's (S2 and S3), with higher resolving power and contrast together with sharper unvignetted corners. The Vario Sonnar is as good as the Leica 28-90 Vario Elmarit R at a fraction of the price. I got a virtually unused V-S for €350. I would not get a decent Vario Elmarit-R for under €4000.


William Blankson , July 31, 2013; 03:23 P.M.

I had 28/2.8; 50/1.4; 135/2.8; 180/2.8

Now got 35-70/3.4 and 85/1.4 both MM versions and are keepers.

Don't need anything else to cover from landscape; urban; macro and portraits.

Will likely add either 28/2.0 'Hollywood' or a 35/1.4 for urban/streets...am leaning towards 35/1.4.

Body is 1Ds MK3 - yep, kept that and did not jump to all the new latest & greatest. This body is fantastic when you know how to use it even at ISO 3200.


Only Canon lens am looking for will be the 70-200...am leaning towards the 2.8 MK2 to use wide open.


Great thread and a reference point which I have been coming to for over 4 years...!




Wilson Laidlaw , November 21, 2013; 05:33 A.M.

Does anyone know if any of the Mutars I, II or III, work with the 100-300 Vario Sonnar? My suspicion is that none of them do, as this lens is not listed by Zeiss on their compatibility charts for the Mutars. It may just be that these lists pre-date this lens, which if memory serves me correct, was not released until the early/mid 1990’s. I would have thought Zeiss would have listed it with a “3” code, showing non-compatibility, if the list was complete and the Mutars did not work. I already have Mutars I and II. 

The reason I ask is that in order to reduce the amount of gear I cart around, I am thinking of selling my Leica 80-200/f4-R plus 2X extender-R and Zeiss Contax 300/f4 Tele-Tessar and replacing both lenses with just the 100-300 VS. This also means I will not need to carry around an R to M adapter but just the Novoflex CX/Y to M (LEM-CONT) for my Leica M240. The official Leica R to M adapter is still not available, even though I have had it on order for 15 months and I am using a cheapo no-name Fleabay one, whose quality leaves a lot to be desired. 


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