Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.