CONTAX’S EYES
Last update: March 8, 2002
Rino Giardiello, marzo 2001

Contax cameras adopt since their birth the mythical Zeiss lenses. Even though part of the production has moved to Japan, the standard remains nevertheless very high and a Zeiss lens, new or used, modern or "seasoned", remains yet an outstanding tool for capturing images.

Much discussion has taken place, and still goes on, on the actual superiority of Zeiss lenses. Every now and then some magazine, optical mire at hand, demonstrates that the resolving power (ability of reproducing a certain number of lines per millimetre) of a Zeiss lens is often lower than that of less titled ones that cost half as much. Absolutely true, except the method being incorrect. The goodness of a final image is not entirely given by resolving power (often our eyes or lab prints unify all values on very low levels), but also by contrast and a series of other aberrations that are only partly, if at all, corrected. What do we value most in a photograph? That it had bright colours, appeared sharp, that the lens did not generate a thousand unpleasant flares or was veiled if backlit and, if interested in art or architecture photography, that there were no distortions, i.e. that straight lines were reproduced as such and not more or less curved. Zeiss lenses set off in this direction, that is, to deliver excellent global performances in any shooting condition and not just at the beach during summer at f/8 or f/11 like many zooms of "astonishing" yield. Resolving power? Just enough for actual image sharpness and not for setting a record effective only on paper.

Which of the images at left is best?

The lower looks certainly better, it nonetheless contains less "information" (= resolving power) than the upper one. The example shows a limit case: in real world facts, all lenses are placed between the two. The top photograph was taken with a lens of high resolving power and little contrast, the one at bottom with a lens of high contrast and little resolving power. The enlargements highlight the difference, in the lower picture the beard's details are totally inexistent, yet it globally appears better.

Zeiss lenses, as it is with German tradition, are much closer to the lower example picture that, I repeat, is intentionally exaggerated for better explaining the idea.
(Images Courtesy Zeiss Archive)

CONTAX REFLEX SYSTEM

For reasons of space, technical specs (# of lenses, groups, dimensions, etc.) of lenses are not reported since they can be easily found on any brochure or magazine. What you won't find on brochures are notes on the actual performances of the lenses and here they are according to our personal experiences.

15/3.5 Distagon - Fantastic lens (unfortunately the price is also). Aberrations are super corrected for a lens of this kind and the performance is always excellent, at the top of the category. Perfect for architecture and in all cases where all its 110° of field of view are needed.

16/2.8 - Fisheye lens with total covering of photogram and main filters embodied. Performance stands up to the name it carries, characterized by a very bright contrast. Only for enthusiasts of the category or for those who are in real need.

18/4 Distagon - Has residuals of a strange "S" shaped distortion (really inconsequential, negligible) and produces slight vignetting wide open (we are still at minimum values for this focal length), but the price is much lower than for the 15/3.5 and is also more "human" to carry along. Has very high contrast and delivers images of saturated and bright colours without the need of underexposing or polarizing. Excellent for general use where a good 100° of field of view are needed.

21/2.8 Distagon - Is one of the most recent wide angles. Performance is excellent in all conditions and lens is optimally corrected: unfortunately weight and price are sensible.

25/2.8 Distagon - Often misconsidered for the not really outstanding rendering of borders (especially for samples produced up until 1984, it has since been modified and improved without outcry nor advertising, as Zeiss always does), but that fits in line with lenses of this focal length, it is preferable over the 28/2.8 (less expensive) for the nearly total absence of distortion and vignetting, the bright contrast and, when needed, a few more degrees of field.

28/2 Distagon - Very fast and well corrected, has to its disadvantage size, weight and steep price even when used. Incredible sense of "ariosity" (hard to assess with a test) with colour slides. A floating element optimizes performance from infinity to the closest focussing distance.

28/2.8 Distagon - The most traditional of wide angles with the "normal" speed (f/2.8 represents now a standard) which makes it attractive as for price also. The output is excellent (even though up to 1984 borders at full aperture were not exciting) and only traces of distortions and vignetting are left. Very light and compact, it can be found used at very convenient prices (we still talk of Zeiss, of course) and can an excellent all-round wide-angle.

35/1.4 Distagon - Just as big as the Planar 85/1.4, it has only become affordable thanks to the "Made in Japan " production. Performance at full aperture, keeping in mind the high speed, is unchallenged, so as the global performance in critical and low light conditions. The aspherical element and a floating one optimise the lens's performance from minimum distance to infinity (even though you will not notice it during everyday use, a "normal", i.e. without special elements, does not perform uniformly for different focussing distances).

35/2.8 Distagon - Reasonably priced lens but with excellent performance, the ideal for the standard all-round lens more flexible with respect to the "usual" 50mm. Rendering from centre t borders is so uniform that the lens can be also used for the reproduction of big tables or panels thanks also to its excellently corrected distortion. Colours are bright, but not exaggerated, less dazzling and more natural than those produced by the 25/2.8 and by the Distagon 28/2.8.

35/2.8 PC-Distagon (shift) - Excellent lens, one of the best of its category, only limited in the use that applies to it by its focal length. In architecture, a 28mm with shift would at least be needed (even if all architects dream of at least an 18mm with shift with inexistent distortion and vignetting).

45/2.8 Tessar - Agreeable mini-lens with non exceptional performance as usually thought, even if it is in any case high. Visible vignetting at full aperture. Despite its higher price, it is definitely less valid than the Planar 50/1.7 that, besides all, is 1 stop faster. Only useful for those who, combining it to an old 139 or 159 body or to the Contax Aria, wants a reflex that nearly fits in the pocket (but better at this point a compact like the Yashica T5 with the Tessar really breast pocket!).

50/1.7 Planar - Excellent standard lens with an extremely favourable quality/price ratio. All aberrations are perfectly corrected and performance is high starting already at full aperture, even a tiny bit better than the 1.4 lacking, though, its fantastic image plasticity.

50/1.4 Planar - Just half a stop faster for almost twice the price don't favour this lens that, on paper and magazines tests, performs almost identically to its smaller brother and, to be picky, just a little less at wider apertures. Unfortunately plasticity, ariosity, tridimensionality and bokeh do not appear in tests and it is here that the 50/1.4 shows all its class. Should be used it in the field to be appreciated.

60/2.8 MACRO-PLANAR - Available in two versions: the first, the "old", bigger, heavy and pricey, reaches a 1:1 reproduction factor without needing accessories. The second, more recent, is definitely more compact and light, but only attains 1:2 (price is also lower). The quality of both lenses is the same, high in any case, and nearly constant from infinity to the greatest enlargement factor (both improve with the increase of magnification).

85/2.8 SONNAR - Small and compact lens of excellent performance, was removed from production due to its price too close to that of the 1.4 version that offers 2 speed stops more and a certainly superior performance especially in portraits thanks to an exceptional bokeh (the 85/2.8 is too contrasty and is better for general use). It went back into production together with the Contax Aria, but gets in and out price lists by varying fate. Its optical scheme has been wholly carried to the 90/2.8 for the G system (performances are identical: MTF curves provided by Zeiss are overlayable). If found used at a good price is with no doubt a nice buy.

85/1.4 PLANAR - Excellent high speed medium tele, ideal for those who love available light portrait and often works in low light conditions. Invaluable for its plasticity in portraiture and the smooth and gradual out of focus, and the sense of tridimensionality. "Made in Japan" production has made it affordable and has improved wide open performance, although I must add, as a personal impression, it has "stolen" exactly a bit of plasticity (it remains nonetheless an excellent lens, one of the absolute best of its category, the best as value for money).

85/1.2 PLANAR - A special run for a really special lens: all that's been said on the 85/1.4 holds - in better - for this fantastic lens also that really has no competitor.

100/2 PLANAR - An unusually long focal length for the Planar scheme, but an exceptional lens by all means (performances, dimensions, weight and price). The optical performance and the evenness at all apertures are worthy a macro les, so as the quality at full aperture. Many prefer it to the 85/1.4 for general use because of its higher image brightness (and I agree), but the latter stays unmatched in portraits and in worst light conditions.

100/2.8 MACRO - Another excellent lens that reaches by itself to 1:1 magnification. Remarkable correction of astigmatism and distortion. Very sharp and bright images, one of the best 100 macro in production.

100/3.5 SONNAR - Compact and light medium tele that has knows a short period of glory in the '80s together with the Tessar 45/2.8. Performance is good, excellent with respect to price, and boasts an incredible uniformity, worthy a macro lens. To be picky it lacks the 85/2.8 grit (whose price, at the time, was exactly the same).

100/4 PLANAR Bellow - Particular lens without the focussing helicoids, born to be solely used with the bellows. The performance also suffers from "specialization": a very good performance, but normal for a lens of this category, is faced by an unequalled performance at higher magnification factors, almost no difference between centre and borders even at full aperture, and practically absent distortion.

135/2.8 SONNAR - It is a compact and fairly economic medium tele with excellent performance beginning at the widest aperture. 135mm focal was the preferred some ten years ago, today replaced by 70-210 zooms and alike. Yet which equally priced zoom offers the same brightness and performance at same aperture? Any brand's original 135/2.8 is still today a valid lens, light, compact, can be bought second hand at more than affordable prices. Why do you then keep obstinately on buying the various Junkgon 70-210 with variable 4.5/5.6 maximum aperture but that only begin to perform well at f/8 or f/11? Use feet and head, not Junkgons (and Contax users don't you underestimate this excellent 135/2.8 produced by Zeiss, it too improved in 1984)!

135/2 PLANAR - This too is an exceptional piece, but heavy, bulky and pricey. Performance at full aperture is excellent (it is optimised for this necessity), but it does not make sense to invest in a lens of this kind if you don't really need to use the extra stop compared to the more economic 135/2.8 and if you always works in full sun at intermediate apertures. All aberrations well corrected (there remain traces of distortion, negligible for a lens of this kind).

180/2.8 SONNAR - Born on occasion of the famous Berlin Olympic games (hence the original "Olympia Sonnar" name), it is a lens studied to deliver maximum performance at full aperture with outstanding uniformity from centre to borders. It long stayed as a term of comparison for other manufacturers and is a lens of great class still today. Among the finest in its category, even though, undoubtedly, it complains its age: its no longer winning resolving power is on the other hand made up for by a remarkable contrast that delivers very bright and colourful images, and well above average plasticity. Globally still an excellent lens today.

200/3.5 TELE-TESSAR - While still being a more than notable tele, it never shined own light, mainly because of the 180/2.8 that in the '80s, with "only" 150'000 more liras, offered a lot more, especially at full aperture. Good uniformity of performance between centre and borders at all apertures, excellent at f/5.6 that matches the maximum. The shortcoming of this lens is actually its performance at full aperture, really modest (the 180/2.8 Sonnar at f/2.8 is much more performant than the 200/3.5 at f/5.6) and poorer than the 180/2.8 aus Jena that, for those who want to use it at full aperture for interiors shooting, is a very good buy. Leaving its limits at full aperture, it's still a valid lens, well corrected, that won't let you down.

200/4 TELE-TESSAR - Recent lens that came out after years of "gap" to substitute the 200/3.5 that went out of production. Very compact and more than notable as for performance (even though it strongly reminds me the Yashica 200/4 that went out of production, and doesn't after all offer much more compared to the old 3.5 than an outstanding compactness and weightlessness), it went unnoticed in the history of Zeiss. Excellent performance at f/8 and evenness between centre and borders even at full aperture, minor traces of distortion and a light

300/4 TELE-TESSAR - The lens has been designed to perform wonderfully at the widest apertures and it succeeds. Centre and borders, beside having really high performance, are just about identical, worth a macro lens and up to the 180/2.8 of which would be the ideal companion. Contrast is high, distortion extremely reduced; a little vignetting is left at full aperture that completely disappears at f/8.

Zoom 40-80 F/3.5 - It was the first Zeiss zoom for Contax together with the legendary 70-200/3.5. Small, light, compact, with fixed maximum aperture with the varying of focal length, it did not receive the success it deserved due to its very steep price, 2x only zoom range and unusual focal length of little use (better a 35-70mm). Quality is very high both at centre and borders starting at f/3.5 and extremely high at f/8. Hints of vignetting and distortion at 40mm, disappear at 55mm to come back at the longest length (80mm) although in a light form.

Zoom 35-70 F/3.4 - Pity for the zoom range of 2x only, there would otherwise not be anything to say against this zoom of fantastic performance, acceptable speed (yes, it is not 2.8 like competitors have got us used to, but for a half stop less a much superior quality is achieved) and remarkable compactness. As my personal opinion, though, a 2x zoom is of little use and can be well replaced with a halfway through fixed focal, the 50mm in this case, that with lower cost and size offers higher speed to which year 2000 users are by now  disaccustomed.

Zoom 28-70 F/3.5-4.5 - Born together with the Contax Aria, this small and fairly reasonably priced zoom offers highly regarded performances not very different from those of the higher priced 28-85. Excellent output starting from maximum aperture at all focals and no noticeable differences between centre and borders. Valuable correction of distortion (very modest at 28mm and nonexistent from 35mm to 70mm), and control of backlight, the reduced focussing distance is very helpful.

Zoom 28-85 - The performance of this lens at single focal lengths is always excellent, often equal to or better than the corresponding Zeiss fixed focal lenses. The only shortcomings that made me decide to remove this excellent zoom (but could not bother you, so take them fairly) are:

  • Distortion at 28mm, lower than that of similar zooms, but unbearable for those who like me love architecture photography. At about 35mm distortions becomes almost invisible, but 35mm are not enough for architecture.
  • Variable aperture with varying focal length. Not a problem with available light or TTL flash, but try using it with a studio flash and hand meter! A professional lens should always keep constant aperture (Zeiss 35-70, 80-200 and old 70-210 do so, as well as the "professional"s of any other brand and Zeiss 28-85, for its price range, should be placed among professionals).
  • The excessive (for a Zeiss) flare at 28mm caused by the huge front element. I have unfortunately been spoiled by all other Zeiss, even though I have to say the 28-85 behaves better than many fixed focal lenses (leaving zooms aside) by other brands. Excellent minimum focussing distance, on the other hand, for once on the longest focal, instead of the standard 5 cm from the front element at wide-angle setting, or uncomfortable macro buttons.

Zoom 35-135 - It was the zoom I had been waiting for, with the perfect focal length to do everything, partnered perhaps by the 25/2.8 or 18/4 to go everywhere. The zoom's performance don't let expectations down, always very high in every situation, and do not show the minimum decay with the increase of focal length. Distortion and vignetting are for my taste excessive at the shortest focal, although less (much less) than competitors. At 135mm, the lens is practically perfect, even if we keep hold of a 135/4.5, which in some cases can turn out being slow. Another shortcoming to my personal use, common to many other zooms of this kind: variable speed with the varying of focal length brings problems to the use with studio flash.

Zoom 70-210 F/3.5 - Fabulous zoom with unchanging speed when changing focal, unfortunately high priced and later replaced by the 80-200 f/4 with a much more affordable price. Performance is even at all focals from centre to borders and very high at full aperture also. Very well corrected ("almost inexistent" would some magazines say) vignetting and distortion. Heavy and bulky, but with exceptional colour rendering.

Zoom 80-200 F/4 - Really excellent. Performance, according to MTF tests provided by Zeiss itself, is always equal to or better than the corresponding Zeiss' fixed focals and the use in the field confirms this, even if it lacks "that certain something" that has me preferring fixed focals. The lens is compact, light, rather reasonably priced thanks to being Made in Japan and keeps using the same economical 55mm filters of most other Zeiss lenses. The ideal lens? Almost. Unfortunately the f/4 maximum speed (constant for all focals and with a really high performance) is a bit too little to  replace two cost effective pieces such as the 85/2.8 and the 135/2.8 (which after all could suffice by itself), but if you absolutely need a zoom.

SCREW MOUNT ZEISS (Aus Jena)

These are the lenses produced in East Germany Jena (original Zeiss homeland) that equipped screw mount Praktica. Do not confuse these Zeiss Jena's practical notes with those of equivalent lenses produced by Pentacon (e.g. the Pentacon 300/4) which are other thing (completely different optical design). "Zeiss aus Jena" are excellent lenses, they still are Zeiss after all, not equal their western brothers, but in any case still today able to deliver excellent performances higher that those of many zooms or lenses also below the million [liras]. It is worthwhile mentioning them because, having the famous 42x1 screw mount, they ca be used on modern Contax and Yashica bodies with a suit adapter ring (but also on Pentax, and on the Contax AX they can indeed be used in autofocus mode!). They do not fail infinity focus (as opposed to what happens with reflex bodies by other brands if not using adapting rings with a lens inside that would nullify the quality) and can easily work in aperture priority mode (even though stopping down dims the image). Some of the latest samples even had excellent coating (they can be recognised by the MC label, which is printed in red instead of white).

20/2.8 Flektogon - Those who bought one of these lenses new a few years ago at some trade fair for less than half a million [liras] is still very happy for the good deal. It is an excellent extreme wide-angle of very high speed, good general performance and excellent contrast. Distortion is perfectly corrected. At full aperture, the borders are overcorrected compared to the centre, but in practical use, nothing is noticed.

80/1.8 - Where would you find a medium tele of this speed for a few hundred thousand liras? It surely is not worth the modern "Made in West Germany " 85/1.4, but is still anyway an excellent lens for those who love to work with available light. It also is very small and light. Odd 80mm focal length, but the difference from the usual 85mm is in practice negligible.

135/3.5 - Watch out! The 135/3.5 is a "Zeiss aus Jena ", excellent lens, the similar 135/2.8 is a Pentacon, not bad, but definitely poorer. The performance of this small and extremely compact tele is really excellent, already at full aperture, and the difference between centre and borders is nearly nonexistent. Even if equipped with a built-in shade it really does not need it: the last samples' coating with the red MC is excellent! Another value mark: minimum focussing distance is as close as 1m, meaning having a nearly-macro 135mm available, unquestionably a lot more of a macro than many zooms that instead boast of being such, staying yet at a rather safe distance from the subject being shot. It can be found at really low prices.

180/2.8 SONNAR - The legendary "Olympia Sonnar" (so called after Berlin 's Olympic games where it was unveiled) is the direct forerunner of the 180/2.8 for modern Contax reflex. Unfortunately weight and bulk are really high, but it has to be pointed out that at full aperture it still has his say (to be picky the image is a bit soft compared to a modern 180/2.8 of any good brand, costing though at least five times as much: it can therefore be got along with). The heavy weight has as good side allowing shooting handheld at rather low speeds (I get to 1/30 of a second without problem).

200/2.8 SONNAR - Updated version of the 180/2.8, designed and optimized for the 24x36 format exclusively. I have heard really good talk about it but never had chance to try one. If any good hearted reader is willing to lend it for carrying some tests out .

300/4 - It is perhaps the least convincing of the group, although it is yet a good bargain considering the price. Performance at full aperture is good, but not as excellent as for the 180/2.8 that, moreover, offers one more stop. At f/5.6 and f/8, we are on very good levels, higher than many third party lenses that cost more than twice. Let us not forget the possibility to mount the 180 and 300 on 6x6 Pentacon Six or Kiev 60 bodies to have some fun with medium format.

RANGEFINDER CONTAX G SYSTEM

16/8 Hologon - Legendary lens, rare to the point of being unique, of extremely compact dimension (almost disappears when mounted on camera) and of amazing performance. All this has a price (and I do not just mean that made up of many little liras one on top of the other): effective speed is f/8 that becomes f/11 when mounting the essential centre filter to compensate the much evident vignetting typical of the Hologon scheme. It does not work in autofocus mode, but this is of no use since the lens is virtually always on focus. A splendid lens of null distortion, the forbidden dream of all architecture photographers, but limited in the use by its very low speed and by its coupling to a rangefinder camera.

21/2.8 - An extreme wide-angle of wonderful performance, both with colour and black and white. Remarkable correction of aberrations and extremely high sharpness. The only drawback is the need to use it with a separate viewfinder, with the framing problems that follow; we would otherwise undoubtedly advice it to all architecture photographers.

28/2.8 - Nothing to do with its Contax reflex brother as for optical scheme and performance. It is a lens with fantastic performance, corrected to the extent that resulting images look like they were taken with a "normal" focal length. At full aperture already the performance is excellent, the contrast high and the images bright, under very low light also. Distortion, if present, is unnoticeable. The incredible thing about this lens is the "every thing on focus" feeling even at full aperture, which does not happen with usual 28mm for reflex cameras and often with lenses of shorter focal lengths (24mm) either.

35/2 - Many, like me, think of the 35mm as the lens that should be considered "normal" on small format cameras, and this is a high quality, fast 35mm, as small as the 45/2 for the G system as well, that nothing does but to confirm this theory. The Contax G 35/2 is a good lens, but with a slightly different performance compared to the others: it is a bit soft at full aperture. It actually produces images that are more plastic (it can be noticed when using colour slides above all), not as gritty a performer as the 45/2 at the same aperture, and not comparable to the 35/1.4 for the reflex system either, even at f/1.4. It should though be remarked that the price of the two 35mm is very different, so as are weight and bulk. It could be said that, among the Contax G optics, it is the lens with a "less Zeiss and more Leica" performance, and from this point on is a matter of taste, like often happens in photography and not only there.

45/2 - Little words for a lens that makes those who snobbishly disregard "normal" lenses take their words back: it is excellent starting at full aperture already, crisp and well corrected. Beautiful bokeh with black and white especially. The outstanding performance at full aperture makes me prefer it to the 35/2, length that, on the other hand, I consider most favourable as "normal".

90/2.8 - How much talk went on (in foreign countries; never in Italy !) about the Contax G1 focussing problems with this lens! The problems were actually there and I personally detected them with a series of cross-tests (several G1 bodies with several 90/2.8 lenses). It is anyways the case of simple software tuning that support is perfectly able to do, so if in doubt it is enough doing some focussing tests at full aperture. The lens, on the other hand, is really excellent and has nothing to do with these problems. Unfortunate enough it "only" is f/2.8: on a rangefinder camera, I would have liked an f/2 better (35mm and 90mm, both f/2, are an excellent duo for travelling the world with a rangefinder, at a yet affordable price compared to the f/1.4s).

Further notes on the performance of lenses for the Contax G system (in Italian!)

Rino Giardiello © 03/2001
Riproduzione Riservata

Traduzione in inglese di Giacomo Girino.