Saturday, July 22, 2023

Carl Zeiss lenses for Contax SLR - summary table

The title says it all. I've compiled a spreadsheet of all of the Carl Zeiss lenses made for the Contax SLR system, 1975-2001. These are highly-prized lenses that were often very expensive when released. The best performers are once again expensive, since it is difficult to find good copies. This table can help you build a set and confirm reasonable prices. 

Driving the popularity of Contax Zeiss is the fact it's easy to use these lenses on digital mirrorless cameras using cheap adapters. You will not have auto-focus or auto-exposure, but that is not an issue for videography, and is something most stills photographers can deal with. 

For my money, these are the best lenses available that cover the 135 film frame. I've loved them since I briefly used a couple circa 1985. Why?

  • The design is clean and elegant, bettered only by certain Leica lenses that I will never afford.
  • The aperture ring turns with a smooth ease that is unsurpassed. This makes stop-down metering a treat. While I also love Pentax glass, the aperture ring is stiffer.
  • Focusing is as easy as one can expect, thanks to the clarity of the image wide open. Zeiss is not a company that makes a lens with poor open performance. 
  • The rendering is second to none. Certain lenses have a wonderful 3D pop that is difficult to find elsewhere.
  • The bokeh is smooth. The early AE lenses have a distinctive "ninja star" look at certain apertures, but the later MM series does not. 
  • The coating is excellent in preventing flare and preserving contrast. As good as the Pentax coatings.
  • The colour rendering is neutral, unlike classic Leica lenses. Really my favourite rendering alongside Pentax.
  • They are a reasonable size for the quality you get, though not the smallest lenses imaginable. Leica M mount has tinier glass and there are some distinctive SLR lenses that are small (e.g. Pentax 43mm Limited).
  • Unlike all other manufacturers, Zeiss provide actual MTF charts from real tests. I only wish they went into more detail!
Contax Zeiss Planar 50/1.4, Makro-Planar C 60/2.8, Sonnar 85/2.8

OK, so what don't I like?

  • The extravagant prices of the very best models.
  • The unavoidable fact that these lenses are old and hence might be in poor repair. You take your chances on the used market.
  • The minimum focus distance lenses of all the lenses over 50mm focal (except the macros) is a meter. I prefer close focus lenses for my style of photography.

I started this spreadsheet for my own interest many years ago and more recently filled in the details. You can use this table to make your own purchase decisions. The columns for price might prevent you getting ripped off!

Using the spreadsheet

Download the latest spreadsheet from my web server. If you are having trouble, it's likely because your web browser does not have MIME type for spreadsheets. Right-click (or long press if you have a touch OS) on the URL and download. Or, you can copy the URL and paste into your browser bar. (I remember when the internet used to work!)

Use the spreadsheet columns to filter and sort. For example, say you want a compact set with a unified 55mm filter, each lens less than 300g. It's easy to determine that the following lens set would fit the bill. 

  • Distagon T* 28mm f/2.8
  • Distagon T* 35mm f/2.8
  • Planar T* 50mm f/1.4
  • Makro-Planar T* 60mm C f/2.8
  • Sonnar T* 85mm f/2.8
  • Sonnar T* 100mm f/3.5

An MMJ set of the above would run about €2200 on commercial websites (including eBay). I would hope to pay less buying directly from a photographer. Note that three of those lenses are in the photos here.

For half that price, a perfect beginner trifecta is:

  • Distagon T* 28mm f/2.8
  • Planar T* 50mm f/1.4
  • Sonnar T* 85mm f/2.8

Why don't I have a photo of the Distagon 28/2.8? Because I actually own the Pentax version of the 28/2. Though lovely, it would look out of place here. 

Other ranges

Note that the table does not include the Contax G Rangefinder lenses, Contax 645 lenses or other formats. Yashica also made lenses for the Contax-Yashica (CY) mount, but these are not known to be special.

The "Classic" Zeiss range was released in ZF (Nikon), ZE (Canon) and ZK (Pentax) mounts. These are mostly different element formulas from the Contax predecessors. They might be technically "better" but will not have the same rendering. These four lenses are exceptions, in that they have identical or very similar formulas:

  • Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8
  • Distagon T* 25mm f/2.8
  • Planar T* 50mm f/1.4
  • Planar T* 85mm f1.4

The only current Zeiss lens that has the same formula as the Contax equivalent is:

  • Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8
With some sadness it must be noted that Zeiss has recently exited the lens market entirely. For years they released only large manual focus lenses. This has not proven to be a good business decision.


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