Today’s lens review isn’t going to change the way you take photos, and if you’re already shooting a fast fifty don’t expect to be surprised. Today’s lens review, while certainly worth reading (don’t you dare), may even be just a bit boring, because we’re talking about a lens that will be totally redundant for those of you who are happy with your 50mm. But for the right shooter, the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 in Contax / Yashica mount will offer something few other lenses can.
Why am I so sure you won’t be startled by the next few hundred words? Because this lens isn’t anything we haven’t all seen before. A fast fifty capable of making amazing images, with excellent optical coatings from a well-loved brand? We’ve shot the same from Nikon, Canon, Leica, Pentax, Minolta… the list goes on. And when Zeiss made this lens they weren’t looking to stir things up. The Zeiss Planar is about as by-the-book as any 50mm you’ll ever shoot; it’s based on an optical design invented in the waning years of the 1800s. And though it may be old, this long history of fine optical creations has helped Zeiss become the master of something other brands still struggle with – feel. More on that later. Let’s first talk about the meat-and-potatoes of all lenses – the image.
The Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 in C/Y mount is the quintessential fast fifty, and it comes with all the wonders and pitfalls that this well-trod ground brings. Great low-light performance, with bokeh, sharpness, and versatility in spades, it also suffers from softness in the corners and heavy vignetting shot wide open. It brings a standard focal length that’s versatile enough to handle everything from landscapes to portraits, and a compact form factor that’s hard to beat. As mentioned, there’s nothing here to blaze new trails. What it does it does very well, and where it stumbles it does so to no greater degree than its contemporary competition. But let’s take a closer look.
The hallmark of any 50mm/1.4 is the way it allows you to easily shoot in low light conditions. This lens does that. When mated to a film camera (Contax or Yashica), it lets you shoot the type of film you want in whatever conditions you find yourself. I’ve carried this lens on a Contax SLR through sunny days in the park and dimly lit hockey games. It does its job, sucking in as much light as is needed to expose your stock. And when mounted to today’s mirrorless cameras via adapter, the high ISO performance of which has really surpassed our wildest dreams from the DSLR-only days, there’s no situation too dark for a 50/1.4.
As in all things photography, this low light performance comes with a compromise, and while it isn’t enough to discourage my enjoyment of the lens it is something to consider. Shooting at F/1.4 we’re at the mercy of razor-thin depth-of-field. To make usable images we’re going to need to be accurate with our focus, and since this is a manual-focus lens, nailing pinpoint focus can be a challenge. With film cameras (which typically feature a split-image focusing aid) the task is easy; with modern digital cameras it can be tough (even with focus peaking and focus-tones). Practice makes perfect, surely, but expect to miss some shots when you’re shooting at F/1.4.
The compromises don’t stop there. Wide-open shooting means we’re seeing softer corners and light fall-off. The former isn’t a glaring problem, since the only times we’d need corner sharpness is when we’re shooting landscapes, cityscapes, or similar, and we’re never going to shoot this style of photography wide-open anyway. But light fall-off (also called vignetting) is pretty pronounced. This shows as a general darkening around the edges and corners of the frame. Again, not a massive issue since it’s so common amongst fast prime lenses and is so easily correctable in post-processing, but prudence dictates I mention it.
I’ve also noticed fairly significant chromatic aberration when shooting wide-open, which surprised me given how often I’ve read that this particular lens doesn’t produce CA. For those not in-the-know, chromatic aberration presents as color-fringing (usually a magenta or yellow “double image” effect) around high contrast areas of a photo. It’s not the worst offender I’ve ever shot, but the color-fringes are impossible to ignore.
All this said, these sort of wide-open issues are not the exception when discussing 50mm lenses, but are rather the rule. I’ve yet to find a fast fifty legacy lens that doesn’t exhibit every one of these optical qualms. They all vignette, they all suffer soft corners, and they all color-fringe at wide-open aperture. Happily, the Zeiss does well to mitigate these issues, and is among the least egregious offenders I’ve shot.
Bokeh is really well-blended when we’re shooting at minimum focus distance, which is approximately fifteen inches, but as our subject gets further from the front element we start to see a bit of a distracting edginess to the blur. Subject isolation at normal operating distance is more than acceptable, the quality of the background blur just isn’t as smooth as some other bokeh-masters I’ve shot. Highlight bokeh looks shimmery wide-open, and as we stop down the aperture, the six-bladed diaphragm creates some fairly harsh geometry. Like it or not, the choice is up to you, but there are admittedly better options if bokeh is your qualifier for what makes a lens great.
When we stop down to F/2, most of our wide-open issues resolve. The vignetting is still there, surely, but sharpness in the corners snaps to the quality seen in the center of the frame quite quickly, and chromatic aberration all but disappears. By F/2.8 and F/4 this lens is making images that are, practically speaking, perfect. Sharp across the frame, well-lit, and free of any aberrations, from F/4 to F/11 we’re getting nothing but excellent results. Distortion is minimal to non-existent, and those minimally bulging lateral lines that do crop up can be easily fixed in post (a simple slider fixes this).
Sharpness at all apertures is better than most legacy 50mm/1.4s, and very comparable to another legacy lens known for amazing sharpness, Nikon’s Nikkor 50mm F/1.4 AIS. This Nikkor, which is my standard lens for product photography, is about as sharp as anyone will ever need and the Zeiss Planar matches it. There are certainly sharper lenses available, even counting nearly identical new lenses from none other than Zeiss, but not at this legacy lens’ low-ish price, and unless you’re an obsessive pixel-peeper you should be happy with images made through this glass.
All told, sort of hum-drum, right? There’s nothing here that’s gotten you all jazzed up to scour eBay, I know. The Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 behaves as countless high-quality legacy fifties have and do – it’s capable in all things, and more than exceptional when we work within its sweet spot. So what makes the Zeiss one of the only legacy fifties I’ve kept, rather than sell off through my shop? Two reasons – one not so tangible, and one very much so.
The first reason I’ve held onto this lens is that there’s a certain quality to the images the lens makes that’s hard to quantify. Some of the more experienced readers will be rolling their eyes, aware of what’s about to be read. Believe me, I’ve rolled my eyes many times at the notion of Zeiss’ reputed 3D pop. What does that even mean?
I can’t answer that, and when pressed I’d still call it all a bunch of hogwash, but I do see (occasionally) a quality to some of my images made with this lens that I can’t seem to replicate in other lenses (aside from Nikon’s Nikkor 105mm F/2.5, which has brought out the same effect in some of my photos – but that’s not a 50mm). What I’m referring to is a certain depth that I can’t find elsewhere. It might be the quality of the gradation between in-focus and out-of-focus elements of a frame. Or maybe its the lens’ ability to find micro-contrast where others don’t. Or it could be a product of Zeiss’ T-star coatings eliminating flares (which it does exceptionally well) and boosting overall contrast. I don’t really know, and I like to keep things casual (no MTF charts here, fellas), but I do see that in my most successful shots with this lens there’s a real sense of depth and scale that I struggle to find when I use other 50mm lenses.
I know. Hogwash. But whichever side of the fence you fall on regarding 3D pop, there’s no denying the second reason this lens won’t leave my bag.
Where the Zeiss sets itself apart and above most other lenses is in its truly exceptional build quality. The 50mm Planar feels more like a scientific instrument than an object to be mounted on your typical vacationers’ SLR. It’s precise in a way that few objects in this world are, and when compared to other lenses from other manufacturers there’s not much to argue over. The Zeiss is the best.
Aside from the wonderfully textured rubber coatings surrounding the aperture ring and focus ring, and naturally the glass elements, there’s nothing on the exterior of this lens that isn’t metal. In an era in which many makers used metal for their lens barrels, the Zeiss carries this material throughout, choosing metal for even the nameplate bezel, filter threads, and aperture ring, areas where other makers typically cut cost through the use of plastic.
Focus throw is weighted perfectly, offering just the right amount of resistance. The aperture ring clicks into its detents with mechanical certainty and a satisfyingly muted click. These tactile stimuli transform the all-manual nature of the lens from what might be a hamstringing chore on lesser lenses into a pleasurably measured workflow. Set aperture, set shutter speed, focus, shoot. No finger dials or buzzing AF motors. This is photography.
This fine application of moving parts, sophisticated material selection, and high-precision build all combine into an object that’s simply wonderful to feel and hold and use. Like a manual-wind watch, it may not be the technical champion in its class, but it has something the others don’t. Whether or not this finery is worth the extra cost that accompanies it is up to you. There are lenses out there that will give you results that are just as good at half the price (like the mentioned Nikkor 50/1.4), but they won’t be as pleasant to use. If the enjoyment of the process matters to you, this Zeiss is hard to beat.
And one final tip – if you’re motivated to hunt down your own copy of this lens, try beating around the bush first. Hunt on eBay for lesser-known cameras to which this lens may have been mounted and you’re likely to find a nice example sold by someone who’s just not savvy to uncle Carl’s name. Try the Contax 137 or the 139 Quartz, and if you happen to find the lens affixed to the latter you’ll have scored one of the best sleeper SLRs I’ve ever had the pleasure of shooting.