The Carl Zeiss Contax G Mount Planar 45mm F/2 prime lens is, without bluster, amazing. It’s helped me make some of my favorite images in years. It’s also irritating. Never before have I used such a dichotomous lens. Yet this split isn’t so much a reflection on the lens itself, rather a product of the times we live in, and if we can overcome or sidestep the one failing of the G 45/2 we’ll be shooting one of the best legacy lenses ever made.
Super quick history lesson – the 45mm F/2 G Planar debuted alongside the original Kyocera-made Contax G1 autofocus rangefinder camera back in 1994, and though we were all fairly distracted by Orenthal James’ speeding Bronco and figure skaters being clubbed with crowbars, people noticed. The lens was unanimously heralded as a marvel by the photographic press; a miraculously sharp lens comfortably in the conversation for best resolving power of any standard lens ever brought to market. Production of the lens continued unaltered when Contax released the G2 in 1996, and up until 2005 (when Kyocera stopped production of the G series) the 45mm Planar would remain that camera’s standard kit lens.
But if you’re conflating this kit lens with the kit lenses of today, stop it; this thing is nothing like the plastic zooms commonly packaged with many of today’s digital cameras. It harkens back to the days of full-metal construction and concise design; just what we’d expect from a lens with the Zeiss name on the nameplate. The barrel, mount, filter threads, and aperture ring are all metal (painted in Titanium finish or black), and at 190 grams, it’s a dense, weighty piece. Knurling throughout the lens is precise, oozes with quality, and provides excellent grip-ability on all surfaces and moving parts. Engravings for aperture and other markings are of the highest quality in a legacy lens. The accessory filters and lens hood are similarly dripping with class.
Practical use is a mix of effortless, and somewhat frustrating. Most second-hand G series cameras come with the 45 firmly mounted, and on these film rangefinders it’s functionality is as masterful as ever. Point, shoot, make an amazing shot. Where it begins to stumble is when we adapt the lens to today’s crop of modern mirror-less cameras (a practice that factors into most legacy lens shooters calculations). Due to the physical design of the G lens, a design which makes no allowance for on-lens manual focusing (this is done via a focus-by-wire system on the G series cameras), shooting a G lens on a digital camera requires the use of special adapters. These incorporate focusing mechanisms into the adapters themselves, which raises the price of the adapter and typically results in a less-than-ideal focus methodology. It’s a real bummer.
But while G mount lenses aren’t as seamlessly integrable with today’s mirror-less machines as some other legacy lenses, they’re still entirely usable if we’re willing to make it work. The Metabones adapter does the best job at creating a seamless setup. Its large diameter focusing ring works better than its less expensive counterparts from Fotasy and Fotodiox at transferring our manual input to the lens’ autofocus screw. In the world of manual focus G lens adapters, the Metabones is the one to own.
There also exists adapters that allow autofocus. These are loud, slow, expensive, and imprecise. But they’re automatic. Is the trade worth it? In my experience, no. The manual adapters work well enough, practice makes perfect, and the AF adapter will miss as many shots on its own as we’ll miss shooting manually. If AF is the only way you’ll shoot, shoot this lens on a G camera with a super-fine grain film like Kodak Ektar, and your digital scans will render much the same as shots from your mirror-less camera.
The takeaway is that there are options for people who want to use this lens on a digital camera. Are any of them as elegant as adapting a manual focus Nikkor or Summicron? No. But this is one of the few lenses able to shoot on both a G series machine and a modern digital camera, and when push comes to shove, the images the 45mm Planar can help us make are worth any amount of ergonomic compromise in the digital arena.
And make no mistake- image quality is this lens’ bread and butter. In a word, it’s perfect. Sharpness is beyond comparison. Shot wide open, subjects pop, especially when centered in the frame. The outer edges of the frame are naturally a bit soft, but I suspect most of us won’t be shooting flat, brick walls that occupy the entirety of the image area, so this isn’t much of a practical problem. Stopping down to F/2.8 and F/4 increases our depth-of-field and allows for nearly flawless rendition of subjects at any distance. And no other lens I’ve used facilitates the practice of “F/8 and be there” more easily. Street photographers, who typically prize depth-of-field in their context-heavy images, will love this lens, especially if shot on a G series camera with the focus switch locked on Auto.
What’s most stunning, and what sets this glass apart from much of the competition, is the way the lens renders color and contrast. And though I hate vagaries and unquantifiable analyses, I can’t avoid them here. There’s just a certain quality and depth to the images this lens makes. Lock it at F/4 and fire away for photos that have gorgeous subject isolation and that infamous Zeiss Pop. It’s there. I hate to admit it, but it’s there.
Zeiss’ famous T* coating helps the six-elements in four-groups design bolster this signature look. It promotes vibrant images, and mitigates flares and ghosting to a near-perfect degree of nonexistence. In normal shooting situations you’ll never notice any flares, ghosts, or even the slightest drop in contrast. Even when shot directly into the sun, image contrast is only incrementally hampered. Chromatic aberration is completely absent. For someone like me, who considers optical aberrations to be the worst offense a lens can make, this thing is flawless.
Vignetting, or light fall-off, is about what we’d expect from a standard lens at F/2. The corners of the frame are slightly darker than the center when shooting wide open. Use this to emphasize your subject, or correct the problem in post-processing with a simple nudge of the slider. Because of the simplicity of the fix (whether you’re shooting film or digital) I’m not sure why we still mention light fall-off in 2017 in any but the most severe cases, but there it is.
The bokeh characteristics of the Planar may be a bit polarizing. It’s a bit harsh, even shot wide open with a far distant background. Stopped down to F/2.8 we see the hexagonal shape produced by its six-bladed diaphragm, and highlight bokeh shows edging that most people would describe as having too much definition. But I prefer this type of bokeh to the overly-blended blur that most people seem to appreciate. The out-of-focus rendering from the Planar gives images character. There’s a depth to it that most lenses fail to produce, and I appreciate that the backgrounds in my images remain somewhat contextual even as they fade dynamically into the distance. But as is always the case with bokeh, this purely subjective characteristic will need to be personally assessed by the shooter.
Whether or not the 45mm F/2 Planar will find its way into your bag will depend on how you plan to use it, or more specifically, what machines you plan to mount it on. If you’re an owner of a G series film camera, this lens is easy to recommend. It becomes even more of an obvious buy if you’re shooting both a G camera and a mirror-less camera. It’ll make amazing images on each format with varying degrees of simplicity. Where the lens becomes harder to recommend is in cases where the shooter only shoots with a digital camera. The nature of the lens’ design frustrates manual focusing setups, and while it’s possible to overcome this frustration with practice, there are undeniably easier lenses for digital-only photographers.
But does easier automatically mean better? It’s hard to deny the excellence of images this lens makes, and now that I’ve seen what it can produce, I’ll shoot this lens on my mirror-less camera long after my G machine succumbs to the big, long nap. Had this lens a traditional manual focus ring, it would be the ultimate legacy lens; the lens I’d automatically tell every legacy shooter to own. As it is, I can only recommend it to G series owners and those digital-only shooters who are willing to work for their (unquestionably outstanding) photos.