For the right photographer, recommending the Carl Zeiss 28mm Biogon in G mount is about the easiest piece of consumer advice I’ve ever written. Do you like a wide field of view and own a Contax G1 or G2? If so, buy this lens right now. It’s as near to perfect as a wide-angle lens gets, and it’s the only 28mm prime lens available for the system.
For other photo geeks, specifically those who don’t own a G series camera and are looking instead for a legacy lens to shoot with their digital mirrorless camera, the 28mm Biogon (and all G series lenses, to be frank) is a harder sell.
Originally released in 1994 alongside the Contax G1, the 28mm Biogon helped establish the G system as one to rival the best cameras being produced at that time. Its combination of incredible resolving power, excellent build quality, and low distortion made it as a must-have lens for any G camera owner. It remained the system’s standard wide-angle lens when the Contax G2 was introduced, and went on unchanged until the G series was discontinued in 2005.
Build and Specs
In my review of this lens’ 45mm counterpart I wrote of incredible quality and precision build, and much of that is true of this 28mm as well. Similar to all G series lenses, the Biogon is a masterfully built, beautifully finished, and impeccably designed assemblage of glass and metal.
The barrel, mount, filter threads, and aperture ring are all metal (painted in titanium finish or black), and with physical dimensions of 56mm in diameter by 31mm in length and a weight of 150 grams, it’s a compact and lightweight lens. Knurling and engravings throughout are precise and refined, providing excellent grip-ability on all surfaces and high legibility where needed. The all-metal accessory filters and lens hood are similarly dripping with style.
Minimum focus distance (from front element to subject) is about seventeen inches (44 cm), and special attention was paid during development to ensure minimal distortion at even close focusing distances. Light is channeled through seven elements in five groups, with Zeiss’ world-famous T* coatings doing their best to mitigate optical anomalies such as chromatic aberration, flares, and ghosts (to a limit – more on this later).
If you’ve ever held a Zeiss G mount lens, you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t, expect to be impressed.
Usability for Mirrorless and Film Shooters
As mentioned in my review of the 45mm Planar G mount lens, these Contax masterpieces don’t play well with today’s mirrorless cameras. That’s because the physical design of the G lens makes no allowance for on-lens manual focusing (this is done via an admittedly disappointing electronic focus-by-wire system on the G series cameras). Instead, shooting a G lens on a digital camera requires the use of special adapters that incorporate a focusing mechanism. This is bad news, twofold; it raises the price per adapter, and typically results in a less-than-ideal focus methodology.
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. Even though it’s more expensive, there’s no question – of all the manual focus G lens adapters the Metabones is the one to own.
There are also 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 mirrorless camera.
But this is one of the few lenses that’s able to shoot on both a G series machine and a modern digital camera, and when push comes to shove, the images the 28mm Biogon can help us make are worth a certain amount of ergonomic compromise in the digital arena.
On film, this conversation is short. The Biogon 28mm will render images that are impeccably sharp, beautifully punchy, colorful and bright. Shot wide open there’s mild vignetting and the corners of the frame show a bit of softness, but neither problems are extreme enough to lose sleep over. Stopped down to F/5.6 and beyond and all optical qualms are essentially gone.
You won’t find a significantly better 28/2.8 lens through which to expose film on any system (and that’s even truer if we’re only speaking in-system, since this is the only 28mm lens available for the G mount).
Adapted to today’s digital sensors, the story is a bit different. The lens still produces incredible photos with amazing sharpness, beautiful punchy colors and strong micro-contrast. But the areas in which it does struggle become more noticeable.
On digital, vignetting is truly extreme. Shot wide open, the corners of the frame are very dark, and this falloff extends deep toward the center of the frame. There’s also substantial color shift, and though this likely won’t be noticed by normal viewers or in photos of anything but a white, flat wall, that blueish or magenta cast is still lurking behind the scenes. What’s worse is that stopping down the aperture does little to remedy either of these issues. The only way to fix this is to do so in post-processing.
Vignetting is pretty easily handled via a simple slider in Lightroom. Color shift correction is a bit more involved and will require a Lightroom plug-in to rectify (it’s the Flat Field Plug-in). You’ll need to create a lens profile for use with this plug-in, and doing so could be tricky for most casual shooters, since you’ll likely need a studio light and a white and well-illuminated flat backdrop. My advice; shoot this lens with film and learn to live with its digital “character” (or don’t; remember, there are better legacy lenses available for digital shooters).
Shot wide open, bokeh is somewhat busy. I won’t go so far as to say that backgrounds are distracting, but they’re certainly not so smooth as to get out of the way. As we stop down, things naturally fail to improve. As that aperture closes, highlights get pretty polygonal due to the lens’ sparsely bladed aperture (it’s got six).
That said, 28mm lenses are seldom known for their ability to create stunning subject isolation. If you want bokeh, get a longer focal length.
Distortion is virtually non-existent. Flares happen when shooting directly into the sun, and ghosting can occur in similar situations. But to be fair, very few legacy lenses totally mitigate these problems. The Zeiss Biogon does well, it’s just not noteworthy when compared to modern glass.
Should You Buy
If you don’t own a G mount camera (what’s wrong with you?) and you’re simply looking for an outstanding legacy lens to shoot on your digital camera, there are better options. While the 28mm Biogon is a fantastic performer, it fails (along with all the G mount lenses) to provide the tactile elegance of the traditional manual focus legacy lens.
If you do own a G series camera (now we’re talking), the 28mm Biogon could be a must-have lens. But that depends on the other lenses in your kit. If your standard lens is the 35mm Planar, images made with the 28mm Biogon will likely feel too similar to those made with your kit lens. In this case, you’ll be better served to check out the wider 21mm Biogon.
But if your standard G mount lens of choice is the incredible 45mm Planar (which it should be), choosing the 28mm Biogon as your wide-angle lens is a smart decision. It’s wide, but not too wide, perfect for street photographers, landscape artists, and architectural shooting, and its performance simply won’t be beat when exposing film.