Modern digital photographers looking for a more distinctive look have turned to classic manual focus lenses; and one of the most popular of these is the Soviet Helios 44-2, famed for its swirly bokeh. However, the Helios (despite being a great lens) is not unique. In fact, it’s a derivative of the famed Biotar 58mm f/2 lens, produced by Carl Zeiss Jena from 1936 until 1960.
Just like the Helios, the Biotar has many variations, offering modern photographers the ability to create unique and distinctive images. This detailed guide based on years of research will illustrate the many versions of the lens, the different images each is capable of producing, and which versions are best suited to your style of photography.
What is the Biotar?
Like many lenses, the Biotar 58mm has a long genealogy. This ancestry stretches as far back as the 1920s, a time when several lens manufacturers were attempting to improve the Carl Zeiss Planar design that originally debuted in 1896. Taylor, Taylor & Hobson in the United Kingdom first developed their Panchro series, and Schneider-Krueznach independently developed their Xenon lens formula. The Biotar was developed by the famous lens designer Dr. Willy Walter Merté for Carl Zeiss, shortly after these earlier lenses, and all three lenses used a similar formula; they were six element lenses with asymmetrical outer elements, a variant of the Double Gauss design for higher performance and increased field correction and speed.
These Double Gauss lenses attempted to improve on the Planar design from 1896 by abandoning the strict symmetry approach for the radii of curvature of the surfaces and the refractive indices of the glass materials, and therefore achieved additional correction parameters. The asymmetry means that the front three-part lens group was overall larger than the group behind the diaphragm. Furthermore, the two outer collecting lenses are each of a larger diameter than the two inner lens pairs. Virtually all of today’s fast lenses with a medium field angle (50-100mm focal length on 35mm cameras) are Double Gauss designs, like the Biotar.
While Zeiss likes to claim that they were the originator of this improved Double Gauss design, there is evidence that the Biotar was based upon the Taylor, Taylor & Hobson Ltd. Cooke Series Opic lens. For those of you interested in lens history I recommend reading Ilya Volkov’s article Who is the father of all fast 50mm lenses? Planar vs Opic lens evolution.
In 1927, the Biotar lens was released as a 50mm f/1.4 cinematography lens, and as 58mm f/2 version for 35mm cameras on the 19th of October, 1936. It was the standard lens on the famous Kine Night-Exakta by Ihagee, the most technically advanced 35mm camera made prior to World War II.
Creating such a fast lens prior to WWII was one of the greatest feats in the history of optics, since it was designed and built without the use of computers. All of the optical calculations were done by hand by teams of optical technicians. However, it was really the postwar version of the lens that really set the stage for the success of the lens.
The Contax S and The Biotar 58mm
Near the end of WWII in February 1945, the United States Air Force and the British RAF bombed Dresden, creating a massive firestorm and heavily damaging the Zeiss factory in Jena. Plans that had been developed for an SLR camera conceived in 1937 were lost, and many of the designers and machinists working on the project were killed.
Incredibly, only a few years later in 1949 Carl Zeiss Jena rose from the ashes to release the Contax S, the World’s First 35mm eye-level single lens reflex camera with a glass prism finder and interchangeable lenses. This revolutionary camera was also the first to use what is now known as the M42 Mount, Universal Screw Mount or Pentax mount. It was another nine years before the Japanese caught up by developing the Nikon F, Canonflex, the Pentax Spotmatic and other eye-level SLRs with interchangeable lenses and focal-plane shutters.
The very first of what we now call a “kit lens” to come with the Contax S was the Biotar 58mm f/2 lens, which had to be specifically developed for the camera because the internal mirror meant that the flange focal distance of the lens had to be shorter, and the focal length adapted for use with a prism. It’s reported that the speed of the lens was necessary because the viewfinder of the Contax S was dim, but I suspect that the designers simply attempted to get as much performance out of the pre-war design as possible. The 58mm focal length provided 1:1 viewing on the Contax S focusing screen.
Nine years later, when the Japanese started producing SLR cameras, virtually all of them except Nikon, Topcon and Canon adopted the M42 screw mount that was invented for the Contax S. And nearly all the Japanese lens manufacturers used the Double Gauss design of the Biotar as the basis for their fast lenses.
There are four basic models of the original Biotar, several variations of these, and the reproduction made by Oprema Jena. Throughout the production period of the lenses, the barrel and aperture diaphragm changed and the biggest differences show in how the aperture is operated; progressing from entirely manual, to pre-set and then finally to semi-automatic.
Pre-War (1937 – 1945)
The pre-war Biotar 58mm only released in Exakta mount, and it’s a very different lens compared to the later models. It’s easily identified by its mount, and by its heavy chrome-plated brass construction. The lens formula is different to all the post-war lenses, with lens element surfaces being curved and its eight aperture blades curved to form a dome shape.
Prior to 1939 the lenses had no antireflective coating, so early lenses make images that are low in contrast and exhibit flaring and halos. In 1939 the lens was offered for sale with anti-reflective coating at an additional cost of 25 Reich Marks, and these coated lenses were marked with a red T (standing for “Transparentz” or Transparency Layer). This coating, first patented by Alexander Smakula in 1935, is the progenitor of the famed Zeiss Optics T* mark that’s used to this day. If you intend to use one of these lenses I would recommend a CLA as prior to WWII Zeiss used whale oil as a lubricant, and this will have invariably dried in an original, unrestored lens.
The manual Biotar 58mm model is the smallest and most well-made of all the different models, and it closely resembles the pre-war lens in design and construction. It was first manufactured from pre-war brass parts with a hard chrome or nickel plating, and later in aluminum. It also came in a rare black lacquer coating with white markings, which is the most collectible.
In this lens, Zeiss’ optical coating became a standard option for the first time. This was also the first model offered in M42 mount, but the vast majority of lenses were manufactured in Exakta mount. Very rare examples exist in Leica thread mount. A post-war lens was produced in M40 (Praktiflex) Mount, but it looks almost identical to the pre-war version. Beware that this version of the lens was produced just after WWII, and it’s very common to see small bubbles in the glass which result from production processes. This is not a fault, and unless they are unusually large does not affect image quality.
This model is the most sought after because it produces beautiful bokeh that modern photographers find desirable. The seventeen aperture blades create smooth circular transitions in the out of focus areas of an image, resulting in a creamy smooth bokeh. The bokeh resembles that of the Soviet Helios 44, and I will leave it up to others to argue the differences between the two. It doesn’t produce as much bokeh swirl as does the Helios, but will produce swirl given the right conditions. Optically it closely resembles images produced by the Biotar 75mm f/1.5, though not as dramatic.
Pre-Set Versions (1950 -1954)
There are two different so-called Pre-Set lenses. The earlier one has black stripes on the aperture ring which are visible from the front, often called the split-ring model. The later model lacks these splits, so the two models are quite easy to differentiate. Both versions look much larger than the manual version, and with the aluminum construction and knurled focusing ring, it closely resembles the Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35mm f/3.5 lens of the same period.
It comes mostly with ten aperture blades, but occasionally comes with twelve. Obviously the twelve blade version is more sought after. This model also was marked with the “Q1” mark which stands for “Qualität 1” or Quality Mark 1, showing that they were of a “superior quality” and reserved for export.
For a person with a limited budget who wanted to experience using a classic lens on a digital camera, I would recommend the later model of this lens without the black stripes, although optically it is identical to the previous version.
The Pre-Set lenses have a pre-set aperture ring at the front of the lens. The mechanism allows a photographer to focus at wide-open aperture, and then without taking their eyes from the viewfinder, it’s possible to give the dial a quick turn to a “pre-set” aperture. The way it worked on a film camera was that you took an exposure value with a hand-held meter, you pushed the ring in and rotated it to the selected aperture, i.e. f/8. You could then open the aperture to f/2 to focus, and then a quick turn of the ring stops the lens down to the aperture you pre-selected. It seems counter intuitive to modern photographers, but it is quick and simple once you get used to the process, and also has the advantage of working well on modern digital cameras with electronic viewfinders.
One ring is the limiter and is set to the aperture value you want. The other is small and smooth and coupled to the aperture. You set the required value with the scale ring, and switch between full open and stopped down by rotating the other ring from one limit point to the other. Very easy, but not as easy as an automatic aperture system, which is why these lenses were anachronisms before they even hit the market. The system worked though, and lots of Zenit photographers used it for years.
This is the most common form of the Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f/2, unfortunately it’s also the least suitable to adaption to a digital camera. It can easily be recognised by the small silver aperture pin sticking out of the rear of the lens, and the wavy aperture ring which the previous version doesn’t have. This pin operates the semi-automatic aperture mechanism which allowed the aperture to be stopped down automatically at shutter release.
This system allowed the photographer to focus at full open aperture, then automatically stop down for exposure. But this will only work on a film camera. Compared to the previous model the aperture is reduced from f/22 down to f/16 and it only came with ten aperture blades. Despite the shortcoming this lens produced the sharpest and most colourful images as it had the latest version of the Zeiss T coating, but the bokeh isn’t as pleasant as the previous versions.
Oprema Jena Version (2018)
After successfully launching their reproduction of the Carl Zeiss Biotar 75mm f/1.5 Oprema-Jena produced a modern lens based on the optical formula of the Biotar 58mm f/2. Dr. Wolf Dieter Prenzel was in charge of optical design and mechanical design was by André de Winter. The lens was manufactured by Kenko-Tokina in Japan. I have included it here because although it is not a classic lens, it directly follows the Biotar formula.
In 2018, a press statement from the company sadly informed us that Dr. Immes had been grievously injured in a car accident and that the company went into liquidation. I have no figures for how many versions of this lens were produced, but the company website is still online, and the video above gives a nice overview of the lens.
[Portraits in this article were shot with various models of the Biotar. The lead image of this article was shot by Adolfo Rozenfeld. All portraits and all product photos are courtesy of Adolfo Rozenfeld, Marek Fiser, and the author, Cheyenne Morrison, and are published here with permission.]
All versions of the Biotar 58mm are renowned for their sharpness (even wide open), and the gorgeous contrast and color rendition that Zeiss lenses are famous for. But we all know that if you’ve read this far, it’s probable that you’re a bokeh lover like me. If that is the case and you are an experienced photographer, I would advise you to buy the early seventeen blade manual model, which produces glorious bokeh; although you have to learn how to get the best out of the lens. Minimum focus distance can be improved by the use of extension tubes which are cheap and readily available, and macro shots of flowers with the Biotar are stunning.
The seventeen blade manual version is the smallest model, and makes a great option for shooting portraits on digital cameras. It’s equivalent to a medium telephoto lens on APSC and Micro Four Thirds cameras. Colour rendition can be soft, but this can be boosted in post process. If you are planning on shooting on a digital camera, beware that the rear element on the Pre-Set version projects deeper into the camera, and can strike the mirror. Check carefully which models of the lens will work on the camera that you own.
The coatings on these early lenses aren’t up to the quality of modern lenses, so in strong sun I would recommend a lens hood to prevent flaring. If you like flaring, shoot this lens in the late afternoon and you’ll make flares in spades. The original hood was a large round Bakelite design, but later squared 49mm Pentacon hoods fit equally well and look a bit nicer.
So if you’ve read the history, and seen the images this lens produces you won’t have to guess my final thoughts. I love this lens so much that I own two of the early seventeen blade manual versions, one black with its sexy suede pouch, and one with chromed brass. I probably should shoot with them more, and the only reason I don’t is that I finally managed to get my hands on the Biotar 75mm f/1.5 which I reviewed in my previous article here.
In short, if you don’t have a spare kidney to sell in order to afford the 75mm Biotar, then the early seventeen blade version of this lens produces similar images. If you don’t want to spend $300 plus for the seventeen blade version, then hunt around for a twelve blade Pre-Set version, and if even that much is outside of your budget, then buy the Helios 44-2 which is essentially a Biotar 58mm at a fraction of the price.