“After a few weeks with a Pentax 50mm lens, I had the feeling of suffocating. I realized that I needed a wide angle. As soon as I had my Zeiss Flektogon, the world looked very different.” Words spoken by Joel Meyerowitz on the Flektogon, and how it completely altered his photographic vision.
During World War II there was a maxim amongst fighter pilots; if a plane looks good, it must fly well. I think that maxim applies equally to lenses. The early silver version of the Flektogon is a thing of beauty. The shiny barrel, the lovely engravings, the machining of its knurled focus ring; everything about the Flektogon screams German precision engineering. It feels right in the hands, the focus is smooth and buttery, and it’s a joy to use. It was one of the finest lenses ever made by Carl Zeiss Jena, and if you have the opportunity to buy one I would highly recommend you do so. I have compiled this guide to help you choose one.
The Flektogon produced by VEB Carl Zeiss Jena was so successful in its various forms that it was in continuous production from its initial debut in 1950 until shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. It became the progenitor for a whole family of wide-angle lenses, however this article only deals with the first design of the lens, produced from 1950 to 1976. Today, this Flektogon is one of the most affordable Zeiss lenses that you can buy.
There’s debate amongst purists whether lenses produced by VEB Zeiss Jena in what was then East Germany are genuine Zeiss products compared to those produced in Zeiss Oberkochen in West Germany. But despite being separated by a big, dumb wall, both were genuinely Zeiss.
The Flektogon (or “Flek” as it’s affectionately known) has a cult following because it offers outstanding image quality from its Zeiss glass, and in some models the ability to focus from 19cm to infinity, making it useful for an astoundingly diverse range of styles, from macro photography to portraits, landscapes to architectural shots. If you’re planning to travel and could only take one lens, then the Flektogon is an unbeatable choice.
The Genesis of the Modern Retrofocus Lens
The Flektogon and its brother the Angénieux retrofocus are the grandfathers of all modern wide-angle lenses, and prior to their invention in 1949, wide-angle lenses for 35mm SLR cameras simply didn’t exist. Their birth can be traced back to the days just after the end of World War II when the very first single-lens Reflex (SLR) pentaprism cameras, such as the Rectaflex and Contax S, hit the market. While SLR cameras would go on to revolutionize photography and become the dominant form of 35mm camera, in the early 1950s their invention created problems for lens designers.
With his invention of the Biogon 35mm f/2.8 lens for the Contax camera in 1934 Ludwig Bertele had shown that lenses with an angle wider than 60 degrees were possible on a 35mm camera. However this type of lens was unsuitable for SLR cameras because they required a much longer flange focal distance (the distance between the lens mounting flange and the film plane). For example, the flange focal distance of a Leica rangefinder of the time was 27.8mm, whereas the flange distance on the Contax S camera was 44.4mm. Wide-angle lenses for SLR cameras required additional space for the internal reflex mirror, and the existing lens designs of the pre-SLR days could potentially hit the SLR’s mirrors, a problem that still exists to this day.
The solution to both problems was solved by two companies at almost the same time, independently from each other, on separate sides of what was then the Iron Curtain. These were the team of Harry Zöllner and Rudolf Solisch at VEB Carl Zeiss Jena in what was then East Germany, and Pierre Angénieux at his own company in Paris. By 1950 they had both applied for patents for 35mm wide-angle lenses for 35mm SLR cameras.
“For years lens makers had tried to produce a 35-mm wide-angle for the Exakta but had been stumped by one basic handicap. A lens of conventional design would require a long rear element that would have to penetrate deeply into the camera body, an impossibility with the Exakta because of the mirror. Etablissements Angenieux de Paris solved the problem with a startling idea-inverting the optical system of a telephoto lens so the lens does not penetrate deeply yet provides a short focal length. This idea produced the remarkable 35-mm Retrofocus with a 64° angle of view.” – Angénieux brochure 1952.
While they both solved this dilemma, their methods were quite different. Except for the front meniscus element, Pierre Angénieux’s Retrofocus type R1 35mm f/2.5 was a five element Tessar in three groups, which was pretty standard for the time. Zöllner and Solisch’s solution was a more complicated Biometar type configuration, again increased by the added front element of considerable diameter with a large air distance from the rear elements.
Neither Angénieux, Zöllner nor Solisch cannot be regarded as the inventors of the retro-focus lens, as they based their designs on the principle of the inverted telephoto lens which had been invented in 1931 for cine cameras by Horace W. Lee at Taylor, Taylor & Hobson (GB Patent 355,452 and US Patent 1,955,590). However, they were both simultaneously the first to have created wide-angle lenses for 24×36mm format on 35mm SLR cameras. Because of the limitation of glass technology, coatings, angle of view and the oblique incident rays of light desired, creating wide-angle lenses has always been challenging. Credit must go to these men who achieved their solutions at a time before computer-aided design.
Angénieux named his lens “Retrofocus” to indicate that the focus was shifted backward. This term was originally used by Taylor, Taylor & Hobson to refer to their inverted telephoto lens. Angénieux attempted to unsuccessfully trademark the term. It has now become a generic term for this family of lenses.
Zöllner and Solisch at Carl Zeiss Jena dubbed their lens Flektogon, which originates from the Latin Flecto, a verb meaning ‘bend or curve’, and the Greek γωνία (Gonia) a noun meaning angle or corner. This naturally refers to the wide angle of view of this type of lens. The exact translation would be “Curved Angle” which very accurately describes what wide-angle lenses do with light.
Zeiss Oberkochen, in what was then West Germany chose to use the same retrofocus design. They dubbed their lenses Distagon, derived from “distance” and the previously mentioned Greek word for “angle,” (a wide-angle lens with a large distance to the image).
Angénieux retrofocus lenses are highly collectable, and very expensive, especially copies in rare mounts like the ALPA. But good working copies of the late model multi-coated Flektogon can be purchased for less than $100 USD. Some other famous retrofocus lenses are the Mir-1 B 37 mm F 2.8 (Soviet copy of the Flektogon), ISCO Westrogon 24mm f/4 lens, Voigtländer-Cosina Super Wide Heliar 15 mm f4.5, Konica Hexagon 17 mm f16 L39, and the Konica Hexanon AR 28 mm f3.5 AR.
Flektogon Models & Variations
It can be confusing to read about the Flektogon on the internet due to the various models of the lens and the obscure (but important) differences between each. As I said in the introduction, this article only deals with the first iteration of the Flektogon which was produced from 1950 to 1976. It was succeeded by the 35mm f/2.4 Multi Coated Flektogon which has a very different optical formula. The image above only shows M42 mount variations, there were other variations in Exa – Exakta, Praktika, Praktina, and Werra mounts which look different, but are optically the same. The names of the variations, and version number vary widely, so I have tried to simplify the model variation names to make them easily identifiable, if any purists or historians are offended, I offer my apologies.
Version 1.1 Silver/Alu (1952 – 1954)
The very first Flektogon was produced by Carl Zeiss Jena in August 1949, and only 250 copies were produced, most likely to be used with the Contax S camera. The first production lenses were released in February 1952, which had twelve aperture blades, and were occasionally missing a front filter thread. Version 1.1 and 1.2 both have a full aluminum body, with a beautiful tulip shaped lens barrel. They also use a preset aperture ring indicated in catalogues at the time as N (Normal) or NB (NormalBlende). The system predates the automatic aperture system in the later version and is quite easy to use. You preset the desired aperture, then simply twist the ring to wide open at f/2.8, focus, and when you are ready, a quick flick of the ring closes the aperture to what you’d previously selected.
Version 1.2: Silver/Alu (1954 – 1960)
The differences between this and the first version are almost imperceptible, the major one being the change from twelve aperture blades to nine. The weight is slightly heavier, and the minimum focus distance increases from 33cm to 36cm. If you are considering buying an early version, ask the seller how many aperture blades it has. In 1955 the Flektogon was recalculated, and a variant with the new calculation was sold, but only in Werra mount, which looks very different to the M42 versions. The twelve- and nine-blade early versions create a nicer Bokeh than the later six-bladed versions, but that has to be balanced with the fact they only have a single optical coating; the later f/2.5 version of the Flektogon offers multi-coating.
Version 2: Gutta Percha (1961 – 1963)
A final recalculation took place in 1960, by Harry Zöllner and his team at Carl Zeiss Jena using OPREMA (OPtik Rechen MAchinery), the first workable computer built in the GDR (East Germany). This recalculation of the lens design was used in Version 2 released in 1961, and would remain the same until a completely new version of the Flektogon was released in 1978. The second version looks radically different from the first, having a metal and rubber, black and silver design. The distinctive focus ring with raised knobs was made of Gutta Percha, a rubber like product. This lens and the following versions were all automatic aperture, and have the small pin on the rear of the lens which connects to the camera body.
Version 3: Zebra (1965 – 1975)
In 1965, a new version of the lens was released. This version is commonly referred to as the “Zebra” version. The same Zebra pattern can be found on some other cult lenses from Carl Zeiss Jena, such as the Flektogon 20mm f/4, Pancolar 50mm f/1.8, Sonnar 135mm f/3.5, and the ultra-rare 75mm Pancolar f/1.4, of which only 550 copies were made. This version and the final version are optically identical, only the design of the lens barrels is different.
Despite using the same optical formula, this version radically reduced the minimum focus distance from 36cm (14 inches) down to 18cm (7 inches). The minimum focus ability of this version of the lens is why the Flektogon has developed a cult following, and anyone that loves macro photography will be familiar with this version. Version 3 was produced in massive numbers, and quality control was good, meaning that good copies can be purchased relatively cheaply. If you want to experience the “Flek” at the best price, then this is the model I would recommend. I have a Version 1.2 Flektogon because I set out to collect a full set of Silver or Aluminum lenses, which appeal to me for aesthetic and historical (rather than practical) reasons.
Version 4: Rubber Ring (1975 – 1976)
This is the rarest of all version of the first type of Flektogon, only being produced for one year, so prices reflect rarity and collector value rather than optical performance. Optically the design retains the recalculation done in 1960, but the lens barrel has been completely redesigned presaging the design of the next version of the Flektogon. Like the f/2.5 multi-coated version, the lens has an all-black body and rubber focusing ring, a design that became common on lenses from the 1970s up to the 1990s.
Mir-1 37 mm f/2.8 1954 (Russian: Мир = World)
The optical formula of the Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon was recalculated by D. S. Volosov in 1954 to be able to produce it with the glass that was available in the USSR. Volosov was the Soviet lens master at the Vavilov State Optical Institute, and is known as the Father of Soviet Optics. He discusses the Mir-1 in his book Photographic Optics 1978, on page 369.
“Mir-1 is an outstanding lens. We have developed it in 1954 on the basis of the optical scheme of Flektogon of Dr. Zöllner (GDR). Contrary to Flektogon, in which lanthanum heavy crowns are used, we used simple optical glass. Though we succeeded in more complete correction of the spherical aberration of higher orders and all chromatic aberrations in the region of the spectrum from G’ (l=434,1nm) to C (l=656,3nm), in particular the chromatic aberrations of the rays of wide oblique pencils, which led to an improvement in the overall image…”
The Mir-1 is a very good quality lens and won the Brusseles Grand Prix at the Expo 58 in Brussels in 1958, and lenses subsequently made by ZOMZ, are engraved “GRAND PRIX” Brussels 1958. But note that the prize at the Brussels World’s Fair was awarded to a set of lenses, not just the Mir-1.
In 1959, the lens was awarded a Diploma of the II degree of the USSR Exhibition of Economic Achievements. Interestingly, while the actual focal width of the Flektogon was only 37mm, only the Mir-1 was honest enough to state that. If you cannot afford an early silver version of the Flektogon, the Mir-1 is very cheap and widely available. It’s not a Soviet knock off as some disparagingly call it. It was produced under license from Carl Zeiss Jena, and is a very good quality lens. It’s also commonly available in black, which matches the look of modern digital cameras.
How good is the Flektogon?
The main reason the Flektogon has attained a cult following is for the close focus ability of the third and fourth versions, however all versions offer the same optical quality. I own the silver version, and while it may lack some of the ability of the later version of the Flektogon, it sure makes up for it in looks and feel.
If you’re fan of street photography in 35mm, then follow the lead of Joel Meyerowitz and try shooting a Flektogon on black-and-white film. Perhaps like him it will solve for you the argument about whether 50mm or 35mm is better. Despite being known as a Leica shooter, it was a humble Pentax Spotmatic camera and a Flektogon lens that allowed Meyerowitz to discover his signature style of street photography.
“I had gotten the Pentax with a 50mm lens on it. After about a month, I got so frustrated using it, though I knew nothing about lenses. I just kept feeling, “Oh, I’m too close!” So I went to a camera store and talked to a guy: “Everything’s too close, there’s no space in the picture.” He said, “You need a 35mm lens. So I bought a used 35mm Zeiss Flektogon lens with a screw mount, which could fit on a Pentax. It was incredible. It changed my life. A 35mm is virtually a 1:1 lens. If you stand someplace and look at something, it’s at the right distance, so you see what you get. It’s not closer or further away.” – Joel Meyerowitz
However, the Flektogon is capable of a wide range of shooting styles macro, documentary, landcapes, travel, or even portraiture; so as I said earlier, it’s an ideal travel lens.
As with all the early lenses from Carl Zeiss Jena these are beautifully crafted lenses, manufactured with excellent quality control. The ergonomics are good, and the lens is easy to use with a well-balanced, smooth focus. The version I own feel very solid, even a little heavy, giving it a feeling of quality and permanence. The only plastic is the lens cap.
Optically this first version of the Flektogon is surpassed by the later multi-coated f/2.5 variant, but what it lacks in ability it makes up for with character. There’s minimal distortion and center sharpness is excellent at all apertures.
On a digital camera the character of the lens gives images a film-like feel. Shooting on film I’d say it’s ideal for black-and-white; for color I would save the Flektogon for bright sunny days. There is some fall off and vignetting, but that adds some artistic imperfection, which is of course subjective. I love it.
The first version of the Flektogon may not appeal to all people, and it does lack some of the abilities of the next version, which was faster and had multi-coating. The vignetting is a result of the single coating, and much of the light being reflected off the front element, but a lot of that can be removed in post-production. I wouldn’t choose this lens for Bokeh, but then I don’t enjoy a 35mm focal length for portraits, so that’s not so much of a drawback for me. I mainly use it for scenery, street shooting, and landscapes in strong sunlight.
It definitely performs better stopped down, and f/5.6 to f/8 seems to be the sweet spot. I live in the tropics with very strong light, so the Flek performs well for me, but if you live somewhere where the light may not be as strong, you should consider the later model. The lens element is very close to being the frontmost extremity of the lens, and it only has a single coating, so I strongly advise using a lens hood. Pentacon 49mm lens hoods are commonly available, and cheap. However, If you’re looking for artistic flaring, then it’s perfect. Probably its weakest points are the lack of contrast wide open, and that it can struggle in low light.
I am indebted to the work of others in writing this article, and wish to offer my thanks to Marco Kröger, Dr. Hubert H. Nasse, Eberhard Dietzsch, Larry Gubas from the Zeiss Historica Society, Marco Cavina, Ilya Volkov at Moscow Optical Works, D.S. Volosov, Walter Owens of vintage-camera-lenses.com and Marek Fiser for providing lens images.