Everyone loves Carl Zeiss lenses, but not everyone can afford them, at least not widely known ZE/ZF or Contax series. Less known vintage Zeiss lenses are actually quite affordable and one particular Carl Zeiss can be bought for as little as $50/£25.
This is the lens I want to talk about in this post: The Most Affordable/ Cheapest Carl Zeiss lens; the 50mm F/2.8. Could it possibly be any good for such price? Surely if it’s that cheap, it got to be useless?
I’ve had a few of these lying around for a while now, but never bothered to try one out because on paper it doesn’t stand out at all, being quite slow for a 50mm prime. Occasionally someone would write me telling how much they like their Zeiss 50mm F2.8, but I always thought it must be the feeling of owning a “zeiss” lens that made them feel like that rather than the actual quality of the lens.
A few days ago I finally decided to see how this bargain lens actually performs. I took two of them out with me, the older Zebra version and the later, more common black version. Other than the external appearance there doesn’t seem to be much difference between two. Same amount of aperture blades (5), same minimum focusing distance (35cm), same amount of aperture click-stops (12 from F2.8 to F22); the optics appear to be the same too. The only real difference I found is that the focusing throw is different on these lenses. The zebra version has about 225° of ration and black version about 270°. Both are impressive, but more focusing rotation helps achieve more precise focus without hunting back and forth.
The built quality of these lenses is not amazing for a vintage lens, but still much nicer than of most low-end modern lenses. Both lenses are full metal and quite solid. One problem I found with a few of these lenses is that the focusing ring can be stiff in places. I guess it could be due to the age and grease used for these lenses.
The test video was shot with the black version as it’s the one most of you will come across if you search for one on ebay, at least on ebayUK, so it’s more relevant than the zebra version which should perform pretty much the same.
Finally let’s talk about the actual optical performance. I didn’t expect much from this lens and I couldn’t be more surprised when I saw what I was getting on the camera display. Images looked beautiful on 3′ display, but more importantly they did not disappoint when I viewed them again on a 24′ display at home. This lens is actually very, very impressive performer in many ways!
For starters, it’s really usable and pretty sharp wide open; not something you’d expect such cheap lens. I often step down my Olympus 50mm F1.4 to F2 or even F2.8 to get the optimum optical performance, so Zeiss being usable at F2.8 is a real bonus. You can be the judge of that yourself, as most shots in the video were shot at F2.8. For even better idea of sharpness at different F-stops, take a look at 100& crops below. The only real difference between these shots, is the background. The foreground is pretty much the same from F2.8 all the way to F8. Very impressive!
I’ve got more good news: this lens also produces amazingly smooth bokeh, especially at F2.8. It doesn’t have as much character as bokeh on Helios 44-2, but in it’s own way it’s just as nice and is more suitable in certain situations, especially when using this lens along with some modern lenses. Same goes for the contrast which is very high for a vintage lens. Again completely opposite to Helios 44-2 which goes to into a dreamy/low contrast/flare mode when pointed towards the sun. The Zeiss 50mm F2.8 though holds the contrast very well even when pointed directly at the sun. Zeiss lenses are known to have good contrast, but I didn’t expect that from such cheap lens.
Now, like most vintage lenses, this lens does produces some funky flares which we all love. Not nearly as obvious & strong as you’d get on Russian lenses like Helios 44-2, MIR-1 or MIR-20, but as you can see in the last shot of the test, when pointed at a bright light source with dark background you do get plenty of rainbow flares.
The F2.8 does sound underwhelming for a 50mm lens, but with modern cameras low light capability is not a massive issue. For example the night shots in the video above were shot at 1600ISO on cheap, but great Sony NEX 5N. Even at F2.8 this lens has picked up the street lighting pretty well giving me a decent exposure even in such low light conditions. Some people might argue that F2.8 lens would not produce cinematic shallow depth of field, but as you can see in the video above, even on Sony 5n, this lens produces as much shallow depth of filed as you can take.
Being a full frame lens, you don’t need to worry about it covering certain sensors, it will cover them all + M42 mount means that this lens can be used with just about any camera when coupled with a correct adapter. The minimum focusing distance of just 35cm is very handy too.
Overall, I’m very impressed with this lens and genuinely want to use it more. I think it’s safe to say that everyone should have one of these along with the Helios 44-2. Both lenses are incredibly cheap and both great in their own way. Like I said above, Zeiss is particularly good if you want something that would match up with modern lenses.
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