(Dec 2016 Revision)
Everyone loves Carl Zeiss lenses, but not everyone can afford them, at least not the modern ones or even the popular Contax series. If you are one of these people who can’t quite afford, but really want to own a “Zeiss”, fortunately there is a lens can be bought for as little as $50/£25.
This super affordable lens is the Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm F/2.8, but could anything this cheap be usable at all? Surely if it’s that cheap, it got to be useless? Before we get too deep into it, let’s just get it straight that it’s not a competition to modern Zeiss or even Contax lenses, but it that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad lens!
I’ve collected a few of these over the years as they would often come bundled with the old camera kits, but I never actually 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 just be the feeling of owning a “zeiss” lens that made them feel this way, rather than the actual quality of the lens.
Eventually I decided to see how this bargain lens actually performs. I took two of them out with me, the older “Zebra” version and the more common, updated black version (seen above). 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 the focusing throw difference. The zebra version has about 225° of ration, while black version goes all the way to around 270°. Both are impressive, but more focusing rotation is generally considered better for precise manual focusing.
The test video above was shot with the black version as that is the one you’ll come across the most on ebay, at least in Europe. For those of you in US, checkout eBayUK to see if you can find one cheap as these lenses seem to be less common in US.
The Tessar 50mm F2.8 is a very compact and lightweight lens, so it’s no big surprise that the built quality is not that amazing when compared to other vintage lenses, but still much nicer than of most low-end modern lenses. At least it’s fully 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, so expect that you might have to get it serviced. The good thing about these lenses is that they are super straightforward and anyone with a bit of DIY skills should be able to re-grease the focusing ring themselves. It’s also very easy to de-click this lens, by undoing just 3 screws at the back, lifting off the back casing and taking the little ball out. I’m quite bad at DIY and even I managed to do that to one of my 50mm F2.8 primes. It’s also very cheap and easy to turn this lens into a mini “cine” prime (see below)
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 F1.4 lenses 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 the legendary Helios 44-2, but in its own way it’s just as nice and is more suitable in certain situations, especially when using this lens in combination with modern lenses. Same goes for the contrast, which is very high for a vintage lens at this price point. Again completely opposite to Helios 44-2 which goes into a dreamy/low contrast/flare mode when pointed towards a bright light source. 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. The footage in my test video is pretty much straight out of the camera with only very minimal correction, so what you see is what you’ll get from this lens!
Like most vintage lenses, this lens does produces some funky flares which we all love. Not nearly as obvious & strong as you’d get with 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!
Why buy one?
The F2.8 does sound underwhelming for a 50mm lens, but with most modern cameras, low F2.8 or even slightly slower is no longer an issue. For example the night shots in the video above were shot at 1600ISO with (now) super cheap, but very capable 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 won’t produce cinematic enough shallow depth of field, but as you can see in the video above, even on (APS-C / S35) Sony Nex 5n, this lens produces as much shallow depth of field as you can take. It’s a misconception that F1.4 is the only way to go. A lot of experienced cinematographers rarely shoot below F2.8 or even F4 (cine lenses are usually rated in T-stops though)
Another good thing about this 50mm is that being a full frame lens, you don’t need to worry about it covering certain sensors. It usually comes in M42 mount, which means that this lens can be used with just about any camera when coupled with a simple adapter. You can even “speedboost” it with certain mount cameras, so there aren’t many reasons not to like it. The minimum focusing distance of just 35cm is very handy too.
- Average Price on eBay – $50/£25
- Focus Throw – Approx 270°
- Mounts – M42, Exakta
- Optical Formula – 4 elements in 3 groups (Tessar)
- Closest Focusing Distance – 0.35m/1ft
- Filter Size – 49mm
- Aperture Blades – 5
- Weight – 170g
- 12 Aperture Settings from F2.8 to F22
- Made in DDR
- Very cheap for any lens, especially Carl Zeiss
- 270° focus ring rotation, great for video use
- 0.35m closest focusing distance, great for close ups
- Great optical performance for such cheap lens
- Beautiful, but not overpowering character
- Quite slow for a 50mm lens
- Build quality not as good as on some other vintage alternatives
- Not as sharp wide open as I’d expect at this price
- 5 Aperture blades create pentagonal bokeh when stopped down
Overall, I’m very impressed with this lens and would genuinely like 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 are great in their own way. Like I said already, while Helios is an absolutely king of “character”, Zeiss is a much better choice if you want something that would match up better with modern lenses!
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