It’s great to see that there are a lot of like-minded filmmakers out there who also see the benefits of vintage glass and happily use it on their professional productions. Among these is a cinematographer Frank Glencairn, who a lot of you probably already know. But if you, don’t make sure to check out his blog & twitter where he shares loads of his knowledge and informative reviews that will benefit any aspiring cinematographer. I while ago Frank wrote an amazing article about use of Carl Zeiss lenses on modern cameras, in his Medium Format ones. I wasn’t aware of this article until a few days ago when he posted some screen grabs (below) from the scenes he recently shot with his vintage Zeiss glass mounted on a BMCC.
I never even thought of using these large ( and not particularly fast?) lenses on a modern camera like DSLRs or Large Chip Camcorder, but Frank’s blog post opened my eye to a brand new level, so if you want to learn about zeiss lenses and benefits of Medium Format lenses, I highly recommend that you read what he has to say right until the very end.
So here is what Frank has to say about vintage Zeiss glass?
What I really like on those vintage Zeisses is, they got character.
Light passes modern glass and they barely leave a trace. When light passes those vintage primes, they leave a distinct signature. Not what everyone wants, but I love it.
I use them religiously on the HVX200/Letus adapter combo and now on the 5D (he now uses them on his BMCC).
They have an amazing cinema focus throw, almost no breathing and a extremely cinematic look and bokeh.
So what Zeiss Jena glass should you buy?
After World War II, the Zeiss lens factory in Jena setup up a new factory in Oberkochen, and that factory now produces Zeiss optics for high-end cameras, among many other things.
Zeiss Jena optics were called “Carl Zeiss Jena” back then and used their traditional lens designations, including Sonnar, Biometar and Flektogon. In the west, it depended on the country. In the U.S., Zeiss Jena was not allowed to call themselves “Zeiss”, and the products exported to the U.S. were labelled Jenoptik (in the case of binoculars) and “aus Jena” in the case of camera lenses.
Zeiss Oberkochen had also been given rights to the lens family names, so the Zeiss Jena lenses were marked “s” for Sonnar, “Bm” for Biometar, and “f” for Flektogon. In England and parts of Europe, they were allowed to use “Carl Zeiss Jena”, but still used the abbreviated family names. In still other places, they labelled them just like they did in the Communist world. (Where Zeiss Oberkochen was not allowed to use “Zeiss”, which was everywhere at first, they used “Opton”. Thus, you’ll see late 40′s Rolleiflexes with Opton lenses on them.)
So, a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar might be called a “Carl Zeiss Jena s” or an “aus Jena s” and be exactly the same lens. There is no quality difference in the different labels and it should not enter the buying decision.
The Zeiss Jena Sonnar is the same formula as the Zeiss Oberkochen Sonnar and exhibits the same qualities. The Flektogon is similar to the Distagon, and the Biometar is a modified Planar formula just like nearly every double-gauss normal lens made since the demise of the Tessar.
The Zeiss Jena lenses were made in four basic finishes. The first has all shiny aluminum, often with a leather band grip on the focus ring. These were made from about 1956 to 1963, and were all single coated. The second was black with a hard plastic focus ring that has raised ovals on it, made from ’61 to ’63, and single coated.
The third type is called the “Zebra” and was made from 1963 to 1967 in large quantities. They are black with alternating bands of bright aluminum on the control rings. The “Zebra” medium format is the type you want. They are huge and heavy and build like a tank.
The fourth type is all black, either painted or anodized . They were made from 1967 to 1978 with single coatings, and from 1978 to about 1990 with multicoating. The multicoated Zeiss Jena lenses are marked “MC” with very, very few exceptions.
Thou they are multicoated the quality of the glass is not as good as the “Zebra” cause of supply problems in the Communist DDR.
Zeiss Jena built lenses primarily in two mounts M42 and Pentacon Six. The Pentacon Six was a medium format camera and those are the lenses you are looking for.
When you look at the numbers, they don´t seem to be real fast, but don´t be fooled.
Because of the huge diameter of those beasts they are almost twice as fast as the numbers suggest.
Here is a comparsion between the 50mm/4 Flektogon and a 50mm 1.4 Nikon (both at wide open).
It is quite easy to get adapters to go on Canon EF-mount cameras or Nikon.
One word of caution. When you buy a 50/4 Flektagon, make sure it looks like this.
Sometimes air has entered this huge lens and causes the glue to decompose.
All the black gets hundreds of little white dots, that look like a starfield when that happens. Don´t buy them, you get nasty reflections.
So, where to buy and how much are they?
I recommend Ebay Germany.
And here comes the best part: You can score a mint lens between 150 and 250 Euros sometimes less. And don´t buy anything else than mint.
I agree with Frank that there are probably loads of great examples of these lenses coming from German sellers, unfortunately the prices keep rising, but these lenses are still really affordable compared to extremely popular and now very expensive Contax glass.
One of the biggest revelations in Frank’s article is that F-stop indication is not really a fair representation of how fast the lens really is. I kind of knew that already, but chosen to ignore it up to this point. A simple but obvious test above really opened up my eyes and you know what, this will now make choosing lenses even more difficult 🙂
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