Why do we talk such rubbish about lenses? Part Two

I've had my Zeiss lenses for the Contax system for about eight years and have come to love their look. The negatives from the 50mm f1.4 Planar and 28mm f2.8 Distagon just seem to have a sparkle about them and I've often imagined that I can pick them out just by that look alone.

So it was natural that I should do a few test shots with the Planar to show how much better it is than other 35mm system lenses I have such as the Zuikos and, in particular, the famed 50mm f2 Macro. Bad idea. 

The fact is that the Zeiss negatives didn't really look any different when directly compared with those from the Zuikos. I was keen to get some high res scans done to prove to myself that this weird anomaly was just an aberration.

Well, having found that there's very little noticeable difference between the Zuikos whether they cost £10 or £350, I now know that it's the same thing for the Zeiss glass. All my illusions are slowly being stripped away one by one and this is another. How can you have favourite lenses when they're just the same as the others or, whisper this quietly, not quite as good?

Proof of the Pudding

Here's the proof. In Part One, I showed crops from the various Zuiko and Takumar lenses wide open and at f8 and a third showing the bokeh. This time round the crops for the Planar are at f1.4 and f2 and the same again for the two Zeiss bokeh shots. I have to say that the Planar wide open and at f2 looks the poorest of the lot. Bummer! I know that the Planar produces very sharp, crisp prints but when really blown up it's not as sharp at the edges as any of the Zuikos or the late 1950s Takumar.

Although this isn't something I'd notice in real life as I'd never dream of making 20x30 inch prints from a 35mm neg - that's what you get medium format for - it's still a bit of a blow. Or is it?

These are the Zeiss crops, all from 3200 dpi scans of Firstcall 400S film rated at 40 ISO and developed in Spur's HRX.

50mm Planar f1.4

50mm Planar f2

50mm Planar f1.4

50mm Planar f2

And those from the 50mm f2 Zuiko:




The bokeh of the Planar is quite nice, pretty much on a par with the Takumar. It's better at f2 than at f1.4 which isn't unusual for fast lenses. But, sharpness-wise, the Planar can't quite keep up with the Zuiko macro.

My initial reaction to this wasn't great. But then I thought a little more and realised that it's not a bad thing that my cheap lenses, such as the Zuiko 50mm f1.8, are just as good as my dearer ones like the macro and Planar. I could simply sell all the expensive equipment and put the cash to better use!

When deciding which camera and lens to take with me when heading out the door, I've sometimes looked at the OM2n and 50mm f1.8 Zuiko and then picked up a Contax and the Planar instead in the belief that I'd be getting better quality. I might have to reconsider that approach in future.

It's important to bear a couple of things in mind here. One is sample variation and it's possible my Planar isn't the best example on the planet. Maybe it's spent many hours in a glovebox being shoogled to within an inch of its life. The other is my venerable old Epson 3200 Photo flatbed scanner which is hardly state-of-the-art. It has to be said, though, that the Epson seemed good enough to show that the Planar wasn't quite as good as the Zuikos.

So how come I'd always considered the Zeiss negs to exhibit a certain sparkle? I think that must be what they call self-delusion. And what's the best cure for that? A mighty collision with reality. :)

You might also like:

Why Do We Talk Such Rubbish About Lenses? Part One.
Firstcall 400S in Rodinal
There's Something Special About Zeiss


  1. I like that comparison. One thing that is pretty important, the lenses you are comparing are excellent lenses. Olympus made prime lenses for their OM series that are on the top. And the same could be said of the old Takumar. I remember read a comparison of a Leica Summicron with the Takumar in Popular Photography and seriously, if you haven't plans to enlarge until the very big side there are not differences and include after the enlarging the differences are minimal.

  2. As you say, you may not have a very good copy of the lens.

    On the other hand, there's much more to tools than their sharpness. And I'm not just talking about distortion, flatness of field or things like that. If a camera or lens feels particularly good in the hand, or using it inspires you, then that's an important functional aspect as well.

    I know I can get very similar results using a 35mm camera rather than my Pentax 67. I can certainly get as sharp and detailed images with my smaller, lighter digital camera. And even my last pre-smart dumbphone could outshoot my Mefag HandyBox.

    But carrying and using the P67 inspires me to take pictures I would not try using another tool. I could technically take the same shots with, say, my DSLR. But I would not, since I don't see the same way as when I carry the P67. I wouldn't even recognize the opportunity.

    That's,by the way, part of what I love about the great diversity of film camera types. Each one invites me to see the world around me in a different way.

  3. Hi Bruce ... been there back in the days I worried about this stuff. I was doing some rail photography and had with me a Contax G2 with the 45mm Planar lens (one of the best lenses ever made according the write-ups) and an Olympus IS-3 DLX mega-zoom camera. I was using the Contax G2 for my "quality" shots and the Olympus IS-3 DLX for getting the extra zoom when needed. I was using Tmax100, so a great film to run each up against to check sharpness. Guess what ... no difference in the images. Both sets of negs from the Contax G2/45mm Planar and Olympus IS-3 DLX looked the same when magnified 20x with a special loupe I have. I sold the Contax G2/45mm and bought more goodies that I wanted. It's the camera and technique that wins the day. No more silver bullet chasing for me.

    All the best!

  4. Hi Bruce,
    I am a sometime lurker to your blog now commenting for the first time. While I don't know much about comparing lenses I do know that I like old Rokkor lenses a lot. Maybe you already know about David Kilpatrick's very interesting old article already where he writes about Minolta lens design philosophy as compared to Leica, Zeiss and Pentax. It was to me quite enlightening and shows how other lens characteristics than sharpness were important to the overall design philosophy of different companies. So if i.a. Zeiss lenses are often preceived by some to be sharper it may be due to other traits, such as micro contrast. But as I wrote, this is outside of my competence. The Kilpatrick article can still be found here:

    Best/Mattias (Stockholm, Sweden)

  5. Hi Mattias,

    I've been following David Kilpatrick's writing since his PhotoPro magazine days of the 1980s but I hadn't seen the article you linked to so thanks very much for that.

    You've got me thinking now. I have a 50mm f1.4 PG Rokkor and it would be interesting to shoot a few frames alongside the Zeiss Planar and Zuiko macro.

    As for knowing a lot about testing lenses, I'm in the same boat as you. I just shoot identical frames, scan or print the negs and take a look. It's a hands-on approach rather than a technical appraisal for which I have neither the knowledge nor testing equipment.

  6. Mattias,

    I forgot to say that I only read your comment by accident. Please remember to leave a name next time rather than commenting as "anonymous" as I've stopped reading anonymous comments.

  7. Bruce,

    It's not only about the sharpness or resolution. I also was a Contax user and I remember the first impression of looking at Velvia done with Distagon 28/2.8. It was the colour transmission that stroke me in the eyes. Watching the slides was like being there.


  8. Bruce,
    I hope this works better, now and in future comments.


  9. That's great Mattias. Thank you.

  10. Bruce, I had a 28mm Carl Zeiss on a Contax camera many years ago and it was immediately obvious that it was special. I also recently had a Carl Zeiss 28mm F2 lens in Canon mount for a 5d mk3 and again the results were stellar- but in both instances I was shooting in colour. Have you thought of trying the test on colour slide film? Best, Mike.

  11. Mike, I can't afford colour slide film!

  12. The boringly sharp digital cameras and their lenses has made me go the other way. I look for low quality lenses, then I try to exploit these flaws for impact in my photos. One of my favorites is on a folder called First Six Camera. It has such a lousy bokeh, and wide open performance that every image is a surprise; a pleasant surprise.

    I do like for 35 mm sharpness my screw mount f4 50mm Takumar Macro. And for 6x7 my 105mm Takumar.

  13. You mentioned selling the Contax lenses and camera. But the older I get the more I find somewhat quality lenses mean nothing to the final product.

    My old Spotmatic is something that I had for 45 years and used all that time. I just don't have to thing when looking through the view finder which way to twist a knob, and look where the shutter release is. I guess that is ergonomics, or maybe ergonomic adjustment.

  14. petros gkotsis9 April 2014 at 09:44

    Hi Bruce

    This is a rather hot topic indeed. I think nowadays people talk much more about their gear and the theoretical performance they can achieve with it: see shooting test charts, instead of their photographs. That said I believe your test using real world conditions is really useful although I think it would be fairer to the planar to compare it with your om zuiko 1.4 or any other fast lens you own. However I believe that people discuss sharpness and resolution too much: by the way they are not the same thing but this is irrelevant. For me lenses are important to the extend they allow me to get the results I want. Older single coated designs really shine: at least to my eyes, at high contrast scenes with contrasty b&w or very saturated color films. On the other hand I find modern designs like the T coated zeiss unique in lower contrast themes as they boost the micro contrast and as the excellent article from David Kilpatrick explained the contrast as well. I also like the rendering of colors with some lenses more than with others. I guess I need to justify somehow my gear acquisition syndrome ;-)

    All the best

  15. Yet again a cracking wee post Bruce!
    I like different lenses for different times, though that being said I have yet to reach nirvana, but I don't think I'll ever get there . .

  16. It's been my intent to start ditching the zoom lenses I own for my Nikon system for well known advantages of prime glass. Now you have me wondering if maybe this bit of received wisdom holds up in the real world. I may end up doing some testing myself.

  17. Agree. Good article and research. Can anyone post the MTF charts for the F.Zuiko1.8/50? I own the F.Zuiko1.8/50 and the ContaxG2.0/45. I have not compared these for film, but have compared their IQ results on my Sony A7R. The A7R can out-resolve many legacy lenses and it shows clearly all faults of all lenses. To say the IQ from the older Zuiko 50 for SLR equals the newer Zeiss G45 for RF is simply not true, imho, at least not as the two lenses render images on the A7R. But the Zuiko is very very close to the Zeiss, remarkably so. At f4, the only MTF chart I could find shows the Zuiko renders an MTF of 0.93 at 10lp/mm, which is identical to the G45 (amazing). But at 40lp/mm, the Zuiko is about 55lp/mm, which is much less than the G45 at 65lp/mm. This difference shows in my images as decreased sharpness for the Zuiko. Also, the Zuiko has much greater diffraction from f11 to f16, which shows in my scenics. The Zuiko is best at f8, but still not as good as the G45 for scenics. This resolution/diffraction aspect is the only visible difference between the 2 lenses on my A7R. One factor could be the rear element to sensor distance: the G45 is RF design, so it mounts very much closer to the sensor than the Zuiko, and imho a close-mounting lens will always render a superior image. The Zuiko renders a slightly different colour palette from the Zeiss, which I would say the Zuiko gives a tad more contrast and saturation. Remarkably, the Zuiko has almost no lateral colour aberration, which is ideal for the 36mp sensor, and thus fringing is non-existent (except under extreme conditions, and then only slightly). The G45 may render a superior image overall, but it has no manual focus ring and is cumbersome to use and adapt to the A7R. The Zuiko has excellent mechanics, and is a joy to use. I can live with the slightly lower apparent resolution of the Zuiko, and thus it has become my every-day lens on my A7R. I have not compared my Zuiko to the Zeiss 50 for SLR cameras, but I suspect it would compare very favourably. I understand fully now why the pros I knew way-back-when claimed the Zuiko was a superior lens in its day, and why owners were near-cultists in their admiration. The F.Zuiko1.8/50 is truly an excellent lens and, considering it was the kit lens, all the more remarkable. (sample images posted on my Flickr gallery for A7R+OlympusF.Zuiko1.8/50).