Vintage Zeiss glass on modern cameras

What I really like on those vintage Zeisses is, they got character.
Light passes modern glass and it barely leaves a trace. When light passes the Zeiss optics they leave a signature. Not what everyone wants, but I love it.
I use them religiously on the HVX200/Letus adapter combo and now on the 5D.
They have an amazing cinema focus throw, no breathing at all and a extremely cinematic look and bokeh.

I tried my beloved vintage (1960s) Zeiss Jena medium format lenses on this production.
I used a 80 and the 120 Biometar with a cheap adapter from Ebay.
Everything was shot wide open (2.8)The pictures below do not reflect the true quality (I have to find out, how to post full size pics without heavy compression here).

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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 labeled 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 labeled 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.

50mm/4 Flektogon

80mm/2.8 Biometar

120mm/2.8 Biometar

180mm/2.8 Sonnar

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).

50mm/4 Flektogon@wide open (click to enlarge)

50mm 1.4 Nikon@wide open (click to enlarge)

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.

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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.

Here are some more examples. I shot them out of the trunk of a car – straight from the HVX200/LEX and a 120 2.8 Zeiss Jena prime of the 1960s. No color correction, just an ND-grad and a polarizer. Double-click them to see them in full glory.

That film (Indiana Jones and the Spear of Destiny) is in the theater since last week and I was surprised how good it looked on that huge screen.

Frank Glencairn

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36 thoughts on “Vintage Zeiss glass on modern cameras

  1. Hi Frank, Nice article. I’ve got a vintage Mitchell R35MkII camera package, with a set of Super Baltars, it would be interesting to compare the images from these Zeiss primes with the Super Baltars.

    • Hi Frank
      I got so excited after reading your article. I went into a european ebay buying frenzy. The lenses are starting to come in now. Boy! people are bullshit artists. Almost everything i’ve bought was suppose to be in perfect working order. Wrong! Sticky focus rings, missing caps, vernish. Nevermind I’m still loving it I figure just keep buying em until you get good ones. Hopefully I can sell the B grade ones off. Anyway I’d like to get your advice on something: I spent big money(250euro) on a supposedly mint 50mm flektogon, well its got vernish(the glue thing)! When i complained to the french man I bought it from he said, “my friend vernish is very common in old vintage lenses…you must use a lens hood always and polarizer for reflections…it is still an excellent lens, its a zeiss!” Bloody french anyways what do you think?

      • Bloody French!

        Well, see how much the glue thing affects the picture quality.
        You can get away with few bubbles, but if it is too much you start getting nasty reflections.
        As I said – buy mint lenses only. They are cheap enough.
        But I know, especially the 50 mm Flektogon is hard to find in pristine condition today, even here in Germany.

        And yeah, using a lens cap while shooting, helps to cover the problem (pun intended) ;-)

        best, Frank

  2. Just bought my first Zeiss plus appropriate adapter on ebay. I’ve read about the differences of Zeiss lenses over and over but never got such clear references. Thanks, I’ll share my experience.

  3. Very nice Article!

    But i can’t see the comparison shot between the 50mm/4 Flektogon and a 50mm 1.4 Nikon!

  4. Hello again,

    the windows explorer shows me that more pictures are missing. Can you upload them or correct the links? I’m really interested in those lenses…

  5. Hi Frank, a question, I don’t quite understand what you were saying about the 50/F4? Where are the white dots? inside the lens or? I am looking at one online, I see white dots, but not sure if that’s the problem you were talking about.

    Thank you for such great reference!

  6. Hi Frank,

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve seen you mention to Shane on hurlblog that there are certain things to be careful of when buying these lenses. Does your article cover all the problems or is there more to look out for?

    Thanks,
    Johann

  7. Hi Frank,

    Thanks for all the info. I use a 7D and if I have my calculations right, the smallest focal length (50mm) would be a 44 on the 7D.

    I noticed that there are shorter focal lengths, a 20 and 35 mm, but with a M42 mount. I guess these are lenses for 35mm camera’s. There are adapters for the Canon’s available. The 20mm would be a 32 mm equivalent on my 7D. Still not wide enough for my taste (I would prefer 24….).

    Do you have any experience or comments on the M42 mount Zeiss lenses (zebra’s)

    Thanks very much for your input.

    Bart Nopper,
    Amsterdam.

  8. Hi Frank, First Up thank you for the informative site and article.
    I’ve been looking for these Pentacon Six Lenses and have found a number here in HK. They do not seem to have the Zebra pattern on the rings
    Forgive the nOOb question here. I am aware you did mention that there was a matt black variant like all the ones I have seen here. Just curiosu if there was anyone else who ever made Pentacon lenses. Or indeed if there was an in house brand of pentacon lenses? Wish I could remember all I saw today but was so rushed off my feet. Just a little confused with fuzzy memories and could use some helpful expert clarification. Cheers.

  9. Avoid everything else but the Zebra lenses – lesser quality and magic..
    The Russians made some lenses for the medium Format Kiev that have the same bayonet as the Pentacon Six – not recommended ether.

    German Ebay is full of the Zebras, and they are cheap even with shipping around the globe.

    Frank

  10. Hi Frank,

    I got my 80mm and it’s it really a fantastic lens with a lot of character. Nice and contrasty. Haven’t checked the breathing on a tripod yet but it looks to be minimal if non-existent. Thanks again for this article.

    You don’t mention the other Jenas in other focal lengths such as the 35mm, 120mm, 300mm and there seem to be others around the 20-30mm focal lengths as well. I’m not entirely sure if these are all available in zebra and P6 though I’ve seen the 35mm in zebra and M42 mount. Any advice on these other focal lengths?

    Thanks.

  11. Hmm, I don’t really like the examples. They have heavy grain, aren’t that sharp and have lots of CA. But maybe thats a problem from the HVX…

    Regards

  12. I have bought a set of M42 thread zebra’s from Carl Zeis and Meyer Optik, also East German and Zebra’s.

    I have a CZJ 20/4, CZJ 25/4, CZJ 35/2.8, CZJ 50/1.8, Jupiter-9 85/2 (Russian copy of the Famous Zeiss Biotar), Meyer Optik 135/2.8, Meyer Optik 100/2.8, Meyer Optik 200/4.

    All on 5D MKII. I have hardly shot video yet, I am still waiting on some stuff, but the photography is great. Fantastic DOF and very sharp. Most even at full open.

    I bought all of these for about 600 Euro’s. That beats the price of a Canon 24-70 doesn’t it?

    These lenses are built like spacecrafts and have a main advantage over AF lenses; the focussing ring has a wide spread and has stops at both ends. The 135/2.8 turns over app. 340 degrees and is a smooth as butter.

    I did a small handheld test with a single 25 watt lightbulb and didn’t follow focus with the CZJ Fektogon 20/4 at 5.6: http://www.vimeo.com/11927892

  13. Sorry, I made a mistake, it was shot wide open. shutter 50, 1250 ISO, 25fps. On vimeo it says 40 watt, but I checked later and it was 25 watt.

  14. Hi. I love this idea!!

    one question: I read your comments saying the pentacon six models are the ones we should be looking for, but I can’t find many of them, while the M42 range is all over ebay… are the M42′s that much worse?

    (ok, the fact that they are “all over ebay” may be a clue here, but, still…)

    • Hi Norman. That is not a clue. These lenses were made by the millions, so obviously there are still a lot of them. The rarer ones are becoming more expensive quickly and are not easily found in good condition.

      Anyway, it’s worth looking into and I like what I see sofar.

  15. I’ve done some more research and it seems the Zeiss Jenas are a favorite amongst photographers too. Why buy a new Zeiss CP when you can have a vintage one at a 10th of the price -and the CPs are manual focus too! Most photographers who have played with these lenses seem to recommend the MC lenses in the black bodies and these are fetching a higher price on eBay but the Zebras are considered a little inferior (or older) and are still a bit cheaper.

    Since the Pentacon 6 was a medium format camera there are no Zeiss lenses produced for it with a wider focal length of 50mm, so if you want wider then you have to go for the M42 mount which is available in 35mm and 20mm (and I think I saw a 25 or 25mm too. The only issue I see with the M42 mount is that it was produced for a 135mm (35mm) film format so you will probably get vignetting on something like a 5DMKII, but I’m not sure about that. For a cropped sensor the M42 should be fine. I’m not sure if the quality of the M42 are as good as the Pentacons as Frank has suggested we should buy but I’m pretty sure it’s the same optics simply mounted into a barrel with a different design at the mount.

    There are also some Russian lenses that are becoming popular – many of them based off the Zeiss design, the Mir for example and there’s also the German Jospeh Schneider range of lenses but from what I’ve seen they don’t quite match up to the Zeiss lenses – especially in sharpness at the outer edges of the frames.

    Of course I speak under correction as a complete layman about these things – so don’t trust a word I say! Do your research.

    Thanks again to Frank for enlightening us!

  16. Hi

    I’ve seen some complains on the web about edge sharpness with some of these lenses, and many about flare on most of them

    could you comment on this?

  17. At full open there aren’t many (affordable) lenses that are sharp all the way. I shoot at 5.6 or higher otherwise I get RSI in my focussing hand. At those apertures they are sharp as razors.

    Photographers prefer the MultiCoated ones. They do flare less and they have more contrast. Filmers have less problems with flares and the contrast is just a button away.

    Plus the low prices on the zebra’s M42 make these lenses worth looking into.

  18. Norman,

    The P6 lenses will almost certainly be sharp at the edges because the P6 was a medium format camera with a massive piece of film in the back. On a 7D or even 5D what appears as the “edge” would be considered centre or mid-frame – effectively being a “crop” of the P6 which used 120 film. The M42 on the other hand was a 35mm camera so there could be edge softness on those. Of course this is “theoretical” and I’m no expert in these particular lenses.

  19. well, I got some of these czj lenses, and tested them against my other kit with my One Dollar Resolution Chart:
    http://www.similaar.com/lenstests/lenstestsb.html

    it turns out:
    * the sharpness ranges from pretty decent (50 pancolar, 135 sonnar) to totally awful (35 flektogon), with mediocre in between (80 biometar)
    * it is not true that a pentacon six lens will be as sharp on the edges as in the center when mounted on a 1.6x crop camera, like my canon 500D (see biometar 80 at f/2.8 and f/3.5)
    * they do breathe
    * some have a powerful color cast, which is not even the same throughout the range

    on the plus side:
    * they’re totally manual, which is good for the long term (they will work on virtually all cameras, present and future, just changing the adapter, as long as the flange focal distance is not a problem)
    * they have a super-nice long-throw focus ring: even if they’re not sharper than my tamron 17-50, my videos come out sharper, because whith these I get things on focus, while with most stills modern lenses the focus ring allows so little movement that accurate manual focusing seems nearly impossible
    * they are super-cheap, you can get the full range, with good adapters, for under $1000

  20. Pretty interesting tests Norman, and the idea with the “poor mans one dollar test chart” is priceless. Your results confirm my opinion, that the M42 lenses, made for 35mm film, are not as good as the medium format glass.

    What happened to the 135? At 4,0 it seems darker than on 5.6?

    One more word on zebra vs. black housing.
    This is a mater of taste and what aesthetics you looking for.

    Yes the MC coated glass flares less and has more contrast. For me as a filmmaker, I prefer the zebras BECAUSE they have less contrast and make the image more pleasing than the harsh video look of HD. But that´s a personal thing. Flaring isn’t a problem since I work with a huge mattebox anyway.

    Frank Glencairn

  21. * the 135 gave me a darker image than the others at f/4-1/40s, and brighter at f/4-1/30s, so I decided to leave it at 1/40s just like all the others

    * the only pentacon six lens I tested was the biometar 80, which is quite mediocre, all the other are M42, and both the 50 and the 135 are kind of fine

    * these are nearly 50-year-old lenses, and I only have one of each, so it’s totally conceivable that these results are not representative of other similar lenses: maybe there’s nothing wrong with the flektogon 35, and I just got a damaged lens (for that particular one, the focus ring is quite sticky, so maybe that’s an explanation for how soft it looks at f/2.8 and f/3.5… but it looks much better at f/5.6, so maybe it’s just the lens design, who knows)

  22. Hi Frank, this is a very good Page with a lot of good informations. Thx for that !
    Since many years I use also Jena (Zeiss) lenses also at a 2/3 inch broadcastcamera with a special adapter. The pictures look so much better a I get a large range.
    Since I use it also for my 5DMK2, I can say: it ´s always better to use the newer (last) serie of Zeiss-Jena
    or Meyer also with Multicoated Frontlenses. Without Multicoated, the picture is a little bit diffus, if I have a lot of light (sunny day etc.)
    I love these lenses, they are cheap (100-300 Euro) with a kindly look.
    Thanks for all these good informations, I will link Your page at my website!
    Greetings from Berlin, Germany!
    volker striemer

  23. Hey frank, one question: Do you think the m42 series could work for a 7d? after all they are probably built for a sensor of a similar size, arn’t they?

  24. Thanks , I have recently been looking for info about this topic
    for ages and yours is the greatest I’ve came upon so far. However, what concerning the bottom line? Are you positive about the source?

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