The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fifty 50s and The Zeiss Planar T* 2/50 ZM

I had the opportunity recently to use four of the new Leica M mount "ZM" lenses from Carl Zeiss, Oberkochen. The guy who made the oppportunity possible had his Zeiss dealership yanked out from under him and is no longer associated with the brand, even after he'd gone to considerable trouble to skilfully promote that brand and its products, so I'm going to have to figure out some other way to repay him. (By the bye, this was neither a kind nor a smart move on Zeiss's part, given my friend's expertise and influence. I might even go so far as to assume it was a bit of a nasty business, or at least had a bit of that feel to it; but then, we all know that hidebound, centuries-old companies—would it be hideously xenophobic to say "especially German ones"? My experience is limited—can be as cantankerous to deal with as superannuated battle-axe maiden aunts. Watch yer topknot, fellow travelers.)

Of the four lenses, the 50mm ƒ/2—its official title is "Zeiss Planar T* 2/50 ZM"—was not the glamor lens, so I used it the least and it's taken me a while to catch up to it. It is indeed somewhat un-flashy in nature. I do think it's permissable—or at least not wholly self-indulgent—to write about it, because it is a digital lens now too: it fits on the Epson RD-1 with the same angle of view as a 75mm on 35mm, and also on the hot new Leica M8, where it assumes the angle of view of a 65mm on 35mm—short teles in both cases. It can also be used on a variety of film cameras, including all M-mount Leicas; several Voigtländers, including the R3A and R3M, which are the ones that have 1:1 finders; and also on its own companion "Zeiss Ikon" [sic], the ill-named new super-RF that is the result of a collaboration between Zeiss and Cosina. (This lens is also fabricated by Cosina, for Zeiss, under license.)

It sometimes happens in the world of high-end audio—another locus of unremitting and even counter-productive connoisseurship—that stereo systems most valued by "deep" connoisseurs aren't immediately terribly impressive to neophytes. The reason is that they aren't designed to go for cheap thrills and superficial appeal. To satisfy the high-strung "golden ears" of the expert, they need to achieve hyper-competence within a framework of carefully adjudged balance, with no particular property spotlit or disguised. That description also applies to what I've come to like in lenses.

I mentioned earlier that I have distinct tastes and preferences. To name just a few of these: I tend to like lenses that are optimized for sharpness across the entire frame, as opposed to concentrating their best sharpness in the center of the field; that are optimized for a taking distance of less than infinity (the traditional value is 50•ƒ, which is fine); that do not distort more than, say, 1%; that tend to equalize their performance up and down the aperture range, as opposed to having a more distinct optimum aperture at the expense of the extremes; that have a marginal amount of low-level veiling glare (why? It can serve to, in effect, "pre-expose" the lowest shadow values with black-and-white film) but as little ghosting as possible; that "masks" micro-resolution with robust large-structure contrast, which I think looks a little more natural than lenses with the ultimate in resolution (anyway, it goes better with my favorite films, none of which are high-resolution). Those are a few of the major ones.

And then there's bokeh. The term is a general Japanese word that roughly translates to "fuzzy," and that has a number of different connotations in Japanese. Applied to lenses it merely means optical blur, or the blur of imaged objects away from the plane of best focus (as opposed, of course, to blur caused by either the subject or the camera moving). Technically, there is no "good" or "bad" bokeh. Subjectively, there is, but it's a matter of taste as to which is what. Some people don't care about bokeh; I do. Some people don't take pictures with appreciable amounts of bokeh in them; I do. Some people just don't look at it; I do. Some people have catholic tastes and are accepting of various types of blur rendering; I'm not one of them.

You also can't really generalize about the bokeh of any one lens. Well, you can, but only in the way that one or two MTF charts describe a lens's behavior—pretty well as far as it goes, but in no way is it a complete description. Bokeh changes with aperture, focus distance, which side of the plane of focus the imaged object is on, and how far the imaged object is from the plane of best focus, and what the imaged object looks like (mainly, but not exclusively, in terms of tonal values and contrast). This describes an effectively infinite range of possible conditions, meaning that all tests are representative and all descriptions are shorthand approximations.

The kind of blur rendering I like in a lens can be vaguely described as the soft "bright-core" type, but soft in the sense of cloudlike rather than fuzzy, resembling lenses from before, say, the 1960s or early '70s, or whenever it was that overcorrected spherical aberration became the norm.

I haven't used every 50mm that exists, but I've tried about 50 of them now and have owned more than 15...and that's more than most people have tried, you've got to admit. What follows is only a provisional decision, and I don't want to be held to it absolutely. Neither, for reasons enummerated earlier, do I want to have to defend my thesis in a court of opinion or hold verbal prizefights with other self-appointed experts. However, I think that (for me, personally, subjectively, given my tastes and values in terms of've got all that already, right?), the Zeiss ZM 50mm ƒ/2 is the new winner. It takes pride of place as the best 50mm I know of. I'd have to use it more to be sure, but it looks that way.

I was suprised by this. In construction, it is simple, and resembles (but is not identical to) another of my very favorite 50s, the Konica Hexanon-M 50/2. But its design also resembles some lenses I don't like very much. Also, I must say I'm surprised to like a Zeiss 50 quite as much as I like this one...I don't normally care for Zeisses (in fact, a couple of the weak points of the Contax Planars were too glaring for me to live with, and were what drove me to Pentax, years ago).

I can tell you that if I shot with the Epson RD-1 or the Leica M8, this would be my short tele (in my world, the shorter your short tele, the cooler you are). And if you care about a) great lenses in general and 50s in particular, b) film cameras, and c) rangefinders, you are three, three, three times a minority amongst photographers. But in case you care, this Zeiss is a very pleasant surprise—a bit of a hidden treasure, I think.

If you own this lens and have pictures taken with it posted online, please leave links in the comments—I'd be interested to see some of what you're doing with it.

This is the third of three related posts, in descending order (anti-blog style)—continuing from the two posted directly above.



Blogger megaperls said...

As referenced by the Leica FAQ, see here for my first rolls with the Planar. Like you, I like this lens a lot.

8:44 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

I take it when you say that this is one is "not the glamour lens" you're referring to the C-Sonnar? I'd be curious to hear what you think about that one. Presuming you've had a chance to play with that one too.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Fazal Majid said...

People who denigrate the 50mm do so because they do not have the skill to use that focal length effectively, specially in comparison with all the body of work shot there. Instead, they adopt the cheap thrills of extreme wideangles or the voyeuristic stand-offishness of the long tele.

The true definition of a normal lens is one where the perspective of the print seen froma normal viewing distance is the same as that of the scene itself. Thus it is a function of how much enlargement is done. The formula is focal = viewing distance x film size / print size.

A normal lens for people viewing 4x6 prints at 50cm would be 120mm... 50mmm is normal for people who make 8x10 to 11x14 enlargements, not coincidentally also fairly rare print sizes among the general public.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Wituniasty said...

I've been waiting for a looong time, to read posts like that.
Thank you. I've missed that.

Will there be a continuation 'bout eg. other fifties, the "A pluses" and ones praised among users, but not so good indeed.

A lot of is happening in the world of fifties (C-Sonnar, 3.5 Heliar, 2,4 Hexanon...)

7:09 AM  
Blogger kevin said...

a while back i bought an older Olympus OM 50mm f/2 macro lens. i made this purchase after reading one of your articles online. using this lens on an OM-4 loaded with slide film is a beautful thing.

thank you so much for writing that article!

8:41 AM  
Blogger Hugo Angel said...

It's not my business nor my passion nor my hobby, and I'm not a connesseur of lenses - but I read this post with very great pleasure, like a masterpiece.

9:01 AM  
Blogger dennismook said...

Mike, these are the types of comments and insights at which you excel. Thank you and please give us more.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Regarding Peter's remark concerning the Zeiss C-Sonnar...

I bought a C-Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 last week. it is the first Zeiss lens I have owned and looked like a real bargain compared to the Leica Summilux 50 f/1.4 I was considering. I did not consider the Planar f/2 mainly because I was looking for a slightly faster lens. Now I wonder if I didn't miss an even better deal.

So far though, after perhaps 150 frames with the lens, I have to say I like the C-Sonnar. My only complaint is that it's rangefinder interface is slightly funky. On both my M8 and M7 the bright lines will move ever so slightly as focus shifts. This is not really a major issue for me, as those bright line areas are little more than general framing guides.

But I had no idea that the C-Sonnar had some sort of "glamour" baggage?

10:21 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"a while back i bought an older Olympus OM 50mm f/2 macro lens"

That's another of the all-time great 50mms.


11:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I take it when you say that this is one is "not the glamour lens" you're referring to the C-Sonnar?"

No. The C-Sonnar was not one of the four lenses I tried. When I had the four lenses here, I shot the most with the 21mm and 28mm.


11:59 AM  
Blogger MarkH said...

Oh please put up a list of the real manufacturers of many lenses!!!

I will love to see the number of people who have a fit when they see that their beloved Nikkor was made by Tokina or the wonderful Sony "Zeiss" lens that is made by Canon.

I will never forget years ago when Consumer Reports did a test of 70-200mm lenses and they rated about 20 "different" lenses. Three of these lenses were all made by Kino Precision (a.k.a. Kiron) yet one was called a best buy, one was in the middle, and one brought up the rear. No mention was made of the fact that they all looked strikingly similar.

So, please, please open up that can of worms. It would be so much fun!!!

12:42 PM  
Blogger aizan said...

if you're on flickr, i set up a group for this lens a while ago.

and i'm sure we'd all love a book on lenses, mike!

12:56 PM  
Blogger Monza76 said...

I would be interested in the "new normal" for APS-C size dSLR. There are some excellent 30 to 40mm lenses out there that will work on these cameras. Some comments on the faster (f2 to f1.2) 35mm lenses would be interesting. I would love to get my hands on a Pentax FA 35mm f2 or a Pentax Limited 31mm f1.9 to see how they would rank in your estimate.

Currently my 50mm is an old Pentax M-series f1.7, not great but...

I would look forward to more of your lens views. (pun intended)

1:41 PM  
Blogger Magumi said...

I use Contax Aria with 50/1.4 Planar and Ilford Delta 400 almost exclusively and even though there are situations when the Planar produces bloody awful bokeh, for me this the most convenient camera set that I can imagine.

This is partly because I wear glasses, I am left-eye dominant and I have a big nose, which makes the Aria's wonderful viewfinder a real godsend. Also, because of my high-index glasses, my field of view is by a happy coincidence limited to 50-mm lens perspective, which means that I can frame the shot without raising the camera to my eye.

The interesting thing is, though, that I can also make much better photographs with this outmoded set than with a modern DSLR wonder. For some reason that I don't understand, I have never been able to take a decent picture with a zoom. Maybe it is because the 50-mm lens combined with the excellent viewfinder and user-friendly interface of the Contax is so simple and so inviting that I feel to be an integral part of the scene that I am photographing, while with the zoom, dim view and clunky interface of a DSLR, I feel like I am standing behind a glass.

4:10 PM  
Blogger brigg said...


Are there any 50’s that you really hate because they’re too sharp, too contrasty? I read your criteria for a great 50 and found myself thinking of my Canon EF35mm f/2, which almost always disappoints me. I’d really like to have a tack sharp lens that lends a more three-dimensional quality to my picture. I don’t care about distortion, and as for bokeh, I don’t often notice it unless it’s really horrible. (I have a Hasselblad 45mm f/4 for an XPAN that has what I think is great bokeh--the rendering from sharp focus to soft focus is gradual and smooth and further enhances three-dimensionality.)

I’m interested not only in your views about sharp 50’s; I also use an APS-C camera, and like Ira, I’m also interested in normal lenses for APS-C type sensors.

Thanks for a great blog and great writing,


5:54 PM  
Blogger Vladimer Nachkebia said...

I have shot with planar and I totally love it, only thing I don`t like is hood, you can check my photos here (more to add soon)

4:59 AM  
Blogger matt~ said...

Your comments on the ZM 50 Planar run almost entirely parallel to my own thoughts on the ZM Biogon 35. The Biogon seems to be one of those lenses optimized to be merely incredibly good arcoss a whole range of qualities instead just exceptional on one point. It's a good companion for the 50 Hexanon that I also use. Some might be interested in reading my review of the ZM Biogon 35.

7:14 AM  
Blogger quattro98 said...


Let me know if you want to try the lens. I need to send my body in for repair soon, so I won't need it for a while.

10:37 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home