My exploration of Sonnar formula lenses has had a bit of a boost lately. After getting in touch with Chris from Skyllaney, he’s ended up sending me no less than 5 of the things to play with, including an uncoated Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2 Sonnar. Some of them are from his personal collection, and some were to sell in the shop, but all all 50mm lenses, and all mountable to my Leica cameras. Regular readers can possibly imagine the smile that’s put on my face?!
As I wrote in my previous Sonnar lens article about the Canon 50mm f/1.5, this exploration of these lenses has shifted gear a bit. Where it was once about finding the perfect classic lens for me, it now feels more just about me trying to experience as many of them as possible. A good job really, as by the time I finished writing this post, the lens in question here had sold.
That aside, I have to say, the news of an entirely new 50mm f/2 Sonnar on the horizon in the form of Chris’s Skyllaney ‘Bertele’ has really piqued my interest. Having spoken to Chris at some length about his plans, I’ve found myself more intrigued by Sonnar lenses (as if that was even possible…). But whilst there’s going to be a little bit of a wait before we get our hands on Chris’s new design, in the meanwhile he has also had my thinking about an era of Sonnar lenses that I’d not really looked at that much previously.
One of the lenses that Chris sent me – the lens I’m writing about here – was a 1930s uncoated Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2 Sonnar. This lens has one of the original Sonnar formulas that the forthcoming ‘Bertele’ lens is based on. It is in fact the early 1932 Ludwig Bertele design which was the first to be made for the Contax rangefinder mount.
I’d not entirely written off uncoated lenses, but I’ve had such poor luck with finding such old glass in good condition before, that my previous searches have mostly been focused on finding later postwar coated lenses. In fact, to date, I don’t think I’ve ever shot an uncoated prewar Sonnar lens at all. As it turns out, I was in for a bit of a treat!
As I’ve mentioned, these early uncoated Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2 Sonnars all came in Contax mount, but Chris has rehoused this one into a highly refurbished Jupiter-8 housing. When I first learned that this is what he does with these lenses, I must admit I did slightly question whether or not the Jupiter housing would be deserving of such wonderful old glass being shoehorned into it. I’ve had a lot of old Russian lenses, and it’s fair to say, they aren’t exactly known for feeling quite up there with the best of them in terms of the build quality.
What I’d failed to comprehend entirely was the degree to which Chris was refurbishing them. He strips them down completely, bathes them in an ultrasonic chemical bath to clean all the gunk off the surfaces and out of mechanisms, re-paints the inside of the lens in black, polishes them and then adjusts and lubricates them.
The result is a lens that whilst still not having that heavy weight brass feel of many German and Japanese lenses, in use, still manages to feel like Chris has got the absolute most out of the aluminium mechanisms used to make these Russian lens housings.
This particular copy – at least having had Chris fettle it to within an inch of its life – feels like a fine specimen indeed. It has a very bright almost mirror finish to it with any previous surface wear/corrosion only being visible in the knurled parts of the metal.
Mechanically it feels very good too. I’ve had and used Russian lenses that have been serviced before, but none that focus as smoothly as this one. It’s not modern-Leica-lens smooth, of course, but for a lens made out of a Russian housing it’s pretty damned good.
Chris also attaches his own designed custom focusing tab which he screws to the body of the lens from the inside whilst it’s dismantled. These are a really nice touch I think, almost regardless of whether or not you like to use a focus tab in practice, they are a nice-to-have.
The only slightly odd thing being that since the lens has such a long focus throw, and Chris modifies them to focus right down to 0.7m, the tab ends up a little high on the lens which makes it quite impractical for close focusing. This might seem odd, but in use, I just found myself reverting to focusing without it when close focusing, and just using the tab for further-distance focusing.
Close vs distant focusing – the has to be close to 270 degrees of travel
Like all Jupiter-8 lenses – and indeed lenses rehoused in Jupiter-8 housings – the aperture is still un-clicked. I do prefer a clicked aperture, but that’s just the nature of the beast here. In fairness, Chris has also managed to give the aperture control just the right amount of lubrication that it isn’t easily knocked, but is still turned with easy when needed.
Ok, so what about the optics? It might be a highly fettled Jupiter-8 on the outside, but on the inside it’s an uncoated uncoated Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2 Sonnar… and really that’s the important bit here! Well, let me just say I have found myself a little bowled over by this lens. So much so that I found myself to have a few pangs of jealousy toward its new owner.
I honestly didn’t expect to find so much favour in an uncoated optic. I think I’ve almost brainwashed myself into thinking that coatings make a lens. So a certain extent, of course, they do. But as it turns out, that doesn’t mean I can’t find love for an uncoated optic – especially one that’s had all it’s glass cleaned and put into such a well-fettled housing!
Actually, this lens has provided me with a bit of a real-life education in something I’ve read a lot of times. As Brian Sweeney talked about in the article he recently published on 35mmc here, these early Sonnar lenses weren’t well corrected distortion or flatness of field, but this choice was made in favour of light transmission and contrast. This prewar uncoated 50mm Sonnar certainly demonstrates this!
Sharpness, Contrast and Field Curvature
For a start, despite its lack of coatings, this uncoated 50mm f/2 Sonnar does seem to have pretty good contrast. Wide open, of course, a chunk of that is washed away by the glow that comes from spherical aberrations, but that glow is nothing like as strong as that found on some of the f/1.5 wide aperture sonnar lenses I’ve found… at least apart from when it’s shot at very close distances.
In fact, as I’ve found with other f/2 Sonnar lenses, shooting the uncoated 50mm f/2 Sonnar wide open doesn’t feel like I’m pushing the limits of its design in the same way that shooting the f/1.5 lenses does. It’s still plenty “sharp” enough to get very nice results that don’t feel like the lenses character is too overbearing, yet it’s there enough to leave a nice bit of a signature on the results.
That being said, I certainly found myself falling foul of the field curvature. Focusing then moving the subject off centre was caused me to trip over a few times. This bluebell for example – it took me a few goes to get it this sharp.
But then, if you have a look at this shot I took of Connie walking up these steps at f/2 you’ll see why. Her bag is in focus in the centre, but so is the nearer concrete post to the right.
The uncoated Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2 Sonnar seems to get softer and more smeary into the corners even taking into account the field curvature, but if you were mad enough to take a photo of a flat surface, the corners would be even more smoogy. Of course, if you see this as an issue, then you might be better off looking for a lens that isn’t a 1930s Sonnar… For me, all this is part of the wonder of these old lenses.
Even at f/8 the “sharpness” has a very gentle but particularly please quality to it – as can be seen very clearly in the couple of images I took stopped down.
That last shot has a particularly lovely feel to it I think. It’s not tack sharp if you zoom in, but it still has a wonderful contrasty 3D look to. For an uncoated lens, this really surprised me!
As I’ve said, wider open it’s certainly softer, but with that softness comes a whole load of other traits that just make for really lovely results.
Bokeh and Transition
As a few of these next photos demonstrate very nicely, the transition to out of focus is just really very nice indeed – or at least it is very much to my taste.
With part of the subject being off centre here, you can see the softness compared to the centre frame. You can also see the way focus melts away to out-of-focus – I find it to be very aesthetically pleasing!
You can also just about see how smooth yet simultaneously bonkers the wide-open bokeh can be in that image. Given a more dappled background you can see that at f/2 things can get very bubbly.
In normal use – when not taking photos wide open at 0.7 meters – the bubbliness isn’t quite as strong, and actually calms down quite quickly. These next two images compare f/2 and f/4 at around 1m-ish
Veiling and flare
As you might expect from an uncoated lens, the lens does viel and flare given reasonably direct light. You can see a bit of veiling in this next shot for example. Though, I must say, I quite like the slightly smokey look!
You can also see a little bit of flare in this one.
When pushed of course, it flares like crazy – shooting at f/2 with the sun near the frame causes all sorts of wonderful flare, though even just stopping down to f/4 does calm it down quite a lot.
In fact, I have to say, how little it flares and veils (when not pointing it at the sun) did surprise me. I expect a chuck of this is down to Chris’s handiwork, but given that this lens is now almost as close as can be got to a new-condition lens of this era, I think it certainly says something of the lens formula and shines a light on the theory in Brian’s previous article here!
Chris calibrates these lenses for f/2, so between f/2 and f/8, the plain of focus will be slightly behind where the rangefinder says it should be – this is likely to be especially noticable around f/4. Fortunately, the f/2 lenses don’t suffer this issue near as much as the faster 1.5s, but when you look closely you can see it. This next shot is a crop of the bokeh test shot above – you can just see that the plain of focus has moved backward. fortunately, the lens isn’t so sharp at the plain of focus that it feels very obvious.
More uncoated 50mm f/2 Sonnar Photos
If it’s not obvious, I am blown away by this uncoated 50mm f/2 Sonnar. Of course, there’s two elements to this review, and therefore, this conclusion. To speak first of Chris’s handiwork first, it’s certainly fair to say that I am very impressed. It’s not a new lens – that will come later with the ‘Bertele’ – and it is a lens that’s mechanically made from Russian parts. Both of these factors are visible in the final product both in terms of the look and the feel.
But, even just saying that feels like a caveat too far. For what it is, it feels really very nice to use indeed! Moreover though, I think it’s probably fair to say that this is likely the best way it is possible to enjoy prewar, uncoated Zeiss optics on an m-mount camera. The alternative would be to find an original Contax mount and adapt it. But even then you would still need to find a very high quality adapter, and likely have someone like Chris strip it down and clean/service it. And it still wouldn’t have the 0.7m close focusing. This lens provides the complete package.
As for the uncoated Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2 Sonnar optics themselves, well, as I said I feel like I have been schooled by this lens. I have discovered the extent to which these very old designs do have a curved field of focus, but I also feel like I have been educated in the true potential of the uncoated Sonnar formula. Thanks to Chris’s fettling to get the most out of this old design, there is much less veiling or flare than I expected there to be, and contrast is higher too.
In fact, overall, I really can’t speak highly enough of this Skyllaney uncoated Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2 Sonnar. It has reminded me just how much I absolutely enjoy shooting old Sonnar lenses… and with Chris feeding my so many lenses to play with, you can expect to find more of this series of reviews appearing on this 35mmc soon!
If you are interested in finding out more about Chris and Skyllaney, you can find his website here: skyllaney.com. Some of the lenses he has converted or restored can be found on the 35mmc shop or through eBay.
If you want to read more about my journey exploring 50mm Sonnar lenses, you can find this whole series of posts here