Finding my perfect classic Sonnar – PT1

I’ve decided to attempt to find my perfect classic 50mm lens to mount on my Leica rangefinders. I have my ideal modern lens in the form of the Zeiss ZM Sonnar, but sometimes, just once in a while, I fancy something that renders in a slightly less modern way. This post marks the first documented step in the process of finding this lens.

I say documented as of course I’ve tried lots of 50mm lenses over the years, some, such as the Summar dating back as far as the 1930’s. Some I’ve loved, some not so much. Some of them I’ve really liked but decided they aren’t for me (the 50mm Leica Summarit 1.5 being a good example) As such, I suppose I’ve already taken quite a few of the steps toward finding that perfect classic lens. Perhaps the most significant step is that I’ve decided it’s to be a Sonnar lens. As you might guess, this is broadly connected to the fact my favourite modern lens is a Sonnar. But, there’s a little bit more to it than that.

As time goes on, I’ve noticed two trends in lenses that I find myself drawn to. First, I find myself more often liking lenses made by Zeiss, second is that quite often the lenses I like either have Sonnar written on the front, or at very least are known to be of a similar formula. With this applying to everything from the lenses in my (now sold) Contax t2/t3, my Rollei 35SE, my adapted Nikon lens, and even all the Sonnar-named modern Sony FE mount Zeiss/Zeiss branded lenses, I’m aware that there might be just a little bit of confirmation bias at play, but regardless I’ve found it hard to escape these trends.

It’s also hard to escape the fact that I find my aforementioned modern ZM lens to be in a completely different league to anything else I’ve tried. It just ticks all the right boxes for my tastes. If you’ve not read my review of that lens, you can find it here. Just bear in mind, you’ll want to find yourself a comfortable chair and a cup of coffee to keep you going. I waffle on about it for something in the region of 8000 words, which is a lot of waffle, even by my waffly standards. The fact is, I really bloody love that lens, and liking it so much makes it feel somewhat like a logical place to work back from.

So this just leaves the question of what lenses are out there to find and try? Google is usually my friend when walking a path of research like this, but on this occasion, I actually have social media to thank for the first big step in this process. A week or so ago I mentioned on Instagram that I was going to be walking this path. By means of reply, I was told of a thread on Rangefinder forum that compared some of the classics. In the end, I couldn’t find it on google, and nearly forgot about it when the same chap contacted me privately with a link. Here’s the thread he linked me too. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who guessed the lenses right, I didn’t, and in fact was quite smug in my guess work until I read I’d got it wrong. I have more to learn than I thought!

I digress, as interesting as that might be, it wasn’t as interesting as a link I found further down the page to a list of, you’ve guessed it, Sonnar lenses – specifically Leica thread mount Sonnar lenses. You can find the thread here, but for reference, here are the 50mm lenses taken out of that list:

Canon 50mm f/1.5
Jupiter 3 50mm f/1.5
Jupiter 8 50mm f/2
Jupiter 17 50mm /f2
Nikkor 5cm f/1.4
Nikkor 5cm f/1.5
Nikkor 5cm f/2
Misuzu Kogaku Altair/Altanon 5cm f/2
Steinheil Quinon 50/2
Tanaka Kogaku Tanar 5cm f/1.5
Tanaka Kogaku Tanar 5cm f/1.8
Tanaka Kogaku Tanar 5cm f/2
Zeiss 5cm f/1.5
Zunow 5cm f/1.1
Zunow 5cm f/1.3

Lomography’s new Jupiter 3+ 50mm f/1.5
MS Optical Sonnetar 50mm f/1.1 MC
MS Optical 50mm f/1.3

I have no idea if this list is exhaustive (I added Lomography’s new Jupiter 3+ 50mm f/1.5 to the bottom myself (and a couple mentioned in the comments)) and reading a bit deeper it does seem to also feature a few lenses based on Ludwig Bertelle’s ‘Ernostar’ lens formula, which as far as I can gather was the precursor to the Sonnar, but that’s fine by me. In fact, as I understand, the modern ZM with its 6 element design is actually closer to the Ernostar design too, so it would be daft to rule anything for that reason…

So where to start? Well, first off I should say I am not going to try all of those lenses. Some of them are extremely expensive, and way outside of this being a bit of fun I intend it on being. Second, technically not all of the lenses above are that old. I have separated the three lenses that jump out at me as being built recently at the bottom – this doesn’t rule them out, just deprioritises them a little. Third, I already have started down this path. I have reviewed Lomography’s new Jupiter 3+ 50mm f/1.5, so that’s it ticked off. Lastly, I also have already I currently have four Sonnar lenses to play with:


Left to right(ish) – My new 50mm 1.5 Zeiss-Opton, my old (and very delaminated) Carl Zeiss Sonnar, a Jupiter-8 and my mate Jeremy’s very clean 50mm 1.5 Carl Zeiss Sonnar.

Those of you with your eyes open will no doubt be quick to realise that none of these lenses are native Leica mount. This is true, but I do have an adapter slowly making its way from the States that will allow them to be mounted on my Leica, so no issue there.

You might also notice that 3 of them are post war, coated Zeiss 50mm 1.5 Sonnar lenses. Considering my preference for the ZM, starting with one of these lenses struck me as a good benchmark. I bought my Opton to give me that benchmark, but since it has a little bit of dust in it, and knew Jeremy had a near mint one, it seemed only sensible to try his too! My old delaminated one is a bit of a wild card I suppose – as buggered as it is, I’ve actually taken some nice photos with it in the past so it seemed daft not to included it in the process. And the jupiter-8, well that’s the cheapest Sonnar copy going, so it had to feature in this process!

As soon as I get the adapter, I will start slowly trying them out properly! If you have any recommendations as to where to go after these lenses, I am all ears!

Part 2 – ‘The wild card’ here

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26 thoughts on “Finding my perfect classic Sonnar – PT1”

  1. Want to include the Canon 1.5/50mm Sonnar copy? I recently acquired one to compare with my J-3. It is extremely dense (heavy) and almost takes the joy out of using my Leica! I am curious to see if I like the photos taken with it. BTW, in your comparison link, I guessed the J-3 correctly.. but then I have one and use it all the time. From what I saw on that link, I am already thinking I might not like my Canon as much as my Jupiter. But we’ll see.
    Also, here is something you might enjoy.

    1. The canon looks very promising to me – in my reading so far it’s the one that comes up time and time as well recommended… the funny thing is, I haven’t quite ironed out exactly the look I am seeking yet…

  2. I cannot speak, with any authority, on lens quality from a technical standpoint. However, I do own the 1.1 Sonnetar in LTM. I also own quite a few other fast 50s in LTM from Canon, Leica, and Zeiss. Given that one’s pleasure with the rendering of a lens will always be, in the final analysis, a personal thing, I believe you should make an effort to hunt down a copy of the Sonnetar for testing. In the world of fast 50s, the Sonnetar’s size and weight- for a really fast 1.1 lens- make it a very unique lens. Of course, being an MS Optical creation, it does have it’s quirks, e.g. adjustable rear element; but once dialed in, it is a very capable and fun lens. The funny thing is, every time I use any of my MS optical lenses, I wind up having a conversation with “Miyazaki San,” even though he is not there to hear it.

    1. That’s a double gauss type George, or in Zeiss speak, a Planar. They are based around symmetry, whereas the Sonnar is an asymmetrical lens design.

  3. Just a slight correction, the Contax iia and lens are post war and were not made in Jena but in West Germany Stuttgart … unless I’m very much mistaken 🙂

    1. Jeremy,

      You are correct in one aspect only: the IIa is post-war. However, Jena did make Sonnars post-war, and from what I gather, the optical quality was every bit as good as the Opton versions, but the lens body was made from aluminium and thus inferior to Zeiss West Germany. Pre-war and wartime Sonnars from the original Zeiss factory only lack coating, otherwise the build quality of the body is to the same high standard of the post-war Zeiss West Germany units. The post-war Jena lenses were often supplied with a IIa body as a slightly less costly option.

      Just out of interest, my camera collection includes Contax II, a 1942 III with working meter! a IIa and IIIa, wartime and post-war f1.5 Sonnars, a pre-war f2 with an over-polished front element, and a mint solid body f3.5 Tessar. All the bodies, touch wood, work perfectly.

  4. I just finished reading “Paper” by Mark Kurlansky. It’s a history of paper, but it’s more than that. The author goes into detail how artists throughout history, looked for specific papers to create a particular ‘look’ or to help them express their view of the world.
    This quest for your ‘perfect Sonnar’ just reminds us that we all still search for that one thing that will link what we feel in our head to a tangible
    reality – one that you can say to people: ‘see this is what I meant!’ I blame opposable thumbs, myself, for this dilemma.
    Good luck w/your search, and by all means, have fun.

    1. Thanks, Dan! Have you read my perfect lens post – that’s how I see it, all these things are part of a puzzle… You just gotta know how to fit them together to complete the perfect picture. I’d say the paper problem is probably the same??

  5. Abram Goglanian

    Don’t forget the Nikkor 5cm f/2 variants as well. They’re quite good, quite small, quite affordable and available in LTM. 🙂

      1. One unique feature with the Nikkor H.C f/2 – and I think the S.C f/1.4 as well – is its close focus capability. It’s rangefinder coupled down to 3.5 feet (my lens’ distance scale is in feet), but turn the focus ring past a small detente and it can focus down to 1.5 feet. It’s not rangefinder coupled in the 3.5-1.5 foot range so not terribly useful with film LTM cameras unless you measure, but quite handy adapted to digital mirrorless cameras. I use with the Voigtlander VM-E Close Focus adapter on a Sony mirrorless camera, which gets you even closer than 1.5 feet!

  6. Hi Hamish,
    I actually did read your post…good insight, informative. My reference to paper is first hand…our daughter is a professional arts/printmaker, and she’s always sourcing paper to fit the paper to the print/concept. Right now, I’m happy with a 40mm M-Rokkor that JCH found for me. It’s a lens that ‘fits’ what my sees when I look at something…sort of a 1:1 eye to lens ratio.
    Anyhow, keep the great articles coming and I look forward to more enjoyable reads…

  7. Nice little writeup. It’s so hard to say one is ‘the best’ but I certainly have my favorites. My stable of 50mm Sonnars now includes the pre-war CZJ 50/1.5, the Zeiss-Opton 50/1.5 T, the post-war Zeiss 50/2, various vintages of 50/1.4 Nikkors in S and LTM, 1955 Jupiter-3, 1955 Jupiter-8, and the MS Sonnetar 50/1.1. By far my favorite is my recently-acquired pre-war CZJ 50/1.5. It is irreproachable with B&W film. I got it with its matching Contax II from Henry Scherer. Incredible combo. BTW, what is that strap you have on your IIa? Looks nice! Cheers.

    1. Best is of course subjective. I have thought about a pre-war copy a few times. An experiment for one day!
      I’m sorry, I can’t remember what strap it is – most likely one from 595Strapco

  8. I have used the Jupiter 8 50mm f2 on a Leica M3 double stroker (1955) for around 11 year with excellent results. It does seem to prefer mono films and certainly appreciates a deep lens hood I found. Well it’s all change with me from now on because yesterday lunch time, postman brought me a new toy, a Zeiss Contax 111A and 50mm f2 Opton Sonnar. Working meter, accurate, and 1955 as well. Has borrowed the lens hood. So, I will soon be able to make a direct comparison.

  9. Well I’ve just got the first roll of Ilford FP4 125 iso back from the developers and I’m mightily impressed. This ancient kit really is eminently usable in modern times. I managed to source the correct lens hood for my Opton Sonnar 50mm f2 lens and some Zeiss 40.5mm filters as well. The camera and it’s lens are a jewel and it’s coming with me to the South Coast (of England) this year alongside my Nikon D1X

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