This Leica thread mount modified Skyllaney Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar lens is third I’ve reviewed from the hands of Chris Andreyo from Skyllaney this year. It’s the most expensive, and certainly the most desirable by most people’s standards I’m sure. Like every single Sonnar I’ve tried, it has also shown me something new, as well as helping define what I like from this formula of lens.
You might think I would get tired of shooting these old Sonnar lenses. Actually, in some ways I do – for the last couple I’ve shot, I’ve found myself doing the same series of tests. It’s been interesting getting to grips with some of the differences, working out what I like more and what I like less etc. But when I came to shoot this one, the idea of taking it out to just shoot it in the woods near my house to get yet another series of test images left me feeling quite disinterested. It was fun during lockdown – and something of a distraction – but now things have returned to something slightly closer to normal, I found myself wanting more from my process of writing reviews. Sometimes I wonder how some lens reviewers keep it up – the formulaic approach to testing lenses just bores me. It only took trying to do it for a third time with a similar lens to remind me of that fact.
In some ways, I suppose this might be a bit of a shame. I’ve now shot a lot of different Sonnar lenses, if I’d had the patience to compare them more evenly, this journey I’ve taken through this lens formula might have been something more of a useful resource for readers. The fact is though, I’d have lost interest, and probably actually put myself off shooting them altogether if I had tried. And anyway, whilst my reviews might not cover off every subtle nuance of how a lens performs, the reality is so much of that stuff isn’t relevant in real life shooting situations anyway – especially when dealing with these older more characterful formulas.
A more real-life review
As you might have guessed, what I’m building up to here is me explaining that at least some this Skyllaney Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar review is a return to be something more toward a real-life test of the lens compared to my previous two Skyllaney Sonnar type lens articles. But, for all that my lack of patience when it comes to reviewing lenses might not make them consistent for you lot reading this, I personally find it quite valuable to not stick to the same process.
What I found, even just writing about two lenses in a row, is that I can start to confirm my own biases. So, for eg, I really enjoyed shooting the Jupiter-3, but compared to the early uncoated Zeiss f/2 I’d shot before it, I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t focus closer than 1m, and I found the overall character slightly less desirable. Since Chris only really modifies the f/2 variant lenses to focus down to 0.7m, and the f/2 lenses tend to have slightly less bonkers character traits, I was starting to feel a little bit negative toward 50mm f/1.5 formula Sonnar type lenses.
On reflection, this was a little daft, as ultimately, my favourite-of-all-Sonnar type lenses is the Zeiss ZM which is, of course, a f/1.5 and only focuses down to 0.9m. The fact is though, as I say in my review of that lens, if you try and test it, it falls over. But if you just use it, and use it for the things it’s good at, it really shines.
So when I received this Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar, I decided I was going to focus a little more on trying to use the lens “normally”, rather than just “testing” it. In the end, I did do a few “test shots”, but my first outing with it was shooting it a first post-lockdown BBQ at a mates house – a process that reminded me just how much I really do like the Sonnar look
Harnessing the Sonnar
Much of how much I like about these lenses came back to me taking the first couple of shots! I think quite a lot of my attraction to these lenses comes from how much I like to use them to take photos of my (and in the case of this photo, my mate’s) kids.
This photo was taken wide open at f/1.5 and it contains so many of the character traits I love from a vintage Sonnar. That gentle slightly lower contrast that somehow still comes with a good amount of “3d pop”, the slightly softer rendering, the glowy transition to out-of-focus, the bokeh, the vignette – the whole package just appeals to me. I also didn’t need to get closer than 1m, and of course the slightly crazy look that comes from the lens being an f/1.5 Sonnar isn’t a factor because none of the subject matter causes that crazy rendering in the way that most subject matter inside a wood does.
One of the specific things I love about this combination of character traits when it comes to taking photos of my kids is how it feels like it doesn’t matter so much when I misfocus. A lot of bitingly-sharp modern lenses emphasise focus errors – the problem with this for me is that I don’t really think of missed focus as being a particularly serious failing.
Sometimes – at least to my eye – misfocus brings movement, feeling and character to an image. Modern lenses exaggerate the missed focus and make it look less attractive, whereas these old Sonnar lenses that are soft and glowy wide open make for what I see as a really aesthetically pleasing overall look to the image. I showed my wife this image – she was thrilled with it and didn’t comment on the missed focus at all.
There’s just no real need for perfect focus, or even perfect sharpness to capture the fun the kids were having in melting some marshmallows on a BBQ. Of course, I’m sure many photographers would disagree, but to me this combination of very narrow depth of field that’s not overemphasised by clinical sharpness just works for this sort of photography.
Of course, the nature of this Skyllaney Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar as a f/1.5 Sonnar does mean that sometimes the nature of background will trigger some bonkers bokeh – but so be it, I’m sure many photographers could give me a huge list of failings in this image. All I see is my kid – happy, mischievous and inquisitive, as she often is.
Some test shots
Following on from my first outing with this Skyllaney Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar, I decided to take it out for some photography with Connie. Conscious that I did want to write this review, and since it was a little overcast, so I took the opportunity to take some sightly unnecessarily narrow depth of field photos for the sake of demonstrating the lower wide open contrast and what the bokeh looks like given different types of background.
You can this see both in these traits in these images, but you can also see how the wide open softness and glow impacts on subject matter that is naturally more defined than skin. With the point of focus in this image being slightly off centre you can see that almost nothing could be defined as specifically “sharp”.
How much this is an issue is always going to be subjective and subject dependent. The flat light, low contrast and lack of sharpness doesn’t do this rusty handlebar any favours. It’s not a great photo anyway, but I’d argue that a big part of what is interesting in subject here is the texture. Unfortunately the texture has been a little lost due to the light and overall character of the Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar.
A different angle and stopping the lens down slightly helped, though I suppose it could be argued that this angle tells less of the story of the bike being something that had been extracted from a canal… but yeah, my excuse remains “test shots” here…
In the same light, you can see that stopping Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar right down brings the contrast and resolution. Though, there is still a slight softness, or at least what I might describe as a more “organic” feeling sharpness. It is certainly far from a “clinical” sharpness, and is quite a pleasing look to my eye.
This little outing with Connie also presented me with the opportunity to do my standard crazy foliage bokeh test. The following is the difference between f/1.5 and f/2.8 from the Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar.
The Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar not quite as bonkers wide open as the Jupter-3 I don’t think – perhaps because of the lower contrast…? The sweet spot for really nice and smooth bokeh also seems to come when stopping down a little bit past f/2. This is something Chris has said to me quite often whilst we have been chatting about various Sonnar lenses – he often shoots his f/1.5 lenses stopped down a little bit past f/2 for the right balance of character.
Pushing the character
Of course, sometimes it’s when pushing these lenses to their limits that the most interesting and characterful results occur. As mentioned, this particular Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar is uncoated. This no doubt accounts for the lower wide-open contrast, but it also make for a lens that is more susceptible to veiling flare. Shooting wide open with the sun behind Norah and Hannah here resulted in a look that I am really quite pleased with.
For this next shot, I had to use an ND filter that I just held over the lens to allow me to shoot it wide without the risk of overexposure (I don’t have an ND with the correct filter size). Without the sun facing the lens I was able to get more contrast – though I must admit I did boost the contrast a little more in post for this image. I do love the look here though – the strong natural vignette, slight softness, super-narrow depth of field – lovely stuff! She was totally embarrassed by me forcing her to have her photo taken in front of her mate, but I think her pride in her new bike was enough to allow me to get the shot.
In the end, I had this Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar mounted to my M10-P for a good while. I used it to take a few shots around the house, took some “urban” snaps with it on the way to work, and even took it to the supermarket.
The funny thing is, I’d almost forgotten what is was to use a classic lens for more general purpose shooting. It’s easy to get into the mindset that lenses like this should just be used in a way that harnesses their strong character when actually, they’re just as capable as general purpose lenses too. The character traits are always there, of course, but they don’t have to be what defines he photo if you use the lens in ways that don’t emphasise the character traits.
Quite often with my lens reviews, I start with the mechanics. Since this Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar is the third Skyllaney modified lens I have reviewed, I decided against it. It’s not that it isn’t worth talking about, it’s more that there is only so many times I can talk about how good a job Chris does with these lenses before I start to repeat myself.
Once again, these Zeiss optics have been rehoused in a Russian housing that Chris has serviced to the best of his abilities. The result is a lens that feels mechanically very smooth, and is almost spotlessly clean. Unlike a lot of Chris’s rehousings this particular one doesn’t have a focus tab, and, as mentioned, like most of his f/1.5 lens conversions only focuses down to 1m.
One thing that is particularly notable about the construction of this particular Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar is the metals used within it. The outer housing being Russian is aluminium, but because the original Contax mount lens that the optics were taken from was made during the war when there was a need for aluminum, the inner optical block is made out of a lot more brass. This gives this lens a little of a more satisfying weight than some of the lenses Chris has sent me to play with.
Apparently is is possible to tell that is a single coated lens by the fact that the coating is a light blue colour that I have just captured above.
Reviewing this Skyllaney Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar has been something more of a pleasure than I expected it to be. It’s undone a bias I had begun to form against the faster Sonnar formula lenses and reminded me what it is to use a classic lens to take actual photos and not just test shots. There’s so much character here that to me at least, it’s hard not to like this lens a lot. Of course, like all classic lenses, its character needs to be harnessed for the right subject matter, or worked around for the lens to be used in a more general purpose way. But either way, I have found the results to be very pleasing for all of the shots I have taken that aren’t test shots – a reminder to me that “testing” a lens, ironically, isn’t the best way to test a lens.
Unfortunately for me, as much as I have enjoyed this Skyllaney Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 single coated Sonnar lens, I can’t justify one at the moment. An older f/1.5 Zeiss is now firmly on my list of lenses to pick up eventually though.
I’ve also hinted to Chris that I’d like to try a uncoated one at some point too – it’s a dangerous game me trying all these lenses, I can tell you. If I had less self control, I’d be very skint by now…
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