Zeiss 50mm 1.5 Sonnar (Separated Optics) – Finding my perfect classic Sonnar – PT2

Out of the selection of lenses I mentioned in the first part of this journey, my wild card (completely screwed) Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 definitely makes for the most logical place to start. Until recently, I hadn’t shot this lens in a quite a while, but in the path to finding my perfect classic Sonnar it definitely deserves looking at. Not least because I think it was possibly one of the key exponents in my path to eventually buying my ZM Sonnar… which as I have mentioned as nauseam on this blog is my favourite lens.

This isn’t the only reason I want to touch on it though. One of the biggest motivations I have for writing about it is the fact that it’s actually the least perfect lens I own – and since I have quite strong feeling about the idea that imperfection in lenses can be key to perfection in photography (more thoughts on that subject here) – it would be remiss not to give it a fair chance. Especially since – despite the fact that it’s basically a write off – it still manages to exhibit a certain unquestionable charm. It’s also fair to say that the images it produces are fairly, if not entirely unique!

What makes this lens especially interesting is that at least in terms of its mechanical and external physical condition, there’s no issues with it in use. Since the focusing helicoid is part of the camera in the function these lenses there’s only the aperture to go wrong, but there are no issues there. The rest of the lens is also in quite clean condition too.

Internally, on the other hand it’s completely screwed. There’s coating damage to the front element, it’s a little dusty, and it has series delamination problems. In the lens group closet to the front of the lens there’s some quite pronounced rainbow coloured blotches that have made their way from the edge of the lens.

It’s quite reasonable to assume that these alone will be having some impact on the images, but it’s the rear element group where the problems really lie. I assume this is still the effects of delamination…? It comes from the edges in almost bubble shapes like the rainbow bits in the other group do. In this case though the balsam(?) has gone black.

Primarily I guess this reduces the lenses light transmission, but beyond that the most notable impact is to the bokeh this lens produces. Wide open these lenses tend to have a slightly edged bokeh with quite circular spectral highlights. In this lens, they are very much not circular and have uneven edging. Have a look at some of the highlights lower right of the frame of this shot:

50mm Sonnar and XP2

Despite this, and the fact that I had to boost the contrast up in Lightroom with these black & white images, I do think the final results were really nice. These shots are actually from a few years ago – I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d use this lens until I saw how young Connie was in them…

50mm Sonnar and XP2

We have this next image in a frame on our mantelpiece

50mm Sonnar and XP2

50mm Sonnar and XP2

50mm Sonnar and XP2

50mm Sonnar and XP2

50mm Sonnar and XP2

You’re going to have to have a little imagination when it comes to these next colour results. They were taken on Fuji 400 xtra and processed/scanned by a high street lab prior to me sending my rolls of to AG photo lab. As such, they aren’t all that great really. What they do show though is that even this old tatty Sonnar is capable of giving results with a touch of the Sonnar feel that I like. Overall contrast might be low, but that sense of three dimensionality is still there.

Shot with the Contax iia and 1.5 50mm sonnar

Shot with the Contax iia and 1.5 50mm sonnar

Shot with the Contax iia and 1.5 50mm sonnar

Finally, to round off this post I thought I’d share a few images I’ve recently taken with this lens mounted on my M9. Interestingly, the adapter I have used to mount it on my M9 back focuses when shot with the other two Contax mount 50mm f/1.5 lenses I currently have access to. With this lens it focuses nigh on perfectly even at close distances at f/1.5. I think this might be down to both the adapter and lens being out of whack, but it’s quite nice that the combination works!

Family snaps with a tatty sonnar

Family snaps with a tatty sonnar

Family snaps with a tatty sonnar

Family snaps with a tatty sonnar

As mentioned at the beginning of the post, it was actually this lens that got me thinking quite strongly about the idea of buying the ZM. I figured modern flawless coatings with the 3D look would suit me well. I was right, the ZM lens went on to be the favourite. And as mentioned in the previous part in this journey, it is also the reason I am now looking back at older Sonnar lenses for a similar, but slightly less modern feel.

So is this my perfect Classic Sonnar? Well, I’m not going to rule it out. I have some testing of a pair of much cleaner coated Zeiss Sonnars to do, and I am expecting objectively better results. I’m just not sure yet by what objective merits I am going to end up favouring in an older lens. This lens is completely shot, but it still takes a wonderful photo, it’s not riddled with fungus, and mechanically works fine. As such – since I am yet to make comparisons with any other lenses at all – I suppose technically it’s currently the front runner in this process. So far it’s the winning lens… all be it in a race of one…

My next task is to compare the two much cleaner coated Contax mount Sonnars I have. One of them is on loan and is very clean, and one belongs to me and is a little dusty. I just need to order a new Contax-M adapter that will focus them properly…

Cheers for reading


Part three – ‘Comparing (or not) Oranges and Oranges’ – here

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20 thoughts on “Zeiss 50mm 1.5 Sonnar (Separated Optics) – Finding my perfect classic Sonnar – PT2”

  1. Given the blemishes in this lens, these pictures are very good. It makes one wonder how much we estimate the physical condition of the optics. Is lens design the main factor?
    There used to be a writer for AP magazine who was an expert on lens design. Ivor Matanle. I think he’s no longer with us. I’ve not read that mag in years but I remember how good he was. I wish I’d paid more attention to his articles.
    My main experience with a Sonnar lens is the Rollei 35SE. There’re a definite warmth and slightly lower contrast than the Planars which I’ve used on both RTS and G2 guises.
    I look forward to your observations when comparing a clean lens to this “clapped out” specimen.

    1. Cheers Jeremy. I actually find myself concerned that I’m going to get wrapped up in minutiae of differences when the answer to my search has been sitting unused for years…
      On lens design, I’ve just started buying some of Rudolf Kingslake’s books. Technical, but very interesting!

    2. I have some pretty well “trashed” vintage lenses. Not a’ one of them has showed any imperfections in the final images due to this, either on film or digital. At least to my eyes, pixel peepers might indeed find something related to it. This includes dust, “cleaning marks” and even spots of who knows what. At least examining them via torch(flash) light In fact, a shone a flashlight through a new, pristine, recently purchased Fuji lens, and that lens still had particles, dust I presume, in it.

  2. To follow up on Jeremy’s comments, as far as I’m aware, Ivor Matanle is still very much alive. He has also written a couple of good books about collecting and using classic cameras, both of which are still available I believe. Well worth a read if you’re interested in camera history and development.

    1. Thanks for that update Ray. I remember one of the esteemed AP contributors passed away, looks like I picked the wrong one 🙂

    2. Well Ivor is alive, happily, very much, depends on your definition of that perhaps. Hd had a stroke last year I believe, and that has slowed him down a bit. I’m not sure what the long term prognosis for his recovery is at this stage. I’m friends with him on Facebook but he rarely posts there. I wish him well, his books are a very good starting point for anyone with an interest in classic kit and he was a long term collector and user of Contax equipment for a number of years.

  3. Paul Lechevallier

    And what’s the image processing tool you’re using? Reminds me an early version of RNI Films for Lightroom (when they’ve been two separate products called RNI Faded Films and Iconic Films)

    1. … no image processing, but for some very minor tweaks to exposure, tiny tweaks to contrast and any necessary white balance adjustment, these are as the lens resolves. No need to add “faded film” effects to shots taken with a lens like this! 😉

  4. Good topic and especially good set of images. I constantly get back to portrait of woman, which you used for paying attention to bokeh. Not only lens play here; photographer and model as well 😉
    But this and other sonnars, especially older ones have their unique look which I’m also going at the moment.

  5. Using the girls as subjects here is very apropos. Could you choose a favorite child? No, you love them each uniquely, with all their quirks. And if money (and sanity) were no object, you’d have more. So what will Hamish do? Guess we’ll have to wait until part 3 for the answer. #cliffhanger

  6. Hamish:
    thank You, for your insights into the old glass. I am collecting Canon rangefinders, A. Schacht Ulms, and then Super Takumar’s …have several Voightlander Cosina including the ” dreaded ” 50 mm F1.1 that is a beast , or blessing.
    I also am adding 2 Kilfitts, the Zoomar 40mm and the 90mm . Using the Sony allows me to delve into waters formerly owned by the Leica owners, collectors. I am so glad to bring back old Glass … I Love love ..love shooting with my Meyer Optic and the Voightlanders.
    The pale rich patina of Life…so beautiful. We steal TIME. We are all Time thieves , and this is our calling. We hunt light , and culture it , caress it, form with it …as it dapples the hands , faces nd reflects deeply in the eyes , of the child or elder we love.
    We steal time. Yes.

  7. Great post Hamish!

    Have you also considered to try some of the Sonnar clones? A friend of mine has a Nippon Kogaku 50mm screw mount lens which is a really beautiful lens with all of the Sonnar characteristics. The Jupiter 3 is also quite interesting, though I heard they vary much in quality.
    In any case, keep posting in this topic, I really like to read about your experience with the Sonnars.

  8. A great reminder I think to us all that the “best” lens to use is not necessarily the most modern, expensive and flawless.

    It reminds me of an old Helios 44-2 I have and paid £7 for from a mixed box of kit at a camera fair a few years ago. It’s battered and worn, and even has a couple of bubbles inside, but to my eyes it’s still capable of wonderful pictures.

    The only Sonnar I have experience of is a 135/3.5 in M42 mount, which is pretty great. Interesting to read about the 50mm Sonnars…

    1. I’m completely on board with the idea that lenses don’t have to be flawless to be perfect – did you follow the link to the post I mentioned?
      I have a 135/3.5 too, it is a great lens!

  9. Great essay, as always. But I think that in this passssge, in paragraph 2, you meant to write “not to”:
    it would be remiss to give it a fair chance

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