Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35/2: A legend alive – on the Sony NEX-5!
Being able to use all sorts of classic lenses via adapters is part of the fun of the new breed of mirrorless system digital cameras. With the arrival of high-resolution camera screens and features like Sony’s new focus peaking mode, it’s become more than just “fun”: It has evolved into a very capable instrument for high-quality photography.
Now we all know that especially Sony’s NEX system still lacks quality lenses. They are just about to introduce the first supposedly high-quality lenses, the Zeiss-branded 24/1.8, the 30/3.5 macro and the 50/1.8 with stabiliser, starting in late 2011. Especially the Zeiss 24/1.8 sounds intriguing and the first samples on the net surely look promising.
But one single Zeiss lens does not make a complete premium lens lineup. Which brings me back to the adapter stuff. With a nice classic Zeiss Contarex system in my shelf, comprising of a Contarex Super SLR body and three lenses – 35/2, 50/2 and 135/2, adding a Contarex-NEX adapter from chinese specialist manufacturer Kiron really was a no brainer for me. If it works out, I’d have the equivalent of 35, 50, 75 and 200 mm in Zeiss lenses with this lineup, once the new 24/1.8 from Sony becomes available.
The first lens I could try out is the Zeiss Distagon 35/2, which acts like a 50 mm standard lens on the 24×16 mm sensor of the NEX. So here we go.
Some info on the Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35/2
The 35/2 for the fascinating all-over-the-top Zeiss Contarex SLR system hit the market in 1965. At the time, it was the fastest-ever 35 mm lens for any SLR system and the more expensive brother of the 35/4 Distagon. This name was the designation of all the retrofocus lens designs that had become necessary because of the mirror box. It was still kind of a new development in the 50s and 60s.
Like all Contarex lenses, the design, haptics and mechanical quality of the Distagon 35/2 is simply the best you will ever get. Really, no other manufacturer than Zeiss and Leica – especially in the 1960s! – ever offered such exquisitely finished lenses. The lens is all-metal, and even the quality of the alloy is superior to that of more modern lenses. It’s the reason why a properly serviced Contarex lens still feels impeccable and smooth like silk, no matter if it is 40 or even 50 years old. The thing is that not only the quality is top-notch, but even the design of the barrel is exqusite, timeless and often copied in later times. These lenses are even better in this respect than the current Zeiss lens lineup that is manufactured by Cosina in Japan – and no, I am not dissing the already superb new lenses: It’s just that these old ones are just superior to anything else on the planet. You got to hold one in your hands to believe!
Of course, even a Zeiss Contarex lens can break with time and need a service or professional cleaning. And the way they are assembled means that it’s no DIY stuff – unless you really know what you are doing. The impeccable finish is easily damaged by reckless repairs. So beware. If you have found a good copy, however, it will be a lifetime’s companion.
A word on image processing
I never ever shoot JPG, but only RAW. I just prefer RAW because it’s much more convenient to adjust colours, contrast, and the whole look of the image to my liking in Lightroom – instead of relying on the camera and fiddling with camera settings more than necessary while shooting. Apart from these settings, the images posted here have been saved as JPG in Lightroom with the following parameters: Sharpness: +60 (a bit above standard), Radius: 0,5 (minimum setting), Details: +25 (standard setting), Masking: +5 (a bit above standard), Luminance noise reduction: +20 (a bit above standard). Everything else sharpness and detail related is on standard. To show you the true lens performance, there is no distortion, no vignetting and no CA correction applied.
The image quality: Well…. “Wow!” is all I really can say!
The Distagon 35/2 entered production in 1965. That means there’s no aspherical lens elements. No T* coating. No special glass, no internal focusing, no floating elements, because all that stuff still had to be developed in future times. It’s just a classic lens design. But a very complex one: 9 lens elements in 8 groups, according to taunusreiter.de (please see that link for a lens diagram). Zeiss paid that much attention to the optical quality. They wanted to create the very best. Also they made sure that all their lenses would deliver the same characteristics regarding the colors and rendition of the image. If you had the complete lens range, you could use them all and your image portfolio would still look absolutely consistent. All this was breathtaking, state-of-the-art stuff in those days!
Digital camera sensors are totally unforgiving with their super high megapixel counts and the characteristics of a digital capture device are very different to those of the more forgiving, kind of three dimensional analogue film. A lot of classic lenses suffer from this when used on a digital camera. The Distagon 35/2, however, really yields absolutely impressive results on the NEX-5.
There is one thing that is not perfect and this is the corner sharpness. At f/2, it shows a very clear loss of sharpness to the corners of the image frame. Close the aperture and things improve, and at f/5.6 to f/8 the corners of the frame are really crisp and sharp – provided that they are in focus, of course. So, this lens is not made for the reproduction of flat brick walls *g*.
In every other respect, the Distagon is just astonishing. The image center is freakin’ sharp even fully open! Images are crisp and clear, even in sunlight at open aperture. CA are very low, you could easily correct them in Lightroom with probably a +10 or +15 setting – I’ve seen many lenses that are far worse than that. There’s no color fringing to speak of exept at the harshest high contrast areas. Impressive! The colors that the lens renders are rich and saturated. No matter in which situation, it never ever looks fuzzy or dreamy like so many other classic lenses – in fact, it performs just like a modern-day high end lens. Just amazing considering this is 1960s vintage! The only issue, as said before, is the corner sharpness.
Now Zeiss came up with a new optical formula for the current Zeiss Distagon 35/2 ZF or ZE that is made by Cosina. This one has been tested by photozone.de on a Nikon D200 – again a 24×16 mm sensor:
“Similar to the other tested Zeiss lenses the Distagon 35mm f/2 produces breathtakingly high center resolution figures straight from the max. aperture setting. At f/2.8 and f/4 the center quality matches or exceeds the limits of the 10mp D200 sensor. In contrary the border performance is “only” very good at large aperture settings but increases steadily towards medium apertures where the quality reaches excellent levels.”
Yeah, to me that does sound very familiar to the performance of the classic Contarex Distagon. Another proof how right they got it on their first attempt! Exept that the classic’s corner sharpness is somewhat inferior – but just see and judge for yourself:
Okay … as you can see, there’s not a real reason to worry about corner sharpness with this lens *g* … it rather seems that the lens kind of outperforms the NEX-5 sensor. It’s a good thing that the NEX-7 is around the corner!
For all the other stuff – bokeh, color rendition, clarity, contrast and what else, just have a look at the following images. Yes I have edited them in Lightroom, but not by much: The lens just is that contrasty and clear! Love it!
Oh and did I already mention the close focus of only 22 centimeters – that’s the distance between your object and the sensor! Again, keep in mind that this is what they came up with in the 1960s!
Okay, here we go: The first thing is that the focussing is really fast. I mean, you barely touch the focus ring and it’s all over the place. Modern-day autofocus lenses are often the same because they want to make sure that the AF motors don’t have to turn that much to speed up the operation. I guess that Zeiss probably had similar thoughts in mind: The 35/2 was meant to be a photojournalist’s lens. And these guys just didn’t want to endlessly turn focus rings like they had to with a pre-war rangefinder Contax, for example.
The second thing – and the one that really annoys me in some occasions – is the primitive six-bladed aperture. It creates not only hexagon shapes in the out-of-focus areas, but also causes highlights – such like light sources in night shots – to look like ugly fat six-pointed blobs. The Planar 50/2, for example, has a much nicer rounded aperture than this. Very sad. And while we are at it: The bokeh is nice, but I’ve seen better. Now you just have to keep in mind that classic 35 mm lenses were never really meant to offer gorgeous bokeh and out-of-focus renderings – no matter if they are used on film or on crop-sized digital sensors. Any 50 mm will always do better than that.
Upshot: A legend alive – see it to believe it!
There you have it: A classic high-end lens that does indeed show some little faults and shortcomings, but overall it feels just totally right and performs absolutely admirably. It’s a beauty of a lens. And its few faults just give it that classic character – the character of a lens that had not been optimised to death to meet some test chart performance targets, but rather a character of solid, impeccable overall image quality.
I don’t know if it would make sense to go out and look for Contarex lenses just to use them on a Sony NEX camera. For a start, they are somewhat big and heavy, especially as the adapter itself is already 28 mm long. From a user’s point of view, you should probably rather consider Leica M, or Cosina-made Zeiss/Voigtländer rangefinder lenses.
For a collector, however, this all is of no concern: Being able to appreciate this classic beauty and enjoy the impeccable images it delivers today – used on cameras that were total science fiction when it was created – is all that counts.