Okay, so the Sonnar 135/2.8 is the second lens of the mighty Zeiss Contarex lineup that I could try out on the little Sony NEX-5, followed by the Distagon 35/2 which easily proved to be up to its legendary status even on the digital 24×16 mm sensor. Regarding its field of view and depth of field, this 135/2.8 gives images that correspond to a 200/4 lens on a traditional 135 film camera. It’s of course somewhat smaller and lighter than a true 200 mm lens would be: Using a cropped sensor with a 135 mm lens really makes some sense.
Some info on the Zeiss Contarex Sonnar 135/2.8
The 135/2.8 was introduced in 1964 to the Contarex lineup, following its little f/4 brother that was available right from the system’s launch. It is a classic design with 4 lenses in 4 groups, according to pacificrimcamera.com and no special glass. It focuses down to 1.2 metres. You get the same ultimate mechanical quality of all Contarex lenses.
Now 40-50 years old, these lenses can fail due to sticky focusing mechanisms or lens separation but find yourself a really good shop such as classic-camera.de and almost every lens can be brought back to as-new condition with ultimately silky smooth focusing. With any Contarex lens, there is never any looseness in the lens barrels, and the quality of the materials is just second to none in the world. It’s not just “hey this is metal” – but the quality of the materials used and the precision with which all is finished and put together must be seen and felt in person to believe it.
Okay I already said all that in my entry about the Distagon 35/2, didn’t I? So let’s move on. How is the optical quality of the Sonnar?
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.
Okay, so what about the optical quality?
Being a classic design with no low-dispersion or apochromatic elements, this surely shows in the results you get with the 135 Sonnar. Also, competition today is fierce, with a world of really high-performing telephotos out there – even some absolutely astonishing zooms.
Overall, I have to admit that I am not that “wow” about the Sonnar’s results as I was about the Distagon. But before you get me wrong: It’s ultimately sharp across the whole frame – please keep in mind that the NEX only has a 24×16 mm sensor – at least from f/4 onwards and even at f/2.8 the sharpness leaves nothing to be really desired. I have seen quite some classic 135s that are not up to that level of biting sharpness. At f/5.6 or f/8 it is just perfect.
See the following samples for yourself. I really can’t always remember if I used f/5.6 or f/8 but it does not matter at all: The performance is just the same at both these apertures. I did not bother to try f/11 as there’s no reason to do that – most likely diffraction effects will start to decrease the performance at this setting.
The trouble of this classic 135 are the color fringes on details with harsh contrast which are very apparent at f/2.8 and even, to some degree, at f/4. This, after all, is the reason why they invented apochromatic glass for telephoto lens designs.
Here’s a comparison of f/2.8, f/4 and f/5.6. Again, there’s no reason to ever stop the 135 Sonnar further down as f/5.6, apart from you probably needing the extra depth of field, depending on the image subject.
Please don’t judge this comparison for edge sharpness as these leaves tend to be not all in one single focal plane.
Regarding sharpness, the Sonnar just delivers. The following one was shot at f/4. As you also can see, it really depends on the subject if any color fringes are visible.
Okay, so here’s another comparison of f/2.8 and f/4 – both for the quality of the background blur, and also again showing the color fringes of a demanding backlight subject.
On a sad note, the Sonnar 135/2.8 again is a lens in the Zeiss Contarex lineup that is spoiled by its cheapo six-bladed aperture, just as the otherwise iconic Distagon 35/2 – but not as the Sonnar 50/2. This is even more sad given the fact that especially 135mm lenses are all about bokeh and background blur. But you probably are just going to use it wide open at f/2.8 for that kind of stuff, anyway.
So there you have it. It has to be said that some of the color problems could be ironed out in post. The 135/2.8 Contarex Sonnar is a sharp and well-performing lens. But, you did expect that from a lens of this heritage, didn’t you? I guess it’s ultimate perfection from a 1964 point of view. It’s just that the design does show its age much more than the Distagon 35/2 did.
Compare this to a modern apochromatic 135 – and be it the 135/2L from Canon – at open apertures, and it won’t have any chance. (Well, give the Canon also some 40 years of use and then it will be interesting to see how these two compare after that time.)
On the other hand, there still is a lot speaking for the Sonnar. It’s compact, stylish and impeccably well manufactured. As Contarex lenses go, this one is even fairly common with about 8.000 lenses manufactured (again according to pacificrimcamera.com – different sources vary a bit). What that means is that you could get it for not too much money – at least when compared to other classic Zeiss stuff. Prices vary wildly depending on the vendor and lens condition, so I won’t go into more detail here.
What you then get is classic 1960s telephoto lens performance in textbook perfection – even if it is not up to the performance of modern high-end telephoto lenses. Also you get the same kind of rich colors and high contrast that other Contarex lenses such as the Distagon 35/2 show. You can mix pictures of all these lenses just as you want and get results with a uniform, crisp and very modern look to them. Creating a whole lens lineup with that level of uniform high quality – something we’re probably very used to today – was a really big achievement by Zeiss back in the 1950s and 60s.
So the Sonnar 135/2.8 will easily beat a lot of modern lower-end lenses, especially regarding its sharpness, but it won’t have any chance against state-of-the-art apochromatic Leica glass.
Having said all this, the sample shots should clearly show that the Sonnar is able to outresolve the NEX-5 sensor with its 14 megapixels across the whole frame comfortably at all apertures from f/4, probably f/5.6 onwards: The little smearing of details in the green grass of the shot below is probably only caused by me trying to get a really noise-free file with Lightroom set to +20 luminance noise reduction – the NEX-5 can’t be set to ISO 100, after all. If you really care for this level of pixel peeping, hope for the new Sony NEX-7 with its whopping 24 megapixel count, and prepare for careful RAW post processing.
In the end, despite its obvious shortcomings, the Zeiss Contarex Sonnar 135/2.8 is able to deliver the goods. If any shot comes out wrong, it’s never because of the lens. That’s what quality photo gear is all about!
A final word on real-day photography with a manual telephoto
You will notice that all the shots above are very static ones. There is a reason for this: Frankly, it’s a real pain to handle a telephoto lens on a display-only digital camera as the NEX-5 – at least in my experience. As much as I love its “waist-level” tiltable screen for normal photography, it is awful to handle once you put a medium telephoto on it. Manual focusing (if you want to really nail down the shots to 100% per-pixel sharpness) needs a lot of attention – and inevitably also some time, and holding the camera at arm’s length (remember it does not have a viewfinder) gave me some slightly blurry shots even at 1/640 of a second as the camera also lacks in-body stabilisation.
I won’t even bother to try shooting any action apart from that in a retirement home’s park with a setup like this. But it’s perfectly good for static shots and of course the smooth focusing and the amenities of the NEX5’s screen with its clear view as well as its magnification and peaking modes would make it just a dream when shooting from a tripod. It might be that a camera with a viewfinder such as the NEX-5N or NEX-7 will totally change the shooting experience of a classic telephoto. I’m eager to find that out!