Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35/2 on the Sony A7R II

A gem of classic lenses! Zeiss developed some über-lenses for its Contarex SLR system, and the Distagon 35mm f/2 most certainly was one of them. It went on sale in 1965 – a full 54 years ago as I write down these lines, even some years before the Apollo 11 moon landing.

I posted about this lens twice before, using it on my then-current Sony NEX-5n (click here) and on the first-generation Sony A7R (click here).

Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2 on Sony A7R II
Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2 on Sony A7R II

A short history lesson on wide-angle lenses

Zeiss has, of course, a very special place in the history of optics. Many “firsts” were introduced by Zeiss when it comes to camera lenses. Even back in the 1930s, they already made the then lightning-fast 35mm f/2.8 Biogon and 40mm f/2 Biotar wide-angle lenses for the mighty Contax rangefinder system. These ones were already leading the development of wide-angle lenses. But in the 1950s, the world moved on to SLR cameras, and the need to make wide-angle lenses clear the big SLR mirror boxes led to the development of the so-called retrofocus lens design.

A little waterfall. (at f/5.6 if I recall correctly. 1/6 second.)

Angenieux of Paris, another great optics manufacturer of that time, developed the very first retrofocus wide-angle lens – the Angenieux R1 35mm f/2.5. (See a diagram of its lens design.) This remarkable lens was patented in 1950. At the same time, also a Zeiss retrofocus SLR lens was developed. Zeiss was faced with the separation into West (Oberkochen) and East (Jena) after the Second World War, and this first retrofocus Zeiss lens was actually designed and produced in Jena – the Flektogon 35mm f/2.8. Both the Angenieux R1 and the Flektogon finally went on sale around 1953.

Zeiss West, at that time, still focused on the production and improvement of the rangefinder Contax system. Only when the Zeiss Contarex SLR system was presented to the market in 1959, they had to finally come up with some retrofocus wide-angle lens designs. First was the Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/4, but the real masterpiece appeared in 1965 – the Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2 that this post is about.

It was the fastest 35mm SLR lens of its time. A few years later, in 1971, Nikon brought the mighty 35mm f/1.4 Nikkor that remained in production right into the 2000’s. (Read Ken Rockwell’s comprehensive history and review of that lens.)

Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2 on Sony A7R II
Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2 on Sony A7R II

1960s Zeiss fit and finish – it won’t get any better than this. Never!

In one of my previous posts on this lens, I wrote the following lines that are still absolutely true:

“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!”

Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2 on Sony A7R II
Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2 on Sony A7R II

Lens design

Of course, the Distagon 35mm f/2 is a somewhat old-fashioned design. It was designed just a few years before the first lenses with floating lens elements appeared. Nikon were the first here, they called their floating elements a “Close-Range Correction system” and introduced them with their 24mm f/2.8 that hit the market in 1967, followed by the 35mm f/1.4 in 1971.

Okay, no floating elements! Thus the Distagon 35mm f/2 has a simple barrel and it’s whole lens assembly is moved as one single block to focus. Of course, it also does not have aspheric lens elements, and while the Distagon’s multi coating was world-leading back in its day, it surely can’t match the even more sophisticated coatings of today.

(If you are really interested in the history of Zeiss lens coatings, read this comprehensive paper here:
Technical article on T*-coating and reduction of reflections in lenses,
by Dr. Vladan Blahnik and Dr. Benjamin Voelker, Carl Zeiss AG)

Note the light flares at the upper left and (less bright) right of the harbor picture? Light from big street spots was shining on the front lens elements. I could have shaded it, but actually I like the look in this frame.

Optical quality

When writing about a lens like this, you can always choose the modern approach and concentrate on all the optical defects that a lens produces and document them in your review. The Contarex Zeiss Distagon has a lot of such defects. I am sure many more modern wide-angle lens designs are faster, technically better, offer superior bokeh, and what not.

I’m not a good lens reviewer in technical terms because, when using a lens, I listen to my heart way too much. :) Then there also is the issue that I am using this lens on the Sony A7R II, and you can never be sure that some weaknesses of such a film-era wide-angle lens, especially at the borders and corners of the frame, have to do with Sony’s approach to sensor cover glass design. (That’s why Cosina today produces their Voigtländer wide-angle lenses in two variants, for Leica M and Sony FE mounts.)

Central sharpness is stunning. At least I think so. If you nail your manual focusing, this thing is just crisp and sharp right at open aperture around the center of your frame. You can also focus on something off-centre, and sharpness will be there at open aperture.

Corner sharpness – You will see from the full-size samples that the lens is not exactly a marvel in corner sharpness. If you stop down to f/8, it’s sharp right to all edges of the frame. My guess is there’s quite some field curvature going on because you need to stop down most when you take landscape pictures at infinity to get the corners sharp. If you’re taking pictures of somewhat closer and more three-dimensional subjects, you’ll see that the lens is pretty sharp to the edges even at the more open apertures. Well, it’s still never sharp to the edges at f/2.

Veiling – in high-contrast situations, there’s a little bit of veiling going on at open aperture. In my opinion, it’s pretty minor for a fast wide-angle lens. And it’s basically gone at f/2.8 already. Please note that the design of the digital sensor cover glass also can have some effect to these characteristics here.

Vignetting can be seen at f/2, it is basically gone (in real-life terms) at f/2.8.

Distortion can also be noticed, but it is pretty low. It’s a slight barrel-shaped distortion and can be easily corrected in the RAW converter of your choice. If I remember correctly, I saw a diagram of this lenses’ optical characteristics some years ago and it quoted distortion to be 1%. So, even for today’s terms, this is pretty low.

Contrast is high. With that I mean, this lens delivers punchy, contrasty and crisp images at every aperture. Having said that, I find it hard to judge against other lenses in absolute terms – if you’d use a native Sony FE lens, it might seem more contrasty than this lens, but with native lenses there might be a hidden contrast boost going on even in the RAW files.

Flares – oh yes. There are bright sources of light that shine on the front lens elements? You’ll definitely see it in the picture! Remember this is the 1960s! Use a lens hood to control flares or use the flares in your composition. They can make for a pretty cinematic look in my opinion.

Full-size samples

Here you’ll find several pictures. Click on any of the pictures and then, once you are in the gallery view, click on “View full size” at the bottom (42 megapixel files of the Sony A7R II).

Those samples were all taken as RAW files and processed in Adobe Lightroom. I did some adjustments to contrast, lights/shadows, white balance and color saturation – but I did not correct for vignetting, distortion and also switched off any CA correction that Lightroom offers. Sharpness was set to Lightroom’s standard “landscape” setting: 40% with 0.8 radius.

Please use these pictures for your personal validation of lens quality, and respect copyright.

Apertures f/2 – f/4 – f/5.6 – f/8:
(Don’t ask my why I forgot to take the f/2.8 shot …)

Some more full-size samples:
(Click on any to get into the gallery view, aperture info is given there.)

Another series with apertures from f/2 to f/11:
(You’d normally never take such a subject at f/2, but … so what. The lens didn’t do a bad job here for a 1965 release I think!)

Conclusion

I am a fan of all the Contarex lenses. Maybe I’m biased. I see they are not perfect – not by any stretch – by today’s terms. But especially the Distagon is just something utterly special

It offers absolutely stunning central sharpness, and if you use it with just a little bit of care, it delivers super crispy, punchy, contrasty and detailed pictures. You get a crisp modern look, yet still a lot of classic character. Photographers and videographers today love to talk about the “cinematic” look that some lenses deliver. I think this lens has it in abundance, but it’s not just a crappy effect lens. Because with every single shot you take, you’ll notice its sublime, once class-leading high-quality optics. Last not least, there is this outworldly ultimate mechanical finish.

All these make for a really special experience when using the Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2.

Having said all that, there are some reasons why you won’t use a lens like this every day on your modern system camera.

First, there are some very practical considerations: For a mirrorless camera, the bulky retrofocus concept, once so important for technological progress in SLR systems, is not necessary anymore. It just makes the lens pretty big and heavy, and if you factor in the necessary adapter to fit it to your mirrorless camera of choice, it becomes also very long and somewhat bulky. All this for “just” f/2!

Then, this lens is rare. Only around 3,000 copies were made of the Distagon 35mm f/2. The Zeiss Contarex system was, after all, a commercial failure. And the f/2 Distagon was one of the most expensive ones. Zeiss excellence, of course, lives on to this day. So if you want a Zeiss lens for your Sony A7 today, you’d just get a Loxia 35mm f/2 – sadly that one’s not the most sophisticated Zeiss lens design. Or you’d go for the slightly longer Zeiss Batis 40mm f/2. And there are several other 35mm options out there for your Nikon, Canon or Sony mirrorless cameras that are, from today’s perspective, just more convenient and more accessible for everyday use.

But still, nothing can replace the unique enjoyment of using a lens like this from time to time, from time to time. High quality never vanishes. The Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35mm f/2 keeps up with the best of today while showing its age in its own, unique, gorgeous way.

Contarex Super and lenses.
Contarex Super and lenses.

Technical data

Lens typeZeiss Contarex Sonnar 35/2
Focal length35 mm
Maximum aperturef/2
ManufacturerZeiss
First year of sales1965
Country of originWest Germany
Manufactured inWest Germany
Lens mountZeiss Contarex
Optical design9 lenses in 8 groups,
classic glass elements only,
no T* coatings yet
Close focusing distance0.22 metres
Aperture6 straight blades,
aperture is operated via camera/adapter
Size (diam. x length, without adapter)68mm x 70mm
(at infinity, to mount flange)
Size (diam. x length, with adapter for Sony)68mm x 92mm
(at infinity, to mount flange)
Filter threadsnone, has Zeiss filter bayonet instead
Weight (without adapter)~ 400 grams
Weight (with adapter)~ 495 grams

Thomas

2 thoughts on “Zeiss Contarex Distagon 35/2 on the Sony A7R II

Add yours

  1. I have a great collection of Contarex bodies and lenses, even the rare zooms, and I’ll try out using an adapter on my Nikon Z6. Please wait some weeks to see more.

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