Lens Love #4 – Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42

Lens Love is an ongoing series of posts about the vintage lenses I’ve used and loved most.

The dry technical data and 100% corner crops of brick walls can be found elsewhere. What I’m more interested in is what specifically about a lens makes me love using it, and why I believe you should try one too.

Up today –

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42

34417018212_62093ee930_b
Pentax K10D, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens

The reason M42 mount are my favourite lenses can be summed up in two words. Takumar and Zeiss. 

Let’s leave Takumars are for a different post (or 10).

On the Zeiss front, in M42 I have the holy trio of the Flektogon 35/2.4, Pancolar 50/1.8 and Sonnar 135/3.5. These three could form my entire lens collection and I would be abundantly equipped to shoot beautiful photographs for the rest of my life.

I recently wrote about my six strong stack of 135s and the Sonnar is as good as any of them.

Indeed if I had to pick just one, based on the results I’ve got so far and the general feel and handling, it would be the Sonnar.

IMG_3188

What I love

Final image. The Sonnar has a near perfect balance of sharpness of focus and softness of bokeh, in my view. Despite having six aperture blades, which with some lenses can often lead to abrasive polygons in the background, the Sonnar manages to almost entirely avoid this. And the sharpness is delicious, though not in a sterile or clinical way.

Size and form. This Zeiss is very compact for a 135mm lens, and cleverly uses much of its length as the metal knurled focusing ring. It feels well built, all metal and glass, the focusing is pretty smooth, and the aperture clicks are subtle yet reassuring. It doesn’t feel like a cheap or hastily made object.

34636523075_b03d304715_b
Pentax K10D, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens

Close focus. I’ve had a few 135s that have performed very well but the minimum focus has been 2m plus. The Sonnar focus down to a fraction under 1m, which is excellent given the extra reach a 135 lens gives anyway. It makes close ups of flowers, decaying doors, gravestones and the other textures I enjoy very easy and very rewarding.

33815855734_4a83747186_b
Pentax K10D, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens

Adaptability. It’s an M42, probably the most adaptable lens mount any ever made. In native M42 mount you have fabulous 35mm film cameras like the Spotmatic and Fujica ranges.

If you prefer a later, more compact Aperture Priority (Av) body, take your pick from Pentax K, Contax, Canon EOS and more, via very simple and cheap adapters. Flip the Sonnar’s A/M switch to M (Manual), stop down to the aperture you wish to use and the camera will select the correct shutter speed for you.

On the digital front the choice is even wider. I’ve used Sony NEX, Sony Alpha and Pentax K DSLRs with M42 lenses, all with fantastic results, and again via cheap plentiful adapters.

32397142633_185fa540c7_b
Sony α100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens plus LightRoom Preset

What about the downsides? 

No lens is perfect of course. My Sonnar, in near mint condition, cost me £50.

I’ve bought other 135mm lenses for under £15 that have made wonderful pictures.

But since none of them focus as close, or are quite as compact, the Sonnar just about justifies its higher price tag.

You might find one cheaper if you’re patient, lucky or both. But they’re nowhere nearer the plentiful budget end of M42 135s.

My other two Zeiss lenses I mentioned both developed faults with the aperture blades and became stuck open.

I had both services and fixed, at a cost of around £45.

Though the Sonnar feels good quality, I’m always waiting for the day it goes the way of the other Zeiss, and adding another £45 would take my total outlay to near £100. Still a bargain in the grand scheme of things, but if you’re on a tight budget, there are other 135s with as good performance for far less, in M42 mount, Pentax K mount and beyond.

32935845666_c30270c5c2_b
Sony α100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens plus LightRoom Preset

A minor annoyance is the plastic pull out hood.

Zeiss obviously felt it was necessary to have or they wouldn’t have designed it. But if you ignore it, it quite often slides out anyway. And when it is out it doesn’t easily stay in position. A simple turn to lock in place system would have been easy to incorporate and would mean you could leave it extended when in use and not see it sliding in and out.

To be fair this is not an issue exclusive to this lens, I have other brands that are similar, bit it does seem a bit of a flimsy afterthought and doesn’t fit with the otherwise solid all metal body.

IMG_3192

The final downside is simple. It’s not a Takumar.

If I’d never had a Takumar I wouldn’t know to compare. But I do have them, and they remain my favourite lenses for their luxurious smoothness and build quality, let alone the fantastic optics.

The later K mount Pentax 135s I’ve had (an SMC Pentax 135/3.5 and a Pentax-M 135/3.5) have also been beautifully smooth and confidence inspiring.

My inner photographic jury is still out as to whether the Sonnar is optically superior to my preset Takumar 135/3.5, as I’ve only had the latter a couple of weeks. The Sonnar retains all the pros outlined above, but just simply isn’t as smooth and reassuring as a Takumar.

33768701243_afc3e61511_b
Pentax K10D, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens

Lastly, a note on variations and naming. 

Whilst I’ve referred throughout this post to the Sonnar as a Sonnar, my version’s full name is the Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Electric MC S 135/3.5. I understand there were periods where disputes between Zeiss companies in East and West Germany meant there were restrictions on the use of various names. Similarly, I have a Tessar which is called simply a Jena T.

So if you find one like mine that only has S 135/3.5, not Sonnar, rest assured it is the same optical formula.

27862547212_3bd8ed45eb_b1
Sony NEX 3N,Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens.

Overall, on the photographs I’ve been able to make alone, the Sonnar comes highly recommended. 

The downsides are relatively minor, and the pluses in abundance. If you like 135s and haven’t tried a Sonnar, I’d definitely suggest you seek one out.

Have you tried a Sonnar 135/3.5? 

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

The Fall Of The 50s Philanderer (Or How I Found The Perfect 50mm Lens)

I’ve shot far more photographs with 50mm lenses than any other focal length. But switching 50s more often than underwear can become an exhausting and hollow experience.

Here’s why my 50s philandering days are done, and how I’ve settled on my ideal.

21642355531_27aabfb949_b
Pentax MZ-5N, SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

It took me a while to realise, but after something like seven or eight different mounts and over 50 lenses, I realised that in the final image, there’s not a huge amount of difference between one 50mm prime and another.

Some of the lenses I considered humble and expected little of, impressed me greatly.

25759175424_e837b4b6d3_b
Minolta X-300, Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

So when so many 50mm lenses can produce very satisfying results, should we just pick the first decent one we come across and look no further?

If so, why didn’t I do this four years ago?

This wouldn’t be a bad plan at all. But the curious and lustful side of me kept want to try more, to see if they were different.

When the basic optical performance is more than good with even the most mundane sounding lenses (like my three underdogs mentioned above), I started to look further at what separates them.

What makes one lens a forgettable fling, and another destined for a lifelong romance?

Photography for me is very much about how the equipment feels, the whole sensory and tactile experience. The final image is only a fraction of the appeal, for me.

Also, this is as much a reason (probably bigger) as to why I use and love vintage film cameras over digital, in comparison with the end look film photographs have compared with those made via megapixels.

27174662542_0a200dcf97_b
Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens

So I started looking for two things.

First the luxuriousness of the lens, for want of a better word.

And second, some indescribable aspect of the final image that made a particular lens stand out from the pack.

This led me to the two favourites I have now.

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8, M42 mount

On the luxury front, the Pancolar is ordinary, at best. But in the final image it delivers something special.

27129015332_0e42b42f57_b
Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 film

For a long time I was sceptical about Zeiss, and thought that any decent lens would give similar results. Which is true. But, somehow, the Pancolar has something more.

27129014332_ac984b3978_b
Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 film

Two other Zeiss I have in M42 mount – the Sonnar 135/3.5 and Flektogon 35/2.4 – bear this out too. Neither are the smoothest or best built I’ve used, but both give a secret something to an image not seen in their rivals.

Arguably these three are the only three lenses I ever need.

Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8, M42 mount

The Takumar is in a different league to the Pancolar in terms of feel. It’s just delicious to use, and oozes quality and charm. It’s quite probably the smoothest lens I’ve ever handled and used.

In the final image, it’s one of the best too.

28268533775_f56cb6c436_b
Contax 139 Quartz, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

With the Takumar, it’s not down to drop dead sharpness. The Pancolar in my experience outguns it in that area.

But, similar to the Zeiss, the Takumar images have something special that I don’t see with other lenses.

28268534165_bd5760c40f_b
Contax 139 Quartz, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Conclusions and Recommendations

If you’re relatively new to film photography and/or vintage lenses, what would I suggest, based on my own 50s philandering experience? Would I recommend you rush out and get a Pancolar and Takumar?

Well, not necessarily. What works for me might not for you.

If you’re keen to shoot film and you’re not too fussed about the camera you use, as long as it takes decent, well exposed photographs, then any of the major brands have a body and a standard 50/1.7 or 50/1.8 lens that will give great results.

Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, Konica and Yashica all qualify.

If you’d like a camera that’s small, light, and don’t mind having a later, more plastic body, the Canon EOS are very hard to argue against.

31877465180_8626a8be4b_c
Canon EOS 300V, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.4 C/Y lens

They’re compact, light, ergonomic to handle, offer reliable metering with a very usable viewfinder, if not as big and bright as some of the 70s SLRs.

The major trump card with the EOS system is their adaptability.

With cheap adapters (around £10) you can use M42, Contax/Yashica or Pentax K lenses, to name just three.

They offer tremendous value, and combined with something like a Super-Takumar 55/1.8, Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 or Fujinon 55/1.8 in M42 or a Pentax-M or Yashica ML 50/1.7 or 50/2 lenses can give you stunning results.

You can read in more depth why I like them and how to get started in film photography for just £27, with a Canon EOS at the heart of the set up.

29343375614_0221517757_b
Canon EOS 500N, Fujinon 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

If you go with the EOS system, you can then also add a digital option at a later today (early EOS digital bodies are currently £50 upwards) and use exactly the same lens(es) and adapter(s).

I regularly contemplate selling all my SLRs (currently down to six, less than I’ve had in about three years) and keeping just my EOS 300v plus M42 and C/Y adapters and lenses. It’s all I/you really need.

After a while, the endless chase for 50s became tiresome, and the urge waned.

Now I’m down to five manual focus 50mm lenses.

Seven, if you include my 55/1.8 Super-Takumar (which I have), and my Minolta AF (AutoFocus) 50/2.8 Macro.

I don’t need any others, and each of these gives something unique in user experience, the final photographs, or both.

If I had to pick one, for the final image it would probably be the Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8.

26620394123_c5686bc6c1_b
Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferranis Solaris 200 expired film

For the joy of using, the Super-Takumar 55/1.8 is a delight, and up there with the best for the end result too.

My days as a 50s philanderer seem to be coming to an end.

Partly because I’ve realised that virtually every 50mm lens I’ve ever used was capable of more than decent pictures, and partly because those that remain are so enjoyable to use and to make photographs with.

Where are you on your adventures with 50mm? Have you tried one, two, or 2002?

Let us know in the comments below, and feel free to make your own 50mm recommendations.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Seven By Seven

7x7-1-2

Or, put another way, 49.

Part of the origins of the title of this blog – 35hunter – are about me hunting for beautiful things to photograph.

The other part is about me hunting for the most delicious and desirable (to me) 35mm cameras to pursue and capture these pictures with.

With SLRs, a complete game-changer for me was discovering the Contax 139 Quartz. 

When this occurred, all previous SLRs I’d tried – including ones from Canon, Fujica, Konica, Olympus, Pentax, Praktica and Zenit – fell by the wayside. Nothing before had felt as smooth, as luxurious, and well, just so right in my hands as the Contax 139Q.

So I bought another as a back up.

And then a 167MT. And so this evolved, until now I have all the Contax/Yashica bodies I wanted.

I think.

The total I have also turns out to be my favourite number, seven. 

Which is also the number of essential lenses I’ve come to settle on too.

I do still have a few other SLR cameras and lenses, but I expect these to be further phased out. The C/Y clan are my clear favourites.

Here’s a quick rundown on each camera body and lens.

Cameras

Contax 139 Quartz. My original, and where the C/Y love affair began for me. Ideal size, weight and feel, with a lovely bright viewfinder with intelligent info, a delectably smooth wind on and instinctive soft touch shutter release button. I could have stopped here, and in truth the other cameras here really are slightly less ideal versions of the 139.

31048358696_a664e3a5fc_c
Contax 139 Quartz, Yashica ML 50mm f/2 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 @ISO125

Contax 139 Quartz. As above. This back up version arrived from Germany with a terribly flaky leather skin and smelling like it had been submerged in a deep fat fryer for a month. After plenty of airing and an excellent new skin from Milly’s Cameras it smells fresh, looks even better than my original and is equally as smooth in use.

Contax 159MM. The evolution of the 139, it puts a very strong case for being the best camera I’ve ever held. Some days it is. Metering via a half press of the shutter button rather than a separate button on the front, shutter speeds to 1/4000s and Program and Shutter Priority modes improve on the 139. But somehow the 139 retains the edge for me in feel. Maybe because it was my first.

28099283881_876ec591b2_c
Contax 159MM, Jupiter-37A lens, Expired Fuji Superia 100 @ISO64 

Contax 137MA. Essentially a slightly larger 139 with motor drive and AA batteries. Although more bulky, the handling is still very good, and the automated wind on is smooth and eager at the same time. An excellent choice when I want slightly more weighty feel and the laziness of not having to use my right thumb.

Contax 167MT. In a word, fierce. Like a supercharged 137MA. Extra features over the 139 like exposure bracketing, spot metering, continuous shooting and six exposure modes (three program, plus Av, Tv and M) mean this is the camera I turn to when I want to experiment with exposing film. Or simply when I want to use a camera that feels like a tank but drives like a Roller. It also sports my favourite VF in all the cameras here as I switched it for a plain matte one. Oh and the exposure compensation dial I think has the best weight and feel of any switch I’ve  ever used on any device!

28711764361_d3cb0b6e63_c
Yashica FX-D Quartz, MC Praktica Auto Zoom 80-200mm f/4.5 lens, Expired Fuji Superia 100 @ISO80

Yashica FX-D Quartz. I joke that this is the best SLR I’ve ever used that doesn’t say CONTAX on the front. And it’s true. The FX-D is a delightful little camera and 95% as fabulous to use as the Contax 139. The FX-D loses depth of field preview and aperture read out in the VF, but retains an almost as smooth wind on and shutter button, and an almost identical VF (ie bright, clear and a joy to look through). A genuine little cracker and my black one cost me about a third of what any of the Contax bodies cost.

Yashica FX-3. Certainly the odd one out here, as it feels less refined by far and is very simple. But this simplicity its ultimately what makes it most endearing. The VF is still bright and very usable, and actually, along with the 167MT, it’s the purest and least cluttered VF here. It’s comfortably the lightest body, the joint smallest, and whilst it has a simple lightmeter, the core functions are purely mechanical so it will carry on when every other camera here has run out of batteries. Mine cost me a ridiculously low price, complete with lens, and due to the inevitable shabby skin, I’ve ordered a new one from Milly’s Cameras to restore its former looks and so it can nestle proudly amongst the others C/Ys.

Lenses

Yashica

Yashica ML 50mm f/1.4. I had one of these, along with a 50/2 and 50/1.7 and tested the three head to head. The difference in the performance was so negligible I decided to keep just the f/1.7 and sell the others. But then this second f/1.4 came along too cheap to resist, and the bigger glass just looks better (in my eyes) as well as making those already bright VFs even brighter.

28768976183_6a32e331fb_c
Contax 159MM, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.4 lens, Expired Jessops Diamond Everyday 200 @ISO125

Yashica ML 35mm f/2.8. I’ve been after one of these for ages and finally found one in good condition and at a sensible price. Initial (digital) shots are promising, and I hope to use it on my film bodies soon. 35mm is a focal length I love and have used extensively with compacts.

Yashica DSB 55mm f/2. Reports suggest that the DSB Yashicas are optically very similar (if not identical) to the MLs, just the latter have a more complex coating (ML = Multi Layer). Also there isn’t an ML lens in 55mm, which I like due its “lifesize” image in the VF compared with 50mm lenses. Not as smooth to use as the MLs I’ve had, but good enough, especially if the results continue to impress as they have done so far.

M42

The original aim that led me to the Contax 139 Quartz was to find a small, classy SLR to use M42 lenses with, via an adapter. These are the M42 lenses that make the meagre investment in the adapter more than worthwhile.

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Flektogon 35mm f/2.4. Simple the best performing lens I have ever used, or, put another one, the one that gives me the highest number of “keepers” and “oohs” and “aahs” per roll of film. Comparing this over time with the ML 35/2.8 will be intriguing.

28875784945_23868fb541_c1
Contax 159MM, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 lens, Expired Fuji Superia 100 @ISO80

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8. Again in terms of the final image, probably the greatest 50mm I’ve used. Mine has a lazy aperture that needs some TLC so when funds allow I’ll be sending it to Miles Whitehead who recently serviced my Flektogon and made it feel like new. Really very sharp and lovely colours.

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC S (Sonnar) 135mm f/3.5. Completing the Zeiss triumvirate, the Sonnar which, like the other two, can create sumptuous images. It’s very compact for a 135mm too, which fits well with the smaller bodies above like the 139Q, 159MM and FX-D.

30712108091_8aa7f54cf0_c
Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR  Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 lens, Expired Kodak Color Plus 200 @ISO125

Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8. Probably the smoothest lens I’ve ever used or will ever use, and the images are equally delicious. A while back I had a (large) handful of 50/55mm M42 lenses, but the Pancolar and Takumar are all I need.Like the DSB 55/2, I like the slightly larger than life image in the VF a 55mm gives versus a 50mm.

Do I really need all these cameras and lenses that give 49 different permutations?

Of course not.

If I had to choose just one I think it’d a Contax 139 Quartz plus the Yashica ML 50/1.4, just because it’s the lens that not only performs excellently itself, but being native C/Y mount and the fastest lens I have, allows the camera to perform at its best too.

Second choice would be the 159MM plus Flektogon 35/2.4.

If I was on a very tight budget, the FX-D plus the DSB 55/2 would give excellent results and cost me less than £30 combined.

Is there anything left on the wishlist? 

Whilst I like the range of experiences the above give me, the one camera I haven’t had yet – mainly because it costs about the same as all these others combined – is the Contax S2.

Lens wise, whilst the C/Y Yashicas are really very good, the Carl Zeiss C/Y lenses are very tempting. Something like an MM version 50/1.4 Planar, which would not only be fast, capable and allow all the modes of the 159MM and 167MT to be used, is very enticing.

But again it comes down to cost, and I can’t see the cheapskate within me forking out £200+ for a single lens or body any time soon…

What’s your favourite SLR mount, camera and lens, and how do they make you feel? 

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.