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Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 Vintage Review

John Riley reviews the vintage Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens with the 50mp Canon EOS 5DS R.


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Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 Vintage Review: Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm F2,8 Front Oblique View

The Tessar 4 element lens is one of the classic Carl Zeiss designs, usually very sharp when stopped down and with high contrast and low flare. This particular lens was sold with the Zeiss Ikon Icarex 35S camera body in breech mount, circa 1966, and later in screw thread mount with the Icarex 35 TM. We are talking here about West German manufacture, as opposed to the East German Carl Zeiss Jena lenses that were budget options for the Praktica and other low-cost cameras.

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Using the 50mp Canon EOS 5DS R DSLR and a suitable adapter, let's see how this lens behaves in a modern context and whether its characteristics can be used to advantage.

Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 Handling and Features

Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 Vintage Review: Tessar 50mm f/2.8

First a little background. After the end of WWII, Germany ended up being divided into West and East. The company of Carl Zeiss also ended up being divided and eventually this settled into two Zeiss companies, totally unrelated, but stemming from the same roots. The East German factory at Jena became the home of the lenses for Praktica and other low-cost cameras, at one time one of the best affordable options for the average amateur photographer.

West Germany ended up with the Carl Zeiss plant at Oberkochen, plus the Voigtlander facility at Braunschweig, also the home of Rollei. The relevance of this is that eventually Zeiss and Voigtlander came together and in 1966 the Icarex 35S was born, designed originally by Voigtlander but now labelled Zeiss by its new owners. The lens we have here is the standard lens for the 35S camera body and is reputed to actually be the same as the Voigtlander Color-Skopar, but now labelled Carl Zeiss Tessar. As the Color-Skopar was also a Tessar-type design, there is no real conflict in this. The lens may have been manufactured in the ex-Voigtlander factory at Braunschweig. The passing reference to Rollei is that this line of cameras and lenses eventually evolved into the Rollei SLRs of the early 1970s, manufactured in Singapore, but that is another subject for another time.

Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 Vintage Review: Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm F2,8 On Canon 5D SR

But first our tour of the lens. Typical of its day, the lens displays plenty of chrome, well machined and finished, but with the slightly crude construction that contrasts visibly with the elegance of some Japanese optics from the same era. It gives the feeling that we could make the parts for this lens in a traditional machine shop, making for solid construction but at a price that proved too high in the face of that Japanese competition. Staring at the front of the lens, there is a 50mm metal bayonet fitting for filters or hood, a very superior method of attachment compared to the screw in filters, but resulting in very expensive accessories, none of which managed to come to us alongside this sample of the lens. The alternative is 56mm push-on accessories, hardly an elegant option. So we proceed without a hood, but the saving grace is that the front element is very well recessed, giving the lens an inbuilt protection against flare.

The focusing ring moves the entire optical cell forwards on a helical thread. The action is typically Zeiss-firm, as with other similar lenses from the period, and this sample is clearly very lightly used so it is probably not that much different from when new. The barrel is marked in feet and metres and focusing is down to just under 45cm, or 18 inches. This is typical for a 50mm lens. There is a clear depth of field scale, useful for estimating the hyperfocal distance to maximise DOF if required. The chrome aperture ring is clickless and operates the 5 bladed diaphragm smoothly.

Finally, a ring nearest to the camera body is rotated to release the mount. Here we have the Zeiss Ikon Icarex 35S mount. Interestingly, this breech mount is not dissimilar to Canon's original breech mount. The essence of the breech mount is that the lens is simply inserted and a collar rotated to lock it into position. There is no rotation of lens against mount and therefore no wear. It is an excellent but expensive to manufacture method of designing a mount. To fit the Icarex fit lens to a Canon body a simple adapter can be sourced via eBay or Amazon, costing just under £30.

Care should be taken that when using the aperture ring the breech mount lock is not allowed to slowly move, possibly becoming disengaged and resulting in the lens simply falling off the camera.

The lens weighs in at a modest 200g, without caps or hood, and is a very compact option. It is coated, but not multi-coated, and comprises the usual Tessar construction of 4 elements in 3 groups. The rear element is a cemented doublet and the lens design overall is a triplet.

Obviously, handling will vary tremendously, depending upon the camera body used. There could be more choice in this by finding the M42 screw thread version of the lens, which would then be easily usable on a wide variety of cameras. This breech mount version is slightly more limited in that respect.

Handling is, as with the Zoomar lens recently reviewed, a bit clunky and slow. Manual focusing is not easy using the viewfinder, at least not with the screen fitted to the Canon EOS 5DS R. Live View is the answer, but it does need magnification of the image to find that sharp focus point. As regards exposure, the Canon metering is a bit unreliable with these lenses, but the view on the back screen can be used to approximate the brightness of the image with a high degree of success. The camera set on manual to adjust the shutter speed and the aperture ring on the lens, working together, can produce fine exposure. It does encourage thinking about each shot, but is not the lens for anything that involves fast shooting.

Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 Vintage Review: Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm F2,8 Rear Oblique View


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Comments

Offertonhatter Avatar
6 Jul 2019 5:36PM
I have the late model Zeiss Jena version dating from the mid eighties. It came with my first film SLR, namely the Praktica MTL-5B which I still have.
Now being an M42 lens, it has the same flange focal distance as the K-mount, so using it with an official M42-K adapter I can use it on my K-1 amongst other cameras. And it shines. Sharp and contrasty with well controlled CA. Classic double gauss lens.
Downsides?
Well, being East German, the focus ring is not smooth at all, very sticky. However, for the results you get, it is worth coping with the stickiness.

Just get a copy of this classic Tessar and realise that slowing down and using old lenses, shows that they produce wonderful results for what is peanuts in price.
CathedralGuitar Avatar
I wish you would have spent way less time on the history of Zeiss, and way more time about the experience of using the lens on a modern camera. Your review detracted from the lens due to the difficulty of using it, but you only wrote a line about the actual experience. Yet you wrote several paragraphs on the history of Zeiss. I would liked to have seen the the review emphasis reversed -- i.e., several paragraphs on what it is like to use the lens, and a single line about the history of Zeiss.
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