Zeiss 1,5/50 C Sonnar in ZM mount

The latest Sonnar is a stunning but idiosyncratic lens, with a unique 'look' all of its own.

The name 'Sonnar' is of course one of the most hallowed in all lens history, and before looking at the current incarnation, it is worth looking at that history. This will help explain why the Sonnar in its current incarnation was introduced, and why it has, in the French phrase, 'the faults of its qualities'.

sonnar on mp

Sonnar on MP

The Sonnar on Roger's beloved MP: it looks right and feels right. Note the ventilated bayonet-fit hood (removed, on the left); the lugs on the diaphragm setting ring, here set to f/16; and the nub on the focusing ring, ideal for focusing by touch. The strap is from Artisan and Artist, and is the subject of a micro test in its own right.

Zeiss habitually reverses the customary order of focal length/aperture, and uses the continental comma instead of the Anglo-American decimal point, so it is normally referred to as a 1,5/50. The original 1,5/50 Sonnar was the first ultra-fast lens from a major manufacturer, though f/1.5 Meyer Plasmats in 40mm, 50mm and 75mm were fitted (unofficially) to Leicas even in the late 1920s.

sonnar sewing circle

 

The design of the original Sonnars is interesting: a Cooke triplet, but with the second glass split into a cemented triplet and the rear glass split into a cemented doublet for the f/2 and a cemented triplet for the f/1.5. In other words, the f/2 was 6-glass, 3-group and the f/1.5 was 7-glass, 3-group.

Zeiss chose the triplet-derivative path in the 1930s, before coating, in order to give adequate contrast: with only six air-glass surfaces, the Sonnar was much contrastier than its Leica competitor, the 7-glass, 5-group Xenon. The Xenon could resolve much finer detail -- but only in contrastier subjects.

Then again, this was not necessarily a major problem. After all, ultra-fast lenses are often used in very contrasty situations, so flattening of contrast by lens flare is actually welcome for some subjects -- though a better way is to use a less contrasty film (in colour) or reduce development time (in black and white).

 

Nina, Martaizé sewing circle

 

This is perhaps 'classic' Sonnar usage: available light, and not necessarily too much of it, with the lens used at full aperture. Here, it was on Roger's Leica MP, loaded with Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford DD-X; true ISO maybe 650. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

After World War Two, when coating became commonplace, there was no longer any need to keep quite such a tight rein on the number of air/glass surfaces, and suddenly, the Sonnar lost the majority of its advantages over the Xenon, now metamorphosed into the Sumnmarit, 1949-1960, then the f/1.4 Summilux from 1959 onwards. By the time the Summilux came along, it was clear that the Zeiss Contax was no longer attempting to keep up with the Leitz Leica. The difference between f/1.4 and f/1.5 is more a matter of marketing and convention than of speed: traditionally, fast lenses were f/1.5, but f/1.4 is in the square-root-of-two sequence that we expect nowadays.

Then in the 1990s came the Kobayashi phenomenon, first with the licensed Voigtländer name, then in partnership with Zeiss. The initial 50mm for the Zeiss Ikon was the f/2 Planar -- and then the Sonnar came along. It's a 6-glass, 4-group lens, with the second group consisting of an air-spaced pair of glasses instead of a cemented triplet, but still recognizably a Sonnar.

 

Love it or ignore it

The Sonnar is a lens you will either fall in love with, or fail to see the point of: it is hard to imagine anyone actively disliking it.

Its detractors point out three disadvantages. One is that it vignettes quite strongly at full aperture. Another is that there are sharper lenses available. The third is that it exhibits quite marked focus shift.

Its admirers, among whom we count ourselves, cheerfully accept these three disadvantages, in return for what they (we) see as four massive advantages. It's tiny, at least by 50/1.5 standards (the 'C' in 'C Sonnar' is stated to stand impartially for 'Classic' and 'Compact'). It's very flare-resistant. It's extremely sweet handling. And it has a unique look, all of its own. We'll return to a more detailed examination of all these points after the caption.

Electricity supply

 

It's all very well to have a lens that delivers a memorable look at full aperture, but its general usefulness is much impaired unless it also behaves well at more normal apertures. This is in evening sun at an aperture of f/4 or so -- often the most critical, as most lenses behave pretty well at f/5.6 to f/11, and few people are too demanding about full aperture. But below the main shot is the serial number from the cream box, albeit a little over-sharpened in Adobe Photoshop. Roger; Leica M8.

sonnar wiring

 

sonnar serial number

 

There is not much to say about the first advantage, compactness, except perhaps to point out that the Sonnar takes a 46mm filter instead of (for example) the 52mm of the Voigtländer Nokton, its most obvious competitor. There are comparison pictures of the two at the very end of this module. Flare resistance, of course, is part of its heritage.

The handling is obviously subjective, but the 'bump' on the focusing ring makes it easy to focus by touch, an important point to many low-light photographers. For that matter, many find that the 'bump' makes it easy to have the camera in focus, or very close to it, by the time they have raised it to their eye. The lugs on the aperture setting ring are similarly convenient.

And the look... Well, that is even more subjective, but we love it.

sonnar cercle union

Cercle Union des Travailleurs

We can't help suspecting that one of the reasons Roger likes the lens so much is that it seems to chime well with many of his favourite subjects, and the way he photographs them. It's not just at full aperture that it has a wonderfully vintage look. This is on the M8, ISO equivalent 160.

sonnar lombric

 

As for specific answers to the detractors' concerns, vignetting is rarely a problem in the real world, and matters only when you are photographing test targets at wide apertures. Sharpness: likewise. Some subjects call for it. Some don't. For many kinds of photography, again, hand-held at low light levels, camera shake is a great leveller. Focus shift: that is another matter, though easily handled when you know the trick, as described below.

 

Lombric

 

Go on, tell us that vignetting matters with a shot like this. As often as not, if you had even illumination, you'd darken the corners anyway for aesthetic effect.

Frances shot this on Ilford Delta 3200, with the Sonnar on a Leica M4-P, and printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. The reason for using an M4-P instead of one of her Voigtländers was the longer rangefinder base. Although it is not a problem at this sort of distance, focusing an f/1.5 lens with any Voigtländer except the Bessa-T (which has a magnifying rangefinder) is somewhat marginal.

The combination of an ultra-speed film with an ultra-speed lens may seem like overkill, but as noted elsewhere, Frances as a heriditary 'benign essential tremor' (shaky hands) and therefore has to use shutter speeds a couple of steps higher than most people: 1/125 where most could get away with 1/30, for example.

Focus shift and the solution

As with many very fast lenses, the point of sharpest focus of the Sonnar shifts as you stop down. In fact, it gets steadily further away, so that at the closest focusing distance (90cm/3 feet) it recedes several centimetres when stopping down from f/1.5 to f/5.6. Of course you have increasing depth of field to compensate for this, but the overall effect is that as you stop down, depth of field increases at the normal rate, but in effect, it increases much faster behind the focused point. Dr. Nasse at Zeiss explained this when we picked up the lens in May 2007, and it has worked for us ever since: the trick is simply to focus on the nearest important point, rather than relying on the usual rules for d-o-f.

To borrow a brilliant graphic representation, whereas with a lens without focus shift the depth of field could be represented thus: _____[]_______, where ____ is depth of field and [] is the focused point, with the Sonnar it is more like []____________. Actually, as the pictures of the Britannica below show, this is a bit of an exaggeration, and a more accurate representation might be _[]______ for the Sonnar and __[]____ for a lens without focus shift.

 

sonnar guy thevenon

Monsieur Guy Thevenon

Another of Frances's black and white shots, at full aperture with the Sonnar on Ilford Delta 3200 and (like the previous picture) printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, though this time exposed in her Voigtländer Bessa-T. It illustrates first, that vignetting is scarcely a problem, and second, that focusing on the principal subject at full aperture is no problem either. M. Thevenon gives a brilliant lecture-cum-practical demonstration of music-making with prehistoric instruments.

Once you know Dr. Nasse's trick, there is really very little problem with the depth of field -- except that with the first batch of lenses, the rangefinder was not set to give sharp focus at full aperture, but at a smaller aperture. Thus, with the rangefinder indicating correct focus at f/2.8 (a good compromise aperture, Zeiss might have thought), the point of sharpest focus at f/1.5 (where it matters most) might be on the tip of the nose, when the photographer had focused on the eyes.

Later lenses -- all after early 2007 -- were therefore calibrated for sharp focus at f/1.5, at which point the above rule of thumb can be applied to get over the focus shift problem. The exceedingly tedious but quite informative pictures below will, we hope, give a pretty good idea of how it all works. They also show that the focus shift a matter of an inch or at most two (3-5cm), so even at the closest focusing distance, so there is no sense in getting too excited about things in most real-world situations.

sonnar britannica 1

f/1,5

The rangefinder of Roger's M8 was focused on the 1 of 1958, at the closest focusing distance of 90cm/3 feet.

Look at the 'Events of...' below the year for a better guide to sharpness.

sonnar brittanica 2

f/2.8

1957 is now very nearly as sharp as 1958, and 1956 is acceptably sharp; but 1959 is not a lot sharper.

sonnar britannica 3

f/5.6

Sharpness is roughly equal at 1961 and 1953, allowing for the difference in distance and the resulting extra difficulty of reading the small print.

sonnar brittanica 4

f/11

By f/11, depth of field really isn't much of a problem. But then, it shouldn't be!

Construction and details

For an f/1.5, the Sonnar is small, as can be seen from the picture of it on a Leica. The focusing collar and its 'bump' have already been mentioned, as has the 46mm screw filter fitting. The hood is a 'ventilated' round type with a bayonet fitting: a pleasure to use, but pricey if you have to replace it. It's at least as much use for physical protection as for optical, given the flare resistance of the Sonnar: which is as well, because it's not really very deep, though the inward-sloping design makes it very efficient for its size. The lens cap is the standard, truly horrible ZI/Voigtländer pinch type, which jumps out of your fingers at the slightest provocation and can easily break once you drop it: we've lost two to breakage, over the range of ZI lenses we've tested.

The Sonnar has the now-standard Zeiss 1/3 stop click stops from f/1.5 to f/16, the minimum. They are of course equally spaced. Some apparently dislike the 1/3 stop rests, and we have to admit that much as we admire it in theory (2/3 stop is the perfect general-purpose bracket for slide film) the advantages are modest in practice. Even so, we'd rather have it than not. The actual diaphragm control is close to perfect: easy to grip, easy to operate, easy to see.

As usual there is a combined feet/metre scale, with the metres nearer the index; the depth of field scale has to be interpreted in the light of the comments above. The f/8 d-o-f mark is marked in red as an IR index. The focusing mount is quick at 90 degrees for the whole travel, and exhibits very slightly more drag than the new Leica Summarit lenses (First Look here), though it is equally smooth. Using both side by side, we'd suggest that these represent the limits for smooth focusing: anything stiffer than the Sonnar would be a little too stiff, anything looser than the Summarits, a little too easy. Leica's famous red indexing dot is of course replaced by a Zeiss-blue version.

 

Pharmacy trash

 

Street photography, for most people, implies gritty black and white realism and people. But as Martin Parr (among others) showed, colour can be fine too; and sometimes you can tell as much about a place by what the people leave behind, as you can from looking at the people themselves. The bag of rubbish and discarded placard contrast wonderfully with the old stone, crumbling stucco and zinc drain-pipes. (Roger, M8, ISO equivalent 160)

sonnar lancaster

 

There is no bar-coding for the M8, but at 50mm this is not really much of a concern. Yes, it would be nice for Zeiss users if they could get around the Leitz patents, but as they can't (or haven't yet), it's hardly a deal-breaker.

Of course it is impossible to comment on long-term durability until you have had the lens for several years, but in several months of hard use, we have seen no signs of wear or deterioration.

Is it the lens for you?

The older we get, and the more equipment we review, the more we realize that we can't answer this question for you. By the time you are looking at top-flight, very simple, niche-market equipment, our trying to tell you what to buy is about as much use as our trying to tell you that roast beef is better than ice cream, or vice versa. So let's try a process of elimination.

sonnar girls reflection

 

Do you need the speed?

Of course, 'need' is a relative term. The option of extra speed is always welcome, even if you exercise that option very rarely. The questions are how often you need (or want) the extra speed, and whether it is worth the price you have to pay for it: not just the extra money, but the extra bulk and weight, the bigger filters, and (as a general rule) the reduced image quality as compared with a slower lens of the same general design and build quality. Unless you need the extra stop, the 50/2 Zeiss Planar is probably better value; or if you want minimum size, the 50/2.5 Summarit. If you want even more speed, of course, there's the 50/1 Leica Noctilux (at a frightening price).

 

Bar and reflections

 

 

The sun was very low in the sky when Roger shot this with his M8 and the ISO still set to 160; the belt of the young lady with the cigarette made a wonderfully easy focusing target. What he likes about the picture is the ambiguity/anonymity of the girls in the bar, partially obscured as they are by reflections of the sky.

It's not the sort of picture he makes very often, because it is a bit too 'snapshotty' for his taste; but just occasionally, something like this seems to work.

How important are sharpness and vignetting at wide apertures?

A lot depends on what you shoot. For our money, many of the best low-light pictures of all time were shot in the 1950s, in the great days of Life and Picture Post. In those days, 400 ASA was super-fast, much like Ilford Delta 3200 today -- and if you load your camera with Delta 3200, you are a full 3 stops ahead of Tri-X, or 2 stops ahead of grievously pushed Tri-X, so there's no real need for an f/1.5 at all.

For pictures like those we admire (and wish we could take), overall sharpness and vignetting are rarely very important, so the Sonnar is ideal. If you must have maximum sharpness and much more even illumination at full aperture, you will do a lot better with a 50/1.4 Summilux, though it will cost you a lot more and is a good deal bigger and heavier.

Another way to look at the same question is to ask yourself whether this is a lens you will normally use at f/5.6 or f/8 (at which point sharpness and vignetting are not really an issue), with f/1.5 to get you out of trouble, or whether you will normally be using it at f/1.5.

 

Chairs, Koper/Capodistria

 

We were on our way back to our hotel, and the light was definitely falling (which is why we were on our way back to the hotel...), when Roger shot this at full aperture with the ISO on the M8 set to 320. When he saw the DNG colour file, he kicked himself, because he realized that he should have shot it on the MP, which was loaded with Ilford HP5 Plus.

A ink-jet print of black and white conversion is grossly inferior to a real silver-halide monochrome print when you have them side by side in your hands, but the difference is much less in reproduction and can be concealed altogether on screen: Roger would have been quite pleased to make a print which looked this good when scanned.

 

sonnar mono chairs

 

Do you like the look?

Actually, you can divide this question in two. First, are you in love with the idea of a classic Sonnar? If you are, you will probably see what you want to see. Second, do you see anything distinctive in the images?

The latter surprised us. Neither of us is a great fan of vintage Sonnars, despite the legend, and we expected to review it; say "Yes, very nice, thank you"; write it up as a nice lens; and send it back and forget about it.

sonnar marais

 

 

Well, that was pretty close to Frances's reaction, because she doesn't shoot much low-light and prefers even more compact lenses. Sure, she liked it very well, but for the money, she'd rather have a Summarit: she uses 50mm lenses a lot more than Roger does. Or rather, did. He, completely unexpectedly, fell in love with it and has probably used it more than any other 50mm lens he has had in the last decade or more. So much so that he said to Zeiss, "How much do you want in order to allow us to keep it?"

 

Marais

 

Where we live is reclaimed wetland -- 'marais' is the French for 'marsh' -- much like the Somerset Levels. There are irrigation canals and ditches and a few surviving parts of the marsh, which is what all the countryside was like a thousand years or more in the past, before the monks of St. Jouin de Marnes started the drainage projects.

Frances used the Sonnar on her Voigtländer Bessa-T for this picture, shooting on Ilford HP5 Plus and printing on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. The richness of the textures and tones does not come across anything like as well on the screen as on the original print, but alongside that richness there is also an airiness which is aided by the way that fine detail against the sky has not been blown out by flare, always a risk in this kind of picture.

The real surprise is not just that it's ideal for Picture Post low-light shots with pushed Ilford HP5 Plus: we'd pretty much expected that. It's the 'look' in colour too.

sonnar no parking

No Parking

That's what 'Stationnement Interdit' means -- but there's something about the look of this sign, taken with the M8 and the ISO set at 160, that matches the age and the weathering. It wasn't at full aperture, but at about f/4, because it was in a dark garage doorway in a narrow street. Another lens might have been sharper -- or it might not, because we believe that far more sharpness is lost to camera shake than to ultimate lens resolution -- but would it be as atmospheric?

The Bottom Line

Those of a certain age will recall the television program The Twilight Zone, with its sepulchrally-voiced announcer saying, "Explain it, we cannot..." Our feelings about the new C Sonnar are pretty much like that. In the nature of what we do, a great deal of the world's finest equipment passes through our hands. About a third of it, we'd really like to keep. About ten per cent, we'd really, really like to keep, even to the extent of paying out our own hard-earned and woefully scanty income for it. This applies to much of the Leica kit we handle, but so far, the main contenders from Zeiss have been the 25/2.8 -- a focal length we don't own at all -- and this one.

 

Pavement café, Koper (Capodistria), Slovenia

 

We have to be honest: we are a lot less fussed than most people about the equipment we use, because we firmly believe that once you are above what we call the quality threshold, it really doesn't matter all that much. In fact, that's how we define 'quality threshold': the point at which improvements to your ability as a photographer matter more than an 'upgrade' in equipment.

 

We also believe that it's a lot more important to use equipment you like to use (and can afford), rather than fretting about ultimate, theoretical image quality. Well, the Sonnar is well above the 'quality threshold' and we find it uncommonly sweet-handling. Roger had the Sonnar on his M8 for this shot.

 

sonnar newspaper reader

 

Among the other Zeiss ZM lenses, of course we'd like the 15/2.8, but we don't use a 15mm enough to justify the enormous expense; we don't really need an 18mm because it's too close to both 15mm and 21mm; we have two 21mm lenses, neither Zeiss quality, but good enough for our needs; Frances's 28/1.9 Ultron gives her a useful stop-and-a-fraction over a 28/2.8; we have three 35mm lenses (35/1.4, 35/1.7, 35/2.5), so even the 35/2 Zeiss holds limited appeal; and we haven't properly tried the 85/2 yet, but as we have a 75/2 and a 90/2, it faces strong competition.

On the other we have at least half a dozen 50mm lenses, and have tried many others including the current f/2 Planar and Summicron. And quite honestly, the two we'd like most are this one and the 50/2.5 Summarit. Explain it, we cannot...

Go back to First Look OR scroll down for a few more pictures taken with the Sonnar, plus pictures of the Sonnar beside the (current) Voigtländer Nokton 50/1.5.

cafe Nov. 7 trip

 

cafe de la paix

Cafés

Some empty cafés look deserted and uncomfortable; others look as if they are just waiting for you to come and sit down, order a café normal and a kir, and sit and watch the world go by. It's almost (but not quite) worth taking up smoking, just so you can have a Gauloise or a Gitane at the same time. Roger has been photographing empty cafés for a while now, trying to work out why some are welcoming and some aren't.. (Both M8)

 

sonnar cartwheel

Cartwheel

Okay, so it's a tacky, old-fashioned 'pictorialist' picture that comes perilously close to obeying some of the Rules of Composition: the hub is close to the 'thirds', the plants 'balance'; and a lot relies on contrast of texture.

So? Sometimes you just take pictures for the fun of it -- and the Sonnar is certainly a camera that encourages you.

sonnar lidl trolleys

 

grass stem

Bokeh shots

As we say elsewhere, we are not especially sensitive to the quality of the out-of-focus image, but we know that some people are, so we make an effort to shoot pictures at full aperture and close focusing distances to give some idea of the bokeh of the lenses we test. The focused points are the 'i' in the second trolley and the grass-seeds respectively.

sonnar pyrenees

First snows

We were in the Pyrenees when the first snows fell in 2007. This seems to us to capture rather well the cold, grey bleakness of the onset of winter. Roger used the Leica M8 for this shot.

sonnar st jouin desat

 

 

sonnar man & dog

St Jouin de Marnes

This collegial church, the oldest parts of which date back to the 12th century, is often held up as the finest example of Angevin Gothic in the world, and it is a wonderful piece of architecture, but surprisingly hard to photograph. Roger used the M8 for this shot, then desaturated somewhat in Adobe Photoshop.

 

Museon d'Arlatan, Arles

In early July, Arles is the scene of the Rencontres, the biggest gathering of fine-art photographers in the world. Everyone on the street is carrying a camera. It may be reprehensible, but it's hard not to feel smug when your M8 has a 1,5/50 Sonnar on the front.

sonnar + nokton

Sonnar and Nokton

Here you can see where quite a bit of the money goes: the deeper, ventilated, reverse-angle bayonet hood, the lugs on the aperture ring, the built-in M-mount (the Nokton is Leica screw mount and requires an adapter) plus such details as the IR focusing mark and the engraved focal length on the Sonnar. The pinch-type lens cap is the only thing we don't like about the lens.

The difference in size doesn't look all that big on the page, or on the screen, but when you actually use them, the Sonnar is an awful lot smaller and sweeter-handling.

Go back to First Look

or go to the list of modules

or go to the home page

or support the site with a small donation.

© 2007 Roger W. Hicks