Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnor 180mm f2.8 and the Fuji GFX 50s
When full frame mirrorless digital cameras started being manufactured a few years ago, it breathed new life into a vast amount of vintage film camera lenses. This was expanded when Fuji released the affordable GFX 50s medium format mirrorless camera. There are many pros and cons to using vintage lenses on modern digital cameras which I won’t go into here, but a separate post on that topic is coming.
One of these vintage lenses is the Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnor 180mm f2.8. The lens I tested has the Pentacon Six mount. It is the most modern version of the lens, therefore it has multi coating. The older versions only had a single layer or no coating. This lens is considered by many to be the crown jewel of Pentacon 6 Carl Zeiss lenses and an amazing portrait lens.
The viewpoint of this review is based on real world experience of using this lens mounted on the Fuji GFX 50s for everyday photography situations. I’m not going to go into MTF charts, perfect scenarios in the studio, etc. I want to provide a review of how my copy of the lens handled while using it.
Carl Zeiss Jena DDR And The Pentacon Six Mount
The Carl Zeiss Jena DDR lenses have a lot of history. After World War II the Carl Zeiss lens factory, located in Jena, was located in East Germany. Therefore the company started making lenses for the 6×6 Praktisix (Later named Pentacon 6). This camera was a medium format film camera with a square format. The Carl Zeiss factory made six different lenses at focal lengths from 50mm through 300mm for the Pentacon Six mount (I also reviewed the Carl Zeiss Jena 80mm). These lenses are extremely well made and are known to have the amazing Carl Zeiss optical quality. More detailed historical information can be found here http://www.zachhorton.com/academia/the-pentacon-6-lens-hit-list/.
Enough of the history, lets get into the lens review.
The Lens –
The Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 180mm lens is built like a tank, or at least it feels like it. It uses a lot of metal in the construction. Let there be no question, this lens is large and heavy! I would expect the size and weight due to the lens being f2.8. That aperture at 180mm requires a lot of glass and heft for a medium format lens. The filter ring size for this lens is 86mm which is pretty large. My copy has a very smooth and easy to slide aperture ring. Focusing is smooth and firm. It is great for small focusing adjustments. My version is also the multicoated version which is said to be most recent and highest quality. I’m not sure because I have never shot with one of the earlier versions, so I don’t have anything to compare to.
As with all these vintage lenses, the Jena 180mm is all manual. For a lot of people, this eliminates these lenses before they even try them. For those of us that don’t mind manually focusing and controlling the aperture, this can actually be a joy. I use manual focus a lot for my photography, so it does not bother me in the least. The focusing throw is long and smooth, and even better than a lot of modern lenses. The Jena Sonnar also has another interesting feature. The focusing ring is at the end farthest away from the camera. More on this later.
- 86mm filter ring
- 8 aperture blades with 5 elements in 3 groups
- Minimum focusing distance of 2.2 meters (7.2 feet)
- Weight is 1.4 kg (3.1 lbs)
Overall this is a solid feeling lens with a lot of weight. It feels high quality holding it.
Mounted To The Modern Fuji GFX 50s –
To mount this lens to the GFX 50s requires an adapter. The Pentacon Six to GF adapter I use is made by Kipon, and it works really well. Even though this lens is super heavy, once it is mounted on the Fuji it feels very balanced. It is surprisingly easy to carry around and shoot with even though with it’s hefty size and weight . Beware though, it does draw attention based on the size. It is not the best lens and camera combination if you are trying to be inconspicuous.
How the Carl Zeiss Lens Performed –
The image quality this lens produces does not disappoint. I’ve had this lens for almost a year, so I have used it on a few assignments. It always produces optically great images. The f2.8 aperture produces razor thin depth of field. Stopping down the lens to f5.6 or f8 and the lens really shines for portraits or as a medium telephoto lens for many applications. This lens was made for the 6X6 format, so the image circle more than covers the Fuji GFX Sensor. Therefore, the corner of the images are are sharp and there is no vignetting.
The image above was shot with the camera on a tripod, f16, ISO 100, and the lens focused close to infinity. It is a great example of how sharp this lens can be. Note the detail of the steeple in the crop. It has so much detail you can see the bolts being used in the supports for the roof. At this distance and cropped in so much, I am pleasantly surprised to be able to see this much detail.
The goose above is another example of how sharp this lens is when mounted on the Fuji medium format camera. The camera was handheld for this shot, and even with the heft of the lens produced great clarity. Notice the crispness of the eye and beak in the cropped imaged. This is also a good time to point out the amazing bokeh this lens produces. It is super creamy and very much what I would expect from a CZ lens. The image was shot at ISO 400. However, there is next to no noise in the background.
The Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f2.8 For Portraits –
How does this lens do for portraits? Since it is considered to be one of the best portrait lenses ever made for a medium format camera, how does it fare in the real world? It handles amazing is the easy way to say it.
This portrait shows just how amazing this lens does for portraits. This was in the studio. It used 3 strobes. There has been minimal post processing done to this image. That is to say, it was slightly sharpened, converted to black and white, and cropped square. You can see the sharpness of the lens, but also the creaminess quality as well. That is super pleasing for portraits and something you do not see in modern lenses typically. This portrait was cropped to a square format to pay tribute to the the Pentacon Six square format.
Below you can see a crop of the crop of the eye, which shows the sharpness and creaminess of the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f2.8. Here we see the detail in the eye and skin, but is not overwhelmingly crisp. This is great for natural looking portraits and not needing to smooth the skin. Thank you to artist Teale Hatheway for sitting for me for this sample image. Starting with a portrait this detailed allows for a lot of flexibility in post to do anything you would want with it.
The self portrait below used low key, split lighting. As a result, the portrait displays the lenses ability to really create a moody portrait with great contrast and shadow detail.
The color this lens produces is outstanding. It is exactly what I would expect from a Carl Zeiss lens. The image below was captured in mid day, harsh light. However, the colors of the signs on the side of the building are spot on to what exists to the human eye. Super impressed with the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm. Similarly, the Fuji GFX handled the lighting well also.
Below is another image that shows off the color this lens produces. These geese were really polite to let me use them as models. As a result I was able to get close to them and get some great images. You can see here the green grass and natural colors of the geese pop. This is also a great example of being able to hand hold this lens and camera combination and get great shots.
Back Lighting And Lens Flare –
While shooting this lens I have not had any issues with lens flare. The multicoating seems to be doing it’s job very well. I will add here, that I have not gone out of my way to try to create lens flare either. Most of the time I shoot this lens it is in the studio for portraits or product shots, therefore lens flare isn’t something I even think about.
One thing I was able to do at the park, while I was shooting for this review, was to shoot towards a heavily backlit scene to see how the lens would handle the back lighting. There was a bell in an arch with the sun coming through it. The lens and camera seemed to handle it well. As a result the image turned out pretty well given the lighting condition. Typically I would not shoot into this much light, and definitely would not recommend it, but it’s good to know the Jena 180mm can do a good job handling it. The below image is the result after increasing the shadows and decreasing the highlights in post processing.
Some Things That Aren’t Great –
As with everything, nothing is perfect and that includes the Jena 180mm. While the Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm does many things well, I did find a couple things that made this lens tricky to shoot with.
First, was the fact that the focusing ring was at the end of the lens away from the camera. This wasn’t just awkward to focus. More importantly I had to make sure I wasn’t hitting the aperture ring while focusing. Given that the aperture is manual on vintage lenses and does not show when you look in the view finder, it is easy to be shooting at f16 instead of f5.6 where you want to be. Similarly, it could be any combination of not what you want if you aren’t careful. This could mean missing a shot you really wanted due to depth of field. This issue happened most hand holding the camera and shooting images of the birds that weren’t sitting still.
Next, is depth of field and focusing. There were quite a few times where I missed the manual focus. Especially on the moving subjects while using a shallow depth of field. The image below is an example of this. Note that foot is in focus and the eye isn’t. It’s a good reminder to use an aperture with more depth of field for moving subjects when using a vintage lens on a modern digital camera to make sure you don’t miss a shot. It’s also important to remember that manually focusing on moving subjects requires shooting more to get more keeper images.
Lastly, is skin tones for portraits. I notice that skin tones tend to lean a little red. The file is easy to fix in post using a custom color profile. I’m not sure if it is just my copy of the lens, my camera settings needing tweaked a little or what. It is noticeable enough that I have to take the extra step of the custom color profile in post. As a result, this does create a need for extra post work with the custom profile. The image below is a great example of this. This is straight out of the camera with only sharpening.
None of these issues stop me from using this lens. It’s important to point out the flaws I encountered though. Photographers know everything is about trade offs and balance when it comes to gear.
- Image quality is outstanding.
- Color rendition is amazing.
- This lens has the sharpness and creaminess combination that is great for portraits.
- The price is right. My multicoated copy cost me less than $300 US and is in near mint condition.
- This lens is heavy and large.
- All manual. Focusing, aperture all done manually.
- Awkward focusing ring location.
The Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 180mm f2.8 lens definitely gets pulled out of my bag a lot. On medium format digital, this focal length works great for portraits and studio work. This lens also shines when used on a tripod for intimate landscapes and urban images. To date Fuji does not have anything close to this focal range and an f2.8 aperture. The closest they have is the GF 250mm f4, which still feels like a very different lens.
The images this lens produce are sharp and colorful. They have the Zeiss feel and quality that people shooting Zeiss look for.
I really like and use this lens. I highly recommend it to others, as long as you don’t mind a manual lens. For the price, this lens is hard to beat. The above mentioned Fuji GF 250 is trending at $3300 for comparison.
This is the 2nd of the 6 Carl Zeiss Jena lenses made with the Pentacon Six mount that I have had the pleasure to review. Both lenses have been superb. The Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f2.8 is located here.
Additional Images –
Don’t forget to look at the images on my site in the galleries starting at: https://mjvphoto.com/the-art/. Hopefully you find some of them inspirational for your own photography adventures, or maybe you find an image you want to call your own.