Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnor 300mm f4 and the Fuji GFX 50s
The possibility of using a modern digital medium format camera like the Fuji GFX 50s with almost any vintage medium format lens ever made is exciting and just makes my creative juices start to flow. One of these vintage lenses is the Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnor 300mm f4. There were so many legacy lenses produced. Therefore, their are many to choose from. 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.
The Jena DDR 300mm 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 is the 3rd Carl Zeiss Jena DDR lens I have reviewed. So far, these lenses have all been outstanding optically, well constructed, and super fun to create photographs with.
The viewpoint of this review is based on the 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 medium, square format, 6×6 Praktisix (Later named Pentacon 6). Given the size, the image circle of these lenses more than cover the sensor of the of the Fuji GFX cameras. 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 and the Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm). These lenses are extremely well made, and known to have the amazing Carl Zeiss optical quality people look for in Zeiss. More detailed historical information can be found here http://www.zachhorton.com/academia/the-pentacon-6-lens-hit-list/.
Lets get into the lens review.
The Lens –
The Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 300mm f4 is a beast of a lens. It uses a lot of metal in the construction, and mine weighs 4.5 pounds, according to my scale. Let there be no question, this lens is large and heavy! The f4 aperture at 300mm requires a lot of glass for a medium format lens. Therefore, the image below was created to compare the Jena 300mm to other 500mm lenses to really show just how large it is.
Everything Else –
My copy has a very tight and easy to adjust aperture ring. The focusing ring is smooth and firm. Therefore, it is great for small focusing adjustments. My version is multicoated signified by the “MC”. Consequently, that means this was the most recent version of the lens. This lens came in earlier versions, but it is said that the image quality was the same for all of them. The last version just decreased the weight to make it easier to move around with. I’m not sure how this one compares to the earlier versions because I have never shot with one of them.
As with all these vintage lenses, the Jena 300mm is all manual. This eliminates these lenses for many people 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
- 224mm in length
- Minimum focusing distance of 4 meters (13.1 feet)
- Weight is 2.1 kg (4.5 lbs)
- Came with a leather case and 95mm lens hood
This lens is solid and hefty. It feels very high quality when holding it.
Mounted To The Modern Fuji GFX 50s –
An adapter is needed to mount the vintage lenses to the modern, mirrorless, digital cameras, like the Fuji GFX 50s. I use the Pentacon Six to GF adapter made by Kipon, and it works well enough. I wish the Kipon adapter locked in some way when the lens was mounted to it, but that is for a different review. Even though this lens is super heavy, once mounted on the Fuji it feels feels fairly balanced when holding it. I did use the lens hand held for some of the portraits. However, I do really prefer it mounted on a tripod. Be aware, this lens/camera draws lots of 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 Carl Zeiss Jena DDR 300mm f4 mounted to the GFX 50s does not disappoint. The image quality this lens produces is what you would expect from a Carl Zeiss lens. I will add though, that there is a learning curve to shooting with this lens. It is a long focal length for a medium format camera. The 13 plus feet for minimal focusing takes a bit to get used too. At f4 this lens produces sharp images. At f5.6 the lens really comes to life with sharpness. It produces a shallow depth of field, and the micro-contrast Zeiss is known for. 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 of the female mallard shows just how sharp this lens can be, and how tight the depth of field is when shooting with larger apertures. It was shot with the camera on a tripod, f5.6, ISO 800, and 1/3800 of a second shutter. Notice how sharp the eye, beak, and head feathers are. It is super exciting to see this level of detail. Also see the tail feathers in the image on the right. This shows just how shallow the depth of field can be.
The mallard above again shows just how sharp the Zeiss Jena 300m can be. At ISO 800 the GFX and this lens still produce amazing color and provide enough light to dramatically increase the shutter speed that helps capture moving subjects. This image also displays the very pleasing bokeh this lens produces. The water behind the bird is super creamy and very much what I would expect from a CZ lens.
The Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 300mm f4 For Portraits –
How does this lens handle portraits? Given that the lens is really a niche, super long focal length lens for portraits, it better handle well. After shooting with this lens, I would say portraits are definitely its area of strength.
The above image shows just how amazing this lens does for portraits. This was a very simple single strobe setup with a curtain for a backdrop. There has been minimal post processing done to this image. That is to say, it was slightly sharpened and converted to black and white. You can see the sharpness of the lens, and the micro contrast of the subject bouncing away from the background. Even shot at f8, the background becomes soft really brings your eye to the subject.
Below you can see a crop of the eye, which shows the sharpness and creaminess of the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 300mm f4. 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. There is still enough detail though to see a random eyelash sitting right below Ted’s eye. Thank you to artist Ted Meyer for sitting 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 full length portrait below was shot on location. Again, this lens and camera combination show they are very capable and produce sharp portraits that separate the subject from the background.
The colors produced by the Zeiss Jena 300mm and Fuji GFX are amazing. In short, it is everything I would expect from a Carl Zeiss lens. The image below was captured in harsh light and heavy shadows in the background. However, the colors of the bird of paradise flower are spot on to what I saw when I was standing there. This is also a good time to point out the beautiful bokeh in the background again. The background of multiple palm fronds from multiple palm tress mostly goes away and sets up the eye to focus on the flower.
Below is another image that shows off the color achieved by this lens, camera combination. The mandarin duck was in heavy shade, and produced an underexposed image. After editing and cropping the image the colors of this beautiful duck were able to pulled out of the shadow. Simply amazing to be able to recover those colors and detail from the shadows.
Some Things That Weren’t Great –
Lens Flare –
While shooting this lens I have not come across many issues with lens flare. Therefore, the multicoating seems to be doing it’s job very well. That said, I have only shot issue lens 1 time without the lens hood attached and I learned my lesson not to do it again.
The below image was a great example of the lens creating flare, but it was my own fault. The image was captured without the using lens hood. Once I put the hood on I did not have any other problems. Therefore, this taught me to not use this lens without the lens hood attached.
The Rest of the Nit Picking –
Nothing is perfect and that includes the Jena 300mm. While the Carl Zeiss Jena 300mm does some things really well, I did find a few things that made this lens tricky to shoot with. To clarify, there were a couple one thing that I found that this lens actually does poorly at as well.
First, thing that was difficult with this lens was the focusing distance. At over 13 feet, you need a lot of space to get enough distance away from your subject to focus the lens. I’ve had multiple people that have commented on this while using the lens for portraits. As a result, portraits can feel less personal and maybe even make the subject fell a little uncomfortable. For comparison, the minimum focusing distance for Fuji GF 250mm is only 5.5 feet. To sum up, that is a huge difference.
Next, is shooting in shade. This lens requires a lot of light when you start photographing a moving subject. Below the head is blurred and the composition is all wrong (the bird is too high in the frame). To sum up, this all due to the fact the duck is moving and the shutter speed is too slow. I could have increased the ISO to squeeze out a higher shutter. As a result, the higher ISO would introduce more digital noise. Therefore, this lens and camera combination is probably not ideal for wildlife photography.
Lastly, is how this lens handled at f11 and beyond. This lens has aperture settings all the way up to f45, but that doesn’t mean mounted on the Fuji GFX 50s the images will be sharp. The image below shows how at f16 the detail this lens produces really starts dropping off. This is partially expected due to reciprocity, but it was amazing with this lens. Maybe it is just my copy. The sweet spot for the lens seems to be 5.6 through f8, and f4 is surprising sharp for an f4 lens. Therefore, I will not be using this lens for any images where I want a lot of depth of field. To really see the sharpness difference, check out the same crop from the Carl Zeiss Jena DDR 180mm review.
None of these issues will 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. Consequently, it is good to know what gear is good for what situations though.
- Image quality at f4 through f8 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 $200 US and is in mint condition.
- At 13.1 feet for minimum focusing distance you have to be a long way from your subject. Difficult to shoot a tight portrait even.
- This lens is heavy and large. I really did prefer it mounted on a tripod even for portraits using strobes.
- All manual. Focusing, aperture all done manually.
- Not great at f11 and beyond.
Final Thoughts –
I found there was definitely a learning curve to using a 300mm focal length on medium format and definitely had to adjust to the focusing distance specific to this lens. If you do decide to try this lens be patient with it, it will reward you in the end.
The Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 300mm f4 lens will not get pulled out of my bag on a regular basis. This specialty lens is great for studio and on location portraits where you really want a super shallow depth of field, and have the room to get way far away from your subject. As a result, I will definitely keep the lens for those rare times I need it. Just because the results are so good.
The images this lens produce are sharp and colorful. They have the Zeiss feel and quality that people shooting Zeiss look for.
I really wanted to like this lens more than I did. I fell in love with it’s little brother the Jena 180mm f2.8, and hoped for the same result here. Unfortunately, I only liked this lens. It seemed too short of a focal length for the focusing distance which made it a one trick pony for portraits. I highly recommend it to others, if you want a long lens to shoot portraits with though.. For the price, this lens is impossible to beat. The Fuji GF 250 is really it’s competitor, but is trending at $3300 for comparison.
This is the 3rd of the 6 Carl Zeiss Jena lenses made with the Pentacon Six mount I have had the pleasure to review. So far all the lenses have been superb. The Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f2.8 is located here or the Carl Zeiss Jena DDR 180mm here.
Maybe you are looking for a longer telephoto lens. If so, check out the blog post about the Pentacon 500mm f5.6.
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.