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Thread started 25 Apr 2011 (Monday) 10:45
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Carl Zeiss Contax Vari-Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.4: My Review

 
cptrios
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Apr 25, 2011 10:45 |  #1

So, I've just realized that I now own three manual-focus lenses that happen to be among the most asked-about by dSLR owners looking for value outside of the AF world. Since there aren't any particularly comprehensive reviews for any of them, I thought I'd take a crack at a few myself. This will eventually (read: hopefully by tomorrow) include the Pentacon Pre-set 135mm f/2.8 "Bokeh Monster," the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AI-S, and the Zeiss Contax Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.4. WARNING: these reviews are utterly unscientific and, most likely, quite terrible.

The Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.4 (C/Y Mount)

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Introduction

This lens had been off my radar until late last year, when the buzz about it appeared to pick up a bit. If you're looking around the internet at C/Y lenses, the ones you're most likely to see talked about are the 35/1.4, 50/1.7, and this one. Many posts/articles/cave paintings portray the 35-70 as some sort of "holy grail of standard zooms," and the price has recently skyrocketed accordingly. There are dedicated threads on several major photography forums, and plenty of info out there (including AngryCorgi's lovely mini-review on this site)

But cptrios, if so much has already been said about this lens, why bother reviewing it? Well, one could just as easily ask "why bother evolving from a single-celled organism," couldn't they?

I bought this because, after upgrading from a 40d to a 5d2 and going out of my way to replace my Tamron 17-50 with a 24-105L, I was starting to feel really...I don't know, dissatisfied having an "easy" all-purpose zoom attached to such a fine piece of photographic equipment. I toyed with going to an all-prime lineup, most likely consisting of a 28, 35, 85, and 135 - but in the end I couldn't bring myself to go completely zoomless. And when I read about this one, it seemed to match my criteria perfectly. So, did it?

1. Operation and Handling

• Obviously the key question one would about this lens is the push-pull zoom. I reckon that this is an incredibly subjective feature, so all I can really give is my own opinion: it's pretty nice. It's very finely geared and gives just enough resistance to prevent accidental zooming while turning the focus ring. The idea of pushing forward to zoom out takes a bit of getting used to, but overall I really like it because it makes me feel somehow more involved in the shot than turning a ring would. My one gripe is that fully extended, the aperture ring is far enough away from the zoom ring that it takes a quick hand movement to switch between the two. However, I can't really imagine many situations in which you'd be using this particular lens where that would be a serious problem.

• Build quality is superb, as you'd expect from Zeiss. In my opinion it's a very attractive lens, with smooth surfaces and a surprisingly small, sleek design.

• I can say, without hyperbole, that the zoom ring is the very best I've ever used. It is perfectly damped (better than my old Takumars, though in some cases not by an enormous amount) - not to quick, not too slow, and just absolutely buttery smooth. I find myself turning it absent-mindedly when the camera's hanging at my side, just because it's such a pleasant thing to do.

• At 35mm (and only 35mm) you can switch to macro mode by turning the focus ring past the minimum limit. It gets much tougher to turn at that point, which makes precise focusing easier. For reference, I'd say that MFD in regular mode is around 2 feet, and in macro mode around 3 inches.

2. Color Rendition, Flare, Vignetting, etc

• Color rendition - Very good. It often produces noticeably warmer images than my other glass, and somehow always desirably so.

• Flare - Flare performance is quite good as far as I can tell. You don't even lose very much contrast with the sun in the frame. (I'll put up a sample if requested.)

• Vignetting - Mild wide open, gone stopped down. If anyone wants, I'll take some vignetting sample shots later...but not right now.

• CA - CA is fairly good, with a more noticeable presence in OOF areas. Purple fringing is very impressively low, only showing up near extreme highlights, and even then in very small amounts.

3. Sharpness

Whew. Easily the sharpest lens I've got, and that's really saying something. It's sharp enough that it frequently gives the 5d2's sensor issues with moire. I'm going to include more pictures than usual here, just because I'm so impressed.

First: 35mm, f/3.4, f/5.6, f/8, center crops on top, extreme lower right corner at bottom.
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Center sharpness is excellent right from wide open, with that classic Zeiss microcontrast improving on stopping down. Corners are "eh" at f/3.4, but great at f/8.

Second: 50mm, same layout.
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(Yes, yes, we've been over the framing issue.) We can pretty much say the same thing as we did at 35mm, though the corner crops are generally better at this FL. From other images, I can say that corners are even better at f/8 than this picture shows.

Third: 70mm, same layout. Note: this was taken on a different day from the others, and in not-so-great conditions, so take it with a grain of salt.
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70mm definitely doesn't come off as stunningly sharp as the other two FLS (though still very, very good). For some reason I haven't been able to squeeze a perfect result out of this FL in this particular test. So I decided to include a few extra shots that are a bit more "real world," if still mere test-shots. Each includes 2 100% crops from interesting spots.

70mm f/8
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50mm (at least I think it was 50mm...am I not the greatest reviewer in history?) f/8
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Check out the moire on that roof.

35mm f/8
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And a macro shot at 35mm f/8
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I really can't imagine a lens being any sharper than this. What's more is that the microcontrast this thing delivers makes images very sharpening-friendly, and in the short time I've had it I've been frequently shocked by how much texture has "appeared" after a bit of USM.

Up next: Bokeh & Hipster Appeal

Fuji X100 / Sony NEX-7 / Contax G 45mm f/2 / The ghosts of 3 Canon bodies past / A meagre amount of talent
My weak lil' 500px (external link)

  
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cptrios
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Apr 25, 2011 10:46 |  #2

4. Bokeh

Obviously one isn't going to expect a whole lot of background blur from an f/3.4 standard zoom, but bokeh is nevertheless quite important here. My biggest problem with my old Tamron 17-50 was its often-nasty bokeh, which occasionally flat-out ruined shots (for me, at least).

Overall, I would rate the 35-70's bokeh as substantially above that of the aformentioned Tamron and my former 24-105L. It is firmly in the "very good for a standard zoom" category. It's definitely not perfect, though. Here are some samples:

This one is at 50mm, with focus about 3ft away. Most lenses would perform well in this situation, and this one is no different. First half is at f/3.4, second is f/8.

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This is at 70mm, and the description is more or less identical to the above.
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Here's one at 35mm in what I would call "the average poor bokeh scenario," with focus at about 9 or 10ft and foliage in the background. First half is wide open, second is, I believe, at f/5.6.
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And finally, here's an odd "absolute worst case scenario" shot that shows some odd, donut-shaped highlights at 35mm (I don't remember what f-stop). I really have no idea what led to this, as I don't even remember taking the picture...but it's the only one that even remotely looks this way. Worth noting is that non-highlight bokeh is still pretty nice.
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Interestingly, if you were to print this at 8x12, you'd never notice those donuts. This is therefore an excellent example of my general verdict on this lens' bokeh: "Well above average at normal sizes, but doesn't always hold up to close scrutiny." I give it a rather good grade overall.

NOTE: A few of these pictures have noticeable vignetting along the bottom of the frame. This is due to a 5d2-specific (I think) phenomenon in which, when shooting a lens with a non-chipped adapter in Live View mode (with LV off it's fine), there's some sort of timing miscommunication that sets the second shutter curtain off a touch early. Nothing to do with the lens!

5. Hipster Appeal
This section is for those of you who are on the verge of being kicked out of Williamsburg for using *gasp* a digital camera. It's common knowledge that if you must use a dSLR instead of a Holga or an old Kiev rangefinder, the only way to maintain your credibility is to mount a "vintage" lens on it. So, is this the one for you?

Pros:
• It's pretty.
• The push-pull zoom is unique and eye-catching.
• It's smaller than most standard zooms and therefore looks interesting.

Cons:
• Isn't chrome
• Made by a famously expensive manufacturer
• Is a zoom

Conclusion in next post...

Fuji X100 / Sony NEX-7 / Contax G 45mm f/2 / The ghosts of 3 Canon bodies past / A meagre amount of talent
My weak lil' 500px (external link)

  
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cptrios
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Apr 25, 2011 10:48 |  #3

Conclusion

Handling - 4/5 Shandlings. "Very Good"

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Color Rendition, etc. - 4/5 Oversaturated Peter Lik Heads. "Very Good"
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Sharpness - 5/5 Sharpes. "Spectacular"
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Bokeh - 3/5 Gin & Tonics. "Above Average" (Note: this would be higher if I were to compare it only to other zooms)
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Hipster Appeal - 3/5 Men's skinny jeans. "Midnight showing of 'The Room,' circa 2006 (or now, but only if attended double-ironically)"
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Overall - If you like manual-focus lenses and you've got the money for it (prices are sadly getting crazy), you have absolutely no reason not to buy this. It's a joy to use, super sharp, and even though the zoom range is small, it's right in the breadbasket for casual use (and, being not particularly into UWAs, perfect for my personal landscape applications). The push-pull zoom might but some people off, but even they will come to like it. It helps to treat it like a Vario-Elmar-type 3-prime combo - t's got the IQ to back it up, too.

I'm not sure how long I'll own this, as an all-prime lineup may indeed be my destiny, but at the moment it's absolutely shaping up to be my favorite lens. Once I get an AF-Confirm adapter for it, it'll be pretty much perfect. There's just something really nice about how involved it makes you feel in the picture-taking process...I can't really put my finger on it.

Anyway, go buy one. I'll sell you mine for $1000!

Fuji X100 / Sony NEX-7 / Contax G 45mm f/2 / The ghosts of 3 Canon bodies past / A meagre amount of talent
My weak lil' 500px (external link)

  
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Apr 25, 2011 11:08 as a reply to  @ cptrios's post |  #4

^^^^^ :rolleyes:

Here ya go :

Cy to EOS AF confirm adapter:

http://cgi.ebay.com …enses&hash=item​1c12a3ccbb (external link)

Metal Hood + Cap:

http://cgi.ebay.com …ain_0&hash=item​2eb43c65a0 (external link)

Regards, ;)


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Apr 25, 2011 11:13 as a reply to  @ Silverfox1's post |  #5

Here below FYI & others is a reply i recently received from the Zeiss Historical Society in regards to production batches of the CY 35-70/f3.4 Macro Zoom:

---------------

There is a book regarding the serial numbers of Zeiss Oberkochen lenses whether made in Germany or Japan relating to serial numbers. It is written by Hartmut Thiele and is supposedly based on factory records. It does not accurately define whether they were definitively made in Germany or by Tamioka (a Yashica company) in Japan. There seem to be two groups of manufacturing records as follows:

The Vario Sonnar F/3.4 35 -70 mm based on a design from April 26, 1982 The first batch is from serial number 7,015,569 to 7,025,540 and was initiated in 1986 for a total of 9,970 examples. The second batch was from 7,228,451 to 7, 238,450 for 10,000 examples dating from 1994. The second batch was totally from Japan and my example from the first batch was also from Japan.

So I cannot accurately give you a date when the lens was manufactured but can only state when the batches were initiated. I highly doubt if they were all done at the same time but the serial numbers were allocated during the years noted.

More than this, I am not able to tell you except that they all fit onto the Contax Yashica bayonet mount.


Larry Gubas
Zeiss Historica

On Tue, Apr 12, 2011 at 7:33 AM, <jfalks@aol.com (external link)> wrote:

Myself and several friends have purchased the vintage CY 35-70 F3.4 zoom lens and nobody knows when this lens was 1st produced or the serial numbers in relation to the various production year models. Can you supply me with this data for informational purposes? Thank you very much for a reply as i have not been able to find this data anywhere.

Regards, Ron

---------------

Regards, ;)



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cptrios
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Apr 25, 2011 11:18 |  #6

Interesting stuff from Zeiss, Silverfox. Mine was definitely made in Japan. It's very cool that people at the Historical Society will respond to e-mails like that.

(By the way, I did in fact order an AF-confirm adapter, but all signs point to its having been lost in the mail. So I ordered a non-confirm one because I didn't feel like spending a big extra chunk of money. I'm strongly considering pulling the chip off of my F-mount adapter!)


Fuji X100 / Sony NEX-7 / Contax G 45mm f/2 / The ghosts of 3 Canon bodies past / A meagre amount of talent
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cptrios
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Apr 27, 2011 15:10 |  #7

And now for something actually useful!

Comparisons with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 "Sigmalux"

Before my Vario-Sonnar arrived, my Sigmalux was on my camera for approximately 80% of the time. It's a fantastic, super-sharp lens with amazing bokeh, and as a "normal" prime it's got a lot of general usefulness. However, while using it has gotten me addicted to the ability to open up to f/1.4, I'm almost always saying to myself "boy, I wish this were a bit wider" or "boy, I wish this were a bit longer." I've never once said "boy, this is just right."

A 30-year-old zoom probably shouldn't be able to compete with a modern prime, but, while it's obviously handicapped in the aperture and bokeh departments, the Zeiss at 50mm completely holds its own against the Sigmalux.

General note: Zeiss and Sigma appear to have slightly different definitions of 50mm, and, particularly at f/5.6, of aperture.

So, here are three comparison images. In all three, the Sigmalux is on the left and the Zeiss is on the right, with a centerish crop on top and the extreme right corner on the bottom.

f/3.4 (f/3.5 for the Sigmalux)

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One would expect the Sigmalux to win here, as it's stopped down substantially and the Zeiss is wide open. As you can see, the Sigma does indeed win in terms of center sharpness and contrast, but the Zeiss is markedly better in the corners (corners not being the Sigma's strong suit). Also, notice the warmer tones of the Zeiss that are common throughout each comparison.

f/5.6
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The Zeiss leapfrogs the Sigma here. Corners are still better, and center sharpness and contrast have caught up.

f/8
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The Sigmalux's corners have sharpened up, but they're still not as good as the Zeiss'. Another win for the zoom.

All in all, a very impressive and slightly surprising performance (though not so surprising if you listen to the Zeiss' hype). I'm starting to feel like the Sigma might be on its way out for a fast 85...

Fuji X100 / Sony NEX-7 / Contax G 45mm f/2 / The ghosts of 3 Canon bodies past / A meagre amount of talent
My weak lil' 500px (external link)

  
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Lynn ­ Ross
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Apr 29, 2011 19:08 as a reply to  @ cptrios's post |  #8

Boy! You two both have too much knowledge on this lens, my question is about before you got the adapter how did you mount the lens on your 5dII, I've been looking for one of these for ever and the price is not right :) so far, but I'll keep my eyes peeled and looking
Thanks for any info
Lynn




  
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