Playing with a new (used) lens while I am waiting for Lightroom to chew through 750 files. Hello Contax 28-85mm f3.3-4.

Summer Haze over downtown Austin. From the south side of the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

I am so suggestible. On a whim, earlier this month, I bought a used Contax 50mm f1.7 lens and an inexpensive adapter. I was charmed by the lens's brightness and sharp character and I did what I would guess about 90% of my readers here would do and started looking through Amazon, KEH and the other usual suspects to see what other C/Y (Contax/Yashica) Zeiss lenses might still be circulating out there in the wild. That led me to a "Like New" Contax 28-85mm f3.3-4.0 Vario Sonnar. But I resisted the lure for a few casts....   I went into the research mode (because it's kind of fun, while tinged with anxiety) and started reading whatever I could about the lens. 

According to the wisdom of the web the lens is somewhere on a continuum of "pretty decent" to "omigod!!! If you are even considering it rush out and get it. It will change your life!!!." So, we discount the hysteria at one end and the "meh-ism" at the other end and try to analyze the median results. I was given to believe that the lens (at least a good copy) is sharp throughout the focal range, with a bit (3.5%) of distortion at the wide angle end (simple barrel) and a bit less sharpness at the long end. But then the cosmic marketers conspired with the web writers and I read some stuff about the lens on a site dedicated to people who use Red video cameras. They seem to really like this lens because ---- wait for it ---- it is less contrasty and more organic in its rendering that the current "state of the art lenses."  The Red user writing the review conjectured that the lower contrast goes a long way to providing more usable dynamic range and a softer/gentler roll off to white in the highlights. 

And the hook was set. As I am currently in the mode of getting rid of clutter and useless junk I was torn by my weakness and desire, on one hand, and my downsizing minimalism streak on the other. I vacillated for a while. Finally, one of my friends pointed out the low price and the general parsimonious bent I'd been on lately, vis-a-vis gear, and I pushed the button to make it mine. 

Things rarely work out the way you might want and so the lens did not come in time for yesterday's big shoot, where it would have been tossed right into the deep end of shooting without the due diligence that every professional should practice. (And so I guess things did work out in terms of protecting me from myself...). The lens was sitting at the front door, nicely packed in cardboard and puffy plastic and just waiting for me to excavate it. 

Ben and I unloaded the car, got the mail and, in general wrapped up the working day, and then I sat down at my desk to open the box. The lens was well packed and the camera store that sent it also packed in a lens cleaning cloth and a lollipop. The lens was as advertising and looked brand new. No use marks were visible anywhere and the glass was perfect. How disappointing to get any great new toy at the end of a long working day. There's little or no chance of rushing out to play with it before the euphoria of unpacking wears off....

As a compromise I worked on the image files from yesterday until about ten p.m. last night in order to buy myself so down time this morning. I still needed to get a gallery uploaded and online by the end of the day today but at least I had a running start...

After breakfast I rubbed some sun screen on my face, found a big hat and headed downtown with my latest treasure. Funny, the lens is about 1.5 times as heavy as the camera body I was using; a Sony A7ii. I worried about the lens mount and so, instead of hanging the camera over my shoulder I just left the strap in the car and carried the camera around by the lens. Kinda comfy. 

It's hot and hazy in Austin these days. The sky blues up quickly until mid-afternoon when the clouds build up and threaten rain. I was out on the streets by 8:30am and once again noticed that Austin is an extreme car culture and that our downtown streets look as vacant as the day after the apocalypse, when it comes to pedestrians. It's just not like a real big city where people lope along with their coffee in one hand and their satchels in the other, weaving in and out of a crowd. There's nothing to weave through on our sidewalks and all of the coffees are in the drink holders of the cars stuck in long lines, anxiously trying to get into parking garages and lots. The nice thing is that, unlike NYC, you don't need to pull out of the walking traffic to stop and take a photograph. 

On the other hand you are more or less out of luck if you are hoping to photograph someone interesting on the street. A few midwestern tourists and some homeless guys. But both those sub-genres went out of style years and years ago. I looked in vein for super models, or just regular models and when they never appeared I thought I could even be content photographing someone wearing black and sporting an interesting hat. No luck. So I went back on my promise not to shoot architecture downtown because of my pent up desire to --- play with the new lens.

I was happy and underwhelmed at the same time. The color handling of the lens is superb. Love it. But it's harder to focus accurately than is the 50mm from the same maker. I thought, when first viewing the files on my 27 inch screen that the lens was unsharp. But it's really just my old eyes and my misplaced reliance on in camera focus peaking. All of the images on which I took my time to punch in with focus magnification and really rivet in are gloriously sharp. I guess even the ones that were haphazardly focused with focus peaking are acceptable if I don't peak at 1:1. If I nail focus though I get a lot more excited about it. 

Accurately focused with focus magnification. 

This lens also brought up another subject for me, and that's the indiscriminate use of image stabilization. The Sony A7x cameras with built-in image stabilization do a good job with dedicated lenses. They do a superb job with combinations of image stabilized lens working in tandem with the image stabilized bodies, but I'm not sure the implementation is good with non-system zoom lenses. In the Steady Shot menu on the A7x cameras you have the option, when using older, or non-system lenses, to set the focal range of the lens you intend to use on the camera and that tells the camera and sensor how to approach stabilization. But there is no "automatic" setting for lenses with multiple focal lengths. 

I tried some images with the feature on and they off and I felt that the "off" images, if the shutter speeds were high enough, were a bit sharper than the images created when using the Steady Shot. As though the SS was trying too hard to correct and leaving me with images that were less sharp rather than more. I'm pretty sure that we are all better off using some form of image stabilization at lower shutter speeds, where hand shake and camera movement is most prevalent but I'm equally sure that there is an upper shutter speed level where the curves of image improvement flatten out and fall off. 

The issue did send me to the studio to grab a stout tripod and run a few tests with the SS turned off and the camera focused with precision. That laid to rest any misconceptions I might have had about the sharpness of the system; the real issue is the integration of a much older lens, and lens design, on a very modern camera whose sensor and circuits are expecting something entirely different. 

One of the reasons I had for wanting this lens was my recent total immersion into video. If I could bore down to one persistent issue in using non-dedicated video cameras (hybrid cameras?) to shoot video with it would come down to focusing. While everyone complains about bad sound ruining their productions I think my nemesis is getting to sharp focusing and staying there. If I tried focusing using focus magnification on the Sony cameras the issue (especially with smaller sensor cameras) is that there isn't enough acuity or difference between tones or areas with a 5.8X maximum magnification. 

If I went into still mode and set the focus with a much higher (and more accurate) magnification and then switched back to the video mode one accidental touch of the lens focus ring took me right out of the correct focus and threw me back onto the rocks of uncertainty. What I found when using totally manual focus lenses was that I could do the same exiting and re-entering dance, use the more powerful focus magnification, and switch back to video mode with absolute certainty that the lens would not move with a casual touch of the focusing ring. 

The next factor, still in the realm of video focusing, was the inability with focus by wire lenses to do any sort of focus pull. A focus pull is the pre-meditated, smooth change of focus from a near subject to a far one or vice versa. With "old fashion" mechanical manual focusing systems the ring always turns the same amount when going from near to far or far to near. There is always a hard stop at infinity and at the closest focusing distance. I can rehearse a focusing move by first focusing on the closest subject and then marking the ring with a piece of tape at the exact spot. I can then pre-focus and mark the ring at the focusing distance at which I want to end up. During the actual shoot I can use my two marks to go back and forth between two subjects with every hope of getting both of them in good focus. Can't do that with fly-by-wire. 

So, while I love the 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss lens for the Sonys, it's a nightmare for video focusing. 

There's one more thing that bugs me about modern lenses. Some of them are designed with horrible distortion left intact, which is then masked by in camera lens profiles that use data to correct for output. Yeah. Unless you use one of these modern lenses on a camera that doesn't correct for lens distortion during video. Ouch. The older lenses didn't have the "benefit" of getting corrected by the camera or, even after the fact, in the image processing software. What was the solution? Lens designers spent more time and money making sure the older lenses had much lower levels of distortion. Which means that when you use them on modern cameras there is less need to depend on corrections that may rob one of resolution in the corners as well as lost imaging real estate. 

Finally, older, manual zooms tend to be Parfocal. That is to say that they don't shift focus as they zoom. Very, very few modern, AF zooms are Parfocal. The makers can save money on designing and producing the new lenses because the AF modules focus the lenses after one zooms. Try doing a test on your $2400, miracle 24-70mm Nikon lens. Focus at the long end with a wide aperture. Then either switch to manual or use S-AF and hold the shutter button halfway down as you zoom to the short end. Shoot a photo there and let me know if it is still in sharp focus. Probably not. Yay! Old zooms. 

Obviously I haven't had the lens long enough to shoot important things with it (portraits) or to make any sort of in-depth evaluations. I'm not interested in doing "tests" but I'll be shooting with it as much as I can for the next few weeks we'll dig down and see what this particular lens can do and how it handles on different bodies. One benefit I already know I like is the extra 15mm of reach over that of the 24-70mm lens. I'm always in favor of longer focal lengths and don't really care about those four pesky millimeters of wide at the other end. 

I don't know what this sign really means. Will some product at this store take 30% off my best times and make me that much faster? Will I swim up to 30% of my body fat off? (At which point I would be dead). Or is it some misguided advertising message that supposes people will make the jump to understanding that something in the store having to do with swimming is now 30% off. I had ambiguity in advertising. I don't think it is cute....

Look. There's flare. You would flare too if I pointed you into a mirrored reflection of the sun.

All skies "as shot" no blue-hancements were made.

If this lens pans out to be as good as the 50mm f1.7 then I'm hooked on old Zeiss lenses and will begin foraging for them. If it's a keeper I might also invest in a higher quality adapter; if there is one. I'm okay with this one but I've been trained to believe that more expensive ones are better....

That's it.


Michael Matthews said...

Looks good to me. I guess "parfocal" is the characteristic that could prove most helpful in video production. Too bad you can't adapt one of the old 12-120 Angenieux zooms to this use. The penalty in weight and size would be too much, even if there were a way to adapt a lens made for 16mm film to the sensor size of your Sony cameras. It was nice, though, to be able to zoom all the way in....focus...and then know that the subject would remain in focus no matter what changes might follow.

Robert Hudyma said...

How does this lens compare to the Nikkor 24-50mm? Looking at these photos, the results seem similar those you made with the Nikkor zoom.

EdPledger said...

Don't have the Zeiss, but do have the Yashica ML 28-85 3.5-4.5. Close focus with macro ring, sort of big and weighty for sure. My notes say it's pretty good. Re the adapters, some of the cheapies I have found simply do not work at all with certain CY lenses. So far the one I would recommend is the K&F Concept adapter, snug fit, inexpensive but apparently well made.

bpr said...

I'm with you on the xtra millimetres, Kirk, 28-85 is pretty much all that is needed for a walk around. The Zeiss is a very good lens of its type, I think, Kirk. Lower contrast than the Planar you have and with a particularly lovely colour rendering with subtle transitions in low light. I'd recommend you get a hood on it at the wide end as it can flare like crazy.

If you do get the Contax bug I can also highly recommend the 60mm Makro Planar C, 85/2.8 Sonnar. I would never sell my 18 & 25 Distagons or 35 PC-Distagon, but they are not without faults and - wild guess - may not be the type of lenses you would be most likely to favour ;)