When I grew up during the Cold War, every product from the Eastern Bloc was considered junk. Take the Trabant and its 2-stroke engine. While it’s gone on to cult status, it remains a laughably horrible vehicle.
You might think lenses from East Germany’s Carl Zeiss Jena (CZJ) are in the same camp — trendy with a cult following — but they deliver top-tier performance and a pleasing look.
They are for the most part, very affordable, at least at present. That is changing as more photographers become interested in them and discover their performance-to-value ratio.
For me, lens performance is more than the highest sharpness, acutance, and micro contrast. I prize that, but it’s also about the bokeh (the out-of-focus area) and how the lens balances acutance, contrast, and bokeh to deliver a unique rendering. The CZJ lenses have a good balance in this regard.
In this short article, I cover my experience with three East German CZJ lenses:
- In Pentacon Six mount, the Biometar f/2.8 80mm and the Flektogon f/4 50mm
- In Contax RF mount, the Biometar f/2.8 35mm.
Here’s what I cover:
First, the warts
The soft alloys used in the construction of these lenses were designed to cut costs, and the consequence is potentially worn mounts and/or seized focus helicoids. I say potentially, as I’ve had lenses that are just fine, and others that had issues. Cosmetic appearance of the lens is not the best indicator.
The alloys in the Pentacon Six mount lenses are consistently better than the Contax rangefinder mount lenses.
The danger with the Contax mount Biometar is that the all-aluminum construction invites galvanic reaction exhibiting as self-welding of the lens cartridge to the focusing assembly. This can result in super stiff focusing and can be unrepairable. Some lenses have it, some don’t.
The quality control on lens focusing is next: I’ve had one CZJ lens where the focus was improperly set. whether it was factory or reseller-based in origin, I’m not sure. But it was entirely fixable.
That’s it. The optical formulas and coatings (while not modern Zeiss T* level) are well done, and I’ve not seen any issues with flaws (peeling) or soft coatings.
What about the cost?
The Pentacon Six lenses are generally very affordable compared to West German equivalents. It’s interesting that at the time of sale, the CZJ lenses were around 45% of the cost of the West German lenses. That gap is still there but slowly closing today.
The exception is the Contax II mount Biometar 35 f/2.8 which is now more expensive that a Zeiss Option Biogon or the Zeiss 35 Planar, but that’s due to the rarity of having only 2500 CZJ Contax mount Biometars made.
CZJ lenses utilise high-performing designs. The history of the post-World War II split of Carl Zeiss into Carl Zeiss Jena and Zeiss Opton/Zeiss Oberkochen is outside the scope of the article. But it’s worth remembering that Zeiss Jena was the original location of Zeiss.
Sure, many of the lead designers and workers fled the DDR to the Allied sector, but some talent remained in Jena. Since 1997 Carl Zeiss Jena has continued on as Jenoptik.
What about the results?
Contax RF mount Biometar 35 f/2.8
I tested two samples of the Biometar 35mm f2.8 in Contax mount. Both are outstanding. The acutance and micro-contrast make resolving power marginally but observably better than the Post-War (Zeiss Opton) Biogon. The same results occurred against a 1960’s production Soviet Jupiter 12, the Soviet copy of the pre-war Biogon.
I’m very happy with the images the Biometar 35 f/2.8 produces. I appreciate the aluminum construction when I’m hiking in the mountains. It weighs half of its West German brass construction counterpart.
Wide open under bright skies, the Biometar can show slight corner darkening, which goes away quickly by f/4 – 5.6.
Focusing: once I had the lens’ old marine-based lubricants replaced with modern ones, the Contax mount Biometar focus was smooth and pleasant.
Pentacon Six mount Biometar 80 and Flektogon 50
The Pentacon mount Biometar 80 f/2.8 and the Flektogon 50mm are on par with the equivalent genre Zeiss lenses – the C lenses of the Hasselblad system of the 60s/70s.
The aperture clicks don’t quite have the same rock-solid feel and aperture clicks as the West German Zeiss lens, but they are still positive and smooth.
Comparing the Flektogon to the most recent lenses like the 50 f/4 Distagon FLE, the FLE is observably superior, especially in the edges. But is the Flektogon still competent for stunning 30×30 enlargements? Absolutely.
Notably, the aperture of the CZJ lenses produces a round circle, compared to the pentagon-shaped West German aperture. I prefer the out-of-focus bokeh of the CZJ lenses.
To try or not to try?
If you’re a Contax II/ IIa RF fan like me, owning the CZJ Biogon 35mm is a treasured experience using a rare piece of glass. The performance trumps its Zeiss Opton cousins, but it’s not without significant risk mechanically. It is a bit of DDR roulette.
If you’re considering the CZJ Pentacon 6 mount lenses as an alternative to pricier glass, dive in. The results are very satisfying. As for the naysayers on the camera bodies: load the film properly (tight!) and get the body serviced before using. You won’t look back!
Enjoy the journey.
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