Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4

Tree, Sousse, Tunisia
Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4, 5D MkII, f/1.4

A while back I had a look at the Carl Zeiss 1.7/50 T*, a vintage lens from the days of the Contax RTS. Nowadays Zeiss are great mates with Sony, and produce a range of top-quality autofocus lenses for the Sony Alpha system, as well as a parallel set of manual focus lenses for other lens mounts. From 1973 until 2005 Zeiss was instead great mates with Yashica, and designed lenses for Yashica's upmarket Contax range, although they used the same lens mount as Yashica's cheaper, own-brand cameras. The lenses were all of a high standard and are still desirable today, because they're still good and they can be easily adapted to work on Canon EOS bodies. The 50mm f/1.7 was the entry-level kit lens, although judging by my informal tests it was very sharp.

Tunisia Can Into Space
Same as before, but at f/2.8

The 50mm f/1.4 was the pricier option, and seems to appear in 90% of all Contax RTS product shots on the internet, viz the following, courtesy of the endlessly-handy Flickr megachap Nesster:

Contax RTS - Real Time System

That bunch of lenses on the right would have cost you a pretty penny in 1975, and would probably still set you back a fair amount in 2011. Zeiss still makes a 50mm f/1.4 Planar, although the physical design is slightly different - the modern version has a prominent silver filter thread on the front of the lens, which also serves as a bayonet mount for the lens hood. The modern 50mm f/1.4 is available in a range of contemporary lens mounts, including Canon EOS, Nikon F, and even the old M42 screw mount. Oddly, despite the Zeiss/Sony alliance, there isn't a version for the Sony Alpha, at least not yet. There is a Sony 50mm f/1.4, but it's an old Minolta design.

Here's what my 1.4/50 looks like, resting in front of a group of other 50mm f/1.4 lenses:

It glows red on account of Zeiss' T* multicoating, which the company was and remains very proud of. In the background, an Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.4, an Olympus 50mm f/1.4, and a Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4. All good. The Chinon is the largest and heaviest. The Zeiss lens has an attractive combination of relatively light weight and solid precision that pleases me. It has good manly full aperture stops rather than half-stops, which means that when I go from f/1.4 to f/5.6 I go click-click-click-click instead of click-click-click-click-click-click...was that a click-click or just a click? [Looks at lens] etc fiddlesticks pooh

Judging by the serial number on my lens, and the serial number of the lens in the advert - which is dated 1975 - mine was probably made in 1975, which means that it's older than me. It feels better-made than me, and it's sharper than me. It is my superior in almost every way.

Carl Zeiss operate on a higher plane than most other camera companies, and so they still have the data sheet for the 50mm f/1.4 available on their website, here. I'm not a scientist, but judging by the MTF diagram it should be very sharp at f/5.6, and indeed it is. General internet wisdom seems to have it that the lens is contrasty, with fairly unimpressive bokeh, similar to the Canon 50mm f/1.4 in terms of sharpness (not great wide open; awesome stopped down). The chaps at SLRLensReview had a pop here. There isn't a great deal about it on the internet otherwise, and it tends to be overshadowed in the search results by the modern version.

The logical thing would be for me to compare it with the Zeiss 50mm f/1.7, or the Canon 50mm f/1.4, but I'm not a logical man, I'm a raging beast, and I don't have a Canon 50mm f/1.4. And so I decided to test it against my Canon 50mm f/1.8 MkII, which was to hand. You probably know what this lens is like already. It's good! But the 50mm f/1.7 is better. And, as we shall see, the 50mm f/1.4 is also better.

Here's some barrel distortion, and also some of the ineffable "3d quality" that comes from a combination of wide aperture and high contrast, and also a Gorillapod, slightly bent:

Gorillapod porn. I'm not going to complete that sentence; I'm just putting that idea in your head. Gorillapod porn. I took the photo at a place called Sousse Residence, a cheap-but-cheerful hotel in Sousse. The homepage goes on about an accueil but no matter how hard I looked I couldn't find one. Which is a shame because I could have done with some water. Here's the bokeh, wide open and then f/2.8, Carl at the top and Canon at the bottom:

Both photos appear to have Joel and the Bots from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 sitting at the bottom of the frame, although they're on the wrong side. What has my life come to, that I spend my time writing about blurred photographs of a pair of sheds? How did I fall this far? Still, the framing is different because I shot these hand-held, on a rare sunny day in England in February. The bokeh is basically the same, and not particularly good in either case; Carl looks a bit washed-out and cooler. Take heed before making too much of the colours; there were clouds overhead and the lighting conditions may well have changed from shot to shot. I was paying more attention to the shutter countdown and the wind. Here's a real-world example of the bokeh, which isn't offensively off-putting but is nonetheless not as smooth as it could be:

Cactuses at Sidi Bou Said
f/1.4 again

Here's the same basic scene, middle of the frame, wide open, Carl at the top and Canon below, 100% crop, unsharp mask of 0, 0, 150, Canon 5D MkII:

They both have a typical purply glow. The Zeiss lens seems a bit sharper but it's not really significantly so, albeit that Carl is two thirds of a stop wider, f/1.4 instead of f/1.8. Here's the same at f/2.8, at which point the lenses seem to reach maximal centre sharpness:

Carl is again a bit sharper, although it's not a vast gulf. I won't present any more centre crops because you'd just be looking at the same image over and over again and it would be boring. Here's the corner of an APS-C frame, also wide open:

Carl's extra contrast actually seems to obliterate some of the shadow detail. Here's the extreme corner, and it looks grainy because I've brightened it up and turned down noise reduction as much as possible:

Carl is noticeably better in the extreme corner, although both lenses are fairly blurry. That'll teach you - again - to shoot a distant landscape scene at f/1.4.

Here's the APS-C corner at f/2.8:

Carl's doing pretty well. Here's the extreme full-frame corner at f/2.8:

Carl improves, Canon does not, at least not by much. Let's have a look at f/8:

They're much better and much the same. Here's the corner at f/8:

"After a while all I'm doing is punching wet chips of bone into the floorboards. So I stop." Carl has nothing to be ashamed of. Out of curiosity I shot the same scene at f/11:

The Zeiss lens actually seems to be softer at f/11 than f/8, whereas the Canon lens improves a bit, with the result that the lenses are on roughly a par at that aperture. Both lenses remain a little bit soft in the last hundred pixels or so. Here's a crop from the top-right of the image, also at f/11, showing off the prominent lack of CA:

So, there you have it. Of course, my Canon 50mm has been around, and might have been bashed-up; but Carl is older than me and was mounted on the camera with a cheap eBay C/Y-EOS adapter, so neither of them are operating at their full capacity. Carl is sharper in the middle at wider apertures, and sharper in the corners until f/11; but even so, the Canon lens is very good. There's no shame in losing to Muhammad Ali.

At this point I should insert some pretty pictures of things. But I'm saving up for my next trip abroad, which if all goes well should be Tunisia. A week and a half from now. I booked the trip back in early December, giving no great thought to the political situation there, other than that it was the kind of country where tourists should not talk about politics or interact with the locals. Tourists should instead talk loudly with other tourists about their mortgages, in a land of "beer and bikinis", where prostitution is legal. Probably not so much fun for the locals, but they are not allowed inside the hotel compound, so it doesn't matter. They live their lives of quiet desperation. "Trying to make ends meet / you're a slave to money / then you die".

But on 17 December the police tried to stop a man called Mohamed Bouazizi from making ends meet, and with no future and no way out he took his own life in protest, setting himself on fire in public. For perhaps the first time in history this actually had a practical result; his funeral procession turned into a mass uprising which ousted the president, and that in turn inspired the people of Egypt to do the same, and then the people of Libya, at which point the joy and happiness at watching the plucky North Africans and their protest festivals abruptly ceased, in a barrage of airstrikes and anti-personnel gunfire from anti-aircraft artillery and all the other explosive toys that money can buy.

I dimly remember Colonel Gadaffi and Libya from my childhood, from Love Missile F-111 and the shooting of Yvonne Fletcher and F-15 Strike Eagle which, according to TIME magazine, was released just before the air strikes and consequently benefited from the publicity. "Still, says MicroProse Executive Fred Schmidt, "it's a way to find out what it felt like over Libya, and, as our advertisement says, 'The best part is . . . no one gets hurt.' "" Gadaffi was nobody, and then he was our enemy, and then he may or may not have ordered the Lockerbie bombing - and then suddenly he was our friend, and we weren't supposed to talk about Lockerbie any more, and now he is our enemy again. No longer will world leaders shake his hand and smile whilst doing so, at least not in front of the world's press. What goes on behind closed doors is none of our concern.