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A Litte Bit of Zeiss is Nice
A great new use for Zeiss' Contax lenses

By Allan Weitz

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Carl Zeiss, the legendary German optics manufacturer, will soon begin shipping the first of a series of Zeiss lenses in a Nikon F mount. With Contax now gone from the scene, the folks at the Carl Zeiss factory found themselves with a bunch of wonderful lens designs with no place to go. Enter the Zeiss ZF-series of lenses.
So what's the big deal? There's something about lenses designed and produced in Germany that makes them different from lenses made in Japan. The color rendition is different. The tonal gradations are different. The pictures they take even look different. If you ever shot pictures using a lens made by Carl Zeiss, Ernst Leitz, Schneider, or Rodenstock, you know what I mean.

The Nikon-mount Zeiss ZF-series will, for several reasons, be manual-focus only. For starters, most of the classic Zeiss designs were manual-focus from the get-go. Secondly, although Contax did offer a selection of auto-focus lenses for late Contax AF-series cameras, they readily acknowledged the tolerances (and therefore the sharpness) of the manual-focus were always tighter.

Nikon (D)SLR owners will not be the only beneficiaries of these Nikkor alternatives. Owners of Sinar's 'M' camera and Horseman's DigiFlex II cameras will also be able to join the party as both of these cameras have Nikon Bayonet mounts. A box of donuts says these new lenses will make a difference in image quality on photos taken with these unique medium-format DSLRs.

The first of these new manual-focus lenses to be released will be a 50/1.4 and 85/1.4. If you or anybody you know ever shot with a Contax 35mm SLR you should be familiar with these two beauties. The 85/1.4 was a stunning portrait lens. The 50/1.4 was rated number one by Popular Photography magazine a few years ago in a shoot-out of a half-dozen or so 50/1.4 lenses. Canon's 50/1.4 was neck-and-neck in the resolution charts, but the Zeiss lens won hands down in tone rendition. This has always been the strong point for German glass.

As with the original Zeiss/Contax lenses, the new Zeiss ZF lenses will be manufactured in the Far East . The fact the lenses were produced in Japan (under the watchful eye of Zeiss glass-meisters) might have ruffled the feathers of those preferring lenses born and bred in the land of robust brew, but Zip Codes aside, the Japanese Zeiss glass delivered the goods as promised.

Shooters planning on using the new Zeiss ZF lenses on Nikon DSLRs should keep in mind that these new lenses will be subject to a 1.5x magnification factor, meaning the 50mm will effectively be a 75mm and the 85mm will effectively be 127.5mm lens. For those needing wide-angle optics, Zeiss did manufacture focal lengths as short as 15mm for the Contax system. According to Zeiss sources there will be additional ZF lenses available in the near future including several new lens designs. Hopefully some of these new designs will be geared for use with the smaller sensors used in all of Nikon's current DSLRs.

For all you Canon shooters out there, Zeiss plans on releasing these same lenses in an M-42 screw mount, also know as a Universal SLR lens mount. Officially called Zeiss ZS lenses, the ZS-series lenses can be adapted to most all 35mm SLR camera by attaching the appropriate lens adapter to the lens. If you are currently shooting with a Canon DSLR, all you will need is the Canon EOS/M-42 lens adapter and you're in business.

The 50/1.4 ZF and 85/1.4 Zeiss ZF are scheduled to begin trickling in during the month of June. The prices have yet to be released, but are reportedly going to be competitive with their Japanese counterparts. The folks at Zeiss promise to have additional lenses in due time. We shouldn't doubt it. Zeiss produced a well-rounded crop of glass for the Contax 35 system in a wide variety of focal lengths.

Aside from being a rather wise marketing move on Zeiss' part to take advantage of existing optical designs that were orphaned when Contax tanked, it's also an opportunity for users of Japanese glass to see what the big hubbub has been over the years from those who have been pontificating about the imaging qualities of German optics. This looks like a win-win situation for all.

Check back soon on the B&H website - we expect to receive Zeiss' ZF lenses shortly.
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