Carl Zeiss Jena Topogon 25mm 4
The Carl Zeiss Jena Topogon 25mm 4 lens is one of the first super wide-angle lenses manufactured for the 35mm film format. The initial design of the Topogon dates back to 1933 when Robert Richter developed it for Carl Zeiss. A small batch of around 50 Carl Zeiss Topogon 25mm f4,5 where manufactured before WWII. Of the f4 version around 300 copies were manufactured in the 1950ies. This makes the Carl Zeiss Jena Topogon lenses some of the rarest lens types to be produced by Carl Zeiss.
- Unique lens
- Built quality
- Size and weight
- Minimal distortion
- All lenses are coated
I obtained a copy of this lens by pure luck: I purchased it about 10 years ago with a few other lenses from an old collector. I bought in bulk and, as it happened, this lens was was part of the combo. I personally never heard of a Topogon lens before. I was more interested in the other lenses that I had purchased and the Topogon spent a few months in a shelve. I was not sure what mount it was made for and when I asked supposedly knowledgeable people (who also never heard of a Topogon lens) they said it was not a Contax RF but most probably a Tenax lens. I had never used an external bayonet Contax RF lens before and the mount did not look familiar. It is only rather recently that I managed to mount the Topogon 25mm on a Contax RF camera and even on digital using an adapter (although here the close focus does not work).
I have since found more (yet limited) information on the Topogon 25mm. It still is a mysterious lens. Therefore I wanted to share my findings here while keeping in mind that:
- as the lens protrudes extremely into a camera, the results obtained on digital are certainly not ideal. Modern digital sensors have a hard time when the lights breaks too close to the sensor.
- this lens is extremely rare and collectible. It therefore is not comparable to most other lenses who would offer much better value for money.
Let’s cut to the chase: is this a good lens? Not really, there are loads of wide-angle lenses that far outperform the Topogon. But you cannot judge the Topogon by what it is but rather by what it represents: one of the first super wide fast lenses for the 35mm format. Would I use this lens for an assignment or when I need to deliver good quality images? Certainly not. For that it is not reliable enough. Image quality does change a lot across the board depending on how you use the Topogon. The vignetting, although unique, also quickly becomes intrusive. Sharpness could be better across the board.
The main positives of the lens are that it is rather small and compact. The actual glass elements are extremely small (about 5mm). The minimum focusing distance is around 90cm which is not bad considering the uniqueness of the lens. One aspect that positively surprised me is the lack of distortion, which is normally the main probably with wide-angle lenses.
The character of the shots is really remarkable – when you nail the shots they look unique. The smoothness of vintage glass, the softness we all love combined with a pretty hefty bokeh. Would I pay over $1000 USD for the Topogon 25mm? Definitely not. I understand the appeal for collectors and I am certain that they will argue that over time the prices for the Topogon will only go into one direction: UP. But for me the scarcity of a lens does not justify being it at any cost. My copy of the Topogon would probably be one of the first to go if I am short in cash. If you like the look of the Carl Zeiss Topogon 25mm I would recommend you have a look at the Carl Zeiss Tessar 2.8cm f8. It uses the same Contax RF mount and costs a fraction of the price.
- Extremely rare
- Value for money
- Heavy vignetting
- Falloff in the corners
- User friendliness
There are many reasons not to purchase this lens. First you have to find it: with around 300 copies made only an odd one pops up from time to time at an auction. Obviously, this results in extremely high prices as collectors, who drive the price up, are rubbing their hands to put the Topogon in their vitrine. So value for money is very poor. There are other lenses that are cheaper, easier to use and offer better image quality.
Apart from the price tag the main issue I see is that the Topogon 25mm is not very user-friendly. The aperture settings are situated inside the lens, very close to the glass elements. The aperture is click-less and not that easy to set precisely. Same goes for the focusing which is set on the outer ring of the lens barrel.
Image quality is another drawback. Besides the heavy vignetting (which some people might like, personally it does not disturb me but rather adds character to the images) a major disappointment is the reality lack of sharpness. When you inspect the images closely they never seem 100% sharp.
It is rather difficult to see where the focusing is set. Everything seems slightly blurry. This is certainly normal for wide-angle lenses of the time. It is worth noting that image quality is better when you use the Topogon how it was mean to be used: on a Contax rangefinder camera with 35mm film. Modern digital sensors are simply not made for these type of lenses where the lens protrudes so closely to the sensor.
Carl Zeiss Jena Topogon 25mm 4 specifications
- Made in Germany
- 4 elements in 4 groups
- Minimum focusing distance: 90cm
- Aperture: 4 – 16
- Contax RF mount (external bayonet mount)