Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2 for Contarex
The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2 for Contarex was the first Planar type lens for 24x36mm systems reaching production. The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f2 was the standard prime kit lens of the Carl Zeiss Contarex SLR camera line-up and was introduced in 1957. The Planar for Contarex acquired a legendary reputation and many still consider it one of the best standard lenses ever made.
- Image rendering
- Overall sharpness
- Built quality
- Decent bokeh
- Smooth and precise focusing
- Consistent performer
The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f2 is one of the lenses I use the most when I need to obtain results. When I don’t want to experiment or fiddle around or disappoint clients this lens is in my camera bag. I trust the Planar 50 to create beautiful shots. When you need to deliver images taken under difficult situations, this is the most important feeling: to know that you can rely on your camera gear and to have a sense of how the image will render.
The Planar 50mm f2 is a very easy lens to use. There is only a focusing ring as the aperture is set directly on the Contarex camera (or on your adapter if you use the lens on a digital camera). The quality of the manufacturing is obviously top-notch as you would imagine for a West German Zeiss product. For those who have never used a Contarex lens before: these puppies are totally made out of glass and metal. There is no wiggling around and no plastic peeling of here. The polished smooth metal feels incredible under your fingertips. The focusing ring is riffled and has two extra little bumps that help your fingers find the ring. The focusing is incredibly smooth and precise. Which is great to nail down your focusing quickly.
The image quality of the Planar is superb. There is no vignetting and no softness towards the edges of the image. From one corner to the other, the image is smooth and consistent.
The optics manage to capture a lot of details, even when shot wide open. I have full confidence shooting this lens at f2. While other lenses might be smudgy the Planar manages to combine detail rich sharpness with a beautiful, not over the top bokeh. Obviously the more you stop it down sharper things get. For me personally the sweet spot of the lens for portraiture is around F4. Then, the pictures turn out very sharp and rich, yet there is still a sense that you use a vintage lens.
As with most Zeiss lenses, colour rendition is very consistent yet rather neutral. This is not a colour explosion extravaganza lens. This lens tries to be faithful in representing what your eyes see. I like this approach a lot and I never end up editing Contarex lens shots in post-production. Straight out of the camera they look right to me.
The Zeiss Planar 50mm hits the sweet spot between sharpness and vintage look. The lens manages to do a lot of things right: it can be your “aperture wide open pretty bokeh portraiture lens”, or your available light lens, your experimental long exposure lens, your street photography travel companion lens. And this is exactly what you want from a 50mm lens: a reliable swiss knife that helps you concentrate on your photography and less on your gear.
There is an incredibly large abundance of 50mm prime lenses. Every manufacturer had a few in their line-up as the 50mm focal length was for most photographers and amateurs the first type of lens that they would buy with their camera. This meant that it was very difficult for competitors to set their products in the limelight. The market was over-saturated with similar 50mm lenses. The different manufacturers had to outperform themselves with specs. Who has the fastest lens? Who has the shortest minimum focusing distance? This drive to beat the competition with technicalities is very much still happening today. But do you, as a photographer actually need a f0.95 or f1.2 lens? In 99% of situations the answer is: NO. Those who have objectively used these super-fast and super-expensive lenses know that they are not creating better images than a slower lens.
The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f2 is a beautifully made 50mm prime lens. It is not only stunningly looking, it is also thoughtfully manufactured. The charm of a slower nifty-fifty is that the engineers did not go for speed, they went for image quality and usability. Their aim was to create a lens that can be used in a wide spectrum of situations, that is versatile, easy to use and of high quality. Lenses like the Planar 50mm f2 or the Nikon 50mm f2 were not made for the speed freak or collector, they were made for the user. And at the end of the day this is what matters, you want a lens that works and gives you the confidence to shoot. The manufacturers aim was the create THE lens on your camera and not A lens for certain situations. This is exactly what you get with the Planar 50 f2: a reliable, versatile and beautiful workhorse!
- Not particularly fast 50mm prime lens
- Slight flaring
- Uses special filter mount
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: over 200 USD for a used 50mm f2 lens?!?! Yes, that is pretty expensive! There are new fifties that are cheaper than that, not to mention the myriad of vintage primes you can get at the fraction of the price. These points are absolutely valid, the Planar 50mm f2 is not the best lens in terms of value for money. In fact, if you want a similar lens but don’t want to spend as much I recommend having a look at the super undervalued Nikkor 50mm f2. But back to the Contarex Planar and its’ price: the reason it costs that much is that even when new, the Contarex system was not cheap. It was not produced as abundantly as the Nikon, Canon and Leicas of its time. Not many people purchased this heavy and over-engineered camera system. Although this is the easiest to find Contarex lens, the relative scarcity of the Planar 50 already makes it a collectors item. That’s why you pay a premium. The good news is that I suspect that these lenses will retain their value if not even increase it. Zeiss optics are always in demand and if you manage to get hold of a copy in good condition you might want to consider keeping it.
Although collectors had their eyes on the Contarex system for a long time, users of digital cameras only really started using these lenses rather recently as new adapters have emerged on the market. I remember that a few years ago it was very difficult to find a Contarex adapter. As previously mentioned, the aperture is set on the Contarex camera and when adapting on a digital camera the adapter has to offer the option of setting the aperture. This meant that these adapters were either hard to find or expensive – but not anymore. There are more and more affordable adapters available now and I suspect that an increasing amount of users will jump onto the Contarex vintage lens market.
Then there is the “issue” of having a f2 lens. In dim light this can indeed be rather slow. In very dark situations you could counterbalance the slow lens speed by increasing the ISO. Yet the fastest lenses are not necessarily the best. I prefer using a slower lens that delivers rather than a faster lens that needs to be stopped down.
Yes, the Planar 50 f2 is not the candle light soap bubble bokeh circus lens a Canon 50 0.95 might be, but it also does not want to. It is a confident, well-balanced all-rounder lens that will look better at f2 or f4 than most other fifties. I would for instance choose the Planar 50 over the Pancolar 50 1.8 any day! If speed still is an issue for you, have a look at the Pentax Takumar 50mm f1.4 or the Olympus 50mm f1.4.
The Planar 50 is not a light lens! This is all metal construction feels super solid but also rather heavy. Most other fifties are lightweight compared to the Planar. This is not an issue when you use the lens on the Contarex camera is was built for (which is also incredibly heavy) but for those of you using it on a featherweight digital cropped sensor camera the weight balance will definitely be of the scale.
Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm 1:2 Versions
- Made in West Germany
- Aperture: 2 – 22
- 6 elements in 4 groups
- Minimum focusing: 38cm
For an in-depth look at the exciting history of the Planar lens formula, please have a look at this article.
The first version of the Carl Zeiss Planar 1:2 50 for Contarex with a silver finish
The first batches, in a silver finish, left the Oberkochen warehouses in 1957. A few very rare totally black Carl Zeiss Planar lenses were made during the same period. Lenses come with the distance scale in meters and others in inches (export lenses).