TBT – Zeiss Lenses (& Cameras) In The Modern-ish Era

Post by Paul Brodek our Used Equipment buyer

I’ve been struggling with this second part of my Zeiss optics exploration. Facing nearly 175yrs of lens design/production, not to mention many decades of camera production, where do you start, and how do you wrangle all that stuff into something you, dear reader, might actually want to read? Being that so few of us are likely to own any genuine German-production Zeiss Ikon cameras, I’m thinking that looking at modern-ish Zeiss lenses made for other lens mounts would be worthwhile, since there are classic Zeiss-design lenses that may fit your older analog film and/or current digital bodies.

First need to get the Zeiss-built cameras out of the way. Carl Zeiss Jena, the lens maker, founded way back in 1846, bought a camera manufacturer in 1902 and stared selling cameras. After only a few years they spun off that division to return exclusively to lens production. In 1926 several German camera makers merged to form Zeiss Ikon, headquartered in Dresden, Most of Zeiss Ikon’s initial production was either basic box cameras or plate-film cameras, until the original Contax rangefinder debuted, in 1930, as a response to Leica’s introduction of the compact 35mm rangefinder camera.

Zeiss Ikon continued with Contax rangefinders, then added Contarex and Contaflex single lens reflex models. There were also extensive forays into twin lens reflex and folding-bellows rollfilm cameras. Zeiss Ikon battled Leica on the 35mm rangefinder/SLR fronts, but faced no competition from Leica for the considerable range of other cameras offered. Zeiss Jena pumped out lenses for Zeiss Ikon cameras, in addition to providing lenses for other camera brands, like Rollei and, later, Hasselblad.

The Jena-Dresden factory locations in eastern Germany are important viewed through WWII post-war history, with Russia occupying what would become East Germany. The Allies, fearing the loss of all that optical and photographic technology to the Russians, brought many Zeiss scientists and engineers into the Western Zone before the Russians could solidify their positions in the east. Zeiss lens/camera production was re-established in Oberkochen and Stuttgart, leading to competing Zeiss-branded lenses/cameras and trademark battles galore. Later on, German reunification mended the split.   

Zeiss Ikon, like Leica, struggled in the marketplace as the Japanese camera industry steamrolled into dominance. Unlike Leica, Zeiss Optics had non-Zeiss customers for their lenses, so there was some cushion for them. Also unlike Leica, in 1971 Zeiss Ikon threw in the towel and ceased camera production entirely. This is the same time frame Leica was trying to stay relevant and competitive in the shrinking rangefinder market with the metered Leica M5 and CL, and also expanded their cooperation with Minolta on the CL into improving Leica SLR designs. If you can’t beat them…..

With Zeiss Ikon cameras gone, Zeiss Optics needed more outlets for its lens production. Like Leica, in 1973 they turned to Japan, forming a partnership with Yashica to produce a new line of Contax cameras, with Zeiss lenses. The first camera, initially codenamed “Top Secret Project 130” (seriously, though it sounds like something out of Speed Racer or Gigantor), with the body designed by Yashica’s top designer, Dr. Sugiyama, along with some design panache from Porsche Design. The RTS (“Real-Time Shutter”) debuted in 1975, with an electromagnetic shutter release, and a line of lovely Zeiss-designed, Japan-produced lenses in a new Contax-Yashica (CY) lensmount. 

The CY lens range was revolutionary, with all our favorite Distagon-Planar-Sonnar-etc names reappearing, all Zeiss designs, all produced in Yashica’s factory in Japan. Arguably the highest-quality consumer line of lenses produced in Japan up to that point, they were heavily marketed/promoted in Japan, where German optics were prized by the cognoscenti. That German connection was critical in Yashica’s home market, and Zeiss/Contax USA staff told us the C/Y lenses were assembled in Japan by genuinely German workers, in a separate/segregated facility within Yashica’s factory. Each lens came with a signed quality control certificate, and the ones I saw were all signed by Japanese folks, so take that for what it’s worth.

The Contax SLR line expanded, all with pretty cool features, deserving of its own story. I’ll just mention here the RTS-III having an internal vacuum system to suck the film flat against the pressure plate for critically-accurate imaging, and the AX having a movable film gate to allow autofocus with manual focus lenses. Nobody else had thought to move the film itself, instead of moving the lens elements. But the culmination of German/Japanese photographic development was arguably the Contax G-series autofocus rangefinder cameras, with the introduction of the G1 in 1994. Let those words, “autofocus rangefinder” sink in, and imagine a compact body, with compact lenses, with an optical viewfinder, and a quiet shutter—namely the advantages of M-series Leicas, married to autofocus and semi-automatic metering.  

Kyocera (a contraction of “Kyoto Ceramics”) acquired Yashica in 1984, and the larger parent helped bankroll Yashica’s camera development. The G series was helped with a resurgence of interest in rangefinder cameras, with Japan’s Cosina acquiring the dormant Voigtlander name and introducing a fill line of affordable rangefinder bodies and lenses. German/Japanese melanges was all the rage, though the onslaught of digital photography had Kyocera killing off all Contax camera and lens production in 2005.

Zeiss was, once again, left without a partner, and first filled the void with Cosina. Zeiss/Cosina launched into an extensive joint venture that continues today, with both manual focus and autofocus lenses in many native lensmounts: Leica M, Nikon F, Canon EF, Sony E and Fuji X. Then a partnership with Sony followed, with much of Sony’s highest-end lenses being Zeiss designs, and Zeiss lenses finding their way onto Sony point-and-shoot digital cameras.

Aside from the Sony range, which are only available in Sony E mount, we have two main categories of modern Zeiss lenses of interest: manual focus ZM/ZF/ZE-series for Leica/Nikon/Canon, and autofocus lenses. And, at this point, I’ve run out of room for words, and run out of steam, so I guess we’re looking at a Part 3. Soon.     

Pix: Contax-G 45/2 Planar-T* w/adapter on Sony A7RIII, with the fabulous 90/2.8 Sonnar-T* nearby. Also, Contax C/Y 50/1.4 Planar-T* w/adapter on Fuji XT3. The 50/1.4 Planar was THE BOMB in the ’80s. 

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