Throughout the history of modern photography, there are few lenses that have garnered almost universal praise from photographers – a tough bunch to get to agree on anything gear related. One of those lenses is the Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2 for the Contax 645 medium format system. A quick Google search will return many reviews in praise of the Planar and its unique and beautiful rendering that came to define the look of wedding photography in particular. I’ve used the lens on and off over the past 10 years to shoot everything from live music to portraits and weddings, and there is no denying the special character it produces.
With a full frame equivalent crop factor of .62, the 80mm Zeiss on the Contax 645 system is roughly comparable to a standard 50mm FOV and f/1.2 DOF on my Sony cameras. So when Sony released their new 50mm f/1.2 GM lens last year, I looked forward to seeing how the new lens rendered and how it compared to the legendary Zeiss. Could I get that medium format look with the 50mm GM or was that combination of 120 film and the Zeiss a special sauce that just couldn’t be equaled?
Curiosity aside, I’m not all that interested in doing detailed shot-for-shot comparisons of cameras and lenses. Most of the interesting things I shoot are on assignment and there just isn’t the time to be messing around with multiple cameras. So I wasn’t actively thinking about doing a comparison until I landed a job for a client that does beautiful outdoor dinner events in remote Texas landscapes. I knew this event would have some wedding-like table settings with excellent early evening light, so planned on having both my Contax 645 and the new GM in the bag, and would attempt to squeeze in a few comparison shots where time allowed. Keep in mind, this is not scientific, in that subject distances and angles were not always exact – I was just doing the best I could on a busy shoot.
Before digging into the comparison I’ll say that evaluated as a standard 50mm lens on the native Sony camera platform, the new GM is without peer. In my view, this is the finest autofocus 50mm lens on the market by almost every measurement. If you put emphasis on perfection in terms of lack of optical aberrations, then this lens tops nearly all the competition. If sharpness is your most critical feature, it excels there as well. Bokeh? near flawless. But what the new GM does best is the special sauce I referred to the Planar having. It marries all the ingredients of lens design into a blend that produces a modern image (think sharp with beautiful bokeh) without feeling like all the soul has been sucked out of the moment. Its character comes not from the impact of aberration but from the balance of its positive qualities. It isn’t so sharp that all you notice is fidelity, nor so creamy that it blurs all the detail away. How Sony was able to produce a lens that renders micro contrast and sharpness at f/1.2 but yet allows light to glow ever so slightly is a wonder. This is my “new normal” and the 50mm GM will forever have a place in my Sony kit.
If you just read that and feel like it was an excessive amount of gushing, it wasn’t. I may have actually undersold how wonderful the lens is.
Back to the Contax kit with the Zeiss, 80mm f/2 Planar. This turned out to be a very limited comparison as (a) I just didn’t have time to be swapping back and forth all night and (b) I screwed up and forgot to pack extra film for the Contax. You are never too experienced to make dumb mistakes. But what I learned was instructive and clear enough that I feel the new GM absolutely lives in the same exclusive company as the Planar. A comparison like this opens the door for an age old argument of equivalency between film (or digital these days) formats but without getting too nerdy and pedantic, lets just agree that there will always be subtle difference in how lenses work on different formats – specifically how a longer lens compresses perspective more than a wider lens. What I’m more interested in is the feeling that each lens evokes, and both these lenses can produce something special.
For each of the comparisons, I’ve cropped the Sony GM image to nearly match the Contax. I’ve also color edited to match general tone but they will not be identical, nor should they. Contax will be on the left, Sony on right.
This first image comparison shows more detail on the subject in the Sony image, although this could have been an AF or film flatness issue on the Contax. No such concerns with the AF on the Sony a9II combined with the new linear AF motors in the 50mm GM. Bokeh looks a bit more pleasant on the Sony but again, not a perfect comparison and with a subject as far away as this one, bokeh is never going to be ultra-dreamy. At this distance it’s all about minimizing the potential for nervousness in the background.
An even more imperfect comparison but this type of image is more synonymous with what made the Planar famous. Subject is closer in the Sony image but notice how the bokeh highlights are nearly round at the edges, while the more elongated, cat-eye effect can be seen in the Zeiss image. Sharpness suffers on the Zeiss, although we can’t rule out film flatness issues on the 645 – still a lovely look. Notice that the GM resolves wonderful detail but then blends nicely into OOF.
Another bokeh torture test with a mid distance subject. Sony GM sharpness rules here, as does the bokeh. Love the soft highlight glow on the Sony as well.
On this one, I prefer the Planar but am also aware that the differences in composition and subject distance greatly affect the final result. Had the photographer and subjects (both the dogs and humans) been in the same position as when captured by the Contax, I think the results would actually favor the GM since once again, the Contax struggles with accurate focus. What makes that Contax/Planar image sing is the gorgeous foreground OOF and the slight veiling from shooting more directly into the fading sunlight.
Here are some additional images from the assignment, shot with the Sony 50mm GM on the a9II. After editing these photos and then comparing the results that came back from the Contax, I made the decision to do the unthinkable, I sold the Contax 645 and Zeiss 80mm. I’ve come to the realization that the GM is producing images that, if not identical, are so similar to the Zeiss, that I would have no regret saying goodbye to all the focus issues that are associated with shooting on the Contax. I’ve finally got a replacement that produces razor sharp, in-focus images with a look that is so reminiscent of the Contax/Zeiss product that few would be able to identify the differences.