Carl Zeiss is a lensmaker with a historic reputation for creating the sharpest optics, with only Leica giving any consistent challenge. Of course, with modern lensmaking, pretty much everything new is sharp. But I shoot with a lot of older gear, so I got curious, and explored this reputation.
This started when I recently borrowed a friend's Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm f/2.8 lens for my Contax S2 camera. 135mm isn't an important focal length to me, so I didn't have many expectations about this lens, despite its Zeiss reputation. But by coincidence, I had recently shot some photos with a Minolta MD Tele Rokkor-X 135mm f/2.8 lens, which on paper is very similar. But the results were night-and-day different, the Zeiss was not just sharper, but the image was so much clearer and more pleasing.The Minolta 135mm f/2.8 on Ektar The Zeiss 135mm f/2.8 on expired Sensia II
And so, a test was born. I've got adapters for all these old lenses to fit onto my modern Fujifilm digital cameras, so I shot sample photos with each, one wide open, one at their sharpest aperture. With the smaller sensor, I decided only to test center sharpness, but even this is telling.
I shot the test photos on a Fujifilm X-T3 using Fine JPG, auto exposure at ISO 1600, Auto white balance, Classic Chrome film simulation, most settings at default. Basically, how I usually shoot. I shot the photos near the lens's minimum focal distances, pointed at my computer monitor.
These are the lenses I tested, because these are the lenses I have available.
- Vivitar 20mm f/3.8
- Yashica ML 24mm f/2.8
- Sigma Filtermatic 28mm f/2.8
- Zeiss Tessar T* 45mm f/2.8
- Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4
- Yashica ML 50mm f/1.9
- Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 55mm f/1.7
- Minolta MD Tele Rokkor-X 135mm f/2.8
The Zeiss lenses are among the sharpest of the batch, it is true. What I didn't expect, is that they're not alone there. Sure, the weirder, cheaper lenses fail, but the other name-brand lenses are no slouches, especially that Yashica glass.
Really, my big take-away here is that at least as far as center sharpness goes, I really don't need to worry about it, there are far more important things that go into making the photos. I mean, I already knew this, but it's nice to see it reconfirmed.