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Introduction

Carl Zeiss Makro Planar T* 50mm f/2 is one of the new generation SLR lenses that Zeiss introduced  (fairly recently) for a number of SLR camera mounts, including Nikon, Pentax and most recently Canon. The lens replaces the older, now discontinued Contax, although the 50mm macro is a redesigned formula rather then a one-to-one copy of the previous versions of Makro-Planar T* 60mm f/2.8 C and Makro-Planar T* 60mm f/2.8 S. The lens currently sells for ~US1,000 new, while good quality used copies go for ~US$750.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 8 elements in 6 groups. The build quality is simply superb, as is the case with all Zeiss lenses, modern or discontinued - the company did not try to cut any corners here, designing the lens with fully metal barrel, metal focusing and aperture rings. The focusing ring is well damped and requires a little bit of pressure to rotate. The aperture ring rotates from from f/2 to f/22 in half f-stop increments. The ring clicks into positions firmly, but the action feels a little bit rough, at least compared to the old Contax lenses. The lens is fairly compact, measuring 72 x 88mm (2.83 x 3.46in) and weighing 530g (1.16lb), although the lens extends when zooming towards closeup, almost doubling the overall length. The minimum focusing distance is 24cm (0.78ft) and the lens accepts 67mm screw-in type filters.

Like all other SLR lenses in the modern Carl Zeiss lineup, the Makro-Planar 50mm f/2 is a fully manual lens. Well, actually the focusing is fully manual, but the aperture control of the lens is manual on ZF/ZK series (Nikon/Pentax) and automatic on ZE (Canon). The ZF version of the lens reviewed here has Ai coupling as well as the metering fork which can be used by pre-Ai cameras. However, since the lens does not have CPU coupling, the shutter priority and program mode are only possible on a limited number of Nikon cameras like FA and F4/F5. Furthermore, aperture priority also becomes unavailable on any body that does not have mechanical Ai coupling. Effectively for all entry-level cameras like D40, D90, D5000 you will have to operate the lens in a fully manual mode and set the aperture on the lens itself and set shutter speed in the camera. Pentax users are in a better shape here and both shutter as well as program modes, along with the aperture priority mode will be available on most film and digital cameras as long as they support automatic (green 'A') mode.

 

The manufacturer's box includes Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 50mm f/2 ZF, front and rear lens caps, metal lens hood, warranty and quality cards. The lens is designed for traditional 35mm cameras, so when used on APS-C type cameras with a 1.6x crop factor the field of view of the lens will be similar to that of a 80mm prime on a full frame body. Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested on a FF Nikon D3, APS-C sized Canon Digital Rebel XTi and a FF Canon 5D and Canon 5DMk2.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 8 elements in 6 groups
Angular Field 45 degrees
Minimum Focus 24cm/0.78ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/2-f/22, manual
Filter Size 67mm
Lens Hood Metal (include)
Weight 530g/1.16lb
Dimensions 72x88mm/2.83x3.46"
Lens Case N/A

 

Handling

The first generation ZF version of Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 50mm f/2 is a fairly stocky lens and when fully collapsed at the infinity focusing, leaves with an impression of being quite dense. Surprisingly, the front element of the lens is quite small and sits very deep inside the barrel. The new ZF.2 as well as the ZE versions of this lens retain the same form factor, but add a few grams in weight, presumably because of the additional electronics that had to be added into the lens. The new Makro-Planar is slightly larger then the old Contax Makro-Planar 60mm f/2.8 C and about the same size as the S Contax variant (you might recall that the C version is a 1:2 macro, while S version is a 1:1 macro). On larger cameras like D3/D3x, the lens balances fairly well, even when fully extended into macro position, but on smaller bodies like Canon's 400D (or similarly sized Nikon D40/D40x), the lens is a little bit nose heavy, tipping the camera forward.

The new Makro-Planar lens has a very good build quality by modern standards. Particularly when compared to plasticy feeling Canon and Nikon lenses. Many claim that the build quality of new Zeiss lenses is as good as build of Leica lenses, which are generally considered to be the best out there. I generally agree with such claims but with one caveat - I don't like the aperture ring on ZF lenses as much as the aperture ring on old Contax lenses. The ring on new ZF lenses feels too coarse to me. There is no play whatsoever, and the ring rotation is not as 'metalicy' as on old AF-D Nikkors, but it is still does not feel quite as smooth as on Contax versions. The ring is also located quite close to the base of the mount and sits in a little bit recessed, making it somewhat hard to grasp. This particularly becomes annoying when using the lens with an adapter on a Canon or any other non-native mount, where you have to rely on stop down metering and therefore end up constantly opening up and stopping down the aperture. With the ZF.2, ZK and ZE series of lenses, the hole aperture ring is a non-issue. On ZF.2 and ZK lenses just move the ring into  f/22 position to lock it in, which lets you control the level from your camera. And on ZE lenses there is no aperture ring to begin with and the level is changed from the camera to begin with.

Like most manual focus macro lenses, Makro-Planar T* 50mm f/2 sports a very precise focusing action - the ring rotates for slightly over 300 degrees when going from the infinity to the macro level. This is significantly better then with any auto-focus lenses I've seen so far, macro or not. This obviously can  cause some grief to someone trying to fast-focus the lens, for example to track a moving object. But, the lens has an engraved DOF scale with markings at one f-stop intervals, making it possible for you to preset the aperture and use hyper-focal focusing when shooting 'off the hip'. The focusing ring on my copy of Makro-Planar is silky smooth, although I have read many users complain about stiff focusing with macro lenses. I suspect that the focusing gets smoother eventually with use.

Since original ZF lenses do not have any electronic contacts, the lenses do not provide any focusing confirmation to your camera. Exception is cameras with electronic rangefinders like D3/D3x, although the accuracy of these rangefinders is questionable - you get into the ballpark with them, but would never know if you've front-focused or back-focused on the target. You can rely on your eyes if you're focusing at close distances, otherwise precision focusing at wider apertures could be challenging. On the other hand, if you are using the lens on Canon, using an AF confirmation adapter, you are somewhat better off - the AF confirmation points light up and beep as if you're using a regular EF lens with manual focus, however the AF system would give up once you stop down the lens beyond f/5.6. I strongly recommend you get the EF version of the lens if you plan to use the lens predominantly on Canon bodies to avoid all these issues with the aperture ring and stop-down metering.

One interesting characteristic of the lens is its super short min focusing distance. At 24cm, you can pretty much fill up the entire frame with even tiniest of all objects. The caveat however, is that at such small distances, even tiniest motion would throw off your focusing. Another issue is that the focusing thrust of the ring is longer at the close end of the range, giving you more precision, but also requiring more time to adjust focusing.