Introduction

After exiting the Contax line of business in early 2004 due to Kyocera abandoning photographic equipment market, Carl Zeiss' camera and lens business was sort of left in the void. Granted, the company continued to produce lenses for third party systems like Hasselblad and Mamiya, but it no longer had the right to develop any new cameras/lenses under Contax brand name. That obviously could not last long and in late 2005 the company announced intentions to not only revive its legendary Ikon brand by bringing a completely redesigned film rangefinder and accompanying series of rangefinder lenses, but also plans to bring back a number of SLR lenses, initially for Nikon's F mount and later for some other mounts (those other mounts turned out to be M42 standard screw mount, Pentax K mount and Sony A mount). As of late 2007, Carl Zeiss still remains fully committed to its original plans and continues to roll out updated designs of its classic Planar, Distagon and Sonnar lenses.

And this leads me to one of the first SLR lenses in the new Carl Zeiss lineup - Planar T* 50mm f/1.4. The lens is currently available in Nikon F (ZF), M42 screw (ZS) and Pentax K (ZK) mounts. The version tested in this review is a ZF variant and like all other ZF lenses, it is an fully manual, Ai-S lens, meaning there is no AF and no electronic aperture control, so both have to be set directly from the lens. It is somewhat strange to see a fully manual lens in 2007 when the virtual majority of camera/lens manufacturers stopped manufacturing manual lenses a decade or so ago, but I'm sure there was some strategic (or not so strategic) reason, that I'm not aware of, why Carl Zeiss decided to release manual lenses. Anyhow, like all other new generation ZF, ZS and ZK series of lenses, Planar 50mm f/1.4 is currently being manufactured by Cosina of Japan (ZA series of lenses for Sony's Alpha platform is an exception here and I am not sure who is manufacturing them at the moment).

The build quality of the lens is superb - I was very glad to see that Zeiss decided to go for a solid and durable metal construction instead of plastic one. The lens barrel, inner cam, aperture as well as focus rings are fully metal. The overall lens construction resembles one found in Voigtlander series of lenses, which are also manufactured by Cosina. The focus ring is very smooth and aperture ring snaps very nicely, moving in 1/2 f-stop increments. Due to the fully metal construction, the lens looks and feels pretty sturdy, but that obviously also adds to the weight and at 330g (11.64oz) Planar is certainly not the lightest 50mm prime on the market. The lens measures 66 x 45 (2.59 x 1.73in), although the inner cam extends during focusing towards closeup, adding a few more millimeters to the barrel length. The optical construction consists of 7 elements in 6 groups and 9 aperture blades. The lens accepts 58mm screw-in type filters, has the minimum focusing distance of 45cm (1.47ft) and has the minimum aperture of f/16.

Image

The factory box includes Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF lens, front and rear caps, lens hood, manual and quality certificate. When testing the lens on Canon cameras, I used generic, non AF-chipped Fotodiox adapter and switched the cameras into aperture priority mode with center weighted metering. On APS-C type cameras with 1.6x crop factor like Canon's Digital Rebel XTi, the lens has the field of view similar to that of a 80mm lens on a full frame body. The lens retails at ~US$500 new, while good condition used copies of the lens go for ~US$400 on eBay.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 7 elements in 6 groups
Angular Field 45 degrees
Minimum Focus 45cm/1.5ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/16, manual
Filter Size 58mm
Lens Hood Metal hood (included)
Weight 330g/11.64oz
Dimensions 66x45mm/2.59x1.73"
Lens Case N/A

 

Field Tests

The lens produced outstanding results in the field, with tack sharp center performance and pretty solid border performance pretty much throughout the aperture range. I say almost throughout the entire aperture range because at f/1.4 image borders are actually somewhat softer, even at infinity. Color reproduction is pretty accurate, albeit as is common for some Zeiss lenses, it is a bit cooler, with a light bluish tint, when compared to results from say Canon or Sigma lenses.  At f/1.4 the lens produces very smooth bokeh, which should be welcomed for portrait photography.

 

Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop
Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop

 

The lens showed noticeable vignetting on a full frame body at the widest aperture level. Vignetting is reduced with stopped down aperture - by f/2.8, the lens shows very negligible amounts of vignetting. On an APS-C body the lens clearly takes advantage of the cropped sense and shows basically no vignetting even at f/1.4. Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF showed some color fringing, which exhibits itself as an occasional pinkish/magentish/bluish overcast that can be seen in the 100% crop below. The lens did not show any noticeable barrel distortion, which does not come as a surprise for a normal prime lens, and fared quite well against flare, even at widest aperture settings.

 

ISO 100, 1/2500, f/1.4, 50mm
ISO 100, 1/2500, f/1.4, 50mm

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.


Nikon FF: Coming soon...

 

Canon APS-C: The lens produced outstanding results in the center on an APS-C type body. Center performance is very solid straight from f/1.4 and improves with stopped down aperture and by f/2.8 reaching quite impressive levels. Border quality is lagging somewhat behind - mostly at wider apertures. At f/1.4 and f/2 border quality is average at best, but improves by f/2.8, reaching excellent levels. From f/4 through the rest of the tested aperture range, border quality is as exceptional as in the center, producing very balanced (and I should say very impressive) overall results. At its peak, which is essentially f/4 through f/11, the lens is capable of producing outstanding 19in prints - very good result even for a prime lens. Conclusion? Results are rock solid - softness around borders at wider apertures should not surprise anyone as most fast lenses will struggle here. What is important however, is that the lens gives us a wide range of aperture settings (f/2.8 through f/11) where results are simply outstanding.

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 50mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 50mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

Chromatic aberration on an APS-C type body was quite low in the center, not exceeding ~0.2px throughout the tested aperture range and very manageable around borders, where it averaged ~0.7px throughout the aperture range.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

Canon FF: Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF gives up a bit of ground on a full frame camera, with both center and border performance suffering at the widest aperture setting. At f/1.4 center performance is rather average, and border performance is not much better. However, center performance improves quite nicely by f/2 and reaches Zeiss signature (read very high and very impressive) levels by f/2.8. Performance around borders also improves with stopped down aperture and in the f/2.8 through f/11 range it is as impressive as in the center. Conclusion? While performance at the widest aperture setting leaves room for improves, (like with an APS-C body) the lens shines in the f/2.8-f/11 range.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

CA on full frame body remained well under control both in the center as well as around borders. Chromatic aberration did not exceed ~0.2px in the center and averaged ~0.5px around borders throughout the aperture range.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

Alternatives

Assumin you're looking for a Nikon F mount alternatives to the 50mm Planar, you might want to take a look at Nikon's Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.4D, which exhibits pretty good overall characteristics and is reasonably priced. If you're looking for an alternative mount lenses, then you might want to consider Olympus OM Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 (review) or better yet Leica's Summilux-R 50mm f/1.4 (review) and Summicron-R 50mm f/2 (review).

However, as mentioned above, Carl Zeiss used to manufacture 50mm Planar in Contax/Yashica mount in the past and since the modern incarnation is also a fully manual lens you might want to seriously consider grabbing an older MM or even AE series C/Y Planar. But would those older variants of Planar perform as well as the current ZF version? This thought has been nagging me for some time and since I already tested Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 in the C/Y mount (review), I decided to compare their performance side by side. The chart below shows normalized MTF50 results of Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 in C/Y mount and its newer ZF version, taken with the same Canon 5D camera, using identical settings.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 (Center): Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 C/Y vs Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF
Normalized raw MTF50 (Center): Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 C/Y vs Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF

 

Normalized raw MTF50 (Borders): Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 C/Y vs Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF
Normalized raw MTF50 (Borders): Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 C/Y vs Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF

I can't say that the results come as a big surprise - I've had a chance to test about a dozen 50mm lenses (50mm Challenge) and majority of them showcase outstanding performance pretty much throughout the entire aperture range. So why would you want to purchase a new generation Planar instead of an older C/Y mount version, considering that the older variant would cost you ~50% less then the new ZF one? If all you care is resolution, then there's no reason. However, the new generation of Planars brings (arguably) improved coating that reduces flare as well as increases number of aperture blades, leading to a more pleasing out of focus highlights. Finally, there's also this thing called warranty - ever tried to CLA your lens? That alone can easily cost a couple hundred dollars.

 

Recommendation

Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF is a fine example of a prime lens that delivers exceptionally good results (well almost throughout the aperture range). Build quality, image quality, relatively low level of artifacts are all positive factors speaking for this lens. The biggest negative element for this lens is its price in my opinion. At ~US$500 this is not the cheapest 50mm prime, but is not the most expensive either (compare it to say Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, which retails at ~US$1,200). But then again, this is a fully manual lens, which is a rarity these days and might not be appealing to the masses.