Introduction

Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar MC 50mm f/1.8 was manufactured by Carl Zeiss Jena of DDR up until reunification with Carl Zeiss of West Germany in 1991. Pancolar was manufactured in M42 universal as well as Exakta RTL mounts. The lens was also later ported to the B mount for Practicar. The lens carries MC designation which stands for Multi-Coated. The f/1.8 variant replaced its slower f/2 predecessor and along with Meyer (Pentacon) 50mm f/1.8 was one of the more popular lenses for Practica cameras. Like most Carl Zeiss Jena lenses, Pancolar is pretty common in Europe but not so much in the US.

The build quality of the lens is superb - berral, focus and aperture rings are made of lightweight metal (overall look and feel somewhat resembles Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm lenses in the C/Y mount). The lens is pretty compact and light, measuring 61x51mm (2.1x2in) and weighing 225g (7.93oz). The lens actually extends slightly when docusing towards infinity, making it slightly longer. The electric variant of the lens (one tested here) supports both manual and fully automatic diaphragm action. The mode is controlled by an A/M switch on the side of the barrel.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 6 elements in 5 groups. It has the minimum focusing distance of 35cm (1.14ft), and the minimum aperture of f/22. The filter size is 55mm. On an APS-C camera with 1.6x crop ratio, the lens has a field of view similar to a 80mm lens on a full-frame body. Used copies of the lens can be found for about US$100 on eBay.

Image

To test the lens on Canon EOS body, I used a generic Fotodiox M42 to EOS adapter without AF confirmation. You will end up operating the camera in manual or aperture priority modes with all but center weighted metering disabled.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 6 elements in 5 groups
Angular Field 45 degrees
Minimum Focus 35cm/1.14ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.8-f/22, manual
Filter Size 49mm
Lens Hood N/A
Weight 225g/7.93oz
Dimensions 61x51mm/2.1x2"
Lens Case N/A

 

Field Tests

Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar MC 50mm f/1.8 showed rather mixed results in the field. The lens was pretty soft around borders at f/1.8. Border quality improves progressively with stopped down aperture, but rather slowly - images were still visibly soft around borders at f/2.8 and were only slightly better at f/4. The sweet spot seemed to be around f/8-f/11 where the lens showed fantastic results.

 

Vignetting @ f/1.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop
Vignetting @ f/1.8 - full frame vs 1.6x crop

 

Vignetting was moderate with a wide open aperture on a FF camera, and non-existent on an APS-C body. Once stopped down to f/2.8, vignetting on a full-frame body becomes pretty much minimal. As expected from a standard prime lens, Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 did not exhibit any visible barrel distortion and held up quite well against flare and color fringing.

 

ISO 100, 1/4000, f/1.8, 50mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/4000, f/1.8, 50mm (100% crop)
Sample images coming soon...

 

Lab Tests

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

 

Canon APS-C: The lens clearly struggled at wide aperture settings around borders. From f/1.8 through f/2.8, border quality is inadequate (mildly speaking). What actually bothered me was performance at f/2.8, not at f/1.8 where most lenses struggle. However, by f/2.8 most 50mm primes reach pretty good levels, but that is not the case with Pancolar. Performance does improve with stopped down aperture, but does not really reach decent level until f/5.6. From f/5.6 through f/11, performance remains on a consistently high level. Image quality in the center fared much better - performance is quite decent at f/1.8 and improves steadily with stopped down aperture, reaching maximum at f/5.6. At its best (f/5.6 through f/11), the lens is capable of producing outstanding 19in and decent 24in prints. Conclusion? Pancolar MC 50mm f/1.8 shows very good performance with stopped down aperture. But then again, most standard primes excel at slow speeds. Border performance at wide aperture settings is where most lenses struggle, and Pancolar is not an exception here.

 

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

 

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

 

Like most standard fixed coal lenses, Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar MC 50mm f/1.8 did not show any major chromatic aberration. CA did not exceed ~0.3px in the center and ~0.5px around borders.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.8 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: The lens performance on a full-frame Canon 5D pretty much mirrors performance on the APS-C camera. The lens shows pretty decent performance in the center at f/1.8 and from f/2.8 through f/11 center quality is outright exceptional. Border performance on the other hand is pretty weak with wide open apertures. The lens struggles somewhat even at f/4, where most prime lenses typically fare better.  Once stopped down to f/5.6 (and through the rest of the tested aperture range) border quality becomes pretty good. Conclusion? While overall image quality with stopped down aperture (from f/5.6 through f/11) is outstanding, performance at wide aperture settings leaves (a lot of) room for improvement.

 

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

 

CA was well contained on a full-frame camera, not exceeding ~0.5px in the center and ~0.6px around borders.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.8 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.8 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

Well, if you are looking for the widest selection of alternatives, then M42 mount is where you find that selection. Starting from Asahi Pentax, Carl Zeiss Jena, Meyer Optics and ending with Schneider, Chinon, Rikenon, Industar, Arsat, Volna and many many more... If you want to stick with Carl Zeiss Jena, then consider a slightly faster variant of Pancolar - CZJ Pancolar 55mm f/1.4 or a slower Tessar 50mm f/2.8. Alternatively, you might want to take a look at Myer's Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.4. No list of alternatives would be complete without Asahi Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4. The list can go on and on, however, if you are willing to consider non M42 mount lenses, then you should take a look at two Carl Zeiss (Contax) Planar 50mm variants - the 50mm f/1.4 (review) and 50mm f/1.7 (review).

 

Recommendation

Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar MC 50mm f/1.8 leaves somewhat mixed impressions. Performance with stopped down aperture (from f/5.6) is simply outstanding on both APS-C and FF cameras, however image quality, especially around borders, with wide open apertures is mediocre at best. While I did not really expect this lens to perform exceptionally well at f/1.8 (all 50mm lenses I tested so far struggle here), performance at f/2.8 and even f/4 left me wondering why should anyone bother buying this lens. After all, most 50mm primes perform quite well once stopped down to this aperture levels. Even more puzzling to me is the current going price for this lens on used markets - at the current average going price for the lens you have plenty of alternatives to choose from, including such excellent lenses as Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.7 in C/Y mount and Olympus Zuiko OM 50mm f/1.4.