Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2 ZM is one of two 50mm lenses that Zeiss is currently offering in the Leica M bayonet mount format (the other lens being Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 ZM). Planar is one of the most venerable designs in the photo lens industry, originally designed by Paul Rudolph in 1896. The design is often called 'Double-Gauss' for its symmetrical layout of lens elements. The design was widely copied by other lens manufacturers and almost all manufacturers these days have at least one lens derived one way or another from this design. Leica's Summicron, with which Planar 50/2 ZM competes directly is also a Double-Gauss design derived from the original Planar. First released in 2005, ZM Planar is widely available and retails for ~US$750 as of November, 2011.
The lens has a solid feel to it - like all current generation lenses, Planar is manufactured in Japan by Cosina and bears similar component elements: anodized metal barrel, knurled metal focusing and aperture rings, chrome finished lens mount and hood attachment ring. The aperture ring clicks in 1/3 f-stop increments, with the min aperture set to f/22. Focusing ring has very smooth feel to it with no play whatsoever. The minimum focusing distance is 0.7m. The lens is reasonably, for the rangefinder world of course, compact and light - it measures 52x68mm and weighs 230g.
Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/2 ZM can be used on a wide variety of M bayonet mount cameras, including all film and digital Leica, Zeiss Ikon and Voigtlander Bessa cameras. When used on APS-H sized Leica M8, which was used in the scope of this review, the lens gives an EFOV of 66mm. The lens can also be adapted to a number of mirror-less cameras, including Micro Four Thirds, Sony NEX, Samsung NX, Ricoh GXR and Pentax Q, using readily available adapters.
|Lens Composition||6 elements in 4 groups|
|Angular Field||47 degrees|
|f-stop Scale||f/2-f/22, manual|
|Lens Hood||Metal (optional)|
Even without the latest announced Leica lens price hike, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/2 ZM was one of the better bargains available out there in the rangefinder world. The word 'bargin' sometimes carries some negative association to some readers, as if you are trading off something to get this deal. In a sense you are - you are trading a Leica name for Zeiss name - is it a trade down though? In case of Planar 50/2 I don't think so. Its direct competitor in the Leica world is Summicron 50mm f/2, priced a whopping $1,200 more than Planar (and that is after Zeiss bumped the price of Planar from ~$650). While Leica purists might argue about the Leica value-appreciation factor or the benefit of the native digital coding, or about any other benefit of owning the much more expensive lens, a practical user, in my opinion, will ignore all this noise and would choose the cheapest lens that delivers performance that s/he is happy about and save the dough for other uses. Of course, in real life, a practical photographer is as rare as a rational consumer in economics theory - we all get our biases and preferences. Those associated with spending larger amounts of money on otherwise similar products are particularly strong - if not for that, all the so called 'luxury' brands would crumble to dust (ghmm, I will leave it to the reader's imagination to decide whether Leica is a luxury brand or not). Anyhow, where was I? Oh yes, the Planar. So essentially, many readers would be interested to know whether Planar can really stand its ground to the much more expensive Summicron. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to this question. At least, not yet, since I currently do not own, nor have I ever tried the latest generation version of Summicron 50/2. I have, however, tried and even own the first three generations of the Summicrons, starting with the collapsible version. Ignoring the different rendering styles of the modern Planar and antiqueted Summicrons, I feel that Planar is a much more capable lens in pretty much every aspect.
ZM Planar is a fairly conventional, from an operator's perspective, lens. Knurled focusing ring, with smooth, slightly resistant rotation, precise aperture ring with 1/3 f-stop idents. Planar does not have a focusing thumb, which might be annoying to some users accustomed to Leica lenses. The lens is slightly larger than an average f/2-f/2.8 lens - it is slightly larger than the current and previous generation Summicron 50/2, and is about same size as the first rigid version of Summicron. Without its hood attached, Planar blocks only ~5% of the rangefinder area, with no blocking of the 50mm frame. I don't have Planar lens hood, but from the looks of it, it seems a bit large, so you would probably experience some frameline blockage with the hood attached.
Zeiss does not code any of its lenses - did not have to until the crippled M8 came to existence. But even with the increased popularity of digital rangefinders, Zeiss continues to release all its lenses uncoded. Furthermore, because Planar's mount does not have a groove, any code markings drawn on it will be short lived - if you want to permanently code Planar, you would need to either replace the mount (Zeiss offers replacement mounts with a slight groove in them, which makes them more suitable for DIY coding) or machine the groove yourself. Either way it will void your warranty, so I can't really recommend these methods here. If you do decide to code the lens, then Summicron v4/v5 code works quite well according to various forum posts, and removes a good amount of vignetting and some color drift.