Lens Love is an ongoing series of posts about the vintage lenses I’ve used and loved most.
The dry technical data and 100% corner crops of brick walls can be found elsewhere. What I’m more interested in is what specifically about a lens makes me love using it, and why I believe you should try one too.
Up today –
Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42
The reason M42 mount are my favourite lenses can be summed up in two words. Takumar and Zeiss.
Let’s leave Takumars are for a different post (or 10).
On the Zeiss front, in M42 I have the holy trio of the Flektogon 35/2.4, Pancolar 50/1.8 and Sonnar 135/3.5. These three could form my entire lens collection and I would be abundantly equipped to shoot beautiful photographs for the rest of my life.
I recently wrote about my six strong stack of 135s and the Sonnar is as good as any of them.
Indeed if I had to pick just one, based on the results I’ve got so far and the general feel and handling, it would be the Sonnar.
What I love
Final image. The Sonnar has a near perfect balance of sharpness of focus and softness of bokeh, in my view. Despite having six aperture blades, which with some lenses can often lead to abrasive polygons in the background, the Sonnar manages to almost entirely avoid this. And the sharpness is delicious, though not in a sterile or clinical way.
Size and form. This Zeiss is very compact for a 135mm lens, and cleverly uses much of its length as the metal knurled focusing ring. It feels well built, all metal and glass, the focusing is pretty smooth, and the aperture clicks are subtle yet reassuring. It doesn’t feel like a cheap or hastily made object.
Close focus. I’ve had a few 135s that have performed very well but the minimum focus has been 2m plus. The Sonnar focus down to a fraction under 1m, which is excellent given the extra reach a 135 lens gives anyway. It makes close ups of flowers, decaying doors, gravestones and the other textures I enjoy very easy and very rewarding.
Adaptability. It’s an M42, probably the most adaptable lens mount any ever made. In native M42 mount you have fabulous 35mm film cameras like the Spotmatic and Fujica ranges.
If you prefer a later, more compact Aperture Priority (Av) body, take your pick from Pentax K, Contax, Canon EOS and more, via very simple and cheap adapters. Flip the Sonnar’s A/M switch to M (Manual), stop down to the aperture you wish to use and the camera will select the correct shutter speed for you.
On the digital front the choice is even wider. I’ve used Sony NEX, Sony Alpha and Pentax K DSLRs with M42 lenses, all with fantastic results, and again via cheap plentiful adapters.
What about the downsides?
No lens is perfect of course. My Sonnar, in near mint condition, cost me £50.
I’ve bought other 135mm lenses for under £15 that have made wonderful pictures.
But since none of them focus as close, or are quite as compact, the Sonnar just about justifies its higher price tag.
You might find one cheaper if you’re patient, lucky or both. But they’re nowhere nearer the plentiful budget end of M42 135s.
My other two Zeiss lenses I mentioned both developed faults with the aperture blades and became stuck open.
I had both services and fixed, at a cost of around £45.
Though the Sonnar feels good quality, I’m always waiting for the day it goes the way of the other Zeiss, and adding another £45 would take my total outlay to near £100. Still a bargain in the grand scheme of things, but if you’re on a tight budget, there are other 135s with as good performance for far less, in M42 mount, Pentax K mount and beyond.
A minor annoyance is the plastic pull out hood.
Zeiss obviously felt it was necessary to have or they wouldn’t have designed it. But if you ignore it, it quite often slides out anyway. And when it is out it doesn’t easily stay in position. A simple turn to lock in place system would have been easy to incorporate and would mean you could leave it extended when in use and not see it sliding in and out.
To be fair this is not an issue exclusive to this lens, I have other brands that are similar, bit it does seem a bit of a flimsy afterthought and doesn’t fit with the otherwise solid all metal body.
The final downside is simple. It’s not a Takumar.
If I’d never had a Takumar I wouldn’t know to compare. But I do have them, and they remain my favourite lenses for their luxurious smoothness and build quality, let alone the fantastic optics.
The later K mount Pentax 135s I’ve had (an SMC Pentax 135/3.5 and a Pentax-M 135/3.5) have also been beautifully smooth and confidence inspiring.
My inner photographic jury is still out as to whether the Sonnar is optically superior to my preset Takumar 135/3.5, as I’ve only had the latter a couple of weeks. The Sonnar retains all the pros outlined above, but just simply isn’t as smooth and reassuring as a Takumar.
Lastly, a note on variations and naming.
Whilst I’ve referred throughout this post to the Sonnar as a Sonnar, my version’s full name is the Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Electric MC S 135/3.5. I understand there were periods where disputes between Zeiss companies in East and West Germany meant there were restrictions on the use of various names. Similarly, I have a Tessar which is called simply a Jena T.
So if you find one like mine that only has S 135/3.5, not Sonnar, rest assured it is the same optical formula.
Overall, on the photographs I’ve been able to make alone, the Sonnar comes highly recommended.
The downsides are relatively minor, and the pluses in abundance. If you like 135s and haven’t tried a Sonnar, I’d definitely suggest you seek one out.