05 Nov 2019

Zeiss ‘Contax’ Sonnar 180mm f/2.8, a fast, heavyweight quality prime lens

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Zeiss ‘Contax’ Sonnar 180mm f/2.8, a fast, heavyweight quality prime lens Craig Marshall

We continue our series about classic Zeiss stills lenses for video. This time it's the turn of the Zeiss ‘Contax’ Sonnar 180mm f/2.8.

Read parts 1, 23, and 4 of this series.

My next Zeiss lens review is another prime, another of my very first Contax lens acquisitions. Although I have several AEG (made in West Germany) lenses, the 180mm f/2.8 is the only one in my collection to feature the notorious ‘Ninja Star’ iris, something I quite like!

Main Features:

  • Construction: 6 elements in 5 groups
  • Weight: 815g
  • Filter thread: 72mm
  • Angle of View (full-frame) 14 (degrees)
  • Why would I want one?
  • legendary Zeiss T* coating
  • a Contax ‘speed giant’
  • Minimal ‘breathing’
  • Easily found second-hand but can be expensive.
  • Wonderful DoF
  • Automatic aberration correction during focusing with a floating front element
  • Extremely close focusing of only 1.4m

180mm AEG.jpg

The Carl Zeiss ‘Contax’ Sonnar 180mm weighs over 800g, so it is one massive prime! Most of the examples currently listed for sale are the later MMJ (made in Japan) versions but the photos shown here in this review depict the rarer AEG model which I own and was made in West Germany. Many AEG lenses feature the Ninja Star iris which creates a bokeh that looks like, but more extravagant than, the subtle effect exhibited by highly coveted Cooke lenses. You can see the effect of the ninja star iris in this music video which I shot in Japan some years ago. At 4:05 minutes in, a group of girls chat and laugh together and the ‘ninja star’ iris is clearly visible in the out-of-focus pin-point lights above their heads.

As the data sheet says: “Landscapes are appreciably compressed by the telephoto perspective and the shallow DoF makes the principal subject stand out distinctly”. Make sure you download the gradable uncompressed DNG images and see how they polish up in your favourite CC software!

If like me, you can use a Speed Booster to adapt the Contax/Yashica mount to your particular camera, you’re well in front because the Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 suddenly becomes a worthy f/2.0 on the S35 sensor but even so, if my math is correct, only half the light hitting that huge front element makes it to the sensor. The iris can easily be de-clicked as with all Contax lenses and the relatively small barrel extension allows use with a matte box. C/Y adapters are readily available and permanent EF mounts are also very popular for this big, fast prime.

Click here to download the set of original uncompressed 3:2 format DNG files as reproduced in this review and see how they polish up in your favourite CC software.

As always, images were captured with the lens’ iris wide open at maximum aperture and at 0dB Gain (ISO 200) on the camera so you can expect even better performance when stopped down. Even though you will find plenty of examples of this big prime, be prepared to pay between US$400 and $600 for a good second-hand example.

Make sure you download the gradable uncompressed DNG images.

Full Lens Data Sheet PDF download here.

FF vs S35 Angle of View with the Zeiss Contax Sonnar 180mm wide open at f/2.8

Craig Marshall

Retired freelance TV commercial and documentory producer/director/camera/editor

Website: www.HDvideo4K.com

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