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Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8: A Vintage Gem for Portraits

If you are looking for a vintage lens that can deliver stunning portraits with a medium format look, you might want to consider the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8. This lens was originally designed for the Pentacon Six, a 6x6 film camera from East Germany, but it can be adapted to modern digital cameras with the right mount. In this article, we will review the features, performance and image quality of this legendary lens.

A photograph of the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 lens
The Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 lens - a hulking beast.

Zeiss Sonnar 180mm: Features

The Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 is a telephoto prime lens with a fast aperture of f/2.8. It has a focal length of 180mm, which is equivalent to about 90mm on a full-frame camera or 120mm on a Fuji GFX 50s medium format camera. The lens has a minimum focusing distance of 1.7m and a filter diameter of 86mm. It has seven aperture blades and five elements in three groups.

The lens is built like a tank, with a lot of metal in its construction. It is large and heavy, weighing about 1.35kg or 47.6oz. It has a smooth and easy to slide aperture ring and a firm and precise focusing ring. It also has a tripod mount, which is very useful for stabilising the lens.

The lens comes in three versions: silver, zebra and MC (multi-coated). The MC version is the most recent and has better contrast and flare resistance than the older versions. The zebra version has a distinctive striped pattern on the barrel. The silver version is the oldest and rarest.

Zeiss Sonnar 180mm: Performance

The Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 is known for its excellent optical quality and character. It produces sharp images with beautiful bokeh, colours and depth. The lens has a Sonnar design, which gives it a unique rendering and smooth transitions between in-focus and out-of-focus areas.

The lens performs well wide open at f/2.8, with good centre sharpness and moderate vignetting and softness in the corners. Stopping down to f/4 or f/5.6 improves the sharpness across the frame and reduces the vignetting. The lens has very little distortion or chromatic aberrations.

The lens has a nice bokeh, with smooth and round out-of-focus highlights. The bokeh is especially pleasing when shooting portraits or close-ups, as it creates a nice separation between the subject and the background. The lens also has a natural colour rendition, with warm and rich tones.

The lens is not without flaws, however. It is prone to flare and ghosting when shooting against bright light sources, especially in the non-MC versions. It also has a relatively long minimum focusing distance, which limits its versatility for some subjects. But with a set of macro extension tubes, it is possible to focus closer. As a manual focus and manual aperture control lens, it's not as simple to use, but amply rewards the patience required.

Zeiss Sonnar 180mm: Image Quality

Here are some sample images taken with the zebra version of the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 on the Kiev 60 system:

A macro photograph of seeds within flowers.
Paired with macro tubes, you can really pick out a high degree of detail and render close to life size reproductions of objects. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

A winter's scene with youths enjoying the snow in Greenwich Park, with Canary Wharf in the background.
One winter's day in Greenwich Park during Covid, it was nice to find people enjoying their lives. The Sonnar allowed a compression of the background while maintaining a pleasing separation. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

A still life of a multicoloured flower in black and white.
Still lives are exceptionally detailed with the Sonnar. The ability to get relatively close (for the focal length) allows such subject separation from the background as to render shots like this child's play. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

A colour macro photo of decaying ropes.
Once again, pairing the Sonnar with a macro tube allows you to pick out fine detail while still maintaining a degree of depth of field. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

A colour portrait of some box cameras and twin lens reflex cameras.
Some of the author's (and his wife's) other cameras taken using the Sonnar. From left to right: Zeiss Box Tengor, Kodak Brownie Flash 2, Rolleiflex 2.8E3, Lubitel (original). Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Zeiss Sonnar 180mm: Conclusion

The Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 is a vintage lens that can offer amazing results for a range of different photography styles. Portraiture is its natural calling, but it is also easily adapted to still life and macro photography, and at the limit, street photography (though it is hardly an inconspicuous lens!). It has a fast aperture, a medium format look and a distinctive character that sets it apart from modern lenses. It is not perfect, as it has some drawbacks such as flare, weight and manual operation, but it is worth trying if you are looking for something different and special.

If you are interested in buying this lens, you can find it on eBay or other online platforms for around £200-£400 depending on the condition and version. You will also need an adapter to mount it on your camera of choice if you do not have a Pentacon Six mount medium format camera.

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Aug 10, 2023
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