Data sheet: Carl Zeiss Jena Prakticar (Pancolar) 50 mm f/1.4

Pekka Buttler, 08/2022

This lens is also covered in a JAPB comparison, which you can access here.

Specifications

The table below summarizes the lens’ key specifications (measurements are based on the pictured sample):

Brand:Carl Zeiss JenaLens namePrakticar 1:1,4 f=50mm MC
Focal length(s)150 mmAngle-of-view294 °
Maximum Aperturef/1.4In Production1978–1990
Lens mountsPraktica BSubfamily (if applicable)––
Length343,2 mmDiameter462,1 mm
Filter ring diameter49 mmWeight273 grams
Lens element count7Lens group count6
Aperture blades (S/R/C)56 SFocus throw270 °
Minimum focusing distance40 cmsMaximum magnification1:5,8
Has manual aperture ringYESHas Manual focus ringYES

Further notes:
• Prakticar is the name given to all Carl Zeiss Jena and Pentacon (and many other) lenses designed for the Praktica B mount. Hence, while the lens’ name ring says Prakticar, the lens is a member of the family of Pancolar (design) lenses, which is Carl Zeiss Jena’s post-1960 name for double-Gauss / Planar type lenses.
• Alike all Praktica B mount lenses, this lens has three electronic contacts that it uses to communicate selected aperture to the camera body and a physical aperture stop-down lever.
• The 50 mm f/1.4 Prakticar was manufactured in two variants (see ‘versions’ below).
• Unlike most late-era Carl Zeiss Jena lenses, the 50 mm f/1.4 was only ever produced in Praktica B mount.

History of Carl Zeiss Jena

There are few names in camera optics more illustrious than that of Carl Zeiss. The company was founded in the German town of Jena in 1846 by Carl Zeiß (hence: ‘Carl Zeiss Jena‘). During 1846–1945 there are few major developments in lens optics that the company was not involved in. Names that are even today well-known in optics – such as Planar (1896), Tessar (1902), Sonnar (1929), and Biotar (1939) (as well as many names that only optics-buffs know) – were the product of Zeiss’ first century of technological innovation.

After the Second World War Germany was divided into a Soviet zone (subsequently: East Germany) and the west-allied zones (subsequently: West Germany). While the Zeiss works resided in Jena (optics and glasses) and Dresden (cameras), which were in the Soviet sector, a contingent of Zeiss managers decided to move west and ended up setiting up shop in the small town of Oberkochen in the American sector under the name of Opton Optische Werke Oberkochen GmbH. As the relations between the former allied deteriorated and the split into East and West Germany became all the more real, the Oberkochen works changed their name first to Zeiss-Opton and later to Carl Zeiss.

What ensued was a lengthy international trademark dispute with both Zeiss’ (Jena and Oberkochen) laying claim to the name ‘Carl Zeiss’. The resulting stalemate – emblematic of the Cold War in its entirety – resulted in that Carl Zeiss Opton was allowed to use the name Carl Zeiss in the West, but had to use the Opton brand in the East bloc, whereas Carl Zeiss Jena was the only real Carl Zeiss as far as the east bloc was concerned, but could – mostly – not use the Carl Zeiss -name for exports to the West6. The fact remains however, that – starting in 1946 from a shared base – Jena and Oberkochen developed as two independent companies for more than 40 years. After German reunification also Zeiss East and Zeiss West were united again, and have since again been at the undoubtable forefront of lens development.

This lens harkens to the time of the cold-war and the East/West split. During the entire Cold War period, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena was seen by the country’s leadership both as a paragon of the East German technology industry and a showcase of the socialist/communist system as well as a major source of exports (and hence, western currencies). Within the centrally directed economy’s hierarchy, Carl Zeiss Jena therefore had a more prestigious role than other East German optics manufacturers (prominently Meyer-Optik Görlitz and, later, Pentacon), meaning that Carl Zeiss Jena received privileged access to tools and materiel (including the first computer in East Germany) and that its products were always considered the premium alternative.

History of the Pancolar

During the 1930s Carl Zeiss Jena had developed the 58 mm f/2 Biotar for use on SLR’s such as the then novel Exakta cameras. This design remained Carl Zeiss Jena’s workhorse in the category of fast, standard SLR lenses well into the 1950s. While the Biotar was far from being a bad lens (a fact proven by that it was produced in the countless millions, both as CZJ’s Biotar and as the Soviet Helios-44) the Biotar had the limitation that it – at 58 mm – was on the verge of being a short tele lens. Simultaneously users increasingly wanted something a bit wider. Hence, Carl Zeiss Jena’s engineers started work on a wider, but equally fast standard lens.

That lens, introduced in 1954 was first known as the 50 mm f/2 Biotar, but was renamed once to ‘Flexon’, and soon thereafter to Pancolar. After roughly a decade in production, a faster Pancolar was introduced, leading to that Carl Zeiss Jena’s standard lens had reached f/1.8. Coupled with the introduction of Pentacon’s flagship SLR (the Pentacon Super, 1966) Carl Zeiss Jena also introduced the Pancolar 55 mm f/1.4, which however was expensive to produce, and hence was never produced in large numbers.

In preparation of Pentacon’s 1978 launch of the Praktica B series of cameras, existing ideas for a 50 mm f/1.4 lens were dusted off, bringing Carl Zeiss Jena back into the production of f/1.4 lenses. Likely to help Pentacon’s new Praktica B cameras gain traction, the lens was never produced in M42 mount.

Versions

The 50 mm f/1.4 Prakticar was produced in two, optically different versions, that are easy to distinguish:
• The first version (1978–1984) has its name emblazoned on the outer side of the front barrel and uses a thoriated element, and is hence mildly radioactive and prone to yellowing.
• The second version (1982–1990; pictured) has a traditional name ring on the inside of the front barrel, and manages without a thoriated element.

For more details on the 50 mm f/1.4 Prakticar, see the detailed article on zeissikonveb.de (in German)

Adapting

This lens cannot be used natively on any current SLR or dSLRs. To use it in its native environment, you will need a Praktica B mount film body. Luckily there are a lot of those available, and many of them are still in perfect working order.

Thanks to being a fully manual lens (manual aperture, manual focus), the lens can be adapted to all mirrorless cameras using a suitable adapter. Moreover, Praktica B lenses are so uncomplicated that a simple ‘dumb adapter’ will do the job perfectly (The electronic contacts communicate only from the lens to the camera and do not impinge on adapting). However, due to that the Praktica B mount never was so successful, one should not expect special adapters (helicoid adapters, tilt/shift adapters) to be easily available. Alternatively, one can choose to daisy-chain adapters (e.g. Praktica B->Canon EF; Canon EF –> mirrorless) which not only opens up possibilities for special adapters, but also allows using speed boosters for those photographers that use smaller than full-frame sensors.

Using Praktica B lenses on dSLRs can also be an easy option, depending on which dSLR.
• Canon EF has the shortest flange focal distance among full-frame dSLR’s and Canon’s wide range of dSLRs are able to mount Praktica B lenses perfectly using a suitable adapter ring.
• With other dSLR mounts (Minolta/Sony A; Pentax K; Nikon F) the relationship between flange focal differences becomes an issue, leading to that adapting will necessitate an adapter that uses corrective optics to allow reaching infinity focus

Footnotes

1 Focal length is (unless stated otherwise) given in absolute terms, and not in Full-frame equivalent. For an understanding of whether the lens is wide/tele, see ‘Angle-of-view’.

2 Picture angle is given in degrees (based on manufacturers’ specs) and concerns the diagonal picture angle. Rule of thumb:
> 90 ° ==> Ultra-wide-angle
70–90 ° ==> Wide-angle
50–70 ° ==> Moderate wide-angle
40–50 ° ==> ‘Standard’ or ‘normal’ lens
20–40 ° ==> Short tele lens
10-20 ° ==> Tele lens
5-10 ° ==> Long tele lens
< 5 ° ==> Ultra-tele lens

3 Length is given from the mount flange to the front of lens at infinity.

4 Diameter excludes protrusions such as rabbit ears or stop-down levers.

5 S=straight; R=rounded; C=(almost)circular at all apertures.

6 Online one can find many lengthy and heated disputes stating that only Jena/Oberkochen is the true Carl Zeiss. While many of these discussions are riddled with misconceptions and a poor grasp of facts and timings, they largely also tend to be tainted by ideologies. Those discussions that focus on claims of one or the other Zeiss not really having rights to using designs developed at pre-war Zeiss are especially ludicrous because after the war practically the entire patent catalogue of pre-war German patents was given freely to everyone (the allied saw this as a form of reparations), hence also kickstarting the Japanese optics industry’s ascendancy (the Japanese optics companies were the most avid users of German optics patents).