Data sheet: Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50 mm f/2.8

Pekka Buttler, 11/2022

Specifications

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

Brand:Carl Zeiss Jena DDRLens nameTessar 2.8/50
Focal length(s)150 mmAngle-of-view246 °
Maximum Aperturef/2.8In Production1947–1988
Lens mountsExakta, M42, Praktina, Altix,
Werra, Pentina, others
Subfamily (if applicable)––
Length336,2 mmDiameter465,7 mm
Filter ring diameter49 mmWeight171 grams
Lens element count4Lens group count3
Aperture blades (S/R/C)55 SFocus throw270 °
Minimum focusing distance35 cmsMaximum magnification1:4.8
Has manual aperture ringYESHas Manual focus ringYES

Further notes:
• The pictured lens represents the second to last iteration of the venerable standard Tessar for 35 mm film. The pictured sample (M42) also has an Auto/Manual switch and an aperture control pin.
• Due to the Zeiss East and Zeiss West trademark dispute (see below), some Carl Zeiss Jena Tessars were sold in international markets without reference to the word ‘Tessar’ (the lenses were simply indicated by the letter ‘T’
• From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, also Carl Zeiss (West/Oberkochen) produced Tessar lenses.
• The same basic lens (50/2.8 Tessar) was available for almost every type of camera (and every interchangeable lens camera) manufactured in East Germany. The number of mounts is hence truly-mind-boggling and I’ve only listed the more common above.

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 Tessar

The Tessar (together with the Sonnar and Planar) is one of the most famous Zeiss designs. The Tessar – another of Paul Rudolph’s master strokes – first saw the light in 1902 and was – itself – the combination of two earlier Zeiss designs. In essence, the Tessar combines the Zeiss Unar’s (4 elements in 4 groups) and Zeiss Protar’s (4 elements in 2 groups) into a highly compact 4 elements in 3 groups design. This design further has the advantage that it produces a sharp and very well corrected image.

The Tessar, while initially the brainchild of Paul Rudolph, was further developed and refined by a long list of Zeiss’ master lens designers, including Ernst Wandersleb, Willy Merté, and Harry Zöllner. While Willy Merté’s pioneering work proved that the Tessar design can be brought into the range of large aperture lenses (f/2 and better), those feats necessitated the extensive use of aspherical surfaces, which were (and remained for decades to come) not an economically feasible proposition. Instead, it was Zöllner who managed to recompute the basic Tessar design in such a way that allowed raising the maximum aperture to f/2.8 – a design that managed to combine a decent maximum aperture and high IQ into a package that could economically be mass-produced.

Hence, the Tessar remained the weapon of choice for cameras/lenses that did not necessitate a maximum aperture higher than f/2.8. On the other hand, the Tessar’s low group count (compared to Planars and other double Gauss’ designs) also means that the Tessar has a lower number of air-glass interfaces. Before the advent of modern coatings a low group-count approach was much less likely to suffer bad flaring and loss of transmission than a high-group count lens. In fact, even after the introduction of coating technologies, Tessars were customarily sold using less advanced coating techniques.

The combination of high IQ and economic factors made the Tessar the go-to choice for many mid-range cameras, where it played the role of the mid-tier alternative (more advanced than basic triplets; less expensive than Double Gauss designs). Furthermore, as the Tessar could be implemented either as a unit-focusing lens (all elements move to change focus) or – without a significant IQ penalty – as a single-element focusing lens (by shifting the front element vis-à-vis the other elements), the Tessar found use both in interchangeable lens cameras as well as fixed lens cameras.

Various versions of the Tessar were used from their inception in 1902 to their end of production (in the GDR) in 1988. During that time, Tessars were extensively used in many formats (35 mm, medium format, large format) and types of cameras (SLRs, TLRs, interchangeable lens viewfinders/rangefinders, compacts). A testament to the Tessar’s long-lasting fame is that the name is used extensively in lenses (e.g. Tele-Tessar, Vario-Tessar, Smartphone lenses) that share very little if anything with the original Tessar design.

Versions

The 50/2.8 Tessar was produced in innumerable versions for different mounts, and even within the more long-lived mounts, several cosmetic/ergonomic variations exist.

Adapting

(The discussion below will focus on adapting M42 and Exakta variants. For a discussion on adapting Praktina mount variants, see JAPB’s article on the Praktina mount. For other mounts, be in touch, and I’ll try to help as best I can.)

This lens cannot be used natively on any current SLR or dSLRs. To use it in its native environment, you will need an Exakta or M42-mount film body. Luckily there are a lot of those (especially in M42 mount) available.

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, both Exakta and M42 lenses are so uncomplicated that a simple ‘dumb adapter’ will do the job perfectly. Moreover, due to the popularity of both mounts, special adapters (helicoid adapters, tilt/shift adapters) are readily available. Alternatively, one can choose to daisy-chain adapters (e.g. M42->Canon EF; Canon EF –> mirrorless) which also opens up a wide range of speed boosters for those photographers that use smaller than full-frame sensors.

Using m42 and Exakta 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 both M42 and Exakta lenses perfectly using a simple adapter ring.
• Minolta / Sony A dSLRs are likewise able to mount M42 lenses using a simple adapter ring, but for Exakta lenses, the difference in flange focal distances is not enough to enable reaching infinity focus without an adapter that uses corrective optics.
• Pentax K dSLRs are likewise able to use M42 lenses using a simple adapter ring, but for Exakta lenses an adapter that uses corrective optics would be needed to allow infinity focus.
• Nikon F dSLRs have a long flange focal distance, meaning that mounting either M42 or Exakta lenses needs an adapter that uses corrective optics to allow anything close to 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).

7 Apparently the reason for the name change away from Biotar was that Carl Zeiss Jena had recently settled its trademark dispute with Carl Zeiss Oberkochen, and would have forced to sell its lenses in the west without reference to the ‘Carl Zeiss’ name, but also without reference to pre-war design names such as Tessar, Sonnar and Biotar. Renaming the Biotar to Flexon neatly circumvented this problem.