Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 C/Y Mount – Lens Review

Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 C/Y Mount – Lens Review

2000 1125 James Tocchio

Today’s lens review isn’t going to change the way you take photos, and if you’re already shooting a fast fifty don’t expect to be surprised. Today’s lens review, while certainly worth reading (don’t you dare), may even be just a bit boring, because we’re talking about a lens that will be totally redundant for those of you who are happy with your 50mm. But for the right shooter, the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 in Contax / Yashica mount will offer something few other lenses can.

Why am I so sure you won’t be startled by the next few hundred words? Because this lens isn’t anything we haven’t all seen before. A fast fifty capable of making amazing images, with excellent optical coatings from a well-loved brand? We’ve shot the same from Nikon, Canon, Leica, Pentax, Minolta… the list goes on. And when Zeiss made this lens they weren’t looking to stir things up. The Zeiss Planar is about as by-the-book as any 50mm you’ll ever shoot; it’s based on an optical design invented in the waning years of the 1800s. And though it may be old, this long history of fine optical creations has helped Zeiss become the master of something other brands still struggle with – feel. More on that later. Let’s first talk about the meat-and-potatoes of all lenses – the image.

The Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 in C/Y mount is the quintessential fast fifty, and it comes with all the wonders and pitfalls that this well-trod ground brings. Great low-light performance, with bokeh, sharpness, and versatility in spades, it also suffers from softness in the corners and heavy vignetting shot wide open. It brings a standard focal length that’s versatile enough to handle everything from landscapes to portraits, and a compact form factor that’s hard to beat. As mentioned, there’s nothing here to blaze new trails. What it does it does very well, and where it stumbles it does so to no greater degree than its contemporary competition. But let’s take a closer look.

The hallmark of any 50mm/1.4 is the way it allows you to easily shoot in low light conditions. This lens does that. When mated to a film camera (Contax or Yashica), it lets you shoot the type of film you want in whatever conditions you find yourself. I’ve carried this lens on a Contax SLR through sunny days in the park and dimly lit hockey games. It does its job, sucking in as much light as is needed to expose your stock. And when mounted to today’s mirrorless cameras via adapter, the high ISO performance of which has really surpassed our wildest dreams from the DSLR-only days, there’s no situation too dark for a 50/1.4.

As in all things photography, this low light performance comes with a compromise, and while it isn’t enough to discourage my enjoyment of the lens it is something to consider. Shooting at F/1.4 we’re at the mercy of razor-thin depth-of-field. To make usable images we’re going to need to be accurate with our focus, and since this is a manual-focus lens, nailing pinpoint focus can be a challenge. With film cameras (which typically feature a split-image focusing aid) the task is easy; with modern digital cameras it can be tough (even with focus peaking and focus-tones). Practice makes perfect, surely, but expect to miss some shots when you’re shooting at F/1.4.

The compromises don’t stop there. Wide-open shooting means we’re seeing softer corners and light fall-off. The former isn’t a glaring problem, since the only times we’d need corner sharpness is when we’re shooting landscapes, cityscapes, or similar, and we’re never going to shoot this style of photography wide-open anyway. But light fall-off (also called vignetting) is pretty pronounced. This shows as a general darkening around the edges and corners of the frame. Again, not a massive issue since it’s so common amongst fast prime lenses and is so easily correctable in post-processing, but prudence dictates I mention it.

I’ve also noticed fairly significant chromatic aberration when shooting wide-open, which surprised me given how often I’ve read that this particular lens doesn’t produce CA. For those not in-the-know, chromatic aberration presents as color-fringing (usually a magenta or yellow “double image” effect) around high contrast areas of a photo. It’s not the worst offender I’ve ever shot, but the color-fringes are impossible to ignore.

All this said, these sort of wide-open issues are not the exception when discussing 50mm lenses, but are rather the rule. I’ve yet to find a fast fifty legacy lens that doesn’t exhibit every one of these optical qualms. They all vignette, they all suffer soft corners, and they all color-fringe at wide-open aperture. Happily, the Zeiss does well to mitigate these issues, and is among the least egregious offenders I’ve shot.

Bokeh is really well-blended when we’re shooting at minimum focus distance, which is approximately fifteen inches, but as our subject gets further from the front element we start to see a bit of a distracting edginess to the blur. Subject isolation at normal operating distance is more than acceptable, the quality of the background blur just isn’t as smooth as some other bokeh-masters I’ve shot. Highlight bokeh looks shimmery wide-open, and as we stop down the aperture, the six-bladed diaphragm creates some fairly harsh geometry. Like it or not, the choice is up to you, but there are admittedly better options if bokeh is your qualifier for what makes a lens great.

When we stop down to F/2, most of our wide-open issues resolve. The vignetting is still there, surely, but sharpness in the corners snaps to the quality seen in the center of the frame quite quickly, and chromatic aberration all but disappears. By F/2.8 and F/4 this lens is making images that are, practically speaking, perfect. Sharp across the frame, well-lit, and free of any aberrations, from F/4 to F/11 we’re getting nothing but excellent results. Distortion is minimal to non-existent, and those minimally bulging lateral lines that do crop up can be easily fixed in post (a simple slider fixes this).

Sharpness at all apertures is better than most legacy 50mm/1.4s, and very comparable to another legacy lens known for amazing sharpness, Nikon’s Nikkor 50mm F/1.4 AIS. This Nikkor, which is my standard lens for product photography, is about as sharp as anyone will ever need and the Zeiss Planar matches it. There are certainly sharper lenses available, even counting nearly identical new lenses from none other than Zeiss, but not at this legacy lens’ low-ish price, and unless you’re an obsessive pixel-peeper you should be happy with images made through this glass.

All told, sort of hum-drum, right? There’s nothing here that’s gotten you all jazzed up to scour eBay, I know. The Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 behaves as countless high-quality legacy fifties have and do – it’s capable in all things, and more than exceptional when we work within its sweet spot. So what makes the Zeiss one of the only legacy fifties I’ve kept, rather than sell off through my shop? Two reasons – one not so tangible, and one very much so.

The first reason I’ve held onto this lens is that there’s a certain quality to the images the lens makes that’s hard to quantify. Some of the more experienced readers will be rolling their eyes, aware of what’s about to be read. Believe me, I’ve rolled my eyes many times at the notion of Zeiss’ reputed 3D pop. What does that even mean?

I can’t answer that, and when pressed I’d still call it all a bunch of hogwash, but I do see (occasionally) a quality to some of my images made with this lens that I can’t seem to replicate in other lenses (aside from Nikon’s Nikkor 105mm F/2.5, which has brought out the same effect in some of my photos – but that’s not a 50mm). What I’m referring to is a certain depth that I can’t find elsewhere. It might be the quality of the gradation between in-focus and out-of-focus elements of a frame. Or maybe its the lens’ ability to find micro-contrast where others don’t. Or it could be a product of Zeiss’ T-star coatings eliminating flares (which it does exceptionally well) and boosting overall contrast. I don’t really know, and I like to keep things casual (no MTF charts here, fellas), but I do see that in my most successful shots with this lens there’s a real sense of depth and scale that I struggle to find when I use other 50mm lenses.

I know. Hogwash. But whichever side of the fence you fall on regarding 3D pop, there’s no denying the second reason this lens won’t leave my bag.

Where the Zeiss sets itself apart and above most other lenses is in its truly exceptional build quality. The 50mm Planar feels more like a scientific instrument than an object to be mounted on your typical vacationers’ SLR. It’s precise in a way that few objects in this world are, and when compared to other lenses from other manufacturers there’s not much to argue over. The Zeiss is the best.

Aside from the wonderfully textured rubber coatings surrounding the aperture ring and focus ring, and naturally the glass elements, there’s nothing on the exterior of this lens that isn’t metal. In an era in which many makers used metal for their lens barrels, the Zeiss carries this material throughout, choosing metal for even the nameplate bezel, filter threads, and aperture ring, areas where other makers typically cut cost through the use of plastic.

Focus throw is weighted perfectly, offering just the right amount of resistance. The aperture ring clicks into its detents with mechanical certainty and a satisfyingly muted click. These tactile stimuli transform the all-manual nature of the lens from what might be a hamstringing chore on lesser lenses into a pleasurably measured workflow. Set aperture, set shutter speed, focus, shoot. No finger dials or buzzing AF motors. This is photography.

This fine application of moving parts, sophisticated material selection, and high-precision build all combine into an object that’s simply wonderful to feel and hold and use. Like a manual-wind watch, it may not be the technical champion in its class, but it has something the others don’t. Whether or not this finery is worth the extra cost that accompanies it is up to you. There are lenses out there that will give you results that are just as good at half the price (like the mentioned Nikkor 50/1.4), but they won’t be as pleasant to use. If the enjoyment of the process matters to you, this Zeiss is hard to beat.

And one final tip – if you’re motivated to hunt down your own copy of this lens, try beating around the bush first. Hunt on eBay for lesser-known cameras to which this lens may have been mounted and you’re likely to find a nice example sold by someone who’s just not savvy to uncle Carl’s name. Try the Contax 137 or the 139 Quartz, and if you happen to find the lens affixed to the latter you’ll have scored one of the best sleeper SLRs I’ve ever had the pleasure of shooting.

Want your own Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 in C/Y mount?

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • I agree the Planar 1.4 is a superb lens. Maybe not quite as pin sharp as the f1.7 version (often the case with Planars that the slightly slower version is sharper) but a great all round performer. I used it as my standard lens on various Contax SLR’s for many years (RTS2, RTS3 and RX). I still use one on the beautifully made Contax Auto Bellows as my standard macro lens with a Novoflex LET/CONT adapter on my digital Leica SL.


    • Great points. For anyone who doesn’t know, the F/1.7 is excellent optically and at some apertures sharper than the faster fifty, but the build quality of the 1.7 just isn’t as nice as the 1.4, and I think this is what really sets the Zeiss range apart from other legacy lenses. As for that combination – pretty amazing. I’d love to shoot this on an SL.

  • Merlin Marquardt April 4, 2017 at 7:47 pm


  • Madis McLembrus April 5, 2017 at 7:03 am

    Always hard to justify for paying big bucks for a 50, so settled for F1.7 version instead and very happy with it. 🙂

  • Randle P. McMurphy April 6, 2017 at 9:03 am

    Still the Contax is something that always remember´s me at my gandfather.
    He was taking pictures since he was a young man till he couldn´t left the bed any more.
    Starting to get interrested in photography I asked him why Contax and not Nikon or Leica
    he just rolls eyes and answered “Because of the lenses !”
    The Planar 1,4/50 is still one of the sharpest 50 I ever used and I had/have Leica and Nikon too.


  • I use all three Leica, contax and pentax. In 50/1.4 zeiss renders almost identical as pentax-a 50/1.4. However Leica sets color rendering apart. I love all three. I would suggest people get the pentax one because although it’s rare but it’s only 1/3 price of contax. Pentax 50s are also top of the game in image quality. Better than Nikon ais due to pentax smc is essentially the T*?coating itself if not better.

  • Is it much different feom Yashica ML 50 1.4? My copy is sharper that Canon EF 50 1.4 wide open.

  • I have this lense which I want to use on my Olympus Pe EP2 as I use my Fathers Nikon 50 F1.2 lense using a adapter. Any idea which adapter I need ?

  • Great article James. Now where can I get that strap for my 139Q?

  • Would love to see you review the tessar 45mm f2.8 lens. Together with the 139q it’s been the lightest and most satisfying experience for the on the road documentary type of shooting I do. Shot this system (also with the incredible contax 167mt, though not as frequently) with the unfortunately discontinued fuji industrial 400 film for some time, and almost never had to touch the scans as they were quite perfect to my eyes without any editing. Now I’ve had to switch to portra 400 and find myself having to get “used to” to this stock, but none the less just the very occasional addition of contrast. Have often thought about getting one of the zeiss 50 lenses, either 1.7 or 1.4 for easier night shots, but can’t bring myself to complicate such a convenient system! And I must say the 2.8 can handle interiors and night time quite well with some practice shooting handheld from 1/30-1/8.

    • You would be surprised that tessar 45mm contax has a twin sister Pentax 43mm F1.9.. what Pentax gave you is actually one step advantage. They are equally sharp and endless smooth color rendering. I enjoyed them both. However I must say Pentax 43mm F1.9, Contax Tessar 45mm F2.8, Nikon 40mm F2.8 and Leica/Minolta 40mm F2.0 are all very similar in sharpness. But for color rendering, I think Pentax has the best render. Why? because among all 40mm lenses.. Pentax 43mm F1.9 was designed to be modern with latest coating at the time, and it also allows autofocus (unique feature).

      Yes! I love them all… I collect pancakes for a reason 🙂

      • The Pentax FA Limited 43mm indeed has some sort of magic. It is not mentioned often enough in esteemed company.

        • That’s definitely true! The lens designer was aimed for Leica rendering to begin with. In fact! They did produce Leica L39 version of this lens.

  • AE or MM lens?

  • I completely agree with you that this lens has a certain special quality in its rendering that’s impossible to adequately describe.

    I also have a 35mm f/2.8 Distagon and while that lens is also undeniably great, my 35mm f/2 Nikkor-O is just as good, in my opinion, and a stop faster. The Planar is more distinctive and less easily replaceable.

    • Stefan Staudenmaier January 22, 2020 at 7:28 am

      Dear Neilson,

      the Distagon is the sharper lens on any aperture but the Nikkor O has the more beautiful rendering
      or bokeh in my opinion.

      The King of the Hill here would be the Nikkor N 1,4/35 it is a amazing pleasure to work with
      but definitely nothing for beginners.

      • Yes, that’s exactly it. The Distagon is more “clinical” looking in its sharpness. The Nikkor-O is my favorite lens these days. The Nikkor-N is intriguing but the ones currently listed on eBay are almost $400, a bit too much for me to bite. In contrast my barely used factory Ai converted Nikkor-O.C was only $110, a great value.

  • This lens was made under license by Cosina, and from what I have read elsewhere it is not superior to other contemporary Japanese lenses of the same focal length and speed. That is not to say it is not a good lens, but in all likelihood the Nikkor, Pentax, and Canon lenses of the same era are not significantly different. I do know that the Leitz 50mm Summilux-R (first, 7-element version) is superior, so anyone looking for a great lens should start there.

    • Stefan Staudenmaier January 22, 2020 at 7:22 am

      Thank you Enver for the link but we discuss a different version of this lens.
      I had the AE version made for Contax in use with the Contax 137 and compared
      it to the Leica M 2,0/50 which had the reputation to be one of Leicas sharpest
      and for me the Planar beat the Summicron.

      Don’t get me wrong. I don’t use lab parameters or brickwalls so my opinion is very subjective.
      What I also found out is there can be a big difference between quality and performance when
      you compare different used lenses or production batches.

      A german photographer made this test with the Nikkor 2,0/50 H which has almost a legendary
      reputation for its sharpness. On his tests he got aware of the big differences and jumps in the
      results. A nearly mint lens with high serial number seems to be the worst of all.
      At the used ones he could find the reason maybe in dejustage while falling down or from a bumb.
      So he guessed that maybe the final control or quality control could be a factor to ?

      The sharpest Nikkor was the „beaten up“ with the lowest number so maybe Nikon was reducing
      controls after a while to save money ?

  • Sharpest lens I ever saw was the Leica 35mm f 2.8 Summaron in Leica screw mount. When I worked for ModernAge in their Wall St. lab, we had a regular professional who shot with this lens and insisted on also using it when we made 16×20 inch black and white prints. I developed his negatives by inspection and our best printer always did his work.

    The prints were spectacularly sharp and the great printer said it was a miracle. Images were created and printed by the same lens. Nothing ever compared.

    Bill Geissler

  • Agree about the special rendering and 3D feel. I am using it on a Panasonic GX9 with some lovely results. It focuses a bit closer than my Olympus 45mm so I use it for flower photography. Throwing the background out of focus gives an abstract feeling.

  • Vittorio Ambrosetti January 10, 2021 at 9:22 am

    This is a fantastic lens, I have had an adapter made to use it on my Pentax SLRs and my experience matches the reviewer’s. Great bokeh, amazing sharpness and the images really jump out of the screen. Wonderful for portraits and still life.
    If you are thinking of buying one, be sure to ckeck that the diaphragm blades are free from oil stains.

  • Found one recently for sub 100 on a contax 159mm. Being the mm version. No ninja stars stopped down and this copy is so clean I’m astonished.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio