I’ve been shooting all sorts of classic lenses for many years, but for a long time I sought one legendary portrait lens above them all, the Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 75mm f/1.5. Zeiss originally dubbed this lens the “Night Lens” for its ability to shoot in low light situations. Others have affectionately called it The Big B, The King of Bokeh, and The Vortex King for its ability to render swirling whirlpools in the out-of-focus areas behind a subject. Whatever you call it, it’s a special lens.
After several years of dreaming and months of actively looking to buy, I’ve finally managed to get my hands on one. During that long hunt I spent months researching the lens and speaking to as many experts as I could, and here I’ve compiled a detailed history of the lens that’s become my photographic muse.
The Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 75mm f/1.5 has become renowned for swirly bokeh, center sharpness, and its ability to produce the famous and so-called “3D Pop,” whereby an object centered in the image seems to almost burst out from the background. But it’s not a one trick pony like some other cult lenses.
Yes, we can make the swirly bokeh that many photographers seem to obsess over, but this lens can also do so much more. Move closer to our subject and find the right background and we get out-of-focus areas that look like a Monet oil painting, just dripping with smooth, creamy bokeh.
What’s a Biotar
The Biotar lens formula was first created for Carl Zeiss by the famous lens designer Willy Merté in 1927, and was originally made for movie cameras. It boasted a Double Gauss design with six elements in four groups, offering an improvement of the Triplet or Tessar designs which aim for higher performance. The field correction and the speed are increased in comparison with more simple designs. Essentially an improvement on the Planar design from 1896, it abandoned the strict symmetry approach for the radii of curvature of the surfaces and the refractive indices of the glass materials, and therefore achieved additional correction parameters. This asymmetry means that the front three-part lens group was larger overall than the group behind the diaphragm. Furthermore, the two outer collecting lenses are each of a larger diameter than the two inner lens pairs.
Merté continued developing and experimenting with his Biotar lens design for years, and in 1938 the lens was reconfigured as a 35mm lens for the Kine Exakta camera. Creating such a fast lens prior to World War II was one of the greatest feats in the history of optics, especially true considering it was designed and built without the use of computers. All optical calculations were done by hand by teams of optical technicians. Virtually all of today’s fast lenses with a medium field angle (50-100mm focal length with 35mm SLR cameras) are successors to the Biotar design, a worthy testament to the skills of Merté.
[Product photos in this article were supplied by our writer Cheyenne Morrison, as well as Marek Fiser, and Westlicht Auctions, and are gratefully published here with permission]
A Legend in the Making
The Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 75mm F/1.5 was introduced in 1939 in a manual aperture model for cinematography, then released as a 35mm format lens for the famed Kine Exacta or “Night Exacta.” It was initially promoted as an available-light lens for sport shooting, reportage, and theatre photography. It was also a technical marvel. This, as can be guessed, did not come cheap.
When the first Biotar 75mm F/1.5 debuted, it cost the equivalent of two-months-worth of a German engineer’s salary. Due to its high price and limited availability it remained a dream lens for amateur photographers and was used solely by professionals or those lucky enough to have deep pockets. It also launched in a turbulent time.
Remember that by 1939 the world had just suffered through the Great Depression. It was also the year that World War II began – not an auspicious time to release anything of extreme high cost. Following the war, it was released again, but post war politics and the partition of Germany led to its demise despite its amazing lineage and unique attributes.
When the lens was released, the word bokeh was unknown. The term wouldn’t become common parlance for another forty years, and the Biotar 75mm F/1.5’s renaissance as a bokeh lens only gained traction with the relatively recent increased interest in adapting classic lenses to digital cameras. At this point, photographers (like me) who had grown stale with the bland rendering of modern lenses rediscovered this classic portrait lens from the 1930s and gave it a whole new lease on life. You may think I’m a bit obsessed, and I would agree with you; but rightfully so, just look at the amazing images it’s capable of producing.
To think of this lens, imagine it as a 1930s German sports car that was given a facelift and new bodywork in the 1950s. It’s the kind of car that collectors lust after. The kind of car only seen at concourses and luxury auctions. The Biotar 75mm f/1.5 is Pure German engineering mastery that produces rich images dripping with color, contrast, center sharpness and world-famous bokeh. And unlike that expensive German sports car, we can treat this lens as an everyday user and it will work just as good as the day it rolled off the production line.
Competition at Home and Abroad
The Biotar was the fastest portrait lens in the world until 1943 when Leitz released their Ernst Leitz Wetzlar Summarex 85mm F/1.5, most likely designed for the German military. It was a complicated design of seven elements in six groups, but with an early lens coating that was prone to flaring it was nowhere near as good as Zeiss’ lens and its “T” Coating. The competing Summarex was also quite heavy at 700g versus the 500g Biotar.
During the Post War period it became a matter of prestige for German lens designers to create a fast telephoto or portrait lens. Examples include the Meyer-Optik Görlitz Primoplan 75mm f/1.9, Schneider-Kreuznach’s 80mm f/2 Xenon, the Enna-Werke Ennaston-Lithagon 85mm f/1.5, and the famed Carl Zeiss Jena 85mm f/2 Sonnar in Contax mount.
By the 1950s the Japanese were seriously challenging the Germans, illustrated in 1951 when Asahi Kogaku released the Takumar 83mm f/1.9, and Canon released their Serenar 85mm f/1.5. Then in 1953 Nikon released their Nippon Kogaku K.K. (Nikon) Nikkor-S.C 85mm f/1.5.
However, no other lens has reached the status of the 75mm Biotar amongst users and collectors. It should be noted that nearly all these lenses were designed for rangefinder cameras, while the Zeiss Biotar 75mm (except for 225 copies in Contax RF mount) was designed and produced for SLR cameras. This means that it’s far easier to adapt the Biotar 75mm to modern digital cameras.
Following World War II, production resumed despite bomb damage to the factories in Dresden. Around this same period, Carl Zeiss Jena released the world’s first pentaprism SLR camera, the Contax S. This camera was also the first camera to use what is now known as the M42 screw mount (alternatively called the Universal Screw Mount or Pentax mount). It was the very first 35mm eye-level single lens reflex with a glass prism finder and interchangeable lenses, debuting an astounding nine years before the Nikon F, Canonflex, and other eye-level SLRs with interchangeable lenses and focal-plane shutters. Zeiss quickly designed a version of their famous Biotar for this new camera’s new mount.
The first Biotar lenses for the Contax S are known as Version Two of the 75mm f/1.5, and these were produced between 1946 and 1952. Among the many different versions of this lens, these are highly sought after and reputed to be of the highest optical quality of all versions of the 75mm Biotar. Primarily this is because the lens elements were produced using the high-refractive lanthanum-containing Schott glass that only Zeiss had access to. These lenses also have twelve aperture blades instead of the ten blades found in Version three.
Sadly, the partition of Germany placed the Jena factory where the 75mm Biotar was produced in the Soviet Sector, which later became the D.D.R. or East Germany. At first there was cooperation between Zeiss Oberkochen in the West, and Carl Zeiss Jena in the East, but eventually Zeiss Oberkochen filed a court case to prevent the use of the pre-war Zeiss trade names. This dispute and the growing animosity between the USA and the Soviets made it difficult for the Biotar to be sold and marketed in the West, and production ceased in 1967. The Gauss models designed at Carl Zeiss Oberkochen never used the Biotar name, but kept the older Planar brand name for historical and political reasons.
The 75mm Biotar f/1.5 by Carl Zeiss Jena was first released in 1939 for use with the Ihagee Kine-Exakta camera. In the Kine-Exakta brochure of 1949 it is referred to as the Biotar 1:1,5 but the designation of the lens changed multiple times over the years, for a variety of reasons. During the trademark dispute between Zeiss Oberkochen (West) and Carl Zeiss Jena (East) after World War II it was referred to variously as B 1.5/75mm, or the 75mm Objektiv B/BV (B or BV were abbreviations for Blendenvorwahl, meaning preset aperture).
Version 1 – Commonly called the Thin Version, sometimes called The Missile (1939-45) Serial number range 2,000,000s
The first version stands out immediately to possess a small and compact barrel, (one centimetre less in length than the next version), a weight of 380g and a front lens of 55mm. The minimum focus, with distance scale expressed only in meters, is located at 90cm. However, the front graphics, with the fascinating design of the depth-of-field scale, make it immediately unmistakable.
The diaphragm, perfectly circular, closes up to f/22. One amazing attribute of this lens is that it has eighteen aperture blades, thus being capable of creating a circular lens opening continuously from f1.5 to f22. This version and version two had manual aperture selection. Only rare examples manufactured during the War have the “T” coating, and were almost invariably manufactured for the military.
Version 2 – Commonly called the Thin or Slim Version (1946 – 1952) Serial number range 3,100,000 – 3,777,000
This version retains the chromed steel body and eighteen aperture blades of Version One, but with the added “T” coating. These are reputed to be the best lenses in terms of optical quality. The lens ring changed from 7.5cm to 75mm in 1950. All have the “T” coating.
The second version of the Biotar was now closing up to f/16, had a front lens of 55mm in diameter, a solid barrel with a grooved focus ring, a double distance scale, a minimum focus at 0.8 meters, and a weight of 500g. The pre-selection ring is located in the front panel above the diaphragm ring. The focal length is expressed as 75/1.5, (ie. in millimeters), the red T is no longer displayed, while the DDR symbol of a quality product is present and the Germany engraving at the base of the barrel, absent in the first version.
Version 3 – Commonly called The Fat Version, sometimes called Q1 Version (1952 – 1967) Serial number range 3,777,000 – 8,275,578
The third version of the Biotar had a front lens of 55mm in diameter, a solid barrel with a heavily knurled or scalloped focus ring, a double distance scale, a minimum focus at 0.8 meters, and a weight of 500g. Although Version Three predominantly had ten aperture blades, the earliest preset models produced in M42 mount for the Contax S camera came with twelve aperture blades.
The Fat Version was commonly used for x-ray and copy machines, so they can focus as close as the Thin Version, or closer, just by adjusting infinity to closer than infinity so that close focus is as close as needed. This version is occasionally called the Q1 Version because it bears the Q1 symbol which stood for Qualität 1. The Q1 symbol was a “Warenprüfanstalt” Quality Mark granted by the Office of standardization, metrology and product testing (ASMW) of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik DDR (commonly called East Germany).
The last known example was serial number 8,275,578, produced in Exakta mount in 1967. However, the 1969 catalogue for the Exacta VX 1000 still shows the lens for sale, so the factory must still have had stock on hand even after production ceased.
Modern Version – Oprema Jena Biotar 1.5/75
Recently Dr. Stefan Immes resurrected the long unused company name Meyer-Optik Görlitz with the goal of recreating classic lenses. The venture was a collaboration between Immes, André de Winter, a renowned former Leica lens designer, Wolf Dieter Prenzel, a leading expert in modernizing classic lenses, and the Japanese lens maker, Tokina.
In 2017 they established another company, Oprema Jena, which offered a modern version of the 75mm Biotar, the Oprema Jena Biotar 1.5/75. In 2018, a press statement from the company sadly informed us that Dr. Immes had been grievously injured in a car accident and that the company went into liquidation. I have no figures for how many versions of this lens were produced, but the company website is still online, and the video above gives a nice overview of the lens.
From 1939 to 1967 only 16,827 lenses were produced through the three versions, across six different mounts. The rarest examples were made in coupled Leica screw mount and Contax rangefinder mounts, and they sell for very high prices due to their value to collectors, but optically they are no different to examples in other mounts.
Optically the M42 and Exa Mount Version Two lenses with twelve aperture blades are reputed to be best, although I have seen side by side comparisons and the difference is minimal.
Production numbers in descending order of units produced, years of production, and serial numbers where available in various mounts follow.
Exakta; 1939; 10,300 units from serial no. 2,529,100 (initial lot)
Contax S/M42; 1949; 4,600 units
Praktina; 1953; 1,250 units, only in the pre-selection version
Praktica; 1953, 450 units
Contax rangefinder; 1950; 225 units, starting from serial no. 3,467,751
Leica Thread Mount; 1950; Only 3 units, serial nos. 3467786, 3320814, and 3467786
In his book Non-Leitz LTM Lenses: A 39mm Diversity, the author Marc James Small states that there were only two known units produced of the 75mm Biotar in Leica Thread Mount. However, researching past auctions and current sales I have discovered three.
Practical Use in 2019
History, rarity, collectability, technical details and superlatives aside, what is the Biotar 75mm F/1.5 like to use? To start, it’s pretty hefty. The Version Three that I own weighs in at 450 grams (that’s 16 oz, or 1 lb.), and at 75mm in physical length (three inches) it’s the same size as the Leica Noctilux (albeit at two-thirds the weight). It does weigh more than my average 50mm lenses, but I like the weight. It feels solid and steady when shooting portraits by hand. The large knurled focus ring, which is distinctive of the 1950s German silver lens that I love, makes focusing a joy, and the focus is dampened perfectly, smooth and easy to use.
Also as mentioned, the lens is famous for having “3D Pop” and beautiful bokeh, but that isn’t its only attribute. Unlike modern super-sharp lenses that highlight every pore of the skin, the Biotar 75mm is much more forgiving in portraits, and the softness when shot wide open creates images reminiscent of portraits from the Golden Age Hollywood.
There are many bokeh lenses that are one trick ponies. These are used often for shooting portraits in low light to create a swirling background or total universal blur. But the Biotar 75 is capable of producing several types of images.
[Model credits: top, Miquela Spence; middle, Heaven Arici; bottom, Tim Field. Photos by Cheyenne Morrison]
At close distances, one to two meters, it can make classic portraits with background out-of-focus areas that resemble a Monet oil painting. These show just a hint of swirl, the attached photo of Tim at a waterfall best exhibits this look which reminds me of the rendition of my Schneider-Kreuznach Xenon. However, step back a bit and shoot the subject at five meters and position the background so that dappled light shines through trees behind the subject and we get incredible rendition of the swirly bokeh effect that has made lenses like the 58mm Biotar and the Helios 44 so renowned.
The Biotar 75mm is often compared with the Soviet Helios 40-2, and while that lens’ optical design is commonly reputed to be based on our Biotar 75mm, the Helios 40-2 weighs almost twice as much. At 870g, it doesn’t have the anywhere near the beautiful color rendition, superb glow wide open, or center sharpness of the Biotar 75mm.
A very unique characteristic of the Biotar 75mm that I have learned since buying the lens is that the bokeh is completely different depending on whether I’m exposing a digital sensor or film. The accompanying black & whites images in the article (including the lead image) were shot on digital, and kindly supplied by Tomek Sliwinski. His magnificent photos show just how radically different the bokeh presents when using the Biotar 75mm on a digital camera. Bokeh is very pronounced, with hard edged bokeh balls as opposed to the images that I have shot on film where the bokeh is much softer.
I know that the bokeh balls trend is a matter of taste; many people love the look, and a slew of companies are even recreating vintage lenses to cater to this taste. But there are just as many people who hate that look and find it to be a distraction. As the critics rightly point out, the whole point of a portrait is to highlight the subject, not to emphasize the out-of-focus area. I prefer the images produced with the Biotar 75mm on film. But I also love the shots on digital. It’s merely a matter of preference, and I would correlate that to the analogue versus digital debate; both are good, there is no right or wrong, it’s down to whichever you prefer.
[The photo below was shot by Marek Fiser and published here with permission.]
The lens can be mounted on Sony A, Pentax K, Nikon F, and Canon EF mount cameras with glass-less mechanical adapters. The M42 mount does not hit the mirror when using a Canon 5D, although I cannot vouch for other cameras. If you are intending to use the Biotar 75mm on a digital camera I’d advise you to do research your own individual application. Know that the M42 version is easier to adapt, but that it also commands a premium price.
Pricing and Buyer’s Guide
As mentioned, when the Biotar 75mm was released it cost the equivalent of two months of an Engineer’s salary. When Version Three was released in 1952 the price was $450 US dollars, but levels of demand were so high that you had to pay a deposit and wait months for the lens to arrive. $450 US dollars in 1953 is the equivalent to $4,234.26 in 2019.
The fact that the Biotar 75mm was the pinnacle of lens design for many postwar camera systems meant that vintage camera collectors were already paying a premium for the lens even before its renaissance as a classic portrait lens for modern day photographers. Over the last few years the cost has risen from $500 US dollars to at least $1,000 for an average lens in good working condition. The really sought after lens is the postwar Version Two with chromed steel body and eighteen aperture blades. These are selling from $1,500 to $3,000.
That’s an expensive, old lens, and I was admittedly put off by the price. But after much searching and persistence, I managed to get my lens for $750 US dollars, which is still a good chunk of change. But remember that the Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4, a lens that offers the same thin depth-of-field and its own beautiful rendition, sells for roughly $7,000 to $7,500 US dollars. A working Biotar 75mm in good optical condition is a fraction of that, and a worthwhile investment for a portrait photographer, as prices will only continue to rise in coming years. It’s also an important piece of photographic history, and a lens worth owning (and shooting) today.
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Good article! Though, I hate to be the person that points out that the Great Depression started in 1929, not 1939.
It really is a stunning lens, it’s even fun to say (Biotar! Like some kind of bioengineered dinosaur!). I think you’re right that modern lenses are almost too sharp. That’s good for some applications, but not others. Character counts more than specs, and a lot of modern lenses (not all) are technical wonders that are very boring.