James recently published an article titled Our Favorite Lenses as Chosen by Your Favorite Camera Geeks, in which he asked well-known bloggers, photographers, and Casual Photophile writers to talk about their favorite lens. The article spurred me to write this one, a review of my favorite lens, the Schneider-Kreuznach Super Xenar 50mm F/2.8, fifteen-blade, five-element version.
This is my favorite of all my vintage lenses because of its superb 1950s German craftsmanship, and because it produces images like no other lens I own. All I need is load a roll of Ektar 100 and this lens produces eye-popping colors, even on cloudy days. On top of that, the bokeh it produces is variable and full of character – it can be a lovely soft blur reminiscent of my Schneider Xenon, or bubble bokeh as good as any Trioplan lens.
High build quality and the ability to make interesting images are obvious reasons to love a lens. But I love it for less obvious reasons as well. The Super Xenar carries extra attraction for me because it was designed by my favorite lens designer Dr. Albrecht William Tronnier. Tronnier also designed the other Schneider-Kreuznach lens that I love, which you can read about in my previous article, A History of the Xenon Lens. While Bertele is well-known for his Sonnar design, and Zöllner famed for the creation of the Zeiss Biotar lens, Dr. Tronnier is nowadays almost unknown. Dr. Tronnier really is one of the unsung heroes of 20th century German lens design. In fact, to date the only published image of Dr. Tronnier was a very poor-quality image of him taken in 1925 when he first started work at Schneider-Kreuznach.
Because of my love for the lenses he designed, I felt Dr. Tronnier deserved a place of greater reverence in the history of lens design. So I reached out to the Tronnier family in Germany, and after much communication they gave me two images of Dr. Tronnier which had never been published. The first photo, taken circa 1947 when he was approximately 45 years old, accompanies this article below, and the subsequent image will be published in my upcoming review of the Ultron lens which he designed.
A Brief History of Schneider-Kreuznach
The history of the German optical company Schneider-Kreuznach goes back more than a hundred years. Schneider Kreuznach started as Optische Anstalt Jos. Schneider & Co. when it was founded on 18 January, 1913. In 1922 the name was changed to Jos. Schneider & Co., Optische Werke, Kreuznach, and in 1998 to the current Jos. Schneider Optische Werke GmbH. Commercially referred to as Schneider Kreuznach.
The talented Joseph August Schneider (1855-1933) attended a predecessor to what would later become the University of Frankfurt am Main – presumably the “Physikalischer Verein” and the “Elektrotechnische Gesellschaft,” where he studied physics and optics. By 1910 Joseph had already registered his first patent, and three years later with the financial assistance and encouragement of his Father Johann they founded their “Optical Institute” at the family home “Villa Schneider” on Stromberger Strasse, Bad Kreuznach. One year after the company was formed, they also patented three cinematographic lenses called “Symmar,” “Componar,” and “Isconar.” In 1919, just after the end of WWI, they released the Xenar, their derivation of Zeiss’ Tessar lens design. The classic design of the Xenar went on to become the company’s biggest selling lens and stood the test of time, staying in production until the late 1990s.
By 1932 the company had produced their 500,000th lens, aptly a XENAR 1:2,9/10,5 cm. In 1933 after the death of his father, Joseph Schneider, Joseph August Schneider took over the company, and son Hans Joseph Schneider (1926-1989) also entered the company. The same year saw the rise of Hitler, and the company started production of lenses for the military. In 1936, lens production moved to the new factory in Göttingen, and by 1938 at the inauguration of the new building on the Ring Strasse the company had 450 employees.
After the death of his father in 1950 Hans-Joseph Schneider (1926-1989) ran the company together with his mother Margarete (Gretel) Schneider (1895-1996). By 1954 the company had over 1,000 employees and had created over 8 million lenses.
In 1981, the company was converted into a joint stock company. By 1982 the company was forced to declare bankruptcy, though the company was saved by the financial intervention of the majority shareholder Heinrich Manderman (1922-2002). In 1997 Manderman (due to ill health) handed over control of the company to Peter Weber, whom he had appointed Managing Director in 1992. When Heinrich Manderman died in 2002, his daughter Ethel Cygler became the chief shareholder of the company.
Today Schneider Kreuznach is one of the world market leaders in the optical industry manufacturing high-performance photographic lenses for cameras and mobile phones, cinema projection lenses, industrial lenses and their superb B+W filters.
Specifications of the Schneider-Kreuznach Super Xenar 50mm F/2.8 *1954
- Name – Schneider-Kreuznach Super Xenar (S-Xenar)
- Manufacturer – Jos. Schneider Optische Werke GmbH, Bad Kreuznach, Göttingen, Germany
- Release Year – 1954 to 1956
- Material – Hard chromed brass
- Lens Design – five elements in four groups (modified Tessar design)
- Viewing angle – 46°
- Diagonal Field of View – 46.8°
- Aperture – F/2.8 to F/22
- Aperture blades – 15
- Focus – 0.75 m (29 ½”) – ∞
- Filter diameter – 40.5 mm
- Push-On Filter diameter – 51mm
- Dimensions L x H x W – 49mm x 24mm x 60mm (1 7/8” x 7/8” x 2 1/3”)
- Weight – 230 grams (8¼ ounces)
This beautifully engineered lens was manufactured using pre-WWII materials by Jos. Schneider Optische Werke, referred from hereon as Schneider-Kreuznach. The lens is solid machined brass with a hard chrome coating, making it very heavy for its size, and when held in the hand it possesses a definite feeling of solidity. The shiny chrome, the gorgeous engravings and the deep purple coating of the front lens element all combine to create a lens that typifies the height of German mid-century photographic craftsmanship.
The design of the lens is unusual for one of that period because the front lens element is very deeply recessed into the lens barrel, making the lens hood nearly superfluous . It was designed to fit the Contax S camera from Eastern Germany, and the Edixa camera from West Germany which were the first cameras in the World to use the M42 lens mount. The serial number of my lens (№ 3876904) dates it to manufacture in August 1954, just five years after the introduction of the M42 mount.
The image of Dr. Tronnier above was shot around 1947, around the time when he was appointed by the British occupational administration as Chief lens Designer of Voigtländer. At that time, the Voigtländer factory was located in the British controlled area of occupied Germany.
I can find no written record of the origin of the five-element Xenar, but since Dr. Albrecht Wilhelm Tronnier (Born 1902 – Died December 1, 1982) was the chief lens designer at Jos. A. Schneider Optical Works in Bad Kreuznach, Germany from 1924 to 1936 we can safely assume he was responsible for the recalculation of the Xenar lens.
Tronnier was one of the most talented lens designers of his era and invented the Xenon lens design in 1925 when he was just 24 years old. As Chief Designer of Voigtländer, he designed (or supervised the design of) many famed lenses, such as the Ultron F/2.0, Nokton F/1.5, Color-Skopar F/2.8, Color Heliar F/3.5 for the Bessa II, Ultragon, Skopargon, Dynarex, Skoparex, and the famed APO Lanthar lens which was a recalculated Heliar design using Lanthanum glass.
If you examine the lens formula chart that I created, you can see that Tronnier added an extra front element to the existing Xenar design from 1919. This original version of the Xenar was itself a clone of the Zeiss Tessar, an asymmetrical, anastigmatic, four-elements in three-groups lens design with two cemented and two uncemented elements. The additional front element resulted in a design comprised of two uncemented components and three cemented components, which dramatically reduced distortion, aberrations, and coma, giving needle sharp images even at wide apertures. Tronnier’s modified five-element Xenar was dubbed the Super Xenar by Schneider-Kreuznach and marketed as the S-Xenar.
Prior to WWII the five-element Xenar was only produced in medium format lenses in 50mm and 75mm sizes. Schneider-Kreuznach 25th Jubilee book describes it …
“For special purposes, a new design of the Xenar has been introduced, and it is intended as a universal lens for roll-film cameras in medium small sizes such as 2 ¼ in. square negative. The full aperture is F:2,8, and the design is unsymmetrical with five semi-cemented components. The image is excellently corrected for coma considering the large aperture, and a special leaflet regarding the new type will be sent on application.”
After WWII Schneider-Kreuznach advertised the five-element Xenar as a 75mm lens in Praktiflex M40 mount, and the 50mm F/2.8 in M42 mount. However, for some reason they dropped the use of the “Super Xenar” or “S-Xenar” designation, which makes it difficult to identify which of the postwar lenses use the five-element design.
Shooting the Schneider-Kreuznach Super Xenar
This is my favorite lens partly for the history described above, but more importantly because of the unique and characterful images that it produces. The normal Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar is a Tessar design, but the Xenar was universally recognised as superior to an ordinary Tessar by experts back in the day. So the Super Xenar’s improved optical formula is really a step above even the recognized quality of the regular Xenar. But that is only part of what makes the lens special. The quality of mechanical workmanship, quality of the optical glass and especially the lens coatings of Schneider-Kreuznach lenses after WWII are the equal or in some cases the better of the greats such as Carl Zeiss or Leitz.
I have written before about the difference between Leitz and Zeiss lenses, while Leitz decided their goal would be sharpness, Zeiss chose as their goal color rendition and contrast. Schneider-Kreuznach seems have taken Zeiss’ goal and exceeded anything that Zeiss produced in terms of color rendition. The coating of Schneider-Kreuznach lenses, especially the ones from the 1950s, produce some of the most vivid and saturated colors I’ve seen from a classic lens. The majority of the shots accompanying this article were shot with Kodak’s Ektar 100, which is a lovely film exposed through any lens, but shot with the Super Xenar the colors more closely resemble positive films such as Ektachrome E100 Vs and the famed Kodachrome. I know, I can hear the shouting from the purists, of course nothing can match Kodachrome, or ever will; but the fact I can shoot readily available Ektar 100 and produce eye popping colours with the lens is why it’s my true favorite.
You have to be careful though, if shooting in strong sunlight colors can become oversaturated. Blues, yellows and especially reds can become overpowering. However, even in cloudy conditions the Super-Xenar punches up the colors (the images of the models shot amidst the greenery of my local Botanical Gardens were shot on a cloudy day). Those who shoot Portra 160 overexposed two stops will probably abhor these images, but for me I love them and there is no right or wrong when it comes to photography.
One of the main reasons I shoot film is that I hate spending time on computers editing images, and post processing. Shooting the Super Xenar paired with Ektar 100 gives me images that are colorful, vibrant and alive with almost no processing necessary. I can do a shoot with a model at lunch, drop the film at my local one-hour photo lab for processing and scanning, and give the images to the model and upload to social media before dinnertime. A lens that saves me hours in front of a computer screen is a Godsend, in my view.
The handling and ergonomics of the lens are excellent. Solid and workmanlike, the beautiful knurled focus grip used on German lenses from this period make focus adjustment a breeze. The fifteen aperture blades may not be as numerous as my seventeen blade Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2 Biotar, but they are just as capable of producing beautiful bokeh. If you like the image rendition of the Helios 44 or the 50mm Biotar, then this lens takes their best attributes and gives it something extra.
Please be aware that if you want to buy the five-element Xenar described in this article, you may need to hunt to find one. The Edixa-Laudar 50mm F/2.8 of the same period produced by Schneider-Kreuznach for the Edixa camera company appears almost identical in design and materials, and also has the same five-element design.
This lens is on par for workmanship and quality with the highly collectible Schneider-Kreuznach Jsogon lens, and produces some of the most beautiful, and colorful images made by any M42 mount lens. Due to the high level of craftsmanship many of these lenses are still in working condition, although I would advise that anyone who buys one should have it serviced professionally. If you are lucky enough to see one in the wild, grab it immediately; you won’t be disappointed.
If you are unable to find a copy of the Super Xenar, then the regular four-element Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar is very widely available and has a similar color rendition, although it lacks the soap bubble bokeh of this version. To find out more about the regular Xenar, I recommend you read Chris Cushing’s review of the regular four-element Xenar here on Casual Photophile.
There’s a veritable ocean of 50mm vintage lenses for sale around the world, but the Super Xenar is very special not only for the beautiful and characterful images it is capable of producing, but also for its historical interest. I have several rare and much faster 50mm lenses than the Super Xenar, but none of them match this lens for the unique combination of color rendition, bokeh, and sharpness that it produces. Of all my vintage glass, it’s the one that impresses me the most.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]