Carl Zeiss Jena 50 mm Tessar lens

A simple, yet fantastic lens: Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm

Introduction

In this post I want to share my experience with the Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens. The lens was made for 35 mm SLR cameras in Exacta mount, and it was introduced in 1951. Because of its success, different modifications of this lens were produced until 1990. A very prominent version is the so-called Zebra Version.

The copy I am using here was produced sometimes in the years 1961 or 1962, which can be seen from the serial number. I use the lens on a micro four thirds camera: Olympus OM-D E-M10. With in-body image stabilization and focus peaking it is really easy to use old manual lenses on this camera. This is not a sophisticated technical review. It is more about fun using old lenses on modern cameras. And I want to show how amazing results are possible with such an old lens.

Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens

Built Quality

Is great. The lens is made of metal with a silver finish, which looks like aluminum to me, but I am not 100% sure if this is really aluminum. The lens is very compact and looks tiny compared to modern lenses. It is hard to believe that this is actually a “full frame” lens. It is even smaller than M4/3 lenses, e.g. M.Zuiko 25 mm f/1.8. Nevertheless the lens is very solid and appears serious. 

The focus ring rotates very smooth and perfectly damped. From closest focusing distance to infinity it makes a 270° turn, which makes focusing very precise. The front element doesn’t rotate while focusing. The aperture ring has stops and clicks. In the table below I summarized the most important technical details.

Focal length50 mm
Elements / Groups4 / 3
Closest focusing distance0.6 m
Maximum aperturef/2.8
Minimum aperturef/22
Diaphragm blades8
Filter size35 mm
Weight93 g
Length4 cm

Optical Quality

The optical quality is not bad, but I would not say, that it is so great to go crazy for it. The lens has good sides but also downsides. Depending on what you want to do, it can be good or bad. One thing to keep in mind when using the lens on cameras with M4/3 sensors is, that the angle of view is already equivalent to a telephoto lens. Even with in-body image stabilizer, I had in some situations problems with camera shake. Not so obvious when I took the shot, but later on the computer screen it was visible.

Sensor sizeAngle of view35 mm equivalent
35 mm full frame46.8°50 mm
APS-C31.6°77 mm
M4/324.4°100 mm

Sharpness of the lens is good, but not for all apertures a constant sharpness across the frame can be achieved. Center sharpness is not good at widest aperture of f/2.8. The images are noticeably soft. It improves strongly when stopped down and for aperture from f/4 to f/11 the center is sharp. Stopped further down to f/16 and f/22 the images become softer again, but not as strong as for f/2.8.

Sharpness in the center (click image for larger view)

The sharpness in the corners is, from a technical and purist point of view, not great. But from a creative point of view, this gives images a special appearance and something to play with. Wide open at f/2.8 the corners are not sharp and very soft. Even stopped down to f/4 or f/5.6 the corners are still soft, not as bad as wide open, but still noticeable. At f/8 the corners getting sharper and at f/11 till minimum aperture of f/22 the corners are sharp.

sharpness in the corner (click image for larger view)

To get images that are sharp across the entire frame, there is only one useful aperture, and this is at f/11. On the other side, the soft corners at wide open apertures, can create a nice look on the images and drag the focus towards the center.

Bokeh of the lens is okay, but not my favorite one. In my opinion it is a harsh and can be disturbing in the background. Chromatic aberration is not visible. At least I could not notice it. Is a bit surprising to me that a lens without coatings has no problems with this. Probably this might be a result of the simple lens construction with only 4 elements. Flare seems to be not an issue here. In all my tests I could not see any problem with it. Also distortion of the lens is very low and not visible. A big plus of the lens are the colors. They are saturated, contrast rich and well-balanced.

Example video

Example photos

Below are example photos which I took with this lens. All photos were taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M10 and were slightly post-processed, which includes adjustment of white balance, exposure compensation, adjustment of shadows or highlights. No distortion correction was applied as well as no manipulation of the colors. All photos were scaled down for this webpage.

Flower ornaments on a temple roof in Taiwan. Photo taken with Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens.

The following photos were taken during bright sunshine:

Offerings on a table in a temple in Taiwan. Photo taken with Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens.
Main gate of National Taiwan University.
Mail boxes on a street in Taiwan
Mural on a old brick wall in Taipei.

The next two photos are night shots:

Taipei skyline at night with Taipei 101
Light streaks from cars on a freeway in a city

And here are a couple of photos showing the bokeh of this lens:

Lights and bokeh taken with Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens
Flower with blurry background
Orchid on a tree
Sculpture of a sheep in a park
Dry puffer fish as decoration

And now a few miscellaneous photos taken at different conditions:

Chinese character painted in red color on a yellow wall
Rope sculpture in front of Taipei 101
View from bottom to top on Taipei 101
Reflection of Taipei 101

Conclusions

The Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50 mm f/2.8 lens is a pretty good one. It is obviously an old lens. The optical properties cannot compete with modern lenses. Good results can be obtained, but it requires some time to get used to the lens, and to learn its strength and weakness. The photos have a look, that is hard to get with modern lenses. It is a lens for experienced users, which know what and how to do. For me it is great fun to use this lens. One reason is that it is compact and light, and with a nicer lens mount adapter, it would look really stylish on the E-M10. I also like the focal length and the results are great, but it requires patience and some work to get the shot right. It is not a lens for quick shooting. Especially focusing and setting the right aperture can be a challenge.

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8 thoughts on “A simple, yet fantastic lens: Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm

  1. very cool review! I just bought the lens and it’s not yet arrived.
    I couldn’t find any lens review as good as yours!

    Thanks 😀

    Ps: the second last picture, of the building upwards, at what settings have you taken the shot?
    If I would guess, I’d say F11 1/1000 sec?

    1. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate your comment.
      The second last picture of Taipei 101 upwards was shot at 1/250 sec at ISO 200. I don’t remember the aperture setting, but it was probably something around f/8 or f/11.

      1. I appreciate your pictures and comments concerning this particular lens. I have just purchased one and it is in incredible condition. I’m going to be a bit forward and ask for advice concerning the “mount”, I have the Exakta and ordered what I thought was the correct adapter for my Canon RP, the adapter mounts on the Camera fine, however the lens mount is smaller. Could you please tell me where you found your adapter?

        1. Hello Ross, if I remember correctly, I bought my adapter on Amazon. It was the cheapest one (no brand name) because I wasn’t sure if it would fit. But it turned out to work fine.

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