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REVIEW - Carl Zeiss Contax 100mm F2 Planar Telephoto Lens

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Canon 1Ds Mark II • Contax 100mm F2 Planar • F4 • 1/400 • ISO 400

CONTAX T* 100MM F2 PLANAR LENS

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Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark II • F5.6 • 1/30 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark III • F4 • 1/250 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark III • F4 • 1/320 • ISO 400

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark II • F2 • 1/400 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark II • F2.8 • 1/250 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark II • F4 • 1/500 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark II • F11 • 1/1000 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

Canon 1Ds2 • F5.6 • 1/400 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark II • F5.6 • 1/500 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark II • F2.8 • 1/4000 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark III • F4 • 1/400 • ISO 200

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark III • F2.8 • 1/640 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark III • F4 • 1/320 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark III • F2.8 • 1/1250 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark II • F2.8 • 1/250 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

1Ds Mark III • F2.8 • 1/250 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

Canon 1Ds • F2 • 1/500 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

Canon 1Ds • F2.8 • 1/1250 • ISO 100

Contax 100mm F2 Planar

Canon 1Ds • F2 • 1/200 • ISO 100

First Year Available 1981 (AE Mount)
Lens Composition 6 Elements / 5 Groups
Floating Lens Group No
Angular Field of View 24º @ 30 Feet
Minimum Focus 1 Meter / 3.5 Feet
F-Stop Scale F2 to F22 in 1 Stop Increments
Aperture Automatic on Contax RTS, fully manual otherwise
Filter Size 67mm, Non-rotating
Lens Cap K-61 67mm Snap-type Plastic Cap
Lens Hood 67-86 Ring and #4 Metal Hood
Hood Cap K-84 Metal Hood Cap
Rubber Hood G-13 Soft Rubber Hood
Lens Pouch No. 2
Lens Size 70mm wide x 84mm long / 2.75 in. x 3.375 in.
Weight 670 grams / 1.48 Pounds
MTF Chart Contax 100mm MTF (PDF)

OVERVIEW

It is easy to talk and rank lenses based on sharpness, but there is more to a good lens than sharpness - such as: contrast, coloring, distortion, light gathering, light fall off and bokeh (background blur). All these factors culminate into how a lens “draws” a scene. The 100mm Planar represents a nice balance of the these traits and easily transitions from shooting portraits to landscapes. Yes, the Contax 100mm F2 Planar is sharp, but that is a small part of what makes the Contax 100mm F2 Planar special. When talking about character, in my opinion the Contax 100mm F2 Planar trumps the well-known Canon 85L, Contax N 85mm F1.4 Planar and the Canon EF 135mm L F2.

If buying a used lens sounds unattractive, the Zeiss 100mm F2 Makro-Planar ZE is a modern-day alternative (also available in Nikon F-mount). These new Zeiss lenses offer the classic performance with updated optical designs and automatic apertures. They are not simple re-issues of the original Contax designs, Zeiss has updated the optical formulas as well - which has some pro's and con's.

CONTAX AE OR CONTAX MM OR ZEISS ZF OR ZEISS ZE?

I have tried the Contax 100mm F2 Planar AE, 100mm F2 Planar MM and Zeiss 100mm F2 Makro-Planar ZE & ZF all side-by-side on a Canon 1Ds Mark III. Since the Contax AE, Contax MM and Zeiss ZF are all mounted via adapter, there is no mechanical advantage of one over the other. All three are “dumb” lenses on the Canon body, meaning there is no electronic communication or automatic aperture.

In contrast, the Zeiss ZE version is a native Canon EF mount, thus no adapter is needed. Also, the ZE has a modern-day electronic aperture mechanism - this is a fully automatic aperture that functions like any Canon-made EF lens. It also provides complete EXIF information, including the selected aperture. But the ZE is larger and heavier than the original Contax 100mm. Being a macro lens, the 100mm ZE is longer too. Perhaps most important, the "draw" from the Zeiss 100mm F2 Makro-Planar ZE is slightly changed too - more on this in a bit.

BUILD QUALITY

The Contax 100mm F2 Planar is from the golden age of manual focus lenses. The lens barrel and mount are all metal - no plastic to be found anywhere. The manual focus action is very smooth and nicely dampened. The Contax 100mm Planar is a compact lens, but it weighs 1.48 pounds, so it feels dense. On small dSLR like a Canon 6D, the balance might feel nose heavy. Over the years I used the Contax 100mm with Canon one series bodies (Canon 1Ds, 1Ds Mark II and 1Ds Mark III), so to me the balance was very nice.

The entire rubber grip area is the focus ring, so finding the focus ring is a non issue. In my experience with a long list of Contax 100mm's, AE version had the lightest focus action / feel. The Contax MM’s generally had a stiffer focus ring. The difference may have been nothing more than luck of the draw. Depending on the condition of the lens, the focus ring might seem a little stiff depending on one’s expectations. The grease tends to stiffen over time and as dust and debris gets mixed in - some of the AE versions are coming up on their 35th birthday. The aperture ring itself is easy find to by touch and it is fairly wide compared to a Leica R lens. While the aperture ring is close to the camera body, it is wide enough to not feel crowded or blocked by the camera body. The aperture ring clicks in full-stops.

The front of the lens does not rotate while being focused, so there are no complications while using a polarizers or graduated filters. If staying true to the Contax ethos, the hood combination is a Contax 67-86 metal ring + Contax #4 metal hood. Aesthetically the ring and hood match the Contax 100mm's black paint (color and texture) and the rubber ring on the hood is the same as the rubber used on the focus and aperture rings. I love the look, and I really like the K-84 push-on cap for the lens hood. The screw-in hood design is great for polarizers and graduated filters - screw those in and then the hood. Very convenient in use.

The Contax 100mm has a very solid feel and it feels even better with a Leitax adapter. The Leitax adapters are screwed to the lens re-using the original Contax screws. The result is no wiggle or play between the lens and adapter. The Leitax adapters also mount and dismount the Canon camera body very smoothly too. All in all, a very OEM feel. There are cheaper adapter alternatives, but I prefer the Leitax option.

I have owned seven Contax 100mm F2 Planars over the years and all were excellent. Being an older lens there will be good and bad copies depending on how well the previous owner(s) cared for them. Optically I did not see any significant differences between the AE vs MM variants.

LENS PERFORMANCE

Some key stand out areas are the Planar’s micro-contrast, its depth of field (DOF) and overall flexibility. The 100mm Planar’s micro-contrast translates into detailed textures, such as in distant tree foliage. Compared to Canon L lenses such as the EF 135mm L F2 and EF 85mm L F1.2, the 100mm Planar produces subtler gradients and shows more detail. Where the Canon lenses tend to rush to deep blacks (and bury the details in crushed shadows), the 100mm Planar produces more mid-tones, opening up the detail and nuances in the shadows. In general the Planar has a gentler roll-off in shadows.

Another difference between the 100mm Planar and its Canon counterparts is how the Contax 100mm renders DOF. DOF is a standard calculation, but in practice the perceived DOF is influenced by how the lens eases in and out of the plane of focus and by the circle of confusion. On-line DOF calculators estimate the DOF for given focal length, aperture and distance. This can be misleading because it suggests that all 100mm lenses will perform in the same manner. This is not the case. For example, we have seen how bokeh can differ from Leica 50mm lens to Canon 50mm lens to Zeiss 50mm lens - such as "busy" bokeh vs a more gaussian bokeh. The 100mm Planar’s transitions quickly in and out of the plane of focus, kind of like a pulse wave. I associate Planar designs with this quick transition, whereas Sonnar designs have a more gradual transition.

So what does this mean in real world use? The Contax 100mm Planar is very good at separating the subject from the background, even at modest apertures like F5.6. While some people do not care for "Zeiss bokeh", like it or not, the 100mm Planar produces an abundance of it. Also, the quick transition from bokeh blur to in-focus contributes to the 3D feel in the images. The last four pictures on this page (along the right side) provide some bokeh examples at varying distances and apertures.

CONCLUSION

The Contax 100mm Planar has a unique signature that is not easy to match with other lenses. Time and time again I have sold the Contax 100mm only to buy another. My biggest gripe is stop-down metering. When things are moving quickly, opening the lens to F2, focusing, composing, focusing, adjusting metering, focusing again - and then having to stop down to F4 or F5.6 can mean missing the shot. At times I get frustrated and sell the Contax 100mm in favor of the Canon 135L.

I like the 135L, but with its added reach (ie - 135mm instead of 100mm) it is more of a telephoto lens. Simply put, 135mm is not 100mm and when comparing the field of view side by side, 135mm comes across as feeling much longer (than 100mm). The Canon 135mm F2 L is a nice portrait lens, but landscapes and walk-around use, it is too long for my needs. To get auto aperture, the obvious alternative to the Contax 100mm F2 Planar is the new Zeiss 100mm F2 Makro-Planar ZE. The trade off is a heavier lens, especially the new "Milvus" version.

The Contax 100mm Planar is a well liked lens and most people are very pleased with its optical performance. The decision is not so much about whether the Contax 100mm F2 Planar is “good” or “bad” lens. It is a good lens. The decision really is whether or not stop-down metering and adapters are an acceptable solution. When we go on vacations, zoom lenses do most of the shooting. Technical features such as auto-focus and image stabilization significantly improve my keeper rate. But the downside is the image quality.

The Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS (review here) is a wonderfully capable lens, and I have taken over 10,000 pictures with it. That said, it will never match the optical capabilities and signature of the Contax 100mm f2 Planar. When selecting prime lenses, the big question for me is - “will I be willing to carry this lens, and is it worth taking off the zoom lens to shoot with this lens?” I have been using the Contax 100mm F2 Planars for ~8 years, and time after time they deliver great pictures which clearly stand-out (in a good way) compared to the Canon zooms, but I admit to sometimes using the Canon 24-105L and not bothering with the 100mm Planar.

All that said, I do really enjoy the Contax 100mm Planar. I have yet to find another lens that matches how it renders a scene. The Zeiss 100mm F2 Makro-Planar ZE is a close match, but there are some subtle differences in the renderings (review here). To be fair, I think the Zeiss 100mm F2 Makro-Planar ZE is a better studio lens when shooting with monolights, etc. And of course there is the legendary Hasselblad 110mm F2 Planar from the Hasselblad medium format V system (review here). It really is hard to make a bad choice here - all the Zeiss 100mm Planars are wonderful. Ultimately you just have to try one and see if the "look" is right for you.

end of review flourish