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REVIEWS - SLR - Contax T* 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

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Canon 1Ds Mark III and Contax 35-135mm

CONTAX 35-135MM SONNAR-VARIO ZOOM LENS

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Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 @ ~40mm • f3.5 • 1/100 • ISO 400

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 @ ~35mm • f3.5 • 1/320 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 @ ~35mm • f3.5 • 1/320 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~50mm • f5.6 • 1/125 • ISO 800

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~50mm • f5.6 • 1/320 • ISO 800

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~135mm • f4.5 • 1/640 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~40mm • f5.6 • 1/160 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~135mm • f4.5 • 1/500 • ISO 400

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~100mm • f4.5 • 1/1000 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~40mm • f5.6 • 1/400 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • Macro • f3.3 • 1/100 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • Macro • f3.3 • 1/160 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • 135mm • f5.6 • 1/125 • ISO 400

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~40mm • f5.6 • 1/160 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • 135mm • f5.6 • 1/500 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • 135mm • f8 • 1/800 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~75mm • f5.6 • 1/500 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~40mm • f3.3 • 1/100 • ISO 100

Canon 1Ds III and Contax 35-135mm F3.3-4.5 Vario-Sonnar

Contax 35-135mm Vario-Sonnar

1Ds3 • ~135mm • f4.5 • 1/250 • ISO 400

Lens Composition 16 Elements / 15 Groups
Angular Field of View 63º to 18º
Minimum Focus 1.3 m (4.27 Feet) / .26 m (1 Foot)
Diaphragm Action MM - Fully Automatic (on a Contax camera)
F-Stop Scale F3.3 to F22 in 1 Stop Increments
Filter Size 82mm, Non-rotating
Filter Connection Screw-in
Lens Cap K-81 82mm Snap-type Plastic Cap
Lens Hood 82-86s Ring + No. 1 Metal Hood, or W-1.
Metal Cap for Hood K-94 99mm Metal Cap
Lens Pouch Number 5
Weight 860 Grams / 1.90 Pounds
Lens Size 85mm x 107mm / 3.75 in. x 4.25 in.
First Year Available 1993
MTF Chart Contax 35-135mm MTF Chart (PDF)

BUILD QUALITY

The Contax 35-135mm is a large lens. The lens is about 5 inches long at 35mm, and about 7 inches when zoomed to 135mm. Like its twin brother the 28-85mm, these are big lenses which feel front-heavy or nose-heavy when mounted on a Canon dSLR. The Canon 24-105L F4 IS is a large lens as well and is a good reference point when trying to imagine the 35-135mm’s overall volume and weight. The 35-135mm’s diameter is rather beefy, similar to a Canon 70-200mm L F2.8. It is dubious to label the Contax 35-135mm as a “compact” walk-around lens. The Contax is great for that purpose, but it feels heavy as the day wears on, especially with a Canon 1Ds Mark III.

The Contax 35-135mm is a one-touch zoom - meaning the focus ring is also the zoom ring. The lens employs a push-pull design. The push-pull action is very smooth, nicely dampened and with no zoom creep. Some photographers like this design because they can zoom and focus without moving their hand from one ring to another. The push-pull zoom design does move air volume, and some people fear this may lead to dust being stirred up in the mirror box and eventually landing on the dSLR’s sensor. I have used the Canon 28-300L IS and 100-400L IS; the Contax 35-135’s pumping action is more subdued in comparison. Plus, with the dSLR dust shakers, dust is less of an issue today.

Like all Contax RTS lenses the 35-135mm feels well built with a nicely dampened focus ring. The focus ring action is light - lighter than my Contax 100mm F2 Planar. The focus ring feels very smooth and really is a joy to use. The only thing that seems a bit awkward is the secondary focus ring for the macro function. To engage the macro mode, the 35-135mm has to be at 35mm and then the secondary ring pulled towards the camera body. The sliding action can be a bit rough; though, my latest 35-135mm engages the macro mode without much effort at all.

HANDLING

The Contax 35-135mm is rated F3.3 at 35mm and F4.5 at 135mm, but I suspect the lens has a lower T-stop rating. When using the Canon 24-105L (an F4 lens) the viewfinder seems brighter than the Contax 35-135mm. At 135mm the viewfinder is dim and seems more like a F5.6 lens - and so do the resulting shutter speeds. Focusing in dim light levels, such as the last couple hours of daylight, is challenging. With F4.5 there is alot of DOF, so images do not “snap” into focus. If using a tripod and Live View, the keeper rate is good - but that sort of defeats the purpose of a “walk-around” lens.

There are an array of lens hood options. Per the Contax specifications, the default is the Contax 82/86s Metal Ring and a Contax #1 Metal Hood. I do not like this combo because it is two pieces. Instead I use a Contax W-1 Metal Hood which works just the same - but is just one piece (less hassle in the field). I have also tried the Contax 82-86 Metal Ring (note - no “S”) and that works as well, but I have noted a trace of light fall off in the extreme corners. My suggestion is the Contax W-1.

LENS PERFORMANCE

The 35mm side has nice resolution, distortion is well controlled and the images have the typical Zeiss coloring. The corners are pretty good. At F8 the corners are sharp, but the resolution is lower than the center of the lens. Images have a nicely balanced contrast with good shadow detail. There is some barrel distortion which corrects easily is most raw editors. I have not noticed any complex wave distortions like those found in the Contax 21mm Distagon. The wide open rendering at 35mm is pleasing to my eye. At 35mm I feel the resolution is as good or better than the Canon 24-105L at 35mm. The Contax has higher resolution than the 24-105L, but the corners on the Canon 24-105L are better (assuming a F8 image).

The 135mm side is more exciting with its bokeh. Compared to the Canon 24-105L, the Contax 135mm reach offers more background blurring potential. However, this is no Canon 135mm F2 L USM. The Contax 35-135mm's bokeh is pleasant in most conditions. Busy backgrounds such as pebbles, rock beds or foliage can create some undesired effects. This true for most lenses, so not a demerit solely against the Contax 35-135mm. The Contax 35-135mm can render a pleasing portrait, but for portraits and similar subjects, I rather use the Contax 100mm F2 Planar.

There is some light fall-off in the corners. The degree of fall-off is typical for most zoom lenses. When stopped down to F5.6 or F8, any light fall off that remains is not noticeable. There can be some strong vignetting in macro mode in the extreme corners - expect to crop the last 2-3% of the image in each corner. The images have nice contrast and sharpness, and (surprisingly) sometimes there is the classic Zeiss 3D effect. Coloring is neutral and pictures tend to have nice greens and blues. Post processing can add the wow-factor (for color) if desired.

Coloring fringing (CA) is evident, but is minor and is definitely less than my Canon 24-105L. What bit of CA that does show up, is easily eliminated in Phase One's Capture One software (or LightRoom if you prefer). The Contax will flare if shot into the sun. The flare has been the pretty type with nicely stacked shapes & colors. The front element does NOT rotate, so using polarizers and graduated filters is trouble-free.

MACRO MODE

The Contax 35-135mm’s macro function is amazing and the most impressive feature of the lens. The Contax 35-70mm has a simple macro function which engages when the focus is turned fully to the left and past a soft-stop. The 35-70mm’s macro function is a neat parlor trick; whereas the 35-135mm is a serious macro lens. The Contax 35-135mm macro mode is much more refined - the adjustability and range is greater, with more precision. To engage the macro function on the 35-135mm, the focus ring is set at 35mm, then the lower ring is pulled towards the camera until it locks into position. Engaging the macro mode may take a small amount of force to click into place.

Once in the macro mode the the focal length has a small zoom range - probably in the 35-45mm range. The secondary ring (the one used to engage macro mode) is also the focus ring for the macro mode. The big focus ring controls the zoom by rotating the ring. The minimum focus distance is ~12”. I use the zoom for product shots because its macro view had a very unique, somewhat wide angle feel. The light fall off in the corners can be pretty high on full-frame dSLRs, so shooting F8 or F11 is a good plan. There can be actual vignetting in the extreme corners (totally black from the lens hood), so some minor cropping might be needed. This probably sounds horrible, but it really is just the most extreme corners.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS

Looking at 100% crops on the monitor, I am always amazed at the level of detail resolved by the Contax 35-135mm - it is quite impressive for a zoom lens. I think “my” Contax 35-135mm is appreciably better than “my” Canon 24-105L, but that could be sample variation. Comparing the Contax 24-105L to the Contax 35-135mm is a give and take affair. The Canon zooms offer auto focus, stabilization, weather sealing and auto aperture. The Contax offers a very useful 35-135mm range (more reach than the Canon), its optical performance is probably better, and it has a macro mode. Prints from the Contax 35-135mm have good impact and the resolution (compared to Canon 24-105L) is apparent in the prints. Depending on the focus distance, I have noticed some corner smearing at the 35mm end. The same can be true of Canon 24-105L in the 24-30mm range.

The Contax 35-135mm’s slow aperture poses the greatest challenge. Focus confirmation adapters such as those offered by Leitax improve the odds, but may not always beep because there is not enough incoming light to feed the auto-focus sensors. Slow apertures equate to slow shutter speeds, so expect to bump ISO during the waning hours of daylight. And the lens is large, so shooting handheld at low shutter speeds can be counterproductive.

The Contax 35-135mm oozes the classic, retro gear feel. It will not replace a bag full of high quality primes, but the Contax 35-135mm zoom will do a fine job in good light. In my experience the 35-135mm macro function is the lens’ stand-out feature, and the 135mm reach is very useful my shooting style. The Canon 24-105L F4 IS has been my benchmark lens for a walk-around, vacation type zoom lens. Comparing a manual lens to a modern auto-focus lens with image stabilization is not the fairest of contests, but if feeling bored with your Canon 24-70mm F2.8 L or Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS, then the Contax 35-135mm might offer that something extra you have been hoping to find.

ADAPTER NOTES

The Contax 35-135mm is a large lens, weighing 2 pounds. The lens also gets quite a work out with the push / pull zoom set-up. A strong, well made adapter is highly recommended. Leitax adapters reuse the original lens screw holes, so the adapter is screwed to the lens and is very secure. For the Contax 35-135mm Sonnar-Vario, I strongly recommend looking into the Leitax Contax/Canon adapter. I use Leitax adapters with the Contax 35-135mm and Contax 100mm F2 Planar and have been very pleased with their quality and performance.