A review of the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f1.7

This lens kept me company for the last 20 years or so: I bought it for my Yashica FX3 Super 2000 and I then adapted it to pretty much all of my digital systems, starting with the Canon EOS 300D, using that combination for shooting — among the other projects — most of the light painted nudes you see in my Nudes I section of the website. It makes me smile to think most of that series was shot on a 6 megapixel consumer dSLR with an adapted lens.

One of my beloved Yashica FX3 Super 2000 mounting the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f1.7 T*

A small note about the Yashica FX3 Super 2000: what an amazing camera! Ages ago I bought a couple of them, one for shooting Fuji PRO400H and one for Ilford HP5. Focusing with its screen was a pleasure, and it was so light, responsive and fun to use. And cheap — I didn’t fear it could get stolen or ruined or even break. Good times!

The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f1.7 T* mounted on the Olympus Pen-F

As I moved from film to digital I adapted the Planar to the various Nikon cameras I used, starting with dSLR and ending with the Z mirrorless system, but this post will be about using this lens on the Micro Four Thirds (m43 from now on) system, because I am lately really enjoying to shoot the Planar with my Olympus Pen-F.

A closer view on the Pen-F + Planar combo

My copy was made around 1973, because serial numbers between 6.000.000 and 7.300.00 indicate a lens produced from 1972 to 1975, and my copy has serial 6514236. That makes it more or less 50 years old and it’s so great it still works perfectly.

Being this lens a 50mm, it offers an equivalent 100mm field of view when mounted on m43 cameras. This fact effectively turns it into a classic portrait lens, sitting between the popular 85mm and 135mm focal lengths and almost right on the also very popular 105mm spot.

Nailing the focus at f2.8 will provide you lots of details

The aperture of f1.7 gives us a depth of field comparable to f3.4 on m43, which is not too bad for such a focal length. I enjoy some subject separation when shooting portraits, but I am not a fan of the extremes. One of the features I enjoy the most with m43 is that I get more depth of field for each aperture value, so I have more stuff in focus.

I think achieving a filmic look is much easier when using a film era lens

For this reason I generally prefer to shoot with the Zuiko 25mm f1.8 and the Pen-F, instead of the Nikon Z6 II with the 50mm f1.8 S: with the latter I have much higher image quality, but I often must close down the aperture to f4 if I want to have enough stuff in focus. Anyway, this is the topic for another post – and I am also quite sure I already wrote about it somewhere else on the blog. Back to the Planar now.

Detail of a villa in Costa Smeralda

Since the DOF at f1.7 is the same you would get at f3.4 on Full Frame, it would be reasonable to entertain the idea of shooting at f1.7 most of the times – so, how is this lens behaving at its maximum aperture?

Lots of fast moving clouds in the sky — one moment you are in shade, the next you are blinded!

The lens at f1.7 can easily show a bit of halo around very high contrast areas, and the micro-contrast and sharpness are not especially high. Things drastically improve starting at f2.8, when the halo is already gone and micro-contrast and sharpness become wonderful. Go to f4 and the image quality becomes stellar. But again, we are likely shooting this quite wide for portraiture, and I think the lens at f1.7 is definitely usable for producing good images.

And indeed, back into shade again

Vignetting follows the same progression as sharpness and micro-contrast: there is quite some vignetting at f1.7, much less at f2.8, almost nothing from f4 on. I like vignetting, especially in portraiture, so I don’t really care about this.

Keep in mind that on m43 you are using the center of the lens, so you will rarely see any vignetting at all apertures.

The out of focus areas could occasionally become a bit distracting, depending on the light angle and the nature of the background, but it never becomes problematic. The bokeh is not having a unique character, like the Helios 44.

All the photos on this post are shot with natural light

At this point I would like to say that in modern age we can often improve the out of focus renderition in a matter of minutes. Take a look at the following portrait, for instance: the first version is what I got out the camera, the second version is processed in Photoshop, where I improved the out of focus, making it slightly softer and adding a hint of swirl.

Portrait straight our of camera, shot at f1.7 in full shade. Notice the very defined bokeh rendition
Same portrait with the background edited in Photoshop. The bokeh is much softer and I added some swirl too

I don’t think there is something inherently bad about this kind of editing. Not everyone can afford an f0.95 Noctilux or an 85mm f1.2, so it is good there are ways for making the out of focus areas more in line with our taste.

If you are interested in this technique, I can write a post about it, it is quite easy and fast to do. Let me know in comments!

Just a moment from a summerish day at the sea

The Planar is of course a full manual lens, so both aperture and focus are operated with rings on the barrel. The aperture moves in full stops and goes from f1.7 to f16, with f2 being unmarked but still noticeable thanks to the pleasant clicks.

You can approach landscape photography at 100mm by taking multiple photos and joining them together in a panorama, like this 47 megapixels photo. The full resolution is extremely detailed. Shot at f5.6

The focus is smooth and precise, a true joy to use. I press the zoom button on the Pen-F to push into the image when I need more precision, using the back dial on the camera to change the zoom ratio and pushing the OK button to go back to the not zoomed view. After a while this operation becomes fast enough, even if I would have loved the zoom to be engaged by the focus ring — impossible desire, since the lens is not communicating with the camera in any way.

Another multiple shots panorama. Same place, different angle. A cloud obscured the sun above the island of Tavolara in the distance

I did set up a PLANAR50 profile in the Utility / Lens Info Settings menu, this way I can take advantage of the wonderful stabilisation of the Pen-F and also write the name of the lens in the Exif data, which proves to be useful for knowing which lens I used for which photo. You just need to remember changing the assigned profile so that it matches the mounted lens.

Another portrait at f1.7 — I could have shot it at f2.8 and get much more detail, since there was no need for subject separation and it was a very bright day and location

This is the description of the lens taken from the official Zeiss brochure:

For the Contax® owner this lens is an attractively priced alternative to the fast 50 mm f/1.4 standard lens. The relative aperture of 1:1.7 is absolutely sufficient for many photographic purposes. The image quality is excellent and can even be compared with that of the 50 mm Planar® f/1.4 lens at the corresponding f-stops. Specific mention should be made of the relatively short design and the low weight of this high-performance seven-element lens.

Olympus Pen-F with Carl Zeiss Planar f1.7. Straight out of camera, Color Profile 2

I love how they are so strict when stating that the aperture is absolutely sufficient for many photographic purposes. It makes me smile. It is also interesting to note how they put this lens into direct competition with its much more expensive f1.4 sister: this detail tells us about different times, when there was not a race for necessarily owning the best and brightest lens. The f1.4 had specific use cases, but the f1.7 was indeed “absolutely sufficient” for lots of applications. And it still is, 50 years later.

I am not a fan of sharpness tests, so I have no idea how the corner sharpness is. What I know is that since the sensor only uses the central part of the lens, corner sharpness is better than what it would be on Full Frame or APS-C. Another advantage of m43 system!

Flare resistance is extremely good and so is the control of chromatic aberrations: you may find some CA at f1.7 but they are basically gone from f2.8 on — which is a testament to the quality of the T* coating on the lens.

Olympus Pen-F with Carl Zeiss Planar f1.7. Straight out of camera, Color Profile 2.

Thinking about all I mentioned, I would be tempted to say the optimal way for shooting this lens would be at f2.8 and with the subject not too close. This would give you very good micro contrast and sharpness. But this is just some general idea. I shoot it at f1.7 with no problems and I find that for some portraits the lower sharpness at f1.7 is not a problem, on the contrary, it helps giving the skin some glow and texture simplification.

The Planar is by no means a macro lens, and the details it can capture are usually less moody and unique than what the Helios can do — still, considering on m43 it behaves like a f3.4 100mm equivalent with a minimum focus distance of half meter, you can get pretty decent subject separation.

When shooting small details you need to decide if you prioritize a more blurred background or a more defined subject. In the first case you can shoot at f1.7 while for the latter I highly suggest to shoot at f2.8.

A rose shot at f2.8

If my memory is not lying I paid this lens around 100 Euros / USD at the time and I see that today it can be found for 100-200 EUR/USD. The f1.4 version can be found around 300-500 EUR/USD and I am thinking to buy one and try it sooner or later.

I would absolutely recommend this Planar 50mm f1.7 to everyone that wants to get a good manual lens, especially if using a m43 camera and looking for a great classical length portrait lens that offers impressive image quality without being plagued by the hyper corrected and sharp look of modern lenses.

It surely is a lens that requires some efforts on your side, and I enjoy this fact very much.

The Helios 44 would be a more unique choice for portraiture, but keep in mind that it is longer (58mm so 116mm on m43), slightly less bright (f2 instead of f1.7) and much worse when it comes to flare resistance — still, the Helios 44 is a truly magical lens on its own, something that everyone should own 🙂

I love taking photos of lemon trees

We are often being told that to get a “filmic look” we need to apply this or that preset, but I think the lens and sensor we use are much more important for building an authentic filmic look. Most of the photos in this post are straight out of camera, shot in jpg.

Olympus Pen-F with Carl Zeiss Planar f1.7. Straight out of camera, Color Profile 2

You know, I have no interest in writing (nor reading, most of the times) “proper reviews” of photo gear — the ones with tests and data etc. I bought and used lenses that had very good reviews, but I sold them after a while because they gave me no joy. I understood long ago that — unless you have some specific job need — the character and behaviour of a lens can’t be described or easily understood by simply looking at data.

Olympus Pen-F with Carl Zeiss Planar f1.7. Straight out of camera, Color Profile 2

So I prefer to write posts like this one, giving you some info about the lens and showing photos taken with it, trying to convey my overall point of view and experience. Yes, that’s the word I like so much — experience. What is it like to shoot with a lens or a camera? What did I do with it? Providing this kind of info seems to me more valuable than trying to compile some brochure of the lens and doing multiple lab tests.

I hope you also appreciate this kind of posts! I have a couple of lenses I would like to review like that, starting — probably — with the already mentioned Helios 44, and very likely still using the Pen-F for this.

Thanks for reading, be safe.

2 comments

  1. Please keep the posts coming, they are different and more interesting than the standard technical charts and pixel peeping reviews. Great content and interesting reads. Thank you

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