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Zeiss 50mm F1.8 Ultron Review

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Today we’re going to take a look at another lens. The Ziess 50mm F1.8 Ultron (shown above). Many people will have heard of Carl Zeiss, legendary lens maker, but I think most of that awareness will come from good marketing tie-ins. It’s hard to retrospectively look back to when you first heard/saw something, especially if it’s at all subconscious—the best marketing is that which infiltrates our subconscious and is not a blatant “look at me”—but I believe it was the 2005 Nokia N90. Nokia were all the rage. Everyone had one, but they were all different. If you wanted one that flipped open to reveal a QWERTY keyboard, they catered for that. If you wanted the smallest phone possible, they catered for that, too. Best camera? Best colour? Just a weird shape for the hell of it? Nokia nailed it. But this article isn’t about Nokia, it’s about Zeiss. Specifically, one of their standalone SLR lenses.

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The company Carl Zeiss was founded in 1846. That’s a long time ago, by anyone’s standards. There was no internet of course, but more importantly, no plastic in the ocean. There were probably fewer than 1 Bn people inhabiting the planet. About 25 million people in the UK. Imagine the traffic! You could drive anywh... oh wait the car hadn’t yet been invented. Or the aeroplane. Anyway, lenses. This lens wasn’t made in 1846. This lens was manufactured by Carl Zeiss in West Germany, to the usual high standard, between 1960 and 1972. Of particular note is the clickless aperture, which would be really good for video if I shot video (I rarely do - I have enough problems storing and processing photos). The concave front element creates a unique bokeh (background blur) without sacrificing detail. 

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The concave front element provides a visual interest, but you would not notice its presence unless you were looking for it. This lens is decently fast at f/1,8 but what is especially pleasing is that it is completely useable wide open (I only stop it down if it’s too bright). Owed to its speed and interesting design, this lens has a very nice rendering with high contrast and good sharpness (though vignettes wide open, but wouldn't you?).

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My lens is M42 mount, which is a threaded mount, unusual in the modern era. The M42 mount is from the East German regime of cameras and this lens generally commands a higher price than its bayonet counterpart. The M42 lenses are more expensive, and rarer. There are two copies of this lens on eBay at the time of writing, averaging at around 500 GBP or 700 USD. I actually have the original box, rear cap, and front cap for this lens, which are all quite rare too. I do not have the lens hood, which is a rubber design, but may pick one up some day. To be honest, I quite like lens flare in this lens and don’t think I would use the hood anyway (though it would offer some protection).

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The lens can focus down to 45 cm which is pretty close in 50mm terms. This makes it pretty good for macro shots and general portraiture (as you can see by all the flower photos). It also takes a bloody sharp photo when stopped down...

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The lens has 7 elements in 6 groups, and was the first lens to be designed computationally by Zeiss R&D (using an early Zuse computer). The iPad on which I’m writing has more computational power than the Apollo Lunar Module, but I can’t visit the moon so what does that matter? Incidentally, trying to write on an iPad whilst standing on a bus is a good core workout. 

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This lens is popular on the internet, with nerds such as myself enjoying the fact we have something rare and collectible, but at least I use the damn thing. I do find it frustrating when people buy things and never use them; limited edition Ferraris, vintage lenses, retro games, kettle bells... the list goes on. I wish this bus driver would modulate his feet, but that’s another story. You can but this lens from me, but you’ll have to make me an offer, as I’ll be keeping it as part of my collection until I die and it’s either left to a relative or buried with me, or is stolen. 

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If you fancy a unique fast 50mm, this is one of some good candidates, which I won’t list here. I like this particular lens because of its performance, especially wide open. Let me know if you have one! I am sure to use it often... must use 50mm more!

  Nearfield bokeh is pretty nice, too

Nearfield bokeh is pretty nice, too