The Tessar is a very old design (1902), actually one of the oldest optical designs of all consumer lenses. It was produced before WWII for the first Contax rangefinder cameras and early Exakta cameras and post-war both in East and West Germany for several other camera brands.
Fun Fact 1: In 1932, when Leica II by Leitz of Wetzlar was the king of 35mm cameras, Zeiss Ikon of Dresden decided to produce a competitor that would be superior in every way. Thus the first Contax camera was born; the “Contax I”, which was designed to outperform the Leica in every aspect including the optics; thus the first Tessar 50/2.8 for 35mm format was born (a redesigned Tessar to cover 24x36mm negative), from Zeiss Jena.
Fun Fact 2: This lens was famous during its era and was called “Adlerauge” in German, which means “Eagle’s eye” because it was considered super sharp. Let’s see about that further down!
Focal Length: 50mm
Field of View: 47° (diagonally)
Aperture Range: 2.8 – 22
Number of Aperture Blades: 5 (rounded)
Min Focus Distance: 0.35 m
Filter Size: 49mm
Lens Mount: Contax RF / M42 / BM / EXA / EXAKTA / Altix-N / PENTAX / PRAKTINA
Weight: 170 g
Elements/Group: 4/3 (Tessar)
Fun fact 3: The name Tessar comes from the Greek Téssera, which means four, referring to the four elements design of the lens.
Variations and handling
This Tessar lens is compact with seemingly good build quality, though this one is super light. Judging from the weight of it you can suspect that it has not the same build quality as other Zeiss lenses in general. After WWII starting from 1950 they were produced for many camera brands with many mounts in various shapes and colors. They were built in metal silver, silver/black checkered grip (zebra version) and all black version. They also have come equipped with different number of aperture blades, e.g. 12 and even 14. The final versions were completely black and had an M42 camera mount with only 5 aperture blades. The apertures can be set in half a stop and the focusing ring has good grip and resistance with precise and impressively long travel (270°) but is a bit tiny due to the compact lens size.
Let’s look at different parts of the following image (Center, mid-frame and corner as marked in the picture)
Center sharpness at f/2.8 is just fine although a little soft. The mid-frame sharpness isn’t great but isn’t a disaster either. At f/4 the center sharpness is good and becomes crisp and gets very good at f/5.6. At f/8, the center sharpness increases approximately to its maximum, which is just a little better than at f/5.6. The mid-frame sharpness begins to approach an okay level at f/4 but not quite sharp, at f/5.6 good and f/8 it is very good.
Corners are good at f/11, but only at f/16 the corner sharpness is where you wish it was already at f/2.8. Almost all lenses from its era had this problem. Although some modern lenses struggle with corner sharpness as well, they are still light years apart.
This is a real world example in not so optimal weather for sharpness tests.
For portraits we look only at the sharpness in the center, inner and outer center circle area as the edge or corner sharpness is not of interest, also we look at a photograph taken at about 1.5m, normal portrait photographing distance. We only look at photographs taken at f/2.8 as with a 50mm lens any smaller aperture does not give any real background separation.
Focus on Greta’s right eye. Wide open, the center and inner circle area are good with good contrast, the outer center area is not as good and loses a lot of contrast but still usable with some post sharpening and contrast adjustment.
Let’s look at Astrid’s right eye up close
F/2.8 is completely usable with good details. At f/4 sharpness is excellent. Strangely enough it looks like f/5.6 and f/8 are less sharp than f/4, could be the diffraction effect. Real life shots at f/8 are extremely sharp though
Almost no CA in the center and very low to non-existent in the very high contrast corner areas at f/2.8 and f/4 that can hardly be noticed. I would say negligible. Impressive CA control.
At f/2.8 there is about 1.3 stops of corner darkening and it improves to 2/3 stops at f/4, to a about half a stop at f/5.6 and 1/3 of a stop at f/8.
This lens has huge problems with veiling flare, sun inside the frame, at the edge or just outside the frame ruins the picture as you lose contrast and get a smoky curtain over all the image. It is not as bad when it comes to ghosting but if you use the lens in very challenging situations that can happen too. Compare the three images in the tab group, they are all taken from the same spot at the same time. First no sun, second sun just outside the frame, third sun inside the frame. Fourth is a rare case of veiling and ghosting flare together.
There is a very mild barrel distortion but it is so small that it cannot affect the result in any application and therefore can be considered as negligible.
This Tessar suffers from heavy focus breathing, as you can see in the following, which is a disadvantage for video filming.
The lens suffers from severe astigmatism, There are both sagittal and tangential coma at f/2.8. The Sagittal aberration clears up quickly to a very good level just by stopping down one stop to f/4. At f/5.6 and smaller apertures it is completely gone. For the tangential aberration to disappear you have to stop down to f/8.
Crop from extreme corner of the frame on Nikon Z6.
It is not easy to get nice sunstars with 5 aperture blades but it is not impossible. You can get 10 pointed stars at very small aperture openings but they are quite small and not very well defined. Note that at small apertures the diffraction has a negative effect on the pictures.
Bokeh’s quality and beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in my eyes this lens produces really good smooth bokeh wide open without artefacts at closer distances. The optical vignetting of the lens is minimal due to this lens’ widest aperture at only f/2.8, in combination with its super compact design – no wonder the bokeh balls are so nicely round and beautiful almost to the corners. Stop down a little and the bokeh balls get the shape of pentagons, which in my eyes are not as nice. With f/2.8 as its widest aperture you normally do not get as much blur as faster lenses for separation of the background for portraits although the general look of bokeh is nice with smooth transitions, just avoid busy backgrounds when you take portraits.
The Bokeh rendering at different distances; 0.6 m and 1.8 m both taken at f/2.8.
Now let’s look at the bokeh rendering of CZJ Tessar 2.8/50 at its four widest aperture settings.
I like the bokeh balls of this lens so much that I have to show another one.
And another test shot
|I like||Not Good / Not Bad||I don’t Like|
Bokeh Balls (wide open)
Center Sharpness from F5.6
Min Focusing Distance
270° Focusing Ring Rotation
|Wide Open Center Sharpness
Bokeh mid and long distance
Across the Frame Sharpness
F2.8 quite slow for a standard prime
5 aperture blades
Well, what did you expect? Or what should you expect? Yes, this is a Zeiss lens after all but it is one of the cheapest (if not the cheapest) Zeiss lenses you can buy. It can deliver rich colors and good contrast (most of the time). Stopped down in the center area sharpness is excellent even with today’s standards, but it can not be considered as “Eagle’s Eye” super sharp further away from center area or at longer distances. There are far sharper modern lenses.
Some people use this lens to take portraits and closeups, where edge/corner sharpness is not important. It would not be my choice of lens for portraits though. You can get excellent results in close-up photography. You can also get excellent results with extension tubes or bellows in macro photography as it can produce super sharp images in the center with a beautiful background blur. It is also used as a video lens on digital cameras for its vintage look despite the focus breathing. I have taken the lens with me on several trips for its small size, light weight, excellent close up sharpness stopped down with great bokeh in those situations combined with rich punchy colors. It is also good as travel/street photography because of the small size and very good sharpness and colors at f/5.6- f/8. as you can see from various sample images in this review. There are a lot of good qualities there with good results in controlled conditions but it is not a dream allrounder.
For taking pictures under special conditions, the personality of this lens can add charm to the result and a price of 50$ is a bonus.
If you are interested in buying a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 2.8/50 or any of the lenses in the Alternatives section you support our efforts by using the links below or given under each lens.
Many. Just to mention a few:
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Martin M.H. lives outside Stockholm, Sweden. He is a M.Sc. in Computer Technology but he has been a passionate photographer for over 45 years. He started his photographic adventures when he was thirteen with an Agfamatic pocket camera, which he soon replaced with a Canon rangefinder camera that his mom gave him in his teenages. After that he has been using Canon SLR, Nikon SLR manual focus and Autofocus, Sony mirrorless crop sensor, Nikon DSLR and Nikon Mirrorless. He has photographed any genre he could throughout the years and you can see all kind of images in his portfolio. During the later years though it has been mostly landscape, nature, travel and some street/documentary photography.