It might surprise some readers that the Viking empire once streched further than the Roman empire. The Vikings being less interested in administration than in pillaging, their presence on conquered soil simply wasn’t as sticky as Rome’s. Represented through time on a map, their geographic domination would more ressemble a series of contrails than a flood.
However, you’ve not come here for a lecture in history, particularly from one who was arguably one of France’s worst students of the subject in school. And my reason for using this intro is even worse than my knowledge of the facts backing it up.
In this belaboured analogy, Mjölner (the Hasselblad X1D) represents Team Scandinavia and Cesar (the Zeiss C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM, named after Caesar because of its diminutive stature but great might and a rendering that I find more Italian than Germanic in vibe,) heads Team Rome. Only, in this game, the two are partners rather than blood-squirting rivals.
Their collaboration didn’t get off to a great start. When my M-mount Novoflex adapter arrived, my first test of the C-Sonnar consisted in pointing the camera at bench in my garden at full aperture. And … ouch. Corner. Performance. Atrocious.
As with many things in life, though, it turns out that not being a total plonk often yields better results and the thought entered my mind that there might be better ways of using a 1930’s full frame design on a 2016 (?) MF sensor …
Before examining the practical implications of this minor epiphany, let’s juste note that the corner issues with Cesar (C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM) are the opposite of those found on Audrey (Distagon 1.4/35 ZM, see previous article). Here, there is little vignetting to complain about. Which is amazing considering how tiny the lens is. Short of a pancake, I’ve never used anything smaller. It makes a Summilux 50 look like a sumo. Sharpness, however, is a huge problem and it would probably take more cropping to deal with Cesar’s blur than with Audrey’s vignetting.
At least at longer focusing distances. Close-up, these issues vanish almost completely and most of the frame can make use of the insanely shallow depth of field. (both images below, as bench above, at f/1.5)
Still, in most scenarios, closing down produces a much nicer image that retains a tad of that soft glow but isn’t dominated by it, or other abberrations. f/2 is already more usable in ordinary situations and f/2.8 is even better. f/2.8 and f/4 are the best general purposes apertures for street, in my mind. Close down more and the lens loses a bit of that dreamy character. That mid-aperture sweet spot gives you those gorgeous pastel colours, that the X1D does such a great job of passing on to the final file, and very few objectionable optical defects.
For anyone wondering why bother with such an old lens on a camera designed for ultimate fidelity, the two photographs above are the answer: this tiny and cheap lens gives you variable glow that’s quite difficult to replicate with as much subtlety in post. From memory f/2.8 (f/4 ?) at top and f/5.6 at bottom.
Also, XCD lenses have a very transparent and no-nonsense rendering and it’s nice to have the option to swap in a little charmer every now and then 😉 Particularly one that offers the opportunity to turn the aperture right up to f/1.5 in some situations. f/2.8 below.
When used close up, the lens can take more or less any aperture. The corners will never be perfect, but they don’t intrude in the composition either. And if you’re looking at corner sharpness in full aperture close ups, this lens reeaallly ain’t for you anyway … It’ll give you nightmares and you’ll need a lot of test chart therapy to find sleep again 😉
What’s it like to use? Well, most of the points made in my previous post about the Distagon 1.4/35 ZM still apply. Great adapter, great fit, great build quality, great to have an aperture ring, great focusing smoothness. The only noteworthy niggle is size. Whereas Audrey is a perfect ergonomic match for the camera, this diminutive C-Sonnar actually feels a bit small. It’s a fantastic lens because its size means you can take it anywhere but it does look like the Hassy has a pimple on its nose rather than a lens mounted.
Fun fact about size. Thanks to those ZM lenses, my tiny Crumpler 4-million dollar home now easily carries a medium format camera with two lenses, 3 batteries, plenty of cards, my wallet (arguably very empty of bank notes, now, thanks to Sweden) It’s just crazy.
But the most important question you are asking yourself (please) is about b&w performance. Right? Right? Please? Can I talk about b&w performance? 🙂
You might expect a lens that paints scenes with a slightly cartoonish colour rendition to lack the ultimate finesse and transparency in b&w. And, although that’s not necessarily the case – you can make the lens look more modern, if you want – I’ll do nothing to dispell this a priori.
Because, honestly, why would I? The beauty of this lens is that it lends your photographs a deliciously vintage, but still very well-behaved look that – to my eyes – strikes a perfect balance between the clinical modern lenses that litter the market like dog turds on a French pavement, and more gimmicky stuff such as the fun but slightly overwhelming Jupiters and – dare I say it – Noctiluxes, of this world. A 400 € (used) lens that holds in your nostril and can make a take-no-prisoners sharpness-hungry Viking go retro like this, well, that’s priceless.
The photographs presented here (except for the 3 in my garden) were made in Aix en Provence, during a quick visit to view the Harry Callahan exhibition in Musée Granet. How that artist isn’t more famous is beyond me. If you get a chance to view some of his photographs, I’m sure you’ll find his very experimental and modern approach fascinating
His use of very strong contrasts and figure-ground light-patterns, to turn every day scenes into semi-abstract works of art, is amazing.
And while it would be ridiculous to attempt to match that level of lifetime proficiency in a short walk, some of the monochromes below and the Christ/branch-reflections colour photograph above were directly inspired by that exhibition. It’s serendipitous that the lens on my camera at that moment was probably quite similar to his … Imitating that sort of genius, on a great day in a great town with a great camera and a great lens … photography doesn’t get more pleasurable than this.
So, will I keep Cesar? Yup.
First of all, its selling price wouldn’t fill a very large portion of the hole dug out by my recent shopping spree. Then, it’s tiny. As in, you’d never think twice about taking it anywhere with you. And it’s very different from what the Swedish XCD-wonders produce, in terms of rendering. And it uses all the frame. How may squares do you see on this page? I have cropped some photographs slightly (and some would need a tighter crop for composition), but only to correct angles and not more so than with any native lens.
Negatives so far? None that come to mind. I’ve written it before in a review of that lens on the Sony A7r2: this is a hidden gem. One that’s been severely overlooked because of the age of its design and lackluster MTF performance. But if you enjoy creating pretty things more than gouging corneas, it’s an absolute treat. And now you know you can use it on your X1D or GFX as well (because of their larger pixels, at least in sensible 50Mp guise, it actually performs better)… For a Fuji user, this could be a 75mm on a X-Pro 2 and a 35mm on a GFX. It’s one heck of a fun lens for street photography, that’s for sure. Vintage digital medium format. In your pocket. Any takers ?
More samples, some cropped
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