#837. Caesar takes on Thor (Zeiss C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM on Hasselblad X1D)

By pascaljappy | Review

Mar 27

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.

 

Ahem.

 

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.

 
This needs to be cropped, using only the bottom square.
Same here.
 

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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  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    Love this lens, and your images above are testament to just what this lens is capable of in terms of its capacities and abilities to help the photographer craft an image. Admittedly, some can’t cope with this lens, but others hold it in high esteem.

    I make best use of this lens when the OZ weather is inclement – when sunlight and contrast is dialled down and subdued; or during the earlier or latter parts of the day – it sings; and I agree with you it’s a superb lens from F1.5 to F4.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you stated “… 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 …”. These words really get the message across, regarding it’s capacities and abilities.

    Regards
    Sean

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Sean. It took a while to get back into an “adapted lens” frame of mind. But now, my camera is permanently in silent shutter mode and the psychological switch has been made in my mind. To me, this lens is wonderful because it is slightly specialisez. Not so much that it becomes a single-trick pony but enough to suit a specific shooting approach. And when you use it in its sweet spot it is sooo beautiful. Have you ever compared it to the Summilux 50 on the X1D? Ming Thein prefers the Summilux and I’d be curious to compare the two. Cheers, Pascal

      • Sean says:

        Hi Pascal,
        I don’t have that Leica lens, sorry – Ming will have to lend you his.
        As a thought, though, I wonder how those Olympus OM Zuiko Perspective Control lenses would perform on Mjölner (the Hasselblad X1D)? Not because of their PC function but for their large exit hill size.
        Regards
        Sean

  • immodoc says:

    Hi, thank you for this review I have been waiting for …

    It looks as if 50mm Leica M mount lenses work without reservations on “Super”-“FF”.

    Which is good news – and bad, because it leads to temptations … —

    On the Leica M9, the Sonnar is a pleasure, as is the 35mm Distagon.

    But your article and your other reviews offer good reasons for adapting them to my SONY A7R2 – again –
    (and for thinking about a FUJI GFX 50R) … —

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Immodoc, yes this lens is really nice on the Sony! And it’s nice to know you can keep using it on the GFX if you get one. In fact, I think you’ll like it even more on that camera. Ouch 😉

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    When I was young, the rumour was that small cameras (like Leicas!) had to have expensive lenses, with brilliantly accurate optical qualities, whereas large format cameras could take perfectly sharp photos with a lump of bottle glass, if that’s all you had.

    Now that we’re all enjoined to become technocrats, our standards – or rather our demands – have shifted, and we’re a lot fussier. Who’s right? Well, the real answer to that is “what’s right for you”. You’re never going to get two people to agree on anything ever again – that’s another paradigm shift in our culture, over the past half century or more.

    What I love about your article, Pascal, is the way you grab Caesar and take such startlingly sharp images – like the jonquils and the necklace. Softer images are perfectly acceptable with landscapes and in any event, there’s nothing to criticise or for you to apologise about, in any of the other photos. You won’t be at all surprised to read that I love the last shot of the fountain – I’ve told you privately how I think fountains ought to be photographed, and this shot is stunning.

    I’m afraid I have to leave the discussion about B&W to everyone else. Having spent half a century, and more than half a lifetime, shooting B&W, I abandoned it with my plunge into digital, so that I could devote whatever’s left of my life to exploring colour and being able to do my own colour processing and printing. If I produce anything B&W now, it will only because I found myself caught in some of those ghastly monochromatic artificial lights, like mercury or sodium vapour lamps. I do believe colour photographers benefit from a knowledge of B&W – I know others feel that colour photographers can ignore tonal range and replace it with a range of different colours, but IMHO colour photos that ignore the need for an appropriate tonal range look rather flat. Just saying**. [**current aussie colloquial expression] Everyone else can say, do & think whatever they like, but that’s my viewpoint.

    Having said all of that – and talked too much, as usual – I’m having the strange feeling you’re asking us something about Caesar. Why? You’re happy – the photos are great – and anyway, you keep telling us you’ve spent all you available cash & have to sit with what you’re using. That being the case – don’t go looking for criticism, critics will find you soon enough – just get out there and enjoy it all. Which you appear from the photos to have BEEN doing, before you put it all together and started soliciting other people’s opinions. 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha, thanks Pete 😉

      Large format film had a lot more real estate for information, so lenses didn’t need to be sharp. If they were, most of it would have been lost in the relatively small print sizes of the time, anyway. And it’s the look of those glowing (spherical aberration) old lenses spread out over huge surfaces and not enlarged much that created the fabulous large format aesthetics. As you say, to each his own taste.

      No doubt in my mind about keep Cesar. Great combination with the camera. The jury’s still out on Audrey because, as you will see in my next post, the XCD has a similar look (but nowhere near the aperture range). I’m just asking what others think out of curiosity. That slightly vintage look has largely gone out of fashion. These days, if it’s not so sharp that it looks brittle, it’s crap … Not my cup of crap, but many people’s. I just wonder how people feel about that older look.

      That fountain photo will be reworked a bit (it needs some cropping) and … printed. That’s my ultimate vote of confidence, these days 😉

      Cheers

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I don’t give a **** if some of the images aren’t tack sharp. So many of mine are photos of pets, and you can’t expect them to keep still for an instant – besides, the light’s almost always crappy – so I just do the best I can in the circumstances. Result? – pet’s owner in raptures, my own personal critic (I do have one!) says she likes most of my photos but the shots of pets are the best, and so what if there’s a bit of digi-noise, or the eyebrows and/or the whiskers are not sharp.
        I also don’t care how other people feel about my photography anyway**. In fact, ever since I was 8 and decided I’d have to do my own growing up, I’ve never cared how other people feel about what I get up to. If I’d spent my life thinking about things like that, I’d never have gotten anything done! Instead, I’ve lived life to the fullest, had a fantastic trip from being 8 to being nearly 10 times that age and, like the little sparrow, je ne regret rien.
        I do this stuff for my own amusement – with occasional bits dribbling off the edge of my desk, when there’s someone (like pet owners) with a special interest in the relevant shots.
        So – I urge YOU to do your own thing, instead of wondering how anyone else might feel, and paste it on DS or wherever you like, for people to admire. 🙂
        **[some time later this year, I’ll be able to send you a copy of the photo I took half a century ago, that upset everyone who saw it & put me off showing my photos around – also put me off critics! – for the rest of my life!]

  • Jaap Veldman says:

    Pascal,

    I think you described the zm sonnar 50 very well and it’s exactly what I like about this lens -without owning it.
    Because of the pastel colours however I think it’s a She. Caesarine!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Interesting, Jaap 😉 ! On the Sony, I had always used that lens with quite strong PP and it all felt very “male”. But it’s true that here, with the softer pastels, there is a distinctly more feminine feel. Cesarine 😀 😀 😀 why not ?

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