Zeiss ZM 50mm Planar f/2 Lens Review

It is extremely hard to write a review about my favorite lens. I have never tried any of the Leica 50mm, but have tried several Voigtlanders and the 1.5/f Zeiss Sonar. I won't be comparing them here, as for me the Planar is a winner and it is the only lens I want to mention in this review. I have several other reviews in the works at the moment and they will all share a common theme. I personally found it pointless to discuss any technical details, charts and construction schematic of any lens. There are many other reviewers that do just that and they do a good job at it. I don't think it is necessary to repeat someone else's words. I will not claim my review to be objective either. Any review is subjective and let's leave it at that. I want to express only one kind of information here - what has the product done for me and how did I get the maximum bang for my buck.

All of the photographs of the camera were taken with my iPhone. This is the price I have to pay for only having one camera. It has also reminded me of why I have Leica Monochrom (246) in the first place.

Let us start with "how". In order to properly show how the lens performs, I wanted to get rid of two things that might have affected its performance:

The first is any artifacts the sensor may introduce. The sensor of the Leica Monochrom M(246) has a minimum ISO of 320. It is also the native ISO the sensor works at without post-processing the output and thus degrading the data. This also meant I needed to find a subject that I can shoot at 2.0/f and 320 ISO. The weather was quite bad the past day, which made me sick but also allowed me to shoot at 320ISO with an open lens outside, on the balcony. 

The second artifact I wanted to account for was me shaking the camera when the shutter release is pressed. In order to do that, I used a tripod and a shutter release cable. As a side note, if you want to spend money only on one shutter release cable in your entire life - do yourself a favour and buy a Linhof cable. They're a bit expensive for what they are, but they are indestructible and have a nice shutter lock for bulb mode.

Let's get something out of the way. I don't like to get technical with my equipment. I bought Leica not only because it's the best (and only) black and white digital camera out there, it is also the simplest to use. When I shoot I have ISO on auto (between 320-6400), I have the shutter on auto with 1/250 being the minimum. I only occasionally move the aperture when it is either too dark and the shutter gets very slow (usually below the 1/focal length) or it is too bright and shutter reaches its maximum speed of 1/4000. I try to concentrate on the subject, the light and the composition and try not to touch anything besides focus and shutter release button. This makes me choose my lenses very carefully. I know what apertures I usually shoot at (5.6/f is the most common) and try to make sure the lens performs great around that area. 

You can judge this lens's performace with below examples. I've included 1:1 crops of several areas (mostly corners) to see the difference this lens produces.

I know some may consider this lens to be soft at 2.0 and even 2.8. What I want to point at is the that it is not soft, but rather softer than at 4.0 or 5.6. It doesn't mean that the lens is soft, it simply means that it is crazy sharp with the closed aperture. I've done 20"x30" prints of subjects shots with the fully open aperture and they turned out just fine. Most of the time I close the lens simply because I like to have a bigger depth of field.

The closest distance this lens can focus at is 0.7m, which is normal for Leica. The rangefinder won't operate any closer. I  have this problem with my 28mm Biogon that can focus at 0.5m, which requires me to use life view in order to focus the lens properly. The following portrait is as close you can get to a person. If you like shooting closeups and in portrait mode, you'd be better off with a 75mm or even a 90mm lens.

I always have a step-up ring attached to my 50mm Planar. Since I switched to M system all my filters are either 46mm. This lens, on the other hand, has a 43mm thread. This is quite unusual for an M mount lens, but somewhat common to the Zeiss. My other lens is a 28mm and it has a standard 46 mm thread. 85 mm Tele-Tessar ZM and 35mm Biogon also use 43mm. The only three lenses to use a 46mm thread are 21mm, 25mm and 28mm. None of the other Zeiss lenses use 39mm. Hense the step-up ring. By the way, you can get an assortment of the step-up rings on eBay almost for nothing. You'd probably pay more for shipping these days. You should note that all the step-up rings are made of aluminum. B+W filters I use are made of brass, which I assume is a harder metal. Sometimes brass thread cuts into aluminum and sticks to it. When that happens I usually take off the ring with the filter attached of the lens and then try to separate them.

The lens vignettes somewhat at 2.0. By 2.8 all of the artifacts are almost gone. Also don't shoot at 22/f unless you have to. Diffraction makes the lens overall softer when fully closed.  

The last point I want to make in this review is what is the most important to me. It feels great to use this lens. It is beautiful. It is made from solid metal with absolutely no plastic. It focuses very smoothly. The small nubbin on the focus ring can allow you to focus with one finger. The aperture ring clicks very nicely every 1/3 of a stop. What is even more important is the fact you can pick one up for $600-$700 dollars. It is very hard to beat that price. 

Below are some more examples shot outside on my balcony.