Carl Zeiss f/4 85mm Tele-Tessar Lens

Concept:  2 out of 5
Execution:  3 out of 5
Yeah, but:  It fills a need.

The Long Version: There are certain things that you can assume with a Carl Zeiss lens, and despite its relative affordability, there's not much point putting the loupe to negatives shot with the 85mm tele-tessar. The calculated MTF (pdf) is without reproach, there's about one stop of falloff in the extreme corners when wide open, and it has so little geometric distortion that I can't tell if it's barrel or pincushion. There's never been a time when I wished for better optical performance from the lens, either on my film ZM Ikon or with my GH1 on an adapter.

do you know…?

My photography typically isolates details from flat surfaces, so the lens characteristics that matter most to me are geometric fidelity and even sharpness across the frame. I'm not particularly concerned with 'bokeh' or the ability to render a shallow depth of field, and typically use the smallest aperture that will give me an adequate shutter speed. Please keep in mind that the clinical and impersonal photos that I like to take affect my perspectives: if you, gentle reader, are a classical portraitist or a spontaneous street shooter, your needs are different from mine.

I rarely write disclaimers for my reviews, but I have to say upfront that this isn't an overly glowing report despite the unquestionable technical excellence of its subject. I do really like using the lens and seeing its results, but the 4/85 just isn't a landmark lens. It doesn't make or break the system; I doubt that anyone has ever bought a rangefinder just so that they can use it. It's certainly no 35-100mm f/2, which remains the single best reason to own an Olympus SLR. I'd miss the tele-tessar quite badly if it was gone, as it's an excellent Carl Zeiss lens, but it's not one that I can be passionate about.

tractor beam

By rangefinder standards the 4/85 is a fairly large lens. It projects three inches from the front of the camera without the hood, and hits 4.5" when that $84 accessory is added on. The hood creeps into the frame lines when the lens is focused down to three metres, but even when focused to its minimum 0.9m it only lightly blocks a corner of the active frame. Without the hood the lens stays clear of the frame at any focusing distance. The perfectly cylindrical hood attaches with a bayonet, leaving the 43mm threads clear for filters, and while it does fit over the lens backwards the hood doesn't lock into place when it's reversed. The lens and hood are both metal and are beautifully built, but Zeiss lens caps are unquestionably the worst I've ever seen.

The 85 f/4 has a focusing scale with depth of field marks for f/8, 16, and 22. Because of the length of the lens, the focusing collar is quite generous, but it lacks the nub that most ZM lenses have. The aperture indices are a long way away at the front of the lens, but the entire inner barrel of the lens rotates to make setting the aperture quite convenient. This is typical for a ZM lens, although having almost an inch of smooth barrel between the focusing collar and the front of the lens makes it very noticeable.

Fire, 3 Jan 2011

It's easy to tell when forum discussions and opinions about the 85mm tele-tessar were written. If there's a lot of enthusiasm, then the discussion started right after the initial product announcement. If there's gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, then it came after the f/4 maximum aperture was revealed. If a thread is full of people suggesting other lenses when someone asks about the 4/85, then it's contemporary. The thoughtful and practical assessment that usually comes with experience is almost entirely absent. It seems like almost nobody actually owns one of these lenses – my serial number ends in "002", and sometimes I wonder if they're selling them sequentially.

I do have a certain empathy for those who dismiss the tele-tessar because it's a 'slow' lens. My favourite colour film is Kodak's fidgety iso100 Ektar, and the f/4 aperture means that my shutter speed can get into trouble just by photographing into shadows on a sunny day. Using XP2 at iso 320 is better, but when I know that I'll be using the 4/85 as my main lens I'll switch to Fujifilm's Press 1600 and rate it at 1250. That gives me the freedom to use the middle apertures without having to look for the meter. While holding a rangefinder really is easier than an SLR, I have lost the occasional frame to camera shake.

Rush Lane

But there's another way that the f/4 aperture is limiting, which is very important for some people. Without razor-thin depth of field it's hard to show that someone has spent more money than other photographers, making this lens unquestionably inferior to the Carl Zeiss 85mm f/2 sonnar. True, some people do very well by chasing the fuzzy-eared portrait fashion, but the Canon 85/1.2 on a 5D will always be the king of that look, putting it beyond my concern.

Sure, if the Zeiss 4/85 could be made into a faster lens without changing its size, weight, cost, or quality, I'd buy one. But that's not the lens that we have in the 4/85, and its somewhat modest aperture is a practical compromise considering its other excellent qualities. I have used the tele-tessar's f/2 sonnar stablemate, and despite the appeal of having two extra stops of light, I might not choose one even if the extra cost wasn't an issue. Like a thoroughbred racehorse, it's absolutely beautiful and majestic, but who has the room to store a horse these days?


The unfortunate reality is that the 85mm focal length isn't playing to the M-mount's strengths. The ZM Zeiss Ikon is one of the very best rangefinders for accurately focusing a long lens, but just about any SLR will do a significantly better job. With imprecise framing coupled to an unmagnified viewfinder, tele-rangefinder photography leaves an uncomfortable amount of the composition up to chance.

The 4/85 can do some very nice head-and-shoulders portraits. It as the same DOF as an f/2.8 lens on a cropped DSLR body, and the narrow field of view makes it easy to choose the backdrop. But for more casual portraiture my first choice will always be the exceptional 1,5/50mm sonnar. I bought that lens so that a photographer friend could use it for one roll at my wedding, where it produced most of my very favourite images. For general photography RF photographers will typically choose a 50mm or 35mm lens, and while some will go wider as their personal favourite, very few will reach for a short telephoto as their primary glass. My personal 'standard' lens is the Carl Zeiss 2/35 biogon, which just fits me perfectly despite my never liking the Nikon 35/2D on my F100 or D700. Life can be like that sometimes.

Untitled #837

So why did I buy a short telephoto lens when it's neither the best for portraits nor a comfortable general-purpose choice for a rangefinder? Quite frankly, the tele-tessar is an excellent lens to have in the camera bag, and that's where mine happily stays most of the time. The 35/85 combination is a classic two-lens kit, and even though the 35mm will see most of the action the 85mm is occasionally vital. A three-lens outfit will frequently include a short telephoto like the 85 along with a 50mm and a wide-angle lens for the maximum versatility. Because of the nature of rangefinder photography the telephoto will invariably see the least use: if it doesn't, you're using the wrong camera. But as a second or third choice, the CZ 85mm f/4 is exceptional.

Partly because it spends the least time on my Ikon, the 4/85 is the lens that I'm most likely to use on an adapter for my micro-four-thirds GH1. Being able to boost the sensitivity on a digital camera mostly absolves its shutter-speed issues, and improving sensor technology will only make that compromise better. I'll often carry a Zeiss lens instead of the Panasonic 14-140, and my M-to-m4/3 adapter has retired the F-to-m4/3 one that I used for the Nikon 85/1.8D. The tele-tessar is technically, mechanically, and ergonomically better than all of my other telephoto choices, and on a Olympus or Sony body with image stabilization, it would be perfect.

I bought the Carl Zeiss 4/85 fully expecting that it would be my least-used lens. It's an excellent optic, and matches perfectly with the other technician of the CZ-ZM line, the 2/35 Biogon. But even though I gravitate toward telephoto compositions, and love the look of its results, there haven't been any happy surprises with the 4/85. I take just as few photos with it as I expected. Even when I'm making a point of using it – like to gather some images for a review that I've been meaning to write for a couple of months – I find myself illicitly switching to shorter focal lengths. They're simply a better match for a rangefinder camera, and can be used with less concern about the finicky details of composition and shutter speed. But for both versatility and comprehensiveness, the 4/85 t* tele-tessar lens is one that I wouldn't want to be without.

Not every lens can be the one that gets used the most, and that's okay.

last updated 10 jan 2011


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