Steve Cushing Impresionist Fine Art Photography

Steve Cushing Impresionist Fine Art Photography

Embracing imperfection, recording emotions, one impression at a time…

Pre-War 1936 Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5cm f/1.5 for Contax Rangefinder Camera.

Stacks Image 64
Stacks Image 66

The Lens details of a series of images taken by Steve Cushing on mirrorless camera.

Fitting is a duel bayonet Rangefinder (RF) mount with a 34.85mm Flange Distance - this lens will fit and achieve focus to infinity mirrorless cameras but not DSLRs.


Carl Zeiss was born in Weimar on 11 September 1816. He built microscopes in Jena from 1846 onward.

The correct way to pronounce "Jenna" is to make it sound like "Yenna" in English.

The history of Zeiss mirrors German history and all of its highs and lows. It was founded as a business in 1846. World War I, the global financial crisis and World War II were years of ups and downs.

Carl Zeiss Jena had become a Social-Democratic bulwark. From 1933 and through World War II Carl Zeiss supported the Nazi regime as did most major German industries. About 1937 the atmosphere at Dresden changed (something was coming) and civilian projects were put on low priority, and military items, such as gunsights, bombsights, etc were being pushed. The prototypes were kept in the lower (second) basement level and all further work was done by the devoted staff on their own time, usually during the lunch periods.

When World War II began in September 1939 there was an air of invincibility in Germany, and in keeping with traditional practice, Zeiss products proudly borne the makers trademark and city of origin of the product. Forced foreign labourers (Fremdarbeiter) were brought to work at Carl Zeiss Jena manufacturing facilities.

Hubert Merwin was Director of the design department of Zeiss-Ikon Dresden from 1932-1945 and Zeiss-Ikon Stuttgart from 1945-1949. When Mr. Nerwin joined Zeiss, the first CONTAX camera (later designated as Contax I) was already in production. Zeiss made numerous improvements in the camera design many of them affecting the external appearance. The camerastore-owners complained to Zeiss Ikon, that the frequent changes harmed the sales. Mr. Nerwin estimated, that during the course of two years, there were design changes (external and/or internal) about every three months; naturally, some of those changes were minute, and not necessarily discernible by the dealer/customer. In 1933 it was decreed, that no more external changes should be made on the Contax I. All the improved concepts being developed, were to be incorporated in the forthcoming CONTAX II, then on the design boards.

This explains the various Contax I versions, while the Contax II and the subsequently released Contax III, seemed to be completely uniform in appearance. Actually, the Contax II and III also contained internal changes—but by decree, none of these changes were to be detectable by the dealer/customer, judging external appearance.

Stacks Image 193

Around 1936-1937, when the Contax RF cameras well established, the idea of a reflex finder camera was explored by the design group- The concept was to produce a reflex camera body, that could use the external bayonet lenses of the Contax RF cameras (85 mm focal length and longer).

Stacks Image 189
Stacks Image 191

In 1945 the U.S. Third Army advance, and on April 13 the regimental combat team 80th Division cleared Jena where they found the Carl Zeiss factory complex. It had sustained what they described as "surprisingly little effective bomb damage"

After the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII, in compliance with the Yalta agreements the U.S.military forces departed. In June or early July the Russian military forces occupied Jena and the remainder of what became East Germany (German Democratic Republic). Russians 'appropriated' the original optical equipment and designs from Carl Zeiss factory in Jena. Carl Zeiss know-how was one of the most prized possessions of the post-war era and helped accelerate innovation in the USSR's optical industry, After the war ended, the Contax RF model dies were taken by the Russians to Kiev, along with certain drafted Zeiss staff, to replace the lost or missing dies and production tools. By one year later, the Russians had evacuated much of the remaining technical and management staff and about 92% of the Carl Zeiss Jena manufacturing facilities to the east. But the Russian fear of possible further conflict with the western allies rendered moving any production capability into a more defensible Russian province a sensible strategic step.

The Zeiss staff remaining at Dresden, then decided to proceed with the production of the Contax SLR model; because of the departure of the Contax dies, the Zeiss staff decided to change the lens mount and use a 42mm screw-in mount, and chose to use a horizontally moving, cloth focal piano shutter, because the tooling for a cloth shutter was much Simpler, and quicker. The postwar Dresden Contax SLR was produced under the direction of Mr. Winzenburg, who took over the design group after Nerwin left for Stuttgart where they assembled assorted prototypes, machine tools, dies, hand tools and trucked in to Berlin-Zellendorf. Production resumed in September 1945. It took the Stuttgart team seven weeks to return to Stuttgart with American military assistance) because of Russian intransigence.

So after WWII, there were suddenly two Zeiss-Ikon companies, one in East and the other in West Germany. The "Zeiss Stiftung von Jena" established at Heidenheim with the "Opton-Optische Werstatte Oberkochen GmbH" factory at Oberkochen on the banks of the Kocher River near Stuttgart. The Schott Glass Works subsidiary was located at Mainz.

The West German branch, in Stuttgart, developed an all-new line of rangefinder cameras using the Contax bayonet lens mount, and launched the Contax IIa in 1950. Meanwhile, the East German group completed work on an all-new SLR camera that had been in development since the beginning of the War. This camera was introduced at the 1948 Leipzig Fair as the Contax S. The Contax S was the originator of the M42 lens mount, which was immediately adopted by KW as they reintroduced the prewar Praktiflex as the Praktica with the new mount. In addition to introducing the M42 mount, the Contax S also gave us the first eye-level pentaprism viewfinder, and it was also the first optical viewfinder system to provide (with the standard 58/2.0 lens attached) a 1:1 magnification in the finder. Zeiss was reformed in West Germany and became Zeiss Icon, Early 1970's tensions between the two firms between the two firms peaked (as they did between East and West) with each of both companies claiming the exclusive rights to the patents, trademarks and traditions of "Carl Zeiss". This culminated in a series of legal battles around the globe, among these was one resolved by U.S. Supreme Court granting rights to the name "Zeiss" to the West German Zeiss firm. Many trademark disputes followed with the part that was left in East Germany. Stuttgart became the Wests company's domicile.

Zeiss Ikon merged in the mid 1960s with Voigtländer, another important German manufacturer, and one that had been controlled by the Zeiss Foundation since 1956. Zeiss Ikon ceased the production of cameras in 1972. This was a great shock for the entire German camera industry. Parts of the Zeiss Ikon product line then went to Rollei, and part of the know-how was used to revive the Contax name in collaboration with the Japanese maker Yashica.

Stacks Image 129


This was designed as an interchangeable lens for 35mm rangefinder cameras.

They became popular almost 90 years ago when Leitz introduced the Leica II and Zeiss introduced the Contax I.

Both companies brought out full lines of lenses, and totally dominated the market for 35mm format cameras. The Sonnar was designed by Ludwig Bertele. Ludwig Bertele worked first at Ernemann, and later Cal Zeiss from 1926.

However the philosophies of the two companies were very different.

Leitz designers believed that lenses should be highly corrected with small amounts of residual aberration whilst Zeiss designers placed more importance on producing a bright image with high contrast.

In my opinion, Bertele is nothing short of a genius. He made very bright F-number lenses in a time where anti-reflective coatings did not exist, and in a time when glass choices were still primitive. He continued to design spectacular lenses like the Sonnar F1.5 and the Biogon, both which I think are not only lenses that perform beautifully, but also look beautiful. I think his lens designs were the leading technology of the time. This design also gives wonderful BOKEH. (Click for more information)

When Bertele designed The Ernostar he made large aperture lenses possible, but the large asymmetry caused coma. Because of this the field of view for a normal lens, about 50mm focal length for 35mm format, was just not possible. Also, without anti-reflective coating technology at the time, the more glass-to-air surfaces there were, the more flare, and the transmission and contrast of the image decreased with this flare.

Stacks Image 104
By Anonymous - en:wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0Link
Stacks Image 111

So Bertele took his design of the Ernostar, filled the positive and negative lens in the front with another glass. This decreased the number of the glass-to-air surfaces to the same number as the triplet and the Tessar (six), while generating higher-order spherical aberration for balancing. This allowed for shortening the overall length of the lens while keeping the large aperture intact.

Also, Bertele added the same doublet (later a triplet) in the final group, much like the Tessar. The doublet in the Tessar allows for a better image at larger fields of view since it corrects the field curvature and astigmatism. This means that the focal length can be shortened from the medium-telephoto Ernostar to the normal focal length Sonnar.

The lens ended up having an aperture of F1.5. The emergence of this lens must have made the competition very envious.

By Tamasflex - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0Link

Today, the Sonnar isn't as featured as THE standard for a normal lens. The Double Gauss has taken over, mainly due to a few factors.

  • The F1.5 Sonnar has more coma at higher field.
  • The development of a higher index of refraction glasses allowed for better performance of the Double Gauss.
  • The anti-reflective coating technology was introduced and got better, the glass-to-air surface disadvantage was nullified.
  • The Sonnar has a short back focal length that doesn't allow space for a mirror, and as SLRs took off in the 1960s, the Sonnar as a normal focal length lens didn't take off with SLRs.

Zeiss actually started coating optics in 1936 to increase optical transmission. Coated and uncoated lenses were produced concurrently, this one is uncoated.

Sonnars render images differently due to their asymmetric design.

Contax Rangefinder lenses use a double bayonet fitting. Converters for digital cameras can be very expensive. A cheaper solution is to make your own. Front sections of the Russian made Kiev Rangefinder can be purchased and after cutting of the excess brass can be fixed inside a cheap M39 adapter.

Please note the flange focal distance (FFD) (also known as the flange-to-film distance and flange focal depth) is 34.85mm, therefore these lenses will only focus to infinity on a non DSLR. They work fine on a Mirrorless digital camera.

Lens In Use

  • When used wide-open, field-curvature and spherical aberration spreads the depth-of-field across the frame, giving a “3-D” look.
  • Open up to F4 and the image is sharp across the field.
  • Used wide-open, uncoated Sonnars have less contrast and muted colours compared to modern designs.
  • Point of focus and limited depth of field gives rise to a unique Bokeh, full of comets and spheres.
  • Build quality is excellent and its iris is an eye-popping assembly of blades.
  • So technically whilst well built, the Sonnar “suffers” from issues with spherical aberration, coma, and field curvature.

Contax Rangefinder lenses use a double bayonet fitting. Converters for digital cameras can be very expensive. A cheaper solution is to make your own. Front sections of the Russian made Kiev Rangefinder can be purchased and after cutting off the excess brass can be fixed inside a cheap M39 adapter.

Stacks Image 83
Stacks Image 85

Please note the flange focal distance (FFD) (also known as the flange-to-film distance and flange focal depth) is 34.85mm, therefore these lenses will only focus to infinity on a non DSLR. They work fine on a Mirrorless digital camera.


In practice, these imperfections produce wonderful and quite unique imperfections that as a creative photographer I personally love.

With my uncoated Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50mm F/1.5 lens I have shot some of the most beautiful, emotive and characterful images I’ve yet taken. The sharpness, bokeh, and depth matches and often exceeds anything produced by my far more expensive modern lenses, plus it is so small and light. in short it’s a world-class lens.

For general information on lens design and lens elements go to the homepage HERE


Stacks Image 246

Images with

Site Search

Stacks Image 97
Stacks Image 94

Steve Cushing Photography