Here’s Johnny! Contax Zeiss v’s Zeiss Super Speeds

How closely do Contax Zeiss lenses match the legendary Mark III Super Speeds? Well, Nikolasset Moldenhauer takes us on a journey to find out, in his usual niche way, with a little help from Jack.

Here's Johnny! Contax Zeiss  v's Zeiss Super Speeds

Nikolas contacted Zeiss to talk to them about their old Super Speeds (The Shining, Lost in Translation etc.) and the Contax Zeiss lenses. What he found out was that both lenses use the same glass and the coating.

Here's Johnny! Contax Zeiss  v's Zeiss Super Speeds

I caught up with Nikolas to ask him about why and how he decided to do this test.

Q. What gave you the idea to compare Zeiss Super Speeds against Contax stills glass?

Here's Johnny! Contax Zeiss  v's Zeiss Super Speeds

If you are a filmmaker you probably love the work of Kubrick and you will undoubtedly be familiar with the Zeiss Super Speeds that he used for his iconic movies “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket”. I first used them on a TV commercial shoot last year and I was hooked. Of course, these are out of the owner-operator price range… at least for most of us.

I have seen offerings for single lenses as high as $13,000 USD, and they are very rarely on sale at all… so, what can a poor boy do?! That started my journey into the Contax Zeiss lenses that were first released in the same year as the Super Speeds… 1975. They also carry the same Zeiss signature T* coating brand. This really made me curious about how close these lenses would be if one used the most comparable lenses in the lineup… the f1.4 lenses.

I boldly called Zeiss in Germany to find out more, and they were very nice and very helpful. They did state, that not only are the coatings the same but the glass substrate also. The general design (like in Planar, Distagon etc.) is identical as well… But of course, the specific design is very different as the Super Speeds are faster (f1.2), and built for Super 35. The Contax lenses are built for Full Frame. Also, as far as the mechanics and serviceability are concerned there are many differences.

For me, the image is the most important part, so I had to find out how they compared. To do this I rented a 50mm SuperSpeed MKIII and put them head-to-head against my (now complete) set of Contax Zeiss lenses.

Q. What is it that you think makes the Super Speeds such a desirable lens to use?

Here's Johnny! Contax Zeiss  v's Zeiss Super Speeds

As always, the lens is only one small ingredient in the magic sauce that makes an image great, but it can be an important ingredient none the less. In a world full of iPhone cameras and computer imaging, vintage lenses help to stand out by adding a subtle layer of poetry. Having said that, sometimes this subtle layer can be a bit too much. The Super Speeds and the Contax Zeiss lenses deliver an image that strikes the right balance between giving you contrast and detail while still showing some “character”. They can be just as sharp as modern lenses if they are stopped down a bit. The Contax Zeiss will not give you the same image, but something quite close for a fraction of the price. They are also suited to bring that vintage Zeiss look to LF cameras. What is not to desire about that?

Q. How did you morph yourself into the scene with Jack?

A combination of editing, green screen recordings, and compositing. I do think that emulating the acoustics of the room (like the change in the background music when the door is closing) really helps to make the effect work. Also, we used a technique that I learned years ago from Videocopilots.net (thanks guys, love your work), that is to 3D project a room right inside After Effects. This enables you to turn a stationary cam into a jib/dolly cam. Pure FX magic! We did post a little VFX breakdown on our IGTV. On Instagram under “media.division” you’ll always find a bit of satellite information to what we are cooking for YouTube.

Q. What tests did you do to compare the lenses?

Here's Johnny! Contax Zeiss  v's Zeiss Super Speeds

We dis the usual, DOF, Bokeh, FOV, focus, etc. on Micro Four Thirds (Panasonic GH5), Super 35 (Panasonic EVA1) and Full Frame (Kinefinity Mavo LF) for the 50mm Zeiss Super Speed, and all lenses from our Contax Zeiss set. This will reveal how the lenses will behave on the camera that you are planning to use these lenses on.

It’s important to note that these kinds of tests don’t give you a feel for the lenses. That is why we took the 50mm f1.2 Super Speed and the 50mm f1.4 Contax Zeiss for a bit of a field trip, shooting both mostly wide open. As these shots are only marked by letters these tests are more to find out if there is a meaningful difference, and how important that difference is… to you.

Q. How easy is it for someone to Cine mod Contax lenses themselves?

I would say that it is easy, especially if you have some experience servicing lenses before. The build quality is so good, that most lenses I got felt brand new… even though they are almost as old as I am. Declicking and changing the lens mount is very simple. Getting rid of some protruding parts that might collide with speed boosters is a bit tricky… but that is optional and we offer a description of the process in the video.

Q. How close do you ultimately think the lenses match?

Everyone will have very different opinions on that and that is perfectly fine, but if you ask me what I think, I would say that they match quite well. To prove this point we did shoot the FX scenes of The Shining on CONTAX Zeiss to see how well they would match (of course, the camera and our limited grading abilities played a factor here).

Looking at our field trip test, I can tell them apart especially how they render skin differently, but, if I didn’t have side by side comparisons, and if I didn’t name the clips accordingly, I couldn’t consistently tell which is which. That said it all for me. But of course, there are other considerations than the look of the image.

Q. Were you surprised by any of the results? 

Here's Johnny! Contax Zeiss  v's Zeiss Super Speeds

Yes, in a positive way. For us, it really showed what you can get out of lenses that can be found for as little as $200, and the sort of images one can create with a little attention to detail.

Q. How much time did it take you to complete this episode?

This was a long and hard episode to produce. Adding up all the nights, the field trip, trips to rental etc… I would estimate 8 days… long days. But this episode is based on a long time journey discovering the Contax Zeiss lenses, hunting for each one, modding each one, falling in love with each one. We hope, that other user can have an easier journey through our work… and can fall in love with cinematography all over again, adding a little magic from vintage lenses.

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