T.Stops Blog

An Examination of Lenses: Carl Zeiss Compact Primes MK1

image from www.en.panalight.ro

So as promised I am finally looking at something other than a Cooke.

On the slate today, the Zeiss CP – 1 Set.  I chose to review the CP1’s, as opposed to the CP2’s for a reason.

One, because i have a set of CP1’s…..  but more importantly, they are true PL primes.   The CP2’s have interchangeable mounts that can prove a bit tricky to collimate.  The CP1’s i have are accurate to the inch, so for the sake of testing and working with them, i went with what i know works perfectly.  I will amend this later with the newer CP’s at a later date to reflect the differences in the update.

Since they are so accurate in terms of focus, let me talk about build quality and ergonomics.  The primes are very light weight, under 2lbs per lens, and all the same size, with matching focus and Iris locations.  All have 114mm fronts, very handy when quickly changing lenses as your mattebox and follow focus can remain in the same position.  In my opinion, the light weight of the lenses is a double edged sword.  Yes they are easier to handle, and make for simpler stedicam and handheld work, yet they have a “hollow” thinness to the metal that just makes me grit my teeth.  They will probably last a life time, but every time you handle them it just doesn’t feel right.  Somethign like when you handle carbon fiber tools, or camera accessories.  I know they are strong and durable…. but they just feel to light and it doesn’t instill confidence.   The focus and iris both rotate smoothly with a long rotation, however with resistance that is vastly different than the Panchros.  My AC for the job i just did with them, (a newbie), having pulled focus on my Cookes, when pulling on the CP’s asked if somethign was wrong with the follow focus, noting the additional friction.  I had to set him straight that the silky, lack of resistance you get on Cookes is not the norm.  This isnt to say they are stiff by any means, they just aren’t as silky smooth as the Panchros.

The witness marks are plentiful, and accurate.  However despite the long rotation, you still wind up with 3/4 of the barrel rotation representing minimum focus to about 6 feet, with the remaining 1/4 for everything between 6 feet and infinity. Not a big deal on the wides, but murder on the 85mm.  Especially that the 50mm and 85mm are both T1.5.

As you can see, for a nice close up, the 85mm just looks great.  This was shot @ T1.5 1/2, and my AC was having difficulty keeping the singer of this music video in focus not so much because of the narrow DOF, but because of the fact that the 6″ he moves back and forth is almost a 1/4 turn on the lens barrel, and even more on the follow focus.  However, there is a certain beauty to a fast lens in a tight closeup.
That said, the real kicker is that the disparity of the Tstops, while not REALLY a big deal….. kind of is.  Let me clarify.  The lens set is as follows. 18mm T3.9, 21mm T2.9, 25mm T2.9, 28mm T2.1, 35mm T2.1, 50mm T1.5 and 85mm T1.5.

This basically means i have to light to a T4.  I mean, you have to light the scene to your slowest lens, unless its a one shot kind of deal where you aren’t going to be switching back and forth.  So, as i see it, if im going to be lighting to a T4, why even make the 50 and 85 a 1.5?  Ah HA! but then again, its AWESOME having a 50mm and 85mm at a T1.5……  The problem being you can’t just switch from one lens to the other when youre lit for one.  It is frustrating.

The CP’s optically speaking are decent.  They all suffer from significant softness, and very strong chromatic aberration wide open, and depending on the lens, all the way down to a T5.6.  The biggest culprit of CA being the 50mm, 85mm, and 35mm lengths.   Notice the pink/magenta CA on the sequins on the shirt.  Shot with the 85mm @ T2.0.


All of these lenses are soft wide open, including the 18mm.  Yea, the T3.9 18mm needs to be stopped down to be sharp.  This was extremely apparent on a EPIC shoot i did last week, with the CP’s.  Punching in for focus with the 25mm wide open, just never looked sharp in the focus assist until it was stopped down to a T5.6.  When edited, and output to 1080p for delivery, the softness is reduced, but had the shot been screened at 4k, it would have looked soft.  I shoot primarily on the F3 so the 1080p image looks ok if shooting wide open, but not as razor crisp as Master Primes or Ultra Primes in the Zeiss family.

These 1080p screen grabs are good examples of how when reduced to 1080, or captured at 1080, the images come back together rather well.

The 18mm in action:

The 50mm:

I am in the middle with regard to their flaring characteristics.  They don’t flare poorly, but they do flare a lot.  Similar to the early Zeiss Superspeeds in quantity, but not in quality.

The image milks up significantly, and there is a blue/aqua flare ghost.  This isn’t the flare ghost that comes from the OLPF, no, that’s green.  This is a bizarre aqua flare.  They all do it, and they all do it differently. Each lens has its own distinct flares.  Where as with S4’s, Ultras, Panchros etc… The flares looks somewhat similar in texture and scale, the CP’s are completely different in color, shape and quantity.  The 18mm flares if you look at it wrong.

That said, when CP’s are not flaring, and stopped down a stop or two they do exhibit phenomenal contrast.  Blacks are black, and whites don’t bloom in any way. They do milk out when wide open however.  Especially the 50mm and 85mm.  I am curious to see how the performance in the CP2 T2.1 50mm and 85mm compare.  This is what happens when you flag every light source off the lens, and stop down… look at those blacks… perfect.

This is a test shot with stand ins.

 A dancer.

Its almost too clean.

This is the life you have to live with Compact primes.  One extreme to the other…. fast Tstops, or slow Tstops… Soft and milky or crisp and contrasty…. They are so darn inconsistent.

That said, it can also be a blessing.  Shooting them wide open is like a built in promist, want it clean and sharp?  add a light and stop down to a T4, and you will have a super rich, contrasty, razor sharp image.  Want it Soft and ethereal? put in a scrim and open up.

Overall, i find that i am so spoiled by the Panchros and how consistent they are.  From T2.8 all the way to T16 its the same image.  The range of “look” you get with a set of CP’s is considerably different.  I can only describe the looks as neutral but slightly warm.  The longer focal lengths don’t distort, but the shorter ones do a bit.  Breathing is low, and the bokeh is absolutely gorgeous. There are somethign on the order of 14 iris blades to keep the bokeh perfectly round and buttery at all Tstops.  This is one area where the CP’s excel. They have “Canon L series” like bokeh. Smooth and clinical looking, but in a good way. This will make many in the DSLR crowd happy, because the bokeh they enjoyed on the Canon camera with Canon lenses, is attainable in PL on other platforms at an affordable price.

Over all in the end, i like the CP’s.   They have quirks, but i like quirks.  Perfect lenses would be boring.  If you want perfect, look into Master Primes.  I for one am perfectly happy living between my Cookes and the CP’s.

Till next time where i look into the Duclos 11-16 T3 Zoom!  Its so much fun its almost wrong….

Dont forget to follow me on Twitter @timurcivan or @tstopcinema

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5 Comments on "An Examination of Lenses: Carl Zeiss Compact Primes MK1"

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“Notice the pink/magenta CA on the sequins on the shirt. Shot with the 85mm @ T2.0.”

Can you post a blow up of the sequins and the CA? I’m having a hard time seeing it in the photo.

Thank you.

Awesome review. I’m looking into those lenses, this is very enlightening and helpful. Thanks!


I added some 100% detail of the CA in the sequin shirt.

Hello, could you do me a favor and measure the barrel of one of your CP.1s? Length and front width?

I need to make sure they are similar to the CP.2s and I can’t find the info anywhere. Thanks in advance!

They should be identical. AFAIK.