Vintage Lens Jeopardy #8: The aus Jena DDR T 2.8 / 50

Introduction

Welcome to part 8 of Vintage Lens Jeopardy. This time I have a pretty famous lens actually but we shall not call it by it’s true name but by “aus Jena DDR T 2.8 / 50”. If you know just a little about lenses you will figure out which famous company was and is bases in the city of Jena, Germany. Carl Zeiss Jena of course. But what about this lens “aus Jena”….is it any good and why the strange name?

“aus Jena DDR?” What weird brand is this?

Before World War II the city of Jena was already a major center of the German optical industry. The most famous name from this city was of course Carl Zeiss Jena. You can read up on the company’s history if you like. What it is important here is the fact that after the separation of Germany there were suddenly two Carl Zeiss foundations (the company was incorporated as a foundation which is fascinating in itself) one in East Germany and one in West Germany.

Both companies would produce and export optical gear and after some conflict an agreement was made in 1971 (other sources say 1973) making clear how each company was allowed to call their products in each market. The East German Carl Zeiss conglomerate had to label their products that went for sale in West Germany as “aus Jena DDR” so to not infringe on the naming rights of the other Carl Zeiss company. It was very important that customers knew they were buying something made in the DDR (GDR in English).

At the time buying something from the “other side” was still considered somewhat of a betrayal or support of the communist regime. The improved relations between the two Germanys under Chancellor Willy Brandt were in it’s infancy. Therefore the West German Carl Zeiss company was pretty eager to keep the Carl Zeiss name in their home market.

One little upshot to this is the fact that many people search for original “Carl Zeiss Jena” branded lenses and pay a premium while these “aus Jena” (aus = from) lenses often receive less attention. They are nevertheless very similar products. So do yourself a favor and try an Ebay search for “aus Jena”. Maybe you get lucky and pay a little less.

The aus Jena DDR T 2.8 / 50

This lens is what we today call a normal lens. It was often sold together with a camera. The T stands for Tessar which denotes the optical formula. It was designed at the Carl Zeiss Company in 1902 with an aperture of f/6.3 and improved to f/2.8 in 1930. The lens I have here is essentially the same design with some added features. It has spring actuated aperture which allows for composition with a fully opened (and bright) aperture and stops down right before shooting via a mechanical link from the shutter button. It also sports an auto / manual switch disabling the pin and reverting the lens back to a pre-select aperture mechanism. The latter is pretty useful on modern adapters which sometimes fail to fully depress the aperture pin on the lens mount therefore not fully closing the aperture blades (or you just buy a quality adapter in the first place).

For today’s standards a 50mm lens at the edge of what we consider a normal lens. The definition of normal certainly went to the more wider end at 35mm. Personally I like the 50mm focal length. It is just this extra bit of reach. I often pair one with a 28mm for street, city and general photography. The aperture at f/2.8 is not exciting at all. Blurred backgrounds and razor sharp depth of field are not what this lens was made for. The five aperture blades form a pretty noticeable pentagon shaped bokeh.

The lens itself is pretty light and small at 180g and 47mm in length. It is solidly built but definitely feels like an East German product. The focus ring is smooth but the stops are not dampened. The aperture ring (in half stops) clicks clearly and stays in place very well but feels and sounds somewhat like a ratchet. Both controls lack any kind of rubber or leather they just have a ribbed and diamond texture respectively. I certainly touched lenses with a more pleasant feel.

There are some surprising positives though. The front element is very recessed so lens flare and ghosting should not be an issue in most cases. The filter ring does not turn which makes using polarizers and other such filters very uncomplicated. The minimum focusing distance is only 0.35 m or 1.14 ft in the weird system. The filter thread is a very common 49mm. The focus ring turns about 300 degrees (more than 3/4) and has fine control over the complete focus range from 0.35m to 15m and beyond to infinity. This is very welcome for city and street shooters like myself especially compared to modern manual focus lenses that go from 2m to infinity with a flick of a finger.

My copy is in good condition. Maybe some dust but nothing troublesome. The lens is easy to open so I might just clean the elements myself. The markings are filled engravings and they still look pretty fresh. The aperture ring has a few spots where the color has rubbed off (probably by carrying the camera in a bag) and the helicoid could use some new lube but it is still totally usable.

Image Quality and Samples

A short disclaimer before we look at the samples. I am using this lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor which is 1/3 smaller than the 35mm film that this lens was designed for. The sensor would only record the center portion of the lens. Therefore I am using a focal length reducer which collects the light from the full width of the lens and focuses it onto the smaller sensor. It is not perfect but works well with most lenses.

The Lens Turbo II I am using reduces the focal length by a factor of 0.73 which is less than the 0.67 needed to replicate the 35mm film size. This can reduce some corner softness and vignetting (if present in a lens) though. Due to the additional optical elements the image quality may be slightly degraded (especially from field curvature) compared to using it on a full frame sensor. The actual field of view approximates a 54mm equivalent lens and the aperture is technically about 9% smaller. Details that are interesting but for most practical purposes not much relevant.

All images have been taken with the camera set to neutral (Provia film sim, no curve adjustment) and sharpness set to +2. I think these older lenses do well with a bit of in camera sharpening. Some images use the Kodak Vision 250D film recipe from FujiX Weekly.

high chairs
High Chair (2021) Fujifilm X-T3 + Lens Turbo II + aus Jena DDR T 2.8/50 Kodak Vision 250D film recipe

Theses chairs are waiting at a local gourmet restaurant for customers. The people who frequent this place invariably look like money. I am not an envious person. Why would I need so much money? I would not want to spend it at ridiculously expensive restaurants. It is rather that these places do not serve the purpose of providing good food but to keep the “common” people out so the top few percent of a city can mingle undisturbed. There is something disgusting about certain kinds of rich people. And I really mean certain kinds. The ones who frequent these restaurants. This place is located in a certainly affluent part of town but even those inhabitants can not afford this dining experience. So the patrons tend to come from the city’s “mansion district” to eat where they do not live. I think a nice neighbourhood coffee shop would be a much better use of this retail space. Anyway….

All around sharpness is good and mostly uniform over the frame. There is very little distortion.

nicely arranged pots and plants
Pottery Wall (2021) Fujifilm X-T3 + Lens Turbo II + aus Jena DDR T 2.8/50 Kodak Vision 250D film recipe

Someone made a really nice arrangement of pots and plants. The lens is pretty well corrected.

a shopping bag
Discarded Discount (2021) Fujifilm X-T3 + Lens Turbo II + aus Jena DDR T 2.8/50

I should have checked the bag. Who knows what was inside? Wide open the lens does suffer from some noticeable corner softness and what I presume is either field curvature or some unfortunate interplay with the sensor stack of my camera. The Lens Turbo II seems to exaggerate these problems with some lenses especially with close subjects.

a view over Potsdam Germany
Lonely (2021) Fujifilm X-T3 + Lens Turbo II + aus Jena DDR T 2.8/50

A view over the city. The bench beckoned me to sit down but the sun was glaring down making this spot way too hot and uncomfortable. I had the sun pretty much in front of me but there is just a slight loss of contrast. I have seen worse.

a modern barbwire
Cut (2021) Fujifilm X-T3 + Lens Turbo II + aus Jena DDR T 2.8/50

Modern barbwire. A fancy hotel had these installed next to a public park. Maybe they fear youngsters under the influence of drugs and alcohol climbing onto their property. Distortion is pretty well controlled.

red flower
life and death in flowery form (2021) Fujifilm X-T3 + Lens Turbo II + aus Jena DDR T 2.8/50

Alright. Truth time. Wide open flower shot. I could get pretty closes but the sharpness even in the center is not impressive. Now the Tessar Design is usually quite sharp. But these lenses were manufactured somewhat later and did not quite reach the quality that Tessars could deliver, possibly due to the nature of manufacturing, resource availability and quality control in East Germany.

Verdict

The “aus Jena DDR” T 2.8/50 is a solid walk around normal lens. It is well built and easy to use. But it is nothing special. Sharpness is decent stopped down but disappointing wide open. Colors render very slightly warm and pleasant. I just see no reason to keep it. Nothing special, exciting or quirky. It is just a moderately decent lens. It will give you a classic and unassuming vintage look especially in black and white with some grain but that is it. It is a “middle of the road” lens.

Will I keep this lens? I am unsure. I have a Pentacon 50mm F1.8 which I currently use as my go-to 50mm lens. It is not that great and I think stopped down the “aus Jena” performs better. But then the Pentacon is a faster lens. I guess I will keep it for now and sell both once I get my hands on reasonably priced vintage Fujinon 50mm.

Pros:
– light and compact
– solidly built
– flare and ghosting resistant
– minimum focus of only 0.35m
– little distortion
– uniform sharpness stopped down
– pleasant color rendering

Cons:
– soft wide open even in the center
– slow
– build quality lacks finesse
– some issues with field curvature or the sensor stack wide open

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