Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss 180mm f2.8 lens Made in West- vs East-Germany, which is better?

The full frame Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 180mm f2.8 lens with Contax/Yashica mount made in West Germany (left) and medium frame the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f2.8 lens with Praktisix P6 mount made in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)

Abstract

In this article about two classic lenses I will address the following:

  1. After World War II, Zeiss was separated into two co-existing corporate entities for over 40 years: Zeiss in US-dominated West Germany and Zeiss in Soviet-dominated East Germany.
  2. In my opinion, two inexpensive classic telephoto lenses, the Olympia Sonnar 180mm f2.8, one Made in West Germany and the other Made in East Germany, easily outperform the modern classic zoom lens at 180mm with regards to image quality and bokeh when adapted to a full frame camera Sony a7ii. 
  3. Huge lens hoods, examples of a Ninja star bokeh, high micro-contrast and 3D-pop.

Zeiss separated into West-Germany and East-Germany during Cold War and reunited in the 1990s after more than 40 years

There was D-Day, then Paris, the Rhine crossing, Weimar, and on 13 April 1945, American troops reached the German university city of Jena, where the precision optical industry was and still is the leading branch. The Americans had penetrated Germany faster than the Russian troops because the German Wehrmacht had made the eastern front their priority — they needed to stop the Russians from capturing the German capital Berlin.

The US troops stayed only a little over two months in Jena. According to the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Jena was to be handed over to the Russians by the end of June.

Bombed Zeiss Jena 1945
Jena in 1945: Heavy American bombing raids destroyed many of the Zeiss headquarters and production buildings. (W. E. Williams; National Archives, College Park, USA.) Click on photo to enlarge.

In Jena was the headquarter and main production site of Zeiss, a manufacturer of optical systems. The airplanes, submarines, tanks and guns of the German Wehrmacht were equipped with Zeiss devices. Because of the significance of the military optics produced in Jena, the Americans ‘relocated’ 77 Zeiss engineers and managers into the US occupation zone, which later became part of West Germany. 

The decision was also made to relocate certain specific optical equipment and construction plans, which a convoy of trucks transported to Heidenheim, close to Stuttgart. The many big production machines, however, were left in Jena — time was too short for the Americans to organize their removal and they didn’t want to risk serious complications with the Russians.

For more information about the American troops liberating Jena (German language only) and the History of Zeiss, look here:

https://www.mdr.de/jena-kriegsende

http://www.company7.com/zeiss/history.html

After the defeat of Japan, the interest of the USA in military optics subsided; it took until 1946 to start up Carl Zeiss West Germany as a repair shop and production facility in an industrial area in the south of Oberkochen, a small city north of Heidenheim.

For more information about the life in Soviet-dominated East Germany look here:

 

Olympia Sonnar 180mm f2.8: Made in West-Germany vs Made in East-Germany, which is the better lens?

Carl Zeiss in West-Germany promoted its Sonnar T* 180mm f2,8 lens in its sales brochure as: “Modern, especially light and compact version of the famous Olympia-Sonnar”

Carl Zeiss Olympia T* Sonnar 180mm f2.8 made in West Germany adapted to Sony a7ii camera
Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss T* 180mm f2.8 Made in West Germany in 1987 adapted to a Sony a7ii full frame camera

Anything but light and compact, and sporting a huge lens hood, the Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2,8 Olympia Sonnar lens made in East Germany:

Carl Zeiss Jena Olympia Sonnar 180mm f2.8 made in East Germany adapted to Sony a7ii camera
Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 Made in East Germany in 1968 with a huge lens hood adapted to a Sony a7ii full frame camera

Sharpness in the center and corner of the Olympia Sonnar classic lenses

The West Germany vs. East Germany Carl Zeiss Sonnar 180mm f2.8 lenses review will check lens sharpness in center and corner of the test photos
The Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss classic lenses Made in West Germany vs East Germany reviewed for lens sharpness in center and corner

CENTER sharpness: Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss 180mm f2.8 Made in West Germany vs. Made in East Germany

The modern Sony FE 24-240mm zoom lens was added in the test and used at 180mm to compare the image quality of the classic lenses with a modern lens. Both Olympia Sonnar classic lenses were shot at open aperture f2.8 while the modern lens Sony 24-240mm was shot at open aperture f6.3. Not a fair comparison but the Olympia Sonnar Made in West Germany is much sharper at the center than the modern lens:

CORNER sharpness: Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss 180mm f2.8 Made in West Germany vs. Made in East Germany

Not a fair comparison for corner sharpness, the two Olympia Sonnar classic lenses were shot at open aperture f2.8 while the modern lens Sony 24-240mm was shot at open aperture f6.3. The Olympia Sonnar Made in West Germany is also sharper at the corner than the modern lens:

Some real life photos of the Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss 180mm f2.8 Made in West Germany vs. East Germany

The Carl Zeiss T* 180mm f2.8 Olympia Sonnar lens Made in West Germany shows a nice 3D-pop because of its micro contrast, especially in the last deer photos. Look how similar the bokehs of the two lenses are with the common predecessor lens made for the Olympic Games in Berlin 1936. Click on the photos to enlarge.

The bokeh in the back of the focused object

Take a look at the Ninja star bokeh of the Olympia Sonnar Made in West Germany at aperture f4 in the photo “A7 04299”. Compare the beautiful bokeh of the two Sonnar classic prime lenses with the onion style bokeh of the modern lens. Click on the photos to enlarge.

The bokeh in front of the focused object

The Olympia Sonnar Made in East Germany has the best bokeh in front of objects in focus and the Olympia Sonnar Made in West Germany has a strange Ninja star bokeh at aperture f4 in the photo “A7 04314”. Click on the photos to enlarge.

The bokeh of lenses in front and in the back of the focussed object is not necessarily the same, as you can see from above photographs. The Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 Made in East Germany excels in both bokeh disciplines.

Rundown

The final verdict is simple.

Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss T* 180mm f2.8 Made in West Germany

Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss T* 180mm f2.8
Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss T* 180mm f2.8 full frame lens made 1987 in West Germany: Contax/Yashica mount, 6 lens elements in 5 groups, 8 aperture blades, 148mm length without lens hood, 830g weight, 72mm filter, small 1.4m min. distance because of floating element (approx. values of reviewed lens without adapter to e-mount)

If you don’t mind spending EUR 400 or more, get a Carl Zeiss T* 180mm f2.8 Olympia Sonnar made in West Germany, which is much more compact and has a higher optical image quality as the test results shown above demonstrate nicely. The effective T* multi-coating is an additional plus of the Olympia Sonnar Made in West Germany and reduces flares and ghosting very well. You get a lot of micro contrast with this lens, and the lens performs quite well with Carl Zeiss Mutar II 2x tele converter and makes a 360mm lens out of it.

Pros

Cons

It’s better to buy the “MM” Multi-Mode version, which is typically technically improved compared to the older “AE” lenses. The West Germany Olympia Sonnar tested here is the MMG type of lens with a floating element (“G” stands for Germany). For a lower price you can get a “MMJ” lens, which was made in Japan (probably by Cosina) and delivers the same image quality. 

Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 Made in East Germany

Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 lens
Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 medium frame lens made 1968 in East Germany: Praktisix P6 mount, 5 lens elements in 3 groups, 7 aperture blades, 1530g weight incl. lens hood, 120mm length, 86mm filter, 1.7m min. distance (approx. values of reviewed lens without adapter to e-mount)

If you want to spend only around EUR 150 and don’t mind its size and weight, go for the Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 Olympia Sonnar made in East Germany and adapt it to large format cameras up to 24 megapixel sensors. To adapt it to the Sony a6000 series with a APS-C sensor or to a Sony 7R type of full frame camera with 40 megapixels or more is not a good idea — the sweet spot of this lens does not deliver enough resolution.

Pros 

  • good image quality in center and corner at aperture f2.8
  • very beautiful bokeh in front and in the back of focused objects
  • perfect for low light events and portrait shooting
  • inexpensive, approx. EUR 150

Cons

  • prone to flares, thus never shoot without the huge lens hood
  • very heavy and large with the mandatory huge lens hood
  • low contrast

And the lessons are:

Spend more money on your lenses than on your camera body.

The Zeiss Olympia Sonnar classic lenses deliver an outstanding image quality and bokeh for a small amount of money!

Prague Spring in 1968

The tested Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 was made in East Germany in 1968. That same year, on the night of August 21-22, 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia and the capital Prague. The Soviet command refrained from drawing upon East German troops for fear of reviving memories of the Nazi invasion in 1939.

Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 lens made in 1968 the year of the Prague Spring
In 1968, when the tested Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss Jena 180mm f2.8 classic lens was made in East Germany, the Soviet Union invaded Prague to end all democratic movements and the Prague Spring. It’s only a 270-km drive from Jena to Prague. Click on photo to enlarge.

London agreement about the Zeiss brand in 1971

Carls Zeiss Jena lens Made in East Germany and Carl Zeiss T* lens Made in West Germany
Carls Zeiss Jena lens Made in East Germany (left) and Carl Zeiss T* lens Made in West Germany (right). Click on photo to enlarge.

In the 1950s and 60s, Carl Zeiss in West Germany and Carl Zeiss in East Germany fought heavily in the courts for ownership of the Zeiss brand. Zeiss West Germany alone spent approx. 5 million Euro in litigation. In 1971 London, the parties settled: Carl Zeiss in Oberkochen would label their lenses “Carl Zeiss” with the origin “West Germany“, and Zeiss in East Germany would label theirs “Carl Zeiss Jena“. For the majority of countries, including the Commonwealth and Japan but excluding France, the same rule applied. (This is a very simplified version of the agreement. Write a comment below if you want to know more details.)

Zeiss London Agreement 1971
While the lens from Zeiss in West Germany was marked “Lens made in West Germany“, the tested lens from Zeiss East Germany showed their “Carl Zeiss Jena” origin only on the front of the lens.

For future breach of agreement disputes, which repeatedly arose on the global market, the London agreement stipulated that the two sides should first discuss the cases with each other. This meant that face-to-face talks were held twice a year, alternately in Oberkochen, West Germany, and in Jena, East Germany.

This regular personal-style dialogue, which was said to have taken place during the daytime about the mutual violations of the London agreement and in the evening in a congenial atmosphere over dinners, was a first step towards the reunification of Zeiss.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in 1987

The tested Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss T* 180mm f2.8 was Made in West Germany in 1987. That same year on the 12th of June, United States President Ronald Reagan famously declared in his speech before the Berlin Wall, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall“:

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

On November 9, 1989 a commander of the GDR border crossing was misinformed by a public announcement of East Germany’s government official Günter Schabowski. As a consequence, the commander allowed the guards to open the checkpoints and let people through with little or no identity checking. Soon afterwards, a crowd of West Berliners jumped on top of the Wall and were soon joined by East German youngsters.

Olympia Sonnar Carl Zeiss T* 180mm f2.8 made in 1987 two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall
The evening of 9 November 1989 is known as the night the Berlin Wall came down, and marked the fall of the Iron Curtain and the start of the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe. The fall of the inner German border took place shortly afterwards.

Germany reunites in 1990, and Zeiss in 1991

In 1990, West-Germany and East-Germany reunited. The entry of Carl Zeiss Jena GmbH into the Commercial Register in 1991 marked the reunification of the two separate Carl Zeiss companies.

A HAPPY ENDING
for Germany and Zeiss

For more information about the famous Olympia Sonnar 180mm f2.8 lens, look here:

Zeiss Olympia Sonnar 180mm f2.8 lens adapted to a Sony a7ii full frame camera

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