Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2000/05/29

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Subject: [Leica] Holy Wars Redux: Leica vs. Zeiss (long)
From: Doug Cooper <>
Date: Mon, 29 May 2000 13:54:21 -0400 (EDT)

I've tended to lean heavily on Mike Johnston's opinions in my choice of
lenses:  his choices are idiosyncratic, and often go against conventional
wisdom, but I seem to like the same things in optical design that he does.  
It's a question of humanism versus positivism.  The numbers matter to me
not at all.  Sharpness is useful, to a point, but isn't the Holy Grail.  
Much more important is the character of the lens.  (Sally Mann is getting
lovely work out of old view camera lenses; she hunts in particular for
fungus and separated elements.)  I remember when solid-state amplifiers
came out, with *astonishing* figures for frequency response, harmonic
distortion, etc., and everybody ditched their old tube Macintoshes in
favor of transistors.  Well, the numbers are still better with solid
state, but connoisseurs have come to realize that the tubes simply *sound*

That said -- now that we've established that Mike and I are in the same
camp -- I want to take issue with one peculiar position.  On more than
one occasion, he's noted that Zeiss optics have never been renowned for
the quality of their bokeh (as opposed to Leica, which have always had
this distinction).  While I agree that Leica's mystique is built very much
on this -- and with good cause -- I have *never* encountered this bias
against Zeiss.  

I've heard complaints about Planars in normal focal lengths -- and found,
personally, that my 50/1.4 and TLR Planars can be distracting O-O-F -- but
Mike is the only one, to my knowledge, who has come out against *the
entire Zeiss line*.

In fact, the perceived wisdom seems to be that German optics have nice
blur, as opposed to Japanese optics (a blanket statement that I also
consider absurd); certainly the Japanese feel this, and it's the
foundation for their obsession with *both* Leica and Zeiss.

I'd love to hear comments from the group, as I take it many here use both
lines.  Myself, I think Zeiss is all over the map when it comes to bokeh.  
Whereas you have to buy a macro from Leica to encounter really nasty blur,
Zeiss has a few common lenses that -- despite stellar attributes in other
areas -- don't do so well out of focus.  Seems that the Planars are
particularly prone (although many Leica designs, with famous bokeh, are
essentially planars); but I've had phenomenal results with Tessars and my
30-70 Vario-Sonnar, and have heard wonderful things about Distagons,
Biogons and Sonnars.  

In fact, I'm about to weigh in with my opinion of the 28/2.8 Distagon for
Contax SLR.  This should be interesting, as I've spent some time with a
similar focal length by Fuji -- a line that's considered (along with
Mamiya) archetypally "Japanese" in its attributes:  I shot in Japan with
the GA645Wi.  (And think highly of this lens; the bokeh isn't bad at all,
and it's wonderfully crisp, even though it's distinctly different in
color and tone from my Rolleiflex Planar.  Apples and oranges.)

Anyway, not to start a holy war, but I'd love to hear considered opinions
on the relative merits of both lines.  The tale of the tape is not very
telling -- depending upon who's reading the MTF charts (photodo or Erwin),
Zeiss edges out Leica or Leica edges out Zeiss.  But the lenses do throw
quite different images.  (And Mike, if you're still on the list, I look
forward to Socratic annihilation...)

Doug Cooper

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