Review: Zeiss 75mm f1.5 Biotar – the LEGENDARY Original Version

When a door closes, a window opens. I was expecting to be loaned an M-mount lens, or at the very least, a lens with an M-mount adapter. Instead, what I received from the UPS delivery man was an Exakta-mount lens with a Sony E-mount adapter.

Exakta? I haven’t seen one of those since high school? I guess I won’t be shooting with a Leica M10.

The specific lens I was loaned was a Zeiss 75mm f1.5 Biotar (circa 1939 to 1960), which just happened to also be the same lens Oprema used to base the design of their new 75 Biotar. In case you haven’t heard, Oprema is the company that’s bringing back the 75 Biotar. They asked me if I was interested in writing about it. I accepted the opportunity, because I was curious. When I first heard the announcement, I was going to invest in an M-mount version of this legendary lens. But then, I discovered on eBay how much of a premium legendary demanded, and thus quickly came back to my senses.

Oddly in this case, legendary also meant the lens I was loaned came attached with a Sony E-mount adapter? That was completely unexpected. But then, it didn’t matter. In the end, it worked out all the same… opening doors with a full frame Sony.

First set – Immediately amazed by the bokeh… quite literally blown away… legendary – ISO 100

The long focusing throw of the 75 Biotar made precise focus a reasonable undertaking… even at paper thin depth of field, when the subject wasn’t still – ISO 100

Paired with focus magnification, the long focusing throw gave me sufficient range to stop turning the focusing ring close to the precise instance of confirmed focus – ISO 100

In deciding how best to evaluate the 75 Biotar, I started by asking myself what this lens was made to do? It’s a fast 75mm lens. So obviously, it’s a portrait lens. Furthermore, it’s a lens with a very shallow depth of field. Upon making that assessment, I knew it can only mean one thing. I had to shoot it wide open at night, where Hong Kong’s legendary lights would provide the ideal backdrop for optimized bokeh.

To do anything else wouldn’t make sense. I mean, I suppose I could have shot stopped down during the daytime, under the blazing sun. But what good would that be? It’s a legendary lens. Legendary – by the way – is code for being soft by contemporary standards of focus. It also means even softer around the edge of the frame… probably across the aperture range… I’m assuming.

Or, I suppose I could have just shot wide open under direct sunlight with an ND filter at higher shutter speeds. The A9 I was shooting has an electronic shutter. But then again, it’s not like I have a 55mm ND filter or a step-up adapter ring to accommodate a larger diameter ND filter. And even if I did, what good would it do? It’s not as if the ND filter or faster shutter speed will bring me Hong Kong’s legendary lights in the middle of the day!

Remember… bokeh… the point of my compositional objectives with this legendary lens?

On a rooftop away from the crowds – ISO 2000

Enjoying the calm before Typhoon Hato… note that the ambient light depends on the light emitted by the outdoor LED display across the street – ISO 1600

Is that banding or the outline of the tiles on the exterior walls – ISO 800

Still, manually tracking focus wide open at f/1.5 – ISO 800

Looking down at the taxi queue… 90ºF – ISO 800

Finally, being the legendary lens that it was, I also had no inclination to shoot it from a distance… well almost no inclination. Having the compositional objective of blatantly rendering bokeh, I was going to shoot closer up… which by the way is the proper usage of a legendary portrait lens. I mean, it really wouldn’t make sense to treat it as a mid-range telephoto lens.

Besides, any full head-to-toe image capture will suffer from softness outside the center of the frame. This will notably affect the sharpness of the subject’s face in the documentation – unless if the subject’s head is positioned in the middle of the frame. So as you can see, it only made sense to shoot portraits with this lens.

Of course, the problem with shooting portraits wide open is the shallow depth of field. By inference, this means the subject must hold a pose for each and every shot in order to insure tack focus. But then, what fun would it be if there’s no sense of movement – even for an impression? If the subject is consistently rigid in posture, how interesting would this review be?

Fortunately, I was shooting with a Sony A9. That meant I could take advantage of its electronic focusing aids and articulating display in shooting non-traditionally. Because of that, I had much greater control to overcome the difficulties of acquiring focus quickly under fluid conditions. And just like that, the E-mount adapter opened the proverbial window for me.

Coming down from the roof… focus is much sharper in the center – ISO 2000

How an impression of movement makes the pose less rigid… completely achievable wide open with this lens – ISO 2000

Shooting from above eye level to capture more electric fans inside the frame for the sake of rendering bokeh – ISO 100

Closer up to reduce the plane of focus – ISO 100

Even closer up – ISO 100

Unexpectedly, this legendary 75 Biotar truly handled like it was made for the Sony A9. Its long focusing throw, when paired with focus magnification, made getting precise focus a reasonable undertaking. It also helped that the example I was loaned had a tight focusing ring. The added tension limited any error in quickly over-turning the focus ring past acquired focus. In making this realization, my confidence was bolstered in knowing intuitively when to stop turning the focusing ring the instance focus was acquired.

By comparison, the aperture ring was very loose – or it could just be an isolated case on the example loaned to me. Additionally, it doesn’t click between stops, which isn’t uncommon on more vintage lenses of the period. Not exactly a plus for contemporary photographers, unless if you shoot videos.

Also worth mentioning is the size of the 75 Biotar. It’s rather a hefty looking lens. However, I didn’t get a sense of it being particularly heavy. At close to 16oz (roughly 450g) and 3in (roughly 75mm) in length, it’s roughly the same size as the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux ASPH, but at less than 2/3rds the weight.

Mind you, that doesn’t include the length of the adapter. The 75 Biotar was made for an Exakta SLR, which has a much longer flange distance than the Sony A9 or a Leica rangefinder. So, including the adapter, the 75 Biotar sticks out an additional inch and a half (give or take). Also worth noting was the adapter loaned to me. It didn’t seem to lock the lens securely in place, given how the lens wobbled when attached. Still, it didn’t appear to adversely affect the image capture.

Standing on an island on a one way street – ISO 200

Oncoming traffic from behind – ISO 200

Bokeh balls from Hong Kong’s legendary lights… shot from above eye level – ISO 200

Shot at ground level at the same shooting location, with the characteristic swirling bokeh pattern rendered – ISO 400

At the optimal distance to render both the characteristic swirling pattern and bokeh balls… shot at waist level – ISO 400

So what do I think of the 75 Biotar’s performance? Rather surprisingly, vignetting didn’t appear to be an issue. As for chromatic aberration, I did notice it in areas of extreme contrast of highlights and shadows. However, the lens appeared to have handled it reasonably well. As for barrel distortion, given that this is a 75mm lens, I didn’t expect to see much of it. Though to be objective, I wasn’t shooting stopped down, where any signs of distortion would be more noticeable.

The only issue worth noting is how soft the lens is outside the center of the frame. However, that is expected for a lens of this vintage. Of course, this makes the 75 Biotar much more forgiving in portraitures. It does a much better job glossing over blemishes than its modern counterpart, bent on highlighting every undesirable details. Furthermore, because the 75 Biotar is a vintage lens, it’s low contrast in rendering. From the perspective of a contemporary digital workflow, this makes the 75 Biotar an exceptionally forgiving lens to edit in post.

Obviously, no one really cares about these technical details when appreciating a legendary lens like the 75 Biotar. It’s all about the bokeh – and it is glorious because the 75 Biotar offers two different looks wide open. At close distance, it blurs out background details like an Impressionist brush with only the slightest telltale hint of its characteristic swirl. However, at a distance of around 15 feet (5 meters give or take), the swirling pattern comes into full swing, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. From my perspective, I believe sufficient distance is required to reduce the amount of background blur for the requisite visual definition in rendering that swirl.

Behind a passing taxi – ISO 160

Near a taxi queue – ISO 100

From a distance beyond 15 feet – ISO 100

The head is in the center, so the face is still relatively sharp – ISO 100

However beyond 15 feet, the 75 Biotar ceases to be impressive in any shape or form. And as much as I’m impressed by how it renders wide open, it doesn’t make sense for me to swallow the premium for what is essentially a one-trick-pony.

And this is where the story begins for the new Oprema 75mm f/1.5 Biotar. According to the company’s marketing material, they said the new version will be updated to contemporary expectations. Mentioned in the blurb were modern lens coating, among other tweaks. If so, it’s likely that this new version will be more than just a one-trick-bokeh-pony. It might even be usable as a mid-range telephoto lens shot across the aperture range. In fact, it might even allow you to shoot at a distance, with the subject’s head positioned at the edge of the frame.

Of course, much of this is just speculation. With that said, a new Biotar 75 offering contemporary standards in sharpness along with a vintage look wide open will be unique. Honestly, I look forward to reviewing the new version when it comes out. If it can render bokeh like this legendary version, and render sharply like most contemporary lens, the new 75 Biotar will truly open doors beyond just portraitures. It will be truly remarkable.

Testing sharpness closer up with the subject posing – ISO 100

Testing sharpness closer up with the subject moving – ISO 100

Still moving – ISO 100

Closer up – ISO 100

As close to minimum focusing distance without the image capture becoming compositionally unusable – ISO 100

Special thanks to Yana for filling in during Anna’s absence. Also thanks to Dr. Stefan Immes and the folks at Oprema for lending me your lens… plus humoring my tongue-and-cheek liberty with the word LEGENDARYas cribbed from your marketing blurb. By the way, it truly is a legendary lens!

All images shot on a Sony A9. All images shot wide open at f/1.5. Many images were shot underexposed by 1 stop, to keep ISO as low as possible for cleaner image captures. Only color balance, exposure, highlights, shadows, and tones were edited in Lightroom. Contrast, clarity, saturation, and vibrance have not been altered. Some images have been cropped slightly for the sake of composition, since I couldn’t always frame under focus magnification.

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This is an exclusively syndicated blog post from Horatio Tan over at Street Silhouettes. It and the images here are being used with permission.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.