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There's nothing normal about the 1950s Meyer-Optik Primoplan lens

Create: 03/16/2017 - 23:34
Meyer-Optik Goerlitz f/1.9 58mm Primoplan

By the late-1950s, the Zeiss Planar had begun to establish itself as the standard bearer for 50mm lenses, and many camera makers would soon follow suit, using the design as the basis for their own 50mm lenses.

However, not everyone jumped on board, and you can count Meyer-Optik Goerlitz as among them.

With Meyer-Optik becoming a player again in photography, it’s a good time to revisit its top lens for 35mm SLRs – the f/1.9 58mm Primoplan.

The version that I have is set in M42 screw mount marked with a red V and made in East Germany. The Primoplan also was available in Exakta mount.

Like nearly all lenses from East Germany, it is in a light-alloy mount, and it needed to be serviced before it was usable. The routine service included cleaning and relubricating the helicals and cleaning the lens elements, which had a significant amount of haze.

It has a manual preset aperture. That is, you set the aperture setting and then open the aperture fully to focus the lens and turn the aperture ring until it stops at the setting that you “preset” earlier. This lens has no aperture actuating pin, which later M42 lenses had. In early M42 lenses, the pin would trip a mechanism that would close the lens to its preset aperture, while in later lenses it would close the aperture when the pin was depressed and open the aperture when released.

For comparison, I shot a photo using the Primoplan before and after I serviced the lens, which you can see in the slideshow below.

This lens came with a Praktica FX3 that I bought several years ago at a thrift shop. I think that I paid $19.95.

Back in the 1950s, the Primoplan was a less-expensive alternative to the f/2.0 58mm Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar – the East German equivalent to the Planar. The Biotar often is marked “CZ Jena.” That involves a legal dispute between the East and West German Carl Zeiss operations and is a story in itself.

The Primoplan is five elements in four groups, while the Planar originally was six elements in four groups.

The Primoplan shares some similarities in its construction with the Biotar, such as the scalloped focusing ring and the materials used in both lenses’ double-helical focusing system.

My Primoplan came with the leather-covered lens cap, which is in very good condition.

PUTTING IT TO USE

In the digital age, how does this classic lens hold up?

For this test, I mounted it to a Sony A7 II, which has a full-frame sensor. A full-frame sensor is a better test, because you are using the lens as it was originally designed. With an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds cropped sensor, you are only using the central part of the image.

I took it to the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show, where most people were using smartphones. A good number also had brought along an Apple iPad. Not just a tablet, but an iPad. Then there were those with digital SLRs and point and shoots. I didn’t see anyone with a film camera during my three hours at the show.

One inconvenient feature of the lens is the nearly 360-degree rotation that it takes to focus from infinity to the closest distance. This offers one advantage in that it provides for very precise focusing – even on objects that are 50 feet away, when many lenses simply are at infinity past 35 feet.

Because of that, however, the lens is slow to focus, and objects in the viewfinder don’t snap in and out of focus as they do with short-throw-focus lenses. The subject appears to drift in and out of focus. This is a lens that is wonderful to use when you aren’t in a hurry. It wouldn’t be my first choice for photographing young children or pets.

The close focus of the lens is just under two feet. While that’s only about six inches more than other 50mm lenses, it feels like more in real-world use.

After looking at my photos from the flower show, I think that there is some haze that I missed, or it could simply be expecting too much from an East German 1950s lens.

The slideshow below contains a select number of photos. Here is the complete set, which has been retoned and includes some photos taken with a 25mm Carl Zeiss Distagon:
https://imageshack.com/a/U3xl/1

ANALYZING THE RESULTS

When shooting at f/8 or smaller, the Primoplan performs like most other lens, giving you a sharp photograph.

The true character of a lens reveals itself when you open the aperture to f/4.0 or larger. And to really find “the look” of a lens, shoot at medium to close distances. This is where things get fun with the Primoplan.

How did the Primoplan perform? I think it depends on what you want or expect.

Pixel-peeping will reveal that the Primoplan lacks the modern look of most of today’s optics. If you want that tack-sharp approach, you should opt for a Planar or one of its many Japanese variants from the mid-1960s and later.

Areas that are in focus are crisp. When shot wide open, out-of-focus areas can take on an ethereal quality.

Planar-type lenses tend to have a smoother transition from in-focus to out-of-focus regions. The focus fall-off with the Primoplan is much quicker, and doesn’t have that creamy “bokeh” that has become popular today.

The current day Meyer-Optik likes to refer to this as “soap bubble bokeh,” and I would agree with that description.

The lens shows very little chromatic aberration (purple fringing). When adapted to digital cameras, it’s been my experience that single-coated classic film lenses seem to do better at suppressing chromatic aberration than multicoated lenses.

I purposely shot a couple of photos with the overhead lights featured prominently in the scene, which resulted in obvious flare.

Lower contrast isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because those lenses can sometimes handle high-contrast situations better than a modern lens.

Low contrast also can be adjusted in an image editor. Most of my shots in the slideshow below could benefit from post-processing. Aside from cropping one shot, which I’ve indicated, these are straight out of the camera.

The Primoplan is a good all-purpose lens, but you should understand its unique characteristics.

Like many classic lenses, it has a look that is all its own. Although far from perfect according to today’s standards, imperfection can be a lot more interesting than the perfect lens. That’s the best thing that I can say about the Primoplan.

About the Author

Mike Elek is a longtime journalist and was one of the original editors for The Wall Street Journal Online. He also has worked as a reporter and editor in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Vineland, N.J.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; New York City; and Hong Kong. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran. He shoots with film and digital cameras.