Carl Zeiss Tele-Tessar (ZM) T* 4/85: A Detailed Review

The Carl Zeiss Tele-Tessar T* 4/85 lens was released in late 2008. It is a ZM lens designed for Leica rangefinders, with a very pure long-focus five element three group construction. 85mm lenses may well not suffer from any issues on unmodified Sony sensors, and it’s light and compact for a high quality short tele. It has a reputation for being a wonderfully sharp and contrasty: is it good enough to be a great companion to your Sony, despite being relatively slow? This review may tell you.

Specifications

Diameter 54 mm
Length 85 mm
Filter Thread 43 mm
Weight (w/o adapter) 310 g
Max. Magnification (w/o close focus adapter) 1:9
Close Focusing Distance from the sensor (w/o CFA) 0.9 m
Number of aperture blades 10
Elements/ Groups 5/3
The Carl Zeiss Tele-Tessar T* 4/85 can be purchased via our affiliate links at Amazon.com or else B&H Photo Video. You can get it new on eBay.com here, or you can get it used on eBay.com here.

Image Samples

Build quality and handling

Like most ZM lenses it’s tight and precise, and as far as I know has only a little  copy-to-copy variation. I has a nice luxurious mechanical finish. I have a had my copy for a couple of years, and it’s come on many long wilderness trips with no blemish to the finish, so I can say that the anodising is pretty impressive.

Focusing Ring

It focuses from .9 metres to infinity in about 85 degrees, with a beautifully damped helicoid. The focusing ring is made of metal, and is ribbed in a way which makes it very easy to find and grip

Aperture

The aperture ring is a nice metal ring at the front of the lens, and stops down from f4 to f22 in 1/3 stop increments, with a very precise click. There are also easy to see 1/3 stop markings. The aperture ring is nicely ribbed except for the smooth area with these 1/3 stop markings illustrated above.

Hood

The Zeiss hood is a very nice piece of metal which spring connects to the bayonet at the front. It is, however, absurdly expensive at over USD 100! You can pick up a cheap metal hood with a 46mm thread on eBay for almost nothing.

Adapting the lens to Sony

I recommend the latest version of the Hawk’s Factory helicoid adapter for this lens. The lens performs so well at close distances, that adding some extension will do no harm so a helicoid adapter makes sense. The Hawks adapter has two features no other helicoid adapter has both of. It’s very light for a helicoid, at around 50g, and it has infinity tuning, which is fantastic: you can adjust the lens so that infinity is exactly at the hard stop when the helicoid is not extended. That’s a real convenience for landscape. You can get one via our affiliate link at B&H

Size and Weight

Size and weight are the reason this lens is so interesting. As Jim Kasson has shown, small light teles often give better performance hand held than larger ones, even when the larger ones are optically superior and this shows on a tripod. We are not talking visible camera shake here: just subtle degradation of sharpness that takes a superior lens like the Apo Sonnar 2/135 down to level of excellent, but clearly not-as-good-on-a-tripod, lenses when they are hand held. At 310 grams, or 360 with a decent close focus adapter, this lens is a hikers friend. I for one don’t often want longer lengths for landscape—not enough to want to carry them along with food and shelter anyway. And if you want a prime kit rather than a zoom, this lens augments nicely at the tele end.

Optical performance

These results are based on use with a Sony Alpha A7rIII.

Flare Resistance

Flare resistance is usually very impressive. There three images show the sun in the frame with heavy shadow lifting in three positions. In every location the result is outstanding.

As with many lenses, it is possible to provoke a dramatic contrast loss with the sun just outside the frame. What is fairly remarkable though is that it’s only a narrow range of positions which can do this, all of which can be easily dealt with by shading with a hand. If you preferred, a longer hood would eliminate this without causing vignetting—but personally I find hand shading easier because it’s very obvious when it happens, and it keeps the lens compact.

Here is the worst I could provoke, showed with the same position with hand shading.

Sunstars

Lovely sunstars ; this image of the sunset breaking through the forest has has a lot of shadow lifting, and there is no loss of contrast outside the immediate sun area, no artefacts, and a nice crisp sunstar.

Bokeh

I’ll start with a fairly distant and busy background at roughly head and shoulders portrait distance.

Of course the maximum blur is a bit limited by the aperture, but given how busy the forest scene is the lens renders nicely, with no onion rings or serious outlining. A better job that any zoom I’ve used at f4 and short tele.

To put this in perspective: while you probably would not choose this lens if portraits were your primary use case, you can get quite a bit of blur at f4, and with any luck both eyes in focus. And the bokeh is plenty smooth. Micro 4/3 users often use a 1.8/45mm lens as a portrait lens, and do very well; and that class of lens has close to the same level of blur as a 4/85 on full frame (and rather less system resolution than a 4/85 on FF).

Chromatic Aberrations

Axial Chromatic Aberrations

The lens shows some axial CA at close distances; the crops below are from around the minimum focussing distance. Here is a tendency to slight magenta discolouration just in front of the focus point (0) and green just behind it. There is also just a  touch of violet or blue fringing wide open. This is good performance. I have seen APO lenses that are worse, though the very best modern APO lenses are a bit bitter. It improves at f5.6 and again by  by f8. I have never noticed it as a problem in the field, except as slight and easily correctible fringing  around bright highlights wide open. It is, however, stunningly sharp at these distances.

Lateral CA is very low.

Vignetting

Section to come

Distortion

Section to come, though I will give you a spoiler: not much!

Resolution

f/4: Excellent in the centre and mid frame, the corner is very good but just discernibly less good a than other apertures.

f/5.6: Outstanding everywhere.

f/8: Outstanding everywhere.

f/11: Diffraction is reducing contrast just a tad.

This is remarkably good performance. You can use this lens with fantastic results at any aperture and any location in the field. The wide open corners are the only area where, when pixel peeping, you can see a slight difference from elsewhere, but it’s still very good here and no image would really be the worse for this even of performance in the corners. F11 shows the effects of diffraction across the field, which is a good sign in a lens. The only remotely negative thing about this is that the centre image wide open shows a touch of LoCA (in the form of purple fringing) that reinforces the close focus test. I found it easy to correct. No visible LaCA.

A note on our testing procedures, which might get incorporated into a future article. We don’t do numerical tests, bench or IMATEST. I would guess that if we had an optical bench, we would see somewhat higher numbers on some recent lenses (perhaps the Loxia 85 and Otus 85) at mid apertures. But I doubt that this would show up in these 100% infinity crops. Does that mean our test is not sensitive enough? We don’t think so. Something that is not visible at 100% on a 42MP sensor surely should play no role in choosing between lenses, even if it’s interesting for optics geeks. What about future 100MP sensors? Well the difference between 42 and 100 is not massive. It’s possible that something invisible might become visible. But it won’t become significant.

Summary: it’s important to know what the visual effects of resolution is, and actually seeing details is what will do that.

Alternatives

Zeiss Loxia Sonnar T* 2.4/85: This is the obvious alternative. It’s 1.5 stops faster, and in many ways a better, state of the art lens. It’s visibly a little better at f4. But by f5.6, according to Fred Miranda’s tests, any theoretical improvement that the Loxia has is no longer visible with a 42MP sensor at 1:1. As an all round manual 85 mm the Loxia is probably a better bet, though almost twice as expensive, as the extra speed (and the superb wide open performance which makes being only f2.4 less of a hassle) makes it more versatile. But for the hiking purposes for which  I use the ZM (I prefer AF for a portrait 85) the weight, size and cost reduction for a very similar look makes the ZM the right choice.

Sony FE 1.8/85 This, and the clearly even higher resolving Zeiss Batis 1.8/85 (according to the average of ten bench tests of each lens by Roger Circala are very good lenses. Once again they  make good all round 85mm lenses. Neither, though, have lovely sunstars, and this is something that matters a lot to me, especially around sunset and sunrise, and in cityscapes at night. The Sony is not much heavier than the ZM plus adapter at 371 g, though it’s  bulkier which matters for the hiker. I don’t have access to direct IQ comparisons with the Sony, but I think the Batis is at least as good as the ZM in terms of resolution and contrast, but not sunstars.

Zeiss Contax G 2.8/90: A touch smaller and lighter. I think it would make a very fine hiking lens, though I would myself choose the ZM for reasons of sunstars. Also the Contax is a bit clunky on adapters, and the best way to use it is to get it helicoid mounted which is either a difficult or expensive job. I haven’t used it myself, though my colleagues have. My impression from comparing samples and crops without doing a direct AB is that the ZM is a little sharper and contrastier across the field.

Zeiss Contax (C/Y) 3.5/100: A very good lens of which I still have a copy, and a good hiking choice. I think the ZM is a little ahead in resolution and contrast and bulk, and I don’t like the look of the sunstars on the C/Y at all. But it’s much cheaper, and a fine choice.

Zeiss Contax (C/Y) 2.8/85 The A mount 2.8/85 is said to be much the same as this too, but I can’t confirm that (except to say they have the same simple overall optical design, but the devil is in the detail here). Not bad when I used it briefly, but not as well behaved as the  ZM (or indeed the 100), and worse sunstars. But small and light and it would be a good budget choice if you could find one at a budget price. But in decent condition they rival the ZM for price, so not good value.

Sony G 4/70-200 FE : The ZM is a little better in the outer field at every aperture at around 85mm. But these lenses aren’t really comparable. If you need the convenience of the zoom, and your application is one which allows you to carry it, you won’t be looking at the ZM. You should be aware that zooms from everyone vary a lot in where they are best, so a review of one copy won’t tell you want to expect. The review of the 70-200 by Phillip linked to above clearly shows that his copy was worst around the outer field at the short end. My copy is good there, and worst in the outer field at the long end.

Sony G 4/24-105 FE: This could be a good all in one solution for many people. I’ve seen comparisons online which suggest the Loxia is visibly nicer across the field at 85mm, which if true means the ZM probably is too. Sunstars not nearly as nice. But again, if you are looking for a zoom in this range you won’t be looking at the ZM.

Leica Summarit 2.5/75: This lens is very good, and can sometimes be found at a non Leica-like price. It has more LoCA than I’d like at f2.5 (much more than the Loxia 85 for example) but from f4 it’s just as good as the ZM, perhaps a tiny bit better in the corners at f4. The 22 pointed sunstars aren’t bad, but I prefer the ZM in this respect. Which of these you prefer may come down to focal length.

Other Lenses These are the lenses I have direct access to and which I consider rivals (I haven’t mentioned any f1.4/85 lenses, for example, because I  don’t consider them in the same class. No-one chooses between an f1.4 and and f4 85 mm lens. You choose the one that is best for your use, or you choose both if you do very different things.) No doubt there are other lenses I could use to compare with this lens, but I don’t have copies of them, so when you write in the comments “please compare this with lens X” the answer is “Sorry, No”.

Conclusion

pros

  • Very sharp and contrasty at all apertures; world class from f5.6
  • Decent bokeh (though aperture limited in amount)
  • Lovely ten pointed sunstars
  • Small size and weight for a top quality short tele
  • Control of flare
average

  • LoCA at f4
cons

  • Speed (though this is also a plus as it’s the relatively slow speed that allows it to be so compact and good)

If your usage is primarily landscape then I think this is probably the most sensible short tele you can get. It’s not too expensive, and the quality at landscape apertures is superb, combined with lovely sunstars. The Loxia 85 might measure a touch better (and give you more versatility outside of landscape) but I see no reason to pay the extra money and carry the extra weight for landscape.

If it’s for landscape that involves hiking, then I think this lens is definitely the way to go, and I highly recommend it.  I doubt that anyone will release a lens this good and compact for many years if ever. Our best hope for an update including a native mount might have been the Loxia series, but they chose to go with a slightly faster and therefore bulkier though more versatile design.

Of course you can take lovely portraits with this lens, but a lot of people prefer more blur and AF as well, so I don’t imagine many people whose principal interest is portrait will buy this lens. But I think it’s well worth getting in addition to another lens of similar focal length if, for example, you have a GM85 or the big Sigma so that you won’t be weighed down on landscape expeditions.

The Carl Zeiss Tele-Tessar T* 4/85 can be purchased via our affiliate links at Amazon.com or else B&H Photo Video  for about $US840. You can get it new on eBay.com here, or you can get it used on eBay.com here. Used prices vary a lot; you often see people trying to sell them for more than the new price. If you are patient you should be able to save up to $150 buying used.

If this review was helpful to you, please consider using one of my affiliate links or sharing the review with others. Thanks 🙂

Some more image samples

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David Braddon-Mitchell

David Braddon-Mitchell is a keen landscape and environmental portrait photographer. In the last decade of film he was a darkroom practitioner and worked with Olympus OM SLRs and various medium format cameras. He switched to Canon DSLRs when digital imaging improved, and made a move to Sony bodies as soon as the A7 series was born. He enjoys using a mixture of legacy manual lenses, modern manual lenses, and E mount AF lenses.

38 thoughts on “Carl Zeiss Tele-Tessar (ZM) T* 4/85: A Detailed Review”

  1. Hi, nice work!
    In impressed with This lens.
    I have a leitz summicron R 90 and a Tokina “bokina”
    I am wondering how good are This lenses por landscape because i want to buy a lens like the zeiss or the sony 85.
    I will worth it in your opinion?
    Thanks!

    1. It really depends what you want.
      If it really is landscape you want, I think I would choose the Zeiss, for the sunstars. Both are very sharp.
      The Sony is more versatile though, if you want portraits, and if you like AF that will make a difference.

  2. Very nice review as usual. There are results from Minolta MD 28/2 in the vignetting and distrtiopon section though.
    Very interesting piece of glass anyway.

    1. You may suggest it, I used to own it. Great value. I replaced it with the Leica 2.7/75 which is a little better wide open and has better contrast, but is larger and more expensive. I sometimes regret that.

      Yes I agree it’s a nice lens, and also nice and small, worse CA wide open, lower contrast, but an alternative I ought to have mentioned, especially as it can be had for less.

    2. I just bought that one. Did a few test shots outside this weekend compared to the 65mm F2. Yep, not as sharp- which is a good thing! I’d be regretting the 65 purchase. It is small and a blast to use though. Great bokeh and have gotten some wonderful portraits in my short usage. Total score for under 300 dollars. Plan on doing some film with it as well.

  3. I’ve been looking for a tele prime for landscapes that is
    -small (for my nisi 70 filter system)
    -light
    -has nice sunstars
    and you came with this review! Till now i thought, loxia is the only way to go, but this seems a very nice alternative.

    Thank you.

  4. Excellent review, David, thanks for the great work! Just a couple of corrections:

    “ou can find most of the images in this review and more in full resolution in this” — looks like a fragment of a sentence accidentally left behind.

    Also, further down the page, the link to more sample images leads to a Minolta MD 2/28 flickr set.

  5. Thank you, David. Nice review as ever!
    I had been thinking on getting a ZM 85/4 as the tele lens for my travel kit (to be used on both Sony mirrorless system and film Leica M system). However, in the end I settled for an used Leica Elmarit-M 90 (the latest E46 version) for the extra 1 stop aperture. While according to their MTF charts the Elmarit-M 90 and ZM 85/4 perform similarly at around F/4~F/5.6, it turns out that the Elmarit-M 90 has rather heavy chromatic aberrations, both LoCA and LaCA, compared with samples from the ZM 85/4. Also the Elmarit-M 90’s image corners aren’t particularly sharp even at F/5.6 or F/8 when adapted on my A7R2 . I’m not sure if this has something to do with Sony CMOS’s thicker stack glass or the precision of my Voigtlander VM-E adapter.
    Despite that the Elmarit-M 90 was hailed as Leica’s best M-mount tele lens before the Apo-Summicron 90/75, it seems the ZM 85/4 is a stronger performer! In terms of balance between image quality, price, and size/weight, there are no better lenses than ZM 85/4 as a light-weight landscape short-tele lens.

    1. Try the Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90 4.0…

      243 grams, focuses to under 80cm natively, IMO much nicer than my 90mm R Elmarit, collapsable (which also makes it slightly fiddly in use). Unfortunately more expensive than the Zeiss.

      I’d be curious to see a direct comparison between it and the Zeiss.

      1. I would curious too, but it’s very expensive, and the Leica and Zeiss MTFs which are fairly reliable (Leica do pretty good computer simulations, Zeiss average the measurements of ten actual copies which is even better) suggest it performs similarly (slight edge to Zeiss in the corners stopped down in MTF40). The Leica has ten blades but a strange arqragmentment where the geometry is different at different apertures so it would be good to know what the sunstars are like, as well as flare. The Hawks adapter does a pretty seamless job of close focus on the Zeiss. The macro adapter for the Leica is nice, but it’s an open question wheter it would do better than achromats and/or a helicoid extension on the Zeiss.

        So interesting, not tempting enough to buy a copy at those prices, but if anyone lends one of us a copy….

  6. Great review. Just a heads up, under the contax g 90 you have a typo:

    “I haven’t used it myself, though may colleagues have”

    Thanks for the hard work and contribution David! Never picked up a ZM 90/4, but looks like it could be a good hiking partner.

  7. Hi David, enjoyed reading the review, informative of course. Would you be able to add some portraits? I take your point about the blue but still… I have Sony 85/1.8 but find it bulky and don’t really enjoy autofocus as I’m spoiled by zm sonnar 50 🙂

    1. I might do that if I can find permission from someone!
      The bokeh images give you some sense of what the bokeh can be like at portrait distance.
      You can certainly get nice portraits with this lens (and as I said in the review you get about as much blur as with dedicated M43 fast portrait lenses) with very neutral bokeh and a lovely sharp subject.
      I suppose many people would prefer a faster lens, but that’s up to you. If you want a compact, faster, manual focus lens for portraits there are some options around. Fred Miranda thinks the Leica Summarit 2.5/90 is a nice example that might suit you (or indeed the 2.5/75 which I have) Neither are absurdly priced though not cheap. The 2.5/90 is said by him to be great at portrait distances, but not at infinity where the 4/85 will perform much better. But if it’s a small manual lens dedicated for portraits then it’d be a great choice. The 2.5/75, which I have, performs well at both portrait distance and infinity. It makes a good compact short tele. It’s down to two things: is 75 long enough (I’d prefer 85 usually) and if you want landscape too how you like the 22 pointed sunstars of the Leica.

  8. First of all, thanks a lot to all of you for your passionate work!!
    When I go up the mountains with my A7II I always take with me a Leica Tele Elmarit 90 with excellent result (to my taste). It’s very light and compact (as the zeiss 85/4), it was one of Mandler’s lenses and you can buy an used one in very good condition for less than 500 euros (the first “nano” version is a bit more expensive). I would be really glad if you could try it to have your much more valuable opinion.
    Another suggestion which, according to me, would make your reviews even more interesting would be to quickly compare all these classic manual lenses with the state of the art Sony 24/70 G zoom. Thanks a lot. Umberto

    1. Thanks Umberto.
      I’ve never used the tele elmarit, and doubt if I will so I’m afraid I can’t help you, since I’m happy with what I have.
      On the other hand it’s possible one of the team located in Europe might be interested in reviewing it, but only if someone lends it to them.

      As for the GM 24-70, Fred Miranda from his own tests says that the ZM is better by a fair way even than that zoom at 70mm (the long end is usually the weakest point of the GM). I haven’t directly compared myself. But then I don’t think it’s an obvious comparison: small differences in IQ won’t decide whether you take a great modern zoom with you, or a set of primes. I think of the relevant comparisons being most essential for someone who has already committed to some great shorter primes, and wants to have a compact tele to go with them.

  9. Has anyone compared it to the thin tele-elmarit 90 2.8?
    How do the two compare in terms of flare-resistance and sharpness at 5.6-8? I were hunting for ZM, suspecting it could be more flare-resistant, but eventually snatched the TE for a very good price… Pretty happy with it, with the exception of veiling flare which is hard to battle even with hood from time to time.

  10. Hallo Phillip,
    kannst Du einen günstigeren Adapter zum Nutzen von Minolta MD Objektiven an einer Sony A7ii empfehlen?
    Bei dem Adapter von K&F steht ausdrücklich, dass er nicht mit der Sony A7ii kompatibel ist – mit der A7i schon… (ist mir total unerklärlich, ist doch das selbe Gewinde).
    Wäre Dir für eine Empfehlung sehr dankbar! 🙂
    Viele Grüße, Sascha

  11. Great review. It’s nice to see more slower lenses reviewed.

    I would like to recommend the Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm as an alternative. It’s cheap. About $200 for one in mint condition. The sun stars are beautiful as a result of the 10 straight aperture blades. The coatings are reasonably modern and give pretty good contrast. It’s by far the best performer out of the M-Rokkors on the a7 sensors. It’s pretty sharp from f4 too.

  12. Made a side-by-side comparison between the Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm and the Tessar 85mm. The Tessar was sent back and I keep my Rokkor. Optically the Minolta was a little ahead with better sharpness and less axial CA at f4 – f5.6. At f8 – f11 they were on par, perhaps the Tessar slight ahead.
    Build quality of the Minilta is Leica-like (top-notch). The focusing ring of the Tessar is a little stiffer ( which I prefer) and the colours are more neutral. Bokeh, flare resistence (didn‘t expect that), sunstars and contrast are comparable.
    All in all, the Rokkor is a little, travelfriendly masterpiece and highly recommandable.
    Thank you all for your wonderful reviews.

  13. “As Jim Kasson has shown, small light teles often give better performance hand held than larger ones.”

    FWIW: You might be interested in Kasson’s follow-up post, in which he concluded, “I’m discarding the light lens is better theory.”
    https://blog.kasson.com/the-last-word/85-otus-tele-tessar-handheld-with-ibis-on-the-a7ii/

    Thanks to your review and discussions at fredmiranda.com I just ordered the tele-tessar. I’m looking forward to using it for just the purpose that you describe–as a compact and lightweight lens for hiking–but the Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm that FlorianD mentioned might have been worth a look, since it seems to be quite nice and is smaller, lighter weight and less expensive than the Zeiss offering.

    1. Hi Jacob,
      the ZM 4/85 is a little bit sharper especially off center. It also draws nicer sunstars and tje biggest advantage I see is the much nicer handling. Unless you are really serious about image quality I see no good reason to upgrade because of it.

      1. Thanks, Phillip. And true, even with the rather comfortable Metabones adapter, focusing the Sonnar is not quite the smooth operation one would expect from a manually focused, high-grade lens.

    2. For landscape work I prefer the ZM because of the sunstars and somewhat better peripheral performance. But it’s not a difference I’d make a financial sacrifice for, though if it wasn’t much a of a sacrifice I’d probably do it. For a compact portrait lens the Sonnar is probably to be preferred.

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