Review: Contax Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 4.5-5.6/100-300

Contax Vario-Sonnar 4.5-5.6/100-300 mounted on my Sony A7III via Novoflex NEX/CONT* adapter and with Novoflex ASTAT-NEX* tripod collar.

The Contax Zeiss 4.5-5.6/100-300 T* MM is a telephoto lens that hit the market in the mid 1990’s. It was also one of the last lenses that were designed for the Contax/Yashica mount. It is rare because it was very expensive in a time when autofocus telephoto lenses were already available. Lets have a closer look at this exotic legend.

Sample Images

Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size

Specifications

The Contax Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 4.5-5.6/100-300 T* has the following specifications:

    • Diameter: 70 mm
    • Field of view: 56° (diagonally)
    • Length: 143 mm (10mm, infinity focus)
    • Weight: 925g
    • Filter Diameter: 67 mm
    • Number of Aperture Blades: 8 (slighly rounded)
    • Elements/Groups: 12/7
    • Close Focusing Distance: 1.5 m (100-300mm)
    • Maximum Magnification: 1:3.3
    • Mount: Sony-E

Zeiss data sheet (German)

If you are very lucky, you will find one for around 850€/850$ at ebay.de (affilitate link) or Ebay.com (affilitate link). You will support our blog if you use these affiliate links.

Build Quality / Handling

The build quality of the Contax 100-300 is great. The lens is made out of metal and the focus/aperutre rings are rubberized but not sticky. After all the years of use, the lens still looks great. All markings are engraved. The aperture ring has full stops and the clicks feel just right. My sample of the lens shows a low amount of zoom creeping when pointed directly down. Not an issue in normal positions.

There was a lens hood available by Contax that consisted out of two parts: Contax 67/86 Ring and Contax Metal Hood 5. The lens was shipped with a nice leather lens pouch that still looks good.

The handling of the lens can be a bit complicated though. MF at 300mm can be a challenge by itself but a tele zoom lens is even more tricky. The stabilizer needs to be adjusted manually, you have to take care of that all the time. This is not an issue for landscape photography though.

The front element rotates which makes the use of circular polarizers more complicated.

The lens is compact (70mm diameter, 143-210mm length) but quite heavy. I prefer to use the lens with a Novoflex NEX/CONT* adapter and with a Novoflex ASTAT-NEX* tripod collar.

Novoflex ASTAT-NEX*  tripod collar and Novoflex NEX/CONT* adapter

The lens is known for having problems with developing haze in the rear group. The used cement gets damaged in some cases over time, it is easily visible when you look against bright light. More information. This review sample was not affected by that.

This lens is not officially compatible with the Zeiss Mutar teleconverters. I used a Mutar-II with it and it was possible at the long end of the lens. If you mount it at short focal lengths or zoom to shorter focal lengths, it will hit the rear element. Therefore, you need to be very careful if you consider this. Optically, this is also no option to rave about. Sharpness drops significantly and spherical aberration becomes visible as well.

Sharpness

infinity

100mm:

f4.5: Center is very good, midframe has low contrast, corner is good

f5.6: Center peaks, midframe and corner contrast improves

f8: Best aperture for overall image quality

f11: Diffraction starts to degrade IQ

135mm:

Same behavior as 100mm.

200mm:

– basically still the same behavior, image is very good across the frame at f/8. LaCA shows up in the corners.

300mm:

– This is the weakest focal length.

– f4.5: Interestingly, f4.5 is still selectable and makes a difference in exposure. Image quality also makes a difference to f5.6

– f5.6: This is the official aperture at 300mm and it is a good choice. The center is better than the center at f8 where diffraction starts to show. Midframe and corner are also much better than (wider than) wide open

– f8: Best for overall image quality. Corners show still aberrations but are acceptably sharp.

Flare resistance

This lens is quite flare resistant, the longer the focal lenght the better.This is the worst ghosting I was able to provoke:

100mm, f11
100mm, f11

It is also nice that the lens shows quite low veiling flare and keeps its high contrast, especially compared to other legacy tele lenses. Still a good performance by modern standards.

Distortion

100mm:

Very low pincushion distortion: LR Correction Value: -1

300mm:

Pincushion Distortion: LR Correction Value: -9

Vignetting

Vignetting is moderate at 100mm wide open and low at the long and and at every focal length stopped down. Rather good performance.

Bokeh

The bokeh of the Contax Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 4.5-5.6/100-300 is good for a lens in the 100-300mm lens class but not great in absolute terms. Bokeh balls are mostly clean. At close focus distances, there is mechanical vignetting that cuts the round shape of the bokeh balls.  Bokeh is most critical at 300mm and MFD. Outlining and chromatic aberrations become visible, especially in the transition zone.

Mechanical Vignetting and a bit of outlining
100% crop of the image above. You can see LoCA around the highlights. Outlining is well visible in the transition zone.
Mechanical Vignetting near the MFD
Clean and good looking highlights

Aberrations

Lateral CA

Not really an issue at 100mm and 135mm. Visible at 200mm and pronounced at 300mm. Can be corrected easily.

Lateral Chromatic aberrations in the corners at 300mm

Longitudinal CA, Purple Fringing and Coma

I can rarely see coma in daylight but this wet stone made it visible at 300mm wide open. There is also some LoCA and purple fringing wide open but nothing to worry about. This is a pain test, every normal image will look much better (as you see in the samples)

Sun Stars

Sun stars have 8 rays and look like the typical sun stars of 8 slightly rounded blades that we have seen in lenses like the Contax 3.4/35-70 or the Canon 4/70-200.

Sony A7II, 200mm, f8

Alternatives

These are the alternatives that I have used yet or are native. There are much more 70-300, 100-300 or 100-400 lenses out there.

Contax Vario-Sonnar 4/80-200

This lens is also a good performer optically, but the Contax Vario-Sonnar 4.5-5.6/100-300 outperforms it in shared focal lengths and apertures. Longer but thinner, cheaper and more easily available than the 100-300.

Canon FD 5.6/100-300 L

This lens is quite decent at the short end but almost unuseably bad on the long end on modern 24MP sensors.

Canon FD 4/80-200 L

I can’t recommend this lens, usually plagued by worn out plastic bearings and not as performant as it was in its time. Usually decentered.

Sony 4.5-5.6/70-300 G OSS

Optically less capable, has high sample variation. Bokeh is also not very good. Nevertheless an equally compact and more convenient solution.

Sony 4.5-5.6/100-400 GM OSS

This comparison was made by Fred Miranda. The Contax is better at 100mm and 200mm. The GM has the edge at 300mm. Both lenses are great and expensive. The GM is larger, heavier and more convenient because of AF and OSS.

Conclusion

good

  • Sharpness at 100mm – 200mm
  • low chromatic aberrations at 100mm
  • close focusing at 300mm
  • low distortion at 100mm
  • build quality
  • flare resistance
  • low vignetting
  • small when collapsed
average

  • sharpness at 300mm (useable stopped down)
  • bokeh
  • zoom creep
  • distortion at 300mm
  • sun stars
  • weight
not good

  • coma
  • rotating front element
  • manual adjustment of IBIS needed (annoying in a 3x zoom lens)
  • corner aberrations at 300mm

The Contax Vario Sonnar 4.5-5.6/100-300 has gained a legendary reputation because of its rarity and its optical qualities. It was the first Zeiss lens that used special glass which is a proof of the ambitions that Zeiss had with this design.

I can confirm that this lens has undeniable qualities. The sharpness is very good in the 100-200mm range and can keep up with good prime lenses.Good flare resistance, low to moderate pincushion distortion, low vignetting and acceptable sun stars are also welcome. The bokeh is among the best in the xx-300mm zoom lens class although not perfect.

At 300mm, the image quality degrades a bit. The important central region is useable already wide open but it is clever to stop it down for better peripheral performance. The degradation in image quality is also visible in several aberrations that should be removed as far as possible afterwards (Especially LaCA).

The lens is very versatile and can be used for landscapes, portraits, animals or tele macros. The 1.5m MFD at 300mm is very useful and makes insect photography much easier than with classic 90-100mm macro lenses.

What makes this lens special is not only its very good image quality between 100mm and 200mm but also its small size when collapsed. Therefore it is a very good option for traveling landscape photographers with limited baggage.

The handling of the lens can be frustrating, adjusting IBIS permanently and the rotating front are two major shortcomings. Make sure that you are a patient photographer.

The big question is if it is worth the premium price tag. If you look for the optical qualities mentioned above in a rather small package and value the great build quality, the answer could be yes. Especially landscape photographers could be attracted by this lens. Nevertheless, most photographers will need AF, EXIF and even OSS at this focal length, those won’t be happy with a lens like this.

If you are very lucky, you will find one for around 850€/850$ at ebay.de (affilitate link) or Ebay.com (affilitate link). You will support our blog if you use these affiliate links.

More Sample Images

Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size
Sony A7III | Contax 4.5-5.6/100-300 | full size

Further Reading

 

 

 

 

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Jannik Peters

I am a passionate photographer from northern Germany and I love landscape, architecture, travel, portrait and family photography. I use manual lenses but I also enjoy the comfort of autofocus lenses, therefore both can be found in my bag.

31 thoughts on “Review: Contax Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 4.5-5.6/100-300”

    1. I think it will be at least as good as the non L but won’t offer f4.

      I didn’t compare it directly to the L version. I could imagine that the L performs a tad better due to better LaCA correction but not significantly, the Contax is a very good performer, even at 300mm.

  1. can you explain the problem with IBIS in more detail please?
    I own an a7 without IBIS so i’m unfamiliar with these settings.
    i reckon you need to set the focal length in the menu in order for the IBIS to perform well, right?
    So setting the focal length is what you need to do with any non-electronic lens, which causes fuss when using any manual zoom-lens (because focal length changes) am i right?
    What will IBIS do when you neglect setting the right focal length?

    1. IBIS won’t work properly if you don’t adjust it. There is of course a big tolerance, so 250mm will still work somehow with a 200mm setting. Nevertheless, you have to constantly adjust it when you zoom to get best results. This is not an issue if you have time and get used to it.

      1. AFAIK, if you don’t want to constantly adjust when using a zoom, it’s best to leave it set at or near the shortest focal length of the zoom. It won’t correct enough at the long end and you won’t be able to shoot as slow of a shutter speed but having it always overcorrect at focal length below the IBIS setting is more of a problem, IMO.

  2. This is the one I’ve been waiting for. I absolutely love my copy, and it’s compact enough for me to bring just about everywhere! It’s not light, but the IQ and size more than makes up for it!

  3. Hello Peters
    Have any of you ever tested the Contax Carl Zeiss 70-210?
    It is said, that it should be a great performer and it was too very expensive-at least when it came to market.
    Kind regards Claus Dalgaard

    1. Hi, sorry but I didn’t. I heard that it is rather mediocre compared to the 80-200 and the 100-300. Cheers, Jannik

  4. Thanks for the review – I only have the “small” Vario Sonnar 4/80-200 and like it a lot – it’s really sharp. If the 100-300 is better at shared focal lenghts, it must be stunning.
    The 4/80-200 has much more purple fringing issues, but also great color and contrast. I got mine for around 100€ – that’s the huge difference…

    1. I had two copies of the 80-200, and the 100-300 really kills it. The 80-200 is honest, but it’s just not the same league. But as you said, the price is also not in the same league…

  5. I’ve gone through three samples of the 100-300.
    The first was good, but I was expecting more from the corners.
    The second arrived with fungus. I tried it before sending it back, and it was similar to the first.
    The third was/is noticibly better.

    I have the distinct impression that my third one does better in the corners (and possibly much less CA) than the sample tested here, though of course with differents subjects, etc, it’s hard to make an accurate comparison and really be sure. My own experience is certainly that the lens does have some sample variation (with only one of three tried being really good).

    I also have different experiences regarding the Canon FD 100-300 L (300mm being at least a solid “good” over the field at f/8.0 with 42mp), the FD 80-200 4.0 L (my sample was centered and working well, though I didn’t keep it because it seemed delicate) and even the Sony FE 70-300, which goes to show that, especially, zoom lenses can be very subject to sample variation and/or age.

    In short, the CY 100-300 is optically one of my favorite lenses, but being a long tele without stabilization and AF means that I only really use it with a tripod.

    1. Thanks for sharing those assessments regarding the competion to the 100-300 C/Y tele-zoom.

      I was also a bit fearful about shooting this large lens handheld, and got the Novoflex tripod foot, believing I would mostly shoot it on a tripod due to the lack of stabilization, etc.

      I have only had mine for two weeks, and I have only had the opportunity to shoot it handheld, and to my surprise, it is not really more difficult than shooting the 3.4/35-70 C/Y without stabilization or without dialing in focal length for the IBIS, and to enjoy a practically equal amount of keepers as using my 2.4/25 Loxia or VC Apo Lanthars. I am working my way towards a little album dedicated to the 100-300mm Vario-Sonnar on flickr, and all the shots will be handheld, to encourage those who, as I, feared it would be mostly a tripod lens.

      Cheers!

  6. You know, (sure you know) this excellent review will increase the selling price which is already high…
    Anyway, thank and well done !
    I have several copies of this lens including one that is one of the last manufactured.
    With the 35/70 f 3,4 contax, it is part of my essential travel kit !
    Unique… incomparable !
    Francis

  7. Great review, as usual, but I honestly couldn’t disagree more with your assessment of the Sony 70-300G! I’m sure copy-to-copy variation is a thing, and people’s tastes concerning bokeh and other optical qualities can differ, but I’ve had it for a couple years and in my experience, have found it to be a fabulous lens and worth every penny I paid for it.

    I had borrowed the 70-200GM for a few months, and I was not pleased with the results enough to justify taking it over the 70-300.

  8. Great review–thank you! I owned this lens twice, still miss it. I found it very finicky to focus, and it really needed a tripod. I sold mine, and picked up a Canon 70-300 L, which offers very good optics, is much more usable handheld, but lacks the Contax magic.

  9. Thanks for the succint and very relevant review. It makes a lot of sense to consider C/Y lenses for the E-mount, they provide fantastic image quality on Sony camera bodies, feature great optical performance and build quality. I think you should also give some discontinued Classic Zeiss DSLR lenses some coverage. They can be slightly larger than Zeiss’ C/Y SLR lenses, but the ones that have now been replaced by their current Milvus edition, are heavier and larger still, due to weather sealing, etc.
    I think the manual-focus-lenses-on-E-mount argument shouldn’t be exclusive to small and compact lenses, even if they are more convenient.

    Only a week before this review I purchased an impeccable copy of this tele-zoom, and I can only agree with your assessments. It’s a fabulous lens, with stunning optical performance for its age, and with absolutely beautiful color rendition and punchy contrast even wide open.

    I particularly appreciate your close distance shooting comment, as it really delivers surprisingly in this respect. I’ve taken some shots of the early signs of the brewing spring, and some appeal more to me than others coming out of my 110mm f/2.5 Apo Lanthar, and that’s to say a lot. I will share a small flickr album when it’s up, as weather hasn’t allowed for much fun yet.

    You have reviewed all the stellar lenses from Zeiss’ extended line Contax Yashica lenses (the 2.8/28, 2/28, 3.4/35-70, 2.8/85 3.5/100& 4.5-5.6/100-300) except the 2.8/21, which also offers great image quality, so kudos on that; I hope Sony alpha shooters start appreciating the Contax Yashica treasur trove out there.

    I was wondering if we might see some interesting reviews of Zeiss Classic DSLR lenses in the future? Lenses such as the 2.8/16, 2.8/21, 2/25 and 2/28 Distagons, or the 1.4/85 and 2/135 telephoto lenses. I think these also represent part of the treasure trove of dicontinued Zeiss lenses, that offer better ergonomics than the native Loxias, ribbed focus rings, older T* coatings that add their character, and just beautifully engineered optics that still rival and sometimes surpass current offerings at more convenient prices.

    Cheers!

    1. David owns both the 2/28 and 2/135 but I think reviews of them aren’t too high on his priority list.

      Think the underlying issue is that we all use smaller lenses more often, so big lenses like the ZE/ZF line would get little use.

  10. Yes, you are probably right, although I think the more or less 500g mark of the 2.8/28, 2/25 and 2/35 Zeiss discontinued Classic ZF DSLR lenses, would fit the bill a little better. This is of course not considering the weight – and length – added by the adapter.

    The native 2/25 and 2/35 Loxias would more or less rule out their older cousins – although perhaps not enterily in the case of the 2/35 -, but perhaps the discontinued ZF.2 Distagon 2.8/28 could offer a relatively compact option to the plasticky Sony option, or the otherwise optically decent Sigma Art behemoth. Build quality of the discontinued Zeiss Classic DSLR lenses is hard to fault and, on paper, optical performance of the Classic Distagon promises more than the C/Y 2.8/28.

    One can look for discontinued or new manual lenses for their outstanding performance and favorable trade-offs, but also with a broader criteria as to what they do and the specific and unique imaging results they produce. I particularly appreciate your efforts in that they tend to go in both these directions, and I think that giving the C/Y 4.5-5.67100-300 Vario-Sonnar tele-zoom represents such a choice, considering the heft of this lense, and despite its relatively convenient size & weight compared to competitors covering similar focal lengths.

    I think that sometimes the unique results offered by some lenses can make it worth while to give them a chance despite the space they take in the bag and the weight they put on our backs. But I agree, my suggestions do not mention any particularly interesting lens, or alternative offering a significantly smaller footprint. My thinking was that the discontinued Classic lenses offer the same optical performance as most of the current Milvus line, without the newer T* coatings, and that they are more compact and lighter – sometimes a lot – due to lack of weather sealing and new barrel designs, that they don’t feature the rubber focus ring of Zeiss’ newer designs – which I personally dislike -, offer beautiful and long lasting build quality, and of course come at significantly lower price.

    Anyhow, just my grain of sand. As always, keep up the good work and interesting reviews.

    Cheers!

  11. Hi Jannik, many people seem to have problem chosing a small lightweight tele zoom for Sony thats also AF for convenience. These are the current options which keep coming in various discussions. But nobody has really compared these.

    Sony 70-300 of course

    Canon 70-300 L
    Then Canon 70-300 II (new)
    Canon EF-S 55-250 (375mm eq on Sony APS-C and 350 grams)

    Nikon 70-300 FX E
    Nikon 70-300 DX E

    If someone compares them at landscape apertures we will get to know a lot. Like weather Sony 70-300 is indeed overpriced, or at least we can reach a consensus on which is best.

  12. Thanks Jannik for another well written review.
    I love my copy of this lens to pieces. Although it’s very finicky to focus, but once focusing is done, it delivers the goods.

  13. Just wanted to stop by this review to tell a short horror story. The year was 2012, I was in a sculpture garden that I had hiked about 15km across mountains to get to outside of Busan, and I was exhausted but gleeful as I was exploring the first use of my 100-300 CY zoom adapted onto my NEX-7. Because of my exhaustion, I was a bit careless, and while I had heard in photo classes that I should never move a camera on a tripod I was planning about 20 five exposure sets and I didn’t think there would be any trouble. After all, hadn’t I done the same with the comparatively diminutive aps-c lenses for years now? What could possibly go wrong? Everything, as it turns out. At just my 3rd set, I moved the camera and tripod… and the camera fell, 100-300 first, onto concrete.

    Somewhat amusingly, the lens left its mark into the concrete forever, chipping out a chunk to mark its grave forever. However, it was the grave of the lens. The barrel was visibly damaged and it was immediately obvious from a few test shots that elements had suffered decentering. A year later, serious fungus began to seep its way into the lens and I knew it was truly dead. RIP 100-300, I barely knew ye.

  14. Good review. My Contax 100-300 doesn’t have any zoom creep at all, though centering is not entirely perfect; age does play a role in these lenses. Image quality is spectacular, I’m a high end prime lens user and this zoom is performs well enough to cover my focal lengths beyond 135 mm. It also tends to deliver a very pleasing image in most real life situations.

    An interesting option for mounting it is the Leitax adapter with spacers for tripod mounting. I haven’t tried it, but am considering it.

  15. Add me to the fan club, I picked up an excellent copy of the 100-300 about 4 months ago for a bit less than the price listed in the review. It has the zeiss pop and depth that makes images stand out.

    For wildlife I shoot almost always at 300mm so stabilization is not too annoying. At shorter focal lengths in good light I turn stabilization off and use good technique like people had to do last century. Hand holding isn’t that hard to learn to do well enough that stabilization is really only important when you just have to shoot with a slow shutter speed. In those situations it is well worth fiddling with stabilization settings.

    Compared to an older manual focus nikon 300 f2.8 at f5.6, the contax holds its own. Compared to the a-mount 70-400, well there is no comparison, images from the sony are lifeless next to the contax.

    Had I found this lens and the contax 28-85 3.3-4.0 sooner I would have saved myself a small fortune trying to assemble a travel kit of small primes covering similar focal range and quality. I still use the primes ocasionally but travel with the contax zooms and spend a lot less time swapping lenses.

    For those patient enough to focus manually the right couple contax zooms cover a huge range of focal lengths and are good enough that any dissatisfaction with results is almost always down to the operator not the equipment. The impatient among us (or professionals for whom time is money) are better off choosing a lens with all the modern conveniences and leaving remaining copies of the contax to those who appreciate a slower pace. If you want supurb images and are willing to put patient effort into getting each image you should have this lens on your radar. It is every bit as good as described in this excellent review.

  16. Thanks Jannik for your always great reviews. I have been interested in getting one of these for years but a bit put off by the price. However the link you provided for the rear element repairs suggests a more economical way to get one. Rear lens haze is someone common and drops the lens price significantly. I contacted the Japanese repair service and they charge $150 to reglue the rear element. So with some time and patience, you might be able to shave 100-200$ off the price.

  17. I’ve had the 80-200 a short while now, and the optics seem to be easily good enough for my needs.

    The biggest practical problem to me is the rotating front part of the lens: shooting handheld, I’d like to focus and then hold the lens by the front part to keep it stable, but since the front tube is connected to focusing, and it turns very easily, I can’t do that without losing the focus all too easily. Holding the camera by the body only feels quite wobbly. Luckily, the adapter I have (a new K&F C/Y to Sony E) has the infinity exactly at the end of the scale, so I can at least keep a correct focus with far-away subjects.

    I guess the 100-300 has the same trouble with turning front part.

  18. I came across a brand new one still boxed in Osaka but they were asking way more that I was willing to pay and opted for a flawless used one.
    I love it on my A7Rii but the real surprise is using it for video on a Sony FS7ii. The colours and contrast along with smooth manual focus make it a total treat compared to focus by wire alternatives.

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