Updated: Mar 24
Modern digital photographers looking for a more distinctive look have turned to classic manual focus lenses, and one of the most popular of these is the Soviet Helios 44-2, famed for its swirly bokeh. However, the Helios (despite being an amazing lens) is not unique. In fact, it’s a derivative of the famed Biotar 58mm f/2 lens, produced by Carl Zeiss Jena from 1936 until 1960.
So, what is the Biotar? Well, Like many lenses, the Biotar 58mm has a long genealogy. This ancestry stretches as far back as the 1920s, a time when several lens manufacturers were attempting to improve the Carl Zeiss Planar design that originally debuted in 1896. Taylor, Taylor & Hobson in the United Kingdom first developed their Panchro series, and Schneider-Kreuznach independently developed their Xenon lens formula.
The Biotar was developed by the famous lens designer Dr. Willy Walter Merté for Carl Zeiss, shortly after these earlier lenses and all three lenses used a similar formula; they were six-element lenses with asymmetrical outer elements, a variant of the Double Gauss design for higher performance and increased field correction and speed.
In 1927, the Biotar lens was released as a 50mm f/1.4 cinematography lens, and as a 58mm f/2 version for 35mm cameras on the 19th of October, 1936. It was the standard lens on the famous Kine Night-Exakta by Ihagee, the most technically advanced 35mm camera made prior to World War II.
Creating such a fast lens prior to WWII was one of the greatest feats in the history of optics since it was designed and built without the use of computers. All of the optical calculations were done by hand by teams of optical technicians. However, it was really the postwar version of the lens that really set the stage for the success of the lens.
There are four basic models of the original Biotar, several variations of these, and the reproduction made by Oprema Jena. Throughout the production period of the lenses, the barrel and aperture diaphragm changed and the biggest differences show in how the aperture is operated, progressing from entirely manual, to pre-set and then finally to semi-automatic.
All versions of the Biotar 58mm are renowned for their sharpness (even wide open), and the gorgeous contrast and color rendition that Zeiss lenses are famous for, although you do have to learn how to get the best out of the lens.
Minimum focus distance can be improved by the use of extension tubes which are cheap and readily available, and macro shots of flowers with the Biotar are stunning.
This lens makes a perfect option for shooting portraits on digital cameras. It’s equivalent to a medium telephoto lens on APSC and Micro Four Thirds cameras. Colour rendition can be soft, but this can be boosted in post process. If you are planning on shooting on a digital camera, beware that the rear element on the Pre-Set version projects deeper into the camera, and can strike the mirror on full-frame camera models. Check carefully which models of the lens will work on the camera that you own.
The coatings on these early lenses aren’t up to the quality of modern lenses, so in strong sunlight, it's recommended to use a lens hood to prevent flaring. If you like flaring, shoot this lens in the late afternoon and you’ll make flares in spades. The original hood was a large round Bakelite design but the later square 49mm Pentacon hoods fit equally well and look a bit nicer.
Want your own Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm F2? We have one available in our shop. Check it out below.