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Friday, August 10

Sonnar or Tessar?


One of the great plus-points of the Rolleiflex SL66 and the later SL66E and SL66SE models are their adaptability. Along with the tilting lens panel for increased depth of field control, it was one of the reasons I splashed out on an outfit as a 50th birthday present to myself. The intention was always to pick up an adaptor or two that would let me use old lenses from folding cameras and the like so that I could explore the sometimes unique qualities of early optics, at least the ones I can afford.

The SL66 uses a large bayonet mount so it's not the easiest or cheapest thing in the world to design and manufacture an adaptor for. Fortunately, there is still one source for these, Daniel in Taiwan, so I picked up a couple, one suitable for the size 0 shutter diameter and another for the slightly larger size 1. The donor lens was from a 1920s Contessa Nettel folder that was included in the lot I recently won at auction.

The lens was inscribed as a 12cm f4.5 Contessa Nettel Sonnar Anastigmat (about 75mm in 35mm terms) but there was no mention of Zeiss anywhere on it. A bit of research revealed that the Sonnar name was first used by Contessa in 1923/24 having been designed by Dr Ludwig Jakob Bertele. When Zeiss Ikon took over the company in around 1926, they decided they liked the Sonnar name so much - a German pun on Sonne or sun, if I'm not mistaken -  they would use it on another lens of Dr Bertele's design - the Sonnar we know today. Bertele's original Sonnar, it transpires, was actually a much simpler, four-element Tessar design.

The Sonnar at f4.5 with no lens tilt. A lovely, old-fashioned
look with pleasant out-of-focus areas.

Had the Contessa Nettel been in good working order, I might have had second thoughts about using it but it had one or two issues which meant I would never have shot any film with it anyway. A few screws later, therefore, I had an 88-year-old donor lens for the SL66E. (For anyone else thinking of doing this, 110mm is the shortest focal length you can use on the SL66 and still get infinity focus. The longest is about 165mm. Beyond that, some sort of extension is required such as an extension tube.) The Compur shutter was working fine at all speeds although the glass was mucky. Being a simple lens, it was easy enough taking it apart, cleaning off the gunk and putting it all back together again. Afterwards, it looked capable of doing a job. Fitting it to the adaptor was just a matter of centring it over the hole and screwing a retaining ring on the reverse of the adaptor.

The lens has shutter speeds from 1-300th plus B and T. I'd originally planned on using the lens shutter for making exposures but it didn't seem too practical when I thought about it. It would have gone something like this: mount lens, open shutter on T, open aperture, focus, close shutter, select working aperture, select shutter speed, open camera shutter on B with a cable release, make exposure using the little ever on the lens, close camera shutter. That's quite a lot to remember! I decided it was easier to leave the lens open on T at which point the procedure is just like using one of the Rollei's own Zeiss lenses.

Here's the Sonnar at f4.5 and maximum reverse lens tilt. With this combination, you get to choose just how out of focus you want to
throw the background.

I hope you'll agree from the iPhone pic at the top of the post that the old Sonnar looks great on the front of the SL66E. But what's it like in use? I wasn't expecting a great deal based on some of the old snaps made on similar cameras that have survived in our family. They never appear very sharp, even as 6x9 or quarter plate contact prints. The problem I think is that the old photographers were usually guessing focus and, with films generally being very, very slow, they would be shooting wide open much of the time or risking camera shake stopped down and with a slower shutter speed.

Stop down to f11, apply some tilt and the front-to-back sharpness
is much extended. Not bad for a 120mm lens on the 6x6 format.

Using the Sonnar on the Rollei gets round both of these issues, making it possible to get the best out of the lens. From the few shots I squeezed in at the end of a roll of Fomapan 100 (developed in Rodinal 1:50), it seems to be quite sharp in the centre and soft at the edges. The bokeh is nice and soft and there's definitely an old-fashioned air about the images.

The SL66 is absolutely brilliant in tandem with the lens. The tilting lens panel gives me some great options. Barry Thornton seemed to use the lens tilt to maximise depth of field: I prefer to use it for the opposite reason. Have a look at the way reverse tilt can reduce depth of field to a sliver at f4.5 (third pic down). Maybe not the best look for every shot but great for some. Now see how the more conventional "Barry" tilt has brought everything into focus at f11 in the following photograph. The second pic in this post shows depth of field wide open at f4.5 but without any tilt at all.

 About f5.6 and a little reverse tilt.

I'm on the look out now for a characterful lens to use with the other adaptor I have. I'd love a Petzval-type with the swirly bokeh but they fetch daft sums of money. In fact, given how much they go for and how comparatively simple they are, I'm surprised we haven't seen a Chinese company tooling up to make a cheap version for four-thirds cameras. I'm sure it would be a hit. Whichever lens I end up with, I can promise you that I'm going to have a lot of fun playing with old lenses on the SL66E.

6 comments :

Breitling89 said...

Wow! That second photo has got a great look to it.ive got a Blad but never looked at this idea.do you get adapters for the Blad? Your Rollei looks awesome with that Sonar on it.

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Thanks! I can't see why there wouldn't be adaptors for the Hasselblad as it's more popular than the SL66 but I don't know for sure. The difference is that the Rollei has a bellows focusing system so it's easy to focus lenses in the 110mm-165mm range. With the Hasselblad you'd need to rig something up for focusing.

Anonymous said...

Hasselblad 2000 and Pentax 6x7 can do "the same" if you add a tripod mount under a Linhof lens board holder and add a wide angle bellows between than and a lens mount ring. The focusing would be less easy.

Balázs Pál Nagy said...

Hello, this is a Sonnar labeled Xenar (Tessar design) made by especially for Contessa Nettel Schneider-Kreuznach.

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Thanks very much for taking the trouble to provide that information. Very much appreciated!

Balázs Pál Nagy said...

Hello, sorry for the confusion in my comment:
[...] made especially for Contessa Nettel by Schneider Kreuznach.
„Das Sonnar war der Markennahme von Contessa-Nettel, andemeldet 1922, WZ-Nummer286.476. Die Objektive wurden von Schneider nur für die Contessa-Nettel gerfürtigt.” Xenar mit hohen Lichtstärke von 1:4,5.
(Hartmut Thiele: Großes Fabrikationsbuch / Schneider-Kreuznach Band III.)