80-200 Contax vs. Canon

If you ask about good 80-200's these two will frequently receive honorable mention. I'm told the Leica is even better, but I'm not ready to get into Leica territory. The Nikon f/4.5 square back is also a good lens I shot years ago, but decided against tracking a copy down to include as I've largely moved away from Nikon.

So let's get right too it!

Wait, first a note... When testing I usually put the camera on a tripod, as I've done here (if note I'll mention it). I then manually focus using 11x magnification or whatever it is on camera. I'll focus wide open then stop down without refocusing while I shoot. If a lens exhibits focus shift it'll be penalized accordingly. Sadly I'm not perfect. As the 135mm test below shows, it appears that the Contax is back focused and the Canon is correct or slightly front focused. No, I'm not re-doing it. I have a full time job, shoot part time for hire and have a family. I'm not sure how I even manage to get this done once... But I'm honest so I'll call it like I see it. Okay, that's out of the way, now let's get right too it!

First, a couple across the board observations... The Canon is a thicker lens, the Contax is a longer lens. The differences aren't huge but they're there. Weight between the two is fairly similar and handling of both is good. I didn't bother to take shots of the lenses, like most old tele-zooms they're long and thin. Two other important distinctions I noticed while shooting these lenses, one negative for both. The Canon does not handle flare well. At All. So if you're shooting towards the sun, forget about it. The Contax seems much better, but I haven't stress tested it the way I did (incidentally) the Canon. For the Contax, as the shots below show, it generally trails the Canon in global contrast. Easily enough fixed these days, but it was pretty apparent. So onto the crops.

80mm

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In the centers I see more CA and smearing at f/4 on the Contax. Mind you, neither is bad, but the Canon is better to my eye. The story continues at all apertures. The Canon has a slight lead. I'd actually chalk this up to slightly better micro contrast of the Canon, allowing for better differentiation of the grasses and roof shingles. If they weren't side by side though, I couldn't guess which was which.

In the midframes things change and the Contax pulls ahead. I see cleaner detail at all apertures in the Contax, though I think you could also say the Canon maintains slightly better micro contrast than the Contax. 

In the corners, it looks like the Contax has a hint more vignette than the Canon but I'm picking. The sharpness situation seems to have again flipflopped, with the Contax slightly ahead, a lead it seems to maintain. Again they are very, very close. 

If you shoot 80mm a lot, pick one and be happy. I'm pretty sure that's going to be my conclusion throughout though...

135mm

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In the center the Canon is winning, handily. It has me wondering if I had a focusing error here with the Contax, but I'm not trying to take anything away from the Canon! The Canon showed cleaner detail wide open at 80mm as well, so I think it might just be a sharper f/4. Things get better at 5.6 for the Contax and it's close by f/8 but wide open is significant.

Midframes, okay I'm getting some confirmation from these shots. The Canon is more front focused, the Contax is more back focused. Look at the grasses and tree branches here and the sharpness flipflops. I think sharpness is closer than these crops indicate but I'm not redoing it, so take what you will from this...

Corners look like a push between these two at 135, but we know things are iffy here. Regardless I see better contrast again from the Canon. Neither is poor either. So let' stick with:

If you shoot 135mm, pick one and be happy.

200mm

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In the centers, the Canon is the better lens wide open. It's a good deal sharper and it carries more contrast. At f/5.6 the Contax makes strides but still doesn't catch up to the Canon. By f/8 they are pretty close. The Contax doesn't win but it's about the same.

The trend of the other focal lengths continues, the Contax has better mid frame results at all apertures. The Canon catches up at f/8 but never passes the Contax.

Likewise in the corners, the Contax doesn't look much worse than it's center, while the Canon struggles a bit wide open. I don't believe this to be a focus issue either. Both the trees behind as well as the sliver of grass in front look better in the Contax example. To me, this is the biggest performance difference of these shots. 

Conclusion

You can probably guess, just pick one and be happy! The trend is fairly consistent (if we just ignore the 135mm focal length) the Canon is sharper in the center, the Contax is sharper in the midframe and edges. The Canon carries more contrast if you're shooting SOOC JPEGs and don't want to mess with editing or changing your JPEG setting. Otherwise the contrast difference is well within editing tolerances. So it's worth considering how you'll use this lens here. If you're trying to isolate a central subject than the Canon's sharp centers may be important. I do like these lenses at 200mm and close focus, it throws the background into a nice fuzzy blur. But this is also not a lens traditionally used for portraiture etc. And so if you're using it for landscapes or similar, the across the frame performance of the Contax, particularly in the corners is likely of interest. Still, neither shows enough deficiency to say there is a clear winner. So enjoy some comparison images below, then pick one and be happy.

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PSA: Old Sigma Lenses

Okay, let me be very clear here. I am NOT saying that these are spectacular lenses (maybe with a few exceptions), nor am I saying these are better than native options etc. All I'm saying is, well, it's an option.

A couple months ago I stopped at my local camera store (that tends to be Canikon centric), I can't remember what I was there for but I usually browse their selection. I'd been thinking about a long tele for occasional wild life, but wasn't prepared to pay for any modern offerings. A Sigma APO Tele Macro 300/4 in Canon EF mount caught my eye.

"It's good, but it only shoots wide open" he said " and Sigma won't re-chip it." Well, I happened to have my Metabones with me, so figured I'd give it a go. after a few shots wide open, he mentions that it Error's out on a Canon body as soon as you stop down, so I try... you see where this is going. It works great! I can shoot at any aperture. Then he pulls out a 400mm APO Tele Macro f/5.6. I wasn't 100% of the optical quality though, so I passed on it that day and went to do some homework. As soon as I started reading reviews of this lens, I figured out when I could go back to pick it up.

Don't worry, I'm getting to samples from the lens. But in case you're thinking I got lucky with the Tele Macro's, a few weeks later I see a Sigma Aspherical 28mm f/1.8 come along, with the note that it won't stop down on Canon bodies, and a price reflecting the issue. Curious (and a sucker for a fast prime) I of course purchased it. Tossed it on the MB (It's actually a MkIII running 0.47 FW) and voila, I have a fairly loud but fast focuing fully functional 28mm f/1.8 with pretty good IQ.

Now things aren't all perfect here, and I'm still learning how to best use these lenses and their strengths and weaknesses, which I've detailed below. But if you're shooting adapted with a Metabones, and any of the below lenses are of interest to you, I'd say give it a go. You can find a list of possible lenses at the end.

Results - 28mm f/1.8 Aspherical

So how do the lenses fair? Pretty well, especially given the price.

The 28/1.8 is reasonably sharp wide open, with usable midframe results, but smeared corners. At f/11 it makes a good landscape alternative though. Vignette is somewhat high which isn't surprising, but I found it fairly pleasing in use. In looking up information, Sigma states this was the fastest wide for its time.

As mentioned before, vignette is high, distortion is lower than I would have expected for an old, fast, wide.

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Bokeh isn't great in high stress environments, but I found it fairly pleasing overall, certainly decent for an older 28mm at f/1.8. Unless there are hard OOF points of light, like through trees it's pretty smooth. Wide open is busy, and it never really cleans up a whole lot. Overall I'd say f/2.5 is the smoothest, smaller apertures start to show too much shape.

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CA is well controlled in the center, though it's present in the periphery. It's a one click clean up though, so not something I'd worry about. Full disclosure, this was at f/2.8, not f/1.8 but I haven't seen it be much of a problem in real world use so I'm not going to worry about it.

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Handling is good. It has flaked on me one time, where the AF motor was making noise but not focusing. A quick disconnect and re-connect and I was back in business. I'm also on a MDIII with firmware 0.47, so there may be room for improvement, I'll probably get an MBIV one of these days. Focus is anything but quiet, I'd say its close to the noise from the Techart Pro AF adapter. It's sure and quick though, better than I was expecting. I'll try and get a video of the speed and noise but it's likely to take me a while. Below is a gallery of some real world shots. It's not going to win any awards, but for a very affordable fast wide, I think it's a keeper.

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Results - 400mm f/5.6 APO Tele Macro (Non-HSM)

Okay, we're not getting a more in depth review like the 28mm. Just a few samples, and quick thoughts. I find this lens very sharp. AF is quick enough once it finds it's range. It's a good idea to use the focus limiter, because if it goes off on a hunt it's going to take a few seconds to get back towards infinity. The macro feature is nice, as it allows approx. 1:3 at 400mm, which is a comfortable working distance. I had some concerns about AF accuracy at first, and while I'm still testing, I think it was due more to the lower light shown in the horse photos. It didn't act like it was having trouble acquiring, but seemed to backfocus at the time. Unfortunately I already deleted the ones where it was back focusing, and so far I haven't been able to re-create the problem (not complaining!) I'll update this if there's more to learn as I go. Also planing on pairing this with a Sigma 1.4x so maybe we'll do a more through review in the future.

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Primes: 

8mm 4 EX Circular Fisheye 

15mm 2.8 EX Diagonal Fisheye 

24mm 2.8 

28mm 1.8 II Aspherical 

50mm 2.8 EX Macro 

105mm 2.8 EX Macro 

300mm 4 APO Tele Macro 

400mm 5.6 APO Tele Macro 

500mm 4.5 APO 

500mm 7.2 APO 

800mm 5.6 APO 

Zooms:

24-70mm 3.5-5.6 Aspherical UC 

28-70mm 2.8-4 UC  

28-80mm 3.5-5.6 Mini Zoom Macro Aspherical 

28-80mm 3.5-5.6 Mini Zoom Macro Aspherical HF 

28-80mm 3.5-5.6 Mini Zoom Macro II Aspherical 

28-105mm 2.8-4 Aspherical 

28-105mm 4-5.6 UC  

28-105mm 4-5.6 UC-II 

28-105mm 3.8-5.6 UC-III Aspherical IF 

28-135mm 3.8-5.6 Aspherical IF Macro 

28-200mm 3.8-5.6 Aspherical UC 

28-200mm 3.5-5.6 DL Aspherical IF Hyperzoom Macro 

28-300mm 3.5-6.3 DL Aspherical IF Hyperzoom 

70-210mm 3.5-4.5 APO Macro 

70-210mm 4-5.6 UC-II 

70-300mm 4-5.6 APO Macro super 

70-300mm 4-5.6 DL Macro super 

100-300mm 4.5-6.7 DL 

135-400mm 4.5-5.6 APO Aspherical RF 

170-500mm 5-6.3 APO Aspherical RF 

35-70 Landscape Comparison

A quick backstory, I've had the C/Y 35-70 for some time now, and it is excellent. I don't use it all the time, but I always love the results when I do. I've known it had a permanent spot on my shelf, and Fred Miranda's comparison to the new Sony GM 24-70 where the legacy Contax was near as good everywhere but wide open, just reinforced that.

Marc Petzold on DPReview gets the credit for pushing the Minolta 35-70 f/3.5. Since I like knowing how lenses fair, I had to compare. I'll cut right to the chase, the Minolta is excellent, and has the nifty ability to be altered to open to f/2.8 at 35mm, though the IQ does take a hit. Let's get right to the results.

Landscapes

35mm Focal Length

At 35mm the lenses are tough to distinguish in the center. The Contax is a hair warmer, and may carry a bit more contrast. It appears the light changed slightly between the two shots, based on the trees in the background. The Minolta may even be a hair sharper at f/11 based on the red sign on Fishy Fishy.

In the mid frame the Contax has a bit more glow wide open, but sharpens up quicker than the Minolta. At f/8-f/11 I think the Contax is better but you have to pixel peep to see any difference.

In the corners, we see similar results to the mid frame. The Contax sharpens up much quicker, at f/5.6 its plenty good. At f/8 the Minolta is acceptable though f/11 is better. It never catches the Contax but it's still a good and very useable result.

50mm Focal Length

In the centers we have much the same results as at 35mm. The Contax is a bit warmer, maybe a bit more contrast. I think I like the Minolta a bit better wide open. By f/8 I couldn't pick which is which in a blind test.

Into the midframes, the Minolta is sharper wide open. The Contax catches up at f/5.6 and maybe just barely surpasses the Minolta. At f/8-f/11 I think I just barely prefer the Contax but they are both great and again I couldn't pick one from the other.

Yet again in the corners the Minolta has a slight advantage wide open, the Contax as some SA going on it seems. And at f/5.6 it again catches and supasses the Minolta slightly. I can the restaurant's covered porch has a corrugated roof on the Contax, not quite on the Minolta. Again at f/8 and f/11 they are very close. I think the Contax is carrying contrast better into the corner than the Minolta is, but both are quite good.

70mm

To my eye the centers are pretty much identical, with the Minolta possibly having a slight edge wide open but even that's debatable. Both are great.

The midframes flip flop wide open, the Contax looks stronger wide open with the  Minolta not catching up until f/8 and possibly better at f/11? I'm splitting hairs again, they are very, very similar.

Neither corner is very good wide open. At f/5.6 I think the Minolta actually cleans up a bit quicker, I think the Contax still has some astigmatism at f/5.6. Both look great by f/8 but the Minolta is still a bit sharper.

35mm Focal Length

50mm Focal Length

I decided to lump these together rather than a write up for each focal length separately. I shot this to get a sense for mid range sharpness as well as how it handled bokeh in the mid ranges. There's really not a whole lot to highlight as far as distances go. I think the Contax is sharper earlier at 35mm and has more contrast, with the Minolta a bit better at f/11 Background is a bit smoother but Contax is a touch faster, both are pleasant.

At 50mm to my eye the Minolta is sharper and neither bokeh looks as smooth wide open with the Contax looking a touch busier. Flip a coin. At 70mm I again think the Minolta is a bit better, and both bokeh's are nervous. At f/5.6 and smaller they're hard to distinguish. Very similar performances here.

Bokeh

What test would be complete without looking at Bokeh?

At 70mm the extra 0.1 of f stop helps and the Contax looks smoother in addition to having slightly more blur. The Minolta just looks more nervous to me. At 35mm I think they are closer with both looking sllightly nervous but not bad for a 35mm. The Minolta does have a trick up its sleeve. Removing two small tabs held in place by 4 screws, you can take out the aperture limiter that lets the lens open to f/2.8 at 35mm. As you can see though, you get a lot more vignette and the bokeh gets more nervous. If you really need 2/3 a stop it's there but to me it was a pretty large hit to IQ. SA increases and effects sharpness a good bit.

Other Thoughts

If I didn't already own a Contax I'd probably buy a Minolta and be happy, but owning the Contax it isn't going anywhere. Personally I like the one touch zooms, and found the twist zoom mechanism of the Minolta a bit awkward to use. But I know others that have said they much prefer the two touch.

One other potentially important difference, both of these lenses offer an approx. 1:2.5 macro setting. However the Contax offers this at 35mm while the Minolta offers it at 70mm. For me, I have a Tamron 90mm f/2.5 so I prefer the 35mm option if I want something wider. Others might prefer having a more traditional working distance.

Both are great lenses, and it seems the Minolta's values are creeping up. Certainly if you're looking for a 2x standard zoom either of these should keep you happy.