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  1. #1 Contax Zeiss Survival Guide 
    Senior Member Nick Morrison's Avatar
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    As many of you know...I have been a strong proponent of Contax Glass on REDUSER for a while now. I get asked lots of questions. So I figured I would write up a little CONTAX SURVIVAL GUIDE that tries to answer them all at once...

    Hope this helps...

    Note - I've been writing and editing this for over 3 months. So please be kind. If you disagree with something, be classy, and I'll try and update this guide if I feel I have, in fact, made an error. This is a living document, meant to be updated. This is also why it's on it's own thread.

    Also bear in mind I've written this on countless different nights after my night shifts (at 2am), or when I had some down time, and clearly on some sittings I was in a foul mood as some sections are riddled with curse words, which I think is hilarious, and for now, I've left them in...intact...as a momento to how long this took me to write.

    Without further adieu...I present to you...


    The Contax Zeiss Survival Guide:



    1) WHY SHOULD YOU CARE ABOUT CONTAX GLASS?


    Contax Zeiss should be on your radar for a couple of reasons.

    A) They are FULL FRAME and will cover Dragon, and it would seam, even VISTA VISION WEAPON.
    B) They share very similar designs as the ZF/ZE/CP2 lenses, but for ½ or ⅓ the price
    C) They have the older Zeiss T* coating that we also find on Hasselblads, Super Speeds and Standards...and as such have a more organic rendering on digital than ZF/ZE/CP2s. This is my personal opinion.
    D) They are very easy to adapt to EOS mount.
    E) They are very easy to cinemod. In fact, they MOD better than ZF/ZE’s believe it or not. Because they focus the right way (ZF’s do not, they are Nikon-oriented and focus backwards) and have an aperture ring (ZE’s don’t have one, as they are EOS-designed and have a digital iris controlled by the camera). Like ZF/ZE’s, they have fantastic barrel rotations (often 180 degrees or more).


    2) THE HISTORY OF CONTAX

    Lets go back to the 70’s. Zeiss was making Hasselblad lenses for Medium Format. Super Speeds and Standards for cinema. And needed a new line of lenses for 35mm still photography. In 1974, Contax was born.

    Actually, I should say RE-BORN. Because “Contax” is actually one of the most storied names in photography. It’s history criss-crosses wars, politics, and conjures up the never-ending battles between Leica and Zeiss.

    Originally launched in 1932 to compete with - you guessed it, Leica - Contax was created by Zeiss subsidiary Zeiss Ikon. An instant hit, it became synonymous with innovation. After WW2, Zeiss was split asunder in TWO. Western Zeiss was migrated to Stuttgart under the watchful eye of American troops. And Eastern Zess remained behind in the ruins of the city of Jena, trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The two rivals would go to war over the name “Zeiss” until the end of the Cold War (it was the longest court case in the history of East Germany).

    Zeiss Ikon was also split apart into Eastern and Western divisions, but these two subsidiaries kept working together...and Contax cameras and lenses continued to be made on both sides of the wall. By the 1960’s, competition from the Japanese led to the eventual shuttering of both subsidiaries - even as the larger Zeiss’s stayed in business.

    Under enormous pressure from the West, Eastern Zeiss eventually relinquished the naming rights to “CONTAX” to Western Zeiss. Eastern Zeiss instead consolidated all their smaller name brands into PENTACON.

    So Contax = Western Zeiss. I say that because I’ve encountered many people who get confused and think Contax is weird Japanese junk. It’s not. It’s awesome Western Zeiss glass. Wake the fuck up.

    Contax lenses became Zeiss’s flagship 35mm stills lenses. They were a massive hit when they launched in ‘75, and were fabricated until 2005 (when they were promptly tweaked and re-badged as ZF/ZE’s in 2006). Clearly Leica freaked the fuck out when these were released, because the next year Leica released their “R” line in 1976. For the next 20 years, Contax and Leica R would slug it out once again for optical supremacy. If you look at their “lines”, you’ll notice lots of similarities. Both have a 35-70 zoom, etc.


    3) DIFFERENCES/SIMILARITIES TO ZF/ZE

    When the ZF/ZE’s first came out in 2006, they appear to have been direct re-badges of the Contax line (with small modifications to the designs). Over the years, Zeiss has added new, fantastic designs, this can not be overlooked. The 35 f2, 25f2, 50 f2 lenses are all completely new and completely superb. However, the optical quality of the Contax’s is certainly very close to ZF/ZE’s and many of the designs appear to have only subtly changed over the years, in particular the 21 2.8, 34 1.4, 50 1.4, and 85 1.4.

    The one main difference I can see is...as stated above...I think the Contaxes cinemod slightly BETTER than ZF/ZE’s (because they ALL focus the right way, and ALL have an aperture ring), and also ALL they have that wonderful older T* coating that I believe looks better on digital than the newer T* coating (renders more organically). Contax have a bit less contrast, and flare more. Also ZF/ZE's tend to break down into purple splotches when they flare, which doesn't look ideal on video (whereas Contax will generally flare white, which can be more forgiving, and cinematic).

    On almost all shoots we’ve done with Contax lenses, where we have used other glass, be it Leica R’s or Canon EOS, every time the DP has noticed that the waveform’s “jump”. Because the Contax lenses are noticeably more low-con than even Leica R’s their contemporaries, you will notice more latitude in your image.

    Another major advantage to the Contax’s is the sheer SIZE of the lineup. There are DOZENS of lenses to choose from, that cover all focal lengths from 15mm to 500mm. Yup...they go as far 500mm. ZF/ZE’s only go as far as 135mm. Contax also made very impressive Zooms. Here’s the full line of glass.

    PRIMES:
    15 3.5, 16 2.8 FISHEYE, 18 f4, 21 2.8, 25 2.8, 28 f2, 28 2.8, 35 1.4, 35 2.8, 45 2.8, 50 1.4, 50 1.7, 55 1.2, 60 2.8 Macro, 85 1.2, 85 1.4, 85 2.8, 100 f2, 100 2.8 Macro, 100 3.5, 135 f2, 135 2.8, 180 2.8, 200 f2, 200 3.5, 200 f4, 300 2.8, 300 f4, 500 5.6, 500 f8, 1000 f8

    ZOOMS:
    28-85 3.3-f4, 35-70 3.3, 35-135 3.3-4.5, 80-200 f4, 100-300 4.5-5.6, 40-80 f4, 70-210 3.3


    4) DIFFERENCES/SIMILARITIES TO LEICA R’s

    I don’t want to get into a German war over which is better, Leica R or Contax. But Leica R’s are certainly more expensive, so take that into consideration if you are on a budget.

    Optically, I’ve read numerous reports that show BOTH lines are very sharp, but frequently the Contax equivalent is deemed a tad sharper (stopped down). Take or leave it. Both look awesome, and I think people are splitting hairs.

    In terms of a “look”, we’ve shot with both and there is a clear difference to me. Leica R’s are much prettier. They have more saturated colors, deeper blacks. If that’s your deal, then you will love Leica R’s. They also look more modern and clean.

    Contax is more low-con, and more organic, to my eye. I prefer it, cuz there’s an honesty there I appreciate.. Things can still look beautiful, but Zeiss’s philosophy is not to make things pretty, but to be true. So I respond to that more. Also the low-con coating does give you more latitude. We noticed this specifically on a shoot where we mixed Leica R’s and Contax’s, and the Contax’s def gave us about a stop extra in latitude. The Contax don’t look vintage to me, but they also don’t look modern. I know “organic” is a hackneyed term, but it fits. On digital, these things are a home run, like Standards and Super Speeds.

    Note: My hunch on the latitude/low con deal is as follows. In the same way RED wants to give you as many “options” by letting us shoot RAW, my hunch is that Zeiss was doing the same back in the day with a low-con coating. By giving you that extra latitude in the blacks and highlights, they were letting photographers dial in how much “black” and “contrast” they wanted later in the dark room...when they were printing. I’m sure that approach had similar benefits with cinema lenses and Hasselblads. Again...this is just a hunch on my part, don’t shoot me...
    Last edited by Nick Morrison; 07-10-2015 at 09:18 PM.
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  2. #2  
    Senior Member Nick Morrison's Avatar
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    5) HOW TO SHOP FOR THEM - DON'T GET "G", "N", or "645". ONLY "RTS"

    For our purposes, you only want to get the ORIGINAL SLR line of glass. The RTS line with the C/Y bayonet. They adapt to EOS (and other mounts) very easily.


    Avoid the following, which do not:

    G glass: these are rangefinder lenses (think Leica M)

    N glass: this is a short-lived line of autofocus lenses that are very expensive to convert to EOS.

    645: These are Medium Format lenses that competed with Hasselblad, P6, Mamiya, etc.


    6) CINEMA MECHANICS & QUALITIES:


    As stated repeatedly, like ZF/ZE’s, Contax lenses have great cinema mechanics. They focus the right way, have an aperture ring, and the focus rotation on many lenses reaches 180 degrees. Many have much more. They rack focus beautifully. As they are still lenses, there is some breathing on some of them, but nothing insane that has ruined any of our shots.

    Their disadvantages are that they don't have matching T stops (hey, they’re still lenses!). They get quite slow in the wides (the 18 is an F4, the 15 a 3.5). Even the 21 is only a 2.8. The fastest "wide" is the 28 f2. The AE's are no longer serviced by Zeiss, keep that in mind. Never been an issue for us - and truth be told, if I have a problem with a lens, I’d send it to Duclos anyway...but be advised.

    Because the wides are slow, you will almost certainly need to compliment your kit with a Tokina/Duclos 11-16 2.8. Or do what I did and find an affordable Standard Prime 16mm T2.

    (Here’s where I beleive the Leica R’s have a clear advantage, their 19mm is a 2.8...which is pretty amazing).


    7) AE vs MM, GERMANY vs JAPAN

    This stumps everyone. Germany vs Japan? AE vs MM? The questions get dizzying. Here’s the answer to all of this, broken down.

    AE lenses were made between 1975 and 1984. MM's from 1984 to 2005. Zeiss made the jump to MM's in order to enable camera control of the aperture. Otherwise, the transition from AE was meant to be seamless. The mount is exactly the same, and barring a couple of exceptions...ALL the lens designs are the same. It’s really not a huge deal.

    You can spot an MM if the last number on your aperture ring is GREEN. If it's WHITE then its AE.

    Only 4 lenses were "officially" improved during the jump to MM: the 25 2.8, 28 2.8, 135 2.8, and 135 f2. The 50 1.7 and 180 2.8 are also rumored to be better in MM. Otherwise, you should notice no optical or mechanical difference between the two lines. I have a mixed set and barely notice the difference. AE’s and MM’s all color match. The only differences are minor ones in the coating and aperture shape which I'll go into below.

    COATING DIFFERENCE:
    The AE’s (generally having serials in high 5’s, until mid to high 6’s) look a bit more organic to me, and def flare more. The 85 2.8 AE for example flares A LOT (which I love), whereas the MM does not (they fixed that!). MM’s, especially later ones (8s, 9s, etc), can look a bit cleaner, more modern. But it’s subtle...


    When the AE's flare, they generally flare white, evenly, and when overwhelmed by a direct source, can reveal a touch of green ghosting.

    When the MM's flare, they control it much better (you have to force it more), but when they do, and the coating is overwhelmed by a direct source, the coating will break out into more distinct, tight Zeiss purple flare marks. I found the newer the lens, the more you see this...generally speaking...

    If you like vintage flaring, the AE’s are great. If you don’t want to deal with that, hunt for MM’s.

    UPDATE - In my experience, the MMs generally start in the 66X-XXX serial range. This isn't a science, but an approximation. Expect to get some "tweeners" in this range, as there are reports of some MM's with Ninja-Stars having serials that fall into the transition era btw AE & MM.



    DREADED NINJA-STAR:
    In my experience, ALL AE’s have the Ninja-Star. I own (or have owned) an AE 25 2.8, 28 f2, 28 2.8, 35 1.4, 45 2.8, 50 1.4, 50 1.7, 60 2.8, 85 1.4, 85 2.8, 135 f2, 135 2.8, and 200 3.5...and ALL OF THEM have the Ninja-Star. Anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit.

    ALL of my MM’s do NOT have the Ninja-Star, so I’m going to say this is a Maxim. My MM 18 f4, 21 2.8, 35 2.8, 50 1.4, 50 1.7, 85 1.4, 135 2.8, 180 2.8, and 300 F4 are all W/OUT the Ninja-star.

    So this reasoning is pretty bullet proof.

    What IS the Ninja-Star? It’s a very charming (or annoying, depending on your POV) design to the aperture blades that looks like a “crooked” ninja throwing star. You NEVER SEE it wide open, because the blades aren’t engaged. But on CERTAIN LENSES (with wide barrels) you def see it prominently at your SECOND and THIRD F-stop position (counting wide open as your FIRST position)

    For example, I notice it by far the most on my 35 1.4 and 85 1.4. It doesn’t really ever pop up on my 25 2.8, 28 f2, 50 1.4, or 135 2.8

    Wide open, the 35 1.4 and 85 1.4 are fine (circular bokeh). But at F2 and 2.8...you def notice it if you have a very busy frame with lots of bokeh. I find it charming, it’s a lot like the Cooke 8-blade star you see in the back of every True Blood “Merlots” shot, so I dig it. But if you guys love circular bokeh and find this bit of personality too intrusive, then do yourself a favor and skip it and get the MM’s. They don’t have it.

    I also feel that the ninja-star may “funkify” the bokeh a bit...give it a touch of painterly magic...but that may just be me...and this wild opinion is something I may need to test out a bit more!


    GERMANY vs JAPAN.
    Anyone who says a lens made in Germany is “better” than the same lens made in Japan is full of shit. In my experience, Japanese and German lenses are equally good. Zeiss’s quality control was extremely demanding. Proof of this is that arguably their most famous lens...the 21...was ONLY made in Japan.

    However, I won’t argue that having a lens that says “Made In West Germany” is wicked cool.

    To be clear, since their inception in 1975, Contax lenses have ALWAYS been made in either Japan or Germany - during both the AE and MM eras. Conveniently, Contax has an easy nomenclature to determine the era and origin of a lens:

    AEG - AE lens made in Germany
    AEJ - AE lens made in Japan
    MMG - MM lens made in Germany
    MMJ - MM lens made in Japan


    8) ADAPTERS

    Contax RTS glass can easily be adapted to EOS. Fotodiox adapters work fine ($15) (They are conservative and tend to overcompensate by a millimeter or two, so they can make your glass focus past infinity at the tail end, a bit annoying but nothing terrible). They are also a little sloppy on the mount, which can be alarming. HappyPageHK are considered to be the best removable adapters ($90). And Leitax makes SPECTACULAR permanent mounts for $75 (Duclos uses these, nuff said).

    I personally recommend using Leitax adapters. They are by far the most convenient option.

    You can also use the ALL-STAR mount to use CONTAX RTS glass interchangeably alongside PL glass, such as Contax’s cinema cousins, Super Speeds and Standard Speeds.

    Last edited by Nick Morrison; 01-17-2015 at 09:11 PM.
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  3. #3  
    Senior Member Nick Morrison's Avatar
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    9) SIMILARITY TO SUPER SPEEDS & STANDARDS?

    I’m one of the blowhards (haha) that has routinely made this claim that Contax glass shares a lot of the same pedigree as it’s medium format and cinema cousins....Standards, Supers and Hasselblads, respectively. You can see my well-documented ranting about this on this thread here.

    Ryan de Franco called my bluff recently, and he let me sit in on his informal test looking into how similar Contax in FACT are...to Standards and Super Speeds. You can see our informal results HERE (from me) and HERE (from Ryan).

    To summarize, yeah...they look remarkably similar. In fact, at 5.6 Contax, Supers and Standards looked IDENTICAL. The Hasselblad we threw up also seemed to have an uncannily similar T* coating too. I think it’s safe to say all these lenses from this era of Zeiss optics have remarkably similar coatings and “magic”. That’s NOT to say all the designs are the same.

    The Standards were w/out a doubt the sharpest wide open. At T2 they beat out Supers and Contaxes. Wide open, Contax glass seems as mushy as Supers. It’s by no means unusable, but don’t expect a Contax at F2 to perform like an Ultraprime. These are still’s lenses, and as Ryan De Franco correctly points out...are designed to MAXIMIZE their resolution at F4 or 5.6.

    That said, many still photographers (and DPs) have gotten magic out of these lenses at an F2 or faster. Th 85 1.4 at an F2 for portraits...is KILLER.

    These are creative tools, use them as such. But don’t expect them to have the even performance of a set of Ultraprimes or Masterprimes (where many of the primes are not only similar in size and weight, but also perform similarly at matching T stops!). That would be asking a lot of these budget lenses.

    Also, Super Speeds are a 1.2/1.4 at 18mm and 25mm. Whereas Contax is an F4 at 18mm, and 2.8 at 25mm. So where Contax wins in coverage (they are FULL FRAME, and will cover Dragon and beyond), they lose out in speed (they are F4 at 18mm! Fuck!).

    Nothing is free. The wides are slow. Live with it. Or buy Supers. Or get a Duclos/Tokina 11-16.

    To me, Contax are a GREAT way to affordably get a very real cinematic look from a golden age in Zeiss optics. If you are like me and are interested in building up a large, varied kit of lenses that can fit every job...then Contax are a great choice. But if you want SPECIFIC tailored performance, than RPP’s, Cookes, or Ultraprimes are probably a better choice (for many times the budget).


    10) WHERE TO BUY
    KEH.com is without a doubt the best place to buy Contax glass. Their “EX+” is as good as “LIKE NEW” on ebay. Their “EX” is also close to MINT on ebay.

    After that, B&H and ADORAMA are great choices. B&H’s “9” rating is mint and superb, as is “EX+” at Adorama.

    I’ve had great success on ebay, but only from premium buyers.


    11) ZEISS NOMENCLATURE
    Zeiss has their own “language”, their own nomenclature, for lens designs that is very useful to be familiar with as you start hunting for lenses. Here’s a little short-hand:


    A) WIDE-ANGLES


    DISTAGON: Generally speaking, Zeiss refers to a wide-angle design as a "DISTAGON". In Contax, that corresponds to all lenses 35mm and wider (down to 15mm).


    B) NORMALS & TELES

    Generally speaking, these fall into 3 lens types, categorized by how fast and complex they are. These terms refer to all lenses 45mm and up (to 500mm).

    PLANAR: These have the most elements (7+?), and are generally the fastest, most modern designs. Most of them are F2, 1.4, and 1.2. But with the extra glass comes a greater possibility for imperfection/aberration. Wide open not all them deliver as strongly as stopped down, for example.

    SONNAR: These have less elements (6?). Are usually 2.8. Sonnar originally meant "Sunny", because historically these used to be the bright, fast designs when they first came out. With less glass comes more consistency. Wide open these are more likely to deliver a strong image that is consistent up and down the aperture. I've noticed these designs are more likely to create punchy, contrasty images, too.

    TESSAR: These have even less elements (5?). Are usually 3.5 and F4. Are often more traditional designs. Are not only the slowest, but frequently the most classic. The bokeh behaves differently than with Sonnars and Planars and I find these can give the image an interesting look. For example, the 200 3.5 Tessar was "updated" with a Sonnar 180 2.8. I own them both. The 180 is cleaner, sharper and technically better. But I now have the 200 and I have to admit, the bokeh is very pleasing and captivating, and I prefer it.


    12) OTHER OPTIONS BEYOND CONTAX

    Contax are by no means the only cool, vintage kids on the block. Besides Leica R’s, also give Nikkors (obviously), Canon FDs, and Minolta Rokkors a good look. These last two are challenging to adapt to EOS because of their
    flange length (call Peter at RP lens, he can help), but if you can get them on your RED, they are also fantastic budget options. Canon FD's are the predecessors to Canon L glass, and have a superb pedigree. Björn Benckert is a huge fan. They have a pleasing organic rendering that is not dissimilar to Contax.

    Minolta Rokkor lenses have a cult following in the stills world. Often referred to as "Baby Leica's", their distinct rendering (ie "bokeh") and design philosophy caught the attention of Leica, who hired them to collaborate on lenses (the Leica R 16 2.8, 24 2.8, 35-70 f4, 70-210 f4, and 500 f8 were all born out of this partnership). This collaboration is believed to have left an "imprint" on Rokkor, and the Minolta designs from this era have a wonderful, Leica-esque coloring and look to them.

    So you have options. Explore. Research. Find what works for you.


    ADDENDUM: WHAT LENSES TO GET?
    Almost six months after I wrote this guide, I decided to update it with a quick survey of what lenses to consider - a general overview of the Contax lineup, if you will.

    You can skip ahead and read that HERE.


    THE CONTAX LENS GUIDE - 2015 EDITION

    The most up-to-date guide to almost every Contax lens ever made. My attempt to be as thorough as possible!

    READ THAT HERE!!

    Last edited by Nick Morrison; 07-15-2015 at 07:08 PM.
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  4. #4  
    Senior Member Kemalettin Sert's Avatar
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    WOW! thanks Nick im building Contax set in soon :)
    how do you understand if its MM or not ?
    http://www.ebay.de/itm/Contax-Carl-Z...#ht_500wt_1156
    cant see aperture ring on these photos.red T* counts as MM?
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    Senior Member Nick Morrison's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kemalettin Sert View Post
    WOW! thanks Nick im building Contax set in soon :)
    how do you understand if its MM or not ?
    http://www.ebay.de/itm/Contax-Carl-Z...#ht_500wt_1156
    cant see aperture ring on these photos.red T* counts as MM?
    Hey Kemalettin, just from the serial number (64X-XXX) that looks like an AE. MM's usually start later, at about 66 at the earliest. I don't see the green dot, and that all black back is usually AE.

    So I'm 95% positive that's a LATE AE. An EARLY AE would have serials in the high 5's, or low 6's.
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    Please show me where this 200 f2 is!!!!
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    Hi Nick,

    Thank you very much for your effort to share your finding.

    I would only add, that there are Japanese manufactured Contax/Yashica Zeiss in Japan with Zeiss glass with Japanese coating (manufactured under Zeiss license). These are called MMJ and known to be having better condition with preserving the coating.

    I have a set of MMJs, starting from 21mm F2.8, 35mm F1.4, 50mm F1.4, 85mm F1.4, 100mm F2, 135mm F2.8, 180mm F2.8 and the Mutars.
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    Senior Member Nick Pasquariello's Avatar
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    SUPER thanks for this guide.

    Just went and checked what I have:

    50/1.7 SN: 6470215
    35/2.8 SN: 7411738
    50/1.4 SN: 15176908

    The latter two have the LAST NUMBER on the aperture ring in Green instead of white. But there is no Green Dot anywhere. All three lenses say Made in Japan. And I got some Ninja Star bokeh (not pointy though; take the points and file them down flat. So the aperture blades definitely aren't lining up perfectly, but they aren't creating points either) on the 35. Or it may have been the 50 1.4. But it wasn't the 1.7, because I didn't get that lens until after the shoot where I saw the bokeh effect.

    I bought the 1.7 because the price was too good to pass up; what I really need is a wider lens, but lack the funding at the moment. I haven't done enough shooting yet to really compare and contrast the 1.4 and the 1.7. Nor have I done enough shooting to comment confidently on the quality of flaring or contrast on any of them.

    Still, having read everything you've written up (which, again, SUPER helpful), given the serial numbers and the lack of any green dots, I still don't know if I have AE or MM. And the serial number on the 50 1.4 seems incredibly high, no?
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    Senior Member Timur Civan's Avatar
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    Awesome read dude. Best of material.
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    Senior Member Tom Greenberg's Avatar
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    Nick P. - lenses like your 35/2.8 and 50/1.4 with the last (largest) number on the aperture ring in green are MM lenses...since made in Japan, they are called MMJs. Your 50/1.7 is an AE lens, based on it's serial number and lack of green last number...since made in Japan, it is an AEJ.
    BRAINCELL CAMERA- Michigan - Renting Weapon CF Helium, Epic-W Helium, Alexa Studio, Alexa Mini
    Primes: Celere HS, Cooke MiniS4/i, Zeiss CP.2, Leica R, Zeiss Contax, Zeiss S16 Superspeeds
    Zooms: Optimo 15-40, Optimo DPs, Cooke 18-100, Duclos 11-16, Zeiss S16 11-110
    Support: Ronin, EasyRig, Preston, Bright Tangerine, Teradek, FSI, Inovativ Cart
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    Cinematography/Post Faculty, Compass College of Cinematic Arts, Grand Rapids, MI


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