Pentacon 135mm F2.8, a gem from the cold war

Vintage lenses are more popular than ever before. No wonder, with simple adapters, the gems of the past can be mounted on modern digital cameras. And the quality of those lenses really comes to life digitally. The beauty of it is that these vintage lenses cost a fraction of a modern, new lens while showing a similar quality. Do not expect autofocus or other electronic communication between lens and body, this is real manual photography. If you are looking for vintage lenses, you can’t avoid M42 threaded lenses and you will eventually among others, end up at Pentacon. A brand hidden behind the iron curtain in East Germany. Undeservedly so, because Pentacon has a lot to offer the discerning and creative photographer, including the 135 mm F2.8 lens, an underrated lens with enormous potential.

The 135mm focal lens is more or less reserved for portrait photography ‘from a distance’. To actual keep psychological distance from your subject. This would preserve more natural photos. But the real advantage is that this focal distance combined with a large aperture produces brilliant bokeh. A nice background blurred to isolate the portrait. As a telephoto lens, the 135mm may be suitable, but don’t expect a zoom that is useful for nature photography. Also as a standard lens, that distance does not seems useful at all. The 135mm seems destined for portraits. Yet I noticed it has more potential and you will become more creative in its use. Just leave other lenses at home and try it on, it will indeed magically drags you into a different viewing experience.

For years I have been charmed by the East German company Pentacon in Dresden, a merger company formed in 1962 from Kamera- und Kinowerke Dresden and the earlier Meyer-Optik Görlitz and Kamerawerke Freital. Built on socialist principles, a so-called “Volkseigener Betrieb”. From the people for the people. Pentacon as a name is the amalgamation of the well-known and popular Contax camera and the Pentaprism that was used as a viewfinder on medium format cameras. It was common at the time for names of popular cameras to appear in a West and East-German version. This mainly concerned Zeiss-Ikon models. Eventually, the East German variants were renamed with their own names and a whole production line of new brands emerged of which Praktika, Pentacon, Exakta are the well-known series. Great popularity other than in the Eastern Bloc, the cameras have hardly known. The cheap price was not the issue, but the communist, ‘cheapish’ touch.

I am a proud owner of a well-working Pentacon SIX, a top-of-the-line 6×6 medium format SLR camera. It is perhaps the most underrated camera of all. Combined with top-of-the-line Zeiss lenses, they deliver comparable and sometimes better quality than the (sometimes overrated) Finnish Hasselblad. The same is true of Pentacon lenses. The fusion of knowledge and long-standing experience of the various companies was put into the design of solid and fast cameras & lenses. The biggest advantage by far was that Pentacon could use the widespread M42 mount that was also used by e.g. Pentax. Once designed by Carl Zeiss in the 1930s, it became the most popular threaded aperture mount for 135 cameras. But the fast deteriorating reputation of these cameras finally wiped out the East German camera industry. Yet, the (artistic) quality of the lenses is the reason that the many vintage lenses from that era are sought after in the digital age. Good, sometimes exceptional and always just a fraction in price of comparable lenses of the big Western or Japanese brands. And M42 allows for effortless adaptation to digital cameras.

The Pentacon 135 mm F2.8 is one of the better examples of this. A must for any vintage lens viewfinder. The lens was produced in very large numbers, initially by Meyer-Optik Görlitz as a 15 blade ‘Bokeh monster’. Big and heavy, but with unprecedented background blur in circular form or the so called swirly bokeh. The first Pentacon version is almost a copy of the original Meyer, only later the 6 leaf Pentacon Auto appeared. It has an Auto/Manual switch. Auto mode means the camera will stop down the iris when you release the shutter. Turning the aperture ring will not have any noticeable difference to the iris until the shutter is released. The big advantage means you always have the full opening, a bright view through the viewfinder. Manual is for ‘stop down metering’, and you will see the aperture physically stopping down as you turn the aperture ring. The 135mm stops down to F22. The lens is narrower, shorter and lighter than the old big version. But it does not detract in quality, even the bokeh with 6 blades is comparable to the quality of the Big Bokeh king. The bokeh looks a bit busy with close ups, but interesting at the same time. Light is transformed into oval balls that provide a blur of the background at full aperture. From a distance, the bokeh is more buttery soft and lively due to the swirly effect. I am surprised by the sharpness of the lens, at full aperture just a little softer at the edges, but from F5.6 onwards full sharpness from edge to edge is achieved. Something you normally only find with expensive lenses that are also larger and heavier.

The 135 mm Pentacon is definitely compact and has a built-in lens hood. It is easy to carry and that gives it an easy place in the camera bag. Setting the aperture happens in clear clicks and focusing is smooth.
The Pentacon is like a ‘Lensbaby’ but for professional use. You don’t get an exaggerated effect, but you do get a special signature when you use the lens at a wedding or other party. The pentacon provides a subtle effect without compromising the quality of a pro lens. And who wouldn’t want that from a lens under Euro 100.

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