Lens Profiles – Carl Zeiss Super Speed Primes Pt. 1

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CinemaTechnic Lens Profiles – Carl Zeiss Super Speed Cine Prime Lenses

Part 1: Original First Generation Version – T1.4 (35mm) T1.3 (16mm)


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•Newly Updated – I have broken this article up into three pages, one for each generation. Part two covers the second generation Mark II Zeiss Super Speed.

Original first generation Mark I 35mm format High Speed Primes (T1.4) – 1975

Front view of the original Mk. I T1.4 Super Speed prime lenses for Super 35mm cinematography.


The differences in maximum aperture can be easily seen here. The 18, 25 and 35mm lenses are f1.2, the 50mm is f1.3 and the 85mm f1.4. The lenses in the photo have had 80mm fronts, focus gears, and PL mounts added to them as upgrades.

High speed cine lenses have very exacting requirements for focus calibration. The tolerances are much less than for lenses of T2 or T2.8.

If you are a rental house or owner-operator renting or using Zeiss Super Speed lenses, and need to check and keep your lenses calibrated for best image quality, visit our Richter Cine Collimator page for information about high quality and affordable collimator systems.

Overview and Origins

Carl Zeiss High Speed lenses, commonly called Super Speed in the U.S. and U.K. introduced the largest aperture available for cinematography in a complete lens series, f1.2, a full half-stop larger opening than f1.4.

High Speed Lenses

Carl Zeiss was not the first to introduce a high speed lens series. Canon had already introduced the K-35 cine lenses. Zeiss was the first to introduce a high speed lens series where all focal lengths were specifically designed as cine lenses, and with the second generation, where all lenses were f1.2.

With the exception of a few specialized lenses, such as the Panavision 50mm T1.0, and Hawk’s recently introduced T1.0 series, this is the largest “fastest” aperture offered in cinematographic lenses.

The Carl Zeiss High Speed lenses had their genesis in the Planar 0.7/50mm lens commissioned by NASA in 1966. This lens was not, as is commonly believed, used on the Apollo 8 mission. This lens is also known as the “Kubrick Lens” for its use shooting the candlelight scenes in Barry Lyndon.

The Zeiss High Speed lenses were series produced in various generations from 1975 to 2004. They were replaced by the ARRI/Zeiss Master Prime series in 2005.

Original High Speed Lenses – 1975

The first generation original series Carl Zeiss High Speed (HS) lenses were first offered in 1975. They were among the first Zeiss lenses to have the Zeiss T* multicoating, which increases contrast and overall light transmission (T-stop) and reduces flare. They were only available with ARRI Bayonet lens mounts.

This has led to the apocryphal name “B-Speed” applied to these lenses. It is a fact that his name was NEVER used by Zeiss, and I have also never seen ANY ARRI documentation using that name. It was simply made up by someone in the U.S., most likely in the Los Angeles area where the use of that name is prevalent. For that reason, the description B-Speed will not be used in this article.

The ARRI Bayonet mount had been introduced in the mid-1960’s on the Arriflex 16SB, 16BL and 35II-CB, and was the only lens mount available on the Arriflex 35BL-I and II, and was optional on the 35BL-III and 35-3. It  was ARRI’s lens mount until the introduction of ARRI PL mount in the early 1980’s.

The original HS series have housings that are designed to fit into the prime lens blimp that the Arriflex 35 BL-I and BL-II required for silent shooting. They do not have focus or iris gears, but instead use removable tabs fitted to the focus and iris rings that are meant to be actuated by rubber coated levers inside the prime lens blimp.

The 35mm format set comprised of three Distagons: 18mm, 25mm and 35mm, with an f1.2 aperture, and two Planars 50mm f1.3 and 85mm f1.4. All lenses were marked T1.4. This seems quite optimistic on the 85mm and probably the 50mm as well, but when I tested an original HS set with the Zeiss T Stop Tester results were within the margin of error for T1.4.

The HS Distagons were the first Zeiss cine lenses with aspherical elements. They incorporated a molded aspherical element that is positioned in the rear group just behind the iris.

The Infamous “Triangular” Iris

All the Mk. I T1.4 Super Speeds have a unique nine-blade iris with an opening in the shape of a Reuleaux Triangle. It is not known why this type of iris was used. A possible reason is that the deeply curved blades reduce streaking from bright points of light. The disadvantage is that when stopped down, the shape of this iris becomes a nearly true equilateral triangle.

Out of focus highlights (bokeh) will take the shape of the iris. Minimum aperture is T11. The iris ring has click-stops that can be set on/off by moving the small hat-shaped button front-back.

The first set of Mk. I High Speed lenses was used by Martin Scorsese and Michael Chapman (DP) on the feature Taxi Driver, released in 1976.

Stanley Kubrick purchased a set of the original Zeiss High Speed primes, which are on display at the Kubrick Archives Exhibition. They became available far too late to photograph the candlelight scenes in Barry Lyndon where the now famous Carl Zeiss Planar f0.7/50mm was used instead at great effort and expense.

But the distinctive triangular bokeh of the Gen. 1 HS primes can be seen in some scenes in The Shining (Jack at the Bar) or the penultimate scene in Full Metal Jacket. Look at the background in close-ups of the soldiers to see it.

Triangular bokeh can also be seen in The Right Stuff, most easily in the scene where the Mercury 7 astronauts are introduced to the press. In this case it was likely a set of Panavised original Zeiss Super Speed lenses (advertised as “Zeiss optics Panavision mechanics”).

Parts for the original Zeiss HS lenses have been hard to come by for as long as I have been servicing cine lenses. I don’t know when the service obligation (parts availability from Carl Zeiss) ended, but it was most likely over by 1995. These iris blades break easily and there are no replacement iris blades available anywhere.

If you own one of these lenses NEVER let anyone who is not a very experienced lens technician work on them or you are likely to regret it.

Example of Zeiss ruleaux triangle iris
Carl Zeiss 9-bladed ruleaux triangle iris

The Zeiss Reuleaux triangle iris used on the Mark I 35mm High Speed primes and the Mark II 16mm High Speed primes. The iris actually has nine blades.

Photos of the Complete Mk. I 35mm set:

Note the aftermarket focus gears, of a clamp-on design (I believe these were made in Germany many years ago), the Delrin 80mm fronts (except on the 18mm) and the Visual Products PL mounts.

Original Zeiss Super Speed 35mm prime lens set - side view
Side view of original version Zeiss Super Speed lens set (T1.4).

Top Row (Distagons): 18mm, 25mm, 35mm T1.4

Bottom Row (Planars): 50mm, 85mm T1.4

Original Zeiss High Speed primes can be upgraded to have a function more like the newer versions. The needed mods are 80mm fronts, focus gears and PL mount conversions. They cut fairly well with Gen. 2 and later HS primes. The differences are slightly more flare and veiling glare, and a slight greenish tint to the shadow areas. These are subtle differences and the most noticeable difference is the bokeh from the triangular iris. There is no noticeable difference in sharpness.

It should be noted that the Mk. I / Mk. II designations, “B-Speed” and even the name “Super Speed” were never used by Carl Zeiss in reference to these lenses (although ARRI seems to have used these names). The only Zeiss lenses officially called “Super Speed” are the CP.2 T1.5 series.

There is some argument in the U.S. as to the naming convention. Some call the first generation HS lenses the Mk. I, and some call them the B-Speed (“B” probably stands for “Bayonet”). Some call the first version of the second generation HS primes the Mk. I.

To avoid confusion, for the purpose of this article, we will refer to first, second and third generation lenses, and the first generation lenses will be considered the original HS primes.

Original Super 16mm Format Mark I Prime Lens Set

Original Zeiss Super Speed 16mm format 12mm prime lens T1.3
An original Mk. I S16mm HS prime – Distagon 12mm.

Note that the lens in the photo is not stock – it has a custom CinemaTechnic aluminum 80mm front. However it is so well integrated that the difference will only be noticable upon comparison to an unmodified lens.

Also note the lack of focus or iris gearing, the three holes for the focus “ear” on the focus scale ring, and the bayonet lens mount.

The Distagon 1.2/9.5mm looks identical, the 16 and 25mm are slightly shorter. There was no 50mm S16 Mk. I HS prime.

The 16mm set comprised of four Distagons: 9.5, 12, 16 and 25mm, f1.2, all with a photometric aperture of T1.3. These were the first 16mm prime lenses designed to cover Super 16mm format. The 9.5mm focal length covers the full S16 aperture, but is somewhat compromised in sharpness and illumination past the corners of N16. For this reason ARRI did not include the 9.5mm on their list of S16 compatible lenses. All the S16mm Mk.1 lenses were fitted with 6-blade hexagonal iris.

The mechanical design of the Mk. I S16 Superspeeds was similar to the 35mm Superspeeds, but smaller. The lens mount is the original Bayonet design that uses a pin on the back of the lens for location and a lock ring to hold the mount in place. Front housing diameters were 70mm for the 9.5 and 12 and 62mm for the 16 and 25mm. The length of the 9.5 and 12mm are longer than the 16 and 25mm. The focus scale rings are small in diameter and very thin.

Focus gears were not fitted. Instead, focus “ears” of chrome plated steel were fitted to the focus scale ring. This was meant to allow the rubber parts inside the 16BL and 35BL prime lens blimps to move the focus ring. The very compressed focus scales gives very few focus marks for the camera assistant and the thinnes of the scale ring complicates the addition of follow focus gears. Add-on gears cannot compress the scale ring because it will rub on the lens housing and greatly increase the effort needed to move the focus, or in some cases, it will bind up altogether.

All of these lenses cover the Super 16 format. ARRI does not list the 9.5mm as covering Super 16 because it is not as sharp in the corners of the S16 frame as it is in the corners of the regular 16mm aperture. Also there is some vignetting when the 9.5 i stopped down past T8. In practice, I have never had a problem working with the 9.5mm Distagon in Super 16 format. I reccomend never stopping down past T8 in the S16 format.

Continue reading

<- Zeiss High Speed Lens Genesis | Original High Speed Primes Mark I (T1.4) | Zeiss High Speed Primes Mark II (T1.3) ->

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