Classic Camera Review: The Zeiss Ikon Hologon Ultrawide

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In addition to its innovative image-processing abilities, the recently introduced Zeiss ZX1 is also notable as being the first camera to wear the Zeiss nameplate in five decades. This Classic Camera review is about the last camera to wear the Zeiss nameplate—the Zeiss Ikon Hologon Ultrawide (1969-71), which was as technically remarkable as its 21st-century follow-up act. Although this article is a classic “camera” review, the story is really about the camera’s unusual lens.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021

Featuring an optical viewfinder larger than the lens, the angle-of-view of the 15mm f/8 lens on the Zeiss Ikon Hologon Ultrawide was so wide (110°) it wasn’t compatible with any existing camera. It didn’t go into production until a body was designed for it.

At the time of its introduction in 1969, the Zeiss 15mm f/8 Hologon was the widest-angle lens available for 35mm film cameras. Originally created by a Zeiss design team led by Erhard Glatzel, it couldn’t be placed into production because, unlike 99% of all camera lenses ever produced, the 15mm f/8 Zeiss Hologon was only the second lens ever designed that had an angle-of-view too wide for any existing camera system. *

The tripod threads are located at the nodal point of the lens, illustrating how narrow the tolerances are in this camera/lens design. The film plane lies about 4.5mm from the lens’s rear element. The camera and lens together are only 45mm thick.

The issue at hand was that, to achieve infinity focus, the rear element of the lens had to be positioned closer to the film plane than the design parameters permitted by existing 35mm Zeiss film cameras. This problem was ultimately resolved by removing the lens mount and reflex viewing system from an existing Zeiss Contarex camera, and replacing it with the permanently mounted 15mm Hologon lens and an optical viewfinder with an AoV matching the lens. The result was the Zeiss Ikon Hologon Ultrawide.

The advance lever, rewind assembly, and an oversized optical viewfinder are the main attractions on the top plate. The optical system in the Ultrawide’s viewfinder contains 7 elements—the lens itself only contains 3. The bubble level located on top of the camera can also be seen in the viewfinder when shooting handheld.

The name “Hologon” is derived from the Greek holos, which translates to “everything” or “complete”, and gonia, which translates to “angle.” This so-called Greek connection is practiced to this very day when naming Zeiss optical products.

Design-wise, the Hologon lens is as complex as it is simple. The lens is a basic triplet design—it contains only 3 lens elements. The front and rear elements are hemispherical in shape, and all 3 elements have been polished and assembled by hand to better ensure optically correct finishes and element alignment.

A pair of curved street corners in New Brunswick, NJ, are the sort of urban landscapes that are easy to capture when shooting with ultra-wide-angle lenses such as the Zeiss 15mm f/8 Hologon.

Simple as it may sound, the Hologon lens was an extremely difficult lens to manufacture and represented the very best of Zeiss lens manufacturing technologies at the time. Interestingly, the camera’s optical viewfinder required a 7-element design to replicate the nearly distortion-free AoV of the cameras “simple” 3-element lens.

There is virtually zero exaggeration of spatial relationships within the borders of the frame above. The way the Hologon captures this street scene, you’d think it was taken with a normal lens—not an ultra-wide. That’s one of the optical qualities that makes this camera and lens combination so special.

The Hologon has a single round (waterhouse) aperture with a value of f/8. The round aperture guarantees pleasing bokeh, though if you’re a fan of sun stars, the Hologon will disappoint you, since sun stars are created by diaphragm blades.

To prevent your fingertips from showing up along the edges of the frame when shooting handheld, the Hologon Ultrawide came with an extremely well-designed trigger-release handgrip. A leatherette inlay that matches the camera body is a nice design touch.

In addition to having a single fixed aperture, the Hologon is also a fixed-focus lens with a focus range of about 20" (0.3m) to infinity. Your only exposure controls are your choice of film speed (ISO) and shutter speed. The camera is essentially a point-and-shoot in the most literal sense. It has a cloth focal plane shutter with a shutter-speed range of 1 – 1/500-second, along with B and T. The top speed for flash is 1/60-second via PC connection on the rear upper body panel.

* Along with the Zeiss Hologon Ultrawide, the Hasselblad Super Wide Supreme (1954) was the only other camera designed specifically for a lens that had an AoV too wide for existing cameras. Above: a 1980 Hasselblad Superwide SWC and a Zeiss Hologon Ultrawide. The Hasselblad remained in production until 2009. The lenses on these cameras are among the most distortion-free wide-angle lenses ever made. For more on the Hasselblad Superwide SWC, check out my previous classic camera review: Two of the Coolest Hasselblads Ever Made.

The construction quality of the Hologon Ultrawide, which measures 1.75 x 3.5 x 6" and weighs approximately 26.5 oz, is reminiscent of the robust feel of similar vintage Nikon F bodies. Among the few visible plastic parts are a black plastic inner dial used for resetting the exposure counter (the clunkiest procedure I’ve ever seen on a modern camera), a black end cap on the film advance lever, and a few of the inner film-loading components. The chassis and body components, which were hand-assembled in Germany, are made of metal alloy with brass top and bottom plates and a black enamel finish.

Loading and unloading film requires removal of the camera back, similar to the Nikon F. Loading and unloading film is otherwise straightforward, though resetting the frame counter is annoying, if not overcomplicated.

Thanks to its symmetrical design, the Hologon displays very little in the way of spherical or chromatic aberrations, coma, curvature-of-field, and astigmatism. In terms of distortion, the Hologon was (and remains) one of the most distortion-free wide-angle lenses available and is still considered a standard after 50-plus years. As with many ultra-wide-angle lenses, the lens falls short when it comes to vignetting, which in the case of the Hologon, is about two stops of light toward the edges of the frame. To compensate for this falloff, the camera came with a dedicated 4x center-weighted ND grad filter that effectively reduced the speed of the lens down to f/16.

To compensate for two stops of light loss toward the edges of the frame (vignetting), the Hologon Ultrawide comes with a dedicated 4x center-weighted graduated neutral density filter, which brings the effective working aperture down to f/16. Period. The only exposure adjustments are your choice of shutter speed and film speed.

Though it works quite well in terms of distributing light evenly across the frame, the graduated ND filter effectively reduces your one-and-only lens aperture to an unarguably slow f/16. The truth is that many photographers find the falloff to be aesthetically preferable, and they leave the filter home. One thing you don’t want to do is scratch or lose this ND filter, because even the B&H Used Department will have a tough time bailing you out if you do. Ditto on the lens caps.

The Zeiss Hologon wasn’t inexpensive. When introduced, it had a list price of $825. That translates to a bit over $5,000 in today’s dollars, putting it in the same class as the new ZX1, which is equally as exotic as the Hologon was in its day.

The late 1960s proved to be difficult times for Zeiss Ikon. Increased competition from Japanese camera companies including Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, and Canon caused the company to cease operations. The remaining Hologon Ultrawide camera body and lens components were assembled by Carl Zeiss. These cameras can be identified by a Carl Zeiss logo in place of the Zeiss Ikon logo that appears on the front plate of the vast majority of Hologon Ultrawides.

When the last of the Carl Zeiss versions of the Ultrawide camera were completed, there still remained about 200 unused Hologon lenses. These lenses were purchased by Leica and converted to Leica M-mounts with focusing helicoids, which brought the closest focusing distance down to a far closer 7.9" (0.2m). These lenses can be found used but sell for a premium price.

Two views along the Hudson River and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, captured with the Zeiss Hologon Ultrawide

The Hologon nameplate was resurrected in the mid-1990s as an ultra-wide lens for the since-deceased Contax G1 and G2 camera systems. The newer Contax G-series 16mm f/8 Hologon (5 elements in 3 groups) was less complex optically, and easier (and cheaper) to produce. It also featured coupled focusing down to 12". Unlike the other components of Contax G-series cameras and lenses, which were made in Japan, about 2,000 of the newer 16mm Hologon lenses were handmade in Germany.

The second-generation Zeiss Hologon 16mm f/8 T* with optical viewfinder on a Contax G2. The Contax version of the Hologon featured a focusing helicoid with coupled focusing down to 12". As with the original 15mm Hologon Ultrawide, the newer lens had a fixed f/8 aperture and came with a center-weighted 4x graduated ND filter to compensate for two stops of vignetting toward the edges of the frame.

Many surviving Contax G-series Hologons have since been converted to M-mounts and adapted for use with newer mirrorless cameras. The newer 16mm Hologons are easier to find used, and less costly compared to the much rarer Leica-mount 15mm Hologon. The image quality and look of the photographs they capture are equally unique.

A Zeiss 16mm f/8 Hologon that has been converted to a Leica M-mount coupled to a Leica M-mount film camera and a Sony a7R III. Many surviving Hologon lenses have since been adapted for use on modern camera systems.

Have you ever taken photographs with a Hologon camera or lens? If so, what did you think of your pictures? Let us know in the Comments field, below.

2 Comments

I owned a Hologon and regret the day I sold it.  The optical quality was good and, with care, it produced many high quality images.  It was

simple to use.  About the only caution was inluding a finger in the scene by accident.

Finger? You're good. I usually get a few fingers in the frame. Funny thing is I have the pistol grip but I find the kick from the cable release to be too strong, so I hold the camera along the edges and say a Hail Mary. sl far, so good!

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