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
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.