The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7: A Legendary Lens in the History of Photography

The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens is a marvel of optical engineering and one of the most legendary lenses ever created. Originally designed for NASA’s Apollo missions, this lens boasts an extraordinary maximum aperture of f/0.7, making it one of the fastest lenses in the world. Its unique capabilities have made it a sought-after piece of equipment for both photographers and filmmakers. This article explores the fascinating history, technical specifications, and significant impact of the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens.

Origins of the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7

The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 was developed in the mid-1960s for a specific purpose: to capture images of the moon’s surface during NASA’s Apollo missions. At that time, the ability to photograph in extremely low light was crucial, and traditional lenses simply could not meet the requirements. Carl Zeiss, a company renowned for its precision optics, rose to the challenge.

The Collaboration with NASA

NASA approached Carl Zeiss with the need for a lens capable of photographing the dark side of the moon. The engineers at Zeiss took on the challenge, pushing the boundaries of lens design and manufacturing. The result was the Planar 50mm f/0.7, an optical masterpiece that allowed for unprecedented light-gathering capabilities.

  • Developed in: 1966
  • Primary Use: NASA’s Apollo missions
  • Unique Feature: f/0.7 maximum aperture

Technical Specifications and Design

The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens is renowned for its groundbreaking optical design. Its specifications and features are impressive, even by today’s standards.

Optical Design

The lens consists of eight elements in six groups, meticulously arranged to minimize aberrations and maximize image quality. The large front element and advanced coatings ensure that light transmission is optimized, allowing the lens to perform exceptionally well in low-light conditions.

Key Specifications

  • Focal Length: 50mm
  • Maximum Aperture: f/0.7
  • Minimum Aperture: f/16
  • Lens Construction: 8 elements in 6 groups
  • Minimum Focus Distance: 0.7m
  • Weight: Approximately 2 kg

The lens’s weight and build quality reflect its professional-grade construction, designed to withstand the rigors of space travel and provide unparalleled performance in challenging environments.

The Planar 50mm f/0.7 in Cinematography

While the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 was initially created for NASA, its unique properties quickly caught the attention of the film industry. One of the most famous uses of this lens was by the legendary director Stanley Kubrick.

Stanley Kubrick and “Barry Lyndon”

Stanley Kubrick used the Planar 50mm f/0.7 to shoot scenes in his 1975 film “Barry Lyndon.” Kubrick was known for his meticulous attention to detail and his desire to push the boundaries of filmmaking technology. The lens allowed him to film scenes lit only by candlelight, creating a natural and authentic period atmosphere that was unprecedented in cinema.

  • Film: “Barry Lyndon” (1975)
  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Unique Use: Filming by candlelight

Impact on Cinematography

Kubrick’s use of the Planar 50mm f/0.7 demonstrated the lens’s extraordinary capabilities and inspired other filmmakers to explore its potential. The lens’s ability to capture stunning detail in low-light conditions opened new creative possibilities, influencing the art of cinematography for years to come.

Photographic Applications

Beyond its cinematic uses, the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 has also found a place in the world of still photography. Its ability to perform in extreme low-light conditions and create a unique visual aesthetic makes it a coveted tool for photographers.

Low-Light Photography

The f/0.7 aperture allows photographers to shoot in near darkness without the need for additional lighting. This capability is particularly useful for astrophotography, night photography, and other low-light applications where traditional lenses would struggle.

  • Use Case: Astrophotography
  • Use Case: Night photography
  • Use Case: Indoor and event photography

Artistic and Portrait Photography

The shallow depth of field provided by the f/0.7 aperture creates a dreamy, ethereal quality that is highly sought after in portrait photography. The lens can isolate subjects with a beautiful bokeh effect, adding an artistic touch to images.

  • Use Case: Portrait photography
  • Use Case: Fine art photography

Challenges and Limitations

Despite its remarkable capabilities, the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 is not without its challenges. Photographers and filmmakers must consider several factors when using this lens.

Handling and Weight

The lens is quite heavy, weighing approximately 2 kg. This makes it less practical for handheld shooting and more suited to use with a tripod or other support systems. Its size and weight can be cumbersome, requiring careful handling and setup.

Cost and Accessibility

The Planar 50mm f/0.7 is extremely rare and expensive, with only ten units originally produced. This rarity makes it difficult to find and acquire, often limiting its use to high-budget projects or collectors with deep pockets.

  • Weight: Approximately 2 kg
  • Original Production: 10 units
  • Cost: Extremely high due to rarity

Legacy and Influence

The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 has left an indelible mark on the fields of photography and cinematography. Its legacy is defined by its technical achievements and its impact on creative expression.

Technical Achievements

The lens’s ability to gather light in extreme conditions set a new standard for optical performance. Its design and construction pushed the boundaries of what was possible in lens manufacturing, influencing subsequent developments in optical technology.

Creative Influence

Artists like Stanley Kubrick used the lens to achieve groundbreaking visual effects, inspiring a generation of filmmakers and photographers. The lens’s unique aesthetic qualities continue to be celebrated and sought after, solidifying its place in the pantheon of legendary photographic tools.

  • Technical Milestone: f/0.7 maximum aperture
  • Influential Use: Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”
  • Ongoing Legacy: Inspiration for photographers and filmmakers

Case Studies

Examining specific case studies helps illustrate the profound impact of the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens.

Case Study 1: NASA’s Apollo Missions

The lens was initially used to capture images of the moon’s surface, demonstrating its exceptional low-light capabilities. The successful use of the lens in space photography showcased its potential and set the stage for its subsequent adoption in other fields.

Case Study 2: “Barry Lyndon”

Stanley Kubrick’s use of the lens in “Barry Lyndon” remains one of the most celebrated applications of the Planar 50mm f/0.7. The candlelit scenes, captured with unparalleled realism, earned the film critical acclaim and solidified the lens’s reputation as a game-changer in cinematography.

Modern Relevance

Even in today’s world of advanced digital technology, the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 continues to be relevant and revered.

Collector’s Item

The lens is highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts who appreciate its historical significance and unique optical qualities. Owning a Planar 50mm f/0.7 is considered a prestigious achievement in the photography community.

Continued Use in Creative Projects

While digital lenses have advanced significantly, the Planar 50mm f/0.7’s distinctive characteristics ensure it remains a valuable tool for specific creative projects. Filmmakers and photographers continue to use the lens to achieve unique visual effects that are difficult to replicate with modern equipment.

  • Collector’s Value: High
  • Continued Use: Creative photography and filmmaking


The Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens is more than just a piece of photographic equipment; it is a testament to human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of perfection. Its development for NASA’s Apollo missions, subsequent adoption by filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, and enduring legacy in both photography and cinematography underscore its significance.

With its groundbreaking aperture of f/0.7, exceptional optical design, and unique aesthetic qualities, the Planar 50mm f/0.7 continues to inspire and captivate. Whether in the hands of a filmmaker capturing candlelit scenes or a photographer exploring the depths of night, this lens represents the pinnacle of optical excellence and creative potential. Its story serves as a reminder of what can be achieved when technology and artistry come together in pursuit of the extraordinary.

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