Lenses Make History

130 Years of ZEISS Lens History

Oberkochen/Germany | 3 November 2020 | ZEISS Consumer Products | Background article

They have been flying into space since the first moon landing, are loved by filmmakers in Hollywood, and are the constant companions of discerning photographers around the world. But why is that? Why has the name ZEISS long been synonymous with creative image design that stands the test of time? Embark on a journey through 130 years of lens history.

ZEISS lenses are used wherever excellent image quality, reliability, and outstanding results are required. For example, the photos from the first moon landings in 1969 were taken with ZEISS lenses, as well as numerous Oscar-winning films like Barry Lyndon, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the James Bond movie Skyfall were also shot with ZEISS lenses.

In addition to founder Carl Zeiss, it was physicist and mathematician Ernst Abbe who played a particularly important role in the company’s history. He was responsible for some of the fundamental and groundbreaking insights into the understanding of optical systems that still form the basis for state-of-the-art, high-performance optics. Even today, the Abbe sine condition must be fulfilled by all high-performance lenses in order for them to produce sharp images of objects. In this tradition, ZEISS has continuously perfected its calculation methods for the manufacture of lenses and is now the global leader in optical design.

Carl Zeiss, who was originally from Weimar, Germany, founded a workshop for precision mechanics and optics in Jena in 1846. Initially, microscopes were almost exclusively manufactured there. Physicist Ernst Abbe became a partner and put the company’s lens production on a scientific footing. In 1890, he began to expand the product range and started developing photographic lenses and binoculars.

Types of glass with significantly improved optical properties, which chemist Otto Schott had first produced in the 1880s, opened up entirely new possibilities. With the invention of the first anastigmatic, distortion-free imaging lens (later named Protar) by scientist Paul Rudolph, ZEISS ushered in a new era in the development of camera lenses. The company began to develop models of lenses with unprecedented speed.

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Christina Mayer
ZEISS Consumer Products
Phone: +49 7364 20 62074
christina .mayer @zeiss .com

Milestones in Lens Development at ZEISS

Even the first camera lenses made by ZEISS in the 1890s stood out thanks to their ability to correct spherical aberrations, outstanding color reproduction, and their minimal distortion. These anastigmatic and achromatic lenses, which also corrected field curvature and astigmatism in addition to offering comparatively good light transmission, owe their development to the achievements of the optical designers and the innovative glass developed by Otto Schott. He achieved this by combining high refractive power with low color dispersion (“heavy crown glass”).

BIII 14161 Anastigmat 1892
Even the first camera lenses made by ZEISS in the 1890s stood out thanks to their ability to correct spherical aberrations, outstanding color reproduction, and their minimal distortion. © ZEISS

In 1896, ZEISS introduced the Planar lens. Its minimal field curvature produces a flat image (“plan” in German), which gave the Planar lens its name. The Planar lens type remains the basis of professional optical tools for all photography on earth and in space today.

In 1902, ZEISS applied for a patent for an invention that would become the most famous and most copied camera lens of all time: the Tessar. It allowed the user to achieve a previously unattainable level of image sharpness with astonishingly little effort, while still being compact. With this model of lens, ZEISS paved the way for the miniaturization in camera design that continues to this day. Millions of lenses used in high-quality cameras and smartphones are modeled on the Tessar design. Today’s modern lenses also incorporate surfaces that are now mostly aspherical and therefore much more advanced, offering even greater image quality.

In the early 1930s, ZEISS developed Sonnar, the fastest light transmission lenses of their time, for the Contax 35 mm camera from Zeiss Ikon. This new standard of lenses significantly increased the 35 mm cameras’ range of uses.

Another groundbreaking process invented by ZEISS in 1935 allowed users to begin capturing images of unparalleled clarity: the antireflective coating, marked as T* on today’s lenses. A coating vapor-deposited onto the glass surface of the lens increases light transmission and reduces unwanted reflections and stray light in the camera. Thanks to this technology, optical systems today can be highly complex and extremely fast at the same time.

BIII 03553 Contax mit Sonnar 1947
Contax 35 mm camera from Zeiss Ikon © ZEISS

1937, ZEISS developed the Arriflex 35 movie camera in partnership with manufacturer of camera systems ARRI – a milestone in the history of film. For the first time ever in a cinema camera, it was possible to see the image in full quality and directly through the lens in the viewfinder while filming. Since then, countless films have been produced using ZEISS lenses, including many successful Hollywood blockbusters.

In 1943, ZEISS was the first lens manufacturer to develop a method for measuring a lenses’ image quality using MTF (modulation transfer function) curves. Numerous manufacturers still use this for quality control today. ZEISS also played a pioneering role in optical design using computer technology. CAD-supported lens development replaced manual design in 1961, and has since made it possible to achieve a much more complex structure and better interaction between the elements within the lens housing.

In 1950, a handshake between Victor Hasselblad, the founder of the company of the same name, and ZEISS’ head of research at the time, Dr. Hans Sauer, marked the beginning of a decades-long partnership to manufacture and develop professional lenses that have been used by generations of professional photographers. Among other products, this partnership led to the development of the Distagon lens model, which is still used today as the basis for high-performance lenses with impressive color correction, speed, image field flatness, and distortion correction.

Apollo 8 Earthrise
On July 20, 1969, a dream became reality: humans landed on the moon for the first time. ZEISS played a key role in this ambitious project. © NASA

On July 20, 1969, a dream became reality: humans landed on the moon for the first time. ZEISS played a key role in this ambitious project – camera lenses specially developed for space enabled the astronauts to capture images of this monumental event and many other missions. Further information on ZEISS’ contribution to the lunar missions is available at www.zeiss.com/moon.

At the end of the 1960s, advances in the design of camera lenses made it possible for ZEISS to create another family of state-of-the-art optical products: lithography optics for semiconductor production. Learn more at www.zeiss.com/smt.

In 1987, Hollywood honored ZEISS’ extremely fast camera lenses for the first time with one of the coveted Academy Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the Science and Engineering category. Two more followed for the concept and optical design of the ZEISS/ARRIFLEX Variable Prime Lenses in 1999 and the ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime Lenses in 2012.

Over the past 25 years, partnerships with Sony and Nokia have led to the widespread use of ZEISS lenses. Sony has been installing them in its compact cameras and camcorders since 1996. This was followed by interchangeable Sony/ZEISS lenses produced for the Alpha series of cameras. ZEISS optics have also been available in Sony smartphones since 2020. Nokia smartphone users have been able to take pictures with built-in ZEISS lenses since 2005.

ZEISS has grown to develop its own photography lens families like ZEISS Loxia, Touit, and Batis for the Sony Alpha, and Fuji X series of cameras as well as the ZEISS Milvus and high-end ZEISS Otus lenses for DSLR cameras. ZEISS also continues to lead the film industry with superb line of ZEISS Supreme Prime and Supreme Prime Radiance lenses for feature film production.

Batis Family Product 2018 with Camnera
ZEISS Batis family ©ZEISS

In 2020, the company released the ZEISS ZX1, its statement on photography and the associated workflow in a connected, digital world. The 35 mm lens used in the ZEISS ZX1 is based on the Distagon lens design and is tailored to the specially developed ZEISS sensor. Read more about the history of cameras from ZEISS and its subsidiaries in the background article “Cameras from ZEISS? A Look at the History of Cameras”.

So, what is it that gives ZEISS its legendary status? The experience of multiple generations of design, maximum manufacturing precision, and an uncompromising passion for optical systems? Absolutely. But even more important are the stories that photographers and filmmakers have been telling with the help of its lenses for 130 years. With personality, creativity, and a flair for spotting the right moment, they help others discover the world anew.

For more information, please visit: www.zeiss.com/consumer-products.


ZEISS is an internationally leading technology enterprise operating in the fields of optics and optoelectronics. In the previous fiscal year, the ZEISS Group generated annual revenue totaling more than 6.4 billion euros in its four segments Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology, Industrial Quality & Research, Medical Technology and Consumer Markets (status: 30 September 2019).

For its customers, ZEISS develops, produces and distributes highly innovative solutions for industrial metrology and quality assurance, microscopy solutions for the life sciences and materials research, and medical technology solutions for diagnostics and treatment in ophthalmology and microsurgery. The name ZEISS is also synonymous with the world's leading lithography optics, which are used by the chip industry to manufacture semiconductor components. There is global demand for trendsetting ZEISS brand products such as eyeglass lenses, camera lenses and binoculars.

With a portfolio aligned with future growth areas like digitalization, healthcare and Smart Production and a strong brand, ZEISS is shaping the future of technology and constantly advancing the world of optics and related fields with its solutions. The company's significant, sustainable investments in research and development lay the foundation for the success and continued expansion of ZEISS' technology and market leadership.

With over 31,000 employees, ZEISS is active globally in almost 50 countries with around 60 sales and service companies, 30 production sites and 25 development sites. Founded in 1846 in Jena, the company is headquartered in Oberkochen, Germany. The Carl Zeiss Foundation, one of the largest foundations in Germany committed to the promotion of science, is the sole owner of the holding company, Carl Zeiss AG.

Further information at www.zeiss.com

Consumer Products

ZEISS Consumer Products combines the company's business with camera and cine lenses, binoculars, spotting scopes and hunting optics. The unit is allocated to the Consumer Markets segment and is based in Oberkochen and represented across the globe.

Press Photos
BIII 14161 Anastigmat 1892
BIII 03553 Contax mit Sonnar 1947
Batis Family Product 2018 with Camnera
Apollo 8 Earthrise
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