Projector Lens Group Test 2: Fast 90s

Just as surely as the major makers offered a bread-and-butter plastic-barrel 85/2.8, most offered an optically superior upgrade that could be specified at purchase or simply retro-fitted. These lenses typically jumped to 90mm and were always a little faster: commonly f2.4 or f2.5. The glass wasn’t just longer, it was deeper: the deluxe options eschewed triplets in favour of more interesting four, five – or even six – element Planar and Gauss designs. The best came close to being fully apochromatic, and as taking lenses they tend to have more consistent performance across the frame and much better colour rendition. Combined with the extra speed and smoother bokeh, and given the relatively minor difference in price, these are well worth the extra: they are significantly better (though not necessarily more characterful) portrait lenses than their slower siblings.

Before drilling down into ‘character’, let’s consider the sharpness of each lens when plucked from a projector and used for image capture at short and long distances – compared to the best and worst standard projector lenses, and familiar benchmarks. Note that projected image quality is about more than the lens: the imaging path is influenced by alignment tolerances, the condenser lens, bulb specification and magnification. Therefore the following results don’t necessarily establish a pecking order for the best projectors. They relate solely to performance as taking lenses, paired with a 35mm sensor.

Lens NameFitted toNear Z1Near Z3Far Z1Far Z3Mark
Agfa Color-Agolon 90/2.57.656.47.36.570%
Braun Super-Paxon 90/2.5
Braun Ultralit PL 90/2.48.27.77.87.177%
Docter Doctarlux 90/2.5Kodak AV Series7.75.87.86.369%
Kodak Ektapro Select 93/2.5Kodak Ektapro8.155.98.26.271%
Leica Colorplan-P 90/2.5 [V1]Pradovit Series7.67.37.76.673%
Leica Colorplan-P 90/2.5 [V2]Pradovit Series8.37.17.47.075%
Leica Super-Colorplan-P2 90/2.58.58.08.57.982%
Reflecta Agomar MC 90/2.4Diamator Series8.27.77.87.177%
Rollei S-Projar 90/2.48.46.77.66.774%
Rollei AV-Apogon 90/2.4300P/330P/535P9.057.68.97.683%
Rollei AV-Apogon 90/2.8Rollei 66P
Schneider Xenotar 90/2.47.86.58.36.974%
Zeiss Super Talon 90/2.5Ikon Series8.16.58.26.473%
Zeiss P-Planar 90/2.5Ikon Series
Zeiss P-Sonnar 90/2.5Ikon Series7.96.78.06.573%
For comparison . . .
Agfa Agomar 85mm [V2]8.06.98.36.474%
Rollei Heidosmat 85/2.86.15.66.35.459%
Schneider Vario-Xenotar 70-120/3.58.17.88.37.680%
Schneider Apo-Componon 60mm at f49.158.68.78.287%
Sigma 50mm Art at f2.89.28.79.49.291%

In summary:

  1. Slide projector lenses follow the pattern of cine projector lenses when deployed as taking lenses: often very sharp in Zone 1; never sharp in Zone 3. Even then, we only reach ‘good enough’ levels compared to the brilliant resolution of modern optics.
  2. The Rollei AV-Apogon 90/2.4 has the best centre-frame performance of any slide projector lens tested so far. The Leica SuperColorplan-P2 90/2.4 has the best corner performance.
  3. Distance matters. Some projector lenses are sharper close up; some at typical projection distances or longer. Even the Schneider Apo-Componon 60, which comes close to fully resolving a full frame sensor, fails to deliver the same performance at the distances for which typical model primes are optimised.
  4. Most 85/2.8 projector lenses perform like the Rollei Heidosmat: the Agfa Agomar 85mm is a rare exception that matches the higher standard of these faster 90mm options.
  5. Few zoom projector lenses perform like the Vario-Xenotar 70-120/3.5 – but these figures are recorded at its peak 70mm setting where there is also geometric distortion and vignetting in Zone 3. From 90-120mm, this lens dips down to 70-75%. It’s also much easier to record good resolution at f3.5 than f2.4.

Kodak Ektapro Select 93/2.5

This lens is also known as the AV-Retinar, and AV-2000. Although it’s a high-end, collectable, five element optic with an image circle comfortably large enough for 6×6 and more, it’s not well suited to a 35mm sensor: the focal-flange distance is so short (15mm – even assuming a flange in plane with the rear element) that focusing is very difficult. Image quality is a casualty of this uncomfortable geometry. Chasseur d’Images awarded this lens 3/5 in its survey of project lens performance in XX.

Leica Colorplan V1 and V2 (pre-P versions)

Version 1 Leitz-branded Colorplan lenses came in silver metal barrels and were fitted to Pradovit projectors sold XX-XX. The five-element design was manufactured exclusively in Germany. Version 2 was upgraded to a six-element design with production split during XX-XX between Germany and Portugal. It is identified by a black plastic nose and differences in lettering. See product pages for details.

Reflecta Agomar 90/2.4

This four-element design dates from a period when Reflecta took over Agfa’s production facility in Portugal in 1984 and is said to be identical to the Braun Ultralit 90/2.4. As with all these premier options, the package here is black metal jacket. Although its reputation is in the shadow of the Leica and Zeiss luminaries, it proves to be sharper in the field – or at least more uniform – but it’s clearly better at close range than far away: rendering useable (rather than perfect) corners in its comfort zone of around 1m.

Rollei S-Projar 90/2.5

Made by Isco (so nearly a Schneider), it’s instructive to compare this 90/2.5 with Schneider’s 90/2.4 Xenotar.


Conclusion

Losing finalists at Crufts are still considered fine examples of the breed. Likewise there’s a category of slide projector lenses we might judge ‘recommendable’ – with the caveats applicable to such optics (soft corners, low contrast, flare, CA, variable bokeh). In this group we find the Braun Ultralit/Agfa Agomar 90/2.4; all the Leica ColorPlans; the Zeiss Super Talon and (expensive) P-Sonnar (of which more was expected); Schneider’s Xenotar, Rollei’s S-Projar, and the unexpectedly tasty (and literally given away) Agfa Agomar 85mm [V2]. While other lenses may have interesting properties or styles of rendition, only this group can be considered ‘good enough’ on technical merit. They occupy ‘mid-Bronze’ territory, but frankly all other slide projector lenses are novelty items by comparison – at least with reference to pixel-level sharpness. Of course, pixel-level sharpness isn’t always needed, and there are great ‘looks’ achievable – particularly for videographers – in the DELTA lens pool.

However, if we focus for a moment on technical characteristics alone – to date, three slide projector lenses have created an elite sub-category by achieving Silver-level performance. Sadly, the Schneider Vario-Xenotar 70-120 disqualifies itself as a finalist: it’s not as sharp overall as the top two (the rating difference is 2%); behaviour varies across the zoom range; geometric distortion (up to 4%) blights the short end (where it is sharpest); and chromatic aberration is present to a degree that will be intrusive in many scenarios.

Crowning one of the remaining contenders ‘King of the PJs’ is so difficult, and their performance within this category is so excellent, I would like to call this one a draw – then discuss favourites.

The Rollei AV-Apogon 90/2.4 is uniquely hi-res in Zone A – not merely sharp for a projector lens; sharp for a prime lens in 2022 – sharp enough to use on Micro FourThirds. Crisp. Wiry. Very sharp indeed. No other projector optic comes close: the next most impressive at this focal length is the Rollei S-Projar, but it has traditionally soggy corners, whereas the Rollei is just about useable. The AV-Apogon is distinguished by excellence at all working distances. Colour is rich and punchy and flare resistance is good for a lens of this type. Marks are deducted for less-than-perfect control of chromatic aberration, and above average mechanical (not optical) vignetting resulting in cat-eye deformation and bokeh swirl – this last property straying into subjective territory, but I would argue that this is a fault, not a feature.

Level-pegging the AV-Apogon is Leica’s ultimate evolution of the ColorPlan: the Super ColorPlan-P2 90/2.4: although conspicuously less sharp centre frame than the Rollei, the Leica is still better here than any other slide projector lens, and it’s noticeably superior in the corners, which makes it a more universally applicable lens. Chromatic aberration is better controlled (only the Agomar MC matches it) and mechanical vignetting is less noticeable, too.

If pressed to choose, the Leica is an obvious choice because of it’s all-round competence. Used carelessly, the AV-Apogon’s imperfections might spoil a shoot, but the Super ColorPlan P2 is solid, reliable and never fails to deliver that Leica look. Then again you probably have conventional taking lenses that do all that and more.

Of course, you need both: the Rollei AV-Apogon plays the bubble bokeh game in the most grown-up fashion. The Leica does Leica: creamier than creamy backgrounds rendered as impressionist paintings. It may be the only slide projector lens that allows a photographer freedom to place an in-focus subject anywhere in the frame, without falling into mush. Then again, the Rollei endows central-framed subjects with remarkable special sauce: the naturally softer outer zones combine with the biting clarity of the centre to boost subject separation by around half a stop, mimicking the look of an f2 aperture – with the added ‘mystery’ of subtle bokeh swirl stirred into the mix. The AV-Apogon doesn’t have Isco-smooth rendition, but its nisen is fine and delicately etched, and bokeh is more often ‘interesting’ than ‘distracting’.

Despite different characteristics, to my mind both have equal claim on the title ‘King of the PJs: the Leica, because it’s the least like a projector lens; the Rollei, because it’s the most like a projector lens. Is the finest Merlot the one that’s so good it could be Cabernet? Or is the best Merlot the one most typical – that fully expresses the potential of the varietal? Dirty Merlot. Your preference may swing with your feelings about projector lenses in general.

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