What’s in a Name? A Guide to Zeiss Super Speeds

One of the most frequent questions we receive at Duclos Lenses from all over the world is in regards to the different versions of the Zeiss Super Speeds. Sticking to just the 35mm format (not 16mm format) version of Zeiss’ high speed primes, we’ll discuss some of the basic differences in an attempt to clarify some common misconceptions around the heritage of illustrious prime lenses.

Let’s start things off with a bit of a mind blower – the name “Super Speeds” was never used by Zeiss for their classic high speed primes at all. It was a name that fans of Zeiss’ primes lovingly assigned to separate them from Zeiss’ slower “Standard Speed” primes. It wasn’t until about 2012 that Zeiss officially used the name Super Speed for a few of the faster lenses in their CP.2 line. Despite Zeiss’ lack of official monikers, nine times out of ten, when someone says “Super Speeds”, they’re referring to the classic high speed primes from the 70’s 80’s and 90’s.

Let’s start with the actual name “Super Speed”. The name refers to the maximum aperture of the lenses. Zeiss slower line of primes were often referred to as “Standard Speeds” which featured a maximum aperture of T2.1. The SUPER Speeds had an impressive fast aperture of T1.4 or even T1.3. This is where things begin to get confusing for some… The earliest line of high-speed primes were commonly referred to as “B-Speeds”. We’ll start with this line and go over their basic features and how to properly identify them.

B-Speeds

The B-Speeds were first introduced in the mid 70’s as some of the fastest prime lenses you could purchase. The set consisted of an 18mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. The B-Speed name comes from the fact that they were originally shipped from the factory in an Arri Bayonet Mount (B-Mount). The lenses had a maximum aperture of T1.4. Note that the front engraving on these classic primes will show a number that is NOT a T-stop rating, but rather an f/stop – hence the “1:1.2, 1:1.3, or 1:1.4” engraving. The /f stop was the theoretical aperture of the lens, factorable, as it were – whereas the T-stop markings on the iris ring were the actual measurable light being passed through the lens, onto the film. Speed aside, one of the most defining features of the B-Speeds is their triangular iris configuration. Despite the lenses have a 9-bladed diaphragm, the shape produced is a unique, unmistakable triangle. Wide-open, the lenses produced beautiful round bokeh, but as soon as you stop down… Triangle bokeh!

This particular model is complete original with the Arri B-Mount, steel “wings” or tabs on the focus ring, and rubber iris guide seen at the bottom of the lens in this photo. These bits are often removed since they were only useful in Arri’s “blimped” camera bodies. (click to enlarge)

How to spot a B-Speed
• Bayonet mount (unless otherwise modified)
• No factory focus or iris gear
• Half focus rotation (appx 180°)
• Triangle aperture (stopped down)
• T1.4 maximum aperture
• Metric and Imperial focus marks

Over the years, some of these traits may become a bit tricky to spot. There have been numerous upgrades and enhancements from Zeiss and third-parties such as PL mount conversions and add-on focus or iris gears. Being able to spot these after-market mods can be tricky. But the triangle aperture is a dead giveaway that you’re dealing with an original B-Speed. Let’s take a look at some of these after-market mods below. Click for further explanation.

Mouse over the above images or click for more detailed differences in after market add-ons.

Another nuance to keep in mind – you may eventually come across an Opton/Oberkochen lens. No.. This isn’t a Zeiss rip-off. It’s simply the result of political restrictions that Zeiss was forced to work around in the 70’s and 80’s. Same glass. Same mechanics. Same coatings. Same factory. No difference other than the engraving.


Mk I Super Speeds

Moving on we come to the first and biggest update to Zeiss line of high speed primes; the Mk I Super Speeds. The update to the B-speeds included an all new mechanical design for the entire set. While the optics remained the same for the 18mm, 25mm, and 35mm, Zeiss refreshed the optical design of the 50mm and 85mm. The Mk I lenses were released in the mid 80’s. It was at this point that the Zeiss primes began to shape the motion picture prime lens design for decades to come. The Mk I primes all had a common 80mm front diameter, integrated focus gears, and sported Arri’s brand new “positive lock” PL mount. While the focus ring gained a very useful 32-pitch gear, the iris remained a knurled grip that, at first glance, can often be confused for a low profile gear. After-market iris gears can be added to the Mk I primes to modernize them a bit more, but beyond that, they don’t need much help.

Mk I
Note the knurled grip on the iris, NOT a gear. The Mk I was the first revision to incorporate 32-pitch focus gears and a common 80mm front ring into the lens design. The imperial focus marks were painted orange while the metric marks were white. This can easily be changed during service, so don’t pay too much attention to the color of the engravings.

How to spot a Mk I Super Speed
• Arri PL Mount
• Knurled iris grip (no gear)
• Factory focus gear
• Half focus rotation (appx 180°)
• T1.3 maximum aperture
• Metric and Imperial focus marks


 

Mk I “Expanded Scale” Super Speeds

In the late 80’s Zeiss refreshed the Mk I design by increasing the focus rotation from a half rotation to a nearly full rotation. We call these Mk I “Expanded Scale”. Everything else about them, from the optics to the chassis, to the front and rear housing, is identical to the earlier Mk I primes. The ONLY difference is the rotation and layout of the focus ring/scale. The earlier Mk I Speeds displayed an imperial scale on one side of the lens and a metric scale on the opposite side – hence the half rotation. With the updated Expanded Scale, Zeiss was able to engrave the lenses with both metric and imperial focus marks AND a full rotation since the distance marks were now tandem instead of in-line.Mk I Exp

How to spot a Mk I Expanded Scale Super Speed
• Arri PL Mount
• Knurled iris grip (no gear)
• Factory focus gear
• Full focus rotation
• T1.3 maximum aperture
• Metric and Imperial focus marks


 

Mk II Super Speeds

The next refresh to Zeiss’ high speed primes came in the form of an iris gear in the early 90’s. Again, all of the optical and mechanical construction remains unchanged from the Mk I. The only upgrade to the Mk II Super Speeds is the factory iris gear – a minor, yet very welcomed change that is now considered an industry standard. It’s also worth noting that around this time Zeiss took the opportunity to add the (rather rare) 65mm focal length to the line of Super Speeds.

Mk II
Note the integrated iris gear and full rotation focus scale. Also note the focus ring has an imperial scale in front of the gear and a metric scale to the rear of the gear.

How to spot a Mk II Super Speed
• Arri PL Mount
• Factory iris gear
• Factory focus gear
• Full focus rotation
• T1.3 maximum aperture
• Metric and Imperial focus marks


 

Mk III Super Speeds

Mk III
Note the upright orientation of the focus and iris engravings when in “operating” position. This made the markings easier to read for camera assistants. Again, the optics remain the same as the previous Mk I and Mk II versions.

The most sought after of the Zeiss Super Speeds – the elusive MkIII. With the popularity and rarity of the Mk III Super Speeds, you’d think there’s some special, magical upgrade that makes them infinitely better than the Mk II… You’d be wrong. Similar to the previous enhancements, the ONLY upgrade from the Mk II to Mk III is the focus scale orientation. That’s right. The focus marks on the older Mk II are in-line with the lens body which means when you mount them to a camera, the focus marks are sideways. Zeiss took the advice of users around the world and updated the focus scales on the Mk III by increasing the font size and rotating the engravings 90° to orient the focus marks upright when the lens is mounted to the camera. In fact, this was something of a down-grade to some. Since the focus marks were larger and more legible, there was no more room for the dual-unit focus scale, meaning the lenses either came with a Metric OR Imperial scale, but not both. This final revision came about in the mid 90’s which enjoyed a relatively short production run.

How to spot a Mk III Super Speed
• Arri PL Mount
• Factory iris gear
• Factory focus gear
• Full focus rotation
• T1.3 maximum aperture
• Metric OR Imperial focus marks (not both)
• Focus marks upright when in operating position


 

That about wraps it up. The Super Speeds, no matter which version, are awesome lenses that simply can’t be duplicated (no, literally… some of the materials used in manufacturing the glass are now illegal…). These primes were once the backbone of the motion picture industry and earned their reputation. They’re truly a lifetime investment that, with proper care and maintenance (*cough* duclos lenses *cough*) will continue to make beautiful pictures for many decades to come.

I hope this helps clear up some confusion around the Super Speed moniker we all love so much. Do keep in mind that all of the names we covered today are non-official and sort of open to interpretation. The features we went over in this post are factual, but the Mk I, II, and III names can vary a bit depending on who you ask. The purpose of this post is not to claim absolute knowledge or prove anyone wrong, but rather to inform and educate someone who may be considering a used lens set and wants to really know what they are or aren’t getting. We got tired of clients sending us eBay listings for “Mk III Super Speeds”, only to inform them that they’re B-Speeds or something else and the seller is either scamming them or doesn’t even know what they are to begin with… But I hope you enjoyed this little trip down Zeiss memory lane.

Published by

Matthew Duclos

A connoisseur of fine motion picture lenses, Matthew has spent over half his life servicing, refining, selling, manufacturing, and collecting cinema lenses from around the world. Chief Operating Officer of Duclos Lenses and Founder of TheCineLens.com, Matthew has been contributing to the motion picture industry for over 15 years, and to this site for over 5 years.

12 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? A Guide to Zeiss Super Speeds”

  1. fantastic article, thanks for sharing your knowledge, I’m actually one of the rare ones that prefer the Standard speed over the Supers, but I do like both 🙂

  2. You can’t toss of a line like “(no, literally… some of the materials used in manufacturing the glass are now illegal…)” without explaining what the details! Don’t leave us readers hanging!

  3. Great article. Do all versions have issues with focus binding when too much (not much) pressure is applied to the front of the lens (same as Canon K series, some of the old Pana range and the newer Illuminas)? I’m wondering if there are any ways around this problem?

    1. Yes. It’s simply a matter of force. All of the Super Speeds use a helix design for focusing which, when stressed, cannot perform properly. The simple solution is to not compress the lens while operating. Proper lubrication with factory-spec materials will also reduce the negative effect of compression on the focus helix.

  4. Matthew,

    Great write-up! Certainly a lot of the “accepted” naming nomenclature for the various versions of Arri/Zeiss Superspeeds have been created after the fact, and vary wildly. Previously, Jorge Diaz-Amador has done some similar breakdowns trying to delineate the generations of Superspeeds as well and can be referenced at this link:

    http://cinematechnic.com/resources/zeiss_super_speed_f1-2_lenses

    Ultimately, from my own research, I fall somewhere in between these two breakdowns and I’ll explain why:

    I agree with treating “B-speeds” as their own entity with their distinct traits of no gears on iris or focus, compressed 170-degree focus rotation, native Bayonet mount only, and their unique 9-bladed Triangular iris.

    THEN, I would term Mk. I Superspeeds as being the next evolution of these lenses, still with compressed 170-degree focus rotations and no iris gears but now with 7-bladed non-triangle irises, and PL mounts native. Those two features fall more in line with MK generations than the B-speeds.

    Where I definitely differ from you designations is with the introduction of the expanded focus rotation of approx 350-degrees AND the inclusion of a gear on the focus. I designate this jump as a distinct move to Mk. II. Now I will add that there ARE several Mk. II variations… differences in how the focus scales are marked, positioned and EVEN by the end, an iris gear added. But the overall barrel design, look and mechanics of these Mk. II’s all fall into line for the run of the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

    Finally, just about everyone agrees that the final generational jump then occurs with the MK. III’s new barrel design, the continued inclusion of focus and iris gears and most notably, the rotation of the engraving of the focus scale by 90-degrees to vertically orient the numbers when mounted on a camera. Additionally, Mk. III lenses do not feature both metric AND imperial markings, The focus ring only features one or the other and is marked for both sides of the lens, with the dummy side above the gear, and the operator side, below the gear for easy viewing.

    Would love to here your thoughts on this!

    1. I think this part of the post was just for this comment:
      “Do keep in mind that all of the names we covered today are non-official and sort of open to interpretation. The features we went over in this post are factual, but the Mk I, II, and III names can vary a bit depending on who you ask. ”

      The point of these names is to be able to identify certain generations. It would be much, much more difficult to say “Well, that’s a Super Speed Mk II, gen 2, with iris gear” instead of just Mk I Expanded Scale or Mk II, plain and simple. Personally, if I could go back and give these all names, there would be Mk I, II, III, and IV – Mk I and II being the jump to the expanded focus scale as you’ve said, Mk III being the addition of the iris gear, and Mk IV being the final revision – what is currently accepted as Mk III. But I don’t think the industry would accept it if we tried to do that 😉

  5. Hey Mathew,

    Thanks for the article, this is great. I purchased a set of used Superspeed MKII’s recently and the 18mm did not have a gear on the iris ring, it had a “knurled iris grip” as you put it in the article. The rest of the set had factory iris gears. Is this confirmation that the 18mm is actually an MKI and the rest of the set is MKII? In regards to the focus markings and everything else the 18mm looks exactly the same as all the other lenses.

  6. Greatly appreciate your Articles.

    They would make a great Script for Videos on your YouTube Channel. I’m subbed hoping to see more disassembly Videos.

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