Vintage 8x50s from Carl Zeiss Jena and Oberkochen

When owning binoculars was forbidden under threat of death, why an attempt to assassinate Hitler failed, and scenes from the history of Zeiss... a look at Vintage 8x50mm binoculars from Carl Zeiss Jena and Oberkochen - and a conversation with their owner, Börries von Breitenbuch.

23-6-2019, rewritten 11-7-2019/11-6-2020

Starting at 2 o´clock, clockwise: CZJ Octarem 8x50, CZJ Septarem 7x40, Zeiss West 10x50, Zeiss West 8x50B, CZJ Nobilem Super 8x50, and in the middle: Zeiss DF 7x50H from Jena, long before Zeiss was torn apart into east and west...

Börries von Breitenbuch was so kind to sent me some of his binoculars, mostly 8x50s from Carl Zeiss Jena and Zeiss West (Oberkochen). A great opportunity for me to enjoy some legendary porros for a couple of weeks and profit from his vast knowledge about vintage binoculars. Moreover, to learn about the history of Zeiss, and - quite unexpectedly - about a most thrilling part of German history.

Because von Breitenbuch´s father Eberhard was part of the conspiracy in 1944 to kill Hitler. "On March 11, 1944, armed with a 7.65 mm Browning concealed in his trouser-pocket, aide-de-camp Breitenbuch accompanied Field Marshal Ernst Busch to Hitler's Berghof residence to attend a fuehrer conference. But Breitenbuch was denied entry into the conference because of a fuehrer directive issued earlier that same day prohibiting ADC's from attending fuehrer briefings." (from: Börries von Breitenbuch made some corrections to that text source. Firstly, the date of the issue of that directive is unknown to him, but it was definitely the first time his father was not allowed in the briefings. Secondly, Eberhard von Breitenbuch definitely had no contact with Stauffenberg - they were in different heeres groups and the conspiration was well shielded also internally, so von Breitenbuch came out of it unharmed.

Had Hitler not issued that directive before Eberhard von Breitenbuch arrived in Berghof... because von Breitenbuch knew how to shoot, being a forester and experienced hunter. He used to say that "hunters and gatherers are a primitive state in the development of mankind". His son seems to have taken that to his heart because he insists he is not collecting binoculars but securing "specimen copies". I also resent the idea of collecting, so this seems a very reasonable approach. Most wives will probably not agree, though. There are too many specimen copies in that cupboard.

After the war the Breitenbuch family moved to Lower Saxony where the father started his new job as forester. When they tried to light the oven in the forester´s lodge the chimney was blocked - because a binocular had been hidden inside it by Breitenbuch´s predecessor. Locals were under the threat of death penalty not allowed to own or use binoculars in the demilitarized British zone. 10 year old Börries got that destroyed binocular, a Zeiss 7x50, and disassembled it, having a close look at prisms and lenses. Quite a remarkable beginning for a lifelong fascination for these optics and a career as an engineer, albeit in the auto industry. So let´s have a look at some of his specimen samples.

This article is by no means a review as the binoculars are way too different in age and clarity of the lens systems, but collects a few impressions and facts about some great and beautiful binoculars from the past.

Carl Zeiss DF 7x50H

The one in the middle of the first image, a Carl Zeiss DF 7x50H, is more than 80 years old and uncoated. With that in mind the view is quite amazingly sharp and bright. Even more amazing is the ergonomics - none of these glasses can be held steadily with such ease. Mr. von Breitenbuch pointed out that the porro II design offers a distinct mass dislocation which really decreases image shake. This glass is one of his favourites. The civil version with individual focusing was called Septar, the civil version with central focusing Septarem.


"H" means "Helligkeit" (brightness) - one ocular lens was directly cemented on the prisms to avoid a brightness loss due to light scattering at the air-glass-transitions between prisms and ocular. With a light loss of around 4% per transition an uncemented ocular would transmit 8% less light.



The crown is the Swedish one - this specimen comes from the Swedish military.

The long ones, the short ones, and a bit of Zeiss Jena and Zeiss Oberkochen history...


Above two glasses from Zeiss Jena, the 8x50 Super Nobilem on the left, and the 8x50 Octarem on the right. Same manufacturer, both 8x50s, but totally different designs.

The Octarem with its long body type is the newest glass of the whole bunch, although it uses older lens technology: cemented achromatic doublets as objectives and cemented prisms. Cemented doublets are easy to manufacture, but the surfaces to be cemented need to have the same radius. With air spaced achromats, the lens surfaces along the gair gap are totally independent from each other, giving the designers two free parameters for a better correction.

The Nobilem Super uses airspaced achromatic doublets which not only allows for better optical correction, but also reduces the length of the binocular considerably: The short body type.

Mr. von Breitenbuch is sure that long types due to the mass dislocation enable a much more stable handheld view. The objective lens system on one end and the prism-ocular system on the other end act like the pole walker´s stabilizer bar. So the short glasses with air gap achromats - which bring the two systems closer together - are at a disadvantage with regards to image steadiness, although they should have a better optical performance.

Although I started this story with two Zeiss Jena glasses, the technology of air spaced achromats was implemented by Horst Köhler for Zeiss West and first used in the Zeiss Oberkochen 8x30 in 1954:


In April 1945 the Americans freed Jena from the Nazi regime (Wikipedia, in German), but it soon became clear that the Soviet allies would get this part of Germany under their control. So, the Americans deported specialists and documents from Jena to Heidenheim in the west zone. In June 1945 Jena was handed over to the Russians, who dismantled the factory. In Oberkochen, Carl Zeiss was established October 1st 1947. In 1951 (von Breitenbuch, personal communication) Horst Köhler came to Oberkochen and developped a brand new family of binoculars to improve on the aged Jena designs, all using the new technology of air spaced achromats in a short body type, starting with the 8x30 in 1954 and later adding 6x30, 7x50, 8x50, 10x50, 15x60.

My love for binoculars really started with the 8x30 Swarovski Habicht, which is a classic, long type, cemented achromat design from 1949. As is the Leitz Binuxit 8x30, a great classic glass. I never really took to the Zeiss West 8x30 (non-B), although I had a serviced one. The view for me is less comfortable and impressive than in the Habicht and the Binuxit.

Zeiss upgraded the 8x30 with its spectacular 154 meters apparent field of view but very short eye relief with a new eyepiece design to a B-version usable for spectacle wearers. With a 19mm eye relief but a now meagre 110m field of view. And then - ironically - for a last version of this porro, both the eyepieces and the objectives were redesigned, to combine both the eye relief and a 130m wide field of view... and guess what: The objectives were designed as classic cemented achromats! Please check Allbinos´ great article on the Zeiss West 8x30 (with x-ray photographs and technical drawings!). But too late, roof prisms were already becoming popular and the last version of the Zeiss 8x30 vanished in 1974 - with not very many samples of the last type ever built - at least judging from ebay. I am still waiting for my sample to return from the service... so more on vintage 8x30s to come.

For plenty more information on vintage porros, please check Holger Merlitz´ site.

Zeiss West 8x50B

The trouble with the classic Zeiss West porros is that they have ALL fogged up - their prisms are covered with yellowish deposits which destroy image contrast. Without a complete service (cleaning and recollimation), these glasses cannot be reasonably compared to modern ones. As a prospective buyer you have to be totally aware of that! Also, that the few companies doing competent service are booked out for years. Of course 99% of sellers on ebay will claim their glass is clean. It is NOT - unless it recently had a service.

Ergonomically these binoculars are difficult, the focuser is really hard to reach and one is supposed to use the small finger for focusing.

But although contrast is low due to fogging and old coating technology, and the image way to yellow and visibly darker than in their newer Zeiss Jena counterparts (see below) - it is easy to understand why these are legendary binoculars. The view is relaxed and extremely threedimensional.

Same applies to the Zeiss West 10x50, although I find the edge falloff to be much worse than in the 8x50. Zeiss claimed the 10x50 to be the "Jahrhundertglas" (glass of the century).

Carl Zeiss Jena 8x50 Nobilem Super vs. CZJ 8x50 Octarem

In 1980 Zeiss Jena started to manufacture their answer to the Zeiss West 8x50, also with air spaced achromats, but with a wider field of view. The production was expensive due to low tolerances and the glass probably right from the beginning resembled a relic from past times.

It is a huge chunk of a binocular, hardly fitting in my hands. But it´s undeniably fascinating. The Godzilla of 8x50s. Definitely a highly desirable collector´s item - or specimen copy.

The Nobilem Super was only built from 1980 to 1985, and then - just like in the Zeiss West 8x30 - a newer, but more conservative, long body type design (you probably guessed already: with cemented achromats as objectives) was introduced: The 8x50 Octarem, which was later renamed as Nobilem.

On top the Octarem. Both have rather high intensity coatings on the front lenses, with the Super Nobilem reflecting yellow, magenta and blue - weird and wonderful:

The Octarem´s coatings are a bit more similar to those often used by Zeiss West, magenta with a touch of blue but no yellow:


So how is the view? Unfortunately, the Nobilem Super also has quite a bit of haze on the prisms, albeit less than the Zeiss West samples. With the sun in the back, it is a good view, crisp and wide and full of porro magic. But clearly the high intensity coatings intensify perceived contrast at the cost of colour accuracy and brightness. It is a somewhat dark and a tad greenish image, just a bit brighter than in the Zeiss West 8x50.

Some more impressions of the Nobilem Super:


Vs. Habicht 8x30 with its undersized prisms...


Vs. Zeiss West 8x50 (on the left)...



The Octarem - released around 1985 - is optically better than the Super Nobilem. This one is a clean sample with just a tiny strip of haze developing in the periphery of one prism. The field of view is a bit smaller than in the Nobilem. The Octarem is darker than a modern glass but it has a great contrast even for small details and therefore a sparkle that nicely reminds me of the Zeiss Victory 7x42 or HT 8x42. It has cemented prisms, which is unusal. Its images also seem to be a bit darker than a Zeiss Dialyt 8x56 non P from around the same time of manufacture - and the Dialyt does have an easier view. Flare resistance of the Octarem is very good. The colour is visibly on the yellow-green side of things (whereas the Zeiss Victories have a touch of bluish green). Ease of view is better than in the Nobilem Super. Again, we are strictly talking about single samples and an impossibility to generalize.


Carl Zeiss Jena Septarem 7x40

According to Mr. von Breitenbuch, this is probably a late 60s design and the civil version of the DF 7x40 which was probably the first Zeiss Jena development after the war and the standard glass for the NVA.The name Septarem was stolen from the Zeiss 7x50H Septarem. The Septarem 7x40 was only sold to the UK because of a quarrel between Zeiss West and Jena and is therefore a somewhat rare glass. It features extendable plastic eyecups. Ease of view is very good, field of view wide, image is a bit on the dark side with a strong yellow cast, but the optical system seems very clean - no hazy prisms here, although the coating is dissolving.






This is strictly about samples, not types. The Octarem definitely had the best view, but I would love to see the Nobilem Super and the Zeiss West 8x50B in a serviced condition.

The Nobilem Super fascinated me most, due to its weird coatings and dinosaur dimensions.

The view through a porro undeniably has its magic, but the technical progress made since 1985 is undeniable, too. I would not rush out to buy a Nobilem Super in the hope of getting the peak of porro performance with great usability. A modern AK prism design (say a Swaro SLC 8x56) should offer a much better performance.