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Contax Carl Zeiss Triotar T* 5X loupe vs. NPC Pro 5.5X loupe

In my hunt for the best loupe on the market, I looked at all the top loupes in a side by side comparison: Jobo 4X, Jobo 8X (only 2/3rds frame, also released under the Pro-Optic and Mamiya Pro Cabin name), Peak 4X, Schneider 4X, Schneider 6X Aspherical, Canon 4X, Rodenstock 4x Aspherical, Rodenstock 6X Aspherical, and Contax 5x (which has Carl Zeiss glass, with his T* coating). All the loupes were good, and all of them would be a fine one to own. Without going into great detail about the loupes mentioned above (since I didn't view them for an extended period of time), I can say that the Contax 5X was my favorite, the Schneider 6X was a close second (didn't have quite as good edge sharpness as the Contax), and the Canon was my third favorite (not quite high enough power though). I had heard really great reviews of the NPC Pro 5.5X loupe, but no one in Portland or Eugene seems to carry it. Since it was the only top rated loupe I had not looked at, and out of the ones I had looked at the Contax was my favorite, I ordered the Contax ($179) and the NPC ($119) from B&H, with the intention of keeping the one I liked better, and returning the other one.

First Impression (Build Quality)

Both loupes are built very well. Unlike the Schneider 4X, the bulk of the Contax and NPC is metal. The lower sleeve on the Contax is interchangeable with a clear sleeve, for viewing prints. Both sleeves (clear and black) are the only plastic on the loupes. Instead of unscrewing the black sleeve and screwing in the transparent one, like with the Contax, with the NPC you simply rotate the bottom, metal, section of the loupe, and it "screws" up, revealing a clear sleeve. Both loupes are heavy, and feel nice. Just going on looks the Contax (Zeiss) loupe looks a bit nicer, but the NPC looks good as well, with a more industrial, and robust look to it.

Operation & Ergonomics

The focusing ring on the Zeiss loupe is much nicer than the one on the NPC. The Zeiss' ring is larger, rubber coated, easy to grip, and very well dampened. The NPC's focusing ring is a very thin metal dial that feels more like you're screwing a bolt into a nut. It actually feels fairly nice, but compared to the Zeiss loupe it is definitely second place.

Actual focusing is done easier on the NPC than the Zeiss. The Zeiss loupe is suppose to be adjustable between -4 and +.5 diopter, but for my eyes the lower 2/3rds of the scale all looks the same, while the upper 1/3rd is obviously blurry. This makes me uncomfortable with focusing it because it shouldn't be this way; I should be able to find a spot where the focus locks in, and movement of the focusing dial in either direction blurs the image. Maybe this is just something unique to my eye, I don't know, but I don't have this problem with the NPC. It doesn't snap right into focus like a lens on my camera does, but I definitely am able to find a spot where movement in either direction does slightly pull the image out of focus.

One thing that is disappointing with both pieces is that I am unable to focus to a sharp image without my contacts in. My vision isn't that bad, and without my contacts in I can bring the image in the view finder of my F5 into focus by setting the diopter dial at -1. As mentioned above, the Zeiss loupe is suppose to have diopter adjustment down to -4, so it doesn't really make sense that I can't get a sharp image. Definitely a bad thing because closing one eye for an extended period of time with my hard contacts in tends to irritate my eyes. Soft contact users probably won't have this problem.

One of the main reasons I wanted to try out the NPC loupe was its eye relief (opening of the eye hole). The Zeiss' eye relief is a mere 20mm, whereas the NPC's is 28.575mm (it's spec'd at 1 1/8th inches). I was worried about eye fatigue with the Zeiss. When looking through the loupes though, the difference isn't even noticed. What is noticed on both loupes is a little halo around the outside edge of the frame. I'm not just talking about seeing the edge of the loupe, but there is a semi-transparent halo at the edge. This is more noticeable with the NPC loupe, and it gets to the point where it's slightly distracting while viewing your slides. To make matters worse, the NPC just barely covers the full frame of a 35mm slide. This means that the white halo is visible on the corners of the frame. Due to this, I had to move my eye around just a bit to view the whole slide. It isn't too big of a deal, but not ideal. This also means that you really have to place the loupe exactly over the center of the slide in order to have a chance of seeing the full frame. The Zeiss loupe has a bit of room to spare, so getting the loupe exactly center isn't as crucial. Also, that aforementioned halo doesn't get in the way at all with the Zeiss glass.

...and The Optics

Both loupes are amazing. Except for the handling differences above, I couldn't tell which loupe I was looking through! The optics seem identical. They are both brilliantly sharp. Remember, I had already decided that (to my eye) the Zeiss 5X loupe was sharper than all of the other top loupes, including the $254 Schneider 6X Aspherical, and the $232 Rodenstock 6X Aspherical. This makes the NPC, at $119, a fantastic bargain.

The Zeiss loupe seems to have a bit more of the "head in a vise" syndrome than the NPC; you really have to keep your eye steady to keep the image sharp. The NPC gives you very slightly more room to move around.

The center of both of these loupes is perfectly sharp. As all loupes do though, both of these suffer from some image degradation towards the edge of the frame. This degradation is only on the outer 10% or so of the frame though, so for viewing 35mm slides it shouldn't a problem, because the slide mount is what covers that outer edge. Sure, the corners probably won't be as sharp though. The way I determined the quality of the edge sharpness was by looking at a 6x9 transparency. At the extreme edge of the frame, the NPC is slightly more blurry than the Zeiss; however, the Zeiss starts getting blurry farther towards the center than the NPC, though probably by just 3mm or so. Again, these edge sharpness problems generally aren't going to be a problem while viewing 35mm slides.

The Verdict

Deciding between these two loupes is very difficult. I sought out to find the best full frame loupe on the market regardless of price, so I try to ignore the fact that the NPC is $60 cheaper, though it does enter my mind... Strictly going on a price/performance ratio, the NPC definitely wins out (The NPC is 2/3rds the price of the Zeiss, but the Zeiss is certainly not 1/3rd better). Since the optics are so similar, the decision has to be made on ease of use... each one has its own advantages and disadvantages though, so basing the decision on this instead of optics isn't any easier. The way I was evaluating the sharpness and performance of the loupes initially was by looking at the same few slides over and over again, getting familiar with certain areas of the slides, and then comparing how that area looked with each loupe. Simply doing this I couldn't decide which one I liked better. What I wound up doing was putting a whole roll of 36 slides on my light table at once, and going from one slide to the next, as I would do after getting a fresh roll developed. In this test, I found the Contax Carl Zeiss loupe easier to deal with. The halo entering the actual area of the slide on the NPC became a slight nuisance. This is what made me decide to keep the Zeiss loupe (also it's damn cool lookin'... and having the Zeiss name doesn't hurt. :-) ). Both loupes are so fine that I don't really want to send back the NPC either though. But why have two? I'll probably send the NPC back in the next few days.

If cost is the absolute deciding factor for you, the NPC may be the way to go... but the way I look at it is: If you're going to spend $120 on a loupe, why not $180? It's really not that much more. I do think that the Contax is probably better designed though, and easier to view your slides with. In my opinion, these are definitely two of the top loupes on the market, if not THE top two. The only loupe I haven't checked out that I would have liked to is the new Leica loupe. As I mentioned above, the Schneider 6X Aspherical and the Canon 4X are also great loupes... combined with the two reviewed here, these are definitely the top four loupes on the market (in my opinion, obviously). A loupe is a very personal decision though; what one person may find very comfortable to use another may not like very much. In my opinion though, the Contax - Carl Zeiss Triotar T* "Lupe" 5X is the best full frame 35mm loupe on the market.

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David Paris
Last modified: Tue Apr 11 10:29:31 PDT 2000