Tuesday, July 17, 2012

6 Good Manual Focus M42 Russian Lenses For Your DSLR

From Russia with love
 Makshim Gorky - A true hero of the proletariat
 (image courtesy wikipedia)
A few days back I was reading some photography monthly and I happened to chance upon a small article about the Zenitar fisheye and how supposedly cheap it was given the superior optics. Did I read that somewhere or was it some peripheral memory or did I dream that in my sleep? By accident or by twist of fate, there exactly, like Alice falls into the rabbit hole, I suddenly stumbled into another alternate world of cameras and camera optics.  
Welcome to the world of Russian photography. 
 Zorki S (image courtesy wikipedia)
 These lenses with uncommon names (Tair, Volna, Industar), uncommon mechanics and build are solid alright, but they also perform like tanks with little or no subtlety (or is it?). To the photography world they may be an abomination but when it comes to price, they win hands down.
State Historical Museum area Moscow (image courtesy wikipedia)
Russian camera legacy dates back to the communist golden era of the 40s, 50s and 60s. These lenses are the cherished artifacts of the rich and diverse Russian industrial heritage. One look at them and you will know what I mean. Built to last forever (such were those times) and offering good optics for an extremely affordable price, these lenses could now really make photography ‘people’s art’ again. 
 Opticians' Square in Krasnogorsk, with KMZ factory buildings in the background

Due to the Canon and Nikon domination of the market today, users have very limited options. Both Canon and Nikon (and also many other companies) have millions of dollars for R&D, these Russian companies do not.

Though not without some imperfections, Russian lenses have a character that cannot be matched by any other major mass produced lenses. Even if they are from the same batch and same mechanics, each Russian lens comes with its own quirks, its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. As far as I know, they do not have plastic optics inside, its real glass. Their barrels are not made of plastic, its solid metal. Some of them weigh almost a kilo (Jupiter 21M at 980 grams). Both the glass and the metal itself perfectly justify the price tag. 

Nizhny Novgorod Planetarium and Circus (image courtesy wikipedia

These lenses are available from a variety of vendors online, especially on ebay, where you can get them for very low price (always be careful when buying from ebay). Other sellers include rugift and top35mm. Prices from rugift seem a bit inflated. I would rather prefer to buy from top35mm as it has a very Russian feel to it (their English is funny)  this website looks very unpretentious and thankfully a brief lens description is also provided. Don’t forget to look in your local stores or classifieds too. Usually on ebay they appear to be cheaper when on the camera. Just my two cents. 

For more information on Russian lenses, cameras and other accessories go to USSR Photo dot com which is a repository of information on sellers and other details.
Also top35mm is offering these M42 Russian lenses with built in adapter that has focus confirm chip for Nikon, Canon, Sony (both alpha and NEX), Pentax mounts and even for micro-four-thirds system. Isn’t that great?

Prices vary from model to model and seller to seller. It also depends on whether you are buying used or new (better buy new). The best prices seem to be available on ebay and from local Russian sellers. There is atleast 5-30 dollars difference from seller to seller on an average. So it’s better to do proper research on prices and sellers before buying. Given the price point they are excellent for hobby photographers.

Here like everything Russian, it’s only a divine mystery (haha). You can never really know the quality (like everything Russian). It’s reportedly either a hit or miss, but you never know. Quality is widely varied on different models and from year to year and also from lens to lens in the same batch. There is also a risk of fakes, but that can be avoided by purchasing only from reputed sellers (nothing less than 99% on ebay). Ironically enough the Russian lenses themselves are knock offs of Zeiss and other East German lenses. Strange world we live in.

Some of these lenses are so heavy you might need an extra arm. No kidding. Some of them can weigh more than a kilo (Tair 3 at 1.6KG) and that makes them extremely difficult to maneuver. Given the light gathering capability and lack of auto focus these lenses need careful handling. Tripod is more or less necessary when using lenses like Jupiter 21M not only because of the lens but also because the auto and manual aperture switches which are located on the lens.  Also better be careful as these lenses are not only heavy but also usually with no brackets or sockets for tripod mounting. Its no hanky panky business with these lenses. Remember there are also others that are not as heavy.  
Helios 44M
As they are subject to manual focus, they won’t be easy to focus. Lot of manual effort is needed (don’t be frustrated). As they are slow they are not suited to certain types of photography like sports (but still!) or even commercial photography (fashion, wedding), but rest assured nobody will sue you if you do. 

  • Affordability (10 bucks? Seriously?)
  • Novelty (do you know anybody who has one?....exactly)
  • Killer looks
  • Sturdy build (Can also be used as an emergency projectile, heavy enough to break human bones)
  • Minimal or low Chromatic Aberration (depending on the model)

Some of my favorite Russian lenses 
Remember all Russian lenses are made for both export and domestic use. It is said, but not proven though, they say mostly the ones meant for export are of better quality. So how to know if the lens you are going to order is meant for export???. Models meant for export reportedly have roman characters as opposed to the ones with Cyrillic characters which are meant for domestic use. Example: Mir 1B is domestic, Mir 1V is export (both are the same lens). Russian V is B (BOCTOK? VOSTOK? Remember?) (Oh btw on a completely different note, I lobe Vostok automatic watches, haha)

When buying lenses, first of all check flickr for images shot with the particular lens to gauge the photographic output. That way you will have a better idea if you really want to buy the lens and what kind of work you can do with it.  

Mir 1B (or V) (image courtesy wikipedia) 

Mir 1V 37mm f2.8
I just fell in love with this lens. I was checking out some pictures of Mir 1V on flickr and I gasped in awe and amazement at the superior quality. There is nothing cosmetic either about their looks or their output. The Mir 1V will NOT give you dense colors (who needs em anyway) but the detail and contrast is something beyond extraordinary. Its design is based on the Zeiss Flektogon. The output is out of this world. It is produced at the VOMZ (BOM3) plant in Vologda, Vologodsky district, Russia.
The Jupiter 11A 135mm f4
This lens has a 10 by 10 rating for sharpness, handling and value on Pentax forums.  This is a different lens from Jupiter 11. For a low price of the lens you have superb IQ, brilliant colors, excellent corner to corner sharpness and rendition. There are both silver and black versions, silver being the older model.
The Jupiter 21M 200mm f4.0
Some say the color rendition, sharpness and overall looks of this lens surpass even the famous Minolta beercan (literally has more weight than beer can at 980grams, that’s almost a kilo) Others are also of the opinion that it is far better than the Sony SAL 75-300 and is markedly sharp at all apertures. Automatic Diaphragm. On a APS-C camera the focal length would be 300mm (which means extraordinary close-up portraits/macro shots, just go wild)  
Industar 61 L/Z
This lens has almost the same specifications as Volna 9 (which is also a great lens btw). Some are of the opinion that its better than Volna 9, some differ. However I have discounted Volna 9 from the list solely based on its price, which costs double than the Industar. Being a budget photographer I personally would rather choose the Industar.
Jupiter 9 85mm f2.0
This lens is in its own class. At 85mm (more than 100mm on an APS-C DSLR) this can make an excellent portrait or macro lens. Keep in mind colors are not its strongest point (a little bit neutral). Its contrast and rendering is amazing. If your lens has a hood fine, if not, better get a multi-coated version as a lot of users online reported some flare.  There are good and bad version of this lens. So better buy from a reputed seller. 
Tair 3 300mm f4.5 (Photosniper 12s)
Camera, lens and the gun mount of the Tair 3 Photosniper

Coming from a company like KMZ which makes sniper scopes for the military, this lens should not come to you as a surprise. It weighs 1.6 kilograms and that is quite a heft. Image quality according to reports is top notch. These lenses come in two versions. With and without the Photosniper 12s Gun (not a real gun ofcourse, it just looks it ;) and comes in a huge box.
Just a word of caution though. You may be the greatest photo journalist in the world, but never go into a politically charged/war torn/socially restless area with this photo sniper. If somebody shoots your funky posterior down, that's nobody’s mistake. You have been warned.

Note that apart from these there are hundreds of other great lenses to choose in the Russian lineup. These represent only a small fraction which happen to be my personal favorites.

Conclusion:  These Russian lenses win on two aspects price and quality. Convenience and speed are not their specialty, but for hobby photographers who want to really learn the ropes of photography, these lenses could provide excellent opportunity to do so. Learning the old fashioned way has never hurt any one. If you got deep pockets, or a rich dad or relative or friend, you can go ahead and splurge your money on those over hyped plastic lenses with plastic optics that cost a bomb, but the rest of us know for sure we are in good hands. There's no school like the old school.

Here is another article about old lenses. should you really buy them ? read on...


 --Viisshnu Vardhan--  

P.S: Hey how about the Review of the Sony a200 DSLR and there's a story about how I lost and found it ?

Here you go: http://subliminalwhispers.blogspot.in/2015/10/sony-a200-review-2015-or-how-i-got-my.html 


quientusabes said...

Nice post and advices! Any suggestion under 35? 18 mm or ultra wide? Thank you!

Alex said...

Thanks for these Russian lenses, were helpful a lot to me.

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