The world of camera lenses is crazy right now. Prices are all over the place, and certain focal lengths are really hard to come by. As a system-agnostic hobbyist who uses both full frame and APSC systems, I often wonder about the advantages of one over the other.
In my early months shooting manual lenses, experienced photographers recommended that I get an 85 mm lens for portraiture on full frame. For some reason, it is a widely accepted opinion that this particular focal length is ideal for portraits. When I asked questions there were varying answers, and it was an accomplished professional who explained “compression” to me in terms of how different focal lengths affect facial features. I have been doing most of my full-frame portraiture on the hallowed Nippon Kogaku 10.5 cm F2.5. Mine is the Sonnar type predecessor of the lens that Steve McCurry used for the Afghan Girl image. For weeks I wondered about getting an 85 mm and had been in touch with dealers about this. Prices for the Nikon and Canon 85mm lenses are absurd. While I was waiting for an affordable one to pop up (they do, eventually) I turned my attention to the vintage 50 mm lenses that I had collected.
In my early days with vintage lenses, when Bokeh was everything, I amassed a bunch of fast fifties from Pentax, Nikon, Meyer Optik, and KMZ (Helios 44). Now, with the crop factor, these lenses would have an equivalent focal length of between 75 mm and 87 mm on APSC – clearly in the same ballpark as the 85 mm lenses that I had been obsessing over. [For more information on how sensor size affects focal length, click here] Could these lenses – with maximum apertures in the neighbourhood of F2 – deliver the kind of portraiture that I was hoping to create with the 85 mm primes on full frame? Of course, in purely technical terms, I wouldn’t get the “compression” of an actual 85 mm lens expressed in cold hard mathematical formulae, but I would get the reach and a reasonably shallow depth of field. I decided to put this to the test.
My APSC body is Fujifilm. I really enjoy it because of its form factor and the inbuilt film simulations that give a finished product right out of camera. I use the monochrome simulation for nearly all my photography work and occasionally use the Velvia and Classic Negative simulations for the images where I feel that colour is essential. Since discovering Raw Therapee’s film simulations though, I have been using its Kodachrome and Fuji Acros profiles to get that vintage vibe.
One of my favourite lenses is the Jupiter 8 that has just returned after a complete rebuild. As with every lens I have sent to Latif Precision Works, it came back with sparkling glass and a butter-smooth focus ring. This lens, a soviet copy of the Zeiss Sonnar 50mm F/2, was a common “kit” lens for soviet rangefinders such as the Kiev and Zorkii.
I took this lens to the park with my weary models – my wife and daughter. Fujifilm’s focus peaking seemed to work really well with this lens, and 12 out of 18 images were sharp enough without the use of the focus magnification feature. Note here that we were in a park and my daughter was running around – as children tend to do while in a park. In a situation with static subjects for portraiture or slow moving settings for candids, I would expect the hit rate to be closer to 90%.
I was lucky to get this great action shot.
The great thing about the Jupiter 8 is that it sits close to the mirrorless body and makes for a compact package similar to the Fuji XF 35 mm F2 lens. I tried this lens in a variety of situations – both indoors and outdoors, and have been very pleased with the results.
Next up: the Super Takumar 55 mm F1.8. The lens used in this article was bought as part of a lot from Japan and was sent to Latif Precision for service. For the past three years, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this lens. My preferred focal length is 35 mm, and each time I use this lens on film or full frame, I get that bit of a niggling discomfort of it being a bit long for what I really want to frame. Again, this may be something that I have internalised from other reading on the internet, because I don’t get this feeling from the 58 mm Helios 44. However, what this lens takes away in compositional “feel” it gives back in the quality of images – with superb sharpness, Takumar bokeh, and exquisite contrast.
There was a lesson here for me. One series of shots that I took was indoors with backlighting. Since this lens came back from service with a pristine front element, I’ve always had a UV filter on it. On this day, it had a 49 mm Osaka filter that I bought from Amazon India. It’s common knowledge that some of these older lenses flare and lose contrast when shot with backlighting, and one could fairly expect that the coating on a UV filter circa 2020 would equal or marginally exceed the flare resistance of a lens coating from the 1960s. How wrong I was!
A bit frustrated with the flare that I was seeing on my images, I decided to try it without the Osaka filter. There was a material improvement in the contrast of the image.
So well, it’s time for me to bid goodbye to the dozen or so Osaka filters that I have for my M42 and Nikon lenses and lament the couple of thousand rupees that I have spent on that garbage.
Next up, the Carl Zeiss Tessar 50 mm F2.8. This lens has not yet gone for service and has some tiny fungus marks and a fair bit of dust on the elements. This is a pretty fun lens to use. It is compact and of a very comfortable weight. Despite my K&F Concept M42 adapter, it balances very well on the XT3. Don’t be fooled by this lens – in spite of a few blemishes in the glass, it performed admirably – passing my eyelash test from even six feet away.
Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm F2.8 on Fuji XT3. Fuji Acros 100 simulation applied in Raw Therapee.
Wondering about Depth Of Field with an F2.8 lens on APSC? You surely won’t be disappointed!
Coming now to the ubiquitous Helios 44. The internet is rife with articles about the Helios 44 lenses having inconsistent quality or other such issues. I have six of them, and barring the Helios 44M-4 that seems to be marginally sharper than the Helios 44 or Helios 44-2, there’s no real difference. My preferred lens of the lot is the Helios 44-2 Valdai version – purely for the way it feels. The Helios 44 is sort of the gateway vintage lens. Yes, this is the first lens you should buy to get hooked on to “bokeh” for that year or so of obsessive lens buying until you find purpose and meaning in the story that your picture is telling instead of its shallow and subjective aesthetic attributes. On a good day, you’ll find one from a Ukrainian seller on ebay for as little as $30 – up from about $15 in 2018. Expect to pay more for cleaner or nicer versions. You may have to part with an absurd sum for the oldest variety of the M39 mount Helios 44. According to some outlandish and utterly unsubstantiated claims – that one supposedly contains glass looted from Nazi factories by the Red Army – possibly made in a factory on the shores of the Vodka lake in the Balalaika forest.
In closing, for lenses that cost under INR 4,000, these fast fifties from the yesteryear give fantastic portraits. The lack of clinical sharpness seen in something like a Zeiss Batis actually makes portraits more flattering. Though my own tests did not flag any issues with contrast in any of these lenses, contrast and saturation are relatively simple things to fix in Raw Therapee or Capture One Express.
All my vintage lenses and cameras go for assessment and preventive maintenance to Mr. Asif Latif of Latif Precision Works Calcutta. In most cases, a proper service with cleaning, relubrication, and proper reassembly yields a lens with better sharpness and usability. Even some lenses that self-acclaimed photographers have referred to as “Soviet garbage that is not worth anyone’s time” have come back from Latif Precision to give me exquisite results. My personal view is that if you’ve had a poor experience with a Vintage lens and are inclined to think that you have a “bad copy” it may actually be a fixable technical issue with the lens itself. Remember these lenses are old, and may have suffered some abuse over the years. For most film era lenses, the lubricants have most certainly deteriorated, and there may be lubricant vapours that have settled on the elements thanks to India’s tropical climate. Send them in for a proper service before you write them off.
Jupiter 8 – Manish Patil +91-93248-67555
Takumar 55mm F1.8 – buyee.jp
Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar – Aniket Wagle +91-77385-84821
Helios 44 – Ebay
Latif Precision Works, Calcutta – +91-99038-92265
Note: I am not compensated for endorsing the above dealers / service professionals. I am publishing their details purely for the benefit of the community. For a complete list of analog photography resources, check out the resource list at http://www.clikte.com/resources