35mm legacy lenses: sizes and specs

Stream in a gorge in the forest

Every time I was out shopping for a legacy (or just plain old) lens I had to dig through piles of old magazines and bookmarks to find the info I wanted. Especially dimensions and optical scheme of an old lens are often two difficult data to track down.

So I started collecting all these specs into this handy table, that I’m now sharing with you. Continue reading “35mm legacy lenses: sizes and specs”

Top 5 film cameras (+ 1) under 500$

Top five best film cameras for less than 500 euro - Pentax ME Super

A couple weeks ago Kai of DigitalRev, with the help of Bellamy of JapanCameraHunter, did a video on the “5 top film cameras for under $1000”. Interesting, but having grown up shooting film in my opinion they got two major things wrong. Continue reading “Top 5 film cameras (+ 1) under 500$”

Review: Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar 15mm f/4,5

Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar 15mm

First of all: please note that I don’t currently own a full-frame camera (hello Sony? Still waiting for that 50 Mpxl, Nex7 form-factor camera…), so this lens has been tested only on (and specifically bought for) an Aps-c Sony Nex 7.

That said, from the full-resolution images I saw online shot on the A7r it looks still a pretty good glass, just with not-so-exceptional borders.

Second: there are actually two versions of this lens, and old one (the one reviewed here) and a newer model that you can spot instantly because it is bigger and with a front ring to mount filters.

Optically they are exactly the same; the only differences, above the aforementioned possibility to mount filters, are that the new lens is rangefinder coupled (important if you ever want to use it on a Leica) and has natively a Leica-M flange, instead of the Leica screw m39 of the older model (not a big deal, adapters are good and cheap).

The different flange may still be a matter of preferences, though: the new model does not require an adapter for use on modern (post 1950) and digital Leica M cameras. The older model, on the other hand, is more of a jolly that you can use on a modern or digital Leica M with a cheap adapter or directly on an old Leica / Canon etc. screw-mount camera. All depends by the kind of gear you already own or plan to buy one day.

Voigtlander Super-Wide Heliar: river in black and white

The review

Mechanically this lens is an absolute jewel, almost Leica-quality like, and in my book the archetype based on which all other lenses for mirrorless or rangefinder systems should be designed.

It is unbelievably tiny. You cannot understand simply from looking at the pictures how small it is. I can toss it in a pocket and forget about it, much like my car key.

But at the same time the controls (focus and aperture) are well spaced and easy to grip; wearing heavy sky gloves as well, just with a bit of more trouble. More, the aperture ring clicks positively in each position, almost silky smooth.

However, all this mechanical prowess would mean nothing if the lens should not deliver optically.

The good news is this little one really packs a punch!

Keeping in mind that I’m using it on a Aps-c camera, albeit a really taxing one, it is very sharp up to the extreme borders. Normally with a lens this short (even if on an Aps-c it is really just the equivalent of a 22-24mm) on film you wouldn’t even bother to focus, not even at full aperture. That’s the reason why Voigtlander decided to forfeit a rangefinder coupling with this lens back in the days, to cut costs.

But on digital, and especially on a taxing 24 Megapixels sensor, even at f/8 you can still easily tell when your subject is not perfectly in focus.

Oh, by the way: this minuscule lens is so sharp that at the center it tops the chart at f/5.6, and at f/8 you can already witness quite clearly the effects of diffraction!

If you’re not so sure this is a lens for you, keep in mind that lured by the new model many people is avoiding buying the first one, so you can find one for ridiculously low prices.

If, on the other hand, you plan to use it on a film camera, especially for landscape and b/w films, grab the new one because the filter ring will definitely come in handy.

The only problem with this lens is the extensive magenta / purple coloration at the borders if used on some cameras, like for example the Nex 7. If you shoot in b/w it doesn’t matter, obviously. And if you shoot in color it is easily correctable anyway using the Lightroom Flat Field free plugin (you can get it at the AdobeLabs) or the also free CornerFix. So no big deal in my book, but I’ve lowered the rating half a point just because of that.

Rating: ★★★★½ on Aps-c

Engineers or photographers

Lighthouse, Ireland

Reader, beware: this is a rant, but not a luddite one. I covet new technologies, and I have often been an early and keen adopter of this kind of novelties. But the key is: never for the sake of the novelty alone.

Everyone, me included, chases the latest camera with the illusion that it will make him/her a better photographer.

And it is certainly true to a point, despite the fact that it is not the camera but the photographer the one that makes a photo. For example, I have a lot of pictures I like very much that, unfortunately, I took with a 6 Megapixels camera. While they are nice pictures anyway, I can print them far too small for my actual standards for them to be useful (we are talking mostly landscapes here, that need an outrageous amount of detail or will look mushy).

So technical evolution, per se, is certainly a good thing.

The trouble that could stem from this is that we are sometime hard-pressed to buy a new camera, a new lens, a new piece of kit for the sake of novelty itself, driven from advertisement and peer pressure. But, aside from our wallet, nobody else suffers.

Moreover, nowadays thousands of forum pages and websites – yes, the present one as well – feature endless discussions on what camera focuses faster, if only for a split second, or on what lens, at the most extreme borders of the field, is a tiny tiny bit sharper or less vignetted than its competitors.
Tree in the wind

I can hear you, saying that this might be all still good, though, because after all when you are out shopping for a new piece of equipment is better to spend the money on something of proved quality. And if you shoot Formula 1 or Nascar for a living please just write a check for the newest and fastest camera you can find, another fat one for a 600mm f/0,75 the day it should come out, and yet another one for the mule and the cart (or a segway!) to carry it!

But a biggest problem, in my opinion the capital sin of modern photographic industry, rises its ugly head now: why nowadays the selling argument, and even worse, the principal goal in the design process itself for pretty much every camera and especially lens is about sharpness, and sharpness alone, or autofocus speed? Who decided that sharpness had to be the only point of reference in the project of a lens?

Enter the engineers. In this phase I have the strong suspicion that lenses and cameras are designed by engineers alone, without the participation of actual artists and photographers if not as an afterthought – like “tell us what we did wrong and we will try to correct it in a firmware update”. The children have been left alone to play as they like, and things are going awry.

Pigeon in a snowstorm
This, I believe, is why we have often poorly thought cameras, ergonomically speaking. Why I should push multiple times a button, or spin a wheel, to give but an example, only to zoom at 100% in my freshly taken picture? Why would I want to look at it more often at, say, a 25% zoom level, than at maximum magnification to check the focus? Why the shutter release button in many cameras is placed in a position more fitted for the long fingers of E.T. that the ones of an actual human being (and no, I don’t have small hands)? Remember: bad ergonomics is the one thing that, with the exception of relocating a few buttons, software cannot fix.

And the engineers’ mindset is also the reason because many of us still crave after vintage quality lenses, designed with in mind not only the sharpness at the various apertures, but also the pleasantness of the bokeh, the palette of the tonalities and things like that.

Until not so many years ago sometimes the designers might decide intentionally to reduce the sharpness of a lens at the extreme borders (to say it more correctly: they actually boosted the central sharpness at the detriment of the borders), to aid concentrating the attention of the viewer on the central regions of the picture, where the subject would most probably be located.

From the car in a rainstorm
And don’t think lesser brands did this: for one, mighty Leica used to differentiate exactly in this way between the two ranges it produced at the time, R and M. The M lenses were intended for journalistic use, so they had the kind of sharpness distribution I just mentioned, with a bias in favor of the central part, while the R series used to have a more uniform performance across the field. Don’t believe me? Check the MTF tests for R and M lenses of the same age of similar focal length and look were the spikes in sharpness occur.

Same thing used to happen for the bokeh: the choice of the optical scheme was dictated also from the kind of out of focus it would have generated; and special circular apertures were employed to smoothen the edges of the out of focus points. Even the kind of glass used was sometimes selected with an eye to its characteristic in terms of color palette and so on. Remember: this was before you could change the color balance of an image with the slide of a finger.

As I have often mentioned in my posts, a lens is for a photographer nothing more than a brush for a painter: and every painter needs different kind of brushes to fit his/her particular style. If all the lenses should start to render in the same way we will have perfect fragments of reality caught on the sensor, but our power of choosing our preferred interpretation will be severely limited.

Review: Jupiter-3 50mm f/1,5

Jupiter-3 50mm f/1,5 review

It is probably worth repeating a few words of advice I gave in the previous review involving a Russian lens. Just skip ahead if you’ve read them already.



First a bit of advice. A review is always speaking of a single lens, really, given quality control issues, the previous life accidents in a pre-owned lens and so on.

But with the so called Russian lenses this advice assumes an entirely new extent. First of all because of the extremely poor quality control they had in the Soviet factories – there is the legend that lenses made on mondays were of lesser quality, because of the hangover from the previous weekend… Then because, especially the rangefinder variants of those lenses, required some adjustment to make them perfectly compatible with Leica-like bodies. This is not a concern to the mirrorless user, but this adjustments, unfortunately, were often made by the unskilled owners themselves, with the results you can expect.

On the bright side, though, if you find a sample in good shape, maybe buying from a reputable seller – or, given the low cost, buying and selling until you find the right one – you will be often in for a treat. That said, with a bit of attention to the pictures (I was buying from an auction site) and searching for the older ones – supposedly better made (the first two numbers of the serial number indicate the year of production) – I was able to find a few Russian lenses without incurring in lemons.

Jupiter-3 50mm review

The review

The Jupiter-3 50mm f/1,5 is another Zeiss Sonnar clone, and its design originates in the ’30s. Small and compact, like many (all?) ex-USSR lenses mechanically is pretty poor. The focusing action is kinda gritty, the aperture is without clicks (a pain in the a** for photographers, but pretty handy for videographers). A far cry compared even to the lesser Leica projects, but still with a better focusing action than last year Sigma 35mm f/2,8 for Nex!

It has an aperture mechanism similar to the one of the Jupiter-9, meaning that the iris will stay (almost) perfectly circular no matter what the aperture is. So at all the stops you will have a soft, smoooooooth bokeh graciously declining in the distance. Obviously closing the aperture will still increase the depth of field, but you will never see those horrible hexagon-shaped out of focus points. Being a 50, instead of a 85mm, obviously it will have more depth of field to begin with at any given aperture value. I’m getting the best bokeh at f/2, with less colored rings around the bright out of focus points.

This lens – or at least my sample – is a tad worse than the Jupiter-9 85mm. Worse, in this case, it means only that is not a spectacular bargain as far as price-quality is concerned. In fact this is a very sharp lens, just not so great like its cousin; more, nowadays its price is a tad steeper, but still accessible.

Jupiter-3 50mm review

Like in the previous review, given the vast difference in quality you can find with these lenses, I will not show you test charts; it would be useless. That said, on the demanding sensor of the Sony Nex 7 it performed really well, especially if you, like me, will use it more for its impressionistic way of rendering a scene than for shooting ultra-sharp images. Color images are beautiful, but black and white pictures taken with the Jupiter-3 are simply jaw-dropping. They tend to exhibit a gorgeous scale of tonalities; this apparently is often the case with single coated lenses. That said, my sample however appears to be multi-coated, so I assume this “long gray scale rendering” depends more from the optical proprieties of the kind of glass used.

Given that this one was an even more appealing lens for Leica-owners, and so more samples have been subjected to surgery by inexpert hands to adjust the cam to Leica specs, I would strongly suggest to buy one from a reputable seller.*

Rating: ★★★★☆

*That said, I bought mine on eBay and I didn’t have a problem.