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.

 

Disclaimer

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.

 

Review: Jupiter-9 85mm f/2

Jupiter-9 85mm f/2 review

Disclaimer

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-9 85mm review

 

The review

Now, Soviet lenses they are more often than not not Leica-like quality. They never were, not even when new. But that’s exactly the point.

Take the lens reviewed here as a typical example. Mechanical quality, compared to Leica or for that matter to any other maker, is pretty much abysmal. But it has an optical signature that is, for my taste, simply amazing.

It’s a sharp lens, even more if you consider that has been built in the ’50s but projected in the ’30s! In fact it is a Soviet copy of the original Zeiss Sonnar for Contax rangefinder cameras. If there is an exception to my previous statement, that those lenses were never near Leica-quality, this one is. I tested it head-to-head against the Minolta (Leica made) M-Rokkor 90mm f/4 and at all apertures, even at f/2 (against f/4), it was way sharper both center and borders.

The main point, though, is the way it renders the out of focus planes, yes the ominous bokeh. 🙂

Jupiter-9 85mm review

 

The iris will stay (almost) perfectly circular no matter what the aperture value is. So at all stops you will have a soft, smoooooooth bokeh graciously declining in the distance. Obviously closing the aperture will increase the depth of field, but you will never see those horrible hexagon-shaped out of focus points.

Moreover, it has a way to paint even the plain in focus that is light-years away from the Leica style. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Leica-hater; quite the opposite. But photography is like painting: you need different kind of brushes to make different kind of strokes. What brushes – what lenses – will depend from your style, your taste and, why not, your wallet.

This time, given the vast difference in quality you can find with these lenses, I will not show you test charts; it would be useless. But let me say that my sample, at least on the Aps-C sensor of the quite demanding Sony Nex 7, is sharp right to the extreme borders, even at full aperture (obviously at a full aperture of f/2 very little will be in focus to begin with).

Like I said before, especially given the low price – and the fact that you can always resell one pretty much for what you’ve paid for it – in my opinion a Jupiter-9 represents a really good investment.

Rating: ★★★★½

 

Why I switched from Canon to Sony: an update

Tasso forest

Now it has been a while from my switch from the Canon Eos 5D Mark II to a Sony Nex 7 (yes, not A7). And in the meantime I’ve learned a few more things.

 

You can find the previous post here: Why I switched from Canon to Sony

 

Control layout

I was afraid the Sony control layout looked more like the one on a tv remote that the one of a camera. I was completely wrong. Yes, the Nex menu system is kinda awful; but once you configure the various buttons to do what you want them to do you don’t have to dig into the menu practically anymore, and the Nex 7 becomes actually faster to operate than the Canon.

The only drawback is the absence of custom memories; it would be certainly nice to have them, but again given the level of customizability of the Nex 7 every function is literally at a button press distance anyway.

 

Dynamic range

The fact that you can’t operate the auto bracketing with the remote still bugs me, but: given the extremely good dynamic range of the Nex 7 sensor, especially when compared to the Canon one, I am not forced to resort to HDR so often anymore, if at all.

 

Resolution

The resolution of the Sony, especially if you develop the raw files with the donation-ware RawPhotoProcessor, is simply awesome. To put things in perspective: it is the first digital camera I own that blows the sharpness of the pictures taken with the Hasselblad – even using slow film or T-max 100 – out of the water.

To be fair, resolution-wise the Canon was almost there too, but its files screamed “digital!”, especially when interpolated to print bigger than the native resolution would allow. The Sony ones, instead, and especially in black and white, looks they have been shot natively on b/w film. Yes, even when they are interpolated to a bigger size. I love it! And I can’t wait Sony pulling off the hood their rumored 50 Megapixels full-frame sensor… (it should be released in 2015, it should be full frame, and it could be – finger crossed! – Foveon-like too). Cropping the central square section of such a sensor would leave us with a “virtual” one of 36 Megapixels!

Leaf

Wide-angle lenses

With the Canon finding a sub-35mm lens – at a fair price, let say under 1.200€ – that was plenty sharp without having tons of chromatic aberration has proven nay impossible. The best approximation have been the Olympus Zuiko 28mm f/2 and f/3,5 – and yes, I used for years the Canon 24/1,4 version I, but while sharp it had really too much chromatic aberration and spherochromatism for my taste, way beyond the limit that is fixable in post.

The Nex 7, on the other hand, paired with a Voigtlander 15mm f/4,5 is giving me terrific results, with just a hint of CA at full aperture that both RPP and Lightroom remove automatically.

 

Small lenses

More – and this not only with regards to wide angles: when you buy lenses for a DSLR you are often forced to go after the wide aperture, big, heavy kind. That is: if you want a lens of excellent quality.

There is no practical reason for this; it is just that there is always some moron in the marketing department of pretty much every camera company that has decided slow lenses are for amateurs – so they can be just so-so quality-wise – while fast lenses are for pros. This is obviously bullsh**; but it is how it is, so even if you shoot landscapes you are forced to lug around beasts like the 24mm f/1,4 or the 135mm f/2 Canon.

Again, compare this with the 15mm Voigtlander: I have actually often to check if the lens is still in my pocket, because how small and light it is.

Rangefinder lenses

I have the strong suspect, based on what I experienced on 35mm film cameras, that a good deal of the amazing detail I’m seeing with the Sony compared with the Canon may depend on the fact I’m using rangefinder lenses of Leica heritage. I snatched at an extremely good price a complete set of Minolta M-Rokkor: a 28mm f/2,8, the 40mm f/2 dubbed “the water-lens” and the 90mm f/4. Like I said they are Leica design, and in the case of the 90 probably Leica assemblage as well, and it shows.

I still remember that in my 35mm film days I had the bad idea to compare the 40mm (another sample, not the one I use now) against my favorite lens at the time, the Nikon 35mm f/2 AF. Suffice to say the Nikon looked like it was broken… And no, because the flange-focal plane distance is too long you cannot use rangefinder lenses on a DSRL (actually you can, but only in macro). And please, keep in mind that with the Canon I used anyway Zeiss and Leica R lenses; it’s just that they aren’t – and can’t be, tele lenses being an exception – the same optical scheme.

 

Battery

After reading many reports all saying how energy-hungry this camera was, along it I bought three spare batteries. It turns out that I can go an entire day of shooting, in the snow, with just one.

Please keep in mind, though, that I’m not your typical digital shooter. Probably because of my film background, when I come home with 100 or so shots, including bracketing, HDR, and panoramic ones, has been really a busy day. For comparison, when I’m out shooting film I can come back with just 8 shots – even if around 15 is more likely. I guess I’m a photographic Scrooge!

Tasso Forest, pine trees

Tilt with the Olympus 35mm f/2,8 Zuiko Shift

I used this lens extensively on the Canon, especially to combine images for boasted resolution and / or for panoramic shots. Now with a simple chinese adapter I have been able to add the tilt movement to an already awesome lens. And all for the astronomical price of 20 euro. 🙂

 

Weight and snow stick

Lastly, the Sony is so light, even when mounted on the L-plate I used with the Canon (I had to sand the “bumps”, but I didn’t feel to spend 70 euro for another L-plate…), that it sits nicely on a snow stick I modified a while ago with the addition of a tripod quick release clamp. This means that when I’m out with the snow shoes now I can choose, depending on the difficulty of the track, if I feel like carrying a tripod or not.

 

See the post: Winter is coming! A DIY tripod substitute for walks in the snow

 

On-off button

This may look like a small thing, but even after years of shooting Canon I never understood why they insisted in putting the damn on-off switch on the back of the camera. Maybe it is because before being a Canon shooter I used Nikon cameras for more or less fifteen years, but I find the position of the on-off switch on the Sony Nex 7, coaxial to the shutter button, simply perfect.

In a simple, swift motion I can turn the camera on or off without even have to think about it AND without having to change the grip or use both hands. Like I said this may look like a nuisance, but in reality it is one of the things that make the camera become “transparent” in use. Besides, this lets you save quite a bit of battery power, and you will avoid snapping a tons of pictures of your feet – unwillingly – carrying the camera, attached to the tripod, on your shoulders.

 

In conclusion: at first I was afraid I may have regretted the decision to switch. It turns out this has been the best choice I could have made. My back and I now are only regretting not having bought a Nex 7 before.

 

Why I switched from Canon to Sony

From Canon 5D Mark II to Sony Nex

 

You can read an update of my experience with the Sony Nex 7 here: Why I switched from Canon to Sony, an update

 

A few weeks ago I made the switch from the Canon 5D Mark II to a Sony Nex 7.

Yes, it is not a typo: I do mean Nex 7 and not A7.

So why I changed an amazing full frame camera for an APS-c model? Am I insane?

Well, after carefully studying the results I’m getting I have to say: not at all.

Quality-wise the two cameras give you pretty much the same results in the resolution department.

The Sony Nex 7 is quite a bit better at low Iso; the Canon leads by a few point at high Iso.

Given that my usual setup is with the camera firmly on top of a tripod and set at 100 Iso I didn’t care about the – slight – advantage of the Canon in the high Iso department.

On the other hand, the dynamic range it’s much better with the Sony. I’m getting almost 14 usable stops, compared to the 12 or so with the Canon.

Much better, still not a deal-breaker though. I take pictures in the woods mostly, and there the light contrasts can be extreme. The only thing known to humans that can handle them is a b/w film souped in highly diluted developer – I tend to use Rodinal at 1:200. Another possibility is HDR, obviously; but the results are often not quite so elegant.

Sony Nex 7 and Minolta M-Rokkor 90/4

So why switching if the quality remains pretty much the same?

Normally I carry a body with two or three prime lenses – the exception being the Vario-Sonnar 100-300 that however I take with me only when / if I know I will need it.

So a comparable setup – with lightness in mind but without compromising quality – may be:

 

CanonSonyWeight difference
5D Mark II938gNex 7353g-585
20/3,5 Nikkor UD420g15/4,5 Voigtlander Wide-Heliar113g-307
50/1,4 Pentax Super-Takumar262g40/2 Minolta M-Rokkor105g-157
135/2 Canon EF L794g90/4 Minolta M-Rokkor250g-544
Totals 2.414g821g -1.593g

 

 

Yes, I know that the Sony’s setup lenses are a bit darker, but again: I shot from a tripod! It’s much more important to me the weight difference. And no, going for darker SRL lenses does not guarantee the same amount of weight reduction, not in the least.

Even better, the entire setup (what is listed above, plus 4 spare batteries – that I’ve never needed for a day trip -, an additional SD card, a polarizer and a lens pen) fits quite nicely in a Lowepro small bag in which I could not fit the Canon 5D alone! In the other two pockets I carry a bottle of water and a first aid kit; the tripod goes on my back with the help of a camera strap (like a quiver).

This means that more often than not I can make without a backpack…and trust me, this is a HUGE plus. And an additional kilogram or so less I have to carry (I’m referring to the empty backpack alone, obviously).

When I really want to spare every possible gram – think: hikes in extreme uphill terrain – the Nex with this lens selection is so light that even a cheap (10€) chinese ultralight tripod is solid enough, with the help of a bit of dirt or rocks to weight it down if there is wind.

Another nice consequence of the diminutive size of the Nex 7, practically the “nail in the coffin” for my decision, is that I can carry it along the medium format film equipment without even noticing.

It takes the same space and weight of my meter, but with it I can actually take pictures!

I never, ever carried at the same time the Canon and the medium format kit. Well, actually I did it this one time, it was a nightmare, so I never repeated the mistake.

Tasso forest

In the end, why I did not buy an A7 or A7r then? Well, I still could.

But quite frankly, unless I should suffer from a big G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) attack I think I’ll wait for next year, when Sony will almost certainly come out with a full frame camera with the same pixel density of the Nex 7, so around 50-60 Megapixels, and hopefully the same form factor – no big ugly fake-prism lump.

At that point I will probably keep shooting my medium format equipment just for kicks, but not for the quality it delivers anymore; and my back will be really, really happy.

 

Review: Sony Nex-3

Sony Nex-3 with flash raised

 

I bought the Sony Nex-3 as a companion to the Fujifilm X100, to be able to use wider and longer lenses while keeping the bag at a reasonable size & weight to travel without too much hassles.

Paired with the Sony 16mm f/2,8 pancake (24mm equivalent) and a 50mm f/1,7 Minolta MD (via an adapter) the Nex-3 is capable to cover, along the Fuji, almost all my photographic needs when I’m not specifically on a photo trip, and without dislocating my shoulder.

Yes, the Canon 5d Mark II and his Nikon equivalents are still the best choice quality wise, but sometimes they became too heavy. And the best camera is never the one that you left in your hotel room…

For this use, as a travel companion alongside the Fuji, the Sony Nex-3 is a mixed bag though.

Resolution wise is pretty good, I’ll say at least on par with the best 12 Megapixels sensors out there.

Raising the Iso uncovers quite a bit of noise, but it is well usable till 1600 Iso (with a bit of post production). I mean: it’s good, just not Fuji X100 good.

The unappealing thing about the Sony is the control interface. Quite frankly I hate the guts of his logic, mostly because it doesn’t have one.

Even after you personalize the back buttons, assigning Iso, Shooting Mode and whatever, control the camera more often than not requires to dig in the menu.

Even more disappointing, the behaviour of the camera changes in its own way; often you push a button and, instead of the function you wish to activate, a message pops up saying that “this function is disabled in this mode”. Which mode? Why? What I have to do to restore it? It’s all a mistery, so you find yourself messing around and pushing things till you enable the function again. And by the way, I use computers since the ’90, and I’m a programmer myself, so it’s not my problem but just poor engineering.

The other thing that make me nut is the focus magnification. It work like a charm with an adapted (manual focus) lens. It work like s…. with Sony lenses. Let me explain. With Sony lenses turning the ring along the lens enable the focus magnification (and this is wonderful, kudos Sony); but you may enable this focus magnification, if you are working in AF, only after the camera locks focus. So it’s pointless!

Speaking of crappy software, the process for updating the firmware is crap.

Let me explain: with every other digital camera that I know of you have to just copy on the card the firmware update file, than complete the process on camera.

Not with the Sony. You have to install on the computer the Sony software, than with the camera tethered follow the on screen instructions. I don’t like installing pointless software. I don’t like installing software that DO NOT RUN on 64 bit Macs and on Lion, forcing me to reboot in 32 bit just to update the firmware (to do so press the 3 and 2 keys at boot).

Frankly, on this I’m speechless.

On the bright side the focus peaking that turns red, white or  yellow (your choice) the areas in focus works perfectly, and it is almost more precise that looking at the magnified image on the monitor.

And the tiltable monitor it’s a fair substitute for a finder, given that, thanks to the focus peaking, it let you shoot from the waist much like with Hasselblad or Rollei.

Last thing: if you plan to use the Sony Nex-3 with extreme wide-angles like the wonderful Voigtlander Heliar 15mm you will be better served by its bigger sister, the Nex-5n; this because the Nex-3 sensor has troubles of color shift and soft corners with adapted (not Sony) wide angle lenses.

To all the others I strongly suggest the Nex-3 over the Nex-5n because, even if the last is undubitably better, the price gap is significant: you may find a Nex-3 for as little as 320€ in kit with the 16mm pancake, while the Nex-5n costs more around 650€.

In conclusion: it’s a good camera if you can live using it in almost full auto and / or with adapted manual focus lenses. I’d not buy it as a primary camera, but in tandem with a better one like the Fuji is strongly suggested.

On a “bang for the bucks” scale from 1 to 10 I’d say it’s a 7 1/2, maybe a full 8 if you can live with the crappy controls & software.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ User controls

Rating: ★★★★☆ Image quality