We interrupt your scheduled programming to bring you a lens test.
Simply put, I’m sick of talking about the differences between Soviet and Leica lenses and not having anything to back it up – so here’s one of the many LTM shoot-outs I’ve done over the years to compare lenses.
[UPDATE: I was somewhat lazy in the writing of this post. I should have cited evidence for my claims of technical incompatibility; I was somewhat presumptious in thinking people would know where to look for further discussion of this problem, and find further (and arguably more credible) research. If you are doubting my argument, please look in the comments below this article for my lengthy tract citing (amongst others) Brian Sweeney, Dante Stella and Kim Coxon, three very highly respected repairers/technical experts. It should be sufficient to back the points made below.]
Now, the boring info:
– The film was HP5
– The developer was LC29, 1+19
– The camera was a Leica IIIf, with a slightly faint rangefinder but one that was fully calibrated (i.e. accurate).
– The exposures were exactly the same, and both shots are at f2 (i.e. wide open).
– The camera was mounted on a tripod and fired with a cable release.
– The focus point for both shots was the face of the figurine at the front of the shot, which was exactly 1 meter from the film plane.
– These are tight crops from a full 35mm negative (the left-hand side of the montage is probably 1/4 of the frame).
– The scanner was a Canoscan 9000f, which has somewhat dubious sharpness, so bear that in mind (my Summicron shots always print sharper than they scan). The resolution was set to 2400 DPI, with no autosharpen or grain reduction.
– the only post-processing was some sharpening in Photoshop (200% with a radius of 1.0; it may seem like a lot, but it’s the only way I can even get close to wet print quality from my scanner. Both images were treated exactly the same, however).
With all that out the way, the difference between the two photos should be obvious, and it repeats the same result I’ve seen in many tests I’ve done myself; the Jupiter 8 is noticeably out of focus under such critical conditions. It’s also worth pointing out before I go any further that I’m not in any way claiming the Jupiter 8 is a bad lens, and my particular lens isn’t a bad example. It’s taken some great photos over the years – when used on a Soviet body. The difference between Soviet LTM and Leica LTM is real, and while it doesn’t affect most lenses (the various Industar 50mm lenses and the 35mm/2.8 Jupiter 12 are almost totally unaffected, due to their wider depth of field), once you start getting into faster and longer lenses it does become a problem. If you understand the limitations of Soviet lenses on a Leica (or Leica spec) body, you can get great lenses for very cheap.
The problem with this claim is that it tends to get repeated around the internet without the caveats I mentioned earlier. A lot of people simply don’t know about the incompatibility, shoot their Jupiter lenses all day at f8, and never notice any issues. It’s easily done; I have done some shots with Jupiters “in the field”, and providing you stay away from the wide-open and close up ends of the scale, you rarely ever notice a problem. Even the longest lens – the Jupiter 11, which is a 135mm/f4 lens – becomes completely usable on a Leica body once you’re stopped down and past a certain distance. However, it is a fool or a liar who uses shots like these as “evidence” that the two systems are completely interchangeable.
So why does this happen? Well, it’s largely to do with Zeiss. Or, more precisely, the fact that the Soviet Union took Zeiss’s designs and production lines as war reparations after the Second World War. What happened next regarding lens and camera design decisions is somewhat lost in the sands of time, but it seems that the Soviets took the specifications for the Contax lenses and used them on the Leica mount lenses they were producing for their own LTM bodies – most notably the nominal 50mm focal length that the camera’s rangefinder expects as a standard. They didn’t care that this made them technically incompatible with Leicas; why should they care? They were aiming for self-sufficiency, and no good proletarian would be using a Leica when the Fed and Zorki models were just as good. (Aside: this might sound like I’m joking, but the earlier Fed and Zorki models ARE very good, providing they’ve been properly cared for and serviced. Quality, however, dropped massively towards the end of the Soviet Union’s existence.) It’s also worth pointing out that this wasn’t the only example of a non-obvious technical incompatibility being designed into what should otherwise be a compatible system; Nikon did exactly the same thing with their rangefinder system – which otherwise used the same mount as the Contax rangefinders. As a result the Nikon/Contax rangefinder users find themselves with the same problem as the Leica/Fed/Zorki ones – wide angles are perfectly compatible between the two systems, but faster and longer lenses mis-focus at close distances and wide open.
This is not to say that the lenses are in any way bad, or inherently incapable of being in focus; you simply have to use them on the system they were designed for. This, for example, was shot with a Jupiter 8 on a Fed 5 – wide open and close up:
Now, there are certain things you can do if you’re dead set on using Jupiters on your Leica. The first is simply to tolerate the limitations and accept that it’s probably – at best – an f2.8 lens. If this is how you want to deal with it, I strongly accept you do a series of tests of your own – using similar settings as mine above – but altering the aperture to compare the lens’s sharpness across the range as opposed to comparing it with another lens. You might find it’s acceptable at f2.8, or you might not be happy with it until f5.6. Everyone has different concepts as to what constitutes acceptably sharp.
The other option is to get the lens shimmed (or, if you’re feeling brave/foolhardy, do it yourself; there are instructions as to how to do it on the Internet, but I’m not willing to enable the potential destruction and/or miscalibration of a good piece of Soviet glass!). The success of this method supposedly varies depending on the lens; Jupiter 8s can be shimmed with relative ease, but the Jupiter 9 85/2 will apparently never be capable of focusing correctly across the range on a Leica body for various reasons.
(Another aside: The Jupiter lenses, other than the Jupiter 12, are all Sonnar lenses. This is a legendary lens design – particularly for portraits – but they are well-known for a focus shift issue that is inherent to the design. This can work in your favour with shimming – the Jupiter 3 fix relies on using the focus shift to allow full focusing capability – but with the Jupiter 9 it just seems to exacerbate the problem.)
The final option – and one I’m seriously considering – is to ignore the Leica mount altogether. The Contax mount Soviet lenses are built to the same specifications, but the Amedeo adapter will ensure correct focusing when they are mounted onto a Leica body. Of course, it’s somewhat foolish to pay a couple of hundred dollars to use some cheap Soviet lenses, but consider the world of lens options that opens up for you: the Helios 103 – a.k.a the Soviet Summicron, a correctly focusing Jupiter 9, a Jupiter 11 that can focus closer than the LTM one, a Jupiter 8m (which is a shorter Jupiter 8 with click stops!) – and that’s just the Soviet lenses! The original Zeiss lenses for the Contax system are legendary, and were reason enough for people like Ansel Adams and Robert Capa to eschew the whole Leica system in favour of the Contax one.
Of course, of you want a 50mm f2 lens on a Leica body that works at f2 reliably, there are the “native” – and less fiddly – options; Summar, Summitar, Summicron, Serenar or the Voigtlander Heliar. If you go into M mount, there are even more options – including the modern Zeiss Sonnars that share the same design as the Jupiters, but without the focusing errors. Each one has its own benefits and distinct look, and while none are as cheap as the Jupiters, they’re all stunning in their own way. I must admit that since I bought a collapsible Summicron, nothing else has really compared to it.
So, after all that, what have we learned? Well, that Soviet lenses deserve all the reputation they’ve picked up, but also deserve a better explanation than most people give them. To write them off simply because you don’t fully understand either the technical or economic conditions in which they were built is horribly, horribly reductive. When treated well and used under the correct conditions, they can be just as good as their contemporary competition – and in some cases, even better.
However, there is one final caveat to this whole post: your lens is only as good as its history. What do I mean by this? Well, simply put, over the years Soviet lenses have, on occasion, been horribly mistreated. I think this is for two reasons; number one is that due to the way the Communist economic system worked, they were able to be produced at a very, very low cost considering what went into them. The side effect of this is that when they were exported (at a very low price compared to their competition), the perception of them was that they were low-quality lenses, and they were often treated with a lack of care to match. This still occurs today; people are literally “fixing” these things on their kitchen table with no previous experience and then selling them on eBay when the resultant mess doesn’t function properly. The other issue is ideology. The Cold War “taught” us in the West that the Soviets were a backwards people, and their products were often derided as a result. You still see it on web forums today; the spectre of the Cold War is hard to shake off.
But if you buy from a respected dealer, get one in a good shape and use it within its specifications, these are honestly great lenses; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.