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A Guide To Russian LTM Lenses (Part 2)

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Q&A: Where do you buy your Russian lenses? I have bought most of my lenses on eBay although I have also bought on various photography forums and some dedicated camera/lens equipment sites. My experience with eBay sellers out of xUSSR is mixed - about 50% of lenses I bough that way were basically paperweights. For cheaper lenses, I simply wrote that off and threw them away, while for more expensive copies I had to go through the hassle of returning the lenses back. I would recommend you to avoid any seller who does not accept returns - buying anything over $50 from such sellers poses way too much risk IMO. I've had a very bad experience with top35mm.com web site run by Alexander Semensky (eBay: semensky) - three lenses I ordered from him came completely broken one with jammed focusing ring, one with jammed aperture ring and the third lens in M42 instead of M39 mount. If you're purchasing an expensive Russian lens like Orion-15, dealing with a US based seller or better yet a company is much safer. fedka.com is one such company, run our of NYC. I've had a decent experience with them in the past and will most liley use them again. Unfortunately, fedka.com does not refresh its catalog very often and some lenses that you see on their web site might not be available or might have a different condition than what is advertised on the site. But at least you can return the item if you don't like it.


Before we jump into a deeper discussion of the individual Russian LTM lenses, let's touch-base on one of the most critical difference between Russian M39 lenses and their Western counterpart from Leica, Voigtlander and others. This difference is the cause of many complaints as well as general dissatisfaction with Russian LTM lenses, with many users believing that the lenses are of very poor quality (optically speaking) or have a wide variability in quality control. By the way, the second point by itself is true, but to a lesser degree than what many would-be users tend to believe.

Back in the days long gone (circa 30s, I think), we had two competing camera designs - Leica III and Contax. The two dominant cameras of that day had different focusing systems. Both were built around 50mm lens but employed different assumptions when designing rangefinder system. Leica had a short-base magnifier, which connected to thread-mount lenses. Every lens had a rangefinder cam, which transmitted the focusing distance to the camera, and used the rate of movement of the focusing helicoid of a 51.6mm lens (actual focal length). This rate of movement was used to calculate a multiplier, which was then used in calibration of the rangefinder for every lens - a wide angle lens would have a shorter helicoid rate of movement, while a tele would have a longer and so the multiplier helped position the rangefinder at the right focusing distance. Contax, which had a 50mm focusing helix, but otherwise looked and worked pretty much the same way as Leica's, standardized around a 52.3mm lens as the choice for a '50mm' lens. Needless to say that the rate of movement for Contax standard 50mm was different from Leica's.  To have a lens work properly on either Leica or Contax body, designers had to use one of the focal lengths assumptions (51.6mm or 52.3mm), exact rate of movement and multiplier, and finally the distance from the back focus of the lens to the film plane. Change one of these and you will end up with a lens that will mis-focus at all but infinity distances.

That brings us to WWII and Soviets appropriating Zeiss factories in Jena along with all the machinery and lens designs and then manufacturing millions of lenses housed in Leica M39 mount. Yep, you can guess what's next - Leica's mount with its back focus and Contax 52.3mm standard lens. Why? For efficiency - same optical units can be used in both M39 and Contax housings and existing Zeiss equipment could be simply copied and re-assembled for the future generations. For a much more in-depth discussion of this issue, as well as a detailed description of the rangefinder system in both cameras, visit Dante Stella's site.

And so Russian LTM lenses are not quite compatile with Leica bodies and their rangefinders. What to do? Enter Brian Sweeny. Brian was one of the first to figure out how to properly shim Jupiter 3 and 8 lenses, to properly calibrate them for Leica's rangefinder. Brian posted a number of instructions of how to do this yourself, but also offers an occasional service to help out those of us who are always left with spare parts after taking apart something (I have not used Brian's service personally though). So anyone considering buying a Russian Screw Mount lens, needs to keep this in mind - if you plan to use these lenses on some mirrorless camera like Sony NEX system, this incompatibility is going to be irrelevant to you and you would simply use camera's focus assist (i.e. focus peaking in NEX-5n) when manual focusing the lens. On the other hand, if you plan to use these lenses on Leicas and want to have an accurate rangefinder, you would need to adjust your lens - either yourself or by sending it to Brian (or whoever else you might be able to find). That's the reason I am also keeping a sceptical eye on the run up in prices for some of the Russian LTM lenses, particularly Jupiter 3 - the sellers have obviously read some good reviews of this lens from folks who have managed to calibrate the lens properly and assumed that this warrants a price increase. Well, let's say you decide to buy a Jupiter 3 lens for the current going rate of ~$200. Add to that shipping of ~$20. Then add some probability of the lens actually being defective (a lot of East Block eBay sellers do exaggerate quite a bit when describing their items, which naturally leads to some bad cases and unsatisfied customers). Then add the cost of cleaning and calibrating the lens - I don't know exactly how much shimming/adjusting the lens costs, but let's say $100 for full CLA + adjustment. We're at $320-$350 for a Jupiter 3. Huh - at this price point, I personally would not even bother with such a lens and would go for Canon 50/1.4, which is essentially the same Zeiss copy but done the right way.

The last piece of advice to someone new to Russian LTM lenses: Do not confuse the rangefinder M39 lenses with SLR M39 lenses. Soviets, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to use the same M39 mount for different camera designs, but the lenses from one system are not compatible with the other system. The prime example is Jupiter 9, which is available in pretty much every mount possible, including both M39 variations. This unfortunately leads to some confusion with some sellers marking some SLR M39 lenses as rangefinder lenses.

Ok, and with that, let's discuss some lenses. In the remainder of this section I will cover Industar lenses - much more affordable, but not necessarily the best performing, lineup of Russian LTM lenses, while in the third part of this guide I will cover Jupiter series of lenses.

Industar 22, Fed 5cm, Fed 50mm - At a Glance


FED-50/3.5, Sony NEX-5n, ISO 800, 1/60, f/3.5

Industar 22, FED 50 and FED 5cm are effectively one and the same lens, originally cloned from Leica's pre-war Elmar 50/3.5 (a Tessar design) and manufactured at different factories. Industar was manufactured at KMZ near Moscow, while FED was manufactured at FED in Kharkiv. The lens had a gazzilion little variations in shape, size and body - as far as I know, there was even one version with rigid barrel. The lens can be most commonly found as a collapsible variant with focusing tab and focusing limiter. Like with the original Elmar, aperture is stepless and is controlled by a tiny knob around the front lens element. Very non-ergonomic design as there is no 'blind' operation mode - meaning you would always need to look at the lens to find the knob and then move it to a new position. The build quality of the lens is quite good, with all aluminium barrel. ~90 degrees of focusing ring rotation when going from infinity to the MFD. The focusing ring's prong is located too close to the barrel, which means that you would need to use Voigtlander Type I adapter, which has a narrow base and does not interfere with the prong at the infinity setting. The lens works perfectly fine on Sony NEX-5n as well as on Panasonic GX1 with Metabones and LTM/M adapters stacked, however, mounting/removing the lens is a PITA because of the collapsible design.

The little lens (I currently have FED 50/3.5, but also had Industar-22 in the past) is actually surprisingly sharp in the center even when shot wide open. It's not a world class beater, but it is very much usable at f/3.5. Corners suck though and don't get mcuh better till f/8-f/11. Still, for what it's worth, the lens over-delivers in this department. Contrast is moderately-low at wide apertures and moderate in the f/5.6-f/16 range, with very good tonal reproduction, which makes this lens a superb choice for B&W photography. The lens shows noticeable vignetting - ~1.5EV on M8 and a bit less on APS-C type Sony NEX-5n. Flare is uncontrollable, so just don't point the lens towards the sun.


Industar 26m - At a Glance


Industar-26m, Sony NEX-5n, ISO 1600, 1/60, f/4

This is probably the weakest of all Industar lenses and possibly out of all of Russian LTM lenses. While some users report this lens to be a fair performer, a significantly larger group disses it as an underperformer. I tend to take the second group's position, although I am still on a lookout for a quality copy capable of producing results that are a notch better than what I've seen from my copies.

Industar-26m is the first f/2.8 Russian LTM lens, derived from Elmar 50/2.8, which in turn is a Tessar design. But while Industar-22 was a resonably good performer streight from its widest aperture, Industar-26m struggles in every area from f/2.8 through f/5.6. Images at f/2.8 are outright soft throughout the frame and don't improve significantly until f/5.6. Corners don't get better until f/11-f/16. The lens has a fairly low contrast at f/2.8, which improves slowly to moderate levels by f/5.6. Pretty heavy flare throughout the aperture range and pronounced vignetting at f/2.8 - ~2EV on M8 and ~1.5EV on Sony NEX-5n.

The build quality of the lens is similar to other Russian LTM lenses - aluminium barrel with aluminium focusing and aperture rings. The focusing ring has ~90 degrees of rotational thrust when going from the MFD to the infinity. Aperture is click-less on some versions of this lens, but unlike Industar-22 or Industar-50, the 26m has a more conventional aperture ring, not a tiny know around the front element. Some versions of this lens have regular aperture with one f-stop increments. The lens is rangefinder coupled and can be used on any M series camera using a LTM/M adapter, as well as on Sony NEX and m43 bodies with an appropriate adapter.

Industar 50 - At a Glance


Industar-50/3.5, Sony NEX-5n, ISO 1600, 1/50, f/3.5

Optically, Industar-50 is pretty much identical to Industar-22, which it replaced. This seems to be lost on many sellers, who for some reason often price Industar-50 at a premium compared to Industar-22. One possibillity is because of the ongoing belief that Industar-50 used better, higher resolution, optics. There does not seem to be any solid proof of that and the variance in quality between these lenses that users might have been reporting are most likely due to the sample variance and the age of these lenses, not to the optics. I have gone through about a dozen of these lenses and cannot really find a consistent trend of Industar-50 being superior to its older variant.

LTM version of Industar-50 was available in a couple of different versions, including collapsible and rigid variants. All used same 4 element, Tessar copy design, and are identical from pretty much in every regard, including vignetting, color aberration and distortion. All Industar-50s can be used on Leica M cameras with an LTM/M adapter. Collapsible version requires Type 2 adapter, which does not interfere with the focus lock prong at the infinity mark. All of these lenses can also be used on Sony NEX and m43 cameras with stacked adapters - I used this lens on Sony NEX-5n with Metabones M/E and Voigtlander LTM/M adapters without any problems.

Industar 61Л,  Industar 61Л/Д - At a Glance


Industar-61Л/Д, Sony NEX-5n, ISO 800, 1/60, f/2.8

Industar 61 follows the same tried and true path of other Industar lenses and employs the same Tessar type optical design, first introduced with Industar-22, but slightly modified to accomodate its larger max aperture and housed in a larger, rigid barrel. It is more of a derivative of Industar-26m in that regard than Industar-22/Industar-50. The build quality of the lens is fairly decent - all aluminium casting keeps the lens weight to minimum. The aperture clicks in one full f-stop increments. Focusing ring has 90 degrees of rotational thrust when going from MFD of 1m to the infinity.

This is the highest resolution LTM Industar (relatively speaking of course) - at f/2.8 this lens feels a bit stretched beyond its actual capabilities, with images remaining fairly soft throughout the frame. It is not as soft as Industar-26m, but certainly not a lens most would be happy to use wide open. Stopped down to f/4, which is where I use it most of the time, the lens gets a nice boost in the center. Borders remain soft through f/8. Stopped to f/8-f/11, the lens is comparable to the old Elmar 50/3.5. Moderate to moderately-high contrast throughout the aperture range - certainly better than in any other Industar lens. The lens flares quite badly at f/2.8 and also vignettes by ~1EV on APS-C sized NEX-5n sensor and closer to ~2EV on APS-H sized M8. The lens produced a light, but noticeable, yellowish color cast - my guess this is because of the lanthanum glass used in the lens.

The lens is rangefinder coupled and can be used on any Leica M camera using LTM/M adapter. Works like a charm on Sony NEX-5n as well, with Metabones ME adapter and Voigtlander Type 2 LTM/M adapter stacked on top of each other.



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