Vintage Lens Test - Three Russian primes. What a country!

Today we bring you three Russian lenses: A Helios 44 m-4, a Jupiter 9, and a little Industar 61. They're all primes, so they don't zoom at all. The similarities all end there, since they have different focal lengths. This is an exhibition, not a competition. Please, no wagering.

I have a bunch of old lenses, and there are some generalizations that can be made about different kinds. Japanese lenses are refined. They feel very intricate and meticulous in design and construction. The focus rings on Japanese lenses tend to have a short throw with light action, so you don't need to wind them around forever to get from minimum focus to maximum.

Russian lenses feel like they're built from old tank components, and built from fewer parts that are twice as thick as necessary. They tend to be heavy, and this heaviness can also be felt in their focus rings, which not only are stiffer to turn, but they also tend to require more turns from one end of their focal scale to the other. There's no "whipping" into focus with a Russian lens. They take some spinning to get them sharp. I've read in a few places online that Russian lenses are lubricated with tank grease. The Jupiter and Helios definitely feel like it. The focusing action is not light. These may sound like criticisms, but they're not. It's just the character of the lenses that, to me at least, is really interesting to discover. To their credit, the Helios and Jupiter seem as though, if you dropped them, you may worry about your floor.

Carl Zeiss AG is a German manufacturer of lenses, and was originally founded in 1846. They've always been famous for the high quality of their product. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Russia "somehow" found themselves in possession of the Zeiss manufacturing equipment and design documents. Quite a prize. Purely by coincidence, Russia soon began turning out lenses based on the Zeiss designs, which have been in production since the Fifties. I have to believe that Zeiss AG are at least a little miffed about this.

Helios 44m-4      (1958-1992)     ~$45
This lens is pretty much the darling of the Russian lenses on the Intertubes. There are lots of pages dedicated to it. It can be had on eBay for about 45 dollars, and that's a bargain. Focusing actions is smooth but heavy, and takes longer than you want to get from one end to the other. But for your money you'll have a great lens that will be there at your funeral, unless you drive your tank over it somehow.

It's a 58mm, which is a little longer than a typical 50mm, but you can use it more or less the same. The f/2 aperture is nice and wide, letting in lots of light, so you can get away without using flash in more situations.

Jupiter 9     (1965?)     $125-$180
This lens is really pretty, big and heavy... a little smaller than your fist, and it shares the Helios' long focus threads, too. It seems like there are more elements inside it than the Helios. It's kind of Japanese in that way. There's also a black version. They go for about $150 on eBay. That's kind of expensive, but after reading some gushing reviews, I had to go find one of these for myself.

The Jupiter is an 85mm focal length, which is kind of long. Don't think of this as a general purpose lens. You wouldn't shoot a landscape with it, because you'd need to be standing on the moon to get all of Mount Rushmore in the frame. It's more of a portrait lens. So, for outdoor parties or cookouts, it will give you nice intimate head shots from a non-intrusive distance with soft, blurry backgrounds. It also has a big wide aperture, which will help soften up the backgrounds, as well as giving you the option of shooting indoors without annoying people with a flash.

Industar 61 b     (1990-ish)     ~$20
This version of the Industar is a weird little thing, and I'm not sure what it was originally for. My guess it was just a kit lens for a holiday camera. It's smaller and lighter than the other two, and it feels like it is of a simpler construction.

At 53mm, the Industar is just a little wider than a standard 50, but you could probably use it as you would a 50.

Coffee and Wodka
This is a pair of Skyy vodka bottles and a coffee maker. It's as good a place for some test pictures as any. The sun was coming through the window pretty nicely, so why not?
Strong contrast and saturated colors. I almost always like to keep the lens wide open, because I'm still infatuated with shallow depth of field. This was shot with the aperture all the way open to f/2, so if you look at the coffee maker, the handle in the foreground and the spout in the back are both out of focus, while the fluted chrome in the middle is sharp.
As you'll remember, the Jupiter is an 85mm lens, so our view is pushed in a lot more, despite the fact the camera is in the same place as the other picture. It's softer overall (but I may have just focused poorly), and with more tones in the midrange. This gives colors a mellow, creamy look.

The Industar's contrast is similar to the Helios, but with a little more DOF. It's a 53mm, and the Helios is a 58. You can see the slight difference in the less pronounced blurring in the out of focus areas.

Hardware, Stored
The Helios gets softer near its edges. The nearest stand is in focus, but if you follow it up
to the top of the picture, you can see it getting fuzzy. This is, technically, a flaw in the lenses'
design, but it's part of the reason it has become a cult favorite. If you're looking for a

technically perfect lens, look elsewhere. If dreamy character is your thing, get thee to a Helios.

Again, you can see the Ju[iter's paler colors in the paneling. But look at the bokeh in the
background. Every little highlight in the chrome springs to life as a little bubble of light.
Image from kurtmunger.com.
An interesting thing about the Jupiter 9 is it's aperture. That's the part of the lens that lets in the right amount of light. It's a mechanical version of the pupil in your eye. When you look into a mechanical lens and mess with the aperture ring, you can see this thing getting bigger and smaller. It's a wonder to behold.

Anyway, a normal camera has maybe six or seven blades in the aperture (also called the "diaphragm"). The sample picture to the left has seven. Very inexpensive lenses sometimes have four. The shape of the hole in the center is revealed in the shape of the "bokeh balls" in reflective objects. What you want is nice, round bokeh, so, more blades is better, but this makes the lens harder to manufacture.

Image from here.

The Jupiter 9 has fifteen aperture blades. That's pretty extravagant. This ensures that any bokeh produced by this lens will be smooth and round.
Interestingly, this time the Industar didn't match the Helios' contrast and color.
There's more chromatic aberration than the others, too. See the blue fringe
around the chrome legs of the cymbal stands? Areas of high contrast will show
you your lenses' propensity for CA. Here, it's where the bright sunlight on the
chrome meets the shadowed carpet behind it.

And your Bird Can Sing

I think I missed the focus a little here. Two Sheds wasn't standing still. The colors in the backgroud seem
less saturated than in the Jupiter's picture below. Weird. Could be that the sun was moving around, changing the light in the room? How rude.

Two things give you shallow depth of field (blurry backgrounds): Wide aperture and long focal length. Here's the shallow depth of field you get from the 85mm Jupiter 9, as compared to 50-ish focal lengths of the others. His eye is (nearly) in focus, but his beak is already starting to fall into the fuzz. Remind me to have the P.A.G! Graphic Blandishment and Photoshoppery Brigade  put a severed finger in his mouth.

The 53mm Industar has the least-blurry backgrounds of the three. No surprise there.

Temple of Maroon

For this next set of pictures, we went down to the VIsta Del Mar lounge and set up some knick knacks. Here's a knight templar and what seem to be a couple of tikis having "teh butt sex", loud and proud. The Helios's bokeh tends take the form of almond shapes that orbit around the center of the picture. The more detailed your backgroud, the more almond satellites you'll have. This has the terrific effect of focusing attention on your subject. I don't know what those little green broccoli bokehs are doing there (broccoleh), down in the lower left, but they're pretty cool.

The Jupiter seems to really love the reds in the background. They're not just saturated, they're frikkin' soggy. "You chose.... wisely."

The Industar produced some nice, round bokeh balls up there. Impressive, little Industar!

Achey Bokeh Heart

Lastly, we just threw each lens way out of focus and pointed it at the Christmas lights. Bokeh time!

The orbiting almonds made by the Helios only appear out from the center. In the middle, bokeh is nice and round.

The Jupiter's bubbles are very round, and only slightly ovalized at the edge.

The Industar turns in a respectable bokeh performance for being so tiny. I like the sharp ones with translucent centers.


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