Vintage Russian Lens Test - Mir, Mir, on the wall... Or, The Mir has Two Faces.

Two new (old) Russian lenses arrived at GO! Tower this week. A Mir-24H 35mm f/2 (1995 maybe?) and a Mir-1 MC 37mm f/2.8 (roughly 1962 or something). Both were eBay finds, and cost nearly exactly the same. Let's see how they compare.

FYI: All photo geekdom described in our lens tests are aimed at the novice / casual reader. If you want heavy shop talk that assumes you already know a lot, go to DPReview, pixel peeper.

First, a little note on old lenses. In general, you can expect even a really good lens of this age to have it's own "character". If you're looking for sharpness all the way from center to edge, and accurate colors in all conditions, you'll probably be better off with nearly any modern lens. Technology has gotten better in the intervening decades, and even a cheap-ish modern lens will be truer, sharper, and more accurate than vintage glass. When people go digging through auctions for old stuff like these Mirs, they're looking for "interesting flaws", or "personality". Dark corners, softness at the edge, and other quirks are to be expected. It's kind of like Instagram filters, but less fake, but still fun. Also, old lenses almost never have any plastic on them. They're all metal, and have a satisfying weight to them.

On the left is the Mir-1. It's one of the rarer, earlier versions of this lens, with a silver anodized finish and the "Brussels Grand Prix" inscription on the side. That was because the lens won an award in 1958, and the company made sure you knew about it. This inscription could still be found on these lenses a decade or two after the award was given. Often, the first two digits of a lenses serial number indicate the year it was made. This seems to be true for this silver Brussles darling. It's 6401399, so it's likely it was made in 1964. Coooowelll.

On the right is the Mir-24H, which was produced from 1976 to 1999! Its serial number is 950701, so, maybe it's a 1995 unit? This is really surprising, because it looks and feels like it was made in the seventies. If it was built in '95, they did not update the design at all over the years. If you put it in a pillow case and got in a good swing, you could knock out a horse with it.

These Mirs share the same approximate focal length: 37mm and 35mm, which is pretty wide, making them decent for lots of things. They are"primes", which means they don't zoom. That may sound like a bummer, but prime lenses tend to be nice and sharp, and pretty bright. They were meant to be sold with a camera ("kit" lenses), and were intended for general use. Landscapes, travel, family snapshots, etc. Their apertures are f/2.8 and f/2, respectively, which is pretty darn good, especially for the older 1964 model. They let in lots of light, so you can shoot indoors, or in low light without too much motion blur.

I'll be using them on a Mirco Four Thirds camera, whose image sensor is smaller than a 35mm frame of film, which they were designed for. With the help of an adapter that has corrective optics in it, they will behave exactly like 50mm lenses on my camera. This is more "zoomed in" than their original 35mm focal length, but 50 is another of the standard and much-loved focal lengths - good for a general "walking-around" lens. Since they're both Russian, and built like tanks, the focus rings are lubricated with what feels like tank grease. I have read that this is literally true. It definitely takes more effort to turn them than, say, the whippy action of a Japanese lens. Also, they don't snap to focus with half a turn like some other lenses. You'll wind the focus rings around and around to get from one end of the scale to another. This is par for the Russian course, comrade.

There's a lot to like about the numbers on these lenses. So how do they shoot? We headed out to the garage to get some sample pictures, because the rain was holding off, making the weather forecast a big fat liarhead.

Frisbee Wall, and the Great Paint by Number.

As a test of their color, let's have a look at some Frisbees. I will not call them "flying discs". Screw you Wham-O.

When you're playing Frisbee Golf, it doesn't pay to use a disc that matches the scenery. If it goes into the underbrush on a long drive, it will probably stay there, unless it's an eye-stabbingly bright color so you can find it. Color ahoy! My dad did that paint by number in the early 1970s. He was an automation engineer, so when it came to art, he preferred to have some lines to stay inside. That's okay. You should see the last manufacturing production line I designed. FEMA is still clearing up the severed arms.

Here's the silver Mir-1's attempt at the Frisbee Wall. I focused on the boat in the painting, which may have been a mistake, since that's not really in the center, which is the only place this lens is sharp. See the mushy corners compared to the white disc in the middle? It's technically a flaw, but we knew what to expect. I like it. Put someone's face front and center and the soft corners will pull your attention right to their pretty puss. Colors and saturation are nice.

Now the black Mir-24 has a go. It's a much younger design, so overall sharpness is clearly better. This lens has a .8 aperture advantage over its daddy, so the image is perceptibly brighter.

Approach the Bench.

Here's the work bench, for some all-over detail. Just to keep things clear, silver goes first again.

Again, we see that, on the journey from the center to the edge, it doesn't take long for things to get soft. Interestingly, chromatic aberration isn't too bad. That's when areas of high contrast have blue or purple fringe, because some colors arrive at the sensor (or film) out of focus, while others are still sharp. In an old lens like this, I wouldn't be surprised to see a blue fringe on the edge of that blue lamp where it cuts into the bright window pane there, but CA seems pretty controlled in the Mir-1.

Mmmmm, sharp. The Mir-24 does get a little soft away from the center, but nothing like the silver lens.

Portrait of my Dad ('s bike).

To see how these lenses do depth of field (blurry backgrounds), I rolled out Dad's bike for a portrait. Here's the Mir-1.

Yep. Bokeh is pretty smooth in the background. Points of light are basically round, instead of some kind of weird shape.

Now the black Mir-24:
The background is blurrier than the other lens. This is surprising, since the slightly longer focal length of the older lens should soften up the background a little more. The dust on the bike is sharper with this younger lens. Pretty.

Okay, here's the interesting thing. That first picture of the bike? That was the silver lens focused as close as it could get, which was about three feet. The black lens can focus so close, you could almost use it as a macro / close-up lens if you wanted. Watch.

Here is the Mir-24 at it's minimum focal distance. The front element of the lens is a few inches away from the bike's light. Here, the depth of field is paper thin. Only about an inch of depth is in focus. Closer or farther than that, and it's all dreamland. This is pretty impressive.

The Oval Lamp

Know the difference between an oval and an ellipse? An oval can have flat sides, but an ellipse has a definite geometric description. Basically, you won't be too far off if you think of an ellipse as a circle with two centers. Take a circle and stretch it out in one direction but not the other. That's an ellipse. An oval can look like an egg, or a pill, etc. This lamp is made of ovals. Fascinating! Nope.

Anyway, these two pictures reveal some color differences in the lenses. I don't think the light outside changed in the twenty seconds it took me to swap lenses between shots, so there must be some difference in the way they each transmit color. Observe.

The silver Mir-1 makes the light coming through the window seem a little blue, as you would mostly expect.

The Mir-24, at least in these circumstances, looks decidedly more green. This lens is multi coated, whereas the older silver lens isn't. Maybe this is the multi coating at work, rejecting the bulue light from the sky outside and allowing the green paint on the walls of the room to have more of an influence over the ambient light in the picture?

Standard-issue tree picture.

Shooting up into a tree like this should be a good way to reveal what a lens does with corner detail. Specifically, I'm looking for any "petzval effect". That's the concentric, water-ripple-looking circles that appear away from the center of the image. Here is an example of the petzval effect, from our first lens test, way back in 2011...

The phenomena is named after a famous lens from the 1800s that would produce distortions like this, made by Joseph Petzval. How famous is the lens? Well, if you're an idiot, you can buy a brass reproduction of the Petzval 85mm from Lomography, Inc. for $700. Or, you can go on eBay and buy a lens from a security camera and an adapter for less than $30 and get the same effect. Your choice.

Neither of the Mirs seems to have much petzval effect to speak of. Although technically this is good news, I was a little disappointed. I like the petzval look. Oh well.

Here's the Mir-1. The corners have some smeary blurry stuff going on, but nothing even a little petzvally. "Ho" closely followed by "hum".

The Mir-24 looks similar, but just a little sharper.


I was hoping for a little more kooky old weirdness from this lens, but really it's just a reasonable old design that doesn't focus very close. I think it would shoot nice portraits, due to the flattering de-focus of it's oldness. In black and white, it may also be an interesting street shooter or landscape lens.

It looks and feels older than it is, because the model was already thirty years old when it was made, in 1995. It's a more versatile all-rounder because of the fairly incredible close focus distance of three inches or so. Despite being a fairly wide 35mm, the bokeh (blurry backgrounds) is buttery soft. It would make a brilliant portrait lens. The Mir-24 was a pleasant surprise. Definite recommendo.


Michelle_Randy said...

Completely OFF topic: Paint-by-numbers. Kudos to your dad. I'm someone who enjoys doing "art", but am decidedly not talented. Paint-by-numbers allows me the illusion of "art" and provides some moments of zen. Just me, the paintbrush and my paint 17+6 color.

Also, am jealous of the workshop.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Thanks Michelle! DO they even make paint by numbers any more? I'll have to check.
Re: The bench. Don't be too jealous. See that white cabinet with the gold paint on the right? That was mounted on the wall in the bathroom when I moved in. Oof!


Michelle_Randy said...

LOL, they do!! Check it out: PaintByNumberKits.com

Ypek said...

Aperture and bluriness aside, I really like the "Portrait" of your work cubicle. As Photo Art, I mean. The brush adds mystery. Also the lighter gas can...

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