Communist lenses were bad …. oh, really?

Commie Sonnar 180mm (1 of 5)I can think of no reason to begin this blog with a post on any particular topic, so I figure I will begin with a bug that bit me very recently: M42 mount lenses, and, in particular, lenses from the former Communist bloc. A bit of background. A few months ago I placed a bid (yes….) for an essentially new Sigma SD-1 Merrill with the 17-50mm kit lens. I had read about the Foveon sensor and had become sufficiently interested in it to consider the possibility (distant…) of perhaps at some point purchasing a Sigma camera. Well, this camera-lens combination showed up. Long story short, I placed a bid thinking NAAHH ! I can’t possibly win!! I did. The price was good. But still more than I should have spent. The camera showed up (very quickly) and it was new and in perfect working order, just as advertised. I SHOULD close my ebay account. I MUST….I won’t. I will talk about the Merrill some other day – it is slow, it is quirky, it is cantankerous, but I love it. The image quality is quite simply out of this world.

The topic of this post is supposed to be manual focus lenses from the former Soviet bloc – so how did we get there from Foveon sensors? Well, as it turns out, because of the Sigma’s flange distance, the only manual focus lenses that can be used on it are M42 screw mount lenses. Of course, you can use these lenses on just about any digital camera, but until my Sigma moment I had not thought about them because, what the heck, if you can use gorgeous Zuikos, Contaxes and Hexanons, why bother with old M42 clunkers? Because there happen to be some spectacular lenses among those clunkers, that’s why. But, as is always the case, I had to find out on my own, rather than believe what people who know a lot more have been saying for a long time. So first I got a Fujinon  EBC 50mm f/1.4, very rough looking but with perfect glass and very smooth focus and aperture. I used it on the Sigma and was blown away. The SD-1 does not have live view, however, so focusing manually is a pain (more on this in a forthcoming post). I wondered what the Fujinon could do on the Sony A7 and A6000, which are really easy to focus manually. The results blew me away. Now I was hooked. If you suffer from LCD (lens collection disorder) you know what happens next. You may start thinking about building a collection of the newly discovered brand (Fujinons in this case). Or you may start thinking about getting other lenses in the same focal length (50mm in this case), to compare other brands. I took this latter route and began to look up 50mm lenses in M42 mount. Carl Zeiss Jena immediately pops up in that search, and opinions are a mixed bag. There are those who swear by the Zeiss Jena optics, and claim that their lenses have nothing to envy of their West German counterparts. And there are those who claim that East German lenses were Communist junk. The latter seem to base their opinions on little more than McCarthy-era politics. The former generally back their opinions with sample images. Which for the most part were good enough to justify another visit to ebay, in search of a Pancolar 50mm f/1.8. It arrived promptly, all the way from Greece, and was just as advertised. Pristine optics and Communist cosmetics and mechanics, i.e., nothing fancy, not silky smooth, but it works. Something like the photographic equivalent of a Soyuz spacecraft or a T-34 tank or a Mig 15 fighter jet.

I tried the 50mm Commie lens on the A7 and on the SD-1 and the results nuked me away, and got a new obsession started. Long story short, in addition to the Pancolar 50mm, I am now also the proud owner of a few more Carl Zeiss Jena lenses: a Flektogon 35mm f/2.4, a Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 and a Sonnar 180mm f/2.8 (the latter in Pentacon medium-format mount, which can be coupled to an M42 adapter, or adapted directly to Sony’s E-mount). In every case I searched for late multicoated versions, with 4- or 5-digit serial numbers, which, apparently, means that they were produced between 1980 and more or less the Fall of the Wall. I don’t know whether that makes them better, but it makes them newer and thus more likely to be cleaner. All of the lenses are in very good to excellent optical condition, and all of them have the same clunky Soviet feel, with somewhat rough operation and very utilitarian looks. But the images that they produce are sublime, and I figured that I would share some samples (click for a slide show).

I primarily use wide angle lenses for landscapes, and still have to test the Flektogon 35mm in that capacity, but since it focuses down to 20 cm I figured that some close-focus images would give some indication of how it performs, and it did not disappoint. I shot the magnolia and the wood-digesting fungi at f/11 or thereabouts, probably close to the point of maximum sharpness. In my opinion it is a remarkable lens, great sharpness, color rendition and contrast, with very good depth of field. Rendition of out of focus areas (“bokeh”, but I dislike the word) is nothing spectacular, as one would expect from a wide angle lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.4, but I don’t think that it is displeasing. You can judge for yourself in the image of the spider lilies, shot wide open.

I have not had a chance yet to use the Pancolar 50mm much, but as you can see it also has great sharpness and color. The few images that I have looked at carefully have a classic Zeiss feel to them. There are, of course, many superb 50mm lenses, some of my favorites being the Zuiko, Fujinon and Hexanon in their f1.4 incarnations. In a future post I will compare the Pancolar to these other lenses.

The two Sonnars are in a league of their own. Check the images.They are mostly close-ups as they are both capable of focusing quite closely given their focal lengths, and at the time I shot these images (June of 2016) I only had the State Botanical Garden of Georgia as a handy test area. These are two magnificent lenses. I am a Zuiko fan, as in my view they are the best Japanese optics around, both the old manual focus lenses and the current digital lenses. But these old East German lenses will blow away any Zuiko in similar focal lengths. I doubt that anything short of a West German Zeiss or Leica can compare. I have a few Contax Vario Sonnars that cover similar focal lengths, and will run a comparison in a future post. I expect a very close contest.

Well, that’s it for now. I have gone too long, so I hope that the images will speak for themselves. Please feel free to comment!







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