I love pairing old Soviet Union lenses to Fujifilm cameras because it’s a great combination. It’s tons of fun and the results can be magical. I’m just thrilled to do this, and I hope that you appreciate the posts and pictures, even though they are off-topic slightly.
Why Soviet Union lenses? They’re cheap yet great. They often have exceptional image quality with unique characteristics. You can pick up a bunch of different ones for not much money. Really, there’s not much to dislike about them.
The history of Soviet lenses goes back to World War II. It actually goes back further than that, but the good part begins as the war ends. You might remember that the Russians were part of the Allies, united against Germany. As part of the spoils of being on the winning side, the Soviets acquired blueprints and designs for Leica and Zeiss cameras and lenses. They took this home and began making cameras and lenses nearly identical to the famed German brands.
None of this was well-known because the Russians were communists, and they were secluded from the western world. They exported very little. It wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that people began to realize that Russia was full of Leica and Zeiss clones. And these products could be had for a fraction of the price of the real thing.
There are a few reasons why Russian camera gear is so cheap. First, they developed very little of the technology they used, as they had inherited most of it from Germany. Next, they used cheap labor, including sometimes child labor, to build the cameras and lenses. Also, most Russians were quite poor, and very few could afford anything that wasn’t cheap. Finally, being communists, they didn’t have a profit model, so things were sold at a price point that was near the cost to manufacture.
The are a couple of downsides to this. One is that quality control was a major issue. There were many defective products made, and it’s not uncommon to find them still floating around. Similarly, there were discrepancies in the quality of the same product, with obvious deviations to the standards. Another downside is that they did very little to advance the technology. Even deep into the 1990’s the Russians were basically using 1950’s camera technology, with a couple 1960’s and 1970’s innovations sprinkled in. As far as camera gear goes, they were way behind the times.
Still, at the core of the gear were designs by some of the greatest engineers in the camera business. At the heart of Soviet Union cameras and lenses are found the handiwork of brilliant German minds. While inexpensive, Soviet camera gear is often marvelous, just as long as you can put up with the occasional dud.
My favorite Russian lens is the 58mm f/2 Helios 44-2. The lens is a clone of the 58mm f/2 Zeiss Jena Biotar, which was manufactured throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, and is known for its swirly bokeh and fantastic image quality. The Helios 44-2 was manufactured until 1992 (with some limited runs of the lens after that). Because of the crop factor, the lens has an equivalent focal-length of 87mm when attached to my Fujifilm X-A3.
The Helios 44-2 is an M42 screw-mount lens. Mine came attached to a Zenit-E 35mm SLR. I use a cheap M42-to-Fuji-X adapter to mount it to my X-A3. The lens is manual focus and manual aperture. If you’ve only used auto features before then it might seem foreign to use manual functions, but with practice it shouldn’t be too hard to master. I grew up using manual-only cameras, so it’s no big deal for me to use.
An interesting Helios 44-2 feature is that it has two aperture rings, one with clicks and one that’s smooth. This makes sense when using it on a camera like the Zenit-E, because you want to open up the aperture for a bright viewfinder, which assists in accurate focusing, and the duel rings make it simple to do so. On a digital camera it doesn’t do a whole lot for you. It’s a quirk of using the lens, and takes a little practice to get used to.
The Helios 44-2 is always tack sharp in the center. Wide open there’s significant softness in the corners, but by f/5.6 it’s sharp all across the frame. There’s also some minor vignetting when wide open and I’ve noticed some purple fringing. Close the aperture a little and those issues are gone. Barrel distortion is very minor.
The Helios 44-2 has some design flaws, but these are actually assets. With the right conditions it’s possible to achieve a swirly bokeh effect. The lens is prone to some unusual lens flare that can be quite beautiful. An example of both of these can be seen in Tricycle In The Woods. The flaws are what give the lens its unique character, something that’s missing in today’s precisely-engineered modern lenses.
My Helios 44-2 was a gift, and it came attached to a Zenit-E camera. You can typically find it for less than $50 online. An adapter can usually found for about $10. That’s a small investment for a fantastic prime telephoto lens!
Below are photographs that I’ve captured with my X-A3 & Helios 44-2, all straight-out-of-camera JPEGs. I love how this combination renders photographs! There is a quality that’s seemingly magical. Enjoy!
Hey! I’m from Russia so excuse my English please…
Firstly, I’d like to thank you for this website. I’m a Fuji user and I’ve read lost of useful stuff here. Looking forward to see new posts!
Here’s just one thing that struck my eyes…
“they used cheap labor, including sometimes CHILD LABOR”
This is a serious statement. May I ask where did you get that? As far as I know the Soviet history, this is NOT TRUE. Yes, during the World War II women and children worked at factories to produce weapons while the male population went to front line to fight Hitler troops. But not after the war! Children used to study hard, there was a cult of education in the USSR.
Yet sometimes university students (18-23 yrs old) were involved in public field works (like digging potatoes). But photo industry was closely related to military sphere and very important for the national prestige since approx. 1/4 of its products were exported (mostly to Eastern Europe, sometimes to Western). So it was clearly impossible that anyone not being an approved specialist would be given any access to those factories.
I’m not idealizing the USSR, it was a goddamn dictatorship. But there’s no need in making it look extra-evil. Why not write then that Commies were drinking infants’ blood and praising satan?
Please, prove that statement or delete it.
The FED factory, as far as I understand, and I am not a Soviet historian by any means, began in the 1920’s as a child labor commune.
I think every country has a dark point in history, some darker than others, but every one has a stain nonetheless. I’m not being extra critical of Russia.
Well, I didn’t know that story. Thank you for the link!
Here are the details that may seem interesting to you or your readers (the page is in Russian, but Google translates it quite accurately) https://little-histories.org/2018/04/11/беспризорный-фэд/
Btw, that child commune existed in 1927-mid 1930s. Helios-44-2 and other lenses, which you write about, were created in 1950-1960s…
And the commune itself was a unique project by famous educator Anton Makarenko (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Makarenko) who tried to save street orphans by giving them home, useful skills and therefore a ticket to adult life.
Can it be called “using child labor to create cheap cameras”?
Child labor wasn’t too uncommon over a hundred years ago across the world, even in America. It’s abhorrent now, but wasn’t a big deal then.
Hello, I am glad that you are interested in Soviet lenses and your website is just wonderful. I have no particular complaints about your statements about Soviet photographic equipment, as far as quality is concerned, but you are mistaken about its history. But this is not surprising – after all, propaganda in the United States has been telling you fairy tales about the USSR for decades. The USSR had its own lenses – Tair 11, Mir 1B 2.8/37, the Sport camera was one of the first SLR cameras for 35mm film, and possibly the first, the Zenit 3M camera was actively supplied abroad. I will leave links to a good website about Soviet photographic equipment.
The “propaganda” statement would not have been well received if you had said it to me two years ago. But, as time has gone on, and I’ve “discovered” things I was never taught, some things that have been purposefully hidden–I have no doubts that there is some level of truth to your comment. I suppose all countries do some level of this, to make themselves seem better (“the good guys”) to their own people, and make other countries seem worse (“the bad guys”). The actual truth is that “we” (whoever “we” are) were likely never as “good” as we were told and “they” (whoever “they” are) were likely never as “bad”. Sure, both good and evil exist, and the hope has to be that good beats evil much more often than the reverse, but governments and those with agendas do a whole lot to control and confuse exactly what is “good” and what is “evil” in order to control the people for power and money. It’s hard to know what the truth even is, even when it is well-cited, because it could be completely false or only half true or true but portrayed through a narrow point of view. Who knows? I certainly don’t anymore. There are biases literally everywhere.
Anyway, I love using vintage Soviet lenses, and I appreciate the information about them!
I’m glad you understood me. I agree with you about governments, and, of course, both the USSR and modern Russia also have their own propaganda. By the way, all Japanese manufacturers of photographic equipment, which we now use and love, also started by copying the best German samples.
There’s been a lot of, um, “creative copying” that’s been done in the photography world over the years, that’s for sure!