Note: After finding film-esq joy of shooting a Helios 44-m6 50/2 on my d7000 and a Mir 21n 35mm and seeing how these “flecktagon formula” east russian glass return some of the “film formula” to digital, I was delighted to see this article by Robert Chisholm on the joys of Jupiter lenses on a humble seven thousand dollar M9 Leica. The thought of pairing a seven thousand camera with a 50-100 dollar “junk” lens from the soviet union is quite astonishing when you think about it. Seeing them outperform or match the 2,000 Zeiss glass of today is perhaps even more pleasing.  My Mir 21n contains Lanthanide, a radioactive isotope to prevent light dispersion in the lens. Try explaining that to America’s Zeig Heil TSA going through an Airport today!

JUPI-WHAT? Shooting Jupiter Lenses on the Leica M9

By Robert Chisholm

There is a certain allure and mystique to rangefinder photography. The obvious “whatsit”? The mystery of why any self respecting photographer would shoot a “manual everything” rangefinder in a modern world of do-it-all dSLRs. If that question is not enough of a head scratcher for you, another is why anyone who pays top dollar for a camera would then work with any lens other than the latest and greatest Leica glass? Well, I can not answer the first question, only to say that I am either fool or a genius (opinions vary) for choosing a $7k camera that won’t even focus for me! But shooting non-Leica glass? There are actually good reasons to choose and use old(er), non-Leica lenses.

Because Leica rangefinder cameras are manual focus and because the lens mount from the first screw mount lenses can be adapted to the modern “M” mount, lens choices are vast. This is fantastic for us; A photographer can research and choose lenses that draw in a fashion that is visually and emotionally appealing, sometimes with a “look” you just can’t get from contemporary glass. Leica glass also tends to be very expensive and often someone can get an entire lens outfit for the price of one new Leica lens.

The obvious drawback to legacy glass is that the designs, glass and lens coatings might be technically inferior to current, modern equivalents. While this could be very important to a landscape photographer, these “flaws” may be less significant or even desirable to a portrait or street artist.

How low can you go: How old? How inexpensive? How poorly built? And why would anyone with an expensive camera like the M9 even want to ask such silly questions?

Well, the answer to the last question is because you can, and it’s amusing! There is also a bit of romance to old lenses and a nostalgia that comes with using equipment made by someone from another era. I mean, I am using lenses built by a man or woman who has probably moved on from this lifetime, who lived in a country that only exists in the history books and at a time when things like computers weren’t imagined and penicillin was the only antibiotic. It was a time when my dad walked ten miles to school every morning in the snow barefoot and up hill both ways. That’s cool!

Jupiter lenses: What are they and what do we know?

While the story of Russian-made rangefinder cameras and lenses is waaaay beyond the scope of this article, one brand seems to stand out: Jupiter. The used market seems flush with jupiter lenses, especially the 50mm Jupiters, the Jupiter-3 (f1.5) and Jupiter-8 (f2).

Now, in rangefinder world, the two focal lengths people seem to love most are the 50 and 35. I know some people are true blue 35mm folks, but I’m a 50 guy. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good 35 as much as the next shooter, but if I could only have one lens, it would be a 50! Therefore, the 50mm Jupiters attracted me, and I wanted to find out more.

A little time spent googling the net and lurking in the forums revealed that the Jupiter 8 is reported to be a decent performer optically, at least on film, with the Jupiter 3 being more hit or miss. Both lenses suffer from poor overall mechanical builds, reflecting the Soviet era shoddy workmanship. Sounds really great so far!

Digging a little deeper revealed more concerning details: People note focus issues on the digital rangefinder (ie., the M8). Specifically, the lenses are known to back focus a few inches. The Jupiter 3 is a sonar design and, like the modern Zeiss, has it’s own inherent tendency to focus shift at middle apertures. This is a separate issue from the aforementioned back focusing, but does complicate the overall focus picture with this lens. I suspect that the back focusing issue of both lenses exists on film as well, but is magnified or at least seems to be magnified with the digital cameras given our ability to pixel peep (and to take and critique photos more readily).

Enter Brian Sweeney, a moderator on the rangefinder forum. Brian happens to be a Jupiter lens aficionado and is THE resident online Jupiter expert. He also is one heck of a nice guy! Brian informed me that the difference in build specs between the Russian rangefinder cameras and our beloved Leicas is the root cause of the back focusing issue, and that the lenses, when shimmed properly, can be adjusted to focus correctly! Bingo, big problem solved!

Now, purchasing a Jupiter 50mm lens is both easy and somewhat difficult. The Jupiter 8 sells for about 25 bucks and the Jup 3 is about $120-150 — both readily available on “the Bay.” Easy schmeasy. The hard part is the random chance of getting a dud versus a stud, optically speaking. Nobody likes to throw their money away, but just try returning a lens to some guy from Where-The-Heck-Is-It-Stan — Ain’t gonna happen. Cross your fingers!

OK, so you fancy yourself an eBay gambler and the focus issues are more of a mole hill than a mountain. The lure of the elusive 50mm lens is calling and you’ve just got to see if these Russians can make anything besides vodka and borscht. Mandler who?

Jupiter-8: the Small, Sexy, Retro 50

Right up front, I’m going to say the Jupiter 8 is one sexy lens on a black M9! While the older Jupiters are silver, then later ones are black, and the color matches the flat black paint on the M9 to a “T.” Color coupled with the rugged Black M9 vulcanite covering gives an almost military impression which I just love. The two look like they were made to go together. That either says very little for Leica, or a whole bunch for those Ruskies…

The minimum focus distance on the standard Jupiter 8 is 1 meter; While this distance was adequate on the M8 due to the crop factor, I often find myself needing or wanting a little bit closer focusing for my general 50mm shooting with the full frame M9. Fortunately, not only did Brian Sweeney shim my Jupiters for me, he even improved the Jupiter 8 to allow a minimum focusing distance of 0.8m. Sweeeeeeet!

The Jupiter 8 makes a great walk around lens, being small and unobtrusive. The focusing action is smooth and the simple focusing ring, while thin, provides adequate grip. The aperture ring is the weakest part of both Jupiters, as there are no detents or reassuring clicks and once you set an aperture, any little bump can and will turn the aperture ring. One has to get used to checking the aperture ring often. Perfectionists and/or the easily frustrated need not apply!

So, down to the brass tax: Are the images from the Jupiter 8 any good? In a word, and with caveats, yes. The images are indeed very, very good.

First, my perspective: We all have those Holy Grail lenses, the lenses that, for one reason or another, we just adore and against which all similar focal lengths are compared. For me, for general purpose 50’s, the Holy Grail if you will is the Zeiss 50 f2 Planar. I consider faster 50’s specialty lenses as they are usually larger and optically best at wide apertures. The summiluxes, noctiluxes, noktons and sonars all fall into this specialty category. I’m not saying you can’t shoot a noctilux all day and at f4, but a small 50 summicron might fit the bill better for all day shooting at f2-f8 apertures.

Being a 50mm enthusiast, I have had the pleasure of owning (my wife might say a problem with buying) quite a few 50mm lenses: the modern 50 summicron, Voigtlander 50 f2 heliar, Voigtlander 50 1.1 and 1.5 noktons, Canon 50 1.4 and 1.2 ltm’s, Konica Hexanon 50 f2, an older 50 collapsible summicron, the 2 Jupiters in this article, and the Zeiss planar. These days, while the planar spends most of the time on the camera, I like having a faster 50 when I want to shoot low light or portraits with especially shallow depth of field.

While some folks enjoys landscapes and others shoot street, I photograph mostly candids/people/fashion. I don’t need my lenses to be the absolute sharpest, but I do look at how a lens renders skin, colors, bokeh, and 3-d pop. Skin drawing is of top importance to me – a lens that is overly harsh on skin is generally a deal breaker. Many a 50 has come and gone simply based on skin rendering alone. The M9, in comparison to the M8, seems to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a given lens, and what might have been a minor annoyance on the M8 often becomes a glaring flaw on the M9. Frustrating? Indeed! I have had to become much more choosy with my lens selections for the M9.

So I shoot 50s and I shoot people. For this article, as I know people get sick of seeing shots of someone’s family, I tried to include a few shots of non-people taken with the Jup 8 while on a recent trip to the zoo. You know, to mix it up. I should also mention that I post-process all my images to taste, preferring to use tools such as Lightroom, Exposure, and Silver Effex. None of the photos presented are raw and all have been edited to some artistic effect. Therefore, things like color cast and contrast have been mucked with.

The Jupiter 8 images are very pleasant to work with. I like the medium contrast files and the clarity. The bokeh is what I would label “energetic” while not being overly nervous or jittery. The bokeh is not, however, buttery smooth. The color rendition is somewhat cold or flat, but there is good 3-d pop. As I edit in film emulators, such as Exposure, flat files are often a nice starting point. Skin drawing is average, but thankfully not harsh. As to sharpness wide open, my copy of the lens is somewhat soft at f2, but does sharpen up by f4. The lens is of similar performance to the Voigltander 50mm heliar (no slouch) and the older collapsible 50mm summicron (which was of very low contrast, however). The lens does not come close to the 50mm planar, which I find to be the absolute best 50 f2 on the market optically. But the Jup 8 cost, with shipping and CLA charges factored in, all of $100 — It has real bang for the buck! Moreover, the Jup 8 is just plain fun to shoot, and I especially like the black and white photos it produces — They look very special and interesting to my eyes!

How about that Sonar?

Let’s move on to the main course, to the big boy, optically speaking: The Jupiter 3, f1.5 Sonar! Physically, this lens is actually quite small. It is just a bit bigger than the Jup 8, and much smaller than the f1.5 nokton and Canon 50 f1.4. My copy is an older chrome version, and the same overall comments about physical attributes and build apply. The aperture ring is a touch tighter on the Jup 3, so the aperture tends to stay set, which is nice. Minimum focus distance is 0.9m.

Optically, this lens is surprisingly, um, awesome. Awesome as in a knock-your-socks-off, photo making monster of a lens! The colors, the bokeh, the pop, the character of the lens — all fantastic. Now I can’t compare this lens to the famed noctilux or modern “wunderlens” summilux. But this lens optically out-performs the Voigtlander noktons as well as both of the fast Canons. I shoot it from wide open to f4 and have not noticed any issues with focus shift. Brian adjusted this lens to focus dead on when wide open and it certainly is — Focus on an eye and count the eyelashes!

Skin is drawn gently with this lens, while maintaining good in-focus sharpness. The out of focus areas have have a lovely calm glow that seems somehow old fashioned, as if this lens is still taking photos 50 years ago. Not busy all, which I appreciate.

The Jupiter 3, being a different design than the Jup 8, has a much different look and the lenses actually complement each other quite well.

My verdict on the Jupiter 50’s

What can ya say, other than fun, with incredible bang for the buck?

The Jupiter 8 makes for a cool, small walk-around lens and produces some quality files, especially black and whites (I have provided mostly color files here to show what the lens can do.).

The Jupiter 3 is magical when shooting wide open and continues to be excellent when stopped down. It would excel for anyone who enjoys shooting people and needs something faster than f2. Of the Jupiters, it is the clear lens to own, if you can get a good copy and then have it adjusted to focus properly. The Jupiter 3 is good enough to be one of my main lenses, and has replaced any interest I might have had in trying a Leica fast 50. However, I will be keeping and shooting both the Jup 3 and Jup 8 lenses. They are unique in the images they produce, and frankly, it is a blast to use these relic lenses on my modern M9!

I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please continue to support Steve’s site. If you want to see more of my photos, my flickr page is http://www.flickr.com/photos/feros-ferio/

All the best! — Rob Chisholm