There is perhaps no more controversial, polarizing, and confusing subject in vintage photography than Russian lenses. For as many articles and forum threads that lionize the Russian lenses as dirt cheap Zeiss-killers there are just as many that dismiss them as deeply inferior knockoffs. So which is it?
While Russian lenses do have a deserved reputation as being inconsistent and unreliable, not all of them are created equal. Much of the allure of these lenses (besides being dirt cheap) is the challenge of finding a good one, so we here at CP have taken it upon ourselves to find out which of these lenses are worth it for the everyday shooter. And first up, we have a classic rangefinder lens, the Jupiter-12 35mm f/2.8.
The Jupiter-12 35mm f/2.8 is one of the old standbys of the LTM Russian rangefinder lenses. These were manufactured as companions to the wildly popular FED and Zorki Leica copies, and can often be found bundled along with such cameras. Armed with a lens like the Jupiter-12, these cameras proved to be capable, cheap alternatives to their expensive Leica and Zeiss counterparts.
Of course, the irony of the Jupiter-12 (and all Russian lenses for that matter) is that it derived its entire design from its competition. Sure, the lens was manufactured by KMZ near Moscow, but its design hails from the Zeiss factory in Germany. But how did the Soviets get the Zeiss blueprints? After beating up on Nazi Germany in WWII, the Soviet Union decided to take the legendary prewar Zeiss lens formulae as a spoil of war and create an entire photographic industry around them. Thus, the Jupiter-12 (and many other copy-cat lenses) were born.
Its prewar ancestor was the Contax-mount Zeiss Biogon 35mm f/2.8, which was a masterpiece of lens design, renowned for its sharpness and resolution across the frame and its uncommonly fast maximum aperture of f/2.8. For the Soviets, copying a lens as great as the Biogon was a no-brainer.
Aside from a few slight cosmetic differences, the Jupiter-12 adheres to the quirky design of the original. Its beating heart is the famous six elements in four groups lens formula of the Biogon that eschews the typical retro-focus design more commonly employed. Because of this, the front element sits recessed deep into its silver chassis while the enormous rear element protrudes far beyond the limits of the lens mount. And for that real Biogon flavor, the Jupiter-12 retains the bizarre aperture control which surrounds the front element and doubles as a filter ring.
But where the Jupiter-12 starts to deviate from Zeiss territory is in its build quality. These lenses were made with incredibly tight budgets, a questionable labor force, and wide manufacturing tolerances, resulting in some truly disconcerting quality control issues. The aluminum chassis of the Jupiter feels flimsy compared to the high-quality German brass used to make the Biogon, the lube often stiffens over time, and the black paint used to cover the lens’ innards chips off rather easily, making for some seriously rough looking lenses.
But if Russian lenses are infamous for their quality control issues, they’re often redeemed by their imaging characteristics. These lenses are first and foremost renowned for their incredible image quality, and it’s what keeps them relevant today. But whereas other Russian lenses can, against all odds, mostly recreate the vintage beauty of those prewar Zeiss lenses, the Jupiter-12 falls short of the original Biogon’s prowess.
Where to start with this thing? First off, images made with it are astonishingly soft. Shot wide-open, the Jupiter-12 only gets a tiny sliver of extreme sharpness in the absolute center of the frame – all else is as gooey as vaseline. And whereas most lenses will sharpen up considerably by f/4, this one doesn’t achieve any kind of consistent sharpness until about f/5.6. For the “f/8 and be there” crowd this might seem like a moot point, but it is concerning for those who find themselves shooting in lower light.
Not only does the Jupiter-12 suffer from a lack of sharpness, it also has a huge problem with field curvature. This makes most images look like they’re being stretched into the corners. Combined with less-than-ideal sharpness, the field curvature makes the Jupiter-12 almost impossible to use for general purpose photography between the apertures of f/2.8 and f/5.6.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Jupiter-12’s ergonomics are absolutely dismal, especially when it comes to changing aperture. The aperture dial is a step-less serrated ring surrounding the front element that forces shooters to turn the camera on its face to view and change aperture. This slows down shooting considerably, and the stepless nature of the dial demands precision and delicacy for accurate aperture setting. If you’re a set-it-and-forget-it shooter, or desire a steeples aperture for video work, this won’t be a problem, but for those who like mechanical and tactile precision this is an annoying design choice.
Perhaps I’m being unfair to the Jupiter-12. It is, after all, a cheap Russian lens. But that’s the contradiction of Russian lenses; even if they are cheap, they still come with added expectation due to their reputations as sleeper lenses. But lower the expectation and take the focus off of the tech specs, and we might find the Jupiter-12 is a fun, capable little lens.
Though field curvature and a general lack of sharpness hampers the lens’ wide-open capabilities, it does add a playful dimension to the lens. The lens vignettes and distorts heavily at f/2.8 and gives images that signature Lomo LC-A and Holga-esque lo-fi look. Sharpness is also surprisingly good in the center of the frame, good for subjects placed smack in the middle of your image. And colors render extremely well with this lens. Though the Jupiter-12 is only single coated, colors come through with a unique balance of boldness and subtlety uncommon to the multicoated wonders of today. I can see the subdued color palette and lowered contrast of this lens playing extremely well with vibrant films like Kodak Ektar, Fuji Superia 400, or Agfa Vista 200.
And true to form, this lens does retain a little bit of that vintage Zeiss character, even if it’s obscured by its imperfections. Even though it lacks wide-open performance, when closed way down it turns into a surprisingly sharp lens with a smoothness that recalls the Biogons and Sonnars of days past, though we’ll need a fairly bright day to make this choked aperture work. It’s not a perfect replacement for either of those lenses, but it can definitely do its best impression of them past f/8.
Pros and cons weighed, the best aspect of this lens is its price. Jupiter-12’s can be had for somewhere around $70 on eBay. This is pricey when it comes to Russian lenses, but worth it considering that most LTM lenses often cost more than $130 on average. Of course, the biggest obstacle is getting a good copy from a reputable seller. Due diligence is key to getting a functional lens, so make sure you do your research on both the seller and the item in question when buying.
Is this lens really worth shooting? It depends. If you’re expecting a Zeiss-killer, this one’s not for you. It’s much too soft, too specific, and too unreliable to really dethrone any of the German lenses. But if you want a decent 35mm lens that’s good for devil-may-care experimentation, the Jupiter-12 is a good candidate. It might not be perfect, but does it need to be? I think not.
[Many thanks to valued commenter and friend of the site Huss Hardan for lending this lens. Check out his work here]