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Film | Video | Photography | Emerging Technologies

Russian Camera Lens Test

By: Robert Michael 


As a cinematographer and video producer, one of the joys of the job is the gear. Whether it’s new cameras or old lenses, we like to play.  However, there is a serious side to our ‘play’.  Like any craftsman or artist, knowledge of our tools is extremely important.  My focus with any  new tool is to test the aesthetic qualities, not so much the technical.  The technical aspects are important, and there is overlap, but the aesthetic qualities are still my priority.


Recently I sourced a set of 1970’s and 1980’s Soviet still photography lenses, more  due to my fascination with Soviet technology then for their practical usage.  However, I thought it would be fun to run some tests with them to determine the differences between these lenses and their modern counterparts.


As the title says, this first test was about color.  We used this setup to create a consistent reading on our chart.  The analysis was completed in DaVinci Resolve, which has a built tool to measure this particular chart.


Here’s what we found… 

 58mm

The 58mm lens tested here is a late 1980’s Helios 44-2 made in the KMZ factory outside Moscow.  The KMZ factory was the beneficiary of all the captured german optical technology during WWII.  As a result, many of the lenses they produced were based on Zeiss designs.  The lenses have a beautiful feel to them, solid construction, and resolve very well on a 2.5k sensor.


From a color perspective, these lenses have a pretty neutral shift.  You can see from the above chart, that they are off by only a few percent on the majority of the chart.  While only 4 colors are off by 10%, the skin tone (top row, 2nd from the left) is one of them.


Now, from a practical perspective, what does this mean?  Simply that this lens doesn’t have a color shift of any real value to correct out in post.  The green and magenta cancel each other out.  We were just as surprised as you are, I’m sure, that an old, communist manufactured lens would be this close to neutral.

 85mm

This 85mm lens is the Jupiter 9, manufactured in 1987.  Manufactured in the Lzos factory ,60 miles north of Moscow, this is a very pretty lens.  The Lzos factory was a satellite of the KMZ factory, and, as such, benefited from the captured German optical technologies. 


The remarkable result in the chart above is that this lens is almost a perfect match to the 58mm.  Any color shift is off by only 1%.  That’s pretty amazing when you think about the manufacturing processes of the communist system during the cold-war era.  Quality control was not a strong suit of the Soviet infrastructure.  Factory managers were rewarded for producing a pre-determined quantity of an item, regardless of the need for that item.  It’s amazing anything from that era lasted as long as it did!

 37mm​​​​​​​

The 37mm is a 1982 Mir-1, 2.8 lens manufactured in the Valdai Optical-Mechanical Factory, approximately 240 miles north-west of Moscow.  This factory is a bit of a mystery, as there is very little information available.  What is known is that many lenses with the KMZ factory logo on them were actually made in this factory.


Even a quick look at the color chart above will show that this is the most neutral lens of the three.  the skin tones are down to 8%, and the greens and magentas are down as well.  Another surprise.

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Conclussion

So, what does this all mean?  From a historical viewpoint, it’s clear that great care was put into adapting German optical technology to the Soviet manufacturing process.  The Soviets put great effort into producing lenses that would last for some time.  All of these lenses are solidly built, and operate smoothly, with no oil on the diaphragms or sticking blades.  The long-throw focus rings make using them easy and fun.  Very little ‘breathing’ can be seen when racking focus.


The one drawback to using them in practical situations is in the operating of them.  These lenses were produced with an M42 lens mount for rangefinder cameras.  They were designed with two rings to control the aperture.  The firs ring sets the aperture.  The second ring allows the lens to be opened up all the way so enough light enters the lens to allow for accurate focusing.  After the image is focused, the second ring can be rotated quickly to the ‘hard stop’ set by the first ring.  What we have found is that by setting the first ring to the minimum aperture, we essentially achieve step-less apertures.


For more information on other vintage lenses used in film and video production, check out  https://www.vintagelensesforvideo.com/ for some excellant information.

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