The Joy and Foibles Of B&W Portrait Photography With An $35 El Cheapo Lens (Premium)

Pssst….Didja hear the one about the guy who put a $35 lens on a $6,000 camera?

Yeah. Well, that guy is me. This is my story.

Last year, I finally invested in a Leica M 240. Got it used from a Washington Post photographer who had used that camera on assignment, photographing life under ISIS in Syria. The camera functioned perfectly, but with all of its dings and brassing, the camera looked like it had been through a war. Which it had. It’s a thing of beauty, and I got a great deal on it. (Lesson: Watch those eBay listings carefully, know what gear is worth, and you never know when you’ll find a great deal.)


Brass is beautiful: My beautifully war-worn Leica M 240 with a $35 el cheapo lens!

I transferred my Leica 28mm f/2.8 Summicron from my old M3 (which finally bit the dust), and was experiencing street photography perfection, when I was assigned a few months ago to photograph the Steampunk World’s Fair. I decided to get into the spirit of the event, and went back to eBay to look for something funky. It didn’t take long.

I came across some articles about the Jupiter-8, a line of Russian-made Leica screw-mount lenses. (Not to be confused with the Jupiter 2, the spacecraft that carried the crew from the ’60s TV Sci-Fi Sitcom, “Lost in Space”.) I loved the old-school, all-metal look and felt it would be a fine thing to bring to the Steampunk crowd, so I hit eBay and found several of them, all in the $30-50 range. I bought one from someone in Ukraine for $35, and since I already had a screw mount to M-mount converter, I didn’t have to spend any more (although such converters can be had for as little as $15 new). Even if the results would be disappointing, I’m only out $35.

Add on a flash (Canon 580 II, in manual mode so it would work on my Leica) and I was good to go.

Well, the Steampunk folks saw my setup and were impressed enough to gladly pose for me on the spot. This might have been the best $35 investment I’ve made.


On to the images

I didn’t expect perfectly sharp images and I wasn’t disappointed. The Jupiter 8 produced overall soft image quality with a small “sweet spot” in the middle that gets a bit bigger as you close the aperture. Image quality at f/2 is reminiscent of old large-format cameras.




Shooting into the sun, you can expect glare galore, but the overall slight blur under other conditions is a nice complement when going for a more pictorialist look. After the show, I did a slightly more scientific study of the lens with a fellow steampunker who couldn’t find his goggles.


At f/2, focus at the sweet spot is least sharp, although as you can see the Bokeh is pleasing. It’s a great look for portraits.


100% enlargement of the above image shows that the sharpest part of the image isn’t so sharp.


By f/8, overall sharpness is much improved, and the center of the image is whisker-sharp (literally—see 100% detail, below).



At f/22, I expected some overall sharpness fall-off, but even the buckle on his shirt came out clean. In other photos I shot, edge-to-edge sharpness ain’t happening, but I wasn’t expecting that!
Lens Operation


I attached the Saturn-8 to my Leica via a screw to M-mount adapter that can be found for around $15. Note: The focus ring is in meters, was a bit sticky to turn…and the aperture ring had no click indents! Funky? You betcha!

It has a focusing tab, giving it true Leica creds…but don’t expect any kind of coating on the lens’s elements.

When buying an older lens such as the Jupiter 8, don’t expect such modern conveniences as autofocus or auto exposure, of for that matter, protective coating. Since the lens is used, you should also anicipate the possibility that the filter ring is damaged, as is the case with my lens. Fortunately it was shipped with a carry case, and I keep it safely ensconced there when not in use.

The action on the focus ring is sticky but it still works. Interestingly, when you turn the aperture ring, there are no click-stop indents—it turns smoothly. So, you don’t get the tactile feedback that might normally help you determine how many f/stops you’ve changed.

Bottom line? $35, this was a low-risk, high potential reward purchase. Don’t forget to have fun and experiment. This lens wouldn’t win any resolution tests, but it has character, and more importantly, it elicits the most fascinating responses from people who are into all things old and shiny.