Mirrorless Cameras and Legacy Lenses

Jupiter 8 Lens

A couple of years ago, I purchased an Olympus mirrorless camera as a way of upping my photography game. I had been using a variety of super zoom and point-and-shoot cameras, and wanted to gain the advantage of interchangeable lenses. The micro four-thirds (often called “m43”) platform seemed like a great way to have access to a wide variety of lenses from at least two manufacturers: Olympus and Panasonic. I was initially pleased, but quickly learned that the really desirable lenses were costly. Also, although the Panasonic and Olympus lenses were interchangeable on each other’s camera bodies, there were important differences that limited the practicality of some swaps, and it might be best to stick with the same brand of lens and body. This wouldn’t prevent me from enjoying my camera choice, but it was a little disappointing.

Zeiss Ikon ZM 35 mm rangefinder camera with Planar T* 50mm F2 lens and silver Abrahamsson soft release
Zeiss Ikon ZM 35 mm Rangefinder camera with Planar T* Lens
Reading the photography forums regarding mirrorless cameras, I learned that it was possible to adapt other lenses to the m43 platform. With no mirror, the lens is mounted much closer to the sensor focal plane much like the range-finder cameras of yesteryear making the use of old lens systems very practical. For instance, some filmmakers were interested in using vintage “c-mount” lenses from old 8 and super-8 mm cameras to achieve period looks. Since many of those lenses were from long-abandoned film cameras, they could be found for a fraction of their former cost on Craig’s List or eBay. I descended into the rabbit hole.I had purchased an Olympus 12-50 mm zoom lens with the camera, and with the 2:1 crop factor of the m43 format, the resulting 24-100 mm effective focal length covered many of my needs very well. Fully integrated with electronic focus and supported by the camera’s sensor-based image stabilization, I was able to shoot from wide to short telephoto. At f 3.5-6.3 however, the lens was a little slow. Wide to normal primes seemed desirable. To get started, I purchased Fujinan 35 mm and 25 mm c-mount lenses. At f 1.7 and f 1.4 respectively, they offered a depth of field and beautiful soft background focus that were hard to achieve with my other lens. At a cost of about $45 dollars each including the c-mount to m43 adapter from Amazon, the purchases were no-brainers. These were surveillance camera lenses however, and had some other issues when compared with normal photography lenses. Not quite what I’d hoped for.

Canon 135 mm lens
Canon 135 mm lens

I began noticing Leica mount (aka “m39”) lenses on eBay. First up was a Canon 135 mm f 3.5 prime. I was able to buy it for around $40, and added the $10 adapter. This venerable old lens is heavy metal construction, and feels a bit odd on the small, lightweight E-PM2 body, but produces a wonderful telephoto effect. At an effective focal length of 270 mm when including the m43 2:1 crop factor, this lens is fun! Remember that these old lenses require the photographer to set the focus and aperture manually and only partially take advantage of the camera’s auto exposure capability. This isn’t really a problem for someone like me who learned photography in the television news biz — working with old Nikon F2 “single lens reflex” (SLR) and early “electronic news gathering” (ENG) portable video cameras. I just set the Olympus to “aperture priority” and started shooting. Just like old times!

Spring Kalanchoe
Spring Kalanchoe through a legacy Canon 135 mm lens

Other posts mentioned old, soviet-made, Leica mount lenses. In particular, the “Jupiter” series of lenses available in a wide variety of focal lengths and speeds. The Jupiter-8 (50 mm f 2) and Jupiter-11 (135 mm f 4) were both common and inexpensive on eBay. Having already purchased the 135 mm Canon telephoto lens, I decided to buy a Jupiter-8. These lenses come in a variety of configurations, and are often available for less than $20. Intriguingly, one eBay ad mentioned that this lens was based on an old Zeiss design from the mid-30’s and the factory where they were made was a tranfer from Germany after the Second World War as part of war reparations. Opinions varied on how good the lenses were. I decided to buy one.

A few days later, it was attached to the Olympus body, and shots were fired. Inspection of the results revealed a focus problem at the infinity end of the focus adjustment. Objects in the distance were soft! Based on what I had read, this was disappointing but not surprising. Apparently I had gotten one the junk versions. Well, not much was lost. I was intrigued by the story however, and wanted to know more. Since the Jupiter lenses were made up through the 80’s, how was it that a pre-WW2 lens design had remained viable for so long? And how did this transfer of technology happen in the first place?

Olympus E-PM2 with Jupiter 8 lens
Olympus E-PM2 with Jupiter 8 lens

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