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I have been known to “thin slice” people, things, places, and events from time to time. 

“Thin-slicing” is a term used in psychology to describe one’s propensity to find patterns in events based only on “thin slices,” or narrow windows, of experience. This is relevant to LLFNP because I have reason to believe that I thin sliced Russian camera lenses based on my experience using about 5-6 of them. 

For background to this discussion, I refer you to my Jupiter 8 and Industar 26m lens reviews. Each are gems in their own right (I took heat and a few nasty emails for the Jupiter review) but after skewering both, I always had a sneaking suspicion that something didn’t add up. In the reviews, I refer to unrepentant, Russophile maniacs who wax poetic about their love for Russian camera lenses. Could it be possible that I am right and all of them are wrong?  Is it possible that once and for all my true genius has appeared and the sign is that the dunce Russophiles are in a confederacy against me? 

TL;DR. No. I am no genius. I am, however, a professional thin slicer. Sometimes my thin slicing blade works for me and I am able to glide through the world in a more efficient manner than others. Other times, my blade forces me to join the confederacy of dunces who say and do stupid things. We are about to find out if this is one of those times. 

Maybe it is because of the never ending pandemic, maybe it is because I am in line for surgery to correct a deviated septum, or maybe I am still triggered because I was put in my place as the stupidest person in a chat room when asked why nobody talks about the glass used to make camera lenses (more on that in a minute), I decided it was time to reconsider mother Russia and see if I could reconcile the differences between my past experience with Russian optics and the Russophile maniacs who love them. 

Omnar – The Spice Girls of rangefinder camera lenses 

I don’t generally like to buy fine photographic equipment from alcoholics or artisans who are paid in alcohol for their labor. I also don’t like to buy optics or electronics that are known to have copy to copy variation. Electronics are not cheese. Or wine. Or sausage. Copy to copy variation is acceptable with delectable edibles but electronics have more in common with toilet paper than sausage. With electronics and toilet paper you want know exactly what you are buying. Surprises are unwelcome and should be avoided. 

I am unsure if there are any alcoholics in the toilet supply chain but copy to copy variation and stories about alcoholism are indelibly linked to Russian cameras and lenses. If i was going to reconcile with the Russophile maniacs and determine who is the genius and who is the dunce, I needed find a way to mitigate the variability and be sure we are comparing apples to apples.  I needed a lens that would be the best that Russia had to offer with no room for fungus, miscalibration, or other age related disease. Given that I can do little more in this world than push a camera button and tell people their pet may or may not have ingested a tampon or an air pod, I needed an expert so I called The Spice Girls of rangefinder lenses.  

The Spice girls are the most relevant musical super group of the 90’s. Full stop. Some would argue for A Tribe Called quest. Others might suggest De La Soul. Yet others would say TLC or (gasp) the Backstreet Boys. For me,  it is the Spice Girls. Yes, they were created in a lab. Yes, they made Spice World: The Movie which was a transgression. All of that, however, is irrelevant if you are talking about cultural relevance. If you lived through the 90’s, at some point you asked yourself or you were asked “If you were a Spice Girl, which Spice Girl would you be?”  

That very question, in fact, prompted boys, men, and others to question their masculinity. Back then it was called masculinity. These days it would be called gender. Back then, life’s big questions were multiple choice with no option for D) all of the above. These days life seems to be more of a free form jazz experiment.  Regardless, whomever you are or were, wherever you lie on the spectrum,  the Spice Girls caused you to ask big questions and that is why Omnar is the Spice Girls if camera lenses.  Omnar forces us to ask big questions…and then promptly shovels the answers in our mouths like an infant eating mashed carrots. 

Each Spice Girl had a super persona that was so specific, so refined, and so critical to the project that Spice Girls enterprise was a synergistic supernova. Sporty, Posh, Baby, Ginger, and Scary brought the Girl Power.  The Omnar experiment follows suit and is comprised of: 

  • Hamish Gill. A.K.A. “Mad Hatter” the evil genius behind 35mmc who (inexplicably) called for a short run of Canon AF-10  point and shoot lenses rehoused for a rangefinder camera. 
  • Aaron Parke: A.K.A “Kote of Arms” the paint gun slinging artisan from Camerakote
  • Chris Andreyo : A.K.A  “Lord of Brass” the mechanical engineer responsible for the precision upon which Omnar lenses are built

I turned to Omnar for assistance because if I was ever going to reconcile my beef with the Russophile maniacs, I was going need to start fresh with a lens that was 1) calibrated 2) cleaned and 3) machined by someone working for money and not alcohol and 4) guaranteed to be free of confounding variables that would, well, confound the reconciliation process. 

At the urging of The Lord of Brass, I purchased a Jupiter 3 lens but I soon learned that not any Jupiter 3 lens would be sufficient. Working with The Lord of Brass comes with hand holding and an education. I was instructed that if I was going to crack the mystery of Russian camera lenses, I needed to go way back in history. This history brings us to the point in this story when I was told that I was the stupidest person in the chat room for asking what I thought was a pretty obvious question about camera lenses. 

The time I was told I was the stupidest person in the room or “Does it matter what glass a camera lens is made of?” 

I am rarely either the smartest person in the room or the dumbest. I am mediocre in most things. I do, however, poses an above average nonsense meter and a while back I pointed my nonsense meter toward the geriatric dudes in the camera forums who say things like “Well that lens is a double gauss design so the rendering is expected to be blah blah blah” or “I don’t like the rendering of Cooke triplet based lenses because of blah blah blah.”  You see, lots of old men (never women, rarely young men) like to pontificate in camera forums about lens diagrams as if camera lens image quality is a single variable equation based solely on the lens diagram. 

At the time, I was unaware that old men get so activated about lens diagrams, stupidly entered a discussion about lens diagrams, then stupidly asked something along the lines of

 “Lets say you have a Sonnar lens made of plastic (think ground up water bottles all melted together) and another made of some super special rare-earth, radioactive, glass that costs $500,000.00/gram. Does it seem reasonable that the image quality between those two lenses, even though the lens designs is identical, would be identical? 

Stated another way, “is lens design the most important factor in the image quality from those two lenses or is it possible there are other factors at play other than the lens diagram? I mean one lens is plastic and the other is super-glass.  If other factors might be at play how can you predict image quality based solely on a lens diagram?” 

I was roundly criticized as being the stupidest person in the room, told to go learn my “lens signatures,” and was encouraged to go to my corner and think about my transgression. Honestly, nobody answered my question.   

Undeterred, I braved the waters again and tried again asked something like, 

“If the Russian lenses are made using the same lens diagrams as the Zeiss designs they inherited, why are the images from Russian lenses and Zeiss lenses different? Is it possible that there are confounding variables?”

The response, expectedly,  was something along the lines of “We already told you that you are the stupidest person in the room. Go learn about lens diagrams and while you are at it, please leave us to our viagra, non-slip bath mats, prunes, and lens diagrams. Above all, please stop being a pain in the ass with your silly questions.” 

At the time I was asking questions based on a gut take of the situation. At the time, I didn’t know it but, back in the 1800’s, Carl Zeiss also thought this was a pretty good question to ask. You see, back in the day, Carl Zeiss and a few of his buddies hit a road block with their microscope optics and lens diagrams weren’t helping solve their problem. 

Schott Glass. 

In the mid 1800’s, working in Jena, Germany, Carl Zeiss and a physicist buddy of his, Ernst Abbe, developed the mathematical basis for a lens diagram that they could use to build the  perfect microscope objective. The problem is that they were limited by the glass used in those early microscopes and that glass wasn’t getting them the performance they wanted.  They called on a glass chemist, named Otto Schott, for an assist. 

With Schott’s expertise, the three of them developed things like apochromatic lenses and improved the resolving power of their microscopes. Schott also invented borosilicate glass which is still used today. 

You know where this is going right?  Glass is important and it is very possible that I wasn’ the stupidest person in that chat room. Lens diagrams are one things but lenses are not single variable equations. As you will soon see, again, glass is important. 

In 1945, at the conclusion of World War II, the Americans moved Zeiss, Schott and the Carl Zeiss Foundation to new headquarters in West Germany. What was not divested by the Americans or taken to Mother Russia became the Soviet-owned company, VEB Carl Zeiss Jena.

This history is important because I was told by The Lord of Brass that if I was going to understand Russian lenses, and get a window of understanding of why the maniac Russophiles get so activated about their lenses, I needed to find a lens made between 1949-1956 with the KMZ logo on the front.  Especially 1949 thru 1952 if possible.

Lenses of an early 1950’s vintage are important to this story because lenses made with original Schott glass,in Germany, they brought to Russia. Essentially, these lenses are war-era Carl Zeiss Jena lenses that were confiscated by the Soviet Union in 1948 under the war reparations acute and subsequently made into early Russian camera lenses. The confiscated optics for the 5cm f/1.5 Sonnar formula ran out in 1956 so Russian J3 lenses made after mid-1956 are a different beast.  On say a J8 lens, the year is 1955 when the german optics ran out.  Each war reparation  Zeiss lens formula had different years when the confiscated optics became depleted.

For the J3 lens, lenses made after 1956 KMZ’s began to use different glass. The old men in the chat rooms say lens diagrams are all that matter but I trust The Lord of Brass. 

From 1956 onward, Russian J3 lenses are, therefore, pure Soviet tech and are expected to have the the copy to copy variation that Russian camera lenses are known for. The apocryphal gospel of Soviet camera lenses tells us that the Soviets cut corners in lens production and make cheaper lenses with smaller elements that had more vignetting and softer corners than their German counterparts.  

In the 1960’s the mechanics of Russian lenses started to suffer and by the 1970s things were really going downhill. Stories about vodka being used as a bonus given to employees who assemble the most lenses (quality be damned) for the month abound. It has been said that the state had a system that required photographers to bring new Jupiter lenses to the local photography shop to be calibrated and adjusted for the camera. Mint copy lenses from the 1970’s onward were never properly adjusted to begin with!  Somehow they don’t mention that in the eBay listings but that would explain why a Russian lens is not a Russian lens and why my experience might be different than the Russophile maniacs. Previously, I was trying to use any old Russian lens I found on eBay that looked promising. #epicfail

The Lord of Brass also informed me that brass lenses of the early to mid war era are known to be sharper and better assembled to tighter tolerances then end of war/ post war era versions of the same lens.   The lens I was looking for would have to have a brassy front filter area (not black or silver) because that would also mean that the sub-block would be made of brass rather than aluminum, and these brass sub-blocks would have originally been planned to go into CRF mount lens shells.. “Aluminum tip” lenses are post war and are not known for their quality, though they also contain Schott glass if made by KMZ up until 1956.

Two final questions from a skeptic for the forum dwellers and influencers 

If you are reading this and wondering, “why is this guy so triggered about lens diagrams and glass?” You are in good company. I routinely ask myself the same thing. It probably has to do with something that happened on the playground when I was 8, in group-out group bias, and echo chambers. 

From my vantage point, a lot of what goes on in the camera world is an echo chamber and question about glass and glass lens diagrams are anathema to the photography echo chamber

I find it interesting that Canon talks about fluorite containing lenses, Carl Zeiss thought glass was important, Leica talks about their secret glass formulations, Voigtlander paints Chuck-e-cheese racing stripes on their lenses to let you know they use special, lanthanum containing, glass, Schott makes proprietary glass for different lens manufacturers, but somehow the old men in the forums who fancy lens diagrams, and the entire influencer crowd who review lenses never consider that glass might have something to do with image quality and rendering.  

I honestly don’t know what contribution different types of glass make to image rendering. I imagine, however, that it is at least a non-zero amount. I also don’t know how, why, or if glass ages, if glass was significantly different with older lenses a and/or if/when those differences became irrelevant but it seems to me that when I use modern lenses based on old lens formulas I don’t magically get a vintage lens look? 

My working theory, therefore, is that glass plays at least some role in what we all love about vintage lenses. Then again, maybe I am the stupidest person in the room because this entire topic gets overlooked by the old men with a tumescence for lens diagrams and influencers on Youtube sitting in front of their curated bookshelves, fake plants, and neon light sticks.  

I am ready to grow up and put my experience in the chat room behind me by asking two questions I never asked publicly. 

  1. “If I had images from 10 different lenses, could someone reliably tell me the diagram of the lens used to make those images based on the images alone?”
  2. “If a company took modern glass and used the exact same lens diagram as something from the 1960’s would the images be identical?”

If the answer to either of those questions is yes, I concede that I am the stupidest person in the room. 

For now, however, I will continue to live in my own echo chamber, take the advice of the Lord of Brass, and believe that there are confounding variables that have at least some degree of an impact on image rendering because it seems too simplistic to conclude that image rendering is a single variable equation based on lens diagrams.   

Next time….Schott glass and the full review of my Omnar, re-housed, Jupiter 3 lens.

Disclosure statement: I have nothing to disclose. I am a customer of Camerakote and Omnar lenses but I receive no discounts or special consideration. This is not a paid review.  The Lord of Brass helped assure the technical accuracy of this article with regard to the history of these Russian lenses. 

NOTE: The cover image for this post is just a picture of a Russian lens on a Leica camera. This is NOT the Omnar lens. The lens is still in process and not currently in my possession.