Switzerland, Italy, and Morocco with the Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2.0

Often with wide-angle lenses you have to live with either a slow aperture speed or excessive bulkiness. Example: the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 is fast and produces beautiful results, but it's brick-heavy and as long as many 100+mm lenses. Smaller wide-angle lenses usually range from f/2.8 to f/4 if you aren't paying the big bucks for something like a Leica Summicron lens.

The Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2.0 attempts to find a middleground. It's reasonably fast, and while it's far from small for a 25mm, it's fairly lightweight and the length isn't too out of control. It is a fat lens, and would probably be a bit much for the smaller Sony E-Mount cameras.

As for results, it combines excellent optical performance with minimal distortion to produce high-quality, straightforward results. This makes it a good travel photography lens for me. I don't look for personality traits such as bokeh quality as much in wide-angle lenses as I do in 50+mm lenses. With something like the following shot, taken at Lake Lugano in Switzerland, the priority is catching a big field of view with maximum clarity.

 The Batis 25mm at f/10, 1/160th shutter, and ISO 200.

The Batis 25mm at f/10, 1/160th shutter, and ISO 200.

Cramped spaces can also call for wider angle shooting. I turned to the Batis when walking the narrow streets and alleys of the old Medina of Rabat, Morocco.

 f/6.3, 1/400th shutter, and ISO 400. Lots of contrast added in the edit, with some added vignetting as well.

f/6.3, 1/400th shutter, and ISO 400. Lots of contrast added in the edit, with some added vignetting as well.

When in manual focus mode, this lens has a readout on top of it that displays focus distance, as well as depth-of-field (circle of confusion) range:

 At f/2.8. The readout is also available in feet, but years of vintage Soviet lenses have taught this American to think in meters.

At f/2.8. The readout is also available in feet, but years of vintage Soviet lenses have taught this American to think in meters.

It can also be set to always on or off. I've seen reviews call this feature a gimmick, with photographers saying they don't see the point. I couldn't disagree more - this readout is wonderful feature, and I hope to see it on more lenses in the future. I often rely on zone focusing for things like street photography and concert photography. When I'm walking through a city trying to quickly capture slice-of-life moments, I prefer older lenses that have markings showing focus distance and aperture so I can know at a glance if the focus will be right. This readout brings that feature back with a new level of accuracy.

If you're someone who uses autofocus a lot, this feature won't be of much use to you. But I would also suggest you turn your autofocus off - I consider autofocus much more a pointless gimmick than this readout!

Getting back to lens performance, I'm also happy with how it does in low light, as seen here crossing the Arno River in Florence, Italy:

 f/2.5, shutter 1/50th, and ISO 2000. Florence is often drizzly in January, but as film noir cinematographers discovered long ago, that's great for shooting streets and sidewalks at night.

f/2.5, shutter 1/50th, and ISO 2000. Florence is often drizzly in January, but as film noir cinematographers discovered long ago, that's great for shooting streets and sidewalks at night.

I don't chase after sharpness performance as much as many photographers, but I was happy to have the Batis's sharpness when I came across this tree on the shore of Lake Como in northern Italy:

 Do you see the silhouetted witch? f/5.0, 1/200th shutter, ISO 100.

Do you see the silhouetted witch? f/5.0, 1/200th shutter, ISO 100.

 Moroccan flag street art in Casablanca. f./4.0, shutter 1/640th, ISO 100.

Moroccan flag street art in Casablanca. f./4.0, shutter 1/640th, ISO 100.

 One of the many picturesque streets near Lake Como, Italy. f/4.0, shutter 1/60th, ISO 100.

One of the many picturesque streets near Lake Como, Italy. f/4.0, shutter 1/60th, ISO 100.

Crosswalks and Bokeh

Hellios 44-2 58mm f/2 lens. 16th Street NW at U Street NW, Washington, DC.

Crosswalks are ground zero for street photography. One of my favorite street photographers, Tokyo's Tatsuo Suzuki, does a lot of his work walking through Shibuya Crossing where he always has thousands of passing faces to choose from. Having strangers in close proximity with a wide open space around you, which usually means more (or at least more uniform) light than on the sidewalk, is perfect for using a mid to wide-angle lens with zone focusing to get street portraits. There's the added bonus that people are so focused (forgive the pun) on getting to the other side of the street that they're less likely to stop and yell at you for taking their picture.

So I use crosswalks a bit for standard street photography...

Rough Day. I'm tempted replace his backpack with a briefcase and the cars with 1960s Buicks and Fords.

I was so excited by the idea of catching Justin Bieber's face like this that I ran up so I get the shot while the shirt-wearer was still in the sun and I could get lens flares.

Everyone always takes some variation of this shot sooner or later. Cliché or not, it's too fun to resist.

A map of DC walking through DC.

But what's drawn me more lately is using crosswalks for abstract bokeh experimentation. They're good spots for that because the various background lights will be nice and far away (and completely out of focus), and no matter how abstract the shot is the white stripes give an easily recognizable reference, and nicely frame the dark silhouette-blobs of anyone in them...

The Soviet Jupiter-3 50mm f/1.5 lens. This is an example of how delicate this lens's blur spots can be, with most of the blur spots brightest around their edges, and showing various personality and shape depending on where they are in the pictures frame. This was looking across U Street NW, at 14th Street NW - one of my favorite DC intersections.

I've written before what a great bargain the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 is. One of the reasons it's one of the best lenses you can find for under $50 is the bokeh...

While the blur spots don't have quite the subtle personality of the Jupiter-3, look how ginormous they can get. The Helios 44-2 can focus to very close distances, giving far off lights extra big blur spots.

Next up is a more obscure lens, at least going by popularity on flickr - the Asahi Takumar 35mm f/2, which I found mounted to a Pentax in a bin of old film cameras. The camera's price tag said $80. I brought it to the register, unscrewed the lens from the Pentax body, and told the store owner, "I don't need the body." He replied, "I don't need the body." I said, "How about $75 for the lens?" and she said sure. Probably not perfect haggling on my part, but it was a good deal for both of us - they go for around $125 to $200 on eBay, but this one is pretty beat up and hazy.

Not bad, but not as good as the Jupiter and Helios.

One more, this time back to the Jupiter-3...

 Dupont Circle, looking north up Connecticut Avenue NW.

Dupont Circle, looking north up Connecticut Avenue NW.

...I liked how the abstraction doesn't make it any less clear what's being shown here - I was lucky with how well the white of the crosswalk so nicely frames the couple's interlocked hands. When I posted it on 500px, photographer Joseph DiPolito commented with a more clever caption than I ever would have come up with - "Love is always out of focus."

Adapting Rangefinder Lenses with Focus Levers

Most of my lenses are in the old rangefinder M39 screw mount. Being able to use these smaller lenses is one of the big advantages of mirrorless cameras - the bellows length on these are much shorter than SLR mounts like the sister M42 screw mount common on vintage SLR lenses.

M39 will usually equate to a rangefinder lens, but be careful when buying - in the 50s and 60s, the Soviets started using an M39 mount with a longer bellows length to accommodate SLRs. When I picked up a 1965 Mir-1 M39 mount lens on eBay, I expected to be able to use it with a standard M39 adapter, but it needed a longer SLR bellows length. Luckily there are little M39 to M42 adapter rings available for a few dollars, and the usual M42 adapters will hold those lenses at the right distance.

For reasons I wrote about before, I sold my heavy, ginormous Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 native ZA E-Mount lens. I wanted to replace it with a compact manual 35mm for under $500. After a lot of research (I was also tempted by an M39 mount Canon 35mm f/1.5), I bought a 1951 Leica Leitz Summaron 35mm f/3.5 for $300. I hadn't expected to settle for something as slow as f/3.5, but I liked samples of shots made with that lens. And it is terrifically compact:

With this lens on, the camera will fit into larger jacket pockets.

I also like that it has a focus lever. Focus levers, in addition to having great vintage steam-punk-y aesthetics, are functionally a lot of fun. You can snap them to infinity almost instantly, and in time you get a feel for where your focus is by where the lever is, and you can get lightning fast at focusing at any distance without looking - something particularly useful for street photography.

I had a problem when the lens arrived. I alway use the great little $9 Fotasy M39 to E-Mount adapters. The lenses fit very flush against the base of the adapters, which is fine for most lenses. But with a lens like this that has a locking focus lever, there's not adequate clearance for the spring-loaded locking/unlocking mechanism to engage. With the lens fully screwed in, It wasn't able to get it in and out of its infinity focus.

This was an easy fix though, thanks to the adapter design which allows you to remove the inner screw mount ring. A 1/16" flathead screwdriver can loosen the three little screws in the body.

 Careful! The screws don't have to be completely removed, but it's easy to accidentally completely unscrew them. Do not attempt it over shag carpeting!

Careful! The screws don't have to be completely removed, but it's easy to accidentally completely unscrew them. Do not attempt it over shag carpeting!

In theory you can mount the ring to stick a bit out from the adapter if you need to microadjust the distance of your lens to get proper focus. This is possible, and I've done it, but it's very tough. The sides of the ring are tapered, which will often cause the ring to return to flush as you tighten the screws...

It's also tough to keep the ring exactly on-plane with the adapter (and ultimately camera sensor) when re-installing it at a longer length.The good news is that if your lens isn't wonky then adapter should work perfectly fine with the ring in its snug, flush position.

So here's how I adapted the adapter to work with my new (1951) focus lever lens. I removed the screw mount ring from the inside. I then selected a spot on the body where I wanted the focus lever to be while at infinity. The adapter bodies always fit the same way onto an E Mount - with the adapter lettering ending up on top while mounted. Ergonomically this focus lever (and most focus levers, if I'm not mistaken) should sit close to the bottom of the camera while at infinity. At about 7 or 8 o'clock while looking at the lens will put the lever's entire range in easy reach of your left hand.

Once I had a spot picked, I started filing the heck out of that spot on the front of the adapter body. This is why I'd removed the inner thread ring -- I didn't want to mess the threading up, and there was no reason to file the ring anyway. It took a lot of filing to get a nice deep groove, but once I did I simply first screwed the inner thread ring all the way onto the lens, and then dropped the lens and ring into the right position on the adapter body. so everything was in its right place. I then tightened to the three screws bit by bit until voila...

 The focus button mechanism now has full clearance to get in and out of its locking infinity position.

The focus button mechanism now has full clearance to get in and out of its locking infinity position.

By the way, that trick of readjusting the position of the inner thread ring is useful for properly fitting on any lens so the aperture and focus indicators are properly positioned in sight. You don't ever have to use your lenses upside down! The threading on these lenses is quite precise, so they'll always fit onto the same adapter the same way. Once I have a lens properly adapted, I always keep it on that adapter though. I buy a separate adapter for every lens. At less than $9 an adapter, it's worth the convenience.

Anyway, now that I've got it adapted I've been happy with the Summaron so far. It looks and feels like new. The handling is wonderful - I particularly like aperture adjustment, which subtly clicks and every spot, but is also tight enough to hold in-between apertures. The lens is sharp enough for my purposes, and it has nice lens contrast. Like most any uncoated vintage lens, it can drunkenly spill light all over the place in high-light settings, but learning how to tame and use that is half the fun. Samples shots:

Uncropped image. Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 100, Aperture: f/11 probably.

Cropped image. Taking advantage of the lens flaring. Shutter: 125, ISO: 80, I forget the aperture, possibly f/5.6.

Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 1000, Aperture: f/4 I thin. This uncropped image shows the lens's pleasant vignetting.

Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 5,000, f/3.5. This type of image is exactly why I chose this lens.