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.

Dupont Circle in the USA Today

I was happy that USA Today used two of my shots of the Dupont Circle fountain in this terrific article about the efforts to revitalize the Dupont Underground.

Dupont Circle is my favorite spot in DC to start photographic walks from. It's equidistant from some of the District's most photogenic neighborhood -- Georgetown, Adams Morgan, and the U Street corridor to name a few. And the Dupont Circle neighborhood itself is a great mix of DC's culture and classic architecture.

On the Threshold of Winter (with the Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9)

I shot a performance of composer Michael Hersch's On the Threshold of Winter opera for the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. It was one of my first times shooting with the Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9 portrait lens, adapted as usual to my Sony a7ii via a $10 M42 screw-mount adapter. I was so happy with how it handled low light. The beautiful set design also helped...

Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter 1/160, ISO 1250. The aperture was probably around 2.2 or so - it doesn't need to be stopped down much for nice sharpness.

This particular Takumar lens dates from the 1960s. Later versions of it got the Asahi "super-coating" and in the 1970s it was made in an f/1.8. From what I've read and seen, the f/1.8 is a little better - they improved what was already a great design. The differences seem pretty minor to me though, and I was content to save a little by going with the f/1.9 - I got one in pristine shape for about $300 from an American seller on eBay. Another shot with the lens was used by Vanderbilt University for the poster promoting the opera's upcoming performance there.

I love the bold word layout the designer used. The figure in the background is a work by sculptor Christopher Cairns. Shutter 1/125, ISO 1000, aperture around 2.5.

Soprano Ah Young Hong after getting her hands dirty. Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter 1/125, ISO 1000, Aperture probably around f/2.8.

I also used my native Zeiss lenses for wider shots. The following was one of my favorites, which came at the end of the opera.

With the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 ZA. Shutter 1/80, ISO 1250, aperture 4.0. The lighting was pretty much just a spotlight on the singer, which made composition fun - lots of black negative space to play with. Placing her in the upper half of the frame makes her look elevated somehow, running contrary to the obvious sense of exhaustion.

Another shot with the 55mm f/1.8 was used by the Baltimore Sun for their very enthusiastic review of the opera...

Shutter 1/60, ISO 800, aperture 2.8. Exquisite colors as usual from the 55mm.

Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA in Japan

One of the reasons I picked up the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA was so I'd have a high-quality wide-angle for a trip I was taking to Japan. I got some nice shots with it like the following ones, but my final verdict is that it's just too big and heavy for a 35mm lens. The thing that bothers me most about the size of it isn't the inconvenience, but how much attention it draws. Candid street photography is a lot tougher when everyone is noticing what looks like a giant zoom lens.

So I'll be (probably maybe) selling it at some point. I'm not particularly into native lenses for my camera anyway -- I don't like using autofocus, and I don't mind changing the aperture manually (which you have to do with this lens anyway). Plus the cost was like 10 times what I'm used to paying for vintage lenses.

But I can't say I wasn't very happy with some of the shots it caught, like these five...

 

This is the great Mistral Bleu Bar in Tokyo. The Zeiss was very nice here wide open at f/1.4, with a 1/80th shutter and 1250 ISO.

Zeiss confidently calls their 35mm Distagon the "master of light." It does handle various exposures wonderfully, such as this overexposure on the very scenic Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima. Shutter: 1/250th, f/2.0, ISO: 100.

This was peeking into a record store in Osaka. I loved the Lightin Hopkins poster on the wall. The lens gave me a pretty flexible depth of field considering it was wide-open at f/1.4. Shutter: 1/125th, ISO: 100.

Another from Osaka, also wide open. There's a lot going on here between the bright lights and the bits of night in the background, but the lens did fine with all of it. The bicyclist isn't as sharp as she could be, but that was only due to her movement, and my zone-focusing being a tad off. Shutter: 1/100th, f/1.4, ISO: 500.

This was on a train from Nara to Kyoto. Obviously this one is more a matter of content than anything special photographically -- I might've been just as happy with a phone photo of the moment. I always feel self-conscious taking shots like this. That raises the question: Is it creepier to overtly grab shots like this with a big lens like the Distagon, or to be stealthy about it with something smaller? Shutter: 1/250th, f/6.3, ISO: 500.

Ah Young Hong

Promo shots I did for opera singer Ah Young Hong. This one was with the Helios 44-2 58mm, which can be very nice for overexposed shots.

Shutter: 1/40th, ISO: 1000. F-stop probably somewhere around 5.

We loved this outtake, done with the Helios 40-2 85mm next to one of the Juan Munoz sculptures outside of the Hirshhorn Museum.

Shutter: 1/500th, ISO: 80, f/1.5 to get the full swirly Helios bokeh.

One of the shots we were going for was something to use on the poster of an upcoming opera. The tone needed was dark and gritty, which was tough since our photoshoot was in the day and dark alleys weren't an option. But we found a good indoor wall of big stone bricks:

And with just a bit of editing the shot was grungy enough...

Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5 lens. Shutter: 1/50th, ISO: 1250, F-stop around 5.6.