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."

Ireland with Leica Leitz, Industar, and Zeiss.

In June I drove around Ireland and Northern Ireland, taking occasional photos between beers. My primary lens for the trip was the only native lens I continue to use on my Sony a7ii, the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar T. Otherwise I packed light with three little M39-mount lenses:

1951 Leica Leitz Summaron 35mm f/3.5
Industar 28mm f/2.8
Jupiter-3 50mm f/1.5

I'm mainly into the Jupiter-3 for its bokeh, particularly at night:

This was taken on U Street in Washington, DC. Shutter: 1/160, ISO: 640, f/1.5. So much lens personality showing here - note the two blue lights bottom center: perfectly round with classic rings of brighter light at their edges. The lights toward the edge become more misshapen, and there's the nice lens flare to the upper left. You can also pick up some of the lens's scratches and imperfection within the individual light spots.

But bringing my favorite night lens to Ireland in June wasn't the best planning ... because there was 16+ hours of sunlight a day there. So I never actually used the Jupiter there, because the light at night was like this, which I took with the Leica Leitz 35mm at 10pm on the night of the Summer Solstice in Oranmore, a nice spot outside of Galway.

Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 200, and aperture somewhere around f/8.

My favorite shot with the Leica Leitz was at The Rock of Cashel, which is well worth the visit and a quick drive from Dublin or Cork...

With a scene like this, most any wide lens would've done here! Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 250, f/16 (probably).

I rarely use the Industar-69, but it's so tiny I usually keep it in my bag anyway. And every now and then there's a good chance to take advantage of its unique look. Someone in the Industar-69 flickr pool pointed out to me that the gobs of vignetting I get on the lens is because it was made for half-frame cameras, and I'm using it on my full-frame Sony a7ii. It seemed appropriate for this shot, inside the castle at the Rock of Cashel...

Shutter: 1/60, ISO: 1250, f/5 ish (this lens has one of those old-style aperture rings that's on the front, right up against the glass, and it's tough to know exactly what the setting is).

As I said the native Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 was my main lens. It's so comfortable in the wider apertures, while also showing enough personality to satisfy even us lovers of old weirdo lenses. In Galway I visited the grave of my great, great, great grandmother Mary...

I should've left some flowers, but I was a bad great, great, great grandson. Next time! Shutter: 1/1600, ISO: 200, f/1.8.

The background of that shot looks nice and distantly faded and blurred. Mainly because the shot was wide open at f/1.8, but also a bit because it was a misty day with cool light rain, as is typical in Galway. The same shot, full crop and unedited...

I once heard a great tip from a lightning photographer - he always tried to catch lightning that was at the front of the storm, because even lightning bolts lose clarity behind rain.

The sharpness of the Zeiss helped with street photography - most of those shots I had to crop down in editing because I was extra shy about the distance I took them from, as my fear of getting yelled at is great when I'm a dumb foreign tourist. This one was from Cork, which I found to be an incredibly friendly place, though even other Irish sometimes have trouble understanding the unique song-like accents of the locals.

Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 640, f/1.8.

This one was in Belfast. I was drawn to his expressive face. It was only later when editing the photo that I noticed what was on his shirt and how well his hand was placed on it...

Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 80, f/4. That's the sharpest aperture for this lens, which helped here because I had to crop the shot down quite a bit - I was across the street when I took it.

Chicago with the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar T

This native Sony lens by Zeiss is about as ace as you can get when it comes to performance, with sharpness that was literally off DP Review's chart. But I've found that some photos that would've been full of life on quirkier and lower quality lenses end up boring on this Zeiss. Steve Huff once referred to this lens as being a bit sterile, and I totally agree.

The result is that, just like with any other lens, you have to learn what works for it. The 55mm f/1.8 doesn't seem content with the standard or straightforward. It likes to have its boundaries pushed, or to at least be used for the kind of shots that will allow for more creative editing.

I took the lens to Chicago last weekend along with my a7ii...

Both this and the next one were at f/4.

At full crop every thread of the bulb's filament is impressively sharp.

Pleasantly surprised with this shot from a restaurant's patio looking through a window at the bartender. f/1.8, 1/60th shutter, ISO 160.

Had the content been different, this is the kind of photo that I might've called dull in terms of lens performance, but your gear's shortcomings don't matter quite so much when you find two dogs wearing doggles and Cubs shirts in a Vespa sidecar.

The Zeiss really excels at picking up every detail in shots like this. f/4, 1/2500th shutter, ISO 50.

Three Soviets

One of the main reasons I got on the mirrorless bandwagon with the Sony a7ii is so I could use legacy lenses with the M39 and M42 screw mounts. After finding some candidates, I searched Flickr for groups dedicated to them, choosing the lenses based on the results others were getting with them.

These included 3 Soviet lenses, seen below in the order: Industar-69 28mm f/2.8, Industar-22 50mm f/3.5, and the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2. All three were picked up on eBay from Ukrainian sellers. All three cost less than $50 each (including shipping) and all arrived in decent condition. The only catch was having to wait 2-3 weeks for them to reach me in Washington, DC. Some first impressions:

Industar-69 28mm f/2.8: Pancake wide angle lens on an M39 mount. What's great is that the profile is so low that I can keep the a7ii in the pockets of my larger coats while using it. I find it to be way too soft at f/2.8 (though that could be just the one I got -- you never know with inexpensive vintage lenses what is or isn't due to an issue with your individual copy), but it gets nice enough at around f/4 up. I get excessive vignetting with my adapter -- unlike my Fotasy M42 adapter, the length of my Fotodiox M39 adapter is not adjustable, otherwise I'd lengthen the adapter when using it with this lens. So uncropped daytime shots can look a bit silly...


But for lowlight and night shots, the vignetting can fit in very nicely...


Industar-22 50mm f/3.5: M39 mount. Aesthetically this is the coolest lens I've ever owned. Yes, having a steampunk-y chrome vintage Soviet rangefinder lens adapted onto your digital camera is exactly the sort of thing hipsters get mocked for, but you can't look at it and not love it. And I really like the way this lens handles. I like focus levers -- the one on this one will accurately lock at infinity and has a push button release that works well. The lens barrel itself locks in place at full extension when in use, but is collapsable for storage....


I try to keep it always locked forward when it's on my camera -- it's rather scary knowing a jagged ring of steel is shooting back within your camera right in front of the sensor (or in the Sony a7ii's case, the anti-aliasing filter over the sensor). To make sure this $25 lens wouldn't ruin my $1700 camera, I measured using the a7ii's sensor plane mark, and found there's a small window of safety.

The performance has been a nice surprise. It's fairly sharp across the board, the vignetting isn't bad, and some of the lens flaring can be quite pleasing...



I'm also pleasantly surprised by the sharpness. A long exposure night shot, taken somewhere around f/6...


Not totally up to par with my brand-new Zeiss, but again, keep in mind that this lens was had for less than $50!


Helios 44-2 58mm f/2: This one goes on the longer M42 mount. Optically, it's also a terrific bargain...



It's also taught me how to use preset stop-down lenses. These are lenses with 2 aperture rings -- one that clicks and sets your minimum aperture, and another non-clicking ring that actually controls the aperture. The point used to be that if you wanted to shoot at, say, f/8, then you could set the clicking ring to f/8, and then set the controlling ring to wide open (in this case f/2) so you'd have the most light for focusing and composition. Then when you're ready to shoot, you could quickly turn the aperture control until it stopped at you desired f/8.

That aspect is anachronistic for most of us, but I've found I really like it otherwise. Most modern manual lenses have clicking aperture control rings -- the advantage to clicking in place is that you can be sure of the exact aperture and you're less likely to accidentally change it. But one disadvantage is that you usually can't set it between stops (say at f/3 or 3.1 ish). And if you're shooting video it makes it tougher to change the aperture during the shot because of the lens vibration of the clicking, as well as the noise if you're also recording audio. This is why you'll see some hacked "de-clicked" lenses out there. This double-ring setup (which still exists on a few still-in-production lenses such as the Helios 40-2 85mm) gives you the best of both worlds -- smooth aperture control with one ring and the exactness of a click-stop with the other.