How I Keep Photography Simple (Digital Edition)

The reasons I photograph are very straightforward, whether I use a film or digital camera, an SLR or a compact.

I wrote about this in more depth recently, but the short version is – to roam the English countryside, to feel the immersion of the moment and the whole world being in the viewfinder, to capture things I find beautiful, and to enjoy using vintage camera gear.

I’ve realised how easy it is to complicate these simple aims, most usually by obsessing over which kit to use, how to set it up and use it, then how to process the images afterwards.

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Samsung GX-1S, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens

So over time I’ve found (and I’m continuing to find) how to keep this to a minimum, and so maximise the raw pleasures of hunting, camera in hand.

With digital, I’ve found this harder than with film.

Although the cameras themselves are generally less appealing (I’m far less easily seduced by clever technology in a plastic shell than genuine mechanical craftsmanship and elegant, timeless design), the options are more abundant.

With film, once you’ve chosen a camera, you then just have the choice of lens and film, essentially.

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Samsung GX-1S, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens

Shooting digital, once you have your camera, you still have the lens choice, but it’s usually a wider one, as adapters available for digital cameras open a whole world of vintage lenses, as well as the native, modern, AutoFocus lenses.

For example, my Pentax K10D DSLR can use any Pentax K mount lens (which began in 1975 and are still being made), plus with a simple adapter I have the pick of the vast vintage M42 world.

There’s no film to choose of course with digital, but instead a plethora of customisable settings, arranged in a myriad of menus.

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Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax-A Zoom 35-70mm f/4 lens

Then, once you have your negative (with film this is the physical negative, with digital the RAW file) you then have further options to extract your final “product”, the photograph. Or, many photographs – of course any number of variations can be created from that negative.

Again, too many options!

I generally feel in my life I spend too much time at a computer and not enough out in the fresh air.

So the thought of having to spend further time at a computer editing (ie choosing my favourite shots) and processing once the photowalk is over can be daunting and demoralising.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens

So, with all these choice to combat, and options to overcome, here are the main ways I try to keep this whole process as simple as possible, so ultimately as much of my photography time as possible is spent exploring the countryside and immersed in the beauty of the world according to my viewfinder.

1. Simplify lens choices. 

After a few years of experimenting with dozens of lenses, I came back to what I realised very early on. You can’t go wrong with an Asahi Takumar or two.

Once I’d narrowed down to M42 as my predominant mount, the Takumars were the obvious choice. I do have a few others, some Zeiss, a few Russians, but mostly now it’s Asahi’s finest I own and use.

If I’m in doubt as to which Takumar lens to use, I just default to the one that started it all for me, the humble yet wonderful 55mm f/1.8.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens

2. Simplify settings. 

On the digital front I’ve honed down to two main cameras. The Pentax K10D, and its smaller (but older) sibling, the Samsung GX-1S, a clone of the Pentax *ist DS2.

The K10D is bigger, sturdier, has more functions, is 10MP rather than 6MP and feels near perfect in my hands. The GX-1S is smaller, lighter, simpler and still handles great. In reality they’re 95% the same in function, once initially set up, so it’s easy switching between them.

I could just shoot the JPEG mode on the camera, then simply upload them to my computer so no further processing is required.

But the problem is there is no “neutral” JPEG. Even with all settings at neutral, natural or zero, the cameras still process and compress the image.

I’ve had excellent results (for my tastes and needs) by shooting RAW with both cameras at their native ISO (100 for the Pentax, 200 for the Samsung), then simply importing into LightRoom, and exporting those I want to share or print as JPEGs that way. I’m very happy with the outcome, so I’m sticking with this approach.

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Samsung GX-1S, Asahi Auto-Takumar 55mm f/2 M42 lens

3. Simplify adjustments.

Once each camera was first set up I can shoot with hardly any adjustment. When I got them, I chose Auto White Balance, centre weighted metering, single shot, the base ISO, RAW, and so on.

Then, the only adjustments I need to make when shooting are slight tweaks to the exposures. I do this with the exposure compensation button, and the exposure lock button.

Typically on these cameras, M42 Takumars seem to need slightly over exposure wide open (I start with +0.5) then 0 compensation a stop or two down, then -0.5 or -1.0 once you’re three or four stops down.

Arguably my Sony NEX is simpler on this front where virtually every exposure is spot on, but it lacks a number of other things the Pentax and Samsung DSLRs have, so overall seems more complex and more work.

I have the “blinkies” switched on which show over and under exposed areas on the screen when you’ve taken the shot, and a histogram on the review mode so again I can see at a glance how the exposure is, if I can’t tell purely from looking at the photo on the screen.

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Samsung GX-1S, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 M42 lens

4. Simplify editing.

By editing I mean choosing the pictures I want to keep and which I want to discard. I find it much easier with digital (than film) to be very brutal with editing.

The first step is to import all the RAW images into LightRoom. Then I cycle through, and simply export (as full size JPEG with no tweaks etc) the ones I like most. I then usually delete all the RAW files. Then I cycle again through the JPEGs I’ve kept and cull further, so I’m left with just the best of the best.

On a great day this might be 15 or 20 images from 100, sometimes it might only be a handful. Sometimes none! I usually make a 50% size version to share online, as well as keeping the original full size file.

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Samsung GX-1S, Asahi Auto-Takumar 35mm f/3.5 M42 preset lens.

5. Simplify processing.

Processing for me is so simple it’s virtually non-existent. A while back I used to shoot with my Sony NEX then go through the editing process above to keep the best images.

Then I’d import these back into LightRoom and use a favourite one or two film presets to try and get the photos looking more like I wanted. Plus I might also slightly tweak the contrast and exposure settings. Processing for a single image might take between two and ten minutes.

With a good batch where I might have 10-20 keepers, this equated to 20-200 minutes of processing time. Interesting results, but not fun.

Once I’d discovered the Pentax and Samsung and the beautiful rendering of their CCD sensors – particularly with Takumar lenses – I eliminated the whole world of presets, and just do that simple export to JPEG.

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Samsung GX-1S, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens

Sound simple?

Hopefully it does. But maybe to you this might all still sound a bit complex, I don’t know.

But for me, after years of searching for a way to use beautiful vintage lenses to create photographs I’m really happy with, with the minimum of fuss and fiddling, I’m delighted with this current approach.

How do you simplify your own photography process? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

The Only Lens You’ll Ever Need

Some say the only lens you’ll ever need is the one you have with you.

But I would add an extra caveat, based on my five years of buying, testing and, let’s be frank, fumbling around until I get something half decent from, dozens of vintage SLR lenses.

That addition is simple – it has to have the word Takumar on the front. 

Because, over this period and these many optical flirtations and explorations, I’ve emerged the other side loving Asahi’s classics more than anything else.

Plus, given the extensive range they made, there’s something for all of us, from the wide angle wanderers and the tunnel visioned telephotoists, to the macro maniacs, and everyone in between.

My own set has settled, for now, on these five Takumars. 

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Here’s why I love each of these, and Takumars in general, and why, if you haven’t already, you should have at least a couple in your arsenal too.

Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5

Tiny, all metal build, with super smooth knurled metal focus ring and exquisitely weighted aperture ring. With 35mm film, I’ve struggled with 28mm – there’s just too much in the frame, too many elements.

But on my Pentax K10D with its APS-C crop sensor, the 28mm gives an equivalent 42mm field of view – according to many, the perfect “normal” the human eye sees.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5 lens

It’s still, for me, quite a radically wide perspective compared with the 135mms I’ve been using most in recent months, but this difference is challenging in a good way. And using this little jewel of a lens is a constant delight.

Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8

The one that started it all for me, the first Takumar I bought around 4.5 years ago, and indeed the first M42 lens I had. Of all the 50/55mm lenses I have since, I can’t say that a single one has felt better to use, or performed better than the humble Tak 55/1.8.

On film I love 55mm, it gives that slightly large than life perspective in the viewfinder compared with a 50mm lens.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

With a digital APS-C sensor the 55mm is 82.5mm field of view, which is getting comfortably into the more up close territory I like these days.

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Samsung GX-1S, Asahi Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens

The blend of sharpness versus out of focus background quality with the 55/1.8 is near perfect for me, on film and digital, and incredibly pleasing to my eye. I’ve said here before, if I had to shoot just one lens for the rest of my photographic days, it would be this one.

Takumar 105mm f/2.8 Preset

An unusual focal length, and I expected this lens to be significantly bigger in size. But it’s tiny, slim and, like all the others, divinely smooth in handling and focusing.

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Sony NEX-3N, Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8 lens

I love preset aperture lenses. They work great on film, and even better, in my view, with digital.

Preset the outer aperture ring to the minimum you want, then open the inner ring wide open. Focus, compose, then gently close down the inner ring until the image (and most vitally, the depth of field) is exactly how you want it to look, and shoot.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8 lens

This lens is probably my second favourite behind the 55/1.8, as it gives that closer perspective, and increased depth of field, without needing to stand 2 or 3m away from the subject like with longer lenses.

Takumar 135mm f/3.5 Preset

This is from the same era as the 105/2.8, also preset, and also wonderful to use. It’s only slightly bigger too, and smaller and lighter than most 135mm lenses.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5 lens

Whilst similar in use to the 105/2.8, but arguably even better in the final image. Both lenses are older, pre Super, Super-Multi-Coated or SMC, so the coatings are less sophisticated. I thought this might impact the quality of the images, but they’ve delighted me so far, especially the colours when used with the K10D.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5 lens

Super-Takumar 150mm f/4

Given my fairly wide range of 135mm lenses, whilst I was tempted by a Super-Tak 135/3.5, I thought it wasn’t going to be much different to the preset version.

I assumed the next lens up in the range would be 200mm, but that seemed too long and awkward, especially as it gives a 300mm field of view on APS-C.

Then I stumbled across a 150mm f/4 Super-Takumar. The reviews were good, so I gave it a chance.

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Samsung GX-1S, Asahi Super-Takumar 150mm f/4 lens

It’s early days with the 150/4 and I’ve only really played around in our garden with it, but no regrets so far!

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Samsung GX-1S, Asahi Super-Takumar 150mm f/4 lens

Overall

I’m sure you’ll have gathered from above the major appeals of the Takumars. Beautiful all metal and glass build quality, very smooth mechanically, compact and light, and excellent performance.

What I haven’t yet mentioned are two other crucial factors.

First, adaptability.

Whilst I’m finally settling down to a very small handful of Pentax bodies (four – two film, two digital), I have used M42 lenses on M42, Pentax K, Contax and Yashica (C/Y mount), Minolta AF and Canon EOS film bodies, and Pentax K, Sony Alpha, and Sony NEX digital bodies.

M42 is a vast world, and there’s a camera body (or three) for all of us to use those lenses, with a simple and cheap adapter if necessary.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens

Second, affordability.

A common theme to my writing here is spending as little money as possible on photography, like under £5 on a lens, and shooting film on a shoestring.

The Takumars fit into this beautifully, and a working, if little worn, lens can be picked up from around £10-15. The most I’ve spent on any of the above is around £75 for the 105/2.8, but it is quite rare, is an unusual focal length, is in near perfect condition, and performs amazingly. It’s worth every penny.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8 lens

The whole set of five (which to most people I’m sure seems more than one would ever need) only cost me around £200.

Many pay more than that for a single, plastic, AF zoom lens. Yuck!

Add this to say, £15 for a K mount or Spotmatic film body, or the £50 I recently paid for the little Samsung GX-1S (a rebadged Pentax *ist DS2 I understand), and it’s a very affordable set up for such world class and luxurious kit.

The cheapest Takumar is usually the 135/3.5 (non preset) or the 55/2.

The latter being a 55/1.8 with slightly hindered maximum aperture, but otherwise identical, and therefore equally stunning in use and final image.

One of these with a Spotmatic or older SV or S2/H2 can usually be had for under £50, sometimes way under.

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Pentax ME Super, Asahi SMC Takumar 55mm f/2 lens, TudorColor XLX200 film

In the last five years, having gone through at least a couple of lenses a month, the clear frontrunners have been the Asahi Takumars.

Everyone should have at least one – but beware, once you do have one, it might make you seriously reconsider all the other lenses you have!

Do you have any Takumars? Which one(s), and what are your impressions? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Film Photography On A Shoestring

There are still many myths around how much it costs to get set up with film photography.

I want to shoot a few more down.

A while back I wrote about how to start start film photography for £27. Based on at least two of the three rolls of film I’ve just got back from the lab, this amount is hugely generous.

Let’s just look at one set up, a 35mm SLR.

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Canon EOS 500, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film as b/w

The caption above kind of gives away the kit I used, but to elucidate further –

Camera – Canon EOS 500

These are abundant on the auction site online and often in charity shops too. Though I also have a more sophisticated EOS 300v which cost a heady £15, the 500 does everything I need and more. It’s great if you’re coming from a DSLR as it looks and feels similar – like a baby DSLR with no LCD screen on the back, simpler controls and that only weighs 350g. It cost me 99p plus a couple of pounds postage.

Lens – Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 Mount

I bought this from a jumble bin at a camera show. It’s battered, bruised, has lots of dust and a couple of bubbles inside. Plus a dent in the filter rim where it was rapidly encouraged to the floor from a table by a three year old. But it keeps on ticking. The dealer wanted £10, I got it for £7. Try these other three underdogs for equally affordable alternatives.

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Canon EOS 500, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film as b/w

Film – AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200

This rebranded Fuji C200 film is £1 a roll in Poundland. It’s very versatile and I’ve used it extensively to shoot colour, DIY redscale and black and white. Though there are other emulsions I like, this is my Olympian Decathlete film – a fantastic all round champion.

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Canon EOS 500, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film as b/w

Of course the Canon EOS isn’t a native M42 mount body.

So I need an adapter.

I actually have three, as a couple of sellers have included them free when I’ve bought M42 lenses. If you do have to buy one, they start at 99p. With free postage. Mine is a simple all metal adapter with no fancy focus chips. On Aperture Priority (Av) mode on the EOS it works a treat.

Adding it up, this set up cost me about £12, including film.

Obviously the film you can only use once, and there are development costs each time.

But there are no excuses on the grounds of cost in getting started with shooting film (or resuming the passion you retired to the sidelines years ago).

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Canon EOS, Helios 44-2, complete with dented filter ring badge of honour

What else does £10 buy you these days?

Are you making excuses about getting started in shooting film? 

Or, like me, do you try to shoot on a shoestring budget?

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Lens Love #1 – Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 M42

Lens Love is an ongoing series of posts about the vintage lenses I’ve used and loved most.

The dry technical data and 100% corner crops of brick walls can be found elsewhere. What I’m more interested in is what specifically about a lens makes me love using it, and why I believe you should try one too.

First up –

Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 M42 mount

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

What I love

Close focus. The Pentacon 50/1.8 focuses down to a touch under 0.33m. Most 50s flounder around 0.5m, or 0.45m if you’re lucky, so the additional intimacy with your subject offered by the Pentacon makes it stand out. There’s a whole world of photographic opportunity available that is beyond the vast majority of 50mm lenses. This blog is about hunting for beauty, and most often I’ve found the beauty is in the tiny details.

Colours. Some lenses just seem to deliver better colours than others, and the Pentacon 50/1.8 is a good example. Vibrant and alive, but without being garish, the colours have delighted me time and time again, on film and digital cameras, straight out of camera. None of the images in this post have had any post processing.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

All metal build. From an era where lens makers had either not discovered plastic or were unconvinced about its place on such a fine object as a camera lens, the Pentacon is satisfying metal. Impressively though, despite the reassuring build, it’s surprisingly light (sub 200g) and compact.

Sharpness. I’m not the biggest fan of clinical, almost sterile sharpness, but the Pentacon is in my eyes very capable in this area once you stop down a little. Which still allows for a more dreamy and artistic kind of approach when used at wider apertures. Or sometimes both of these extremes in the same photograph.

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Pentaflex Auto Color 50/1.8 M42 lens

Availability. Every other Praktica camera for years, possibly decades, came with this 50/1.8 (or a variation branded Meyer or Pentaflex) as its standard kit lens. Which means today, even allowing for those thousands that must have been long since broken and discarded, there are still plentiful supplies for us. Most often they’re still attached to one of those hefty, non-nonsense Praktica heavyweights they haven’t been parted from in 30+ years.

Affordability. As with any lens, price varies depending on the seller’s knowledge and demands, and you will find the Pentacons selling on their own fully working for maybe £50 or more. But be patient and maybe a little lucky and you can still find them for under £10, and far more easily under £20. Even £30 for a clean, fully working example I would still consider excellent value for a lens this capable.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

Adaptability. The familiar screw thread of the M42 mount graces probably more lenses than any other in history. Because of this, plus the simplicity of the mount, it means M42 lenses can be easily adapted to a huge range of other film and digital cameras. I have used M42 lenses on classic M42 bodies like Spotmatics and Fujicas, as well as with adapters on Pentax K, Contax/Yashica, Minolta AF and Canon EOS film bodies, plus Pentax K, Sony Alpha/A mount and NEX/E mount digital cameras. As most examples of the Pentacon have an Auto/Manual (A/M) switch, just slide it to M, and you can manually stop the aperture down using either Aperture Priority or Manual mode on your camera. The adapters tend to be very affordable too, from £5-10 for most.

What about the downsides?

There’s much to love about the Pentacon 50/1.8. There are two main downsides to consider. Well, maybe one and a half.

First, they’re not always in excellent, fully working order.

The main issues I’ve encountered have been stiff focus and faulty aperture blades. The former, depending on how stiff, can be lived with, and sometimes a little extra weight in the focus ring aids accurate focusing. But if the lens is unscrewing itself every time you try to focus, it’s not very usable. This can be fixed of course, and the lens relubricated, but this would likely cost twice what the lens would cost to replace, so weigh up your options.

With some examples, the aperture blades are stuck open, so wherever you turn the aperture ring to, it’s wide open at f/1.8.

Again this can be fixed, but again consider the repair cost versus finding another. If you find a cheap Pentacon Auto with excellent glass but stiff focus and/or stuck aperture blades, considering how good they are (in my experience), it might well be worth a CLA. £10 for the lens plus £40 for a CLA is still pretty good value, considering you’d then know you had an excellent lens that would last for potentially years to come.

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Pentax MG, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

The other, less obvious, downside is the competition.

Most specifically its German counterpart, the Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8. In their day, the Pancolar was the more expensive option for your Praktica L or M series camera, and these days the cost differential is probably even greater.

The lenses are tied on close focus, general feel and size, and adaptability. The Pancolar, in my experience, just has the edge in sharpness in the final image, though I haven’t shot the two head to head in identical conditions.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

If money is no object, buy the best and newest Multi Coated Pancolar you can find. It’ll likely cost £100-150+.

But for 95% of the performance (maybe more) at 10% of the cost, the Pentacon is amazing value.

A final note about variations.

The older examples I’ve had generally have more straight edged aperture blades, so you get bokeh highlights like this –

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

This is great if you like that sort of thing, and often I do.

But if you want smoother, more rounded bokeh, especially in the highlights, go for a later version which produce images more like the following. Notice the far more rounded hexagons on the far right.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

Aside from different versions of the Pentacon (generally, later ones shout MULTI COATING on the front and the lettering around the focus scale is green and white, earlier ones use red and white fonts), I’ve also had a Pentaflex Auto Color 50/1.8 which is as far as I can tell identical to the earlier Pentacons, again with the straighter aperture blades –

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentaflex Auto Color 50/1.8 M42 lens

It comes down to what you find, and your preference in the starkness of your hexagons!

Overall I would highly recommend the Pentacon 50/1.8 in any of its variations.

It’s arguably as good in the final image as any 50mm lens I’ve used, is excellent value, and with that close focus is almost peerless at this price and availability.

Go get one!

Have you used a Pentacon 50/1.8?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Preset Aperture Lenses – How They Work And Why You Need At Least One

Preset aperture lenses are different from standard lenses with a single aperture ring and set click stops.

Here’s how they differ, some of the reasons I enjoy using them, and why you should try them too.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

First, how they work. 

There are different variations, but the feature common to them all is you preset not the exact aperture, but the minimum aperture the lens will stop down to.

There is either via a separate aperture ring, or the main aperture ring is spring loaded and pushes in or out then rotates. This ring dictates the smallest aperture the lens will be at when the main aperture ring is turned all the way in the opposite direction from being wide open.

Here are examples of three minor variants.

Helios side
Helios 44-2 58mm f/2

With the Helios 44-2, the outermost part of the lens with the red dot is fixed. The next ring in, with the numbers on, clicks to the various standard stops. Above you can see it’s at f/8. The next knurled ring in adjusts freely between the maximum aperture (f/2) and the preset minimum aperture (f/8 in the picture above).

So you can adjust it as precisely as you wish, without needing to be at whole click stops like f/4, f/5.6 and so on. More on why you might want this later on.

Tak105 side
Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8

The Takumar is similar, but slightly more clear in its design. Again the outermost part with the red dot is fixed. The next ring where you can see all of the numbers sets the minimum aperture, and moves in clicks (and half clicks where you see the white dots). Then the next ring in, also numbered, moves freely between the maximum f/2 and minimum, in this case f/5.6.

The Takumar is a little easier to use for those used to setting an aperture number, as you still line up a specific aperture number with the red dot if you wish to.

Jupiter-37A side
Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5

The Jupiter-37A has just one aperture ring. Again the outer part with the white dot is fixed. To set the minimum aperture, you push the numbered ring in so its up against the large knurled focus ring, then turn it to the aperture required, then release the ring. It’s spring loaded so it pops back to the rest position as above.

Then the same ring rotates freely between the maximum aperture (f/3.5) and preset minimum aperture (f/5.6 in the picture above).

In practice, choosing and setting the aperture works as follows.

Say you want to shoot a lens at f/8. So you set the preset aperture ring to f/8, then open the lens wide open.

At the lens’s maximum aperture (wide open, so when you look into the lens from the front you can’t see the aperture blades at all), you have maximum light entering, so it’s easiest to compose and focus with the camera.

When you’ve focused, simply turn the main aperture ring all the way down until it won’t turn anymore. Then you know you’ll be at your preset aperture (f/8 in this example) and can take the picture at that aperture.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

Preset lenses give photographers a fast way to stop down a lens to a preset aperture, without having to count click stops, or take your eye away from the camera to see where you’re moving the aperture ring to.

Originally preset aperture lenses were superceded by lenses that offered set click stops (at f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 etc) plus open aperture metering.

With these lenses, you set the aperture ring on the lens but the aperture blades remain wide open (again letting in maximum light for easier focusing) until the instant the picture is taken, at which point they close down to the set aperture via a lever or pin on the back of the lens being depressed by the camera.

But for those of us using film and digital cameras with vintage lenses via adapters, open aperture metering isn’t an option anyway, we have to stop down manually. This is where the preset aperture lens comes into its own.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

What I like even more than the convenience of being able to close down in a split second to my preset aperture, is the fine adjustment it allows.

I shoot Aperture Priority (Av) 90% of the time or more. This is because I love to control the depth of field of the image.

Also, because I rarely shoot moving subjects, shutter speed is of little importance to me.

Photographing a decaying door or ancient gravestone or still flower looks exactly the same at 1/30s or 1/4000s.

Varying the aperture though – especially at the close distances I like to shoot at – has a dramatic effect on the final image and its depth of field.

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Contax 159MM, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

With standard click stop aperture lenses, most have only full or half click stops. The actual number of the aperture I’m using is again pretty irrelevant to when I’m shooting Av mode.

But what if, in terms of the look of the photograph, the depth of field is too shallow at f/4 and too deep at f/5.6? 

With a standard click stop aperture lens, you’d have to choose one or the other (or, with some lenses like for example a Yashica ML 50/1.4, you can find the halfway rest point between two click stops).

With a preset aperture lens, you simply turn the aperture ring until the image looks precisely how you want it to.

It’s irrelevant whether it’s f/4.37 or f/5.13. What matters is how it looks.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, Fuji Superia expired film

So, in practice, I often preset my aperture at a stop beyond what I think I will need. Then I have that scope for fine tuning.

For example if I think I’ll need around f/5.6, I’ll set the preset aperture to f/8, then open it up.

After composing and focusing, I’ll stop the lens down until the image I see is exactly as I want it. It might be shade past f/5.6, a little before, or bang on. I have that ability to find precisely what looks most right for me.

And, after all, isn’t that how all of us photograph anyway – point our camera at something then adjust our position and the lens aperture until what we see in the viewfinder is what looks most “right” to us?

Another advantage of preset aperture lenses, is not directly due to their preset feature but seems connected.

My favourite preset lenses tend to have more aperture blades, and ones that close down whilst staying very rounded. The result is smoother bokeh highlights, like this –

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Sony a350, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

With a standard lens, the majority have six blades, and are very straight edged.

So the bokeh highlights look like this –

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens

You can imagine how the first image would have looked it taken with the second lens.

Let’s directly compare two lenses.

The first three images show my Cosina Cosinon Auto 135/2.8 at f/5.6, f/8 and f/11. Notice how the (hexagon) shape made by the (six) blades is already angular at f/5.6 and becomes even more so as you stop down further.

Cosinon 5_6Cosinon 8Cosinon 11The next three pictures show the Jupiter-37A 135/3.5 at the same apertures – f/5.6, f/8 and f/11. You’ll notice how because of the greater number of aperture blades (12!) and the way they close down, it’s almost perfectly circular, even at f/11.

Jupiter-37A 5_6Jupiter-37A 8Jupiter-37A 11This smoother, more circular shape makes for smoother bokeh, especially in shots with multiple light sources where each one takes the shape of the open aperture blades in the lens.

Which preset aperture lens(es) I recommend

I love all three of the lenses featured in the first images above and would recommend any without hesitation. The Helios 44-2 58/2, Asahi Takumar 105/2.8 and Jupiter-37A 135/3.5. All are M42 mount and all are fantastic regardless of being preset aperture.

The fact that they are preset lenses just makes them, for me, even more enjoyable and controllable when shooting my preferred Aperture Priority mode.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens

If you don’t already use M42 lenses, then I recommend getting one of the three above plus an adapter for whatever you do use. It’s probably the most easily adaptable lens mount.

I’ve shot M42 lenses on Contax/Yashica, Pentax K, Canon EOS and Minolta AF film cameras, and Pentax K, Sony NEX (E mount) and Sony a100 and a350 (Sony/Minolta A/Alpha mount) digital cameras. Adapters exist for probably a dozen other camera mounts.

If you’re starting from scratch and want a super affordable film camera set up, check out my recent post on getting started with film for £27.

On the digital front I’d recommend either the Sony a100 DLSR  or if you want something more compact and even more adaptable try a Sony NEX 3, 5, or 7. All are amazingly affordable these days.

With a film or digital camera plus an adapter for vintage M42 lenses, preset aperture lenses are a delight to use, infinitely adjustable and give splendid results.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

Have you tried preset aperture lenses yet?

Let us know in the comments below.

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