The Jupiter 3 is a vintage 50mm f1.5 manual focus lens made in the USSR. Based on a design ‘appropriated’ from Zeiss during war times, it has a 7 element Sonnar design, and an M39/Leica Thread Mount (LTM). On top of that, it is also rangefinder coupled, so it can be used fairly well on a whole bunch of different cameras with a suitable adaptor, including the Leica M range, and of course, the Sony A7.
According to sovietcams, the earliest recorded Jupiter 3 lenses date from 1947, and there were a variety of different models produced between then and 1988. Most of these were chrome, though there are some available from the later period in black. Models which bear a red П apparently indicate an earlier production run with single coated glass, which generally get a better reputation online than those from later years, as they were made in smaller numbers. However, that’s not something I can verify personally. I did of course, buy into the hype, and pick up one which is apparently from 1960, because I am a sucker for photographic myth and folklore. Mine is apparently from the Zagorsk Optical and Mechanical Plant, Zagorsk (ZOMZ). If you are interested, you can find a handy list of the various plant logos here.
If you want to watch me talk about this lens rather than read… you can do so over on YouTube:
The technical run-down of the lens is as follows:
- 40.5mm filter thread size.
- Aperture range: f1.5-22.
- Clickless aperture ring.
- Minimum focus distance: 1m (lower is allegedly possible with modification).
- Produced between 1947-1988.
- Available mostly in chrome, but also less commonly found in black.
- 7 elements with 3 groups.
- M39, LTM, and Contax/Kiev mounts.
- Weight: 143g.
In terms of picture quality, the Jupiter 3 is a relatively unremarkable lens. The bokeh is nothing special, the sharpness level when shot wide open is average, and the build consistency can be err, ‘questionable’, depending on the variation that you pick up. However, you aren’t going to seek out one of these lenses for their optical genius. Rather, the main draw is really about what you get for your money: a fast, rangefinder coupled 50mm lens – which is something pretty special in of itself. No, it’s not one that’s particularly useful for portraits, or landscapes, or any other specific situation… but rather it is a pretty good all rounder; a lens that you can leave on your camera for a whole trip and come away with nice results.
All Russian lenses are crap! They might be cheap but they are as soft as yer da’s stomach after Christmas day! So comes the rallying cries of the fools that adorn messageboards all over the Internet. When I bought my lens, the Jupiter 3 was looked down on as a bit of cheap Commie nonsense that would produce unsuably hazy images. Is it going to be clinically sharp? of course not – but if you hit the focus right, it seems more than sharp enough for any idiots still shooting film in this day and age. The relatively long throw of the focus ring helps in this regard, as it allows fairly fine adjustments when shooting wide open at f1.5. If you really need something of a much higher technical standard, you probably shouldn’t be using a vintage lens anyway.
I had owned the Jupiter 3 for years without ever really particularly noticing the bokeh, but since I was writing this blog, I made a bit of an effort to try and throw it into some situations to see what it came up with.
and eh, that’s not bad at all really, is it? Very pleasant.
It seems that under normal conditions the Jupiter 3 isn’t a lens which will immediately render out of focus areas in an obvious or supposedly ‘distracting’ way, but in the right circumstances it is perfectly capable of producing some rather pleasing ‘glass bubble’ style circles. You might need to hunt them out though.
The Jupiter 3 was one of my first LTM lenses, and I originally used it on a Leica iiia body, before realising that it was simply too difficult to focus using the tiny rangefinder window while having glasses. I got the lens as a poor student, before I had ever used a Leica M body. Here’s what I looked like back when I was using it in 2010 and earlier:
You can tell it was 2010 because I have zero beard, a beret, and very few tattoos.
The Jupiter 3 was originally my go-to rangefinder lens. It was cheap, fast, and the fact that it was some ancient Soviet thing meant that it had a certain charm about it. However, as my collection of lenses began to expand, it ultimately fell out of favour, as I found myself gravitating more towards the wider focal length of 35mm. It also couldn’t quite compete with the Canon 50mm f1.2. However, I do have a lingering affection for the Jupiter 3, and when I started to write this post and made a conscious effort to use it again, I was pleasantly surprised – both at how fun it was to shoot with – but also how well the pictures came out. Even though my copy is pretty bashed up, with shoogly bits (who doesn’t have them after all) as well as a stiff ring (yeah yeah yeah), it still gets the job done – and as can be unexpectedly sharp. Coupled with a nice rangefinder like the Leica M2 or Canon 7, you’d have a real fun setup.
The lure of the Jupiter 3 and similar lenses may well be reduced these days, with the proliferation of relatively affordable, modern rangefinder glass from Chinese manufacturers. However, the tiny size of this thing, cheap price, and its interesting history mean that it will no doubt remain a favourite for a while.
Things to watch out for:
- Quality: As with all of these Soviet lenses, quality can vary between the models – and some of them are in pretty poor condition. People will advise you to try them out before you buy, but of course that is madness given that most of them need to be acquired online from the former USSR. Do your research, and caveat emptor!
- Aperture ring: As noted above, the aperture ring is stopless. That is great for video, but not necessarily all that great for stills, as you can easily knock the setting off without realising it. To be honest though, I’ve got plenty of lenses like this, and you get used to double checking. It’s part and parcel of shooting with a vintage lens.
- Lens barrel: Many of these lenses have stiff or janky ranges of motion due to the lube gumming up over decades. This should be resolved with a CLA, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to shell out £70 to have mine done yet, and I don’t fancy the chance of inevitably screwing it up with a DIY job. The newer models tend to have smoother barrels, from my experience – but this isn’t a guarantee.
- Minimum focus distance: Common to many rangefinder lenses, this is 1m – which may feel quite far away for those shooting this with a more modern digital camera like the Sony A7.
- Adaptor woes: If you want to shoot this with an M body, make sure you get a good quality adaptor. If you use a cheaper one, the distance between the body and lens will be off, which makes it very difficult to nail the focus wide open. I speak from experience!
- Leica compatibility: The Jupiter lenses were originally calibrated for the Zorki standard, which is slightly different to the Leica standard (also used in Canon rangefinders). This means that the focus point may be very slightly off, which can be an issue when shooting wide open. There is a way to adjust this, but it involves more work than I think is worth it for a lens which already has so many quirks and imperfections. Plus, I’m not sure whether any misfocussing would actually be down to a calibration issue, or if that would just be a convenient excuse for my crappy technique. This shouldn’t really be an issue though unless you are shooting wide open. If you want to use the lens on an LTM body, you can buy lenses that have been calibrated to the Leica standard on eBay, but they are obviously more expensive.
Cost and availability
As mentioned, the Jupiter 3 used to be some of the ‘fastest glass’ you could get for the least amount of cash… and almost definitely the best value when it comes to rangefinder coupled lenses compatible with Leica screw mount or M bodies. In recent years however, the price has risen a fair amount, probably thanks in part to Lomography’s ‘re-release’ of the so-called Jupiter 3+ in January of 2016, and as a result you can expect to pay over £120 for a decent version. If you prefer to go down the Lomography route, you would have paid around £500. They claimed to have ‘recalculated the technical specifications of the original Jupiter 3 to make this extremely special lens far more accessible for today’s photographers’, but it isn’t really clear what exactly this means. Given the price difference, it’s probably safe to say that you’d do best to stick with one of the originals – as for five hundred smackeroonis you could pick up a mint condition Canon 50mm f1.2 – which is far superior.
If you want an even more cost effective alternative, and aren’t bothered about having such a wide aperture, check out the Jupiter 8 – 50mm f2, which has similar characteristics, and is commonly available for about £40 at the time of writing. For a comparison picture, here’s both the Jupiter 3 and Jupiter 8 together:
Jupiter 3 50mm f1.5 on 35mm film (various bodies including Leica iiia, M6, M2, and Canon 7 rangefinders):
Disclaimer: As usual, this article isn’t intended to be a comprehensive, pixel-peeping review. Rather, it’s highly subjective, and reflects my research and experience as someone who has shot with a lot of different cameras and lenses over the years. No aperture comparison charts here. Any lack of sharpness or detail is more than likely down to my crappy focussing, historically poor scanning, or other failures – as opposed to the lens itself.