Most vintage lenses are well built and very reliable. One reason is that until the late 1970s, lenses were made of metal and glass, instead of plastic. Another aspect is their build quality: countries and companies alike were competing to produce and sell their best in terms of crafting, determination and technological know-how. In the 1960s for example, Soviet lenses were produced in factories throughout the Union, German lenses were produced in both East and West. Japan’s industry was also on the rise, as lens manufacturers and sellers focused on the US market, trying to outperform their competitors in terms of both price and reliability.
At first, lenses were entirely made of metal. Later they featured a rubberized grip and eventually adopted a plastic body. Unfortunately, even if the plastic is cheaper, lighter and quite durable, it cannot compete with metal in terms of elegance, sturdiness and feel.
Isco-Göttingen Edixa-Westanar, an all metal classic design from West Germany:
All metal construction and focusing ring of the Super-Takumar 50mm/1.4 vs rubberized grip on the 50mm/1.4 SMC Pentax in PK mount:
The Soviet Zenitar has a plastic body – quite unpleasant and with a cheap feel to it. However, the lens is very interesting optics-wise, so all isn’t lost:
For now, we’ll focus on some manufacturers that produced lenses on a large scale and see how their lenses work and feel after decades of use or storage. From Japan, we chose the Asahi Pentax Takumar series, because these are expensive lenses that were built in rather large numbers. From Germany, we selected the Pentacon and Carl Zeiss aus Jena, manufacturers that sold lens all over Eastern Europe, but also exported to the West. We take Russian lenses separately, firstly because only few models were sold outside the Soviet Union. Secondly, lenses – the Helios 44-2 for example – have been in production for several decades and were made in many factories throughout different countries that were part of the Union. So, let’s find out what the thing with these lenses is:
The Takumar lenses have an excellent build quality, so their reliability is one of the best. The Takumar have a smooth and precise focus, very useful when filming. We didn’t encounter any problems on the series, so if the lens hasn’t been hit or dropped, everything should be all right. To avoid this, check the filter area and the focusing, check that the diaphragm stays still when focusing. The Takumar are compact lenses, so some models like the 35mm/3.5 may seem a little undersized in terms of ergonomics. Grip is good for later versions of the 50mm/1.4 and for all 135-200mm, but lacks a little on the 28-35mm lenses.
For more about the history of Asahi Pentax, click here.
Soviet lenses are generally larger and heavier than average. Of course, there are exceptions, think of the 50mm/3.5 Industar 50-2, one of the smallest and lightest lenses around. They feel very solid and have a good mechanical feel. Generally, Soviet lenses don’t have reliability problems, but we found that many have a not so smooth focus, so maybe the oils used weren’t the best. Soviet lenses may vary slightly in quality, so if you test three later Helios 44 lenses, each may have a focus feel of its own. Ergonomics are good, with few exceptions like the interesting 37mm/2.8 MIR-1 based on the Carl Zeiss Flektogon.
For background info on Soviet lenses, click here.
Built in large numbers, Carl Zeiss Jena sold lenses in both Eastern and Western Europe. While their optics are great, the build quality is only good. The most common problem is a stuck diaphragm and we’ve seen this pattern in many series, such as the Tessar, the Flektogon and the Sonnar. Focusing may not be the smoothest on Zeiss aus Jena lenses, while some series, like the Sonnar 135/3.5 non MC have a different slightly better focusing system than newer 135mm/3.5 MC ones. The ergonomics are good, with the 135mm Sonnar, 20mm and 35mm Flektogons leading the way.
For more about the history of Carl Zeiss aus Jena, click here.
Also built in large numbers, the Pentacons are reliable and solid lenses. Sometimes you can find a stuck diaphragm on the Pentacon 50mm/1.8 MC series. Focus is good on Pentacon lenses, maybe a little better than on Zeiss lenses. Ergonomics is also good across the focal length; earlier versions of the 135mm/2.8 Pentacon feel better than the MC versions and have a smoother focusing system. In terms of weight, the 135mm Pentacons are heavier than the 135mm Sonnar and Takumar. The 200mm and 300mm Pentacons are also quite big and heavy, but the rather rare 300mm/f4 Pentacon is very well made and has a distinctive exterior design.
For background info on Pentacon, click here.