Thursday, November 30, 2017

Project "Poor Man's Digital Leica NX" - Part 1 of Many(?)

The Pinnacle of Photography

So yes, Leicas. The pinnacle of all that photography represents; craftsmanship, vision, ubiquity, a sprinkle of serendipity and...expensive.

Of nearly 20 years of photography, every time I have been close to starting a little Leica system, life takes me somewhere else. I wasn't always a fan of the rangefinder, more due to ignorance than anything else. When you start photography, all everyone dangles in front of you are SLRs and you couldn't possibly be taken serious without one could you? I could not understand the allure of the rangefinder. But that was the beggining and those are waters past. I acquired my first rangefinder 12 years ago, a Zorki 4K, with a Jupiter-8 lens for peanuts and despite its quirks (of which there are a few, bearable but a few) of this wannabe Leica from the ex-USSR, it got me hooked on rangefinders. I used one and I  finally could understand its advantages, particularly for the street shooter, like myself. Over time I collected both fixed lens and interchangeable lens rangefinders and one day I acquired a couple of Jupiter-12 lenses, the Soviet Biogon. These lenses are great on film, but they left me now yearning for something else: A digital  Leica or the like. So, I was kind of in a way back to square one: I'd like to invest in a digital rangefinder, but I suppose the first paragraph explains it all, again.
In the meantime, the mirrorless market was diversifying and options a plenty. I wanted to be able to use my nice, sharp vintage rangefinder lenses with a digital camera. Albeit, it was possible to do so, there were limitations. You could only mount 50mm lenses and above, nothing below, unless of course you'd invest on a full frame mirrorless like the Sony A7 series, or a Leica, or a used Epson RD-1, which leaves us back at the first paragraph.

The Experiment

Being one not afraid of experimentation, I recently looked through the options (used of course), looking for a camera easy to modify and experiment with, not too expensive as to not be a total loss if the experiment did not work, but I wanted something with decent image quality. So recently, I bought a Samsung NX100, with the Electronic Finder. I tried the 50mm LTM lenses I have, the Jupiter-8 and the Industar-61 (with the L39 to NX adapter) and was blown away by the quality and their versatility, given the age of these optics. The problem was of course, sensor size. Being an APS-C sensor, a cropped sensor, my 50mm lenses were turning to 75mm, which for me it is neither here or there for street shooting, unless of course, I am doing portraits. So, I took a deep breath and grabbed my used yet very nice condition NX and after dismantling it to check where things are placed within it, I decided to get to work on it with a dremel. 

I must apologize for the shortness of the video, I was filming it with my mobile and the battery ran out. I undertook the task on the spur of the moment, so I didn't really look at the battery on my mobile. However, you can see the jist of how to get a Jupiter-12 to work on your NX camera. Why do this, why bother? The Jupiter-12 is a Zeiss Biogon copy and a really nice lens to work with. The problem fitting it on most mirrorless cameras, is that its back element protrudes and the shutter box does not allow it to fit. Now, acquiring a L39 adapter is not an issue, you can get one on eBay quite cheaply, fitting the lens is another matter. Hence, the modification. I managed to retain the AF contacts, in the case that, for whatever reason, I decide getting AF lenses for it, but I highly doubt I'll ever. One question remains and that is if I would manage to fit a Super-Wide Heliar in it. Off the top of my head, I think the back element may have a larger diameter, as such it may require complete removal of the AF contacts. 

If you are now wondering about how does it look like in the end as well as results take a look at some initial tests (and of course, photos of the camera with the Jupiter-8 and Jupiter-12 mounted).

 Here we have the Samsung NX100 with a Jupiter-8, 50mm, f2. Nice lens. Jackson approves.
I also have one with the Industar-61 somewhere, will post it when I find it.

 Here we have the Contax version of the Jupiter-12, with a Contax RF to LTM adapter. Very nice too.

Finally, the Jupiter-12 LTM on the NX100. Super Nice!

It's Alive!
Shooting the NX100 with L39(LTM) lenses, even the 50mm, is an experience. It took me sometime to adjust to the viewfinder of the NX100 (which is optional by the way, you can use the screen, I am just old fashioned and like to compose with my eye). The NX100 finder is not the highest resolution, but my eyesight is still 20/20 and the camera offers AF assist options, which help a lot, giving you a rangefinder like experience. The L39/LTM optics marry well with the sensor, particularly if you shoot RAW. Although JPGs are ok, I personally find them not to my taste and I only use them if I am shooting monochrome, in which they actually look great with a film like look. The "Classic" in-camera filter, a black & white filter, is actually pretty good in achieving this.

 Below are some inital test shots which I have done on my way to an appointment, nothing too fancy (yet) just literally testing the camera with the lens. I will of course, be updating this blog with more material and better samples as well as a comparison between the Jupiter-8 and Industar-61 on the camera. Here are the initial samples:
The Jupiter-12 (the L39/LTM) has a real sweet spot at 3m of a good few inches around that mark, wide open! This was a quick grabshot at ISO1600
Another example of its sweet spot at 3m.

Contrast is very good and so is colour rendering. This shot in a beam of sunlight was handled well and albeit my zone focusing was very slightly off, at f8 its near indiscernible. 

The Jupiter-12 is a digital photography Rembrandt's dream on the NX100.

Even in not so great light as with today's London snowy weather, the combination of the NX100 and Jupiter-12, delivers

The Jupiter-12 LTM is great with zone focusing for grabshots

Video with the Jupiter-12 on the NX100
I am, at the moment, not producing a lot of video and the NX100 itself is not a serious choice for video, despite it being video capable and having a relatively large sensor. It is only capable of 720p video with mono sound. Video is not the reason I got this camera anyway. However, I could not stop myself trying the combination on video mode, with zone focus. Simply put, I believe if you want to do video with the NX100 and you want a distinct look, go for the Jupiter-12 lens combo. Here's a couple of quick samples, taken while snow fell on bemused Londoners.

Anyway, back to stills

So, what is there to take from this?
Quite simply, if you want a rangefinder like camera which will give you great results, with a bit of creative thinking and curiosity, you don't need to spend much. And there are really affordable choices out there, that will give you the experience or a little test drive before you plunge into real rangefinder world. Also, that it is indeed possible to use a Jupiter-12 and likely wider lenses with a NX camera (or at least the NX100), you just have to be a little brave and have a dremel to hand. This may make many a NX100 user happy to find, although be prepared to possibly lose AF capability on the camera.

There is still some finishing to do on my camera; it still needs proper flocking inside the box and I would like to try a wider lens such as a Russar or a Super Wide Heliar and see if further modification is needed.

But ultimately, is it a real "Poor Man's Digital Leica"?
I dare say, yes!

Until next time, 


PS: keep an eye out for further updates on this one.