Jupiter-12 35mm F/2.8 Lens Review – Playing Russian Roulette with a Zeiss Copy

Jupiter-12 35mm F/2.8 Lens Review – Playing Russian Roulette with a Zeiss Copy

2000 1119 Josh Solomon

There is perhaps no more controversial, polarizing, and confusing subject in vintage photography than Russian lenses. For as many articles and forum threads that lionize the Russian lenses as dirt cheap Zeiss-killers there are just as many that dismiss them as deeply inferior knockoffs. So which is it?

While Russian lenses do have a deserved reputation as being inconsistent and unreliable, not all of them are created equal. Much of the allure of these lenses (besides being dirt cheap) is the challenge of finding a good one, so we here at CP have taken it upon ourselves to find out which of these lenses are worth it for the everyday shooter. And first up, we have a classic rangefinder lens, the Jupiter-12 35mm f/2.8.

The Jupiter-12 35mm f/2.8 is one of the old standbys of the LTM Russian rangefinder lenses. These were manufactured as companions to the wildly popular FED and Zorki Leica copies, and can often be found bundled along with such cameras. Armed with a lens like the Jupiter-12, these cameras proved to be capable, cheap alternatives to their expensive Leica and Zeiss counterparts.

Of course, the irony of the Jupiter-12 (and all Russian lenses for that matter) is that it derived its entire design from its competition. Sure, the lens was manufactured by KMZ near Moscow, but its design hails from the Zeiss factory in Germany. But how did the Soviets get the Zeiss blueprints? After beating up on Nazi Germany in WWII, the Soviet Union decided to take the legendary prewar Zeiss lens formulae as a spoil of war and create an entire photographic industry around them. Thus, the Jupiter-12 (and many other copy-cat lenses) were born.

Its prewar ancestor was the Contax-mount Zeiss Biogon 35mm f/2.8, which was a masterpiece of lens design, renowned for its sharpness and resolution across the frame and its uncommonly fast maximum aperture of f/2.8. For the Soviets, copying a lens as great as the Biogon was a no-brainer.

Aside from a few slight cosmetic differences, the Jupiter-12 adheres to the quirky design of the original. Its beating heart is the famous six elements in four groups lens formula of the Biogon that eschews the typical retro-focus design more commonly employed. Because of this, the front element sits recessed deep into its silver chassis  while the enormous rear element protrudes far beyond the limits of the lens mount. And for that real Biogon flavor, the Jupiter-12 retains the bizarre aperture control which surrounds the front element and doubles as a filter ring.

But where the Jupiter-12 starts to deviate from Zeiss territory is in its build quality. These lenses were made with incredibly tight budgets, a questionable labor force, and wide manufacturing tolerances, resulting in some truly disconcerting quality control issues. The aluminum chassis of the Jupiter feels flimsy compared to the high-quality German brass used to make the Biogon, the lube often stiffens over time, and the black paint used to cover the lens’ innards chips off rather easily, making for some seriously rough looking lenses.

But if Russian lenses are infamous for their quality control issues, they’re often redeemed by their imaging characteristics. These lenses are first and foremost renowned for their incredible image quality, and it’s what keeps them relevant today. But whereas other Russian lenses can, against all odds, mostly recreate the vintage beauty of those prewar Zeiss lenses, the Jupiter-12 falls short of the original Biogon’s prowess.

Where to start with this thing? First off, images made with it are astonishingly soft. Shot wide-open, the Jupiter-12 only gets a tiny sliver of extreme sharpness in the absolute center of the frame – all else is as gooey as vaseline. And whereas most lenses will sharpen up considerably by f/4, this one doesn’t achieve any kind of consistent sharpness until about f/5.6. For the “f/8 and be there” crowd this might seem like a moot point, but it is concerning for those who find themselves shooting in lower light.

Not only does the Jupiter-12 suffer from a lack of sharpness, it also has a huge problem with field curvature. This makes most images look like they’re being stretched into the corners. Combined with less-than-ideal sharpness, the field curvature makes the Jupiter-12 almost impossible to use for general purpose photography between the apertures of f/2.8 and f/5.6.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Jupiter-12’s ergonomics are absolutely dismal, especially when it comes to changing aperture. The aperture dial is a step-less serrated ring surrounding the front element that forces shooters to turn the camera on its face to view and change aperture. This slows down shooting considerably, and the stepless nature of the dial demands precision and delicacy for accurate aperture setting. If you’re a set-it-and-forget-it shooter, or desire a steeples aperture for video work, this won’t be a problem, but for those who like mechanical and tactile precision this is an annoying design choice.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the Jupiter-12. It is, after all, a cheap Russian lens. But that’s the contradiction of Russian lenses; even if they are cheap, they still come with added expectation due to their reputations as sleeper lenses. But lower the expectation and take the focus off of the tech specs, and we might find the Jupiter-12 is a fun, capable little lens.

Though field curvature and a general lack of sharpness hampers the lens’ wide-open capabilities, it does add a playful dimension to the lens. The lens vignettes and distorts heavily at f/2.8 and gives images that signature Lomo LC-A and Holga-esque lo-fi look. Sharpness is also surprisingly good in the center of the frame, good for subjects placed smack in the middle of your image. And colors render extremely well with this lens. Though the Jupiter-12 is only single coated, colors come through with a unique balance of boldness and subtlety uncommon to the multicoated wonders of today. I can see the subdued color palette and lowered contrast of this lens playing extremely well with vibrant films like Kodak Ektar, Fuji Superia 400, or Agfa Vista 200.

And true to form, this lens does retain a little bit of that vintage Zeiss character, even if it’s obscured by its imperfections. Even though it lacks wide-open performance, when closed way down it turns into a surprisingly sharp lens with a smoothness that recalls the Biogons and Sonnars of days past, though we’ll need a fairly bright day to make this choked aperture work. It’s not a perfect replacement for either of those lenses, but it can definitely do its best impression of them past f/8.

Pros and cons weighed, the best aspect of this lens is its price. Jupiter-12’s can be had for somewhere around $70 on eBay. This is pricey when it comes to Russian lenses, but worth it considering that most LTM lenses often cost more than $130 on average. Of course, the biggest obstacle is getting a good copy from a reputable seller. Due diligence is key to getting a functional lens, so make sure you do your research on both the seller and the item in question when buying.

Is this lens really worth shooting? It depends. If you’re expecting a Zeiss-killer, this one’s not for you. It’s much too soft, too specific, and too unreliable to really dethrone any of the German lenses. But if you want a decent 35mm lens that’s good for devil-may-care experimentation, the Jupiter-12 is a good candidate. It might not be perfect, but does it need to be? I think not.

[Many thanks to valued commenter and friend of the site Huss Hardan for lending this lens. Check out his work here]

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • I know it is at a different price point but for me, the LTM lens of choice is the Leitz 35/f2.8 Summaron. I bought one of these to use on my various Barnack Leicas but when I bought it, I thought I better give it a thorough check out on my digital Leica M240. I was expecting it to be OK but rather vintage looking with similar field curvature to my pre-war Biogon, together with significant vignetting and soft corners when used wide open. I was astonished. I really struggled to tell the difference between shots taken with the Summaron wide open and my modern Leica 35/f2 ASPH Summicron at f2.8 and that was printing them to 15″ x 10″. The only difference was a little more vignetting and a tiny amount of chromatic aberration at the corners with the Summaron. The OOF was slightly gentler than the Summicron. Its colour rendition on Afga Precisa CT100 reversal, is excellent, when I was using it on my M7 a couple of weeks ago. The only downside is it is more flare prone than the modern lens and even though the front element is quite recessed, still benefits further, from using the correct 12585 hood.


    • Interesting! I’ve always been curious about the older Leica 35’s. Hopefully I can give that one a shot one of these days!

  • Wilson, I also use a 35 Summaron but the 3.5 version w/ googles so it can be used on my M3. And yeah, these lenses are stunners. It makes me look at my Summicron Asph 35 and wonder why did I spend that money? If I knew then what I know now… That lens however is an M mount, but there are LTMs too.

    My LTM choice for 35mm is the CV Voigtlander 35 2.5. They run several hundred bux, mine is made out of chrome/brass and it is a cracker. No longer made, but nor are the Summarons. (but the CV is now made in M mount)

    Great article guys, sorry about the lens!
    I have a bunch of Russian glass, and some are really good. But that’s the problem, unless you really really know who you are dealing with, it’s a crap shoot. I wouldn’t do it again unless I had it in hand and could check it out before handing over the cash.

  • “Its beating heart is the famous six elements in four groups lens formula of the Biogon that eschews the typical retro-focus design more commonly employed.”
    It eschews nothing. Rangefinders have no mirror so wide lenses have space to go as near to the film plane as their focal lenght is. No need for a retrofocus trick.

  • Funnily enough I just picked up a mint black Jupiter 12 from the Ukraine for 60euros & it arrived today. Looking forward to having a play with it on my Zorki 4.

  • Yeah, but is there a Russian lens that gives that summitar bokeh?

    • I don’t think there’s an LTM lens that gives Summitar bokeh, but the M42 mount Helios 44-M gives a similar swirl wide open!

  • Hi, thanks for the interesting review. Does the rangefinder coupling work with this lens when mounted to an M-mount camera, or do you have to use the scale focusing on the lens? Do you know of a good reference for determining which thread mount lenses couple with the rangefinder on M-mount cameras?

  • Andreas, this lens is RF coupled. It is an LTM mount so to use on the M mount you would need an LTM-M adapter, available pretty much anywhere on the web.

  • The Jupiter-12, like the other Russian lenses, are made to a different standard than the Leica. The Russian 39mm thread mount cameras were calibrated to the 52.4mm “Zeiss” standard, not the Leica 51.6mm standard. Adjusting the “Shim” of the Jupiter-12 greatly improves performance on a Leica camera. This is true of the Jupiter-3 and Jupiter-8 as well. The J-9- usually cannot be brought into good agreement.

    Much less expensive than the Summaron, consider a Nikkor 3.5cm F2.5 or Canon 35/2.8 in Leica thread mount. These lenses share the same basic optical formula as the Summaron. The Nikkor has higher contrast, the Canon has lower contrast.

    • Hi, thanks for the interesting comment. I realize that thread mount lenses can be mounted to M-mount cameras with an adapter, however I don’t know how to tell if the focusing will be accurate through rangefinder coupling. You mentioned shims in your comment. Can you elaborate? Or do you know of a good online resource that explains how to adapt thread mount lenses to m mount bodies not just physically, but also such that the lens can be focused through the viewfinder?

      • https://jasonhowe.blog/50mm-jupiter-3-f1-5-information

        I’m sorry that I did not see this sooner-

        Jason Howe hosts my PDF’s for adjusting the Jupiter-3 to the Leica. In addition to “shimming” the optics, a PDF for changing the focal length is also given.

        My J-12 required an addition of a 0.3mm shim to correct the focus on the Leica. It is a 1952 J-12 with Zeiss serial numbers placing it as a 1943 Biogon. The focus was so far off, I doubt it was used. That explains the near mint condition and low-price that I got it for, $60 with shipping from Russia. It is quite good now.

  • In the top picture, the one of the front of the lens, is that a reflection on the glass or crud of some kind inside?

    Yes, Jupiter-12s vary, a lot. If you try three of them you’ll get three different results. Overall the ergonomic weirdness trumps the low price for me, and I use a Canon 35mm f2.8 that was pretty cheap but works well.

    the Nikkor 3.5cm f2.5 that Lenshacker mentioned is a very nice lens, but prices for that one have soared lately, up around $300-350 or so. For that money you’d be better off with a Voigtlander 35mm f2.5, which is another lens you should review (if you haven’t already.)

  • For more consistent performance, the Jupiter 8 50mm f2 takes some beating. It’s a Tessar type lens, very simple design and most of them perform really well. After receiving a legacy around a dozen years ago, I bought a Leica M3 double stroke 1955 body. A friend had acquired a Zorki 4K with J8 and got himself a 35mm J12. He gave me the J8 and I got an adapter ring. I still use this camera, I keep it in a cloth bag in the boot of my car. On days out I often use this combination with mono film FP4. I have my negs scanned to disc so my M3 + J8 is a digital camera – and I don’t have to plug it into the mains at night either!

  • I think there’s something seriously wrong with your copy… I did shoot the lens for some time and, although it does have quite some pincushion distortion and the tendency to have field curvature and soft edges, it usually does get sharp, indeed! I’ve never seen anything like the pictures of the 2 fire brigade cars or the distant skyscaper scene… Maybe someone “serviced” the lens, and one of the elements is inverted. Check it out, if you can. Also, reviewing a lens like this only makes sense, if you also try it on film, because the (by the way) NON-retrofocus design works very badly on most sensors and could even be the reason for your bad findings.

    Always good light, Fred

    PS: @David Murray: The Jupiter 8 is a sonnar lens design.

  • Although I’m no expert on Russian post-war Leica/Zeiss copies, the results from the lens seem to me more likely to be the effects of damag than the result of normal production variation.

  • Did you fit this to a digital camera? It’s quite possible the configuration of the rear elements is causing the problem, as Fred mentions above.

    • The rear element protrudes too far into the camera body that it can’t be fitted to many digital cameras as it fouls either the sensor itself, or its surrounds. I’ve long used two Jupiters, in Leica 39 (type PT 0835) and Contax bayonet, and neither will mount in my Sony A7, Nex5N, Fuji X-Pro 1 or X-E1.

      • I have no problem using the biogon CRF pre war in my A7II

        • That may be, but whilst the Jupiter is quoted as being a copy of the Zeiss Biogon, the rear elements appear different. The Jupiter is a naked element with what seems to be a greater circumference curve than the original Zeiss. This is what leads to the compatibility issue. The Russian glass protrudes a little further into the body. If the innards of your A7II are to the same dimensions as the original A7, then the Russian Jupiter will not fit. Nice to know that a Biogon will fit.

  • I bouht this lens for my first – in the modern age – rangefinder (Canon 7) about a year ago, and although I’ve since sold that body, regularly and frequently use the lens on my other cameras – Leica M2 & III.

    Contrary to the review, mine works perfectly across the board – reasonably sharp on film even wide open, and no vignetting of consequence that I’ve seen, so maybe the review copy was a dud.

    BTW, the aperture setting issue should be a no-brainer! Whilst rather awkward natively, all you need to do is screw on a cheap UV (or any other of your choice) filter, and you have a handy, easy to grasp & turn ring just where you want it – on the front of the lens!

    • Steve, I believe you may be correct in your assumption that the reviewer’s lens could be a dud. To describe its performance as “only gets a tiny sliver of extreme sharpness in the absolute center of the frame – all else is as gooey as vaseline” would seem to attest to this. There are a number of issues that reviewing Russian LTM lenses give rise to.

      Firstly, and this review fails for me because of this, no mention is made of the disparity of rangefinder coupling between Russian R/F cameras and Leica. These have different standards for r/f coupling. Despite being in L39 mount all Russian lenses are based on the Zeiss standard of 52.4mm, whilst Leitz used 51.6mm.

      Without adjustment, this will inevitably lead to focus errors. Only at the infinity setting will a Russian lens be accurately focused on a Leica body, and as the focused distance progressively shortens, focusing errors will creep in. This will be strikingly evident at the minimum focusing distance at f2.8 and where DoF won’t come to the rescue, and which it does at much greater distances and providing the lens is stopped down somewhat. It is for this reason that many will be blissfully unaware there is an issue if they seldom if never shoot closeups. The good news is that it is possible to correct for the rangefinder disparity by “shimming” the lens to bring it to the Leitz standard. Here is a very interesting post on it by Brian. http://www.photo.net/discuss/threads/range-finder-coupling-on-jupiter-8.470822/

      The second issue buying a used Jupiter today is a prospective buyer will invariably know nothing of a lens’ progeny, especially as the vast majority of lenses will have been bought via the internet, nor how they have been treated since they were manufactured. In the UK we were fortunate in that Technical & Optical Equiptment Ltd. was set up to exclusively import all Russian cameras, lenses, binoculars and enlargers and this was backed up by a full repair and service facility. They appreciated that if dealers were to be persuaded to stock these items (the vast majority of photographic shops back then were small independent shop owners) all would be lost if buyers were dissatisfied and returned them in droves. In the UK this didn’t happen as T&OE checked every item prior to sending to dealers and Russian lenses garnered a reputation for excellent quality and inexpensive at that.

      Thirdly, the original Jupiter-12 was made by KMZ up to 1961, I believe, the later models by LZOS. Their models from 1971 are readily identified by having a black body. Going by the serial number, the reviewer’s sample is a KMZ. (Information gleaned from Soviet Cameras.com, a great site for those interested in the history of Soviet cameras/lenses.)

  • er, so you start saying how much copy variance there is, and then slam this lens in general (instead of your copy) for its IQ problems. From the introduction and title, thought you’d gone through a few. I mean, it’s not like they’re expensive.

  • The Jupiter-12 is a direct copy of the prewar Biogon. Not reverse engineered, but built using the original blueprints, lens formula, glass recipe etc. from the Zeiss lens, under license and technical assistance from Zeiss. Of course that license and technical assistance was forced, but doesn’t negate the fact.
    Have you tried the original Biogon? I’m sure you’d see the same characteristics as the Jupiter.

    And about the characteristics (softness, field curvature, etc.). I believe an assessment can be made only on film, on the original contax (and kiev) mount version. There are 2 reasons for this:

    1. Sony sensors. All digital sensors, but particularly early Sony full frame sensors on the A7 series, greatly exacerbate field curvature. Actually, they introduce it when there’s none, and greatly add to it when there’s some already in the lens. The Biogon (and Jupiter) have a bit of field curvature but nowhere near the amount displayed here. And same goes for corner smearing (not present on film at all), which also increases the vignetting on top of stealing sharpness. So of course you will end up with much worse corners: you introduced corner smearing, you added field curvature, and you increased vignetting. And all that is on top of the lens’ actual field curvature and vignetting; the result will not be pretty.

    2. LTM mount. The original Jupiter 12, like the Biogon, was made for the Contax Bayonet mount. The LTM version was quickly adapted for Leica screwmount. This introduces another point of failure for quality control. And also, Leica had a different standard than Zeiss in terms of what focal length the helical and rf mechanism expect. (All RFs ae calibrated for a single “standard” focal length, and all different focal lengths use a gearing system to “translate” to the standard that the rf expects). This means, if you use a contax lens adapted to Leica *without* the appropriate “translation”, the true focus of the lens from minimum distance as you go to infinity starts disagreeing with the rangefinder. More of an issue with normals and teles, but wideangles are also somewhat affected. Did the russians bother to correct that discrepancy in the helical for the ltm version, or they thought it’s close enough so whatever? I’m inclined to believe the second.

    Lastly, a distinction should be made between the prewar and postwar Biogon. They’re completely different designs, even though they share the name. You can see that from the number of elements (8 vs 6) and also their grouping. And more tellingly, the prewar Biogon has a bit of pincushion distortion while the postwar one a bit of barrel distortion! And physically, the rear element of the prewar one is huge and deeply recessed compared to the postwar one.
    I’m mentioning this cause you might have inadvertently been conflating the praise and sharpness etc. of the postwar Biogon with the prewar one. The postwar one is much better and closer to the modern implementations of Biogon designs. The prewar one was praised too, but as a product of its time! And at its time wideangles were notoriously rare and hard to make, especially a fast one at f/2.8 (the fastest in the world when it was released).

    Barring any quality control issues, a functional and correctly assembled Jupiter performs identically than a prewar Biogon. Actually it performs a tiny bit better due to coatings, which weren’t commercially available (beyond prototype stage) before the war. Post war, Zeiss’ patents for coatings belonged to the Soviets, so the Jupiters were coated. Build quality might not be the same (aluminium vs brass, knurling etc.), but optically they’re indistinguishable.

    • Giannis, the opening sentences in numbered paragraph 1, mis-states what is actually going on with the early Sony FF sensor in the A7. Field curvature is an optical characteristic of a lens, and has nothing to do with the sensor at all. A lens with poor curvature of field would also exhibit poor edge performance with film. No sensor, can add to or eliminate, this curvature. I understand the point you are intending to make, it’s just that you attribute the problem to the sensor, when curvature is entirely an uncorrected optical flaw of a lens.

      I have an A7, and it is well documented that there are issues with using it with legacy film era lenses, particularly short back focus distances that one finds with rangefinder lenses of 50mm focal length and shorter. The rays of light, especially with a lens such as the Jupiter-12, where the rear element comes so close to the film or sensor plane, arrive at the edges of the frame at extremely oblique angles of incidence, and it is this that the Sony sensor has difficulty with because of the pixel array and quite thick filter Sony used for the A7. I get a surprising result with my 28mm f6 Orion which when stopped down to at least f8 gives remakably fine edge to edge performance.

      Now if one uses a lens of retrofocus design, where its measured focal length is greater than its designed focal length as regards FoV, then the problem diminishes, and may entirely be eliminated. Now I said “may” because my own experience of using a variety of legacy lenses from numerous manufacturers on my A7 still produces anomalous results. Wide angle lenses for slr cameras can still have issues with soft edges that aren’t as noticeable with film use, and with 50mm lenses and longer edge performance becomes far less of an issue. What surprises me greatly, is I’ve three zoom lenses, two from Canon, and Tokina 20-35mm, and they perform exceptionally well with the A7.

      So, from my own experience, the blame can’t always be lain at the door of the A7.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon