Writing for a photography website comes with some interesting side-effects. Aside from getting to shoot and own some of film photography’s greatest machines, you also end up with a few that leave you scratching your head. The Industar 61 L/D is one such head-scratcher.
I’d heard a lot about the Industar 61 L/D, with most of its acolytes proclaiming it to be one of the finest pieces of glass ever manufactured in the Soviet Union. Considering my past experience with Soviet lenses, I balked at the idea of getting one until a nice copy appeared on eBay for the paltry sum of twenty-five dollars. I bought it, and after a few weeks of waiting, finally mounted it onto my Leica to see what it could offer.
After a single roll, I promptly took it off of the Leica and replaced it. It wasn’t a bad lens, but it wasn’t particularly good either. It was just one of those in between lenses that never really got the blood hot. Every couple of months I’d click the lens back onto the camera and see if it could change my mind, and for the longest time, it couldn’t. Then the lens would go back on the shelf. But the most recent round with the Industar may have changed things.
But before we get into all of that, let’s start with some history. It’s important to know that the Industar 61 L/D is a product of tradition. The earliest Industars were Leica Elmar-esque, Zeiss Tessar-derived kit lenses that mostly came fitted to the Soviet Leica copies of the day, namely the FED-1. From the mid 1940s all the way up to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the formula remained the same; stick an Industar onto a Soviet Leica copy and you’ve got a winner.
With Industar 61 L/D, few things changed. The lens was still derived from the old Zeiss Tessar design, and the FED-5b is its knockoff Leica of choice. The lens’ designers did, however, make a few improvements. The 61 L/D features lanthanum glass elements which have a higher refractive index to improve sharpness and resolution. The lens also features click-stop apertures, a rare and welcome feature in a Soviet rangefinder lens.
Apart from these two notable improvements to the usual repertoire, there’s little here to differentiate the Industar 61 L/D from other Soviet-made lenses. The lens barrel and focusing ring are made out of lightweight aluminum, and they feel cheap. The paint on the lettering is there only occasionally. The focusing scale lacks tick marks and is decidedly inaccurate, and generally speaking, the lens feels like something straight out of the bargain bin.
Okay, so build quality isn’t setting the world-standard. But for many of this lens’ ardent fans, it’s the 61 L/D’s optical performance that sets it apart from the rest. After using the lens, I can say that sentiment is justified. To a point. It’s not a Leica or Zeiss killer by any stretch of even the most imaginative mind, but it holds its own, optically, quite well when compared to other Soviet rangefinder lenses.
Where many old Soviet lenses really seem to falter is in the departments of sharpness and resolution. While the Industar’s tried-and-true Zeiss Tessar formula is a nearly foolproof design, the spotty quality control of Soviet lenses often keeps the formula from achieving the sharpness and resolution of which that lens type is capable. But the Industar 61 L/D is one of the sharpest and highest-resolving Soviet lenses on offer. Past about f/5.6 the lens resolves fine detail perfectly well, rendering images with the signature clarity and accuracy of the best old-school Tessar lenses.
When opened up to f/2.8 to f/4, things start to get more interesting. The lens suddenly makes images that are attractively smooth (as opposed to soft and spongey) when opened up, and at its minimum focusing distance gives surprisingly pleasant bokeh. These two traits make full torso portraits surprisingly simple, as the lens will flatter details and yet still render them clear as day. As a people shooter, the lens is quite good.
Vignetting is minimal wide open, chromatic aberration is present but far from distracting, and while there is a fair amount of field curvature in images made with this lens, it’s never so bad that you’ll think less of the image. It’s also worth noting that the lens’ slight technical deficiencies are much easier to correct in Lightroom or Photoshop than those of some other, higher-specced lenses.
Things begin to get a little dicey when we take a closer look at how the lens renders color and contrast. The 61 L/D tends toward a very cool color cast, which may be attributable to those warm yellow high-index lanthanum glass elements. But the lens lacks the fine micro-contrast characteristic of the legendary lenses of its era.
The real weaknesses of this lens may be the most obvious ones. To start, its maximum aperture of f/2.8 leaves a lot to be desired in low-light shooting situations. Diehard slow lens shooters might take exception to that statement, but the Industar 61 L/D’s overall performance doesn’t impress enough to justify the lack of speed. The lens’ relatively long minimum focusing distance of approximately one meter also limits its up-close performance, making this lens unsuitable for up-close portraits of people or objects.
But perhaps the greatest flaw of this lens is the one thing that plagues most Soviet-made lenses – intermittent and lackluster quality control. It’s no secret that finding a good example of any Soviet lens is tough, and often involves the testing of multiple samples. Users often complain of stiff focusing rings, dented filter rings, and misaligned elements, even when sellers have described nothing more than “A Tiny Dust” on the backside of the front element. Although I was fortunate enough to find a reputable seller who sold me a new old stock 61 L/D, it only came after spending a few weeks poring over eBay listings for good Industar copies.
This leaves me in a strange spot with the Industar 61 L/D. I don’t think it’s a terrible lens, but it’s not an eye-catching one either. It’s miles better than most Soviet-era rangefinder lenses, but it falls short of pretty much every other standard rangefinder lens. And for all of these reasons, it’s always felt out of place mounted to my M2.
Then I remember something rather important; this lens only cost me twenty-five bucks.
Considering the price, the Industar 61 L/D starts to make a lot more sense. I can’t think of another lens that gives that kind of performance at such a low price. Twenty-five bucks might be able to get you a no-name point and shoot with a slow, humdrum lens, but not a genuine 55mm f/2.8 shooter’s lens. Factoring in price, 61 L/D suddenly looks like a great deal.
This also brings me to a central truth about Soviet cameras and lenses. When evaluating any kind of Soviet camera or lens, I’ve learned that context is everything. And far too often, these lenses are talked about in the wrong context. The truth is that these lenses and cameras will never be Leica or Zeiss killers. They’ll always be a couple of steps behind the lenses they were derived from. But if we start to consider these cameras and lenses as fun things to learn on, to experiment with, or just to throw around on vacation, they’re some of the best camera and lens deals out there.
The Industar 61 L/D has held up to use and abuse better than any other of the many Soviet lenses I’ve owned. Image sharpness and resolution from this lens is great, and even though it comes with a lot of limitations the lens rarely ever disappoints on a technical or artistic level. And after trying to understand the lens mounted to a “serious” Leica M or LTM body, I realize that I’ve been doing it wrong the whole time. This lens should be mounted to a beat up FED 5b or a Zorki-4k. There it would shine. Context really is everything.