All three of the following lenses were made behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet era. The Zeiss Jena was made in East Germany, while both the Industar-22 and the Helios-44 were made in the Soviet Union. The main distinguishing feature of these lenses is that they are mostly dirt-cheap. Shoddy manufacturing and poor materials is a major reason, but despite this, with a bit of luck, some gems can be found. The problem, of course, is copy variance, some lenses of the same make and model can be excellent, while others complete rubbish. I have been fortunate with my copies, two came from reputable dealers and one was purchased at a camera swap after some close inspection. All three lenses are from the 1950s or early 1960s and are remarkably good performers.
Industar-22 50mm f3.5 with Leica IIIf.
Industar-22 is a copy of pre-war Leitz Elmar 50/3.5 screwmount lens and was supplied as a kit lens to the post-war Zorki rangefinder. Manufactured in KMZ (Krasnogorsk Mechanical Factory) near Moscow. The Industar-22 is a tessar lens design, four elements in three groups, whereas the Leitz Elmar is similar but technically not a tessar, rather it is a variant of it’s original five element design. Some claim it is a Cooke triplet variant. However, the Elmar usually sells for $300-500 USD, whereas the Industar-22 goes for about $50. Is the Elmar 1000% better than the Industar? Well, yes if the Industar does not focus properly, but no if it does. I believe that my copy is from 1953, single coated and marked with a Red P (the Cyrillic character is П). There is an Internet Lore that the Red P means that the lens was made for the Red Army and thus of better quality. However, it is more likely that it just meant that it was coated (as with the Zeiss *T) as opposed to uncoated. The Red P was dropped from the lenses by the 1960s when lens coating ceased to be news to customers. On the other hand, the Red P lenses where usually early 1950s copies and are considered superior to later production. This is because many of the Soviet lenses used Schott glass stock taken under reparations from Germany up to about 1954, thereafter inferior Soviet glass was used. In usage it is a bit finicky. It has to be extended to work, but the fact that it is collapsible is the main selling feature: it allows you to put a Leica IIIf in your pocket. Since the aperture ring is on the front lens, it makes using filters problematic, that is if you can find filters for it. However, the lens produces very acceptable photos and if you do not feel like spending considerably more on only marginally better Leica collapsables, it will do the job. Click here to purchase on Ebay.
Hellios 44-2 58mm with Pentax Spotmatic.
My Hellios 44 is in bright aluminium finish, 58mm, f2-16, 13 blades, M42 mount, and manufactured by KMZ. Year of manufacturing is hard to tell, but likely late 1950s or early 1960s. Fits all Pentax screwmount cameras and similar M42 cameras. Based on the Biotar 2/58 lens design, the various iterations of the Hellios lenses are best known and sought after for their swirly bokeh that, for me, usually induces a mild sensation of vertigo. The aperture blades form an almost perfect circle when stopping all the way down. While I am not overly enthusiastic about its bokeh, my copy of the Hellios 44 is remarkably sharp. I did a test comparing it on a Sony A7R with the new super sharp Sony 55mm f1.8 lens and the Hellios was noticeably sharper in the centre when stopped down a bit. The Sony was much sharper in the corners, but for photos where you isolate a subject as in portraits, the Hellios is the clear winner. Quite stunning for a lens this old and one made in Russia under suspect manufacturing practices. As with all these older lenses, they are either single coated or not coated, so flare is a problem. My copy has numerous micro scratches on the front and rear elements, but have very little effect on photos other than contributing to flare when shot into a light source. Like everyone else, I always look for lenses that are in perfect optical condition, however, when I have a lens like this with all its scratches I am always surprised at how well it actually works. I think that haze, fog and fungus are much more serious in terms of having a noticeable effect on photos than micro-scratches. In usage the Hellios 44 is a heavy lens with a very long focus throw. To make stopped down focusing easier you can set the clicking aperture ring and then open it with a secondary loose ring for precision focusing. Good lens for portraits. Click here to purchase on Ebay.
Carl Zeiss Jena JDR Pancolar 50mm f1.8 with Pentax Spotmatic.
Carl Zeiss Jena JDR Pancolar f1.8 50mm “Zebra.” The optical construction of the lens consists of six elements in five groups. It has a minimum focusing distance of 35cm and a minimum aperature of f.22. The filter size is 49mm. This lens has a fanatical reputation based on “Zeiss Jena” mythology and while it is a good all-round lens, I was left a little underwhelmed by it. It looks cool though. Performance is a little soft at 1.8, bokeh is good, but not the greatest, things get better by f5.6 and best around f8. As with the Hellios 44 it has a long focus throw and flare is a bit of a problem. A good portrait lens, but given that the price of these lenses has increased, the Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 is a much better choice as it is superior in every way. Click here to purchase a Carl Zeiss Jena JDR Pancolar on Ebay.
Overall, buying these Soviet era lenses requires some luck and thus to avoid disappointment I would stick to older Pentax lenses for SLRs. For rangefinders, besides expensive Leica lenses, there are very good Voigtlander and Canon screwmount lenses to choose from.