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Notes on the MC Zenitar 16mm 2.8 fisheye lens for Canon EOS.

Copyright © 2001 NK Guy.

Here’s a bit of information on the Russian MC Zenitar 16mm fisheye lens, built by the S.A. Zverev Krasnogorsky Zavod Joint Stock Company, (English site) makers of the Zenit and Horizon cameras.

Japanese-built fisheyes for Canon EOS tend to be pretty expensive - around $400-800 US - and they don’t seem to show up very often on the used market. When they do they seem to go for almost as much as they would new. This makes the low cost of the Russian lens - I paid $160 US - very attractive.

The curved distortion of a fisheye lens can be a lot of fun to play with, though of course it’s easy to overdo it and get dismissed as an amateur playing with a new toy. But for a playful amateur like me they’re great. I’d bought a plastic fisheye adapter earlier, but it never supplied particularly brilliant results. And when it got stolen I didn’t really feel the need to replace it. Instead I went for actual glass.

For another review of this lens check out Bob Atkins’ page.

The photo to the right was taken by a Canon Elan (EOS 100) camera with the Zenitar fisheye lens, mounted to the top of the boat’s mast using a homemade bracket combined with an Ultrapod II. The photo was triggered by an RC-1 infrared remote in timer mode.


Where I got the thing.

I picked up one of these lenses from a US-based distributor, Kiev Camera. This company seemed to be basically a guy - Mikhail Fourman of Atlanta, GA, USA - who imported Ukrainian and Russian camera equipment and sells them online via both a Web site and an eBay store, but the site is now offline. My experience with his operation was fine. The lens arrived promptly and was reasonably priced at $165 US, though I should note that he did not respond to a couple of my (post-auction) email questions about payment options, which was annoying.

Oddly, while he sells an EOS (EF mount) version of this lens through his eBay store, he doesn’t list it as being available on his actual Web site. His site lists only M42 (Pentax Spotmatic-style threadmount), Nikon and Pentax K-mount lenses.

Many other online retailers sell the lens, though he’s the only one I’ve seen who has the EOS version listed. Probably the easiest thing to do if you want to buy from somewhere else is to get the M42 screwmount version and buy a cheap M42->EF mount adapter.

One person who has tried this, however, has told me that he had clearance problems - the rear filter on the lens was physically obstructing the mirror on his EOS 30 (Elan 7) camera body. I don’t know, however, if the problem he experienced was due to the camera body design or to the lens adapter. Possibly the former, as an Elan II/EOS 50/55 user tells me that he can use the Zenitar M42 just fine on his camera. I’d appreciate hearing from anyone else who’s tried the M42->EF mount adapter, whether successfully or not.

About the lens - physical design.

 The lens is of a fairly compact design - roughly the size of a typical 50mm lens for an SLR - and constructed entirely of sturdy black-enamelled metal with engraved lettering. Sadly, the lettering is not in excitingly foreign-looking Cyrillic - the one I have must be an export version, as it’s all in English. It has a rubber grip ring around the focussing ring, but the rubber is not glued down and can lift up. It weighs about 310 grams and is 55mm long and 63mm in diameter including the EOS mounting flange. (by comparison the Canon EF 50mm 1.8 mark I lens is 43mm long, 67mm in diameter and weighs 190 grams)

Interestingly, the lens that was sold to me was not an M42 thread-mount lens with an M42-Canon EOS adapter added on, as I had expected. The lens doesn’t have an M42 mount at all - it has an EF-compatible mount fastened to it with three screws. I say “EF-compatible,” because the lens does not contain any electronics and so cannot communicate with the EOS camera. Additionally the mount flanges are thinner than on a real EF lens, though the lens attaches to EOS cameras just fine.

Strangely enough, although it doesn’t ship with an M42 mount it came with an M42-compatible rear lens cap that of course doesn’t fit. And since the flange mounts are so thin, regular Canon rear lens caps won’t stay on - they don’t fit on tightly enough. I eventually found a third-party EF-compatible rear lens cap (possibly made by Sigma) that happens to have enough friction to stay on the lens.

The lens has a low raised rim that serves as a rudimentary lens hood. Obviously since the lens has such a wide angle of coverage you can’t have much more lens hood than that, and so the lens is fairly vulnerable to both flare and physical damage. It also has a clip-on plastic front lens cap. This lens cap tends to fall off quite easily, so it’s a good thing that the lens came with a handy little nylon carrying bag.

The focussing ring rotates reasonably smoothly, with only a tiny bit of binding in the middle. It’s certainly better damped than non-USM Canon autofocus lenses. The aperture ring moves firmly with well-defined click stops. Luckily the aperture ring works in stop-down mode - it simply sets the aperture required and doesn’t require lever motion from a camera aperture lever to close.

The lens is solidly built, and although it doesn’t exude the feeling of ultraprecise quality it doesn’t appear rough or crude at all. The only obvious quality control problem is the presence of some fine metal shavings and dust on the inside.

About the lens - optics.

Optically the lens has 11 elements in 7 groups. The glass is multicoated, hence the “MC” designation. (I have to admit that I love that name MC Zenitar. It sounds like an outer space rap star. “Yo, yo, MC Zenitar aboard the space station, y’all.”) The coating seems OK, but nonetheless flare is pretty harsh when the sun is directly visible in the field of view. It also seems fairly delicate - I managed to scratch the coating fairly quickly when the lens cap fell off when the lens was loose in my camera bag.

It has a focal length of 16mm and is thus a full-frame fisheye design - the image covers the entire 24x36mm frame of 35mm film. (unlike 7-8mm fisheye lenses which project an image circle onto the middle of the film frame, leaving dark unexposed areas on either side) It’s supposed to cover 180 degrees diagonally, but it seems to me to be slightly less than that.

Important note to subframe DSLR users: remember that if your digital camera does not cover the full area of 35mm film (eg: it's a 1.3x, 1.5x or 1.6x crop, say) then you will not get the true distorted and "fishy" effect that a full frame user will enjoy.

The aperture of the lens can be adjusted from f2.8 through to f22, via a traditional aperture ring. The aperture diaphragm has 6 blades, though the aperture circle is pretty rough-edged at larger apertures. This means it has pretty crappy bokeh, but since fisheyes are usually used in ways that emphasize depth of field this shouldn’t matter much.

It’s quite sharp and contrasty, though I have not had the opportunity to compare it to any other fisheye lenses by other manufacturers. Regardless, I’ve been very satisfied with the results, flare aside. There is some chromatic aberration in the corners, but it’s not too bad. The photo at the top of this page was taken with a Canon EOS Elan (100) camera using the Zenitar lens, mounted to the top of the boat’s mast with a homemade bracket. Here and here are a couple more photos I took using this lens - both night exposures made in bulb mode.

The lens focusses from 0.3 metres (1 foot) to infinity. The main problem with using it, in fact, is figuring out if it’s in focus or not, since it usually isn’t possible to tell by looking through the viewfinder. Usually best to shoot stopped-down (fisheyes do have a pretty massive depth of field) and maybe bracket the focus if you have the time.

It’s a shame the close focus distance isn’t a bit nearer, however. One of the fun things about fisheyes is exploiting near-far focus. Canon’s EF fisheye, for example, has a close focus distance of 0.2 metres. 10 cm may not sound like much, but it actually makes a noticeable difference in these ranges.

Filters.

 Since the lens has a large, curved, front element it obviously doesn’t make sense to put filters on the front. Instead it uses rear-mounted filters, like all fisheyes. As shipped it comes with a clear glass rear filter of a rather bizarre size (26.5mm with a 0.5mm thread - anyone know why such a weird size?) installed. I’ve read that the rear filter is part of the optical design and you must always have a filter in place, but I haven’t got around to seeing what happens if you omit it. Presumably it shifts the focussing distance slightly.

The lens ships with a small round plastic box containing three additional glass filters - red, pale green and yellow. It does not include a holder for mounting gel filters. You could, however, cut a gel circle to fit neatly inside the clear filter and put it inside the lens that way. The red filter seems basically a red 25 - I’ve used it successfully with infrared film, as shown here.

Using the lens with an EOS camera.

As noted above, the lens does not contain any electronics - EOS-compatible or not. So when you put it on your EOS camera the camera has no idea what to do and defaults to stop-down metering mode. This means that it can’t obtain lens characteristics from lens electronics, it can’t autofocus and it can’t operate the aperture diaphragm.

So to use it you have to focus and adjust the aperture manually. This isn’t difficult, but does take a couple extra steps. I’ve written up directions on how to use stop-down metering with EOS cameras - check that page out for more information.

One other thing - I’ve found that partial metering seems to offer more reliable metering results than using evaluative metering, at least on an EOS Elan (100) and an EOS 10s (10).

Problems with this lens and an EOS camera.

One EOS 30 (Elan 7) owner has reported to me that, in addition to the manual lens metering deficiency associated with that particular EOS model, he has problems with the rear filter of his Zenitar bumping up against the mirror. He’s using an M42 mount version of the lens with an adapter.

I know that my version of the Zenitar fisheye lens, which has an actual EF lens mount attached to it and does not have an M42 thread, works fine with all the EOS cameras I’ve tried it with, including an Elan 7 (EOS 30/33). So I suspect that this clearance problem is likely an issue with the M42 to EOS lens adapter.

I’ve heard other reports of certain wider-angle lenses involving mirror clearance problems, so it’s worth checking out. If the camera locks up with a blinking battery symbol when you try to take a photo (and the battery is OK) then it’s likely that the lens is blocking the mirror.

Finally, I’ve also heard users of the MC Zenitar with an M42 adapter saying that they have to apply a lot of rotational pressure to get the fisheye to line up correctly with the EOS body. If this isn’t done then the low integral hood on the lens blocks light entering the lens on the corners, causing a sort of triangular vignette. It may be necessary for you to re-align the hood ring squarely with the camera body. There are three tiny screws which hold this ring in place and which can be loosened for adjustment purposes. Note, however, that the screws are incredibly small and you’d have to be extremely careful not to strip them accidentally if you do decide to try this approach.

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- NK Guy, PhotoNotes.org.

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