Soft Play For Grown Ups – With The Zenit MC Zenitar-M2s 50mm f/2

The words “soft” and “play” in the same sentence fill many a parent with dread.

Visions of children getting lost, presumed dead – or at best graphically injured – in the bowels of a giant multi-coloured indoor castle/pirate ship/spaceship/jungle that’s crawling with other hot, sweaty and not doubt germ laden children, with the ever present threat of additional unwanted fluids being ejected after a child either gets more excited than their bladder can contain, or too vigorous after surreptitiously scoffing three pieces of birthday cake when no-one was looking, and now seeing its sickly sugary revenge in reverse.

The choice for the unlucky mums or dads in attendance is stark.

Wait on the bright, plastic and always slightly sticky tables and sofas, making excruciating small talk with other parents you have no desire to share even a moment with, or dive in and try to keep up with the young ones in the soft play monstrosity, under the guise of keeping an eye on them “for their own safety”, and likely risk bruised shins, multiple rope burns and clumsily clambering like a rhinoceros in a miniature fairy garden over other people’s offspring without crushing them, whilst desperately trying to keep up with your own.

You may have gathered, I’m not a fan of indoor soft play centres for all kinds of reasons.

Fortunately, this post is about a different kind of soft play altogether, and one I do enjoy greatly.

That is, playing with focus and depth of field to create soft, dreamy backgrounds.

And what better lens to enjoy this with than a lesser known descendent of the Helios 44 family I often rave about here, the Zenit M C Zenitar-M2s 50mm f/2.

I don’t recall how I first discovered Zenitar, but I think it was in a picture of a late plastic Zenit body on eBay, most likely a Zenit 312M, from as recent as 1998.

Yes, this ugly plastic beast is almost 21st century technology.

And this is exactly how I sourced the Zenitar-M2s now in my possession.

Whilst the Helios 44 lenses are abundantly available on eBay, and I’ve had perhaps 15-20 in one guise or other over the last eight or nine years, the Zenitars seem much more elusive, inevitably, as they were made in much smaller quantities, and over a far shorter period of time.

I couldn’t find one on its own but setting up an eBay search for a Zenit 312 eventually brought me to one I secured for £25, completely the Zenitar “kit” lens attached.

Now, given the apparent build and quality of the cameras and lens, it couldn’t have cost £25 to make new, perhaps not half that.

The camera I donated as soon as I’d removed the lens, and I have nothing positive to say about it. If you really want to try a Zenit, pick something like the Zenit EM or Zenit 11, for some raw, primitive, mechanical fun.

Back to the MC Zenitar, on first impressions, the lens has a passing resemblance to the later 44M Helios lenses, especially in the font of the white lettering on the front, and the white, yellow, green and red lettering around the barrel.

Kissing Cousins – Helios 44M-4 (left) and Zenit MC Zenitar-M2s (right)

But where the 44Ms are all metal and glass and feel robust enough to hammer in nails, the Zenitar is mostly plastic, smaller in depth, far more rounded, and feels positively fragile in comparison.

The upside is it only weighs 133g compared with the 244g of my 44M-4, for example, little over half the weight.

On a small DSLR like my Samsung GX-1S, the combined heft is a reasonable 788g , very portable when something like a Pentax K10D with the Helios 44M-4 would be around 250g extra, and give near identical results.

Samsung GX-1S with Zenit MC Zenitar-M2s, about as compact as DSLRs get

Another plus of the Zenitar is its close focus.

Typically a 50mm lens will go down to 0.5 or perhaps 0.45m. The barrel on the Zenitar says 0.35m, but in practice my example focuses on objects a shade under 0.3m from the end of the lens, which makes it the closest focus standard lens I have, without getting into close up filters or macro extensions rings.

The downside of the plasticky build is the focusing experience is less than smooth.

A Takumar, it ain’t.

Instead it’s a bit like a child going down a slide back in that soft play centre who expects to whoosh down speedily, but ends up doing a kind of enthusiastic bottom shuffle most of the way down, impeded by the additional resistance given by various dried up juice and fizzy drink trails.

In practice I find most of the time I keep the focus at its closest, use the rocking focus method for fine adjustment, the recompose as required.

When I do need to rotate the barrel, I to and fro a few times to get it approximately correct, then again make the final tweaks by leaning my body in or out.

This suits my style of photography well, but if you’re someone who needs to quickly focus in and out to precise positions, the Zenitar would frustrate. But then you’re likely using a fast auto focus lens for this kind of application anyway.

We started this conversation talking about soft play, and the Zenitar does make lovely soft backgrounds.

Which is kind of expected given its Helios heritage.

What it arguably does even better than the certainly not un-sharp Helios predecessors, is provide a more than I usually need sharpness.

I’m no pixel peeper, but you can see from the shots in this post that the Zenitar can make very sharp looking images, but combined with an old CCD sensor like that in that the Samsung GX-1S, retains a more organic and dare I say film like result than it would do with a more modern, higher resolution CMOS sensor.

I’ll likely try the Zenitar with my Pentax K30 some day, which isn’t exactly cutting edge now, but does have a much higher resolution CMOS sensor than the GX-1S’s 6MP CCD.

There’s little else to say about the M2s.

Arguably it performs even better than a Helios 44, a range of lenses I’ve adored since first using one about nine years ago.

The plastic feel means it’s never going to give the tactile luxury of a Super-Takumar 55/1.8, but its lighter weight, closer focusing, and, in my eyes, undeniable performance, mean I could happily take this as the only M42 lens I ever use again.

Have you ever owned or used a Zenit MC Zenitar-M2s? If so, what were your thoughts? Which other slightly lesser known and oddball lenses have really impressed you?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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4 thoughts on “Soft Play For Grown Ups – With The Zenit MC Zenitar-M2s 50mm f/2”

  1. I absolutely love the photograph of the tree roots. I find it … soothing.

    The most oddball lens I’ve used, a loaner from a friend, is a lens baby composer. To lens had no electronics to signal the Nikon DX body, and the aperture was set using little plastic circles that one put into a cavity in front of the lens. I used it mostly for macro. The lens was challenging to focus. I did most of my focusing by moving my body.

    1. Thanks Khurt, glad you liked the tree root photograph. I find most pictures of trees and woodland pretty soothing – even more so being amongst them!

      I’ve thought about buying some variation of a Lens Baby lens for years but never got to it. They seemed too expensive for what they were. You managed to get some lovely macros!

  2. The Helios 44K has been in my ebay saved searches forever…. (I’d like the K as I don’t do M42 lenses…)
    But I had not heard much about this Zenitar until now. I have to say that the results are lovely. How long is the focus throw? Long enough, but short like the Rikenon 50 f2?

    1. I think I’ve only ever seen one 44K on eBay over here, and when it came up I had a few varieties in M42 so didn’t think it was worth paying many times as much for a K mount.

      Why don’t you use M42? Super easy to use on a DSLR (easier than M lenses, I find), and there are some incredible lenses, not least of all the Takumars.

      I found another Zenitar the other day on eBay (also on a Zenit 312), and I put in a bid around £30 and it went for a couple of pounds more. I didn’t go higher as I didn’t really need another one, but at anywhere around £35 I think it’s excellent value, especially given its closer focus than most 50s.

      The focus throw is plenty long enough, about 180 degrees, more than I can turn with one hand without taking it off and adjusting my grip and turning again, without it being awkward. Certainly not any issue with it not being long enough for me.

      The main downside as I said above is the plastic feel, and a bit like you said about the more coarse focus steps in some of the cheaper AF lenses, it’s difficult to precision focus the Zenitar sometimes as the effort needed to move the lens means you overcook it and go too far, then have to rotate back a bit, then it goes too far that way, and so on. You can’t rotate and stop exactly where you want very easily with one finger, like with a super smooth lens like an M or A 50/1.7 say, it takes a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. As I said before though, because I make the final focus adjustment by leaning my whole body in or out, this isn’t a big issue for me. But I would say someone expecting Pentax M/A 50/1.7 or Takumar smoothness would be disappointed on that front.

      It has enough charm (and that close focus – I think mine is either slightly faulty or has been disassembled and rebuilt slightly off as it goes down to about 0.3m and won’t focus to infinity) that I forgive the plastic build. And I just have a soft spot for these Former Soviet Union underdog lenses like the Zenitars, Helios and Jupiters.

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