In my time browsing forums or videos about photography I've seen many debates over G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome). The basic theme is that photography/photographers have become too obsessed with the cameras and lens they use rather than the photos they take. I generally side with the gear-obsession skeptics, but not always. Recently, I happened to come across a Zenit Fotosniper for a cheap price and given it was my birthday, the gear fanatic inside of me was let loose. For those unfamiliar with this Soviet beast, you are in for a wild ride.
This. Is. Awesome. The Zenit Fotosniper is essentially the coolest piece of photographic equipment you can buy. Period. The origin of this wonderful lens (if the internet can be believed) ... "The Photosniper cameras were originally made for the Military for battlefield photography. The most famous user of the photosniper was Nikita Kruschev. It is rumored that he was actually the father of the modern photosniper. Supposedly his photosniper FS2 was broken and he took it to KMZ to be repaired. When he was told that it was no longer in production he said that that was too bad because it was really a useful camera. This was taken as a command by the management and the new photo snaiper was born." (From Commie Camera). From then on the Soviet Union made a series of commercially available 'Fotosnipers' until the early 1980s. Now a days these lens are fairly rare and as a result are somewhat unappreciated.
The basics of the design is that the lens and camera are mounted onto a rifle like frame. The gun has a pistol grip with a trigger that pushes a pin up into the SLR when it is mounted. This then triggers the camera to fire and take a picture. Focusing is handled by a knob at the front of the lens which allows for the lens to be focused with one hand and the camera to be fired with the other. This idea is not entirely unique as Novoflex made their own take on a lens gun (watch Mathieu Stern's video on the Novoflex). The Novoflex photosniper though uses the trigger to focus the gun and doesn't have a stock to brace the lens against your body. The idea is also rather novel, but you won't see modern camera manufacturers trying to replicate it. Likely over they wouldn't want to deal with the hysteria of people running around with cameras that look like look guns. Perhaps also because modern cameras with auto focus and image stabilisation wouldn't benefit from such an apparatus.
Before I discuss the performance of the lens I must show off the stuff the lens came with. The lens came in a truly backbreaking all metal carry case. As you can see the lens disassembles and attaches itself to the case for safe transportation. Aside from the lens, main trigger piece and stock the package comes with a long list of accessories. These are:
- Lens Filters (one clear, one green, two yellow and an orange)
- Lens Hood (a cool collapsible one)
- Two screwdrivers to maintain the lens
- Two empty film rolls
- A lens strap
- And front/rear lens caps
The original kit also came with a special film camera to use with the lens and a Helios-44 58mm f/2 lens to use for normal photography. This kit lack those two components unfortunately.
I mentioned that this lens came with a special camera. This is necessary for the electronic metering system built into the lens and the trigger pin that inserts into the bottom of the camera. If I shot film this might be a problem, fortunately I do not. Now the task is to modify the lens so I can use it with a digital camera. DSLRs won't fit (not without serious modification), but a mirrorless camera like my Fuji XT-1 fits just fine. I had to wire up the trigger so that it would send an electronic signal to the camera and tell it to fire. Fuji cameras use the rather basic 2.5mm trigger port so wiring up one took little effort. I can't go into an in-depth explanation of how I modified the lens because I was too busy to record it. Suffice it to say I got a $1.5 button from the electronics store and glued it behind the trigger. I then wired it to a 2.5mm cable which I fed through the point where the trigger pin used to be (that was removed). And the results ... it works perfectly. You pull the trigger, it takes shot. The trigger doesn't have a half press like a camera shutter button, but because the lens lacks auto focus it hardly matters.
In terms of performance this lens has a lot to like. The actual lens the Fotosniper uses is a 300mm f/4.5 TAIR-3S which is a fantastic lens. Not only is it a fast 300mm prime. It also features a stunning 16 aperture blades. The lens is also in great condition without any worrisome fungus or haze so image quality is not a concern. What is more import is how the lens actually shoots. I managed to test this out when I when to Jerrabomberra Wetlands and shoot some wildlife. Wildlife is probably the best use case for a lens like this. Perhaps some aviation or sports could work but wildlife is in my wheelhouse. The lens performed decently well. Trying to take pictures of moving subjects was an exercise in futility. Particularly compared to an auto focus lens, this simply doesn't cut the mustard. Slower moving/stationary targets were far more cooperative with this lens. This is where the ergonomics of the lens began to shine. Normal manual focus telephoto primes have a grip around them to focus. This is problematic for comfortable shooting. Often you have to contort your arm over or under the lens just to get focus whilst holding the lens up. The simple knob of the Fotosniper was much easier to use as you can go through the entire focus range whilst essentially keeping your hand still. The rifle design also benefited the lens as you could brace it against your body. This reduced the effects of lens/camera shake allowing for slower shutter speeds. I imagine that with some practice you could get very good at stabilising the lens in this fashion.
In terms of coolness, this lens is unsurpassed. Lenses just don't get more ludicrously fun that this. I is mentioned earlier though, I err on the side of function rather than form. Functionally the lens does have some great upsides. Focusing and stabilising works much better than a normal manual focus 300mm lens would. On the other hand my 150-600 Sigma lens with auto focus and image stabilisation performs better. That also costs significantly more. In conclusion then, it performs better than a manual focus equivalent and if you can get it for a good price you should enjoy it. But, If you have the money for an auto focus telephoto lens or already have one as I do, don't expect some amazing performance out of this piece of kit.