By Iain Compton
It’s not easy to practice photography in these days of social distancing and mandatory isolation. Here in Bangkok, the rules are very strict and everything has been closed for the past two months. This week however, the parks reopened for the first time since March, albeit with some extra restrictions.
So, having been confined to my apartment for six weeks, I was keen to get out again while abiding by the (very sensible) public health rules. That means long-lens photography, and in my (fairly considerable) analogue arsenal, the very longest lens I have is the Tair-3S which is part of my Fotosnaiper kit.
The Fotosnaiper is a camera system with some history. The very first one was made by GOI in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and featured a modified FED with a reflex finder attached to it. This also had a larger flange distance than the regular FED, so the Tair-3 lens also had to be modified to work with it too. Both lens and camera body were mounted to a wooden rifle stock and this camera system was issued to various military units, presumably for photoreconnaissance work.
This original version is very rare, most sources agree that less than a few hundred of these were made between 1943 and 1945. There was no Fotosnaiper at all after 1945, until KMZ resurrected the concept in 1965. This time, they used an actual SLR – the ubiquitous Zenit-E, as well as their current version of the same Tair-3 lens. Again, both lens and camera body were adapted for mounting on a rifle stock with a trigger.
These modifications consisted of a second shutter release in the baseplate which was actuated by a pin pushed up when the trigger was pulled, and a focus dial underneath the lens that worked a pinion to move the focusing element in and out. This version was discontinued in 1969 before being resurrected a second time in 1982 with a Zenit 12-based kit. This last version, the FS-12 is the one that I have.
It comes in a steel case that has dedicated fixtures to mount the camera and lens, the stock and all of the accessories. As well as a Zenit 12 and a Tair-3, you also get:
- A Helios 44M-4 lens (58mm, f/2)
- A removable shoulder stock
- A strap
- A rubber lens hood for the Tair-3
- A set of filters for the Tair-3 ; orange, green, UV, and two different yellows
- A pair of screwdrivers
- A front cap for the Helios 44 and a rear cap for the Tair-3 (when it’s not in use, the Helios screws directly into the lid of the case so it doesn’t need a rear cap)
As mentioned previously, both the lens and the camera are modified from the regular versions to work with the Fotosnaiper system.
As before, the camera has a second trigger mount in the baseplate, it also has a connector on the front which takes a cable from the lens so that it can provide TTL metering while the aperture is held open for focusing. As far as I’m aware no other lenses use that cable system.
The lens has the same horizontally mounted focus dial that fits into a cutout in the gun frame, it also has a spring-loaded automatic diaphragm that I’ll get to later.
Other than these changes the camera is the same as all other Zenit 12s.
The Tair-3 is an M42 mount, 300mm, f/4.5 lens, which isn’t blazingly fast, but was reasonably competitive with contemporary telephotos. A bigger version of it was made for medium format bodies with the Kiev screw mount as the Tair-33. This is a huge lens. The Tair-3 is already a big and heavy lens. It has an all metal construction with very large chunks of glass at the business end. My Canon 70-200 feels like a toy after I’ve been carrying this around for any length of time.
So what is it like to use? Well the answer is, unfortunately, not very good.
Despite the novel rifle-style mount, the ergonomics are terrible. If you are right-handed, you hold the grip and the trigger in your right hand and support the end of the lens with your left. The lens is too heavy to take your left hand away for any amount of time, so all of the work other than focus is being done with your right hand. On most cameras, this isn’t a problem as the controls are all close together, but on the Fotosnaiper, the shutter button is well below the camera, while the shutter speed adjustment, winding lever and the top shutter are all on the top plate.
Even though the camera is modified to fire the shutter from the trigger, this can’t activate the light meter, so if you want to check your exposure, you need to half-press the top shutter button first. Because you need to move your hand from the grip to the top of the camera and move the camera away from your face to wind on, you aren’t going to be shooting very quickly.
You aren’t likely to get more than one shot at anything wild anyway, because this is a very noisy camera. The usual Zenit shutter slap is a factor of course, but as well as that, there’s an incredibly noisy automatic diaphragm mechanism. The Zenit 12 has an automatic diaphragm system which pushes a pin on the lens to stop the aperture down when the shutter activates. The Helios-44 that comes with the set uses this. The Tair-3 does not.
Instead it has a pre-selector system like older Helios lenses except with a spring-loaded return. You dial in the aperture you want, then you turn a collar until it locks in place to hold the aperture open for focusing. Then, when the trigger is pulled, it pushes a pin up that trips a lever that releases the spring-loaded collar to stop the lens down. The pins for the lens and the body are designed so that the diaphragm stops down first, then the shutter is fired.
It’s shockingly primitive and incredibly loud. Nothing with any sense is going to stick around after that noise. Also, just as the trigger can’t activate the lightmeter, the top shutter button can’t stop the lens down. So, you have to deal with that. You can manually trigger it by pushing the lever with the third hand that you obviously have because both of your other hands are busy.
As well as supporting the considerable weight of the thing, your left hand is responsible for focusing. As noted previously, this is via a horizontal dial attached to the bottom of the lens underneath the front element. This is going to give your thumb a real workout. It’s stiff and heavy because it’s connected to a very small rack and pinion that slides the big and heavy focusing element in and out. Moving it backwards for closer focusing especially is hard work and your thumb is going to start aching around halfway through your first roll. There is no other focusing option, no barrel twist or push-pull mechanism. This makes focus very slow work, even with the relatively bright viewfinder of the Zenit (no split circle, only microcrystals).
On the subject of speed, the Zenit 12 inherited all of the internals from the Zenit-E which means it has the same shutter assembly and the same shutterspeed selections. You don’t get anything faster than 1/500s, which is not really fast enough to get sharp images of moving birds or any kind of fast sport. The stock also isn’t adjustable so, if you are a smaller person, you may find it difficult to get your eye close to the viewfinder.
Now let’s address the elephant in the room. This is a camera that looks like a gun. It’s big, all-black and has an unmistakable trigger assembly attached to it. If you take this out in public, you are going to get a lot of attention, and not all of it welcome. Any policeman who sees it is, at the very least, going to want to investigate. Depending on where you live, ‘investigation’ could mean anything from a short conversation to a Very Bad Day.
I have used mine outdoors in a number of countries, and I have almost always been stopped by security of some kind. You can insert your own incisive political commentary here if you like.
Air travel with it is not fun. Because if anyone X-rays your bag, they are going to see a gun. So you need to advise the airline that you are checking an item that isn’t a gun but that looks like one. Which basically means that you need to follow the airline’s and your local government’s rules for transporting guns. This isn’t something that will ever get past security as a carry-on, no matter how much you explain to the guy at the scanner.
Anyhow, all of that aside, and circling back to the beginning of this article, I decided to celebrate the reopening of local parks by heading out to hunt dragons. Here in Bangkok, we have a very large central park called Lumphini, it’s a maze of lakes and small canals which are full of big fat fish. Big fat fish in quiet waterways is precisely the favourite environment of water monitors, the second biggest lizards in the world (after Komodo Dragons).
If you head away from the busier areas, it’s possible to see them hunting, or just basking on the waterside. I love these beasts, they are incredibly fun to shoot, and because they tend to stay still for long periods, they are ideal targets for slow analogue cameras that take ages to nail focus with.
In these days of monster super-telephotos, 300mm is not actually all that long. I found that to fill the frame I couldn’t really be more than about 6-8 metres (20 to 25ft) away from the subject. The lizards are usually 1-2 metres long (3 to 6ft) but a lot of that is tail and if they are in the water all you see is their head. Despite the reach, you still need to be close. They are fairly shy so patience is required.
I shot Kodak Portra 160 film at 1/250s. I wanted to use slower film because the lizards blend in well with the dry mud and knotted roots that they like to live around, so I was shooting wide open to get as much separation between the lizard and the background as possible. Like most lenses, the Tair-3 isn’t super sharp wide open, it gets beautifully sharp at about f/8 but that’s going to be too slow for most action work. Even on the 35mm platform, f/4.5 at 300mm gives a razor thin depth of field, so sometimes I dropped down to f/5.6.
This didn’t give me much more of the frame in focus however, while the missing extra stop of light was definitely noticeable even in the bright Thai sunshine. Having said that, the huge front element, and the 17 (yes, really!) aperture blades produce some of the creamiest out of focus areas I’ve ever seen on any lens.
The front is multi-coated, and combined with the huge and somewhat funky looking front hood, means that lens flare is rarely an issue unless you are shooting directly into the sun.
Overall, this is a cool novelty that’s fun to use, but it’s hard to recommend to anyone looking for a serious wildlife system.
There are versions of the Tair-3 lens that have a more typical focus and automatic stop down system in M42 mount, and I feel that one of those attached to something with a better range of shutter speeds – maybe a Pentax Spotmatic or an adapted Kiev – would be a great way to explore long-lens work on film.