Photos & Projects

A World Within a World, or: A Russian Lens for a Russian Circus – By Robert Poole

Like a lazy stereotype of a vacuous female in a low budget sitcom, I stood in my room changing outfits. Unable to decide, flip flopping back and forth as the partner paces impatiently. I’m torn. What goes best? Is this a good combination? Will it work? What focal length should I take for shooting a circus? Okay, maybe that last question isn’t the typical question one might hear… Unless you are married to a photographer.

My decision wasn’t over clothes and shoes but rather over bodies and lenses. The Leica M9 and 50 Summicron? Not long enough. Voigtlander 15mm? Too slow. Fuji X-E1 and Helios 44-2? Now wait. F2, tack sharp, great contrast and on the crop sensor the 58mm might just work. Plus, it is a Russian circus so why not take a Russian lens?

Now the Helios has been one of my favourite lenses for a while (though please don’t tell my wife or she might question the purchase of my Summicron). I bought an old Zenit E just for the lens, which is lucky too as Zenit didn’t work. If you don’t know, the Helios is a design ‘borrowed’ from the Zeiss Biotar design by the Russians at the end of the war. A lot of people like them for the swirly quality of the out of focus areas but mine has never shown this. It has also never shown the poor quality control which plagues a lot of these Soviet lenses.

On the Fuji X-E1 I had the advantage of the focus peaking and the preview exposure (though the disadvantage of a slow refresh rate on the EVF). The metering in camera couldn’t cope with the mixed lighting. Very dark areas and bright spotlights though this is probably down to me. I ended up manually exposing for the light and letting the shadows take care of themselves. This gave me some fantastic dramatic scenes. My favourite shot is of Henry ‘Prince of Clowns’. A lucky shot though tinged with first terror as he strode toward me in search of a volunteer, then relief as he picked someone standing right in front of me.

I was very fortunate to get some good advice from David Alan Harvey of Magnum, when I showed him the pictures. “It’s fine but I’d like to see more. You need some behind the scenes work. Go see the boss with examples of your work. There’s always a boss.” So that’s what I did. He liked my work and invited me back to shoot the circus, which I did last weekend. This time backstage and yes, I bought my Fuji and my Helios. I also brought my M9 and ‘cron too though.


My work will form the body of an exhibition to be shown at Leica Manchester, UK this September.
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  • Reply
    Rifki Syahputra
    July 11, 2018 at 1:11 am

    great set of pictures.. really love it

  • Reply
    July 11, 2018 at 3:53 am

    Hooray! Great dark room pictures, especially the one with the audience’s lit faces. Actually all of the pictures. Congrats!

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