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07-11-2021, 07:23 AM   #61
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07-13-2021, 02:57 PM   #62
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This is another one of those tangled 'who made which lens?' stories - a question that will likely never be answered with any real certainty. So read on, please, only if you're the kind of person who doesn't demand a classic-mystery-story ending in which every loose end is neatly tied into a perfect bow.

The tale begins, I suppose, with the Alpa SLR: that charmingly idiosyncratic paragon of hand-built precision made, an age ago, by Pignons of Switzerland. Alpas were magnificent cameras, and they were fitted with an equally prestigious range of lenses (to get a flavor of what I'm talking about, consider this: the Schneider Alpa lenses, undeniably superb, were the low-end offerings). All the legendary marques were represented: Angenieux, Old Delft, Kinoptik and - to get back to our story - Kern.

It was Kern who supplied the "normal" lens for the Alpa - the 50mm Switar - but there was nothing "normal" about it other than its focal length. The Switar evolved over its lifetime, gaining features and functionality as the years went on: the unique Kern "Visifocus" depth-of-field indicator, for one, and extraordinary close-focusing facility, for another. The last Swiss-made Switar was arguably the best of them all: the 50/1.9 Macro-Switar, which delivered apochromatic performance, jaw-droppingly high resolution and near-macro capability. It focused to less than a foot, yielding a 1:3 reproduction ratio without the use of extension tubes.

Unfortunately - but unsurprisingly - Alpa ultimately fell prey to the same market conditions that drove stalwarts like Zeiss-Ikon and Rollei from the camera-building business. The last Alpa SLRs were made in Japan, are generally acknowledged to be rebadged Chinon Memotrons, and did not survive for very long. So much for the camera bodies. But what about the Switar normal lenses - what became of those optical marvels in the chaos of Alpa's death-throes?

This is where things get a little messy.

According to several authorities, Kern found itself unable to continue supplying Macro-Switars for the new bodies. One account claims that the company could no longer afford to manufacture the barrel mechanism: a credible notion, given the complexity of the Visifocus feature. Another account claims that the company simply threw away the necessary tooling (if you've ever worked for a manufacturing operation during a time of disorderly transition, you'll know that such an explanation is also distressingly plausible).

One thing both accounts seem to agree on: Kern still had a stockpile of Switar elements, even though it had no place to put them. (It seems likely that Kern sourced its glass from Carl Zeiss, but that's neither here nor there for these purposes.)

Enter Chinon, who was already manufacturing the Japanese Alpa bodies. Somehow, someway, a deal was struck. The result? The last Kern-Macro-Switars fitted to Alpa cameras were hybrid lenses, composed of Kern glass set into Chinon barrels. A cynic might wonder whether that glass actually came from Kern; were these lenses 100% Chinon, and Kerns in name only? That's possible, I suppose, but I don't believe it. I don't believe that Kern would have allowed its branding to appear on the beauty rings of these lenses if the optical components weren't Kern-supplied. Note, however, that I can't prove that assertion.

The Chinon-bodied Macro-Switar was a 50/1.9, like its predecessor. It focused down to less than a foot (by means of a double helicoid mechanism), yielding a 1:3 reproduction ratio - again, like its predecessor. (One difference: unlike the Swiss lens, it bore a "macro" designation, with a turning arrow, on the forepart of the barrel.) Viewed in these terms alone, it replicated the functionality of the Swiss-made lens.

This is where things get even messier.

Once the initial run of Chinon-bodied Kerns was exhausted, the normal Alpa lens became a 50/1.7, losing its Kern affiliation in favor of simple "Auto-Alpa" branding. (Note that it's entirely possible, given the conventions of the lens industry, that the difference in maximum aperture between the 50/1.9 Chinon-Kern and the 50/1.7 Auto-Alpa was a difference in name only.) But the barrels, with their distinctive slight reverse-taper and high-gloss finish, were identical. The double helicoid focusing mechanism: the same. The "macro" legend and turning arrow: still there. The minimum focus distance and the 1:3 reproduction ratio: ditto.

(Note that there was also a 55/1.4 Auto-Alpa, also a Chinon lens, but lacking the close-focusing facility and the distinctive styling.)

It's at this point that a twin of the Auto-Alpa 50/1.7 joins the Chinon lens range. The lens is identical in every respect to the Alpa-branded version, but it's identified as a Chinon Macro.

If you think about it, introducing such a lens was a rather strange thing to do. Chinon already had its well-respected 55/1.7 normal lens, so adding a second (and very differently styled) 50/1.7 whose only obvious difference was its close-focusing capability seems like an unusual move. (Typically, when a manufacturer added a macro lens in the ~50mm range, that lens was a true macro, offering a 1:2 reproduction ratio, and it featured a maximum aperture slower than that of its "normal" sibling.)

In due course, this Chinon 50/1.7 Macro was superseded by an updated version at 55mm focal length, with very different cosmetics, but retaining all the functionality of the earlier lens. This version was identified not only as a "macro," but as a Chinon "MCM" - for "multi-coated macro," perhaps? By a stroke of pure luck, I find myself owning both versions; this is the MCM variant. (Photos from the "macro" version to follow.)

That's the history, sketchy though it may be. The rest is conjecture.

My guess is that the relationship between Alpa and Chinon was more than a pure subcontracting relationship. I imagine it as a quid-pro-quo situation: Alpa secured a source of normal lenses for its cameras at a critical juncture, and Chinon won the right to manufacture its own, self-branded version of that normal lens.

My theory is that only lenses using Kern glass were branded "Kern," and that all of the later versions of this lens, whether branded Alpa or Chinon, used glass sourced elsewhere. But that is only a theory. When my lens repairperson cleaned and lubricated one of these Chinons for me, his only comment on the lens - he's not a loquacious fellow - was to say that it had "good glass," with a mysteriously forceful emphasis on the word "good." Was he trying to tell me, cryptically, that the glass was better than he expected it to be - on par, maybe, with fine European glass? That's probably too much of a stretch. What doesn't seem to be a stretch is the notion that this lens was designed and engineered to uphold the performance standards associated with the Alpa deliver performance reasonably comparable (if not identical) to that delivered by the "real" Kern lens. Some accounts claim that Alpa actually lent its considerable expertise to Chinon, tweaking bodies and lenses to bring them up to a level warranting the use of the Alpa name.

So I think what we have here, in the form of the Chinon macro, is a lens designed and built to Alpa standards, with near-macro capabilities. But what (at long last!) about the images it produces?

For my part, I find both of these Chinons (the "macro" as well as the later "MCM" version") astonishingly sharp, even wide-open. And interestingly, they seems to render backgrounds - in terms of bokeh, degree of separation, etc. - more like a 1.2 or a 1.4 lens than a 1.7. Not being fortunate enough to own a "real" Alpa Macro-Switar, I can't begin to compare them to that superlative lens; but I can say that these Chinons are splendid performers in their own right.


Having recently come into possession of a Chinon lens brochure from the relevant timeframe, I'm now able to add a few more details to this discussion - nuggets of incontrovertible fact among all the speculation. The brochure details the complete range of the "Alpa-styled" Chinon lenses - that is to say, it covers the generation of Chinon lenses with the distinctive reverse-tapered barrel also seen on the Chinon-made Kern Switars, the Chinon Auto-Alpas and the Chinon Macro 50/1.7.

The brochure confirms that the 50/1.7 Macro is a 6-element/5-group design.

More interesting (to me, in any case) is the fact that the 50/1.7 Macro was available exclusively in M42 screwmount; all the other Chinons of this generation were offered in a full range of fixed mounts to suit the popular SLR systems of the day. Why is that interesting? Because more than one authority has suggested that the Chinon-made Switar was actually an M42 lens, sold with an Alpa M42 adapter (Alpa code "Autobag") already fitted, rather than a true native Alpa-mount lens. If the Chinon 50/1.7 Macro is in fact a descendant of that Switar version, it might make sense that it was offered only in M42 mount. For all we know, there was a single production run of these lens barrels, with early barrels receiving Kern glass and later barrels receiving glass sourced elsewhere.

***UPDATE #2***

While I'm no longer active at flickr in any meaningful sense, I did want to add one or two datapoints to this already-overlong discussion.

If you do any research into the Alpa and its lenses, you will encounter several references – from normally unimpeachable sources – to the final 50/1.9 Kern-bodied Macro-Switar as a six-element lens (as opposed to the earlier 50/1.8 Macro-Switar, which was a seven-element design). That makes for a nicely-tied-up story: the seven-element 1.8 Kern-bodied lens gives way to the six-element 1.9 Kern-bodied lens; that lens in turn gives way to the (presumably) six-element Chinon-bodied Kern 1.9 lens; and in due course that lens is replaced by the cosmetically identical six-element Chinon-made "Auto-Alpa" 50/1.7 lens.

A neat narrative, but one that turns out to be at variance with reality. The Kern-bodied 1.9 lens, as it happens, was actually an eight-element evolution of the 1.8 seven-element design. That fact doesn't invalidate any of the conjecture above, but it does complicate matters. We know that the final Kern-bodied 1.9 lens was an eight-element design. We know that the 1.7 Auto-Alpa lens was a six-element design. So that makes the rare Chinon-bodied Kern lens the possible transition point, at which the six-element configuration supplanted its eight-element forebear.

This makes a messy story even messier. If the Chinon-bodied Switar is in fact a six-element lens, Is it reasonable to think that Kern would have computed an entirely new objective at that point, when the company was winding up its camera-lens operations? On the other hand, is it likely that the 1.9 eight-element design could really have been shoehorned into the Chinon-bodied Switar barrel? I think not.

The foregoing suggests that we may have to consider a scenario I have heretofore resisted (see above): the possibility that the 1.9 Chinon-Kern lens was a "Kern" in name only, and that it was in actuality identical to the Chinon Macro (and Auto-Alpa) 1.7 that followed.

In any event, the broad outline of the story is essentially the same. But (hard to believe!) it seems that that story is even more complicated, in its details, than we might have suspected.

***UPDATE #3***

One of the difficulties in discussing the uniquely styled Chinon lens series to which the 50mm "Macro" belongs is that there hasn't been an agreed-on name for it. I've used "Alpa-Styled," but that's a clumsy and borderline-misleading monicker. "Multi-Coated" is another option, but there are other Chinon lenses, in both M42 and K-mount, with that designation on their beauty rings. Thanks to some recent online auction listing photos, I think we may be able to adopt a proper name convention. Judging by the original Chinon packaging, it seems that this series was technically known as the "MCL" series (the acronym standing for "multi coated lens," unsurprisingly). I'm not going to revise this too-lengthy discussion by retroactively incorporating the MCL name, but I wanted to take note of the proper manufacturer designation in the interest of future conversation.

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