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Two fully manual but beautiful 85mm prime lenses | Vintage vs Modern

Updated: Mar 24

The 85mm focal length is one of the most popular among portrait photographers.

Today, we have two beautiful fast 85's to compare.

We're going to be looking at vintage vs modern.

The Helios 40-2 | 85mm F/1.5 from the '70s & from Russia & the modern Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 85mm f/1.2 from Japan.

Both lenses are fully manual, both have a fast aperture, both are constructed fully of metal and glass and both are heavy.

So, what's the difference, other than the 1-stop aperture difference?

Well, let's have a look, shall we?

Here are two pictures of myself, both shot wide open at F/1.5 & f/1.2. One shot on the Helios, and one shot on the Speedmaster.

SPEEDMASTER 85mm F/1.2 Helios 40-2 | 85mm F/1.5

On the face of it, there's not much of a difference, other than the aperture value and that the Speedmaster is a little more contrasty, even the Bokeh looks pretty much the same here, but if we zoom in a little, this is where you start to notice the differences between the two.

SPEEDMASTER 85MM F/1.2 HELIOS 40-2 | 85MM F/1.5

Zooming into the images is when the differences start to become apparent.

You can see that the Helios is quite a bit softer and a lot less contrasty.

Zooming in again, it's not hard to see which the winner here is:

SPEEDMASTER 85MM F/1.2 HELIOS 40-2 | 85MM F/1.5

Here's another example:




As you can see, the results are very similar. Again, the Speedmaster is a bit sharper and more contrasty, and the bokeh is a little smoother as you'd expect from an F/1.2 monster of a lens, but that's not to say the bokeh from the Helios is disappointing, because it's not, at all, but this is all down to personal preference. I'm personally not a fan of the Helios's swirly bokeh that it's famed for, which is usually one of the reasons that people opt to buy this lens over other models.

If sharpness isn't your main concern and you're more interested in the quirky characteristics of a lens, I'd recommend choosing the Helios. If you're more concerned about the sharpness of a lens, go for the Speedmaster.

So, what about build quality?

Personally, I have nothing bad to say about the build quality of either lens.

Both are built extremely well, both constructed fully of metal & glass.

Both are built to last and both are very heavy. In fact, the only criticism I can make about the helios's build is that I'd have personally preferred the focus ring to be further forward, instead of right at the back, as I personally find it a little difficult to turn.

The aperture on the Helios is also a pre-set. Some people don't like this, and some people do. Personally, I don't mind it.

If you don't know what a pre-set aperture is, this means that you basically have two aperture rings. One ring is clicked, and the other is clickless. This means that you can set the max F stop that you want to use with the clicked ring, and then the clickless ring will turn freely to this value.

The aperture ring on the Speedmaster is also clickless but isn't a pre-set.

Both of these aperture designs make these lenses a great choice for video use.

A lot of people don't like this aperture design for still photography use, due to the fact that it's easy to accidentally change the aperture without noticing. I personally don't mind this design at all, but again, this is subjective and is down to personal preference.

Looking at the two lenses side by side, we can compare the build differences between the two:

We can see that the Speedmaster is a little larger than the Helios but both are around the same width.

The helios has a built-in tripod collar, the Speedmaster does not.

Looking at the optics of the two, the Speedmaster is noticeably bigger with an enormous 77mm filter thread, and the Helios has a filter thread of 67mm.

The Speedmaster is the heavyweight champion here, coming in at a hefty 1.14 kg compared to the Helios which comes in at 896g. That's a whopping difference of 244g.

That weight difference is definitely going to be a deciding factor when it comes to carrying it around all day.

Pricing is going to also be a deciding factor when it comes to choosing either one of these lenses, neither is cheap!

The helios can be found anywhere from between £300 - £450 (ish)

You can purchase this exact lens shown in these images from our site for £365

The Speedmaster varies wildly in pricing, depending on where you buy it from. It ranges anywhere from £450 & £700.

I got lucky and snagged mine from eBay for £345 after a lot of searching.

Another deciding factor between these two lenses is the mount.

The Speedmaster comes in a variety of mounts, for digital bodies.

Mine is Canon EF, but it also comes in: Nikon F, Sony FE, Pentax K, Sony A & Fuji G mount, meaning that no adapter is needed.

The helios only comes in an M42 screw mount, meaning that you'll need an adapter for M42 to whichever system that you use.

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