Updated: Mar 24
Here today, we're going to take a look at and discuss the infamous Helios 40-2. The 85mm F1.5 swirly bokeh beast in M42 mount.
First thing is first, this lens is heavy! There's no avoiding it. It weighs in at approximately 900g, so if you're shooting handheld, and carrying it around with you all day, it can become quite a strain, especially if like me, you pair it with a Canon 1DS MK iii which on its own weighs about the same as a newborn calf, and if you're paring this lens with a mirrorless camera, it's likely to dwarf it and is certainly guaranteed to be heavier than the camera it's paired with. For me though, the weight isn't a dealbreaker, in fact, I rather like a heavier lens, it gives me a sense of quality and being a completely metal and glass build, it gives me a bit of reassurance that I don't have to handle it like I would that of a newborn child.
Let's talk about the build quality. This lens being, from Russia, is in fact built like a Russian tank, It's a monster. As mentioned above, it's an all-metal and glass build, it's extremely durable and can withstand some abuse. There's not one piece of plastic anywhere on this lens, (apart from on my copy, the front cap) but even this originally would have been of metal construction, but mine was changed to plastic at some point in its life, presumably because it's less prone to scuffing the rim. I do want to find myself one of the original metal caps, but this is proving to be quite a challenge. But as with all things made in Russia, quality control wasn't one of their main strong points, so sometimes, you can find these lenses with little niggly issues, such as slightly loose barrels or Rattley mounts, fortunately, mine doesn't suffer from these issues, but if you're looking to purchase one, make sure that you do all of your checks beforehand.
As touched upon above, this lens is a big one, it's heavy & it's wide, but to me, this adds character, as well as a bit of a challenge, and challenges are what photography is all about, right? But, all is not lost. This lens comes equipped with a built-in tripod mount to make using it that little bit easier. This lens can take a bit of getting used to, as with all Helios's it has a pre-set aperture with a clicked ring right at the front and a clickless ring behind it. If you're not familiar with this system, the clicked ring essentially functions as an aperture lock and the clickless ring is what actually opens and closes the iris. For example, say you set the clicked ring to F4, this means that you wouldn't be able to close the iris to more than F4.
Some people love this, and some hate it, I hear it's particularly appealing amongst filmmakers
The focus barrel on this lens is the sort of knobbly ring right at the back, (this ring gives me early Takumar vibes) if you're not paying attention, you will probably try to turn the aperture ring, mistaking it for the focus ring and missing your shot. (I am guilty of this on a few instances)
The focus ring can be quite hard to turn (at least on my copy it is) and can take some perfecting to get right.
Shooting with this lens:
Now for what I'm guessing is what you've actually come to this blog post for, how does the lens handle when mounted on camera?
Simply put, it's very good, it produces quite cool and low contrast images when shot in colour, but for some reason really favours greens. Greens when shot through this lens, really pop compared to any other colours. Just look at the image below.
This image is straight from the camera, with no editing, Just look at how vibrant those greens are amongst the pile of brown leaves. This was shot with the lens attached to my Canon 1DS MKiii and shot wide open at F1.5
As mentioned above though, this lens produces quite cool and low contrast images, the photograph below is side by side, straight from the camera and with the contrast and warmth bumped up in Lightroom
Just look at how much I've pulled up the contrast slider to get it to how I liked the look of the image.
Onto the bokeh, this lens is a Helios, so as such, of course, it has the sort of bokeh that people expect to see in a helios, which is the swirls, which some people like to call the dream look, which is the reason that a lot of people buy one in the first place, but what a lot of first time Helios buyers don't realise is that you're not going to get the swirls with every photograph, it has to be shot in the right conditions, usually with a lot of backing light and vegetation, and of course, you're not going to get anywhere near as many swirls, if any at all when shot on a crop frame body. For best results, you really need to be shooting it on a full-frame body.
Of course, not everyone loves the swirl effect, as it can give the effect of motion sickness if it's too intense. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of the swirly bokeh, but the swirls aren't the reason that I bought this lens, I bought it because of the character that it produces.
let's look at sharpness and overall picture quality.
First off, this is not a sharp lens, especially when shot wide open at F1.5. It has some centre sharpness, but as you move away from the centre, it is very soft and fuzzy. So if sharpness is the reason that you're looking to buy this lens, just look elsewhere, like the Takumar 85mm, which is very sharp even at wide open or even the Jupiter-9 which in my opinion is sharper and more contrasty than the Helios. But also bear in mind, that this lens wasn't designed for sharpness, it was designed as a portrait lens, so if portraits are what you shoot, you'll more than likely be happy with the results, but it does sharpen up considerably by around F5.6 - 8
Centre sharpness, but quickly softens as you move away
However! If you're shooting for Black and White's, this lens really comes into its own and the character changes completely. Shot in B&W in my opinion, this lens becomes a lot more punchy and brings out details better than it does when shot in colour, it also gives more of a film look than the colour counterpart.
Look at the images shot below in B&W and decide for yourself.
This lens is not a cheap one, for a good copy, you will look to be paying upwards of £300, I
managed to get mine for £285, imported directly from Russia and waited approximately 6 weeks for it to arrive.
You can also get these lenses brand new, still made in Russia, but they do look slightly different, the new models are slightly lighter and don't have a tripod mount.
The new versions are around the same price as the original vintage version. So this is down to your own preferences, but I don't have a new one to provide a review or tell you if it's any different. Personally, I went with the original vintage version as I just think the history of a vintage lens is more interesting than that of a brand new one.