Review: Helios 40-2 85mm/1.5

I started lusting for the Helios 40-2 after reading about it on Nikon Rumours.

In short, the Helios 40-2 is an 85mm focal length, a very popular focal length for portraits. It has a large (and somewhat odd) aperture going up to f1.5. These are nice things but not why it’s such a cult-lens.

No, the reason for it being a sought-after lens is that it has a whirly bokeh. Reading up on this lens made me lust for whirly bokeh and that’s why I first bought a Helios-44 58mm (in M42-mount) and later the 50mm Helios-81N in Nikon-mount. The Helios-44 has wonderfully strange optical qualities, most of these are shared with the Helios-81.

I prefer to use the latter since the former has many annoying usability-quirks due to being an M42-mount and thus needing an adapter. On Nikon, this means there’s no automatic closing of the diaphragm when shooting, and no focus to infinity. The 81N, having an unauthorized clone of the Nikon F-mount works just like any other F-mount lens, and focuses to infinity. Also, it’s somewhat smaller physically which is a nice bonus.

However, the 85mm/1.5 was something that I lusted after and when a friend offered to loan one to me I happily accepted. These are my thoughts and musings about the lens.

This is a lens that you either love or hate. I was absolutely certain I would love it. Somewhat ironically, it turned out that I hated it.

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(The Helios 40-2 85mm/1.5 mounted on my Nikon D600)

If you’re into lomo-type photography and really dig the swirly bokeh, then this is the lens for you. Among the pros of it is that swirly bokeh and the solid build-quality of the lens itself. If you enjoy just snapping photos of whatever and aren’t too concerned about the optical quality or such mundane trivialities then this is the lens for you. If you enjoy tweaking the hell out of your photos in the light/darkroom, then this is for you.

Yes, it’s solidly built. The optics are decent. It has a (mostly) Nikon F-mount meaning that it mounts to the camera and has infinity-focus but it lacks the automatic diaphragm and has funky ergonomics. It’s quite heavy. Or rather, it’s very heavy. I doubt there’s anything except metal and glass in this thing.

On paper there’s a lot to like about this lens. Weird and wonderful optics for a decent price. Solidly built, heavy as a Russian tank.

In the real world though, if you ask me it’s not a very fun lens to use. It’s heavy and roughly the size of a grapefruit stuck on the end of your camera. Lugging it around gets old fast. The optics while surprisingly good are not as good as you’d expect. Yeah, they get better as you stop it down, but the whole reason with this lens is to shoot it wide open. As such, it’s kind of fuzzy and has some weird cromatic aberrations depending on the light. Add to this that the depth of field is paper-thin and gets thinner the closer your subject is to the lens. Virtually nothing is in focus. The lens is manual focus, which is fine provided your viewfinder is properly set and your eyes are sharp enough to manage the razor-thin depth of field.

Using my two previous Helios lenses I quickly learned that to get the swirl-effect at it’s magical most, you have to stack the odds for it to happen. You need the right kind of background, preferably filled with numerous bright highlights and/or a chaotic pattern of color. Otherwise, you just end up with a smeared and kind of not-pretty blurred bokeh.

Here’s a test-shot of my cat. I improvised and rigged some christmas-lights behind her to get the swirl. Note how almost nothing is in focus. This shot has been somewhat edited, since the camera underexposed it when I shot it in aperture-priority. There was no other light in the room except the christmas-lights behind the cat.

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This lens does not produce large amounts of keepers. For every shot that is almost-okay you shoot at least twenty or thirty (or more!) that are complete and utter crap. Yeah, you can probably get some fairly magical shots out of it, but it will require you to wrestly with it and accept the compromises you have to make getting there. For example, wide open the edges are fuzzier than the center, and in order to make the most of the swirly bokeh you have to compose most things right smack in the middle of the shot. Depending on your style, this might seem boring.

I wanted to love this lens, but I just couldn’t. It’s too much work getting the results you want out of it. I just don’t have the patience for that. If someone gave it to me, then I’d probably use it but as it is, I have a hard time justifying paying money for it.

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(The above shots are all shot wide open)

So, to sum it up:

Pros:

+ Solidly built
+ Relatively cheap
+ Interesting swirly bokeh under the right circumstances
+ Optics are mostly okay, more-so if stopped down

Cons:

– Strange ergonomics due to it’s M42 heritage
– Focus ring is tiny and oddly-located
– No automatic diaphragm
– In reality has to be shot in manual mode
– Lens does not attach to aperture-feeler
– Swirly bokeh requires the right conditions
– Not very sharp or good optics when shot wide open
– Plenty of distortion shot wide open
– Pointless on DX/crop-sensor cameras since they crop out the swirly part of the lens
– Did not attach 100% securely on my camera, although this might just be my camera
– In my opinion, virtually useless for anything except certain type of portraits
– Ugly jagged bokeh-nuts when you stop it down

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