The Funky Bokeh King: Fstoppers Reviews the Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5

The Funky Bokeh King: Fstoppers Reviews the Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5

Some photographers value the technical aspects of a lens above all else. Others prefer lenses that create unique, if not technically perfect photos. The Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 is for those in the latter camp. This lens is famous for its characteristic swirly bokeh, and in that it does not fail to disappoint.

History

Many years ago, the Helios lens line was first born as a clone of sorts to port the legendary Zeiss Biotar lens formula into the M42 format that was used in the Soviet Union. Over the course of a few decades, dozens of Helios lenses variations were created, the majority designed for non-photographic uses.  Two of the Helios lenses have become legendary for their extremely characterful rendering of bokeh, the first being the relatively common 58mm f/2.0 and the second being the much rarer 85mm f/1.5, which ended up being used more in night vision devices than cameras, which made the few M42 mount versions of the lens quite expensive given the exotic beauty of their performance.

A few years ago, in reaction to this demand, the Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 was updated for modern DSLR mounts and put back into production in Russia. In late 2015, they finally started to find their way to being easily accessible in North America.

Sharpness

If you stop down the Helios 85mm and place your subject in the center of the frame, sharpness isn’t too bad. Step outside those limitations and sharpness falls off like crazy. Wide open, this lens is fairly soft, though usable if you only need the very center of the frame to be sharp. Personally, I find the lens to have the best balance of bokeh and sharpness at about f/2.0.

The best way to ensure sharp images is to stop worrying about composing in camera and just always shoot with your subject dead center. Crop in post to achieve the desired composition. Below are two unedited images taken at f/1.5 and f/2 respectively.

Bokeh

Depending on distance to background and aperture, the Helios 85mm’s bokeh ranges from the legendary swirling that it is known for to an interesting, almost painted, creamy look. I’ve included some examples below.


Flare

The Helios 85mm flares like crazy — sometimes in very cool ways, other times in image-ruining, awful ways. After receiving mine, I quickly purchased a lens hood for it, as it doesn’t come with one. Virtually any cross-light coming into the lens obliterates your images and creates effects that I’m not terribly keen on. 

I’ve also noticed that the lens sometimes seems to almost flare from specular highlights, which can look quite odd in images. I’ve learned to avoid high-contrast situations as a rule. The Helios 85mm thrives in soft, beautiful, light. 

Build Quality

This lens is a specter of a different time, when sheer ruggedness was the bullish priority above all else. The Helios 85mm certainly doesn’t disappoint: the thing is built like a tank. It is made out of a solid metal body, which presumably is pretty thick because it weighs more than lenses twice its size. In hand, I have no doubt that it could withstand nearly any punishment and given that previous generations of this lens have managed to last thirty plus years under heavy use, still functioning well, I have no doubt that this one could do the same. If you drop it, I’d be more worried about damaging the floor than the lens.

Compared to Something Modern

I figured a good way to really see the difference between the Helios 85mm and a more modern lens would be to throw it on a tripod and do some direct comparisons. For the comparisons below, the shot on the left was taken with the Helios 85mm, and the image on the right was taken with the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G at the same f/2.0 aperture. Notice the difference in color between the two images. The camera settings for these shots were identical and taken seconds apart in raw format on a D800.

What I Liked

  • The bokeh!
  • The build quality.
  • The bokeh.
  • Did I mention the bokeh?

What I Didn’t Like

The feature that frustrates me most is actually quite innovative, in theory. This lens has two aperture rings. The first ring allows you to set a desired aperture, as you would expect, and the other rotates between the aperture set by the first ring and wide open. The idea is that you set your desired aperture, then swing the aperture wide open to focus, then close down again to take the shot. A cool idea in concept, but an utter pain to use. Given that Zenit invested in completely redesigning the lens body and implementing this feature, I’m somewhat at a loss as to why they didn’t just implement an aperture arm in the mount so aperture could be adjusted by the camera.

The other main struggle this lens has is that the focus throw is far too long. You have to twist the focus ring several times to swing from closest focus to infinity, which makes the lens much more challenging to use in situations that require agility. 

The Bottom Line

The Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 is perfect for those who are hunting for glass capable of creating images that have a very different feel to them than what a modern lens delivers. This lens is not for people who value sharpness and contrast above all else.

Be prepared for a lot of trial and error with this beast of a lens. It is heavy, difficult to use, and struggles in any sort of extreme situation. But if you have the patience to find those magical moments where the Helios 85mm shines, there is tremendous potential for magic to be had.

How to Get One

The new, modern version of the Helios 85mm can be found from a few dealers on eBay, who are importing them from Russia and charge between $300 and $500. 

If you don’t want to spend that much money, the vintage Helios 58mm f/2 renders a similar swirling effect at a fraction of the price. The Helios 85mm makes for a better portrait lens, however, in my opinion. If you do opt to try the 58mm out first, I have found the 44-2, 44-4, and 44-7 to be the best performers. They can be found on eBay for about $40-50.

Warning: If you are a Nikon shooter, don’t consider buying a vintage M42 lens with the goal of adapting it to your camera. M42 mount lenses cannot focus to infinity when adapted to Nikon, which makes them almost useless. As far as I know, M42 adapts to Canon without a problem, but I have never tried myself.

Log in or register to post comments

26 Comments

Wow, that top image is the best portrait that I've seen on this site. Not just for the bokeh (which is nice): your model has a fascinatingly complex look and posture, which pairs extremely well with the textures of her outfit, and the color scheme and exposure of the shot. The softness of the lens fits perfectly, too. Great work, both of you.

Sean Shimmel's picture

Agreed. And appreciate detailed comments like your own, Simon.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Thanks dude, that means the world!

Tomas Baliukonis's picture

Hi, Ryan, where did you get lens hood for your helios?

Ryan Cooper's picture

I bought the Fotodiox 3-Section Rubber Lens Hood, Sun Shade, 67mm. Any lens hood that fits a 67mm filter thread would work great.

Great article, nice pictures, and it contains useful information. The style of writing reminds me of hanging out with friends, not pretentious just an observation of what you’ve experienced. Well done.

Tomash Masojc's picture

There are adapters for nikon, with that you can focus to infinity, but they have "correction glass" which affects sharpness at wide apertures and some say, bokeh is not so nice, or you can find people with golden hands, that can remake lens for using it on nikon to infinity focusing. For example i have Jupiter 37A remade for that.

Lukas Juzenas's picture

I have it in my bag, though use it rarely... If done correct results are amazing, but to get focus right at wide open is one helluva job, better just to find your focus range and burst 10 shots through it.. Swirling only happens at certain apperture and certain distance between main object and background and yeah everything out of center is a mess to get sharp, unless cropped. Got mine 40-2 first hand from RU, dirrect mount, also - it is solid piece of glass and metal, Ryan was right, also it could be used for self defence...

Patrick Shipstad's picture

I own the Helios 44-2 58mm and I love it! I got it on Ebay and I think I paid $40 for it and the adaptor I got from eBay for cheap as well.. I use it on my Sony A7II. I'm sure the 85 is better for portrait, but like Ryan said, the 50 is a great value. Great article.. thanks so much! :-)

I lover it. I am a Nikon shooter. I just made an infinity focus Helios 44-2 58mm lens for Nikon without touched the lens system so I still have magic of this lens, and the infinity focus on the Nikon body.

Simon Yong's picture

Can you advice how you made an infinity focus for Helios 44-2 58mm lens for Nikon?

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Glass element. There are adapters everywhere. https://www.amazon.com/VILTROX-M42-Nikon-camera-Adapter-Infinity/dp/B013...

Problem is quality of glass - Unknown.

Is this a T-mount lens? I have a Spiratone 400mm f6.3 that has an aperture ring and there is another ring to open and close the aperture. I've owned that lens for 30+ years, but I don't use it that often because I have to meter in stopped-down mode and there's the remembering to close down the lens.

Ryan Cooper's picture

The new version of this lens comes in Nikon or Canon mount natively.

I can't help but notice the softness of this lens.... dreamy!

Christian Hartmann's picture

Have an old original of this lens and the images it creates are really nice. Love the rendering. My version works fine with an M42 to Canon EF adapter. Also adapted it to an A1 - FD body and shot some rolls of film with it. It stays in the cupboard most of the time tho - it is pretty heavy. :)
Some m42 lenses adapted to Canon EF might not work with a fullframe body and might even damage your mirror. If you ask Google there should be a M42 to Canon 5D compatibility list somehere on the net.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"This lens is famous for its characteristic swirly bokeh, and in that it does not fail to disappoint."
It does not fail to disappoint? So, it always succeds in disappointing? I think you meant it does not disappoint, no?

Sagar Solanki's picture

Very good review!

If you do not like that swirl-y bokeh, there is a Zenitar ( Helios 40-3 ) 85mm f/1.4 available which projects picture flat to the sensor in comparison to the hero of this article which projects pucture circular (otherwise these lenses are siblings). This specific feature of H40-2 leads to a rule of center - no matter what you must place your subject stright to the center when F is max open (for portreture I'll make sure to have an eye centered).
I have Samyang 85/1.4 and H40-2, as of my opinion these lenses are identical from sharpnes point of view wide open.
As of H40-3, I red that it is sharper than H40-2 and its picture is close to somewhat you would expect from L-glass. Have not had my hand on though.
Flare... Hood is a must. Another thing I did - unscrew lens mount and paint its inside silver metal with matte black paing. Most of the reflections are because of the light that reflects from this silver surface towards glass and then back to a sensor. I do not recollect if I cought any flare since then.

Another point to add, H40-2 built like a tank and heavy... When you have it in its pouch it is somewhat you may rely on as a "weapon of mass distruction" :)

BTW1, if you plan to buy a new model, I won't bother with M42 or Canon mount - take Nikon F and cheap metal adapter from Nikon to Canon or what ever else system you have...

BTW2, image quality is about the same OLD models vs NEW one.

As Ryan said, if you want somewhat alike for cheap, try 44-2, E.g.

https://scontent.xx.fbcdn.net/t31.0-8/11782345_10153136983928861_2616708...

Fetching image
Simon Yong's picture

Warning: If you are a Nikon shooter, don’t consider buying a vintage M42 lens with the goal of adapting it to your camera. M42 mount lenses cannot focus to infinity when adapted to Nikon, which makes them almost useless.

Do you mean both 58mm & 85mm also can't focus to infinity? So got any adapter can let Nikon user to use it focus to infinity? Thanks!!

Ryan Cooper's picture

The 85mm is sold in a native Nikon mount, it focuses to infinity just fine. (though the older version of it is M42 and would suffer from that problem)

Simon Yong's picture

Noted with thanks~!!!

Bill Larkin's picture

I love mine

Is that Genevieve Buechner?

Ryan Cooper's picture

Yes

Nikon shooters don't need an adapter to use Helios lenses. The later model Kiev SLRs (17, 18 and 19) used the Nikon F mount and the Arsenalna factory shipped those cameras with Helios 81-N lenses (marked as 81-H in Russian) which are identical in formula to the 44-4. They just have better glass, are multicoated and have an F mount bayonet. If you search eBay for those, you'll find a fair number of them around. Just be careful though, because Kiev also made the Helios 81 for their range of automatic cameras (the Kiev 10 and 15) using a proprietary bayonet mount that no other cameras in the world used.