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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.