I remember when I first started photography, I'd try and find out what lens and camera had been used for every photograph I liked. I was convinced that if I had that combination of glass and mirrors I would be creating masterpieces. Unfortunately, that train of thought is closer to smoke and mirrors, and I soon knew better. Curiously, however, I now think there's some truth to it, and that truth was revealed to me by a lens that is now my secret weapon.
Upon the publication of this article, the lens will be demoted from "secret weapon" to just "weapon," but photography is not an industry where selfishness with information is rewarded. The weapon to which I refer is the Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5. In fairness, it's not a secret but rather a lens that isn't well known about and one I've never seen another photographer using out in the wild. We conducted an impartial review on this lens early last year, but I want to provide a rather partial review. Despite "Helios" perhaps throwing some people off the scent, this lens is a modern production and is beautifully made. It's an extremely fast prime lens, and it's 85mm, which is many photographers' go-to portrait focal length; I'm quite certain Dani Diamond would have his eyes surgically adjusted to fast 85mms if he could.
Now, this lens isn't for everyone and it isn't — even for a guy who loves the thing — a general/daily use lens. Firstly, its build quality is so high that it can double up as a projectile and I'm confident could kill a human; it's that heavy. Secondly, it's manual only, which isn't ideal, especially when it can go as wide as f/1.5. Thirdly, it has more flares going on here than a 70s disco. I'm serious, this thing has a nose for taking direct light and smearing it across your image. I would go as far as to say that you cannot shoot towards the sun full-stop unless you're willing to craft a custom lens hood that protrudes out like a jouster's lance. Below is an example of a shot taken mid-afternoon where the sun is at an angle of around 45 degrees above and behind the model.
My fourth and final grievance is the double-edged sword of this lens. The circular swirly bokeh this Russian champion delivers us does mean that if you're shooting wide open, you're a kitten's fart away from the softest image you've seen since that photo you took with your flip phone drunk and in the dark sometime in the early naughties. I don't believe image sharpness is the most important component of an image, but the Zenit really does push it unless you've got the steady hand of a surgeon.
So, why do I like this lens so much? Until I bought my beloved Canon 135mm f/2, I couldn't really see the difference between images from similar focal lengths. There were subtle nuances, but nothing you could class as stylistic. The 135mm had me questioning that belief, and the Zenit 85mm has me fully atheistic towards it. Whenever I shoot now, I make sure I get the shots I need to, then I hoist the bokeh tank onto my camera body. It has a "look" that is very identifiable, even to non-photographer folk, and is traditionally a result exclusive to older (by which I mean vintage) lenses.
One of the telltale signs for me that I love this lens (other than me sketching Zenit and my initials on bathroom walls) is that even when the light washes out my image and I narrowly miss perfect focus, I still don't want to throw the images away.
In conclusion, this lens is awkward, heavy, irritating, averse to bright lights, and erratic: 10/10, would buy it again.