Not so much as Photo of the Day on this occasion, more like Experiment of the Day. Ever since I got my Fuji X-E2, I have developed an interest in using adapted lenses. Mirrorless cameras with features such as focus peaking have made it easier to use lenses from other cameras. All it requires is an adapter to attach lenses with otherwise incompatible mounts.
Initially, I tried out my old Olympus OM glass. In the main they were good optically, as you would expect with from a company with Olympus’ reputation and experience. The exception was the 35mm f/2.8 which was not especially sharp. Researching other people’s experience on the Internet indicated that this is typical of the lens. Mine is not a poor copy. Applying a lot of sharpening in post capture processing brought it up to acceptable levels, but I would not want to use it on a regular basis.
Helios 44 Lens
A while back I wanted to try a lens with a reputation for a bit of character in its rendering. I ended up purchasing a Helios 44 f/2 for £23 on eBay. The lens came as standard with the budget range Zenit cameras from communist Russia. Unrefined they might have been, but those Zenit cameras were the introduction to photography for many. Despite its low end origins, nowadays the Helios 44 has a cult following. It has become desirable due to the way it renders out of focus areas with a swirly bokeh. The optical formula derives from the classic Carl Zeiss Biotar design which dates back to well before the second world war.
Carl Zeiss originated in Jena in eastern Germany and came under Russian control at the conclusion of the war. The Russians took much of the tooling from the Carl Zeiss works back to Russia as part of war reparations. That included the forcible relocation of some personnel. The seizure formed the basis of the Soviet camera industry for many years afterwards and was one source of much needed foreign currency for the communist regime. Manufacturing took place in several factories for over four decades between 1958 and 1992. Consequently, the Helios 44 has the reputation of being the most widely produced lens in the world. There are literally millions of them.
Despite the 44 designation, the lens actually has a focal length of 58mm. There are two main versions and many variants, all with the same optical formula. The first lenses had a preset mechanism for setting the aperture where there are two control rings. One sets the aperture and the other closes it down. Of these, the most popular is the 44-2, which seems to the most desirable model overall. The very earliest lenses had 13 aperture blades, but by the time of the 44-2 that had gone down to 8. The first lens with an automatic diaphragm was the 44M, which is the one I own. Lenses which followed the 44M had 6 aperture blades.
Over the long period of production, the Soviet engineers gradually refined the optical design. It appears to have improved sharpness but reduced the swirly bokeh effect. The conventional method for setting aperture on the 44M is more convenient than the 44-2, but perhaps at the expense of bokeh. Opinions vary. Since the main reason nowadays for using these lenses is the out of focus rendering, it makes sense to shoot them wide open whenever possible. In those circumstances, the means of setting the aperture becomes less of a concern.
Not so long ago, the lenses were very cheap secondhand, usually £10 or less. The increased interest in adapted lenses has seen prices rise over the past few years. Some go up to an asking price of £100 or more. Mine is OK optically and mechanically, but has obvious signs of use. There is a less common Helios 40 which is also based on the Biotar design. It is 85mm and has a f/1.5 maximum aperture. There might be logic behind the Soviet naming conventions. If so, it escapes me. The Helios 40 is another lens with a good reputation and its comparative rarity ensures wallet crunching prices. A purchase is not a trivial decision for what is a specialist lens.
When my copy arrived a few months ago, after testing I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. I decided to rectify that with a trip to Emmetts Garden in Kent. The 1.5 crop factor on the X-E2 means that the lens has a full frame focal length equivalent of 87mm. I mainly shot it wide open as I was wanted minimum depth of field to explore the out of focus rendering. On such a bright day, at f/2 I needed the camera’s shortest shutter speed of 1/4000 sec.
It is surprisingly sharp and there is a pleasing 3-D effect. Colours are slightly cooler and with a touch less contrast compared to the shots I took with the Fuji X-Pro1 and XF18-55 lens, but not unpleasantly so. The differences are obvious with the images side by side, with both renderings having their merits. Post capture processing in Lightroom brings them closer, albeit not entirely identical. In practice, it is unlikely to be an issue.
The renowned swirly bokeh was there, but not to the extent I expected. In a way, that is an advantage as I am not sure how much I like that look. In excess, it does not seem to add anything in a lot of shots I have seen, the opposite in fact. Because you can does not mean that you should. The out of focus areas have a certain grittiness to them and I did get one shot with some large circles visible. There is a trend for round blobs rendered as “bubble bokeh”, but these seem too large for that.
There are two possible explanations for the performance of the lens in out of focus areas. The bokeh on the later lenses might be different from those with more aperture blades. More likely, only using the central part of the lens on a crop sensor could be a factor. The edges of a lens do not perform as well as the centre, which makes any aberrations more apparent. A possible solution is to purchase an adapter which restores lenses to their normal focal length on a crop sensor.
Overall, the lens is a keeper and I will be trying it on different subjects. I would like to see whether I can make that swirly bokeh work for me. Given how cheap the lenses are, I might also experiment with a 44-2 to see how they compare.
This post is part of my occasional “Photo of the Day” series. I publish shots which I think might be of interest and tell the story behind them. They might not necessarily be portfolio standard images, nor the final version, but still be of sufficient interest for inclusion in my blog. If I do not show a shot on any given day, it does not mean that I did not take any photographs, just that I did not get anything worthwhile. For me, that is part of the fun of photography. Not knowing what I will find on a shoot when I have nothing planned.