GEAR REVIEW - ZENIT HELIOS 40-2N 85mm f/1.5
Bokeh is something very often overlooked by the newcomer or amateur photographer but, certainly something more experienced and professional photographers are aware and take advantage of. In recent times, the trend has increasingly been upon soft, creamy, non-distracting backgrounds that leave the emphasis solely upon the subject matter. Not that there is anything wrong with that at all. It's a pleasing looking that works very well.
However, as much as it is nice to have a non distracting background, it can be somewhat sterile after a while. Normally when we have a busy backdrop, we like to banish it to the blur. However, what if we took the artistic choice to make a feature of the backdrop using lens characteristics to achieve it? Enter the Zenit Helios 85mm f/1.5 (40-2N (Nikon)) and its swirly bokeh.
The Helios 40 is now over half a century old, with the first copies produced in Communist Russia in M39 mount in the early part of the 1960's. Like many lenses coming out of the USSR at the time, the design was largely based upon the German Carl Zeiss Biotar optical formulas. They were manufactured in Krasnogorsk, a town not far from Moscow and is why many Zenit lenses are branded KMZ (Красногорский механический завод, Krasnogorskiy Mechanicheskiy Zavod). These early versions are recognizable by their silver outward appearance. Later variations of the lens (the 40-2) adopted the increasingly popular M42 mount. Both have a tripod collar to help deal with the combined weight of the lens and camera body. Sadly this is absent from the new versions.
In 2012 the KMZ factory announced they were starting reproduction of the Helios 40 in M42, Nikon and Canon mounts. This was welcome news for Nikon shooters like myself, who were unable to use the Helios 40-2 and achieve infinity focus without the use of an optical adapter. Unfortunately, the only place I could find the lens was on eBay, shipped directly from Russia. Mine took 6 weeks to arrive. 5 of those weeks were stuck in UK Customs, with no notification or knowledge by Royal Mail, as to where the parcel was. So be warned, if you order one, be prepared for a potentially very lengthy wait.
Upon opening the box and removing the lens from the carrying pouch, the most obvious thing about the Helios is the weight. With solid metal and glass construction throughout, it's certainly the antithesis of most modern lenses, who aim for the lightest design possible. You certainly wouldn't want to drop it on your foot, that's for sure.
The next thing you notice is the somewhat odd placement of the aperture ring and focus barrel. Most of us are used to the aperture ring being closest to the mount but, here it is reversed. Although unusual by today's standards, it is typical of lenses of this era though, as many of the old Meyer-Optik Gorlitz and Pentacon lenses had the aperture ring up front. This is due to the fact they too were "preset aperture" lenses.
What is a "preset aperture" I anticipate some of you asking? Well it's fairly simple. On modern lenses, we set the aperture on the camera body or in the case of Nikon's Ai, Ai-s lenses, on the lens itself. However the camera holds the blades fully open, to allow as much light as possible into the camera to facilitate focusing. When we press the shutter release, the camera stops the lens down and opens the shutter and takes a photograph. It then returns the lens to maximum aperture again for optimum focus ability. With a preset lens, we have to choose the aperture we want with the dedicated selector ring, and stop the lens down prior to taking a photograph. It is a slower and less efficient way to take photos but, so long as your subject is stationary and you have no need to adjust focus, it's fine. Posed portraiture or landscapes for example. If your subject is dancing around all over the place - you're going to struggle.
There are also no definitive stops on the lens either. By that I mean, when you rotate the aperture ring, it doesn't click to indicate you have gone from f/2 to f/2.8, etc. However, as the lens is a preset aperture, you can select the aperture you want to use, then rotate the ring to stop the lens down to that chosen aperture.
The Helios 40-2 is a well engineered lens. The focus is smooth, precise and well dampened. It is a slow lens to focus with but, that is a bonus. When I say slow, I mean there is a lot of thread to play with, which enables you to fine tune for critical focus, which is imperative for portraiture. It close focuses down to 80cm and as it's a Nikon mount, I can achieve infinity focus too. Yippee!!
Being an 85mm f/1.5 the depth of field is very shallow at typical portrait lengths. It allows for isolation of the eyes if so desired and creates good separation of the subject and background. However, this lens is mostly wasted in your typical studio setup. If you're shooting against a plain background, the attributes of the Helios are completely lost and you're better off going for an autofocus 85mm lens like the f/1.8G or if you simply must have those extra 2/3rds of a stop, the Samyang 85mm f/1.4. Where the Helios comes into its own is when a busy backdrop is present, ideally high in contrast. For example, shooting someone against Christmas lights or a Sun-dappled tree or bush. This is when the distorting swirl effect is most apparent and can be made into an attractive feature of the image.
Obviously the swirling bokeh is the main feature of the lens and the primary reason to purchase it. While it certainly offers something different, it certainly isn't to everyones' tastes. The effect is actually considered an optical defect by modern standards. You may find your images getting slammed for their busy backdrops. To that I say "so what??" It would be a pretty boring world if all we had were creamy backgrounds in our photos.
Although the lens is coated (from what I could gather from reading elsewhere on the Net, the lens is only single-coated, not multi-coated) it ghosts like a bitch! It doesn't like bright light coming directly at it or entering at stray angles. As a result, the contrast is sucked right out the images, if you aren't careful. Knowing this, you'd think the folks at Zenit would throw in a nice lens hood to minimize this. Unfortunately, they don't, so I invested in a 67mm solid metal hood. None of that wimpy plastic petal hood nonsense here. Also, the supplied lens cap is a screw-in type. All very slow and unnecessary. I replaced that with a 3rd party cap, that clips neatly into the metal hood, which added another 5cm to the overall length of the lens. It fits nice and snugly into a 15cm long Lowepro pouch, provided it's focused to infinity.
As far as the optical performance goes, by modern standards the Helios 40-2 is somewhat of a lemon. Wide open at f/1.5 it is soft and things barely improve stopped down to f/2. By f/2.8 the center sharpness makes a noticeable jump and again at f/4. After that the main improvement is in the corners. Optimum sharpness is f/8 for centre and f/11 for corners. Now this may sound off-putting but, remember sharpness is not the be-all-and-end-all of an image and in some instances can be an advantage.
The Helios 40-2 is something of an oddity and many people will be left scratching their heads as to why anyone would spend £300 on a lens that is neither particularly sharp, or particularly easy to use. For the money an 85mm f/1.8G could be had, which is blisteringly sharp, has auto focus and meters on all Nikon DSLR. Granted, these are all valid points. However, what makes the Helios great, is its imperfections. It's something different to the run-of-the-mill, high performance glass that is produced today. It's a lens with distinct character that can give your images a unique look when used correctly. Like any other bit of camera equipment, it's a tool and in this instance, a somewhat specialized one.
It has a lot of drawbacks to it. It's heavy. It's a manual lens and can be hard to nail critical focus. The focus barrel feels like it's in the wrong place. You have to preset the aperture. It ghosts like crazy and it's not sharp at shallow apertures. What it does to your backgrounds though can be so aesthetically pleasing that it completely overshadows the negatives. Of course you can always reintroduce contrast in post-processing, as well as sharpen too, which will bring detail back to the image, although care must be taken not to introduce unwanted noise and artifacts.
The Helios 40-2 is not a lens for everyone. If you're a beginner, you're going to find it difficult to use, particularly if your camera body doesn't meter with non-CPU lenses, as you'll be guessing exposure, unless you have a light meter. Once you have mastered the basics and want something more challenging and a lens that gives your photos swirling bokeh, the Helios is certainly worthy of your attention.