Out of the past comes the Russian-made Helios-40-2 85mm f1.5. A friend said I should try it after they found out I was looking for a Nikon 135mm f2 DC. After doing some research, I decided to take a chance. This lens, which originally dates back to the 1960s, is a passport to old school photography. We test new lenses all the time here–but in the nooks and crannies of the photography world lenses like this still exist. Let’s see why I purchased it.
A Little History
Helios is an old Russian lens brand which used to come with Zenit cameras. These cameras were M42 mount, making their lenses compatible with other cameras using the same mount. Helios-40 lenses were clones of the Zeiss Biotar lenses, just like many other Soviet-made lenses were clones of European designs. Recently, Zenit started making the lenses again, using modern mounts including Nikon, Canon and Pentax.
Pros and Cons
- This lens has fantastic swirly bokeh.
- Depth of field and compression work together for an amazing effect.
- An M42 adapter isn’t needed as it’s an actual F-mount lens.
- It’s a heavy piece of glass.
- One speck of dust on the lens can ruin the whole image.
- It’s easy to misfocus this lens, especially wide open.
I used a Nikon D700 and D90 as well as a Sony A7 with a Metabones adapter to test this lens. I also used the Panasonic GX7 with a Fotga adapter for this review. The setup was usually put on a Brian 3 Legged thing tripod as well as a Manfrotto 682b monopod. One of the most important tools during the testing phase were my black rapid straps–this lens is heavy on photo walks .
Taken from the Amazon product listing.
- Focal Length – 85 mm (85.18 mm)
- Angle of view – 28 °
- Nikon built in camera body mount. Mounts to Nikon SLR/DSLR cameras
- Number of lenses / groups – 6 / 4
- Relative aperture – 1:1,5
- Lens filter thread size – 67mm
This is a big Russian lens, and it has a decent amount of weight to it. If you do not have have a good camera strap, your arm will feel this lens. With a 67mm thread, the lens has a screw-on lens cap which protects the front glass element.
The aperture ring has 2 moving parts. The first ring has stopped positions which go from f1.5 down to f22. The second ring allows for free aperture movement between f1.5 and whatever f-stop you set the first ring to. It takes a bit of thought to use at first, but you do get used to it.
The focusing ring, located further towards the back of the lens, has a knurled surface and is thus easy to use. It’s a bit tight on my copy, but it allows for smooth focusing.
There is no doubt about it. The Helios is built from metal and glass, and you can feel it. It’s not a Zeiss lens, but it has personality. The Helios-40 stands well apart from any other 85mm lens on the market. It’s an old design and that shows–both in terms of optics and mechanics. But there’s nothing wrong with that. There are no electronics of any kind present on the lens, so nothing can go wrong in that department.
The lens is very heavy–almost like I am holding a Sigma 300mm lens in a much smaller package. If you are walking around with this lens and are using just a wrist strap, you will certainly feel it later.
I mentioned it already, this lens is a very old design. Focusing is an interesting thing to do with the two aperture rings. The best way to focus the Helios-40 is wide open. If you want to shoot at f16, for example, best set the clicked aperture ring to f16. Then, when you want to focus, open up the aperture to f1.5, focus on your subject, and then go back to f16. Its does add a bit of time, but this is the most precise way. I mostly shot with this lens between f1.5 and f5.6, and at that range I did not have to open the aperture to focus.
Ease of Use
This is not an easy lens to use at first. A friend of mine called it “photography calculus.” You have to want to use it. If you want an easy-to-use manual 85mm lens, Rokinon makes a great one. If you want a challenge that rewards you with fascinating bokeh, this lens is worth the work. I made a lot of mistakes when first using this lens, but it was all worth it. There is a decent manual that comes with the lens which actually helps. You have to put a little time into learning this lens.
The image quality of this lens is the reward for putting time and effort into learning to use it. It’s an uncanny piece of glass. While working with this lens takes some thought, the resulting images are well worth the effort. Something you have to keep in mind that this lens is based on a really old Zeiss Biotar design–you can’t expect the same image quality that a modern lens design delivers.
I bought this lens specifically for its bokeh, which I find amazing. It’s silky smooth, but at the same time has shape and form. In order to get the most background blur out of this lens, you should use it on a full-frame camera. I have used the Helios on a Nikon D700, Nikon D90 (APS-C) and a Panasonic GX7 (Micro Four Thirds) with an adapter, and I loved it most on the D700. The lens was originally built for 35mm film cameras and that shows.
This lens is actually much sharper than I expected it to be. With the fantastic bokeh, I would expect more softness–but if you focus well, the subject is sharp. This, in my view, is why this lens is touted as a portrait lens. If you focus on the eyes with this lens, you’ll get a great portrait where only the eyes are in focus and the rest of the face is shrouded in blur and softness. If you stop down a little to say f2.8, the image quality gets even better. This is a lens that you have to experiment with to see which setting you like the best.
The Helios-40 makes colors pop and renders them vividly especially when focusing close to a subject. Little editing needs to be done when working with this lens. Skin tones have a natural feel to them, so when doing portraits, you don’t have to tweak things much at all.
There is some color fringing with this lens, as is to be expected with such a wide aperture. It’s a lot more manageable though than I thought it would be. I have taken a lot of images with this lens, and I found that it takes overexposure to get really severe fringing.
Additional Sample Images
- The Bokeh is amazing.
- The overall image quality is surprisingly good.
- The lens makes you think.
- It’s heavy.
- You will miss shots when using this lens, due to the way it works.
We give this lens a rating of 3 out of 5.
The Helios-40-2 85mm f1.5 lens has character, and it’s definitely not for everyone. It doesn’t really compare to today’s standards in terms of optical qualities, as it does have its weaknesses, but then again it’s relatively inexpensive. This is a lens that is not for lazy people; you actually have to put a decent amount of work into it. There are a lot of good portrait lenses out there which are easier to work with. The Helios-40-2 isn’t perfect, but to me it’s very satisfying to use. I am using this as one of my artistic lenses, and as such I enjoy it very much.
Recommended Cameras and Accessories
- A Camera strap like the Black Rapid Yeti will save your wrist. The weight of this lens plus a full frame camera can cause fatigue after a while of carrying.
- A 67mm UV filter will give this lens some extra protection.
- A 67mm ND filter is advisable for bright days if you want to stay a f1.5.