I’ve been on a bit of a vintage Russian lens trip lately.
As minor obsessions go it’s pretty good in that most of the lenses are fairly easy to come by, don’t often cost much more than £100 and come in mounts that are easy to adapt to Sony E-mount with cheap adaptors from eBay.
They have really interesting characteristics or “flaws” that modern lenses don’t have.
Don’t get me wrong, on a commercial shoot for a client I don’t want flaws and idiosyncrasies, I want as near perfect as I can afford, but for things with a little more “artistic freedom” the cost/performance balance of (some) vintage glass is hard to beat.
I’ve got 4 now:
the go-to first Russian lens purchase the Helios 44-2 58mm F2 – I got a lovely 1972 zebra copy that is sharp as hell in the center and does the swirly bokeh thing under the right conditions.( pretty sure mine is a 44-2 model “2.a”: MMZ “zebra” )
I followed that up with a very nice silver (why the silver one?, just because….cool:) 1971 copy of the Jupiter 11 135mm F4 – again very sharp and beautiful colours.
Next up was the Mir 20M 20mm f3.5 – WIDE and beautiful flares. I had a few issues with the first one I bought (see post HERE) but the eBay seller quickly replaced it with a less cool looking but very functional copy that I love.
I made a video showing of the lovely flares which you can see HERE
All that is a long winded way of getting me to purchase 4……
If you start reading about these older Russian lenses on the internet it won’t take long until the Helios 40 85mm F1.5 comes up.
There are 2 versions of this lens, the 40 manufactured from 1957 – 1969 and the later 40-2 which was announced in 2012 and is still being made today.
Optically there isn’t supposed to be much difference, the main differences between them being M39 vs M42 mount, the weight – nearly 1kg vs 800g, the filter size 66mm vs the more standard 67mm and the coatings – a violet colour vs amber yellow.
Also – and this was important to the fashionista in me – the 40 has a beautiful silver chrome finish while the 40-2 is boring old black.
So why buy this old, heavy, non standard filter size 85mm when optically better, lighter modern 85mm lenses are available?
Quite simply – bokeh.
Think the Helios 44 on steroids – swirly? Holy shit!, SWIRLY!!!!
The first time I saw a picture taken with one I knew I was hooked.
But wait, let’s rewind a little…..
I’d already decided I wanted one of the original early ones, because, well…..chrome finish :)
A little more research told me that there were variations even within the original 40, until 1965 they were made with a static tripod mount for example (after that it was a moveable clamp) and that the holy grail was what is known as the “red P” version of this lens which had a serial number starting with 00.
This indicated that the lens was made for communist party leaders and supposedly had better quality control than regular production lenses.
(The irony of a “communist” lens made to higher standards for the leaders than the proletariat is not lost on me, I promise you)
20 years ago a Helios 40 could be picked up for £50 if you knew where to look.
Those days are long gone.
Mint “red P” early versions regularly sell for £500 and upwards these days and don’t come around that often.
Most of the older copies that come up have corrosion to the chrome, scratches on the lens elements, mold or signs of mold having been removed.
£500+ was more than I was prepared to pay, so I sort of resigned myself to not getting one, but set up an alert on ebay and waited just in case.
Early one morning a few weeks later my phone pinged and there it was, a deal that seemed too good to be true, a mint “red P” pre ’65 version with the 00 serial number for sale for less than half the usual price in the Ukraine.
It took me about 5 seconds to push the ‘buy it now’ button.
The lens that arrived a tortuous 2 weeks later can only be described as a BEAUTIFUL thing!
Immaculate and wonderful!
(There was even an m39 to m42 adapter included)
I slapped it straight on the Sony A7III and starting taking pictures and was not disappointed.
At f1.5 it’s not the sharpest lens in the world, but you don’t buy one for the sharpness.
Stop it down a little and it becomes razor sharp.
It is very prone to losing contrast in all but ideal lighting conditions and god damn it is HEAVY.
But 30 minutes with it and you don’t care about any of that, the pictures are wonderful and the bokeh does not disappoint (if you are into that kind of thing :)
One last challenge remained, I wanted to shoot video with it, which meant ND filters, which meant a 66mm to 67mm step up ring.
Surprisingly hard to come by as it turns out, there’s only one seller on ebay and for a flimsy bit of threaded metal that likely cost pence to make the 66-67 step up ring it isn’t cheap, but, it’s a niche item so fair enough.
I’ve had the full combo for a week or two now and apart from making some beautiful images it has reawakened a desire to shoot just for fun that I had lost a little of.
That alone is worth the asking price.
I recently shot a little promo for my friend, legendary music photographer Steve Gullick’s 2nd book of phone photo’s “gullogram” using it and was very pleased with the results. See that HERE
A couple of the things I’ve taken with it are below.
I think the Helios 40 and I are going to have a long, fun and fruitful relationship.
Many thanks to the contributors at allphotolenses.com and mflenses.com for details on this and basically almost all older vintage glass.
All of your combined knowledge has proved invaluable for a fledgling lens nerd like me.