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Portraits with bokeh - Helios 40-2 85mm f1,5

Sometimes the combination of old and new gives surprising results. There are some fantastic lenses from the analogue days, which can be easily connected to modern digital cameras with adapters. One of these is the Russian portrait lens Helios 40-2 85mm F1,5. There is a lot of technical information about Helios available on the Internet; I give you some usage tips based on personal experiences.
First of all: the Helios 40 is a completely manual lens! Anyone who does not like to take pictures without autofocus, automatic aperture control and stabilizer should stay away from this objective. With the Helios you have to manually adjust focus and aperture. This is no lens for quick snapshots!

The lens is a real giant - it weighs almost one kilogram. On the other hand, it has with f1,5 a very large aperture and is very solid. Helios 40 has cult status in some circles and is respectfully called the "Bokeh-Monster". Not without reason, I think.


But what exactly is "Bokeh"? Wikipedia's explanation:
Bokeh (from the Japanese boke, 暈 け, meaning "fuzzy") is in photography the parts of an image that are not in focus. The appearance of the bokeh varies between camera lenses. Among other things, distant light sources that are out of focus tend to be formed as the lens aperture.
When short depth of field is used, it will be more blurred behind and in front of the focus distance. On the other hand, the parts that are not in focus are perceived as more sharp if a long depth of field is selected. The appearance of the bokeh of an image is important, especially those with short depth of field and where much of the unfocused is visible

Helios 40 has a so-called 'pre-set stop down aperture’, as opposed to an automatic aperture that is used in most M42 lenses. One first sets the aperture manually with a ring control, but the aperture is still open. It stops down to the set value first when one turns a second setting control just behind. It takes some practice, but one gets quickly used to this cumbersome mechanism.
Because of its large aperture 1: 1.5 the lens has a very short depth of field. This means that the object can be presented in front of a blurry, almost ‘floating’ background. The object is in this way centered by the surrounding, blurred, almost impressionistic background.

Produktaufnahme für ein Modelabel - offene Blende für geringe Schärfentiefe

The "circular effect" in the blurred background is best presented when the aperture is shot wide open. The depth of field is very small, so one should not go too close to the object / model. Here, the lens is used for photography in autumn atmosphere. It is important to control the depth of field by varying the distance to the object. In this way, one avoids having to stop down the aperture and thus lose the light effect.
Shot with open aperture / F1,5 1 / 125sek, the Canon 5D Mark II

Helios 40-2 is often offered new on the Internet, you can for example buy it with a Nikon or Canon-adapter. I bought it with a traditional M42 screw connection, so that I can connect it to adapters for various cameras. This works without any problem for example on a Canon 5D. Regarding the adapter for Nikon bayonet connection: it must here be mentioned that it cannot focus on infinity. This is only possible if you use an adapter with corrective lens - which I would not recommend, because the cheap lenses negatively affect the optical properties of the lens. For portraits with the Helios 40 and a full-frame Nikon is a simple adapter without a lens sufficient since you only focus on close-up anyway.

helios 40-2 85mm f1,5 auf Ricoh tls 401

Helios 40-2 85mm F1,5 on a Ricoh TLS 401. One of my favorite M42 cameras. The lens is derived from the analogue era and also provides beautiful results on film.
Mostly I use it on digital cameras. In order to take advantage of the special "Swirl bokeh" effect one should use this lens on a full frame digital camera.

To create blurry circular "Swirl Effect", you have to choose a background as structured as possible. Possible backgrounds are for instance light falling through foliage, a reflective and structured surface of water, or the many individual lights from a night scene. The objective gives the greatest joy to work with if the aperture is shot wide open or only slightly stopped down. Because of the huge ISO range of digital cameras, one can easily adjust the exposure by adjusting the time and the ISO - while the aperture is wide open.
Also the distance to the object affects the result - the closer you get, the stronger the blur becomes in the background. On the other hand, the short depth of field makes portraits of too short distance impossible. Here, one has to find a workable compromise.

Abendlicht Strockholm Helios 40-2 85mm f1.5

The large aperture of the lens and the ability to use modern digital cameras with high ISO values ​​allow pictures with a lot of atmosphere, like here in the Stockholm evening light. Because the background is relatively smooth the circular, "swirl" effect is not achieved.
Evening light with Helios 40-2 85mm, 1/200 sec F1,5, ISO 1600
 
A new Helios lenses are currently offered on the Internet through various Russian online retailers for around 330 euro. However, one should find out the transport costs and any costs for customs. The current selling price in Germany is not necessarily lower. The prices of this objective have increased a lot in recent years - now one pays probably also for the  "cult status".
If you are only looking for a good portrait lens, I recommend instead buying a modern lens to your particular camera system. Modern optical systems are far superior Helios when it comes to peripheral sharpness and user-friendliness!
But the photographer who knows how to appreciate the very special, soft character of this objective- and does not have any problems with the manual settings- will never want to get rid of it.

Here is a series of tests that shows the bokeh of the lens at different aperture settings. The photos were taken on a platform at the train station Stockholm Östra station, without flash or reflector, only the ambient light from the waiting hall.

helios 40 2 85mm f1 5 test1

With wide-open aperture the lights in the background can be seen as large, blurred ellipses that orient themselves at the center of the image. This effect provides a so-called "swirl-bokeh".
The depth of field is so small that you have to focus very carefully. The model can, by only a small movement, lose the level of sharpness.
Night portrait with Helios 40-2 85mm - 1/50sec, F1,5, ISO 1600

helios 40-2 85mm f1.5 test 4

With aperture 5.6 the lights in the background are depicted as significantly smaller. In addition, the forms of the lights change. One can clearly see the aperture elements. Still a beautiful shape, but the "swirl" effect is not there any longer.
Night portrait with Helios 40-2 85 mm - 1/30 sec, f5.6, ISO 1600

helios 40-2 85mm f1.5 test 3

With aperture 8 one can see that the depth of field is clearly growing, but the lights in the background are even smaller. The focusing here is much easier and the model is more easily retained in the focal plane. The lens works - the way it is used here- still as a nice portrait lens, but lose in my opinion its special character.
Night portrait with Helios 40-2 85mm - 1/20 sec, F8, ISO 1600

 

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Images and Text © Dan Hummel - copy and reprint only with permission.

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