It’s been a while. Last journal was actually pumped out back in November. That was before Nadine was back from Jordan and before more stuff got so fucked up. Fucked up does not equal bad things. Fucked up can mean the end of one thing and the beginning of another. It’s been five months since I’ve been able to speak my mind out here on Radio Reality City, so let’s take it from the top.
Further Radio Reality City canon is being refined, so the two of you who are actually sticking around for the short stories and the lore can rest assured that there is more in development every day. Honestly, it’s only getting cooler by the second, but unfortunately the day where I can share it is a far ways off.
Tonight I’m being reminded that Olympia was a long time ago, and my creative bursts since then have changed their manifestation.
If you’ve ever perused my archives here at RRC, you’ll notice that I commonly say I write to remember. Well, I write to preserve. I write to preserve times and places. Things I couldn’t get a picture of, that’s how this all started. Stories of ideas that I never thought I’d be able to look at with my own two eyes. But it’s being built up now with an upward spiral of technical knowledge around cameras and how they work.
Since I’m getting better at photography, I’ve barely written a poem in five months. My general way of expressing myself hasn’t changed, but I am devoting much less time to sitting with my notepad. While that is a rather sad thing to think about, the one avenue of creativity pretty much all but shutting off, I feel as though I have a certain amount of mastery that makes me happy.
In December I was a featured poet in Tacoma, at Honey at Alma Mater. Familiar faces were there, Nadine was there. She was featured, too, and so begins the surreality of other creative options I can now set my sights on.
Since you last saw me I was just getting into drones, but that’s been put on the backburner to focus solely on photography. I’ve got another couple of shoots under my belt, and more lenses than I really know what to do with. I now have a Sony 50mm f/1.8 for the sake of simplicity. The Helios is gorgeous but it’s difficult to work with in practical situations.
So let’s talk gear, then. One of my recent gets was the Fotodiox PRONTO autofocusing adapter. It’s a motorized adapter for manual SLR lenses, natively a Leica M-mount to Sony E. It is also arguably a direct clone of the Techart Pro adapter, that was patented first and sold first. I would have gotten the Techart if it was $129 less expensive, to be more in competition with the Fotodiox. People are review-bombing the PRONTO and slagging it off for existing, but whatever. It does exactly what I wanted it to for less money, in a solid brass and aluminum construction. So with the PRONTO, an M42 to M-mount adapter, and my Helios 44-2, I now have autofocused Helios shots. Which is fucking insanity. I thought it was possible, but was actually surprised when I found out I could make it happen, so I did.
I can’t use my Helios 40-2 (although that is the eventual goal here) because it’s too heavy for the motors on the PRONTO, so I have to hold the Helios and loosely grip my camera to make it work. I’ve gotten in contact with the Smallrig people (they make my camera cage and a bunch of professional cinema level cages equipment) to see if they have a lens support and rail system to support a moving lens. I have yet to find a solution.
Also had to dremmel off the front couple of millimeters around the front of my cage to get the PRONTO to work, so now I’m rocking that Metro: Exodus look on my camera. Works well with my Jupiter-11.
Oh yeah, I have a slick Jupiter-11 135mm f/4 now, also in M42 mount. I can’t get enough of these KMZ lenses.
For the ‘radio’ part of Radio Reality City, my recent photography interests have been found in infrared light. I have been struck with inspiration by Richard Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’, where he and a crew of guys took rolls of Aerochrome 1443 film out to the Congo and filmed the civil war happening there. Aerochrome is responsible for wicked pink foliage and super blue hues in infrared light, and I’ve found a company that recently released a filter that’ll make Aerochrome happen in digital cameras. Trick is, you have to have a full spectrum camera, that is: a camera that can see from 300nm to 1200nm, from the tip of ultraviolet light all the way through near-infrared light.
Naturally, I have already signed myself up to open up the Sony A6300 of mine to full spectrum. I have to send it in to get it worked on here within the week. Then after that will come some appropriate filters for use in infrared photography. I’m psyched. Kolari Vision are the opticians who are going to work on my camera, and I highly recommend you give them a looking at if you’re interested in things UV and IR.
A close friend of mine has independently discovered the wonders of ultraviolet strobes in studio photography, so there might be something cool happening there. We shall see!
That’s all for photography stuff. On the backend I’ve been chipping away at updates for the site and uploading my creative works to the cloud so I have them everywhere.
It has been a demanding couple of months here, guys. I don’t know if anyone else saw the tweet a few weeks ago where 2019 feels like season four of 2016. I resonate with that to a degree. Things are just the same but brand new. Well, almost.
Moving out, new car, actual school, and other stuff set to happen this year.
If any of my readers find themselves in Seattle, you may have heard that the Art Institutes of Seattle shut down without much warning aside from an email this month. Students were notified about two weeks ago that they had a month to see if anyone was going to purchase the school. No one did. So they had to shut down early.
I was almost one of the 650 students scrambling to see. I was being called daily by admissions staff, wanting me to come to orientation in January and all that. When I backed out (because over 20 Art Institutes campuses closed last year alone, and because I was paying attention to my surroundings), I was told by my admissions handler that he’s only seen one or two people out of fifty come back the next year after withdrawing their application. Well. Look how that turned out.
It’s really a shame that there’s no longer anything to go back to. It’s even rumored that faculty and students looted the place. The company that owns the Art Institutes no longer cares about the non-profit nature of art schools, clearly. If you’re reading this and going to an Art Institutes campus, take a look around, okay? Make sure things are okay.
With that being said, try two at UWT has been sent out. This time before the deadline, and this time with a better thought out essay and major. Cybersecurity is going to be the name of the game for school for me. I think it’s fitting, and hey I do enjoy programming. I’d love to learn more.
I am beat, you guys. I haven’t done much writing like this in so long I can feel it weighing down on my getting out this journal.
I will say that I can’t wait to start posting Aerochrome Helios shots. And that I’m going to be going on a trip this summer, which will give me so much to think about and make out out of. 2019 is a slow burn. Little victories every month. Nothing massive quite yet, but that’s okay. I’m doing well so far.
Thank you guys for sticking around. If the site looks messed up right now, don’t worry about it. I’m trying to do more of a portfolio thing with this whole endeavor, but I really want to keep these more personal parts in. Are these things mutually exclusive? I don’t even know that yet.
Anyone diving through the nichiest
camera lenses on the market is bound to have come across the Helios 44-2 at
some point. Intrigued, they might find it and buy a version of it on eBay for
$30 USD and receive it in the mail a month later from the Ukraine. Any further
reading will reveal its initial posturing in the 1960’s, and a host of other
M42 mount lenses able to purchase from the same anonymous seller. Not a whole
lot outside of those modern details are available, however.
To be perfectly honest, it appears
that even less is known about the 44-2’s younger brother, the Helios 40-2, and its
history. Save for the fact that, like its older brother, it is a copy of the
Carl Zeiss Biotar formula, which is mostly what the 44-2 is known for. The 44-2
is nearly ubiquitous, as it’s common, it’s cheap, and there are literally
millions of them out there. What’s strange is that the actual history of why
these lenses matter so much is lost or hitherto untranslated.
Carl Friedrich Gauss’s telescope
lens assembly was the one that really opened the doors; the granddaddy of all
modern lens designs known as the Gauss lens developed in the early 1800’s. For
a century Gauss’s lens design was used in telescopes the world over, being used
to take some of the first astrophotography through the barrel of telescopes at
observatories, and eventually was modified and improved upon for the next 200
years (1). Through the late 1800’s, the Double Gauss lens design would be
perfected in a raw, workable way. It took the original Gauss lens, and
effectively multiplied the number of glass elements from a base 2 (in a Gauss
lens) to a 4-element group before the end of the 1880’s. This 4-element formula
was created to reduce chromatic aberrations over a large focal plane.
Chromatic aberration is a term for
a color impurity that a lens might produce, as a result of a lens not accepting
light rays properly. Poorly-built lenses with uneven glass surfaces relative to
the next can amplify these impurities, so more complex systems of multiple
lenses are slightly tougher to get working in the right order. While the effect
of less impurity is immense, the task of lining up separate pieces of glass
elements in, say, a 200mm telephoto lens can be even more immense.
The focal plane is the distance
from a lens where all the rays of light coming through the glass line up as
exact as they possibly can. This is measured normally as an f-number (otherwise
known as aperture), where the lower the number, the thinner the focal plane
(otherwise known as focus). When an f-number is low, the lens is considered
wide open to light, and therefore the rays of light coming in would have to be
at a certain position in order to be seen properly in the final exposure: they
would have to be in focus. Any manual lens you can find in a store these days
will allow you to control exactly where that focus, that focal plane, is. The
tradeoff of this, is that when you have a maximum aperture of f/1.2, you can
also accept much more light and blur the background more effectively. Therefore,
these sub-f/2 lenses are quite a commodity in the photography world, as they
can act in extremely low light situations and operate effectively when paired
with the right camera. Focus and focal plane are also commonly called depth of
field, to communicate the area of sharpness in the final exposure after the
photo has been taken. Focus dictates where the focal plane is, and depth of
field is the final product that results from tuning your focal plane and
Bokeh is a byproduct of having
foreground subjects in focus; the blurry, swirly background of things out of
focus that we’ll cover a bit later on.
Simply put, a 35mm f/1.2 lens will
have a much sharper, shallower focus than a 35mm f/5.6. However, at f/5.6 on
the same lens, more can be in focus, but you accept less light by closing the
lens slightly. This is most easily seen on a manual/variable aperture lens
where you can physically rotate the aperture blades in the lens and see it
What part of the Double Gauss
design did in the process of reducing those aforementioned aberrations was
introduce more elements and achieve a lower f-number, if designed properly.
In the 1840’s a man named Carl
Zeiss was creating microscopes under his namesake company in Germany. Over the
years the number of employees in his shop grew until the early 1880’s when his
company became the entity we know now as Zeiss. An optical and medical
technology corporation known for precision and accuracy in their products, at
the time, their repertoire would grow considerably.
An employee at Carl Zeiss Jena,
Paul Rudolph, is credited with developing the first lens that completely
corrected for chromatic aberration and astigmatisms (when rays of light have
different focal planes) in 1890: the Zeiss Protar lens. Impurities at the time
were mostly a product of coating technology issues as well as the use of
inferior glass composition. Up until the 1880’s it wasn’t known that aperture
affected depth of field. And it wasn’t until the late 1880’s that a superior
chemical formula for glass composition was discovered. Before 1890, nearly all
lenses were created using soda lime glass, a rather primitive production
process (melting the raw materials all together) and a molecular structure that
had heavy optical impurities for photographic applications. You commonly find
this kind of glass used for producing bottles or window panes. The advent of
borosilicate barium oxide glass in the late 1880’s allowed for Rudolph to
develop the Protar lens, cutting down the competition and setting up a chemical
formula basis on which all modern lenses are now built upon.
If the Double-Gauss meniscus
assembly was the shape and structure of the modern lens, the Protar formula was
the chemical composition that rocketed the design to new heights.
Rudolph succeeded in creating the
Zeiss Planar lens formula in 1896 (2). The Planar lens added 2 more elements,
remaining symmetrical and giving faster apertures. Planar being the namesake
for the use of two symmetrical flat glass elements; planes. This improvement
manifested in the clarity of the image, and even less issues with astigmatisms.
Lower dispersion meant less scattering of photons, which in turn meant less
optical impurities. Zeiss was the premiere optics manufacturer in continental Europe
and remains today to be among one of the best manufacturers of glass in the
world. Silent films, large bellow-focus cameras, and moreover
single-lens-reflex film cameras would see the use of lenses developed with
Planar formulas for well into the 60’s.
After multiple attempts by
Taylor-Hobson, an English optics manufacturer, to develop their own Planar type
lens, they achieved the Lee Opic, with significant improvement over the planar
formula. The objective of their project was to improve Zeiss’s Planar work in
1896 to further correct for chromatic aberration. Their work was ultimately
commercially unsuccessful, and they attempted twice to improve the formula
again, succeeding in releasing faster lenses under the ‘Speed Panchro’ and ‘Super
Speed Panchro’ designs with as fast as an f/1.4 aperture (3). Even Kodak was
trying to improve upon Taylor-Hobson’s designs and up the ante in the
mid-1920’s camera market while Zeiss fell back onto another of Rudolph’s
designs to use while they sorted out issues with the 6-element Planar design.
While having an inferior image
quality, Paul Rudolph also developed the Tessar lens formula in 1902. It was a
4-element, asymmetrical group, that at the time capable of a maximum aperture
of f/4.5; still leagues away from catching up with the Super Speed Panchro and
losing the title of fastest lenses out there to Taylor-Hobson.
For the moment, the Planar lenses
were left in the dust as far as the still photography market was concerned,
remaining popular in cinema into the 1920’s. While still a very sharp lens
design, they suffered flaring issues due to the convex nature of its outer glass
elements and yet-undeveloped coating technology to deal with better dispersion
and help with the flaring problems. Most would prefer using the Zeiss Tessar
lenses, which were a newer, if slightly inferior, formula. After all, having so
many pieces of glass between a source of light and a film strip will amplify
any glare a few times over, if not dealt with properly. The Planar lenses drop
out of favor for the next 30 years or so, after Taylor-Hobson’s dramatic
improvements over the design. They would come back when lens coating technology
took hold in the 1950’s, to finally solve their flaring issue, and allowed some
of the fastest lenses in the world to be produced; the mythic Carl Zeiss Planar
50mm f/0.7, and for the medium format Hasselblad 2000 and 200 series, the
Planar 110mm f/2 telephoto (4).
Before we move on to the advent of
the Biotar line, it’s worth discussing the pedigree of Zeiss lenses in the
mid-20th Century. The Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 was developed for use
by NASA in 1966. For NASA so the moon could be photographed in darkness, and
Stanley Kubrick used them to shoot a scene of one of his films only lit by a
candle (5). Zeiss kept one, NASA got six, and Kubrick got three. In both
applications, it excelled. Only ten of the lenses were made, and if someone
were interested in purchasing one, they would likely offer a fair price of
$25,000,000 USD to start.
The Zeiss Biotar line had its
rumblings in the early 1920’s while Taylor-Hobson was hard at work on their
Panchro series. It was a revisiting to the original Double Gauss design by
Zeiss’s optical engineers, at nearly the same time as another German lens
manufacturer, Schneider. Schneider released their version two years before
Zeiss struck, with their Xenon lens formula. Biotar, however, was developed
independently, and both formulas arrived at the same conclusion. Instead of
using a strictly symmetrical glass design, they determined that a 6-element
lens with 3 wide outer elements could possibly fix their current issues with
the Planar formula. In 1927, the Zeiss Biotar 50mm f/1.4 was developed for film
cameras, and for still photography the Zeiss Biotar 58mm f/2 was released in
1936. It was the first widespread lens for 35mm single reflex cameras of the
day, with primary benefits of the design being its weight and dramatic
improvements over the Planar designs. It also showed that a 6-element lens was
incredibly viable for the day. It was standard on multiple kits issued by Kine
Exakta and Ikon, two of the first 35mm platforms (6). Users quickly noted its
focus throw had the uncanny bokeh that is associated with those early designs,
with the backgrounds at maximum aperture adopting a swirly, dream-like bokeh
with an expectedly sharp depth of field in full focus.
Zeiss finally had a breakthrough in
the competition with Taylor-Hobson with the 58mm f/2, and while Schneider
lenses were a bit more popular overall, Zeiss was busy at work trying to
introduce the Biotar improvements to the Planar formula. Before World War II
breaks out on 1939, Zeiss also comes out with the Zeiss Biotar 75mm f/1.5. One
of the fastest mid-telephoto lenses of its time.
It’s also worth noting that in the
modern photography industry, Japan has a massive hold on the world market.
Brands such as Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Fujifilm all base out of the Pacific
island nation. Those corporations had a market during this time, and their own
technology rapidly accelerated after the 1930’s, but it wouldn’t be until after
World War II that they would enter the global market.
Speaking of which, now with World
War II now kicking up production all over Europe, a company in Russia had the
distinct responsibility for military optical engineering and manufacturing
under the same roof, as its tactical position near Moscow rendered it safer
than other factories could ever be. This is where Helios is from, the
Krasnogorsk Mechanical Works (KMZ) in Krasnogorsk, Russia (7). It exists today
as a joint stock company, as it did back during the war, and is still
responsible for the manufacturing of many steel and glass works.
In one of the most interesting
moves the Soviets made during the war, as East Germany was occupied, they would
steal the Biotar formula from a Zeiss factory. Taking it back home with them,
the KMZ optical engineers found themselves with the latest in German optical advancements.
One of the many gifts from the defense of their land.
The Biotar formula was a war prize.
While the KMZ developed all manner
of scopes and recon equipment during conflict, when the war settled, they focused
on cameras and their lens technology. Nikita Khrushchev at this time stressed
production of consumer goods, so the KMZ had freedom to go after concept
cameras, new lens designs, and creating their own versions of Lecia and Zeiss
technologies for Russian citizens and beyond. These projects would find
themselves under different names, but their production would all take place at
Zorki was one of these projects,
being a copy of a Lecia rangefinder camera. After more research and development,
the KMZ found itself being a titan of a plant, with their newfound projects
flooding European markets. Zenitar (Zenit) cameras emerged from that 50’s and
60’s eras of looking for that hook in a civilian market (8). 1953 saw the first
roll out of Zenit cameras, with sometime later the Jupiter lens designs. And in
1958, another one of their other European-based projects would finally be
revealed to pair with the Zenit SLRs; the original Helios 44-2. The stolen
Biotar formula, modified and put to work as an M42 mount lens.
From 1958 to 1999, the KMZ turned
out untold amounts of the 44-2, earning it a place among the most mass-produced
lenses in the world. This allowed it to dominate the marketplace for fast,
inexpensive portrait lenses. Like its much older brother, the Zeiss Biotar 58mm
f/2, the Helios 44-2 has a maximum aperture of f/2 and a focal length of 58mm. It
was designed with a variable number of aperture blades and minimum apertures
over time, but those two aspects above stay the same. One distinct practical difference
between the two lenses was the characteristic softness of the Helios compared its
much sharper Zeiss counterpart.
Bokeh is what the Helios 44-2 is
known for these days, with the background developing an incredible swirl
pattern, just enough to be tasteful and not enough to detract from the subject
in the foreground. The bokeh and softness combined make photographs taken with
it stick out considerably from a crowd, as the bokeh itself is easy to
While the Zeiss version was definitively
sharper, the softness of the Helios was much preferred by users, escalating the
dreamlike look exponentially while retaining great image quality. This is not
to say the Helios is a flawless lens. Chromatic aberration is in spades, with
color fringing quite noticeable at maximum aperture, and the focus was
incredibly blurry outside of center metering. These two flaws combined may not
have been terribly noticeable on black and white film, but on color the
advantage was on Zeiss’s older Biotar lens.
Still, Zeiss had moved on from the
Biotar formula by the time the Helios 44-2 was being produced, now focusing on
the undertakings related to improving their older Planar formula and bringing
it back to the stills market. Zeiss was also trying new designs like convex
outer elements and telephoto zoom designs. So, if you had an SLR in the 60’s
and were just looking for a lens to throw on it, the advantage was in KMZ’s
That is the story of how Helios
came to find a place in such a competitive time for the optics industry. By
copying and modifying an existing lens design, they had arguably improved the
Zeiss Biotar design, but laterally and in a linear fashion. It’s the same idea,
not better or worse, but a different flavor of that original design, still
standing 70 years later. So common that it’s even a good manual-focus
alternative to many of the fast autofocus 50mm lenses out there today.
Given all that, what about the
Helios 40-2? After all, that’s how we started this journey.
When Zeiss released the 75mm f/1.5
lens in 1939, they gave KMZ another European project to emulate and put a spin
on, and that’s exactly what the Russians did.
In 1969, to add to their portfolio
after multiple Jupiter lenses (based on the Planar design) and the success of
the Helios 44-2 just a decade earlier, the Helios 40-2 was released. It
surpassed the Biotar 75mm and went directly to a longer focal length of 85mm.
The 40-2 was just as fast, being a maximum aperture of f/1.5. It was similar in
most ways, except for a noticeable few that, like the 44-2 compared to the
Biotar 58mm, modified an original design without positive or negative effects,
with perhaps the most interesting note on its design is that instead of using
their stolen Biotar formula, the 40-2 resulted from reverse-engineering the
modifications to the original Planar formula developed by Rudolph (8). It was a
Soviet Biotar, with the optical engineers of KMZ rebuilding the Biotar formula
from the ground up, starting with the Planar formula. So really, the 40-2 is a
KMZ retelling of the evolution of the Planar lens formula, not a true Biotar
copy like the 44-2 is.
Considered the whole time, however,
was the dual use of their optical products. Having a hand in military optics
before, the Helios 40-2 was also positioned for use in oscilloscopes. Some have
pointed to the KMZ’s dual-use manufacturing considerations as the reason for
many flaws present in their lens designs, but I digress.
With the advent of their own true
design, more effects were seen: soft vignetting, an extremely sharp depth of
field that could make focusing difficult at times, a heavy weight, and even
more pronounced bokeh than the 44-2. Any or all of these can be taken as a
flaw, depending on your stance when it comes to the Helios lenses. In
practicality, the user must be a bit more creative with their compositions, as
the lens itself does not fare too well being at maximum aperture.
Due to the prevalence of the 44-2
and other mid-telephoto portrait lenses (most notably in the cheaper Jupiter
line), the 40-2 didn’t do as well in a saturated market. Production of these
lenses continued, enjoying little commercial success, but it wasn’t the beast
from the east that the 44-2 was, nor the direct Zeiss copy the Jupiter 9 lens
was. The Jupiter 9 and Helios 44-2 make the pair of the 60’s for Soviet camera
You can find the 58mm f/2 Helios
44-2 out and about in the world, with upwards of eight million in production
out there and Zenitar putting them in reproduction. It is the clear winner when
it comes to the mid-century lens race. As a result, the 40-2 is much rarer to
come across in the wild, and although its effects are more pronounced, it is
unwieldy to use outside of a controlled studio environment.
I should clarify, not much
information is known about these lenses in English, as many of the sources for
which I’ve gathered information about the KMZ and Helios line are from Russian
articles, archives, and community blogs (10). That’s for the history, and
though we’ve discussed the 44-2, what about the 40-2 in use?
Zenit launched a reproduction of
the Helios 40-2 out of the KMZ in 2015, and so for an import fee and around
$500 USD, you can get a modern version of the original Russo-Biotar bokeh
I was able to order mine directly
from Zenitar, and with it came a wonderful little box, a manual for use, and a
bag with a strap that held the lens. I initially ordered an EF mount version
but wanted to get an M42 version, so I could use my existing adapter that I
have for my Helios 44-2 to my e-mount Sony Alpha 6300. The return was easy and
processed almost immediately, and I had the M42 version in my hands less than a
week later, ready to use. No qualms there. I should add that I also got a
protection plan on the lens, just for safe keeping.
Much of it is the same as it was
when it released, with only some aperture blade difference and updated coatings
appearing on the 2015 version. The weight, the focus ring, aperture ring, and
overall construction are the same as they were was 50 years ago.
I can tell the difference between
the 40-2 and the 44-2 immediately because of the distinct effects of each, with
the 40-2 of course making itself preset in the enhanced effects of the 44-2.
Cosmetically, the 40-2 is really
strange-looking for a prime lens. To have the wider maximum aperture, the
center of the barrel bulges considerably to make way for the aperture blades on
the inside. It is quite long, and the front glass element is sunk into the
metal to act as a small lens hood, similarly to the 44-2’s deep front element.
Since I mentioned the protection
plan I purchased for it, it’s worth mentioning one moment where I almost used
it in the two months I’ve owned it so far. To cut a moderately lengthy story
short, it was pretty much hurled at a doorframe as hard as someone could force
it with the palm of their hand. I could see exactly where it hit the doorframe:
a bit of missing paint from the aperture ring. No other damage occurred. The 40-2
is a leviathan construct.
It is a heavy lens, weighing more
than the body of my camera itself. Thankfully, the e-mount threads are hardy
enough to handle the weight, and I often use a Peak Design camera clip to mount
my camera on my belt when not in use. Even walking around all day in Seattle
and Olympia with it, I didn’t fatigue from its weight in any way. I would say
it’s pleasant to hold. It can take quite the hit because it’s built like a
tank, and coupled with the Smallrig cage for my 6300, they make a fun pair to
The focus throw is the first thing
I’ve seen criticized by others, as turning the focus ring from one meter to
infinity takes three quarter turns of the left hand. It is not for shooting
fast, it is for shooting with a very crisp depth of field with a very fast
aperture. That doesn’t mean it is physically quick to set up an image to expose
whatsoever. While I can easily walk on the street and take shots while moving
with a Sony 18-135 OSS lens; the Helios 40-2 is much tougher to use in this
application, for instance.
With this, we turn to the aperture locking
ring, which is an interesting choice to keep intact on a modern version of the
lens. If you wanted to shoot at, say, f/5.6, you would have an aperture ring to
turn which would open and close the aperture blades mechanically. On the Helios
40-2 (like the 44-2), there also exists an aperture lock, where you have a
variable ring from maximum aperture to minimum aperture that locks the aperture
ring from going any further than a set minimum aperture. This exists so that if
you needed to focus and shoot a photo in a lower aperture than f/1.5, you could
lock the aperture ring at your desired shooting aperture, open to maximum to
get focus, and then close it down to your set aperture once you’ve achieved
focus. This was a quirk of manual focus SLRs, as the only way to get a good
view of what you were shooting at was with a wide-open lens.
This is a very old school method of
shooting, and like focusing already, means that taking shots with the 40-2
takes a considerable amount of time. Even on my A6300, with focus peaking, I
notice the 40-2 being very temperamental with its depth of field. As with other
fast lenses the extremely shallow depth of field, this thing can be tough to
get focus. Because of this, I tend to shoot with my aperture lock at f/2.8.
Speaking of focus, the Helios 40-2
has an insanely center-weighted focus. Outside of a circular zone in center
frame, everything else drops out of focus drops off quickly when you’re
shooting close to maximum aperture. I find aperture does best for overall focus
Color is fantastic, with some very
vivid color and juxtaposed muted contrast. This lens is more niche than
anything else I’ve ever had my hands on. You can understand how this is made
for portrait photography when you get it in your hands. The best photos I’ve
gotten using the lens have been when I frame the subject like I’m taking a
human portrait, so street photography with this lens devolves into
architectural/environmental portraiture. Landscapes are bleak without a subject
to center, but people are intensely easy to photograph with this lens.
This was the point that I stopped using the 40-2 on a crop sensor camera body.
I’ve had the pleasure of swapping
it from my 1.5x crop ASP-C sensor Sony Alpha 6300 and seeing what it does on an
Alpha 7 Mk. 2, a 35mm full-frame sensor. The good parts about the 40-2 shine,
then, with the bokeh in all its glory and color quality becoming even better on
a more adept image sensor. If you can help it, I would highly recommend pairing
this lens to a full-frame sensor, as that’s what it’s designed for.
After writing the previous
sections, I have since purchased an M42 to E-mount speedbooster, to bend back
the light rays to be used on my crop sensor 6300. As my adapter now readily
makes the 40-2 an APS-C lens and performs exactly like it was mounted on the
A7ii. This has produced incredible results, and now with the 40-2 acting like
it was designed to I feel so much better about including it in my kit.
To close, the Helios 40-2 is the
byproduct of a war, on top of research of the early 1900’s best optical
technicians. Somewhat forgotten, you would normally come across this lens being
described with the 44-2 in relation to the Biotar design, but really all the
lens formula does is achieve this uncanny bokeh. That’s what the Helios 40-2 is
best at. It is not easy to get there, however. You get this lens, expect a
fight, and the image is your payoff for winning.
In short, I love this thing. I
consider it my showstopper, and it’s always in my kit whenever I’m out and
about. It takes a lot of getting used to, don’t get me wrong, but once you do,
the Helios 40-2 is a one-of-a-kind asset to have along for the strange
situations it can open itself up to capture. It’s not the best for every
situation, and indeed there are average environments where it struggles, and in
a twist of fate, that’s part of the charm. The fact that the 40-2 is such a
beast to work with makes the shots you do get that much more artful, and that
much more worth it. You can get shots no one else can, in a way no one else
What sets apart the Helios 40-2
from any other lens is the unique, identifiable signature of its use. The
bokeh, the handling, and its history all add up to what is truly an art. It
will not be kind to you if you do not wise up to how to handle it best, for
there is a definitive way to use it. I daresay it is like the
It’s going to be my favorite piece
of glass for a very, very long time.
Rudolf (1989). A History of the Photographic Lens. Boston: Academic Press. ISBN
978-0124086401, pp. 117–118.
(2) US Patent 583,336,
Paul Rudolph, “Objective Glass”, issued May 25, 1897.
(3) The Taylor
Hobson Story on Taylor Hobson official website Archived 12 October 2013 at the
(4) U.S. Patent
2,019,985 issued Dec 26, 1930.
(5) Dr. J.
Kämmerer “When is it advisable to improve the quality of camera
lenses?” Excerpt from a lecture given during the Optics & Photography Symposium,
Les Baux, 1979″ (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-04-02.
Keppler, “Inside Straight: Optical Miracle: The amazing story of the
Biotar,” pp. 32–33. Popular Photography & Imaging, Volume 71 Number 5;
May 2007. ISSN 1542-0337.
(7) Nogin P.A.
“Photographic lens” Moscow, 1961.
LENS Catalog 1970. Part 1” Yakovlev A. f., D. Volosov.
(9) V. A. Panov. “The Handbook of the
Designer of Optical-Mechanical Instruments”, ed. 3, Leningrad, 1980.
(10) Helios 40-2 85/1.5: “Questions of ergonomics, operation and maintenance.”
Fun shoot with Grace Dahl the other day. It helped how much of a natural she seemed at being in front of the camera, and I got an earnest chance to try out that Helios 40-2. Very nice, chilly, transitional weather in Puyallup gave some fantastic natural light, so I got to use the most of my aperture. With autumn quickly becoming winter, the skies were clear, and the ground was awash in orange.