Playing The Long Game: Outdoor Photography With Telezooms



Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
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24 May 2020 8:20AM   Views : 417 Unique : 263


The Greek sun god – and a really good name for a lens: or, indeed, a series of lenses, if you look them up on the web.

For most people, though, there’s only one Helios, the 44: 58mm focal length and a maximum aperture of f/2. Later lenses were fitted with an automatic diaphragm, but the ‘classic’ lenses are like the one shown here, with a preset diaphragm.

Preset diaphragm: that means there are two rings for aperture control. One is click-stopped, and allows you to pre-set the working aperture. The other ring then moves freely between maximum aperture and the taking aperture, so that you can adjust it with the camera at eye level. With practice, this can be surprisingly easy and fast. Honest.


It’s really odd how there are two different views of this lens. For me, and probably most photographers of my age, it was the standard lens on the cheapest SLR you could get, the Zenith B. The camera was legendarily as tough as a T-34 tank, and the lens was similarly capable but basic. You’d need to be quite devoted (and physically strong) to go on using a Zenith once you could afford any of the Japanese cameras of the era.

And there are devotees of the Helios, who love what it does. I think there are two parts to this: first, for people used to a standard zoom, a 58mm f/2 lens gives stunning differential focus. This is simply wonderful – and then there’s an extra, because the right background gives an interesting Bokeh. It looks like this:


By comparison, a Pentax 55mm f/1.8 gives a smoother, more understated look:


For many years, Helios lenses were cheap as chips, often literally. Every charity shop, every antiques arcade had them, usually on a camera, and sometimes all in working condition. £15 with a case was often the going rate.

There’s a firm in Russia that seems to specialise in hoovering up, fettling and reselling all types of Helios, mostly around the $50 mark, but they also sell brand new 85mm f/1.5 lenses for $339. The latter may well be worth a punt if you’re into beautiful Bokeh and are used to manual focus, in M42, Nikon and Canon versions. The M42 version is available with adaptors for many mirrorless cameras.

Just to add to the comparison, here's the result from a Zeiss Pancolar 50mm, wide open (like both other lenses:


Now, if you want to get the cheapest possible wide-aperture lens, I’d suggest a Yongnuo, either new or secondhand, at under £50. They’re available in Nikon and Canon mounts, and they are cheap and cheerful: I’ve not had the chance to do a comparison with a Helios, but I wouldn’t’ be surprised if they are sharper and less prone to flare. They are definitely easier to use, with an automatic diaphragm and autofocus.

But if you hanker after the novelty of a proper metal-and-glass lens, scour the shelves of your local charity shops for Zenith and Helios kit. As a bonus, you’ll get characterful, slightly-swirly Bokeh. Adaptors for fitting to just about any camera are cheap and plentiful, and you can even get adaptor rings to achieve infinity focus on your DSLR, though this will involve taking your lens apart and a little light engineering. That’s not necessary with mirrorless cameras.


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AltImages Avatar
AltImages 3 4
24 May 2020 10:59AM
Fyi I bought a 3 month old (it came with the shop receipt) Nikon fit Helios 40-2 85mm f1.5 swirly bokeh lens on eBay from Russia just before the lockdown with no signs of use for £220. Unfortunately due to the lockdown it still has no signs of use 😕 Not too hard to use or focus. So I'd recommend it to any outdoor portrait photographer who isn't a raw beginner. As it's a fraction of the price of the main manufacturers and the defects are what you're actually looking for. So, at the end of the lockdown there's every chance I'll be selling my Nikkor 85mm lens.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
24 May 2020 12:47PM
Thank you - that's really helpful.

I must admit that I might be tempted, were it not for the fact that I've bought one or four lenses since lockdown started, and I've accumulated a good deal of experience with manual focus lenses on my Alpha 7 (which makes using manual lenses relatively easy).

I'll look forward to more about what it can do... Here, or in other forums!
AltImages Avatar
AltImages 3 4
24 May 2020 2:05PM
😊 I've not done much with the lens so far. Focussing is much easier than I expected and the Helios 85mm lens has a curious third ring. In that you set the desired aperture, but the third ring allows you to focus fully open and then twist it to close the aperture down to the taking aperture that has been selected. So far the swirly bokeh doesn't seem to be as obvious as I was expecting. But that maybe because I've not used it under the best conditions. The other thing to remember with this lens is that it's only critically sharp in the centre. So that's where you frame your subject and then crop later.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
24 May 2020 4:13PM
That third ring is part of the preset diaphragm mechanism: the idea is precisely to allow you to set the aperture you want, focus wide open, and stop down using the extra ring, without taking the camera away from your eye. Thoroughly familiar to impecunious photographers from the early Seventies and earlier...
AltImages Avatar
AltImages 3 4
24 May 2020 4:52PM
I don't remember the third ring. As I never owned one of those lenses 'back in the day'.
PaulCox Avatar
24 May 2020 11:47PM
Another interesting Blog, and yes the Helios works really well on Micro Four/Thirds all the varieties but the Very early 13 blade diaphragm are superb. The Yongnuo 50mm and 35mm on a Nikon are also very good.
bobby55 Avatar
bobby55 13 67 United Kingdom
29 May 2020 2:05PM
My Helios is the 44M-4 which has just the aperture ring and focus. It cost £15 a couple of years ago. I did a slight modification with a piece of biro refill to fix the auto to manual mode allowing manual operation of the focus ring and infinity focus.
Pictured here set at f/16is on it's usual home, the Sony A100.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
29 May 2020 2:14PM
A later lens, then, I think - the changed the layout as well as the engineering when they introduced a kicker plate in the cameras to operate an auto diaphragm in lenses.

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