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Reversal of fortune - and the front element!


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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Reversal of fortune - and the front element!

24 Aug 2021 8:24AM   Views : 733 Unique : 442


Iíve always been very wary of taking cameras apart, especially after trying to free up the diaphragm mechanism on a Minolta lens back in the Eighties. So it took a little convincing when I came across the suggestion that you can do interesting things with a Helios 58mm lens if you take it apart.

Why, I hear you ask, would I want to take a lens apart? Well, there are two possible reasons: one is that I believe that if you alter the separation between the element groups you can achieve infinity focus with the lens mounted on a conventional DSLR. I admit I havenít tried it, and Iím not sure if you can get the spacer ring that you need to do this. But what I have tried after watching a 3 minute video on YouTube is reversing the front element to achieve interesting Bokeh.


There are some ifs or buts and caveats to this. First, not every Helios lens was created equal. Some of the more common FAD versions are built in a way that doesnít allow you to put the front element in back to front (as fitted in the factory, the front of the element is curved, the back flat. Reversing it moves the front edge forwards!). They just have slightly less screw thread for the retaining ring to engage with. I was fine: my Helios was the manual version that came with Zenith B and Zenith E cameras in the Seventies. However, I did need a lens wrench to remove the ring and that cost me £12.00 from eBay.

Then it was simple: it took less than 5 minutes, a tiny amount of desk space, and a microfibre cloth to hold the front lens element between taking it out and dropping it back in. The results are spectacular, although they probably wonít delight fans of high quality optics. As well as swirly Bokeh towards the edges of the frame there is a strong diffusion effect and considerable softening of the image everywhere including the centre of the picture.


The procedure certainly transforms the Helios from being a competent vintage performer into a really weird lens. If you like weird lenses, and you have a Helios around that youíre too worried about, you know what youíre going to be doing the next few minutes I suspect. If you see you an elderly Zenith in a charity shop, itís worth getting and playing with.

As always with manual lenses itíll be easier with a mirrorless camera, but whichever way you go youíll need an adaptor to allow you to fit an M42 lens onto your camera. Unless, of course, you have a fully working Zenith and still shoot on filmÖ


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dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
24 Aug 2021 8:28AM
Your questions answered:

Is it worth it? Reckon so!

Is the wrench generally useful? Probably not. My filters have rings it will engage with, but no other lens I've looked at.

The wrench looks iffy... Yup. It is. Better ones have two crossbars for stability, but this one worked. If your lens is less crusty, you might be able to coax the ring free with a single screwdriver blade.

What aperture should I use? Experiment... I tend to go for maximum aperture as everything goes up to 11...

dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
24 Aug 2021 8:48AM
Oh, yes. It messes with infinity focus. But you can still achieve infinity focus, and the focus range seems unaffected - but it all happens between the markings for around 3 metres and closest focus. Clearly, the reversal makes focus more sensitive, in terms of the movement of the helical mount.
whatriveristhis Avatar
24 Aug 2021 9:13AM
Nice effect. That last image is lovely. You should have fun with that, for sure.
Acancarter Avatar
24 Aug 2021 10:09AM
Great stuff John! If I was still working, I'd have this up on Zeemax (an optical ray trace/ simulator/ design programme) but I'm not, so have to do things by experiment. Your first image is particularly effective. My original helios lens was soft and had little contrast, but I still used it for 1000's of shots and to learn with. My approach - never throw anything vaguely optical or photographic away - take it to bits, try things out. If it gets wrecked, it doesn't owe you anything. I've got a 2.8 to 12mm zoom micro CCTV lens on my shelf...just waiting to be played with...
altitude50 Avatar
altitude50 19 23.9k United Kingdom
24 Aug 2021 10:51AM
I have a 'spare' Helios of the correct mark and the appropriate wrench. And a M42 to Sony adapter. About 6 months ago I saw an article about this and tried to get the front element out.. The ring holding the front element won't budge.
Now considering buying a Petzval lens from Lomography.
PaulCox Avatar
24 Aug 2021 11:38AM
This is very interesting I have I think 5 Helios at the last count one a 44, one a 44-2, one a 44-M, two 44-M-4, the 44 and 44-2 are the early preset ones, I would be interested to find out more about shimming to get better infinity focus. On the older Helios the 44 I have made a shim from thin plastic because the lens on the micro 4/3 adapter wouldn't rotate to infinity, the 44-2 however rotates passed the infinity mark by nearly 3mm. The results you have achieved are very interesting, not sure I will try the front lens reversal, as when I have taken lenses apart they don't always go back together the way they should. Your results are very interesting especially the lilies in the last image in the text, really do like that softness achieved around the petals. Paul.
Robert51 Avatar
Robert51 14 12 147 United Kingdom
24 Aug 2021 2:17PM
What I really love about this John is the softness the lens produces. Have you tried any portraits with it yet ?
Love to see the results even if it does take some time to position the subject right.
pablophotographer Avatar
pablophotographer 12 2.2k 450
24 Aug 2021 3:58PM
I am seeing them and I am wondering if Accura Paul is alive or turning in his grave... Great results dudler
AltImages Avatar
AltImages 3 4
25 Aug 2021 8:49AM
I love the halo of softness. I kind of performed the opposite once. Maybe 25+ years ago I bought an 'old style' 55mm wide angle lens (35mm full frame equivalent) for my Mamiya C330 Pro S twin lens which I also bought a pentaprism for (as I think they might not have made the new style ones) and the performance was disappointing. Then I read that you could unscrew the front half of each lens and switch the taking lens with the viewing lens front element. Certainly in my case that converted my lens into one that was razor sharp and I then used it pretty much all the time as its standard lens. Now someone better than me might be able to explain the difference here. As to me, in terms of perspective, a 55mm lens on a 6x6cm film in my book is like having a standard 55mm Pentax lens on 35mm film, but with a bigger film. Ie a standard lens but capturing a wider view. But lens calculations suggest otherwise!
altitude50 Avatar
altitude50 19 23.9k United Kingdom
25 Aug 2021 3:49PM
I have just dug my credit card out and ordered a Petzval 55mm f 1.7 lens for my Sony a from Lomography. Unfortunately it will attract import duty..... Will let you know how I get on with it.

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