Vintage Lenses

I recently acquired three “new” lenses, all M42 screw-thread, and all what are generally classed as “vintage” by amateur photographers. One, the Helios 44-2 58mm f2 is a bit of a cult classic and it’s odd to have one in my hands again after so many years. This is probably my fourth 44-2 as these lenses were the “kit” lenses of the day that usually came with the Zenith SLR bodies of which I’ve owned three in the past starting in the mid-1970’s. It’s ironic that a lens that I’ve always considered a little bit soft and couldn’t wait to upgrade from has become almost a talisman for the creative photographer in 2019.

So, the three lenses I purchased this week are:

  • Pentacon 50mm f1.8
  • Helios 44-2 58mm f2
  • Helios 44M-4 58mm f2

I chose to partner these lenses with my Fujifilm XH-1 using a cheap, generic adapter to mount the lenses. This is basically just a black metal tube with a female 42mm thread at one end and a Fuji-X mount at the other. It doesn’t allow for the lens to be focused at infinity but that was not an issue for the test I had in mind. I’ve bought these lenses for one reason, to see what bokeh effects I can get when photographing flowers and such-like in the garden. I’ve shot so many for my 365 Challenge over the last two years that I’m looking for something a little different.

Playing with a vintage Russian lens, Helios 44-2 58mm f2 wide-open on the Fujifilm X-H1. Final image processed on iPhone using Snapseed

Conditions were not ideal for flower photography, it was rather windy in the front yard but I was keen to see what potential these lenses had and wanted to play before the “perfect” conditions arrived so I knew which to grab first when/if such conditions arose.

The first thing I did was shoot all three lenses wide-open at their maximum apertures. The results are above. Remember I’m not looking for sharpness per-se but the overall effect and in particular the background bokeh. The ISO was set at 400 throughout the test and I let the XH-1 determine the shutter speed. The day was overcast with occasional, brief bursts of sun peeking through and for these first three shots the shutter speed ranged from 1/4400th sec to 1/7500th sec. I focused on the centre of the flower head as far as possible.

Which you prefer is a matter of personal taste and your desired aesthetic. At this stage I preferred the Pentacon and Helios 44-2, but there is not a lot in it.

The next thing was to stop the lenses down a little to determine what effect that had. The 44M-4 has an automatic stop-down controlled by a small plate in the camera body which moves forward when the shutter release is depressed to push in a pin on the lens mount which closes the aperture blades to the chosen aperture. Unlike the other two lenses this lens does not have a means of manually stopping down and as I didn’t want to mess around with gaffer tape I decided to omit it from the stopped down tests.

As with all the images here each set of images was processed EXACTLY the same

The f8 test shows a definite difference in the out of focus background and at this aperture, on this subject, the Helios 44-2 better suits my taste. Your mileage may vary of course!

Pentacon 50mm f1.8 @ f8
Helios 44-2 58mm f2 @ f8

I’ve included a few more images below but by way of a conclusion, for my taste and for what I want to achieve the Helios 44-2 58mm f2 will do a fabulous job I feel. It is sharp enough, not bitingly sharp, but sharp enough. The out of focus background at F2, f4 and f8, the only apertures I tested, are the most consistently pleasing and of course I can manually stop the lens down.

To finish, lens flare at f2. The leaf blew away slightly exposing the naked sun, I could not resist the resultant full-on, all-over, flare-fest. One for my textures collection!

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