I got a new lens yesterday – a Zenit Helios 85mm f1.5 in Canon EOS mount. The Helios is a Russian made lens. It’s a strange anachronism – solid brass barrel, pre-set aperture (which is the weirdest thing I’ve ever dealt with), but multi-coated glass. If you’ve never used a lens with a pre-set aperture, here’s how it works – you set the aperture you want to use. The lens remains open to its widest aperture for focusing. When you are ready to expose, you turn the stop-down ring to close the aperture, then take the picture. I have yet to decide if this is worth the trouble.
If it’s such a pain to use, you ask, then why did I ever buy such a beast? For several reasons. One, it was only slightly more expensive than the Canon 85mm f1.8 lens, and dramatically cheaper than the Canon 85mm f1.2 L lens. I got the extra half-stop of speed for about $50 more. Second, the lens is famous (infamous depending on who you ask) for producing a “swirly” background when shot at large apertures. I wanted something that would give a Petzval-esque look but would be more modern in function. As to more modern in function, well, read my comments above. It does have an internal aperture at least, and doesn’t require waterhouse stops, but other than that, it’s not exactly modern in function. 1950s-era Soviet technology at its finest.
But how do its images look? That’s the most important thing. Well, here are some examples I shot last night.
This is my friend Thi – we went to see a movie, and I dragged along the lens and camera to take some test photos outside the theater. Thi is always a bit of a sourpuss, and not terribly fond of being photographed, so you’ll pardon his expression. I’m quite impressed with the lens’ rendering of color and contrast, and the overall sharpness even wide open.
But where’s the “swirl”? Wait for it, it’s coming.
Here’s the neon marquee outside the theater. Again, terrific rendering of the marquee’s intense colors.
It is possible to use this lens for candid shots. I snagged this photo of the boy at Chipotle building burritos, but I didn’t have to play around with pre-setting the aperture because I was shooting wide-open anyway.
If it wasn’t already obvious, you can see the razor-thin depth of field at f1.5 in this shot.
I think the shallow depth of field in this shot works very well – this was observed through the window of my car while I sat at a red light. The barbershop has closed for the evening, and the barber is finishing up a last customer, when a friend pokes his head in to chat.
Another color test, also observed through the window of my car while waiting at a stop light.
Here I was playing around with selective focus and action. The weirdness at the bottom of the frame is the rear-view mirror of my car. The mirror frame itself is so out of focus it visually disappears, but what is reflected in it at the same distance away as the primary subject is also equally in focus – it’s a strange quality of focusing using mirrors.
And finally, we get to the swirl. Here’s my cat, Chub-Chub, on the carpet in the hall. The trick, I found to getting the swirl, is to have the subject close to the background, but the background is out-of-focus due to depth of field. Put too much distance between the subject and the background, and the swirl goes away and you just get really creamy smooth out-of-focus rendition, like what you see in the portrait of Thi.