Editor's note: This month only – Use the code july5 at checkout to buy the 5 Steps to Better Black & White Photography and 5 Steps to Better Exposure ebooks for just $5! Click the links to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.
I first became interested in vintage lenses after reading about the Helios 58mm f2 lens in an article on Digital Photography School (the link is further down in the article). Intrigued by the creative potential of the lens, I bought one to use with my Fujifilm X-T1 camera.
Some of you are no doubt wondering what’s so special about it.
The short answer is – nothing. It’s a cheap Russian lens that you can buy second-hand. It’s manual focus and is made for the M42 screw mount. You need to buy an adapter to use it on your camera.
The reason photographers buy the Helios 58mm lens is because the optical faults in its design produce something known as swirly bokeh. Shoot wide open, and take a photo of the right subject, and the background seems to swirl around. It’s unusual and kind of cool when you get it right.
Here’s an example.
I like vintage lenses because they bring a fun element into your photography and are ideal for experimentation, especially with subjects like portraiture.
Plus, you can buy the lens for under $100. I have filters that cost more than that. It’s a great way to try something new without spending too much money. It’s certainly a big saving over most offerings from LensBaby and the Petzval and Daguerreotype Achromat lenses made by Lomography.
Vintage lenses and the Fujifilm X-T1
This photo shows the Helios 58mm lens plus M42-FX adapter. The adapter is nearly as big as the lens.
Here are my observations on using the Helios 58mm f2 lens with my Fujifilm X-T1 camera.
- It’s important to focus accurately when the lens is wide open. If you nail the focus, the part of the subject that is in proper focus is sharp. If you miss focus slightly, it’s very soft.
- Electronic viewfinders make focusing with manual focus lenses much easier. For example, the X-T1 has a dual screen setting. You can see the entire frame on the left, and an enlargement centered around the selected autofocus point on the right. This tool helps you focus accurately. The diagram below shows you what it looks like.
- For the best effect, the background needs to be some distance from the subject.
- The Helios lens is designed for film cameras, and you can only take full advantage of the swirly bokeh effect if you use it on a full-frame camera. The crop factor of APS-C cameras like my X-T1 means that you are missing out on some of the bokeh. But, as you can see in these photos, you can still see enough of it to make some interesting photos.
Vintage lenses and mirrorless cameras
Mirrorless cameras are ideal for working with vintage lenses, for several reasons.
- You can buy adapters that let you work with a wide range of vintage lenses.
- The viewfinder doesn’t go darker as you stop down, allowing you to use vintage lenses at small apertures. This also opens up the possibility of using older good quality manual focus lenses such as Canon FD lenses.
- Mirrorless cameras have tools like focus peaking (and the dual screen mode on the X-T1) that help you focus manual focus lenses accurately even when working at wide apertures.
Photos made with vintage lenses
Here are some photos that I made with the Helios 58mm lens.
The first set were made in Jing’an Temple in Shanghai, China.
This one of the first photos that I made in the temple with the Helios lens. The out of focus areas look kind of unusual, but there’s no swirly bokeh.
What this photo shows is that the optical quality of the Helios lens is not very good when you shoot wide open, especially at the edges. Check out the bottom left corner to see what I mean.
These ornamental posts caught my eye – I liked the way they receded into the distance, perfect for testing the bokeh of the Helios lens. The bokeh isn’t swirly in this photo, but it’s certainly distinctive.
Then I found this post, with green leaves behind. The bokeh is not quite swirly yet, but it’s getting there.
The next three photos are among my favorite images from the temple. They are close-ups of stone figures on a plinth.
I didn’t quite manage to get the full swirly bokeh effect in the temple, but I learnt more about the lens and its pictorial capabilities.
Here are some more photos taken with the Helios 58mm lens.
Researching vintage lenses
The Helios 58mm f2 isn’t the only vintage lens you can buy. If you’d like to learn more about the topic, then read the following article published on Digital Photography School. Make sure you read the comments, as readers have written about the vintage lenses they use.
Recommended reading: Creating Swirly Bokeh with the Helios 44-2 Lens
If you’d like to investigate a specific lens more, then the easiest way to do so is on Flickr. Just use the name of the lens as a keyword, and see what comes up in the search. This will soon give you a good idea of the pictorial capabilities of the lens.
Buying vintage lenses
Here’s what else you need to know when buying vintage lenses.
- Assuming that you are prioritizing creative potential over image quality, you need to know what the pictorial effect of the lens is. What potential does it have for creative photography? You can answer this question with the Flickr search described above.
- Does the lens have a manual aperture ring? It’s highly unlikely that it doesn’t, but you should check and make sure just in case. Otherwise you won’t be able to change the aperture setting.
- How much does the lens cost and where can you buy it from? A quick search on Ebay or Amazon should provide the answer. Depending on the rarity of your chosen lens you might have to keep searching until one becomes available. Many vintage lenses are inexpensive, but some cost more. I’ve also noticed that some people overcharge greatly on Ebay, so if you feel a lens is too expensive for what it is then search for other sellers (or wait until another one becomes available).
- Can you buy an adapter for the lens for your camera? Search on Ebay or Amazon to see if you can buy one. Check the details carefully, some adapters are less well made than others.
If the lens is available, and you like the look of the photos other people take with it, and you can buy an adapter for it for your camera then don’t hesitate – buy the lens, have some fun with it and see how creative you can get with it.
Do you have any questions about vintage lenses, or the Helios 58mm lens? Let me know in the comments.
What to read next
Mastering Lenses ebook
Learn how to take beautiful photos using any lens with our popular ebook Mastering Lenses. The lens buying guide alone could save you hundreds of dollars on your next lens purchase!