Helios

I found my old Russian SLR camera a few days ago.

It’s a Zenit EM Olympic edition, a tie-in from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Russian Zenit, and more so its East German cousin the Praktica, were popular manual SLR cameras for beginner photographers in the UK in the 80s and 90s. I got mine second-hand for perhaps 20 quid in the early 90s. It’s big, very heavy, and clumsy to operate, and I was never a very good photographer—I doubt if I ever got more than two or three acceptable photos from it. Of course I decided it must be an awful camera.

Nowadays I use an Olympus E-PL3 Micro Four Thirds system camera. I have enough residual interest in the mechanics of photography to enjoy using a “proper” camera rather than a good smartphone and this is a light, efficient model that has worked well for me.

When I found the old Zenit, though, I thought—hey, can I use this lens with my new camera? Was it really as awful as I thought, or was it just me?

heliosIt turns out to be quite easy to do. The lens is a Helios 44m, a very common Russian make with a slightly antique fitting, the M42 thread. A local camera shop had an adapter.

The lens weighs more than the camera body: almost as much as a full jar of marmalade. And it’s almost entirely manual.

Manual focus, uh oh

When I bought the adapter, the guy in the shop insisted I would get no help at all from the camera: manual focus, manual aperture, manual shutter, and no metering. That turned out not to be true—focus and aperture are manual, but the camera can still handle metering and shutter speed.

And it turns out that it was just me: the Helios is quite a good lens.

Swan, Round Pond

Manual focus is… tricky… and I’m not very good at it, but manual focus and aperture are a lot more fun when you have instant replay and an automatic shutter. A heavy lens like this isn’t too bad to hold, either: you just hold the camera by the lens.

What does feel a bit more specialised is the new “equivalent” focal length. The lens has a 58mm focal length, which is unchanged of course, but the Micro Four-Thirds sensor is half the size of the 35mm negative giving an effective equivalent of 116mm focal length on a 35mm camera: pretty zoomy. Not the sort of thing you can just wander around taking scenes with, though it’s a good focal length for portraits, architectural detail, and animals.

(For comparison, it’s about the same frame as the well-regarded Olympus 60mm macro lens. Here: I took the same photo with the Helios and the Olympus lens.)

Squirrel in Hyde Park

The Helios is known for a distinctive circular light pattern in the out-of-focus backgrounds, which is appealing, if not what you’d always want.

Put things together

I’ve really enjoyed using this lens, but that doesn’t have a great deal to do with its optical qualities. It’s a decent lens, but I already own a better one of a similar focal length. (Though if I’d found my old camera and tried out the lens earlier, I might not have bought the comparatively expensive Olympus 60mm.)

But I do enjoy the history and (literal) weight of this lens, and I enjoy having a manual focus ring and being required to use it.

I don’t think I would ever—even now—set one of my autofocus lenses to manual focus, even though they all have focus rings, because I know I get better photos out the other end with autofocus. I’m just not good enough at it. But I’m delighted that I found the old camera and did something with it.

And it’s exciting to be able to make your camera out of all these different bits.

To be able to take a component built to a standard devised in 1949 and stick it on a very contemporary camera—I feel this is revealing, not so much of the future-proofing of the original standard or the backward compatibility of the new one, as of the fact that cameras are still mostly optical instruments and glass optics have been made to much the same, wonderfully high, standards for many decades now.