Vintage lenses: flawed but beautiful

Over the years I have acumulated quite a lot of gear. While I will probably never stop lusting for new shiny cameras and lenses, with my current collection I can fulfill any project to my, and my clients, satisfaction. From photography to videography, from macro to landscapes to watersports, it is all there. As the mirrorless photography world matures, upgrades are less interesting each year, and I will keep working with what I have for the foreseeable future. 

However…

Where the new modern models and lenses start to loose their attraction, the vintage photography world does not. Over the years I’ve bought and sold quite a few old vintage lenses, ranging from the 50s to the 80s and to modern non-autofocus products. When I started out with my very first dslr (the Canon EOS 1000D, for those interested), manual focussing was something from the stoneage. Outdated and obsolete. I’m from a generation that had never seen cameras without autofocus. As such, it was hard to imagine the tactile feeling of focusing a lens, and the joy that this can bring. It took me a while to get into the idea of using vintage lenses on modern bodies, and that this could give a different experience from using autofocus lenses. Not necessarily always better, but different and pleasing nonetheless. 

Over the years since my first MF lens, the Samyang 12 mm f/2 (which I’m still using professionally, in favour of the Zeiss Touit 12 mm with autofocus), I’ve collected quite a lot manual (vintage) lenses, and it is not seldom that I step out of my front door with a bag that contains more manual focus lenses that native autofocus lenses. 

A distinction must be made here between vintage and non vintage manual focus lenses. Some manufacturers still make modern lenses without autofocus (Leica, Voigtländer, modern companies like Samyang), which are manual focus but specially designed for modern digital bodies. These lenses are made with modern machinery and contain the newest coatings, and therefore deliver optimal image quality on a digital body. Vintage lenses are designed for analog cameras and are usually made without the newest developments in lens technology. As such, the usually have characteristics that would not be tolerated in mondern lenses: flaring, colour shifts, abberations. Some older lens designs cause less sharpness than we are used from modern lenses. Others are just as sharp, but are less contrasty than we are used to. Every vintage lens is different and has characteristics that you can like or hate. The results you get are not perfect, but that is not the point. An images does not need have the perfect image quality to be a good photograph, as our veneration of the old photography masters proofs. 

A few months ago I bought another vintage lens that is legendary in vintage photography circles: the Helios 44M-4. This lens is a 58 mm f/2 lens that, together with its brother, the Helios 44M-2, was produced with an M42 mount in the Sovjet Union from 1958 to 1992 on a massive scale. It is one of the most widespread lenses in the world today, and because of this, it is quite affordable. The main attraction for many is the ‘swirly bokeh’ effect that this lens offers (instead of perfect round bokeh balls in the out of focus areas, the bokeh has a circular pattern to it, with squashed ‘cats eye’  bokeh). On modern lenses, an inexcuseable effect, in vintage lenses hightly sought after. I was curious what the fuss was about and got one. And hated it..

The lens itself is ugly. I used it a few times, got other projects, and put it in my lens drawer with the intention to sell it again. Not helping was the fact that the 50-ish focal length is the most found focal length in my lens drawer. Nor did I really manage to create the ‘swirly bokeh’ effect that I expected (a full frame sensor would probably help in that regard). Recently I was looking for something different and gave it a second chance. I put it on the Fujifilm X-T4 for a few walks in the neighbourhood, and this time I did fall in love. I have the suspicion that the M42-Fx adapter that I use has a slightly wrong thickness, as the lens is very good at close focusing, but does not reach infinity unless you stop down to f8. This allows you to photograph quite close up, giving you smooth and beautiful bokeh (not necessarily of the swirly type). As I love close focusing lenses, this one has just climbed my favorites ladder and has surpassed the Voigtlander 50 mm f/1.5 Nokton, which is stunning to look at and delivers excellent image quality, but can not focus as close, and was 10 times its price. Also surprising was the resolution this lens delivers, details are clear even at high magnification.

I will continue to put the lens trough its paces, and will also check the drawer for other forgotten gems (like the 50 mm Meyer-Optik Oreston f/1.8 that I haven’t used in ages but has the same close focusing strengths and is razor sharp). Some results from this lens are below.

And here it is: the Helios 44M-4 on my trusty Fujifilm X-T2. The lens itself is quite compact, but with the M42 to FujiX adapter makes the lens a bit longer.
A Jpeg image, straight from the camera and decreased in size. I liked the contrast and sharpness of this image. Taken at f/2 with the X-T4 with film simulation Acros + green.
Taken with the X-T4 at f/2, film simulation Eterna. I’ve never really used Eterna except for video. The muted colours really made this image for me though.
A bokeh test. Taken with the X-T4 at f/2. Not sure of the film simulation.
Another bokeh test. Straight from the camera and resized, Fujifilm X-T4 at f/2 with film simulation Acros + green.
I liked the symmetry of this image with the striped poles flanking the winding path and the dogs flanking the biker. Fujifilm X-T4, probably taken at f/8. Not sure of the film simulation.
Fujifilm X-T4 at f/4 in Acros + green. When I walked past the goat had a magpie on its back. I liked the black and white combination of the goat and the magpie, but the magpie flew off and didn’t return. Still liked the image of the goat..
A resized close-up of the goat, showing the amount of resolution this lens has!
Another bokeh and resolution test: Fujifilm X-T4 at f/2. Based on Classic Chrome, but edited.