It’s fair to say that, in the full flow of using DSLRs with vintage manual lenses, bokeh is a prominent feature in my photographs.
In fact, the out of focus background is often of greater importance to me than the subject in focus.
When I think of bokeh, the first lens that comes to mind is the Helios 44.
I’ve written about these lenses before (especially here and here) and they’ve remained one of a small handful of lenses at the heart of my arsenal as dozens of others have come and gone.
In short, the Helios 44s give you sharpness when you need it, lovely dreamy backgrounds, plus the scope from more interesting and “swirly” options too.
I favour the 44-2 version best, with its preset aperture which allows infinite adjustment over the aperture, and therefore the depth of field.
But I’ve also had numerous 44Ms (currently a 44M-4 is in my kit, suggested by many to offer the optimum combination of vintage lens look, with the greater contrast and flare control of a more modern multi-coating).
And very recently I picked up a copy of the lens that superseded the Helios 44, the MC Zenitar-M2s 50mm f/2.
Plasticky and ugly it may be (like a dark chocolate donut stuck on the front of your camera, was one memorable description), but it’s compact, light, gives plenty of that Helios swirl potential, and is arguably even sharper when the light is right.
One of the best features of the Helios (and Zenitar 50/2) is the price.
Within the last couple of months, the 44M-4 I mentioned cost me less than £15, in very good optical condition and fully working (even the finest examples could never be described as silky smooth).
And I found a copy of the Zenitar for £25.
My original 44-2 I found rummaging around in a random odds and ends bin at a camera fair eight years ago, and set me back all of £7.
Undoubtably the best £7 I’ve ever spent on photography.
Combine one of these lens with a classic CCD sensor Pentax DSLR like the K100D, K-m or Samsung branded GX-1s, all of which I have examples of that cost between £25-31 and you have a set up capable of wonderful images for £50, perhaps less.
You will have to buy an M42 to Pentax K adapter, but even factoring this in, at the cheapest end my GX-1s (£25) + Helios 44-2 (£7) + adapter (£12) still come well within £50.
For me, I have a bokeh dream set up for virtually pocket money, in digital photography terms.
How about you, do you have an ongoing love affair with bokeh (and the lenses that deliver it most satisfyingly) too?
Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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12 thoughts on “A Bokeh Dream Set Up For Less Than £50”
No. I don’t understand the Bokeh craze.
Thanks for your honesty Khürt! This has given me an idea for a future post…
For me, it’s about the ability to create a nondescript background that won’t detract from the subject. Some photogs prefer to actually create a distraction, such as swirls or doughnuts – effects that I consider almost universally undesirable. 🙂
Yes some lenses, in fact more than most I’d say, have overly jarring or busy bokeh and it distracts from the main image. I generally like smooth bokeh, but also something unique and quirky like the swirl of the Helios 44 lenses.
What’s the minimum focus distance of the Helios lenses? Does it vary from one version to the next, such as the 44-2 and 44M-4? I’m asking because the cotter pin photo appears to be shot pretty close. Of course, the image might be cropped, or might have been shot with a high-crop-value body.
Hi Jack, thanks for your comments. That picture was made with the Zenit MC Zenitar-M2s 50/2, supposedly the successor to the Helios 58/2 series. On the barrel the minimum focus is marked at 0.35m, but it rotates slightly past this. My version seems to focus even closer (and doesn’t focus to infinity) which suits me fine! I think this shot was at minimum focus, and using a Samsung GX-1S APS-C DSLR, crop factor 1.5x, so the equivalent field of view is 75mm.
The Helios 44 lenses focus down to about 0.5m, typical for a 50/55/58mm lens.
The Helios 58mm was also sold in K mount – it’s called the Helios 44K. There’s always samples on sale from Russia, Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union.
It’s in my search list but I’ve yet to pull the trigger on one…
I think the main reason I keep postponding buying one is that the Pentax SMC (K) 50mm f/1.2 has me spoiled in terms of bokeh – that and the Sigma 30 1.4 Art (there it is again 😉 ).
Regarding the appeal of bokeh… I understand those who don’t like it. I don’t like it in some scenarios – not a lot of things to me are more irritating than a busy street photography scene where the photographer chose to blur important parts of the scene, to give an example… especially if it’s a typical modern zoom lens bokeh (horrible)!
But if you’re isolating a subject I find it’s actually part of the photographic skill set, and when well done can work really nicely to bring your eye’s attention to that subject and to make sure that the viewer sees that anything else on that scene is of no particular importance. (the most typical use case for this is, of course, a picture of a bride…)
“Regarding the appeal of bokeh… I understand those who don’t like it. I don’t like it in some scenarios”
I just want to point out that bokeh isn’t blur. The word “bokeh” refers to the quality of out of focus areas, not to the degree to which they are blurred.
It’s such a slippery term. How do you describe the “quality” of anything? By bokeh I generally mean the out of focus areas of a picture, and how appealing they are – or not. Beyond that I think it’s hard to be precise!
I almost bought a K version of the Helios 44 the other week too, but I figured why bother when I find M42 lenses easier to use on the DSLRs than K series anyway? The optics are the same I’m sure, they’ve just changed the mount I think.
Now and then I think how important is bokeh, then I try a zoom lens or a prime that has ugly and jarring bokeh and remember!
Yeah zooms only work well if the subject is pretty isolated from the background… in-focus to out-of-focus transitions are usually never very good.
With regards to your comment that you find M42 easier to use, is that why you use the M42 lenses wide open? I find it a bit harder to use such a lens at f8 for example (I used to have an SMC-M 50 1.4 lens with a bad iris and I had to use it sort of like an M42 lens, with the lens release button pressed).
If you use a lens wide open, K mount on Pentax cameras is just as easy – just use Av mode and you don’t even have to meter…
Chris, I just prefer using M42 lenses on Av with the Pentax DSLRs, usually focusing wide open then stopping down as much as I need to before shooting. Most of the time though I don’t stop down past perhaps f/4, so I can usually focus ok even at this aperture.
With M lenses I just don’t like the extra step of stopping down with the green button etc. In fact when I do use M lenses now (which is rare, it’s usually either M42 or A or beyond) I use the unmount then lens by a few degrees trick so the blades stop down and it works just like an M42 lens anyway.