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Helios 40 and how to make this outrageous Bokeh and Swirl
Posted By: willdmo, 02-27-2015, 02:06 PM

After Using the Helios 40 a whole month without a break and owning this lens even longer, I can tell something about it.

First the technical aspect.
The lens is a russian lens, calculated for Fullframe and is designed after the Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 1:1,5/75 mm
The lens is in production since the late fifties and was produced till the mid of the nineties and now is produced again.
It is a short telephoto lens with F1.5 and 85mm. The outter appearance is huge (its about twice the size of an Takumar 85mm or the Pentax SMC-M 1:2/85) and it weights depending on which version easily between 900 gr and 1,3 kg.
The older versions in shiny silver (chrome) finish are made from brass, the Helios 40 and come with 39mm screw-mount but it is calculated for SLR cameras and therefor can be easily adapted with a cheap 39mm-42mm stepup ring and then with the usual Pentax M42-PK adapter. The filter thread size is a bit awkward and is 66mm. In internet you can get a step up ring to the more common 67mm thread size.
The newer one is the Helios 40-2. The 2 shows that it comes in m42 mount and this lens has a filter thread size of 67mm.
The coatings changed over the years a bit and the tripod mount too, but in general everything stayed the same. I guess that the production control had a bigger influence in the quality of the lens then the coating.
Becaus this lens is so sought after, it is again in production. I have not got my handy on such a new lens, but they make them only in Nikon and Canon mount and the optical quality is reported as much worse.
The lens is equipped with a preset aperture with many blades (no counting here) and due to the huge size of the front element the lens is prone to flare.

Why should I use this lens?
This lens is big and heavy and wide open this lens is not sharp. If you do your research about this lens you will often find comments of how soft this lens is, and how much better are other 85mm lenses. This is everything true, but wrong at the same time. Let me tell you why it is like that. The lens wide open is a bit sharp in the center but tends to glow and has sometimes a very odd bokeh, the much looked after swirl.
The more you stop down the lens, the sharper it gets, not only in the center, but also across the frame. Vignetting was never an issue in my shoots and while shooting between F5.6 and F8 I have not missed sharpness at all.

The questions like is it the sharpest lens, the smalles lens or the best lens you can get for the money (currently 400-500) can be clearly answered with no.
But knowing this lens also allows me to judge that this lens is usable on a daily basis. Sharp photos with much details are no problem and you always get the extra of the swirly bokeh, when you need it. If you dont like the bokeh, than this lens is nothing for you because Takumars, the Pentax 2/85 Samyang and so much other 85mm lenses are cheaper, better or at least easier to cary with you. If you are after the Bokeh and hate to change lenses, you should get one of this lenses, because it is quite versatile.

If you want only have the effect with the swirl, you have other possibilities like the family of the Helios 44's, an 58mm lens or to stay in the same focal length and even the same glass inside the lenses of some russian nightvisions.

In fact, the Cyclop lens of the nightvision H3T-1 is exactly the same lens, but without diaphragm (which is not needed to swirl this lens)
Be careful if you look now for nightvisions. The 85 1.2 and some 85mm lenses are not usable.
--> stay away from lenses with rubber on the focusing part and if you are not clear about the lens, ask the seller to unscrew it and take a photo of the back. If there is an element protruding, this lens will not fit your dslr and has different optics. If you get the right Cyclop lens it comes with tripod mount too, is an normal 42mm thread mount and takes 67mm filters.

Picture at F8 and macrotube

Streetscene at F4

How to swirl this lens:

The Swirl of an Helios lens is made from much highlights in the background. More Highlights mean a stronger swirl feel to it. You can take any lens in front of something a bit farther away (at least 8m or maybe 20 feet) and focus on something nearby. Now look at the higlights in the background. The closer you focus, the bigger gets the shape of the highlights, the farther away, the smaller until they are completely in focus. Now keep in mind, that these highlights get transformed from the helios lens into the swirl because their shape changes.

The helios swirls best between the focal point distance of 2.5m-5m it tends sometimes to swirl up to F2.8, but the real swirl you get wide open.
If your pictures dont swirl right (sometimes you can only judge on the PC screen) there are some problems possible.
First of all, check the distance on which you focused and look if it is wide open, or not.
If the distance matches (between 3-4m is best) than go a bit closer to your background or farther away.
If the pictures still have no swirl, than the background has not enough pronounced highlights.

Only when you mastered the swirl, you will be able to put it into your composition and use it. A good start is to always look for backgrounds with many highlights. Leaves in the sunlight are easy to begin with. Then place your subject into a distance between 3-5m from you. keep in mind that wide open this lens is only sharp in the middle.

I made a kind of testchart with this lens. The Tree was in a distance of 8m, the rest is stated next to the photos, which settings were used


F1.5 2m by willdmo

F1.5 2.5m by willdmo

F1.5 3m by willdmo

F1.5 3.5m by willdmo

F1.5 4m by willdmo

F1.5 5m by willdmo

F1.5 6m by willdmo


F2 2m by willdmo

F2 2.5m by willdmo

F2 3m by willdmo

F2 3.5m by willdmo

F2 4m by willdmo

F2 5m by willdmo

F2 6m by willdmo


F2.8 2m by willdmo

F2.8 2.5m by willdmo

F2.8 3m by willdmo

F2.8 3.5m by willdmo

F2.8 4m by willdmo

F2.8 5m by willdmo

F2.8 8m by willdmo
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02-27-2015, 02:26 PM   #2
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Excellent article, now I have to go and practice with my Helios 44-2 a whole lot more. Thanks for this.
02-27-2015, 05:30 PM   #3
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You're making me want to play with my Tokina-made Sears 70-210mm f/4. That thing swirls as well, but I never really set out to figure out how to get it to do so.
02-27-2015, 08:39 PM   #4
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Excellent and informative. The illustrative photos really exhibit the phenomenon well. Great job.

02-27-2015, 10:00 PM   #5
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Thanks for your writeup and pics, Willdmo!
02-28-2015, 10:45 AM   #6
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Other swirling lenses

QuoteOriginally posted by Sagitta Quote
You're making me want to play with my Tokina-made Sears 70-210mm f/4. That thing swirls as well, but I never really set out to figure out how to get it to do so.
Just feel free to share your results. I know there are toher swirling lenses outside, but dont know which ones do it
02-28-2015, 12:33 PM   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by willdmo Quote
Just feel free to share your results. I know there are toher swirling lenses outside, but dont know which ones do it
The Sears (actually a re-badged RMC Tokina) is subtle about it (or at least, somewhat subtle). I've only pulled it off a few times (always unintentionally). Much like the Helios, I think it requires a good bit of cluttery background to get it to show.

I might try your method to see if I can narrow down when/how to do it intentionally.



03-01-2015, 03:09 AM   #8
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What a great article! So pleased you used this for Singles In. It's been fascinating watching. Almost makes me wish I could get my hands on one to play with. But not sure my muscles are up to it.

03-11-2015, 06:31 AM   #9
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great article, thanks for writting this !!!
owning a Helios myself I love the swirly bokeh so much, and wide open the center sharpness is top notch too
12-12-2016, 05:32 AM   #10
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Some Links here in this Forum to swirly lenses. The guide can be used with these lenses too!

What lenses "Swirl"

which lens best for swirly bokeh?
12-12-2016, 02:00 PM   #11
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Good stuff... I have one in K mount bought from the marketplace. I thinks its a newer version... but hey, informative. Thanks you sir!

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