A few years ago, I came across mesmerising portraits which feature bokeh unlike anything I had ever seen. It was such a dreamy, fairytale effect. I did some research and found that most of these images were taken with vintage lenses mounted on modern-day DSLRs. The results were incredible.
I found that there was a popular mass-produced Russian lens from the Soviet era, which had set out to emulate a famous Zeiss lens. The lens I settled upon for myself was a Helios 58mm F2 44-2. These are still fairly widely available, costing anywhere from £20-£80 at sites such as Ebay, Amazon and other specialist providers. There is even a market for modified and modernised vintage lenses, one of my favourites being The Bokeh Factory.
I ordered my lens along with a Canon EF adapter from Etsy, and waited for it to arrive. Taking it out of the box, it was very small, light and looked like a toy. I was worried. I knew it wasn’t as large and well made as modern lenses, but it didn’t look like I should even attempt to mount it to my DSLR. But I thought “I’ve come this far, so here goes”.
Shooting with manual settings is something I regularly do, so I wasn’t too concerned. But manual focus, that’s a different beast. I was used to lazily relying upon super fast AF to lock on to my subject and deliver razor-sharp results. Manual focussing was awkward and I had to unlearn my instincts to half-press, or shift my focal point with a handy thumbstick.
I was up for the challenge though. It felt like I was doing photography properly, like it was a right of passage. I thought of all the photographic greats, working within the constraints of much older equipment, thinking about the shot and mastering the camera and lens to get the perfect image. Well, I almost was. Another benefit of modern DSLRs is manual focus assist, which definitely helps!
Once I was comfortable with the lens, adapted how I would use my camera and had taken a few test shots, it was time to get swirly. Was I about to find out that the results I had seen were purely down to a lot of post-production and my little Helios was a useless relic? In a word, no. It was the real deal. It was hard work, and the light bleed would render some images unusable if you didn’t pay attention to it. Additionally, practising on moving cats probably made it more difficult than it needed to be! But the results were otherworldly.
So whilst I love the performance of my super-fast primes and telephoto lenses, this little vintage lens can take shots that they can only dream of. Just be prepared to have to put a lot more work in than you’re used to, if like me you live in the comfortable and forgiving world of modern DSLRs!