Greetings from Scotland! This is gonna be a long one… I’d suggest grabbing a coffee or six… but it should be worth the caffeine crash you’ll get later!
Adventures in Bokeh and Flare
This story begins many, many years ago, but let’s start a couple of weeks back.
Those of you who watch The Creation Wars (now MGAPXL – search for it on The Arcanum YouTube Channel) will remember that I spoke about Sony on the Camera Wars version of the show recently. Just a little before the broadcast I got an email from Beau Rogers who had seen that we shared a brand and emailed wishing me luck. We got talking as the show went on and he mentioned that he was playing with a cool lens on his camera and passed me a link to read about it.
So after a few hours rest following Camera Wars, I got back from the school run and sat down with some breakfast to read the lens article from Beau. Very interesting stuff, a lens with crazy bokeh and flare characteristics, and given the price was £20/$30 I thought “why not”.
I started Googling and Ebaying a bit, reading up on it… Found one or two I was considering buying. And then started to search for adapters etc. All pretty normal… and then something jumped out at me on one of the pages “Zenit” and bells started going off!
Let’s skip back a bit…
…a few years or so… The reason I am where I am photography wise is my granddad. Some of my earliest memories are sitting at my grandparents’ house, looking into a little handheld slide projector viewing his pics. I have vague recollections of him with a camera, but it’s mainly the slides I remember and I think his shots helped train my photographers eye. (From the slides I can tell he was rarely without a camera before I was born and maybe up until the late 80s/early 90s (Those boxes of slides were filled with images from around Scotland, over in Canada and more).
When he died a few years ago he left me a bit of money and I felt it was appropriate to spend that on a new camera (I was using a well-worn 450D at the time). So I bought the NEX-7 and began getting serious which led me to Stuck in Customs, the A7, The Arcanum and eventually you guys.
Anyway, when the family went round to do the house clearance after my granddad died I took away a handful of stuff. Silly little things like his old worn bike clip that held his trousers away from the chain, some old pottery that my wife would like, the slides from my childhood (so I could scan them), some old pictures and a shoe box which contained a couple of his old cameras, light meter etc. I took them because of the sentimental value more than anything else (the smell of the leather camera case reminds me of him) but figured I might try some film in the main body one day. An old late 60s, early 70s body it was and I stored it away in a cupboard for a couple of years.
Back to last week and that word… Zenit… I was sure that was the brand from the 70s body. So off I headed upstairs, raked through to the shoebox in the cupboard and opened the case. Inside was a Zenit-B. And mounted to the front was the very lens that Beau had been talking about a Helios 44-2 58mm F2!
For those lens junkies out there, this lens is based on a pre-WW2 Carl Zeiss Biotar (they now call them Planars). Helios (Russian company) ended up being able to use the patent and it was attached to a large number of bodies in the late 60s, through the 70s. It’s built like a tank (full metal) but the large number of them made keeps the cost down nowadays. (The best models are made by their KMZ factory, in the earlier years. Mine is a KMZ from 73 which was a good sign).
Anyways. I ordered an M42 (screw) mount to NEX/e-mount adapter from eBay for £5/$10 and waited…
…while waiting I decided to do a little digging. Surely if this was “the” lens then some of the effects would show up in those old pics I had from my granddad? I went raking through the scans and found one where there was a little evidence but it seems his style was very much larger aperture and landscape which doesn’t show it so well. And then something crazy cool happened. I found a picture of a landscape in Scotland which jumped out at me. It was a familiar looking cliff.
Back in December on a trip to the Isle of Skye in Scotland I randomly stopped and took a pic of the very same cliff…standing in pretty much the same location as my granddad had, 40 years before. The only significant composition difference was my wider lens vs his! I cannot explain how this felt to discover. Really, totally, mad but good.
So the adapter arrived and I cleaned up the lens (It’s super cool. There is a screw ring at the front and back of it which you remove and then all the glass can be removed and cleaned). There is a very minor mark on the front element but it doesn’t impact image quality. So I went out and played a few times…
On the first trip, it was an overcast day, so I experimented with overall image quality and bokeh. On the second it was some street-ish photography around Edinburgh, Scotland and then that evening, in the sun with some flares. Overall it’s been super fun….very creatively inspiring actually. I’ve been surprised at how easy manual focus and aperture have been to use (focus peaking in the A7 is awesome) and I really like the overall look of the lens. I’ve worked out a processing flow that gets nice contrasty images and the bokeh and flare are exactly what I wanted. I know they are not going to be to the taste of everyone, but that’s fine by me!
Since this article was first published I’ve had the Zenit serviced and started to dabble in 35mm film. The second roll is in progress however the first proved that everything was functional which is always good. Below are a couple of images from that test roll as I traveled around Scotland last year. I’ve also been on a quest to get as many people to use the 44-2 as possible. One even landed with Travel Obscura’s main man, A.D. Wheeler a few months back. I look forward to seeing what he does with it!
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