Old school Soviet-style lenses: great results, budget price

Written by George Shaw

Replay: How can you get professional results on a kit lens budget? A visit to eBay and the Cold War can help.                                             

Helios 44 lensOne of the many Helios 44 lenses available on eBay for surprisingly small amounts of money

If you look on eBay for Helios and Jupiter lenses, you will find a host of old school manual lenses that were made during the heady days of the Soviet Union decades ago, and these lenses can give top quality professional results for a stunningly cheap price.

Found for anywhere from $5 to $400, these Helios and Jupiter prime lenses usually come with a manual focus and extremely fast f-stop to create a delicious bokeh that will make any portrait photographer or magazine editor drool over.

You can find them in a variety of mounts including from Canon to Contax to Nikon and Pentax, but there's also many micro four thirds offerings as well. I found a full frame HELIOS 44-M-4 EF mount for $46 and it had an anamorphic effect with the iconic oval diaphragm as well.

The aperture and the focus settings are built with tightly fitting gear wheels, and the glass has been described as rivalling the finest German quality optics. If you're shooting photography, the clicking of the mechanical lens is not a big deal, but if you're looking for a nice lens to shoot your short film or feature, then you'll have to have them “declicked” in order to make the focusing smooth and quiet.

Photographers often complain that focusing these old Soviet-style lenses can be a bit of a hassle, especially if you're pulling focus through an optical viewfinder. Some have even resorted to getting a split prism focusing screen installed in their cameras , going with a focus magnification feature in some cameras to get in tight and make sure your subject is sharp. But using a mirrorless micro four thirds camera with an electric viewfinder makes the manual focus not only easy, but the focus can be done in a snap.

The other issue is that these old school lenses tended to invite lens flare, so you have to consider using a matte box or lens hood to keep any stray rays of light at bay, unless you are indulging your inner J.J. Abrams.

The point is, as a photographer, it pays to think outside the box, expand your vision of what's out there and available. That's the beauty of eBay, it has just about everything. Of course, the downside of eBay, especially when you're buying from overseas, is that it can take a long time for something to arrive and the journey can be fraught with peril. So it pays to make sure your purchase is insured.

If eBay is a bit of a gamble for you, Amazon has also been known to carry these old school lenses and the price is relatively in the same ballpark. I rather prefer shopping via Amazon because when something goes wrong, they're always there to provide customer service and usually a fast refund.

So look to the past for your next lens and experiment. You'll be glad you did.

Tags: Production

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