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Thursday
Jan142010

Helios 35mm F/2.8 M42 SLR Lens Review (On Canon EOS 350d / Digital Rebel XT)



It's time for another of my "sort of" lens reviews. I say that because it isn't like the kind of article you'll find on dpreview. I don't test for distortion, sharpness or contrast. I simply go for a walk with the lens on the front of my Canon EOS 350d / Digital Rebel XT and take some photos of scenes I find interesting. When I'm back home I'll process them in Adobe Camera RAW, Photoshop, and Nik Silver Efex Pro for the black and white conversions.

I'm a believer in the saying that 99% of all lenses are better than 95% of all photographers, and that these cheap old M42 mount lenses are a good alternative for the photographer on a budget. You may have to buy a mount adapter for a couple of quid and manually focus, but the use of a prime improves your photography because you've got to move around a lot more, instead of staying rooted to the same spot and "zooming" to change your composition.

Fort Brockhurst, Bridge To Keep Gate
Fort Brockhurst, Bridge To Keep Gate
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The Helios 35mm f/2.8 is an interesting focal length. In a dSLR with a crop sensor, like my 350d, the 35mm equivalent is about 52mm - very close to what could be considered a "standard" lens that gives a natural looking perspective to your images.

As I said in the video I actually found manually focussing a little difficult when I went out to take these images. Perhaps it was the overcast, low-light day, or maybe my eyes were a little tired, but if you rely on the method of "rolling" out and into focus, you should be fine.

Snowy Path, Monks Walk Woods
Snowy Path, Monks Walk Woods
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A big benefit to these lenses is their price. I think I got this one for a few pounds on the front of a Zenit film SLR - so when I'm out in conditions where it's cold and wet, I'd rather have an accident with this on the front of my camera rather than my more expensive Canon EF lenses.

Apart from having to use manual focus, the biggest drawback is if you go out with a mixture of M42 / EF lenses. It's quick and easy enough to unscrew the m42 lens from the mount when its on the camera, swap the rear lens caps and fit a new lens. The trickier proposition is if you're going from an m42 lens to an EF mount, because you can't fit a rear cap on an m42 lens if its still got the adapter attached (or fit it into a lens case). You've got to unscrew the adapter and store it in your bag. Until you need it again - so even if you got an adapter for every m42 lens you'd still be standing there unscrewing stuff while the wind and rain were blowing.

Buildings Near Explosion Museum
Buildings Near Explosion Museum
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On Canon dSLRs you can shoot in aperture priority, the camera will sense the light coming into the camera, and set a suitable shutter speed. So all you have to do is choose you aperture, focus and shoot.

Because the lens will be "stopped down" to whatever aperture you've chosen all the time (unlike a modern lens where it automatically is wide-open until you press the shutter), the viewfinder can be quite dark. Get around this by focussing at f.2.8, then stop down to the aperture you want, keeping an eye on the shutter speed as you do so.

Trunk Detail, Monks Walk
Trunk Detail, Monks Walk
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I got most of my m42 lenses from local car boot sales, often on the front of old film slrs. I always take a macro extension tube with me so I know that the thread on the lens is the right pitch - there are some rarer lens mounts that look similar but actually won't fit on the m42-ef lens mount adapter.

Another consideration is if you're shooting with a full frame sensor camera. If you are, there's a chance that your camera mirror could catch on the rear of the lens when its focussed to infinity. Check out this article for details.

Converted Garages, Priddys Hard
Converted Garages, Priddys Hard
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If you're used to using auto-focus lenses or cameras all the time, don't worry about having to suddenly start manually focussing. You'll get the hang of it quickly, and you're not tethered to the cameras auto-focus points which can force you to "focus and recompose".

If it's a brighter day you can also use the old "f/8 and be there" maxim. Just set your aperture to f/8, focus on something not too far away (about 15 feet), then simply forget about focussing. Your depth of field will be such that most things will be sharp anyway.

Central Caponier, Fort Brockhurst
Central Caponier, Fort Brockhurst
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I've really enjoyed shooting with the 35mm f2.8 Helios. It may not be the sharpest in the world, but the focus ring is smooth, it seems very tough, and takes good enough photographs for me. Have a look at the images on this page, click on the links to take you over to Flickr to look at the larger versions, and if you like what you see, grab a Helios 35mm if you see one going cheap!

Brick Detail, Priddys Hard Sailing Club
Brick Detail, Priddys Hard Sailing Club
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Cheers, Rob.

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