The Sony A7R and a Helios 85mm f2

This little review is done out of pure curiosity. The Russian made Helios Jupiter 85mm f2 is not known for it’s sharpness (Zeiss have nothing to worry about here), more for the unusual characteristics of the images it produces which I’ve found in the past to be unique. I’m not expecting much at all here so this should be good fun.

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

That magic bokeh is back!

 

For around £8 a NEX to M42 screw mount adaptor was ordered, and it’s pretty well made, with three allen key loosened grub screws to allow the fixed lens to be rotated so the top of the lens aligns with the camera. What this does for the alignment of the lens with the sensor plane is anyone’s guess but let’s not worry for now. There is no electronic contact between lens and camera so no EXIF data for the lens or aperture used. Obviously there’s no autofocus, apertures are set manually and forget image stabilisation.

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

On the A7R – this is about as heavy as it’s possible to go on the small A7R body without things feeling unbalanced (for me). The adaptor adjustment grub screws can be seen on the right hand side of the adaptor.

 

The lens is solidly made in metal and quite compact, but feels heavy (13 oz/374g). Minimum focus is around 75 cm (about 30 inches) and it shares a 49 mm filter thread with most Zuiko prime lenses. Focus from infinity to minimum distance takes around 270 degrees. The weight helps stabilise the camera/lens but there’s no image stabilisation (not invented when the lens was made!) so 160th of a second or shorter for hand-held shots is best.

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

Without the adaptor and front UV filter it’s quite small and ‘dense’. Controls from left to right – grip for screwing the lens on to the adaptor, the knurled focus ring, the ‘stop down the aperture to what’s been selected’ ring and the ‘set the desired aperture’ ring

 

The aperture blades maintain a circular shape at all apertures, and look quite different from most lenses. Rather than being matt black they appear to be bare metal which looks a bit ‘industrial’, just like the rest of the lens in fact. The ‘stop down’ nature of the lens means it’s best to leave the front aperture setting at f16 then just rotate the inner ring across the aperture range until things look good. This means you have no idea what aperture is being used. If you’re very patient you could do it correctly and set the aperture on the front ring then rotate the inner ring completely to the right. I’m not that patient.

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

Shiny and worn aperture blades maintain a circular shape at all apertures – no hexagonal out of focus points!

 

Focussing isn’t as easy as with the sharp, contrasty OM Zuiko lenses. The ‘focus peaking’ feature relies on image contrast to sprinkle the view finder with ‘in focus’ pixels, but as this lens isn’t too sharp and of low contrast it didn’t show much. With the ‘focus magnify’ focussing was much easier, but at the maximum ‘zoom in’ level you can actually see how soft the image is at maximum aperture. It’s very much like focussing a Lensbaby – there’s nothing really sharp ‘out there’ through the lens so just do the best you can. Combined with the extra care needed shooting with the A7R this combination means slow, deliberate photography.

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

Soft and dreamy – nice.

 

There’s a little vignetting wide open but only if you’re looking for it. Flare can be quite bad as the front element isn’t multicoated (it may not be coated at all). Contrast is low across the aperture range (images look terrible before post processing) so shoot in RAW and be prepared for some moderately serious post processing – all in a day’s work for MF lens users.

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

Nice smooth bokeh – lovely

 

If image sharpness or ease of use are your goals look elsewhere – very far away! This lens excels at producing soft ‘dreamy’ images at closer focussing distances with some very shallow depth of field and attractive bokeh. Traditionally used for portraits, these characteristics lend themselves to a few other subjects such as flower, food and ‘special effect’ photography.

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

At medium distances the edges of the frame can get quite ‘swirly’ – like a poor man’s Petzval lens.

This lens did quite well on a Canon 5D Mk2 and a 60D as the poor resolution wasn’t so mercilessly exposed on 20Mp and 18Mp sensors. It was however more difficult to focus through the optical viewfinders of these cameras so sort of a draw there. Using this lens is a huge waste of 36Mp of resolution (8Mp might be appropriate), but as the A7R is now my main camera, I’m not carrying another one just for this lens!

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

It’s rather good for ‘book cover’ type stuff.

 

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

At f2 and soft everywhere even the bits in focus – but it all sort of ‘works’

 

For tradition’s sake, let’s do a centre enlargement from a shot at f8 :-

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

The full image

 

Sony A7R, Helios Jupiter 85mm f2

The centre enlagement – forget the edges at all apertures. Not great – but – not what it was designed for.

 

So, is this a useful lens on a Sony A7R? For me it is, as my specialist market is book covers, and a ‘different’ look at the expense of sharpness can sometimes sell (this lens paid for itself in sales many times over on other cameras). For the narrow range of subjects it’s designed for its great (and cheap), for everything else it’s pretty useless. Despite it’s shortcomings I really like this lens – it’s got ‘character’.

Thanks for looking – hope you find this useful.

If you’re interested in using other MF lenses have a look at the other reviews on the film, camera and lens review index tab.

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9 thoughts on “The Sony A7R and a Helios 85mm f2

      • I’ve just had notification that it’s been dispatched, finally. There have been problems with Metabone’s manufacture keeping up with demand I believe. I’m now looking forward to giving it a try this weekend.

  1. Great with someone not all in for sharpness! There are other qualities to a photographic image, as you very clearly make your point.

    While testing mf lenses on several digital cameras – do you have any feeling that different sensors treat your lenses differently? I e does one particular sensor give better performance to one particular lens? What “better” stands for here I’m not so sure, but since I like your style of imaging, I would value your opinion.

    Elvira

    • Hi Elvira,

      IMHO, the most important factor with MF lenses isn’t the sensor but EFV/OVF, EFVs having a great advantage with focussing aids. The Oly EPL5/VF4 and Sony A7R produce sharper results because you can really nail the focus.

      After that I’d say in terms of sensor, cropped sensors have an advantage as they only use the centre of the image circle whilst full frame uses it all, complete with weaker edges. Hence the 60D’s sensor (if focus is correct) produced better results than the 5D MK2.

      The Oly EPL5 with a VF4 EVF is pretty good with it’s image stabilisation, but the A7R with it’s extra resolution and no anti-alias filter (the third factor) is the best camera I’ve used with MF lenses even if you need to be extra precise using it.

      I haven’t used one yet but the A7 MK2 with image stabilisation would I’d guess be the best all rounder at the cost of less resolution compared to the A7R. That is until the A7R MK2 with image stabilisation is available!

      Hope this helps

      Rob

      • Thank you for your interest. Resolution and sharpness are definitely an important aspect of image quality. I use a Fuji X-pro1 with manual lenses and with lots of practice I think I can sometimes nail my cat’s whiskers even with a 1.4 lens. Focus peaking and vew magnifier helps, but the orocess is slow. I never tried another mirrorless digital with manual focus, so I don’t know how the Fuji compares when it comes to focusing.

        But what about other qualities like colour, contrast, tonality etc? Those are not as readily trainable as focusing skills. Beside the Zuikos, which I really enjoy alot for all their imaging and portability advantages, I also have a set of Hexanon lenses. These are of equal build and optical quality, but quite different in character from the Zuikos. Especially the colours and tonality is outstanding with Hexanon, where I find Zuiko more soberly objective. The experience of these two species makes me suspect there might be similar quality differences between camera sensors in image rendering. Just like different films, i guess. And if so, the combination if lens characteristics and sensor ditto might have impact on the result.

        But maybe we are just overdoing the technical sides of Photography? Maybe what matters is what is behind the eye, not necessarily what we choose to use in front of it to see through…

        Elvira

      • Good point Elvira,

        I hadn’t considered those factors as I’ve never used anything but a fixed set of OM Zuikos, Vivitar (17mm) and a Helios (85mm) for MF digital (or film!).

        It’s fair to say that the Helios produces warmer results than the OMs which as you say are all ‘somberly objective’ (a good description). I’ve heard good things about Hexanon lenses but haven’t needed to buy any.

        From the perspective of a RAW only shooter who does lots of PP, the differences between various cameras with the same sensor size isn’t that great, with the exception of the A7R which produces large, detailed files which can be heavily PP’d without breaking down, especially pulling up shadow detail without creating noise.

        There must be differences between MF lens ranges but I guess they would be small relative to other factors such as :-

        How much PP is done – warm/cold colour casts are relatively easy to correct.
        How well exposure can be controlled – DSLR’s exposures are pretty inaccurate leaving less room for tonal adjustments etc.
        The DR of the RAW files and how malleable they are – dependent on sensor size and age.
        Sort of unrelated to this, but how accurately can focus be achieved – EVF focus aids are a huge advantage.

        What I guess would be significant between MF lens manufacturers would be flare, aperture shape (I don’t like hexagonal bokeh!) and build quality.

        Crikey this is a complex subject – I’m not sure that this reply hasn’t prompted more questions than answers in my head! I’ll need a good think about this….

  2. Back to this Helios post…

    I must admit I am slightly confused by the naming of this lens. You write about a Helios 85mm f2 lens right? I’m no near an expert on Russian optics, but the Helios 85 mms I’ve seen so far are all f1.5. The Jupiter 9 85 mm on the other hand I understand is f2. And here you have a Helios Jupiter…

    This is of no importance whatsoever, and I have no intention of bringing the subject to any correctness. Just confused, I admit that. No matter what lens you use, the resulting image is what counts and so far I very much appreciate the work I have seen here. I even give you credit for making me confused! You caught me there.

    Whatever name you give it, this is a magic lens. Russian, Greek or Roman.

    Elvira

    • Hi Elvira, I’m no expert on Russian lenses either!

      I always thought the names Jupiter/Helios were interchangeable but as you’ve pointed out, this link http://galactinus.net/vilva/retro/eos350d_jupiter-9.html may prove you’re correct. As the writing on the lens is in cyrillic I’ve no way of knowing (I bought mine in a second hand shop).

      As you say, it doesn’t matter too much – a 42mm screw mount 85mm f2 made in Russia is a Helios. Or a Jupiter. But very good whatever it’s called!

      Rob

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