On my last trip to Egypt I befriended a couple of local shop owners in Cairo. One of these guys owns a jewelry and antiques shop which also happens to stock a small stash of old cameras. Amongst those cameras I found two Russian lens: a MIR-1 37mm f/2.8 and a Zenit Helios 44-6M 58mm f/2. For the most part, the condition of both lenses is excellent with only a thick layer of external dust needing to be cleaned.
When I returned home, I ordered an M42-to-E-mount adapter so I could fit the lenses to my A7RII.
Here are some photos of the lenses. I shot these setups with a Sony NEX-5T my Dad recently gave me. Adapted to that body I used an old Nikon Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 lens (270mm equiv. focal length on APS-C).
So, how are they? Well, they’re built like little Russian tanks. All-metal construction lends to a dense, well-made feel in hand. Ultimately, though, it’s the optics that interest me the most. Both the MIR and the Zenit Helios are noted for the way they render swirly bokeh in the out of focus areas. I’m pretty touchy when it comes to that look. It either works or it doesn’t. When it’s good, it adds an interesting, painterly look to the image. When it doesn’t, it just looks like drunk vision (see how I tied that in with the title of the post? ::pats own head:: )
The optics of the MIR 37mm didn’t thrill me quite as much as I was hoping considering this is very nearly a clone of the old Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35mm f/2.8. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad lens. I found this MIR to be acceptably sharp and reasonably contrasty but it didn’t come across as anything super special. When I compare it to the results from my Minolta Rokkor 35mm f/2.8, or Konica Hexanon 35mm f/2.8 or Vivitar 35mm f/1.9, it doesn’t quite share space at the podium. I found the preset aperture ring to be a bit cludgy too and by cludgy I mean stiff and difficult to coordinate with the actual aperture ring. On my other preset lenses, this process is smooth and straightforward. I think I’ll need to tear into that part of the lens to see if maybe it’s not some old dried up borscht in there causing the fuss.
Here are some shots from around the house that I made with the MIR lens:
(I did some creative processing on a few of these… obviously)
Shot at f/8. Not bad looking when stopped down. I’ll admit it does have a nice pop to it.
Shot wide open at f/2.8. Swirly bokeh much? I can’t decide if it’s interesting or distracting. I prefer the kind of swirly bokeh seen from longer focal length lenses; the background gets enlarged/compressed leaving you with a more painted-in looking, interesting out of focus area. With this 37mm it looks like a few too many vodkas were had.
Shot wide open at f/2.8. I went for a wet plate look with this shot. Each to their own taste; I really like the way this one turned out. That swirly bokeh lent to an old equipment look that I just pushed further with some color grading and a few trick layers. Please read all of that as: “Tom missed his focus a little bit but liked the shot enough to hide the mistake with massive over-processing”. Just being fer reelz.
Shot at f/4. A nice balance of sharpness with a smooth transition out of focus.
Next up are some images shot with the very nice Zenit Helios 44-6M 58mm f/2.
I feel like this lens has a much more appealing look than the MIR. Wide open, it is very sharp in the center, beautifully washing into a smooth, moody out of focus background that isn’t at all distracting. I tried explaining these differences to the hound but he just couldn’t even pretend to be interested.
Shot at f/2
Shot at f/4. Chester, the Rhinosapuss, couldn’t be bothered to inspect this lens as he usually insists. Though he did mumble some threats of violence if I fail again to use the silent shutter mode on the camera while he’s napping.
Shot at f/2. Squishy Bear making coffee for me in her playhouse.
Shot at f/2. Here you can see the swirly bokeh this lens is specially noted for. In this shot, I don’t mind it. The subject/background separation is strong enough that the in-focus area is commanding enough to be dominant in the image. That additional 21mm focal length above the MIR’s 37mm focal length is just enough to give this 58mm Helios the motivation it needs to replace the vodka with a painter’s brush. It has just enough depth of field compression to compliment a centered portrait set atop the strokes of a lovely, swirly background.
Shot at f/8. This image shows just how sharp this lens can get when stopped down. The full-res image is mercilessly sharp.
Shot at f/2. Like a BAWWssss! My boy pitching some laid-back tough-guy biker poses for the camera but I couldn’t get that tell-all smile to go away. This is another example where the swirly bokeh is appealing to me.
Shot at f/2. Another example of the excellent wide-open sharpness of this lens and the dynamic range of the A7RII. The unedited RAW file renders the inside of that plastic telescope as completely black. A local push in exposure shows just how much data exists in the deep shadows, revealing the shape of the sidewalls inside the barrel of the telescope and the eye peeking through at the far end.
Shot at f/2. This final image was a test for contrast loss when the lens is pointed directly into VERY bright light. Surprisingly, it handled it with flying colors. All the speckles of light punching through the space between the leaves is rendered in a satisfying way, with little bokeh balls being the net result in the image.
If you can’t tell, I prefer the Zenit Helios over the MIR. I’m sure I’ll fiddle around with the MIR but I can’t ever see myself using it as a serious lens when I need one to cover that focal length. The Zenit Helios I can definitely recommend. The particular series I have is the less-old 44-M6. From what I’ve read, the older 44-M1 or 44M-2 are the ones people most often look for as it tends to have a stronger swirly bokeh. For me, I find the more reserved look from the 44-M6 to be just about right. No getting drunk at my house.