The spot as the ultimate Soviet legend can only be filled by one pit would be the HELIOS-40 1.5/85. What this lens can do in the right conditions, blows everything else out of the water – vintage or modern. It’s swirly bokeh is very inspiring, and it doesn’t take many searches on Google to realize what you have been missing.
It is somewhat difficult to pinpoint the exact production dates of the Helios-40 and Helios-40-2, however there is a few giveaways hinting on their age. They started the production in the mid 1950s and continued to the early 1990s. The lenses made during that period has a built in tripod mount. The silver finish edition (-40 Version) carries the M39 Mount which can be easily adapted to M42, while the (40-2 version) was available in black.
Its not known to be a sharp lens, to be honest, quite the opposite when used wide open. The published MTF/resolution (Allphotolenses.com) also witness on this, showing a dive in resolution taking speed some 10-12mm from the center of the lens.
Moving away from sharpness and onto Bokeh, WOW.. who cares about its sharpness, this lens is all about bokeh. If you haven’t figured it out yet, then let me spell it out for you, the only real reason to own this lens is the bokeh when shot wide open for portraits. Soft corners is desirable in many of such shoots, and they work really well with the vignetting which serves to emphasize the subject in the middle of the frame. This also impares on how you should use this lens composition wise. It is usually not best practice putting your subject dead center of the frame, but with this lens it is advisable. For me the workflow is putting the subject in the sharpest part of the frame, then focusing on bokeh making the swirl to be centered on the subject, the rest is cropping to my delight.
Its not a cheap piece of glass, and prices has gone up dramatically as this lens has developed something of a cult following. The glass currently sells for 500$, but rest asure that the price hasn’t peaked anytime soon, the value will continue up even though the KMZ factory has put the lens back into production. Judging from all evidence it seems to be a lens after the same recipe they used in the 1950s, the colors, bokeh and sharpness is as the old version.
This heavy lens is not for the faint hearted, nor for people with small hands as it is big and heavy, you might argue that its built like a tank, but rather like a grenade. It is not a easy choice of glass to use, its has an awkward pre-set stop down metering system with two aperture setting rings that takes some getting used to; combined with a rather narrow focusing ring near the back is this not a choice for the new shooter.
My edition of the Helios-40 85mm/f1.5 is the early produced silver edition. It has a M39 screw mount, but is retrofitted with the M39-M42 adapter ring and fine adjusted. allowing for focusing in full range, including infinity. Its a marvel of a lens, which can be used on my Digital Sony A99II as well as many other platforms.