Sunday, May 7, 2017

Magical Combo: Helios 44-2 f/2 58mm lens & Fujifilm X-E1

No. 844, American Locomotive Company - Ogden, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1 & Helios 44-2.
I didn't grow up in the digital age. Film was king when I started out in photography, and it would continue to be for several years to come (I know, I'm showing my age here). My first "real" camera was a Canon AE-1 35mm SLR, purchased a dozen or so years before I ever owned a digital camera. I really loved film photography.

Nowadays almost everything is digital. Yes, film photography is making a comeback, but it is a niche product and will remain so. It's too slow, expensive and inconvenient for most people to rely on, myself included. I still dabble in film sometimes for fun and aesthetics, but 99% of the time I'm shooting digital.

Using film and film gear is a completely different experience than digital photography. And it should not surprise anyone that the outcome is different, too. Pictures made with film and film gear look different than digital images. It's a look that I appreciate. I try to mimic it as best as the software I use will allow. I can get close, but it's rare that I feel like I ever really achieve it.

Recently I have discovered a digital camera and lens combination that gives me an experience and outcome that is as close as I've ever come to using film. The camera is a Fujifilm X-E1 and the lens is a Helios 44-2 f/2 58mm.
Helios 44-2 & Fujifilm X-E1
I had always heard great things about Fujifilm X series cameras since the day they came out. I didn't have an opportunity to own one until last summer when I purchased a four-year-old gently used X-E1. Then I wondered why I had waited so long to buy it! The camera gave me the experience that I'd always hoped for in digital photography but never found. I love the camera's design and the images it produces.

As much as I love the camera, one weak spot for me is the lens. I had the "kit" 18-55mm lens that came with the camera, which is actually a pretty good lens--noticeably better than other kit lenses from other brands--but it just wasn't getting me the look that I desired. I wanted to buy a different lens, but, you know, they can be very expensive.

This also made me look at other vintage lenses that could be found for cheap. I began buying adapters for different mounts. It was a lot of fun to do this, and I found a number of different lenses that I really like using. Over the last few months and especially the last few weeks, I've taken a look at what images were captured with what glass, and what I liked and didn't like and so forth, and the one lens that stood out as a favorite for how it makes my pictures look is the Helios 44-2.
Helios 44-2 & Zenit-E
What makes the Helios lens so good? It's actually a Zeiss Jena Biotar f/2 58mm lens from the 1930's that the Soviet Union reverse-engineered. My particular model was manufactured in the 1970's, although you can actually find ones that are much newer than that. It has 8 blades in 6 elements and can focus as close as 19". The 58mm lens provides an equivalent focal length (because of the crop factor) of 87mm on the X-E1.

The Helios 44-2 has flaws, and it's the flaws the give character to the photographs, something missing in today's precision-engineered digital age. The lens is tack sharp in the center, but a little soft in the corners. The lens will create some crazy lens flare (and not your typical lens flare, but something more atmospheric) when pointed towards the sun. Probably the most well-known flaw in the lens design is that, when the conditions are just right, the bokeh becomes swirly. Speaking of bokeh, it's pretty fantastic on this lens, whether swirly or not.

The Helios 44-2 would be great combined with any camera, but what makes it "magical" (as I called it in the title) when paired with the X-E1 are two things: camera design and image quality. Fujifilm designed the camera to be like an old-school film rangefinder. You can operate the camera in full manual mode with knobs and controls exactly where you would want them to be. If you didn't know it was a digital camera you might suspect that it wasn't. It's perfect for attaching vintage glass to it.
Alco Steam Locomotive - Ogden, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1 & Helios 44-2.
The photographs--yes, specifically the camera-made JPEGs--produced by this camera look great! The dynamic-range and film simulation options make pictures that look much more like post-processed RAW files than typical out-of-camera JPEGs. The camera makes pictures with more of a film quality than what I've seen from other digital cameras.

The Helios 44-2 f/2 58mm lens attached to the Fujifilm X-E1 is the closest thing I've found in the digital age to shooting film with old-school film gear. It creates fantastic photographs--I just love the look of the images!

In a way it's the best of both worlds: the look and experience of shooting film with the convenience of digital capture. While I'm looking forward to the upcoming X-E3 this fall, which will offer higher resolution and a couple different film simulation options, the nearly five-year-old X-E1 is a joy to use and I couldn't be happier with it. Especially when paired with a vintage lens like the Helios 44-2. Below are some photographs that I've captured with this camera and lens combination.

Bison In The Road - Antelope Island State Park, Utah
Ice on Antelope Island - Antelope Island State Park, Utah
X-844 - Ogden, Utah
1216 - Ogden, Utah

Tricycle In The Woods - South Weber, Utah
Union Pacific 1957 - Ogden, Utah
Pacific - Ogden, Utah
Cold Calling - Salt Lake City, Utah

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