Windows For the Soul - Photography

Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42: is a 20€ lens a waste of money?

Is spending 20€ on an old lens a waste of money? This is a question that I had to consider before buying a crappy old Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version) and one that I still struggle to answer. Fortunately, 20€ is not worth much thought and it does not demand a proper and definitive answer. I took some time off for a couple of afternoons in the countryside, hoping to find some late summer butterflies. I carried my usual gear but I decided to also toss my extension tubes and my old Helios 44M 58mm in my backpack. There were hardly any butterflies to be seen but dragonflies and damselflies did not miss the call, so to speak.
This lens is said to afford exquisite swirling backgrounds and several examples can be found on Flickr. This alone would make those 20€ a ridiculous bargain but my experience, most likely due to my clumsiness, can only confirm that results with this lens are rather a hit-and-miss affair, and, even with a lot of effort and thoughtful management of settings, distance to subject, distance from subject to background and light conditions, I would dare say that this lens is, to be gentle, extremely unpredictable. Too often I am left with the feeling that a pleasing result is rather a matter of luck. Be that as it may, the fact is that, if I put in an extra effort, I sometimes come away with a few photos that I actually like. However, I can't help thinking that it is a lack of image quality that produces those results.
In the first three of photos below, I coupled the Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 with a Nikon D600.
Nikon D600, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), ISO 400, 1/160, f/2.

Nikon D600, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), ISO 640, 1/160, f/2.

Nikon D600, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), ISO 640, 1/160, f/2.

Experimenting with this lens in the macro photography genre, I coupled it with an extension tube. However, the blurred background was by no means extraordinary and the best I could get was the shot below, taking advantage of the dark background to hide the quite hideous out of focus background and the rather large maximum aperture to obtain a paper thin depth of field, highlighting the creature's eyes. However, as it is usual in my case, manually focusing was a real PITA even using the live view mode on the D600. I think I ought to pay a visit to my ophthalmologist one of these days.

Coming back to my initial question, is this 20€ old lens a waste of money? I am yet to figure it out…
Nikon D600, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), ISO 640, 1/160, f/2.

Looking back at a summer of odonatas photographed with different setups

This year, we had an odd summer around here. It seems to have been short on butterflies, with a particularly short number of zebra butterfly (Iphiclides feisthamelii) sightings and without a single monarch butterfly (danaus plexippus) to report. I believe that these last ones are quite uncommon on these latitudes, but I was starting to get used to seeing at least one every year. I do suppose that there is some sort of explanation for this, but I must confess I find it quite puzzling and a sign that I must try to learn more about these wonderful creatures. In September, unlike in previous years, I only saw a single praying mantis. On the other hand, this seems to have been a good year for Odonata - dragonflies and damselflies. Throughout the summer, I had plenty of opportunities to photograph these peculiar flying warriors and, as I have also made some buying and selling of gear in this period, I had the opportunity to shoot these creatures using different gear setups.

This is the first of two posts with dragonflies and damselflies as subjects. In this first one, I will look at a few photos captured with different lenses and cameras; on the second one, I will be posting some shots taken with an old 20€ crappy lens, the Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (the 8 blade version).

In this first set of photos different lenses were used with two cameras. In the first pair of shots the Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G was used with two different cameras: the D600 and the D700. I suppose that there is no argument as to which camera is the most capable of the two, as far as image quality is concerned. However, I really fancy the way that the D700 renders colours and I often tend to grab it first as my go to camera for every occasion just due to how much I like its handling.

Manually focusing this first backlit damselfly through the grass was a tricky task. Blurring the leaves in the foreground added this sort of dreamy look to the photo but called for manual focusing with the Micro 105mm.
Nikon D700, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 320, 1/160, f/4.

Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 1400, 1/3200, f/8.

For a different photo of the same dragonfly I used a manual focus Nikon 200mm f/4 AI-S, with a 20mm Kenko extension tube, on the D700. In the first shot I was expecting the dragonfly to move, hence the high shutter speed and, consequently, the cranked up ISO. This second photo was taken from the opposite side
Nikon D700, Nikon 200mm f/4 AI, ISO 400, 1/640, f/8, w/ extension tube.

The next set of photos demonstrate how a slight difference in the perspective can radically change the outcome. In the first shot, again with the Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G on the D600, shooting a slightly backlit dragonfly from a lower stance, exposing for the sky and with a higher f-stop number to ensure some depth-of-field produced a photo that captures just enough of the creature's environment whilst maintaining the focus on the odonata.
Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 200, 1/1600, f/11.

The next three photos also highlight the relevance of perspective by changing it whilst maintaining the subject and the pair camera/lens used. Changing the perspective achieves rather different photos of the same subject.
Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 100, 1/1400, f/4.5.

Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 100, 1/400, f/5.

Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 100, 1/400, f/5.

This combination of the D600 and the Micro 105mm is one of my favourite setups when I want to capture detail and strong colours on a photo. Furthermore, it is a very reliable combination in the sense that, given suitable conditions, it delivers consistent results with several photos that are hard to choose from. More often than not, though, I end up focusing manually by pre-focusing and adjusting my distance to the subject. As the lens tends to be a bit "nervous", on a windy day one can easily lose the focus on the odonata swinging in the wind and end up focusing on the background. Manually focusing is a way to avoid the nerve wrecking slow focus speed of the lens all the way from the distant background back to the creature. This amazing odonata below, however, was extremely cooperative, probably due to the fact that it was quite late in the day, already into the so-called golden hour, and there was hardly any wind.
Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 400, 1/500, f/4.

Finally, two more photos, shot using two lenses that one would not immediately think of for this type of photography. Like I said, sometimes, when the settings do not vary much, when the objects available are far from being out of the ordinary, the challenge is in trying to make the best of what one gets and in doing it by experimenting with the gear available. In the first shot, a rather boring "portrait" of a dragonfly, I tried to take advantage of the shadows and the highlights on the foliage in the background to achieve a dreamy effect.
Nikon D600, Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8 G, ISO 560, 1/3000, f/6.7, w/ extension tube.

I have been using a Nikon AF-S 300mm f/4D IF-ED a lot, lately, and I really like this lens. It has become my go to lens for those shots when there is some distance to the subject and a fast focusing lens is needed, such as nature photography (bird photography, basically) and pet action photography. However, it has also proved to be useful for smaller creatures whenever I intend to capture some of the environment surrounding the creature, as it was the case in this final photo of this post. Soon, I will be posting my some of my attempts to photograph dragonflies with a Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), an ancient lens that costed me less than a light meal.
Nikon D700, Nikon AF-S 300mm f/4D IF-ED, ISO 1400, 1/1250, f/6.3.