|Sean Carpenter | profile | all galleries >> Equipment >> the Normal Lens Shootout >> Round 1 >> Match 1: (1) SMC Pentax-A 1:1.2 50mm vs. (16) KMZ Helios 44M-4 1:2 58mm||tree view | thumbnails | slideshow|
This is the first match in the Normal Lens Shootout - the super-wide aperture SMC Pentax-A 1:1.2 50mm against the former-Soviet KMZ Helios 44M-4 1:2 58mm
Both of these lenses originated at roughly the same time; the Helios 44M-4 started production in about 1982 and the Pentax-A 50/1.2 two years later. As such, they are both made of metal, glass, and rubber - the only plastic on them is the lens caps! Both lenses feel well-made, sturdy and secure. They have long, smooth focus throws, although the Helios 44M-4 is a bit too stiff. The Helios 44M-4's vulcanized rubber scallopped grip doesn't have the same fine feel of the Pentax-A 50/1.2.
The Pentax-A 50/1.2 has 9 aperture blades compared to the Helios 44M-4's 6. Both are straight, not curved, blades. Some Pentax 50/1.2s have asymmetrical aperture blades but mine is fine in this regard.
Size & Weight
The Pentax-A 50/1.2 is slightly heavier than the Helios 44M-4 at 345g vs. 290g. While there is impressively more glass on the Pentax-A 50/1.2, they both feel substantial and balance nicely on both the K10D and *ist DS.
Conveniently for this comparison, both have 52mm front threads.
The Helios 44M-4 lacks even an auto/manual switch, making it slightly less convenient than a normal M42 lens. Thankfully I have a modified adapter allowing me to use auto-aperture M42 lenses in stopped-down mode on my cameras, but the lens is thus restricted to a single adapter.
The Pentax-A 50/1.2 allows all 'auto' features of both the K10D and the *ist DS (except - obviously - focus) and is therefore much easier to use on those cameras. Simply being able to dial in exposure compensation via the e-dials is alone important enough to give the edge to the Pentax-A 50/1.2 in this regard.
Side view of both the KMZ Helios 44M-4, left, and the SMC Pentax-A 1:1.2 50mm, right.
This 100% crop (click on the photo for the full-size version), taken at f/4 by the Pentax-A 50/1.2, shows good sharpness even at wide-ish apertures.
While both of these lenses are acceptably sharp at all apertures, when compared at comparable f-stops, the Pentax-A 50/1.2 has a slight edge. Neither the Pentax-A 50/1.2 nor the Helios 44M-4 leaves anything to be desired as far as sharpness goes.
The Helios 44M-4 renders out-of-focus areas, if not outright attractively at all apertures, at least surprisingly neutral. Shooting the Helios 44M-4 at f/2 can lead to semi-circular bright rings around specular highlights, and at f/4 and smaller the 6 aperture blades are clearly visible. Yet the Helios renders a smooth focus-to-out-of-focus transition and low-contrast scenes render pleasantly with both foreground and background bokeh.
The Pentax-A 50/1.2, by comparison, has a distinctively pleasant bokeh at f/2 and smaller apertures. Even at f/1.2 the Pentax-A 50/1.2 is less prone to bright rings and the axial color that is a hallmark of Pentax lenses.
The Pentax-A 50/1.2 does suffer more from purple fringing on slightly out-of-focus objects than on those in the plane of focus, which can be a problem in difficult high-contrast subjects This is a small enough percentage of situations that it rarely will show in 'normal' shooting conditions.
The Pentax-A 50/1.2 shows very slight purple fringing at f/2 that trends upwards as you move towards f/1.2. I have found the focus point to be critical in this regard - a front- or back-focused image will display more purple fringing than a focused shot on the same subject.
The Helios 44M-4, impressively, is virtually free from purple fringing at any aperture.
Rendering bright highlights can be problematic for many lenses. For out-of-focus highlights, both the Pentax-A 50/1.2 and the Helios 44M-4 perform well at f/4 and smaller. At f/2 the edge goes cleanly to the Pentax-A 50/1.2 (which at f/2 is one-and-a-half stops down from maximum aperture) and the Pentax-A 50/1.2 performs decently even at f/1.2.
The Pentax-A 50/1.2's 9 aperture blades promote a more circular and less noticeable shape than do the 6 for the Helios 44M-4.
Looking at in-focus highlights shows a much more pleasant pattern in the Pentax-A 50/1.2 than in the Helios 44M-4.
Both the Pentax-A 50/1.2 and the Helios 44M-4 focus to similar magnification. Neither is useful for macro work without extension tubes.
At widest apertures, the Pentax-A 50/1.2 is one-and-a-half stops faster than the Helios 44M-4. Even with shake reduction, high ISO, and a relatively shallow focus plane, I still find it comforting that I can shoot between f/1.2 and f/1.8 in really low light. This is obviously impossible for the Helios 44M-4, although it should be noted that because the Helios 44M-4 is sharp at f/2, it certainly is usable at that aperture.
The Pentax-A 50/1.2 also has the acclaimed 'SMC' coatings, which lead to greater light transmission than the lesser coatings on the Helios 44M-4.
The 6 aperture blades of the Helios 44M-4 can make specular highlights more noticeable as in this 100% crop.
I honestly mis-judged the quality of the KMZ Helios 44M-4 1:2 58mm by ranking it at number 16 in this Challenge. It is a sharp lens at all apertures, is impressively free from purple fringing, and has a decent bokeh for most situations. Sometimes the bokeh can resemble that seen in Nikon lenses, which you may like or dislike, but in most scenes the Helios 44M-4 renders smooth transitions and creamy blur.
The SMC Pentax-A 1:1.2 50mm is a super-fast, high-quality optic that in my opinion justifies its relatively steep price on the basis of its many pleasant rendering characteristics. Notably, it is sharper than usually given credit for, and has a nicely smoothed bokeh across its aperture range. The small amount of purple fringing is not a big concern in most situations and only at very wide apertures.
The Pentax-A 50/1.2 simply does everything well, and with its super-fast aperture it does things that most lenses can't.
While surprised by the quality of the inexpensive Helios 44M-4, the overall quality of the Pentax-A 50/1.2 makes it the winner of this Normal Lens Shootout match. For some, the price of each lens may be a factor; a good condition Helios 44M-4 is usually available for US$10 or less, whereas a similar-condition Pentax-A 50/1.2 can be more than US$400.