Todays blogpost is a review of the Helios 44m 58mm f/2 lens. The last day I noticed that one of my photographer colleagues had in his studio an collection of antique cameras and one was an old Zenith with an Helios 44m 58mm f/2 attached on it. Although it was quite difficult to convince him to let me the lens but after I showed him on eBay that this lens is actually very cheap and not an object of ultra rare collectibles he agreed to lend it to me for some hours.
Helios (Russian: Ге́лиос) was a brand of camera lenses, made in the USSR. They were usually supplied with Zenit cameras and thus usable with other M42 lens mount cameras such as the Pentax. I quickly found out that there is a cult following for a lenses called Helios-44 and Helios-40. This are Russian-made lenses that essentially are derivatives of the Carl Zeiss Biotar optical formula.
And the only reason I was considering to buy one of this lenses was one thing, and one thing only: The swirley bokeh effect!
The lens was produced in the old Soviet Union by Jupiter among others from 1958 till 1992 and is one of most mass produced lenses in the world! Several companies made these lenses over several decades, in the millions of units, so they aren’t exactly rare. This means they are really inexpensive because they are so common. Although the production has since stopped, there are still millions of them around making it a very affordable alternative. The russian Hellios-44 is a copy of the Carl Zeiss Biotar 58mm. Although its naming might suggest otherwise, the Helios-44 is not a 44mm lens but a 58mm f2 lens.
Since I have the M42 to EOS adapter there was no problem to use it on the Canon
- compact (smaller than the Zeiss 50mm f1.4)
- interesting bokeh (depends it is louder than creamy, I hope you get it)
- inexpensive (for now, some years ago 10$ actually around 40$)
- easy to find (so true)
As all lenses that are based on the Biotar formula, the Helios-44 has an interesting twirling bookeh. The lens itself is also reasonably sharp when stopped down. The focal length of 58mm is a bit unusual but comes in handy for portraiture shots. The Helios 44 is also very much appreciated among artistic photographers who relish its bokeh and color rendition. Lomographers who actually won´t spend the money for the Lomography Petzval 85mm f/2.2 have with this lens an cheap alternative.
- flare prone (I like it)
- needs to be stopped down (depends)
- a bit heavy for its’ size (only if you are used to plastic)
- produces “glowing” images under sunny conditions (perfect since I love soft focus glowing images, Julia Margaret Cameron like)
The Helios-44 is a good lens in its price range without ever excelling. The Helios has serious issues under sunny condition. If you want to obtain super sharp images you really need to stop the lens down quiet a bit. I would recommend using a lens shade to minimize flare. (I Tested it with some spotlights)
The lens has, what is referred to as optical vignetting, meaning that out of focus “bokeh-balls” becomes more elipsoid as you move away from the center of the image. Also referred to, as “Cat-eye” effect, this phenomenon gives a pronounced feeling that the background “swirls” around the center focus subject. What really surprised me though, was all the other scenarios this lens was good for! The 58mm focuslength on a APS-C sensor turns into a 87mm FOV equivalent which makes it a really nice medium tele lens. For King I was very surprised at how well it is doing. And it does amazing with black and white photography. The lens is built like a tank! …the USSR-way!! This version was not very smooth in the focus ring perhaps because it was not used for some decades…
Using Manual Focus and Manual Aperture Lenses
Since I use manual focus only and sometimes manual aperture there was no real surprise. Instead of using a front or rear dial on the camera to choose your aperture, you grab a ring on the lens to change it by twisting it to the left or right.
Some of you reading this are unused to these type of lenses, but I highly recommend it.
Using the Manual Aperture Lens
The aperture ring could take some time to get used to it. The aperture ring on the front of the lens reads 16 on the left, then 11, 8, 5.6, 4, 2.8, and 2 as you turn to the right. Simply twist the dial to change the aperture.
Creating Swirly Bokeh with the Helios 44-2 lens
Finding the swirly sweet spot
Although he led me the lens for only some hours I took it with me while I was on a walk with king to find out how best to find the swirly spot. The day was not very ideal, with Fog and a sultry weather… I found out that when you shoot wide open at f/,2 close up to the subject, the background results in this beautiful swirly bokeh.