In this article I would like to talk about my experiences with the Helios 44(-1) 58mm f/2.
I will, of course, share pictures with you, talk about its perks as well as the quirks I found so far and will keep this article updated when something new comes to mind.
It’s not a 44-2 after all
I would like to start with some general information about the Helios 44-2 “zebra” that I have. Wait, why is the 2 marked in red? *sigh*
First of, I just realized that I do NOT have the 44-2 version! It was sold on eBay as a Helios 44-2 and I never questioned this, because it looks exactly like the “zebra” on this collection of information about the Helios lenses here.
When you scroll down to the Helios 44-2 “zebra”, however, you will find a little note that says “same barrel as MMZ version of 44(-1)“. Looking at my lens a little closer I had to realize that there is no Helios 44-2 engraved on the front barrel, for it simply says Helios 44. The thing that gives it away as a first generation lens, though, is the fact that it’s an M39 version with adapter ring to M42.
Therefore, I have one of the last Helios 44(-1) lenses that were produced sometime in 1970. Mine has the serial number N°7046333 and was assembled in the MMZ factory in Belomo.
Now that this has been settled let’s move on to the lens itself, because I think that it doesn’t really make much of a difference. (Of course I will try to get an actual Helios 44-2 just to make certain.)
The Helios 44-series originated in the USSR and the unusual specs (among “standard primes” for cameras using 135 film which usually featured a 50mm focal length with an f/1.4 or f/1.8 aperture.) quickly give away the fact that this lens is a copy of the famous Zeiss Biotar design which also sports 58mm and an f/2 pre-set aperture.
The Helios 44-series is famous for its optical flaws. Being a blunt copy of the Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f/2 it also comes with the same problem that is the so-called “swirley bokeh” caused by strong vignetting inside the lens barrel.
This results in the out of focus highlights (bokeh balls) to not be round at all. In addition, due to this effect getting stronger toward the image borders, the bokeh balls look as if they were circling/swirling around the center.
This image nicely shows the swirly bokeh around the center:
The lens itself
As you might imagine, this lens is built like a tank and will most likely still be there when everyone else on the planet has perished.
I got the “zebra” version because I like its look with the white/red markings instead of the typical green ones on other Helios lenses. The “zebra” design gives another hint at how blatantly the Russians were copying from Zeiss. When you look at my Carl Zeiss Jena lenses, that do also feature the “zebra” design, you cannot deny the similarity.
A few things to note
- my lens comes in M39 screw mount and I got it with an M39-M42 adapter installed. Therefore I am using an M42-EOS adapter with AF-confirm chip. The chip helps a lot with using this lens, firstly because the camera beeps when your subject is in focus and more importantly because you always meter the scene wide open and that’s where the second perk/quirk of the lens comes in:
- the aperture is semi-automatic, which means that you can set your desired aperture with the first ring while not actually closing down the iris yet. In a second step you perform your usual routine, you meter your subject, you compose and focus and, when you are ready to take the shot, you close the aperture with a swift turn of the second ring. (in the image above you see, from top to bottom, the first ring to pre-set the aperture, then, right below that, the second ring that actually moves the aperture blades, and below the DOF-markings you see the focusing ring made of metal with the zebra-markings for improved grip.)
- My lens doesn’t focus to infinity (at infinity the focal plane is only a few meters away) and the markings are off (90° clockwise, when looking at the front element). I only realized that when I unpacked my stuff after flying to the UK. I have to investigate this further, because it sucks.
Handling of the Helios and some impressions
Taking pictures with this lens on my DSLR took some getting used to but I really love it. Working with the pre-set aperture could be really tricky for someone who’s always changing the aperture settings while shooting. As you know by now, I buy fast lenses to use them wide open, therefore I rarely go smaller than f/2.8.
The Helios is perfect in this regard, because you either set the aperture to f/2 and just shoot away, or you set it to f/2.8 (one stop) and the only thing you have to do in between shots is to open it and close it again after metering using the iris-ring.
I tried the lens for some landscape/architectural pictures, but the limited focus (cannot focus to infinity) was a pita.
This shot at 100% looks terrible, because nothing is in focus. But I really liked how it turned out with the colors and its analog-look. Processed, as are all my images shot with vintage glass, with VSCO presets. I set the aperture to f/8 to get more DOF but it obviously wasn’t enough for this scenery. View from the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.
This one here worked, because I didn’t focus to infinity. The Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.
And this image was shot at f/8 and to my surprise turned out amazing. It’s tack sharp, the contrast is great, the colours looked superb and I fell in love with this lens. It’s one of the seven dams in the Elan Valley in Wales.
Back in the Elan Valley, I tried my best at birding, but I had to get soooo close to those little guys that they fled the scene after only 3-4 shots fired. (my shutter isn’t really “silent” if you know what I mean.) The AF confirm chip here really was a great help.
I really like this lens and used it quite a lot during my stay in the UK. (No small thanks to my Voigtländer Color-Ultron not working due to a faulty AF chip..)
You can get creamy bokeh if the background isn’t too inhomogeneous and far enough away. As you can see, the lens, shot at f/2 is incredibly sharp!
This image on the other hand doesn’t really let the lens shine. The bokeh highlights above the rock are really distracting and harshly cut. The harsh light/contrast situation might be the problem here.
This image depicting my sunflowers on the balcony goes back to the creamy bokeh and shows the great capabilities of this lens. The river is pretty far (100-200m) away, whereas in the above image the background was maybe 10 meters away.
But enough for the landscapes and animals. I actually prefer portraits over anything and also used this lens for some of those. Especially during my photography course I often brought my vintage lenses to take some pictures of my students working.
It’s great fun to use the HELIOS for portraits and I really like the fall-off of contrast when shot against the sun. This haze was not added in post processing.
This image shows the effect even stronger:
In this image I wanted to show several things at once:
1. we have sensor dust in the corner. (I had it cleaned before flying to the UK and will have to give it away for cleaning again..)
Because I had nothing else at hand, I once used the lens for some studio shots when I was experimenting, for the first time, with a little aquarium.
Those were shot at f/5.6 with the lens pretty close to the aquarium. I had to press the shutter manually because it was a spontaneous idea and I didn’t bring my remote. Of course I also had to drop the stuff in there with the other hand and therefore it must’ve been a sight.
One flash was used (to camera right) with a white reflector to camera left and a white sheet of paper (which was soaked afterwards) as a diffuser and the blackboard as my background (I did it on my table at school).
This image was taken exactly the same way as the one above, with one slight change in the setup: I used a second flash to brighten the whiteboard in the background.
To conclude this article, I would like to summarize my impressions so far. I’ve got the Helios 44 (first generation) 58mm f/2 and not the 44-2 version. The latter is supposed to be sharper by a lot especially in the corners and I will try to get my hands on one to make a comparison.
My lens cannot focus to infinity which can present a problem for landscape photography. However, I primarily use this lens for close-ups and for portraits and in these areas it really shines.
The Helios cannot handle shooting against the light very well and answers with reduced contrast and a hazy image. I really like this effect and therefore don’t mind at all.
Working with the pre-set aperture requires some getting used to but it’s a lot of fun and works quite well, imo.