This article will be released and new paragraphs will be added over time. I won’t be around for the next three weeks, so I can’t really work up any comparison material.
I also experimented with page jumps, so you can go to the top of the page and select the test you want to read about without having to scroll all the time. (Not very useful as there aren’t any tests yet..)
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 well known and loved 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 “swirly 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 – we usually call this cats-eye effect. In addition, due to this 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:
Another example at a longer distance to the subject:
The field of contenders
When I first got my Helios 44 58mm f/2 “zebra”, I was under the assumption that I had bought a Helios 44-2, and so was the guy who sold me the lens. (Read my article about this lens to find out a little more about it.)
During my various comparison runs and also whenever I used this lens, I was positively surprised at how well it performed. I actually liked the Helios so much that I decided to keep it no matter the outcome of my final verdict. But maybe there’s an even better Helios out there?
In this article, I will compare three close relatives, two first generation Helios 44 and a second generation Helios 44-2, to find the one for me.
The first candidate is my original
Helios 44 58mm f/2 “zebra”
It’s a nice looking lens, with glossy black paint and chrome accents on the focusing ring. The depth of field (DOF) markings and the distance scale on the barrel are painted in white and the key points are in red.
Unfortunately, the focusing ring is a little bit on the hard side. It requires some force to be turned, which can result in the lens unscrewing from the camera in some instances. I did not encounter that issue last year when I used the lens quite a lot.
As you already know, if you have read my other article, this lens is from the MMZ factory with this logo:
The front lens is slightly recessed, which should help against flaring from far outside the image frame and protect the lens against scratches from bumps. The build quality is actually so rigid that I’d rather be afraid for the lens to damage whatever it bumps into.
You can also see the dual aperture ring, where the front ring is used to preset the aperture in full stops and the second, slightly larger, ring is used to close the aperture to that value. This allows for rather fast use with a modern DSLR:
You choose your desired aperture on the camera (for Av mode operation) and preset this value on the lens. For framing and focusing, you leave the lens wide open and when you half press the shutter (for metering), you swiftly close the aperture with your index finger and take the shot.
This actually works better than any of the other lenses, where you have to close the aperture all the way down right from beginning, which results in a dark viewfinder and false exposure values due to the camera getting confused with the selected aperture value.
The aperture has 8 blades which are not rounded at all, but they open and close smoothly and are perfectly clean.
The coating is simple yet very beautiful in its steely blue colour.
The zebra is a great lens and there’s only one thing that really, really annoys me:
The m39-EOS adapter I bought won’t allow it to focus to infinity and it’s completely misaligned with the DOF scale facing down.
If I should keep this lens, I will add the m39-m42 ring again and use an m42-EOS adapter where the alignment is better. I will then also correct the lens focus so that it actually allows for infinity focus.
Since the beginning of my adventure with 50mm lenses, I have known about the “complete list of Helios lenses” and gotten all my info from there. This collection of knowledge is really helpful and provides all you need to know to identify your Helios lens.
It also led me to dream of the silver “unicorn”, the 13-bladed Helios 44 with the red П sign that stops down to f/22. Well, these super rare lenses sell for way too much, but I really wanted to get my hands on a 13-bladed Helios to see if this would improve the swirl quality even further.
So I simply bought one of the less rare specimen, without the red П and with the smallest aperture being only f/16.
Meet my silver Helios 44 58mm f/2
As you can see, the lens barrel is a shiny silver with loads of signs of wear and tear. The lens cap is made of metal too and sits tightly on top of the lens. The DOF markings as well as the distance scale are both engraved into the barrel, which adds a nice touch to the whole “built for eternity” feel of this lens.
It already came with an m39-m42 ring to be used with m42-EOS-adapters.
This is a KMZ lens (Krasnogorsky Zavod factory) with this logo:
The name is written in cyrillic letters but you can assume that it says “Helios”, I guess. Despite the wear signs on the outer barrel, the silver Helios seems to be in better condition than my zebra. The inner barrel is in great condition and focusing and aperture rings turn smoothly. The two lens share the exact same design and build quality but I prefer the looks of the silver lens.
I bought this lens with “mint” optics and was happy to see that the lens has absolutely no issues in the optical department (no scratches, no haze, no fungus, no sticky aperture blades). Curiously though, the aperture makes a scratching sound when you fully close it (you can even see the scratches in the image above) but not at the usual working stops.
You can also see that the 13 blades form a beautiful circle even when fully closed, which makes me want to see how it performs with the Bokeh balls.
The 13-bladed Helios has some beautiful coatings too, and they are intense!
I tried the lens on my m42-Fuji adapter and mounted it to one of my m42-EOS adapters to see how it aligned. Contrary to the zebra, the silver Helios isn’t that far off with the DOF scale. At the very least, you can still easily look at the aperture value you selected.
While looking for the silver Helios, I also stumbled over a – seemingly – brand new
Helios 44-2 58mm f/2
and at a bargain price.
With the Helios 44-2, the manufacturers ditched the m39 thread mount for the more commonly used (especially outside the USSR) m42 thread mount. With this move, there was nothing stopping the Helios 44 anymore. It’s said to be the most produced/sold lens in the entire world (think VW Beetle of lenses).
As you can see, there are literally no signs of use on this lens (all the visible specks are dust and there is some residue on the left f/16 index that I overlooked when cleaning the lens).
The barrel is a beautiful matte black finish and the printed (not engraved anymore) numbers for the distance scale are in Otus yellow (pun intended). Unfortunately, the DOF scale looks pretty ugly in green witht the center mark in red. Why couldn’t they stick with yellow?
What you can notice is that the distance markings differ slightly between the two Helios 44 and the 44-2:
In the early versions, all the distances were written on the barrel, there even was a marking for 20m. On the new version, they replaced many markings with a simple dot where the inbetween marking would have been. I guess this simplifies the whole “zone focusing” process somewhat.
The lens was produced in the Valdayskaya factory (by Jupiter Optics Valdai: JOV) where mostly lenses for KMZ were made. (See this link for more information on the factory logos that can be found on the lenses.)
The Helios 44-2 really seems to be new, there’s no sign of use anywhere to be found. The focus ring turns smoothly but with slightly more resistance than the silver Helios offers, but less so than the zebra which requires much more force to focus. However, as long as the lens sits on the camera, this is not a problem at all with any of my lenses.
While everything appears to be brand new and no signs of use are visible, the aperture has some oil on the blades. I hope that this will not affect image quality in any way.
The coatings appear to have been altered several times over the history of this lens, because this 44-2 seems to have multiple colours (ergo multiple layers of coatings?). Looking at the various 44-2 examples on the Helios overview site, you’ll notice that there are at least 3 different coatings on these lenses. According to the info on that site, mine is from 1983, the last year these lenses were built at the Jupiter factory (because the serial number is on the side of the barrel). This would indicate that mine has a rather modern coating considering that production of the 44-2 started before 1970.
Anyways, I’m really curious to see how this lens performs in the flaring test.
Besides: the DOF markings align perfectly with the m42-EOS adapter I tried. Has me thinking that the issue with my other two lenses might actually be with the m39-m42 stepup ring and not the lens itself.
Here’s a table comparing the major differences between my Helios lenses, at least on paper:
Now off to the results of the comparison.
Let’s look at the center sharpness of each lens. I set up my 5500K daylight lamp above my white sheet of paper with text printed on it. The camera was placed at a distance of 1m and focus manually achieved using live view at 10x magnification for each shot separately.
I took a very small crop (less than 2% of the frame) and adjusted the brightness for the zebra slightly to match the others. I then applied my standard sharpening (+45, with the sharpening mask set to +80) and the white balance settings measured using the grey card.
As you can see, there isn’t much to be seen. The silver Helios is a tad softer than the others but only if you look long and hard. The 44-2 is a tiny bit contrastier and sharper than the first generation lenses when stopped down but nothing to write home about. All in all, I’d say that the quality in the image center is pretty much identical.
Regarding the micro contrast and chromatic aberrations, I stand by my earlier verdict: the Helios is capable of nice micro contrast and the aberrations are kep in check pretty well. This goes for all three iterations of the lens.
Now let’s look at the APS-C borders
I left the paper and lighting where it was and adjusted the camera so that the text would be placed at the upper right AF point, then I used live view to again achieve precise focus. The distance for this test was about 1,2m.
This is the focus area I chose:
And here are the results:
One thing you’ll notice in an instant is the swirling that occurs with the OOF areas. The swirling is not more pronounced in any of the lenses but we will see how the “bokeh swirl” compares in real life.
The second thing you might notice, is that the newest lens, the Helios 44-2, actually loses in this comparison. It’s the softest of the trio and stays so until they all look the same at f/5.6.
Before that point, the zebra and the silver Helios are pretty much on par, with the zebra having an infinitely small advantage regarding contrast (could well be due to imperfect exposure matching).
Colour Cast and Transmission
Let’s be blunt here. All the Helios lenses aren’t really “neutral” and they obviously don’t let through as much light as other lenses do at the same f-stop settings.
Images shot using my 5’500K daylight lamp and the greycard, all at f/5.6.
Nothing that the auto-WB setting couldn’t handle.
Here are the numbers, averaged between f/2 and f/5.6 measurements:
As you can see, the zebra still suffers from the lowest transmission value. It’s 0.6 stops slower than the Yongnuo both at f/2 as well as at f/5.6. The other two lenses are a tad faster but the difference to the Yongnuo does not change from f/2 to f/5.6.
Unfortunately, this also doesn’t seem to be curable with the Jansjö lamp, because I had the zebra under for several weeks and the transmission and colour cast did not change at all (whereas the radioactive lenses could be rendered significantly faster this way).
I just got an xrite colorchecker passport to perform the color comparison (I will use it with the entire collection for the comparison).
Shot at iso 100, 1/10s and f/4 with all lenses, I used my 5’500K daylight lamp once more and cropped around the colorchecker. After correcting for the transmission difference, I only corrected the White Balance (for the dark grey square right of the black one) and applied my sharpening routine, then I set the Color Profile for all the images to “Camera Standard”.
Here are the results:
To be completely honest, I can’t make out any difference on neither of my calibrated monitors (I just calibrated the screens this evening).I can’t do any mouse-over to simplify the comparison, but after staring at these images for several minutes, the only thing I could come up with was a feeling that nr. 1 had a tiny bit more saturation. Maybe?
By the way, this is the order:
- Helios 44 silver
- Helios 44 zebra
- Helios 44-2
I’m really curious to see what happens when we compare all my lenses, but I get the feeling that most of the famous “lens” color is due to color profiles in camera – or film choice for that matter – and colour casts in the glass.
Just to make a point, here is the same image (processed from the RAW file) from the silver Helios with two different colour profiles:
Unfortunately, WordPress.com won’t allow me to make mouse-over images, but you should see the difference anyways as they are quite significant.
Waiting for the weather to turn better
I really, really like the Helios 🙂
from the zebra
my very first test shot from the silver Helios on my Canon DSLR
Some Portraits I recently took using the silver Helios (wide open)
The silver Helios on the Fuji X-T10, just some test shots from when I was waiting in the car.
And this one goes to show that the swirly bokeh isn’t always there, but highly depends on the pattern of the background (horizontal lines only, in this shot):
If you’re interested in this lens – because it’s a Leica – then go and check out this article. I will hopefully soon get an adapter to test it.