The Helios 44-2 is a classic Russian beauty, originally manufactured as a basic kit lens for the Soviet-era Zenit cameras. Fixed at 58mm, with unique bokeh and sharp imaging, it is the ideal prime lens for portraits and street photography.
This Helios ( Russian: Гелиос) lens was manufactured from around the 1950s to the 1980s, possibly until the early nineties, usually as a basic kit lens for the Soviet-era Zenit cameras. They were made in both M42 and K-mount formats; mine happens to be an M42. It’s a little heavier than your standard lens, as it’s made from metal and the lens itself is (a really sturdy, good quality) glass. In fact, the overall quality is so much better than the rubbish kit lenses they give these days.
That’s what I love about old Russian lenses and cameras – they may be brick-like, but they’re so well constructed given the price. Really good bang for your buck when in terms of performance, it’s really not any worse than recent plastic models that are priced around the $250-500 mark. It’s also manual focus, so for those accustomed to the convenience of AF, it may take a little getting used to.
- Angle of view – 40 ° 28 ‘
- Relative aperture – 1:2
- Limit iris – 1:16
- The resolving power of the center – 38 lines / mm
- The resolution of the edge – 20 lines / mm
- Minimum focusing distance – 0.5m
- Landing thread for tips – M49x0 75
- Type: Permanent focal length (fix)
- Weight: 230 g
A Sidenote on Adapters:
I picked up this beauty of a prime lens on eBay about a year ago now, for a mere $20 AUD while I was still living in Beijing. Though I originally intended to pair it with my Zenit 3M, I now have it mounted on my Pentax ME Super with a M42 to k-mount adapter, also purchased from eBay for $7 AUD. On a sidenote, I really don’t recommend these sorts of third-party adapters as mine keeps getting stuck. Invest in a genuine brand adapter for your fingers’ sake!
Pro 1: Vibrant, punchy, sharp images. I’m accustomed to my Pentax slightly underexposing (all the freaking time) so it was a pleasant surprise to see this lens producing such vivid photos.
Con 1: This lens isn’t really suited for macro or still life photography, but I’m really just stating the obvious here. You can still get relatively sharp images for medium close-up shots, but anything closer, and it’ll have trouble focusing.
This means, of course, that the Helios 44-2 is ideal as a portrait or landscape/street photography lens. So versatile in that regard. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any portrait shots this morning (there were complaints of ‘puffy morning face’ or ’I’m having breakfast’/’I’ll be late for work’ all around), but have a look around on the Internet and you’ll be able to find some sample images.
Pro 2: Lovely, unique bokeh. For shots such as the one above, you get your usual soft dappled bokeh – nothing out of the ordinary. But take wide open shots such as the one below, and you’ll end up with this really bizarre creamy, swirling bokeh that look almost like paint strokes.
This can possibly be Con 2, because ‘pure’ photographers (whatever that means) obsessed with technical perfection may find this sort of bokeh distracting, given that it’s not completely out of focus. I personally find it charming! Excuse the slightly overexposed image though, it’s such a bother to keep adjusting settings in morning light, when some areas of really brightly lit and others very shady.
The verdict: for me, this lens is an absolute winner. Again, brilliant, almost unbelievable value especially if you’re just starting out and unsure of which lens to buy. It will force you to be creative as with all prime lenses, and because of its manual focus, you’ll also need to be quick and nimble. All it comes down to is whether you’re willing to embrace its quirks.
For instance, some users of the Helios 44-2 have complained of extreme flare, unreliable exposure meters and washed out colours, but I haven’t experienced that personally. It may be due to the inconsistency of factory manufacture or simply that my particular lens is a later product. If you find yourself intrigued, rather than annoyed, by its unusual qualities this is definitely the right lens for you.