The Soviet Union produced millions of cameras during its 70-odd years in existence. Zenit SLRS and Zorki rangefinders, Lubitel TLRs and Chaika half-frames, Moskva folder and Elikon compacts. And all those cameras needed millions of lenses. The Helios-44 was a standard lens that came with many Soviet SLRS and in several mounts – equipping cameras such as the Zenit 3M, the idiosyncratic KMZ Start and stalwarts such as the Zenit E. The Helios-44’s great strength is the design of its aperture – they’re arranged so they form a perfect circle as they close. Shooting on wide apertures with any kind of light or prominent elements behind can create beautiful circles of blur. It’s no surprise that many digital photographers have snapped up old Helioses to use on their Nikon and Canon DSLRS. And there’s no shortage of them around; the Helios-44 might be the most-produced standard lens in the world. A copy of a German design – the Biotar 58/2 – the Helio-44 has a focal length of 58mm, edging it towards portrait lens territory. The early versions, like those made for the Zenit 3, were preset – you compose with the aperture wide open, then close down the aperture for a correct exposure. It’s a slightly fiddly way to take a picture, but it was the way things had to be done before automatic apertures were invented. The first Helios-44s were made in 1958, long before multi-coating and auto exposures. The Helios-44 underwent all manner of modifications during its years in production. The front of the lens is set deep within the barrel. By the 1990s, the Helios-44 had been updated into a fully automatic lens, only stopping down when the shot is taken.
The vast majority of Helios-44s were made in M42-mount; millions of Zenit SLRS were shipped with a 44 on the front. I have several; one that came with my Zenit 3M, two in M42 mount, and one attached to a Start SLR. The Helios I use most is a late-model one (probably an M4) that came with a second-hand Zenit 12XP. The camera was a write-off, but the lens was in superb condition. It’s always a good lens to have in the bag. Where the Helios really comes into its own is when it’s opened up wide – and its longer-than-normal focal length and maximum aperture of f/2 makes it an excellent makeshift portrait lens (especially as it can be had for only a few quid). M42-mount cameras were made in their millions, not only by Zenit, but by East Germany’s Praktica, Japan’s Pentax and Chinon, and even West German companies like Wirgin. The Helios will fit virtually all of them, and you can probably pick one up for less than Fuji charges for a roll of slide film these days. My camera bag usually has a couple of M42 bodies, and I always bring along the Helios as a standard lens – the later versions, with their multi-coatings, rarely flare, and are particularly good, in my experience, with vibrant colour films like Fuji’s Reala or Kodak Ektar and Elite Chrome slide; the shot above, taken on Reala 100, shows just how richly colours are captured. The earlier models – like the M39 examples – aren’t quite so contrasty, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of great pictures. I find the combination of the Zenit 3M, a Helios-44 and Agfa Precisa CT100 slide film, cross-processed, to be particularly good.
The M42-mount is one of the best systems to build up if you’re new to film photography; there are tonnes of bodies and lenses around, many of them for next to nothing. If you take the plunge, the Helios should be at the top of the list.