Lens review: Helios-44

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My old flatmate Dave – beautiful bokeh in the cafe lights on a Helios-44

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.

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William Tyler of Lambchop, on a Zenit 19 SLR

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.

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A late-model Helios-44 (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Camera reviews:

Chinon Memotron

Lomo LC-A

Lomo LC-Wide

Nikon FM2

Olympus XA

Pentax ESII

Praktica MTL 50

Voigtlander Bessaflex TM

Zenit 3M

Zenit E

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North london’s Ace cafe, shot on an M39-mount Helios-44
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Berlin street scene, with Fuji Superia 400 on a Chinon Memotron
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Oxford college grit and grain, taken on a KMZ Start and Fuji neopan 1600
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Beautiful background bokeh is a hallmark of the Hellios
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Czech beer and Nikon in a London pub
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Fuji Superia 1600 on a Voigtlander Bessaflex on an autumn day at Paddington Station

17 COMMENTS

  1. Completely agree with all you write about the Helios. It is one of my favorite lens, and with my Zenit-B cost me less than a roll of film + lab developing. I decided to focus my film SLRs around M42 mount, and there are so many great lens available, especially primes. And my Pentax K-5 IIs takes a Pentax adapter and I have zero issues with all my M42s. Pentax SMCs are great options too, but I have shot more photos with my Helios 44-2 than any other lens.

    • Hey Joe – thanks for your comment. they are great lenses aren’t they? The Zenit B/Helios combo is about as cheap a starter kit you can get in photography and still be capable of decent results.

  2. Those are great results and I think the Helios-44 (as well as the Industar 61 L/Z) will make a nice addition to my Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 M42 mount lens 😉 I’m a fan of the M42 mount, too. Most lenses are cheap and I can mount them on my (film) EOS body.

    BTW, are there any Soviet wide-angle M42 mount lenses? There’s a 20mm and 28mm in LTM mount, but I have no idea of what’s available in M42 mount.

  3. Awesome blog and great photos too. Like you i have an old pentax es ii which i am very fond of and i was wondering if its possible to use the helios 44 on the es ii?

    • Sure, you can use Helios with your Spotmatic ESII – Spottie is M42-mount camera, white Helios is M42 lens. Just make sure you don’t have K-mount version of Helios (44K series) – in that case, you’ll need K-mount camera, like Pentax MX, ME, K1000, or any newer model.

    • No they were not, if you read the article, you’ll note that a couple would have been made with the earlier M39 type fitted to earlier Zenit 3-M & the Start. See the relevant photo captions.

      Is that your photo above by the way? Nice shot. If it’s not, well, attribution is always appreciated.

  4. The Helios lens was my first introduction into manual legacy glass used on my then Olympus E-PL1 camera body. Using that lens for the first time, no auto-focus, literally opened up my eyes to how much difference a good lens can make to an image you capture. The Helios renders a scene like no other lens I’ve used since. It was this lens that started my fascination with manual focus legacy lenses which in turn moved me towards OM Zuiko lenses. But the Helios still holds a special place in my heart and I use it often.

  5. I love my Helios 44 58-2, I use it on my Nikon D90 and my Nikon film cameras too. Here are two of my favorites:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/62046903@N06/17750372276/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/62046903@N06/16999950607/in/dateposted-public/
    Enjoyed your review.
    BTW I had my Helios modified for my Nikon by a fellow in Poland. He’s on Facebook under “The bokeh factory”. He modifies all sorts of older lenses.
    https://www.facebook.com/thebokehfactory/?fref=ts

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