Humble Yet Heavenly – The Helios-44-2

As I recall, the first M42 lens I owned was a Takumar 55/1.8, a lens that has remained in my core arsenal in some form ever since.

The second addition was something I stumbled across in a random junk box at a camera fair.

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It was battered, with worn paint in many places, and when I held the glass up to the light, I could see myriad circular scratches on the surface, a few random particles and at least one distinct bubble inside.

Plus the aperture ring seemed to be labelled backwards, showing f/16 when the lens was wide open and f/2 when fully closed.

Somewhat intrigued by this underloved underdog nevertheless, and confident it was M42 mount, I asked the dealer what he wanted, and £10 was the reply. I offered £7 and a 1973 HELIOS-44-2 was mine.

And it remains quite probably the best £7 I’ve ever spent on photography. 

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As the years rolled on, I used the Helios on a range of M42 film cameras like Spotmatics, Zenits, Fujicas and the odd Praktica, as well as plenty of other film cameras with M42 adapters, like various Pentax M series, Canon EOS and Contax.

Again with an adapter, it’s frequently adorned my Sony NEX, a couple of Sony DSLRs, Pentax DSLRs, and most recently, my Panasonic Lumix GF1.

As you can probably gather, I consider this one a keeper.

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I later discovered that the aperture ring markings were perfectly correct.

It’s a preset aperture lens, with an outer ring you set to the required minimum aperture, then that second inner ring (which I thought was the only ring) is free to move wherever you want it, between wide open (f/2) and the aperture you preset it at.

I talked about preset aperture lenses a while back in far more detail, but in short the main reasons I love them are the infinite control they give you over depth of field, and how you can start with the lens wide open and maximum light entering to make focusing easier, then quickly stop down to the require aperture and shoot, without clunking through click stops.

Something else I love about the Helios-44-2 is the 58mm focal length, which brings you a little closer and makes the scene more intimate than with a 50mm lens, but is still nowhere near tele-lens territory.

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A couple of years back I left a hefty DSLR on the kitchen table with the Helios mounted, and of course it got knocked by someone or other and landed face first on the wooden floor.

The floor came off worse, and whilst the filter ring of the lens now proudly sports its dent like a badge of honour, it functioned just as well afterwards as before.

This Helios, along with the aforementioned Takumar 55/1.8 (or an example of, I no longer have the original one) remain “forever lenses” for me, ones I cannot imagine wanting to part with. 

Coming from a recovering lensoholic who’s bought, tested and sold at least a couple of hundred lenses in the last six years, this is testament to how much I love them.

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If you’re interested in the history of the lens and its Carl Zeiss Biotar beginnings, try starting with this post.

For examples of the (in)famous swirly bokeh and what else the Helios 44-2 can do, a simple Google Image search pulls up plenty.

All photographs in this post were made with this Helios 44-2.

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Do you have a Helios 44-2 in your collection? What are your own favourite “forever lenses”? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography and cycling life looks like right now.

7 thoughts on “Humble Yet Heavenly – The Helios-44-2”

  1. I’ve never used a Helios lens, but I do have a preset aperture lens that is somewhat longer than normal but less than telephoto. The 65/3.5 Elmar is the shortest lens that will focus to infinity on a Visoflex – the Rube Goldburg/Heath Robinson gizmo that turns a RF Leica into an SLR. I would love to have an RF lens of the same focal length. It works so well for so many subjects. The only issue I have with the preset aperture is that I sometimes forget to stop it down when I take the picture.

    If I could keep only one of my lenses it would be the 50/2.8 Elmar. It is sometimes criticized as stretching the original 50/3.5 Elmar formula a step too far, but it is by far the most flattering portrait lens I have ever used when shot wide open.

    1. Doug, many thanks for your input.

      So with that contraption, does it allow you to use the VF like an SLR, I’m assuming not? Otherwise wouldn’t you notice when you’d stopped down or not by the amount of light entering the VF? I know using a Helios on a Zenit SLR like in the picture above, unless you were wide open it was difficult to see much at all!

      This is a major appeal of preset aperture lenses, it’s very easy to focus with it wide open, then with the tip of a finger, close down the lens until what you see is just what you want. For someone who often shoots up close with a shallow depth of field, the infinite control over that depth of field that the preset aperture lenses allow is a real treat, perhaps even more so on digital cameras with a screen where there’s not the impact of loss of light through the VF as you close down.

      1. The VF works just like a “real” SLR. My problem is that when I have the camera on a tripod, which is much of the time, after I frame and focus the picture I take my eye away from the VF and look at the subject directly, watching for the wind to die, or the clouds to move, or people to move into or out of the picture, etc. and press the cable release when everything looks OK. That’s when I sometimes forget to stop down the lens.

        It sound like you are depending on AE as you stop down the lens. In the pre-AE era, where I still live BTW, the way we used/use a preset lens was/is (1) meter the scene or otherwise determine the exposure, (2) turn the aperture preset ring to the shooting aperture, (3) turn the aperture control ring to set the lens wide open, (4) focus the picture, (5) turn the aperture control ring as far as it will go against the stop on the preset ring, (6) frame the picture as best you can with the dim image and (7) take the picture.

        1. Ah I see.

          Yes I have used the Helios Sunny 16 before and then had to stop down to a set aperture, exactly as you describe.

          But 95% of the time it’s either been with a film or digital camera on Aperture Priority and the actual aperture has been pretty much irrelevant to me, as the camera has just used the required shutter speed.

          It’s one of those serendipitous scenarios in photography where equipment mades decades ago is actually better suited to (and more fun with) modern digital cameras. Most of the time I have the Helios on f/8 or f/11 as an absolute minimum aperture reference point, but am probably using it mostly somewhere between wide open (f/2) and f/5.6. Whether that’s f/2.79, f/3.94 or any other tiny increment!

  2. That sounds like fun!

    I’ve occasionally done the same thing manually, stopping down the lens until I like the effect, reading the aperture from the lens ring, looking up the corresponding shutter speed on the light meter, setting the shutter speed and taking the picture. Always with the camera on a tripod. I suppose it could be done hand held put I’ve never attempted it.

    1. This has given me an idea. Think I’m going to try some shots where I fire the shutter as I’m still stopping down. See if I can get any kind of motion blur at the edges…

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