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.

16826822089_d293b03a1c_b

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. 

45058968685_e988c024ed_b

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.

27814793221_85c8bfd2b0_b

 

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.

45921698272_c764ec07b1_b

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.

45921698702_169060e8e4_b

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.

14186409984_8946154aff_b

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.

20 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.

      2. 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…

  3. Hey Dan… Off the bat, I’m blaming you okay! Hope you don’t mind…. 😉

    Basically, I’ve started lusting after some Helios glass to add to my small Nikkor collection. I see that there are a few iterations of this Zenit classic! Then I remembered that you’re a bit of a Helios fan-boy… so, I popped along and did a quick /?=keyword search of your blog to get some of your thoughts

    Before I take the plunge, a quick question.

    Have you only used the 44-2? or have you used others. Is there any ‘real’ difference between the various models?

    Would like to hear you thoughts. Thanks in advance… 🙂

    1. Anton, thanks for your questions!

      Well, indeed there are many variations, even with one model number there are variations between colours (black with white and red paint, black with yellow and green paint etc), where they were made etc (note the different symbol on the body), and quality control can be patchy.

      I have owned at least one variation of the 44-2, 44-3, 44M, 44M-4, 44M-5 and 44M-6. I’ve had probably a dozen of the original 44-2 and never met one I didn’t like.

      The image quality and characteristics are much the same across all of them.

      There are three main differences –

      1. Aperture ring. The original 44-2 like I have is a preset aperture lens. It has two aperture rings. You set the aperture you want to stop down to on the outer ring. Then the inner ring rotates freely (no click stops) between being wide open, and the aperture you’ve set on the outer ring. So if you want to shoot at f/5.6, you set that on the outer ring, then open up the aperture using the inner ring, compose, focus, then stop down the inner ring (which will stop at f/5.6) and shoot. In practice I love this because I don’t care much about precise aperture settings. I usually set the limit to f/8 then stop down until what I see in the VF/screen is what I’m aiming for in terms of depth of field, then shoot. I don’t care if it’s f/4.19 or f/5.72. I love this freedom to adjust. Plus the inner aperture ring is very easy to turn with just one finger.

      Virtually all of the other variations have a more regular single aperture ring with click stops from f/2 to f/16. Which is fine, and works like any other lens with a click stop aperture ring. But it’s stiffer and more clunky to adjust aperture than the preset versions.

      2. The stop down pin at the rear. The original 44-2 has no stop down pin. You control the aperture purely via the two aperture rings. So basically as long as the lens is mounted on the camera (or adapter) there are no issues with the camera/adapter needing to depress the stop down pin to control the aperture.

      Most of the other variations have a pin and a switch on the side for A/M. If you switch to M, the pin is permanently depressed so you control the aperture manually with the aperture ring. So again, no intervention needed from the camera/adapter.

      Be careful because there are some I think with have a pin, but not the A/M switch. So in effect they’re permanently on auto mode, and need the camera/adapter to depress the pin, otherwise they stay wide open. I have had a few of these and just depressed the pin with a needle, put a blob of superglue on it, let it dry and then it acts like a manual pin. Just don’t get any glue near the glass. 

      3. Aperture blades. The 44-2 has eight blades. Most (but I don’t think all) of the later variations have six blades. This is quite minor, it just means if your shooting a couple of stops down from wide open, with the 44-2 any points of light out of focus will be closer to a circle, and with the later versions they’ll be more like a rounded hexagon. For me this is a consideration, but if you’re not interested in close ups with bokeh balls it’s a minor concern!

      Hope that helps, let me know!

  4. Great stuff. Defo helps Dan. Cheers for that…
    I am deciding between the 44-2 (for the blades) and 44-6 (for the ‘new’ build)
    Then to just pop a M42-to-F/Mount adapter on the old girl, and off I go…
    Am very eager to see what all the fuss is about 😀
    Will keep you posted, and thanks again
    A

    1. They’re quite different in use, the preset aperture 44-2 makes for a very novel experience compared with regular click stop aperture lens rings.

      A 44-6 won’t necessarily feel any newer or better built. In my experience sample variation and individual lens condition/history plays much more of a factor. I’ve had a couple of 44-2s that felt like new, and later 44M-4s that were pretty ropey.

      I doubt you’ll see much difference in the final image though, whichever you go for.

      Have fun!

  5. So… I jumped on a 44-2.
    Glass is in great nick and the barrel looks good-as-new.
    Punter is down in Dorset, so not a long wait 😀
    Picked up an adapter as well… So, full steam ahead. Can’t wait!

    btw – have you managed to get that fabled swirly background effect using this glass? I know it’s pretty creamy wide open. I had an old folding KODAK some years back that managed a wonderful swirly background (ala Petzval – but without the hefty price-tag) I’ve seen some images where that effect was achieved with the HELIOS.

    On tenterhooks already 🙂

  6. cheers Dan
    Unfortunately those links are broken, or I don’t have permission to view them
    Looking forward to finding that sweet spot (More I think about it thought, it does strike me a a bit gimmicky) but hey, what are we, if not slaves to gimmicks 😉
    Have a good one fella

  7. Okay…

    so I had some clever idea (regarding the Nikon) when I decided to jump on the Helios. I managed to do the little hack, but still ended up just a smidgen shy of infinity… Dammed Helios flange focal distance! It does work fine with the M42-Nikon adapter, but of course the back lens element if not in the position it was designed to be in. I will fire off some frames later this week and see what results I get on the 135mm.

    However, I’m not too concerned, as I did get the Helios to try on my 4×5 LF unit. I am waiting for a flange (with holes drilled to attach to a lens board) from the Ukraine. I am not sure what the coverage will be on the 4×5, but that’s all the fun of experimentation 😀

    I have always wanted that swirly effect (as I mentioned before) and the Helios will be so much cheaper that a genuine Petzval… if it works

    1. Yeh I think just experiment and see what happens. I had an Industar 50mm lens (the one with the unusual star shaped aperture) and I’m sure something was put together wrong inside because it didn’t focus anywhere near infinity. But on the upside for me, it focused far closer than the markings on the barrel said it should!

      Very intrigued about using the Helios on a 4×5! Won’t there be major vignetting though? I think with some practice with the Helios you should be able to get some interesting effects.

      Reminds me, you can get an adapter to shoot Pentax 67 medium format lenses on a Pentax K mount. Something I would like to experiment with at some point!

  8. I am also very keen to see what coverage that 58mm lens will produce on 4×5 LF. As it will be converted to around 20mm (equiv) it sounds like a nice ‘wide’ lens for landscape. And even with the expected vignetting, I am only interested in the center being sharp anyway. The falloff could end up being a likable feature.

    All fun and games 😀
    If none of this works, then I will just drop some squid on a M42 body

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s