Heavenly Helios

Since stumbling across my first Helios – a dusty 1973 44-2 sadly neglected at the bottom of a box of random accessories at a camera fair, that I paid a mere £7 for nine years ago – perhaps 25 more have passed through my hands.

My original c1973 Helios 44-2

Over half of these have been examples of the Helios 44-2.

I love the quirky look, the near bulletproof build, the eight aperture blades which give more rounded bokeh highlights, and most of all the preset aperture, which makes fine tuning depth of field an utter joy.

I’ve also had a number of variants of the later 44M models, a more rare and unusual 44-3 (like a 44-2 in an 1980s upgrade body), and a not strictly Helios, but by all accounts its successor, the plastic yet highly endearing Zenit MC Zenitar-M2s.

In my current stable, just three Helios remain.

First, that original 44-2 which I doubt I’ll ever part with.

Also, the also aforementioned Zenitar descendant.

And finally a fairly standard and common 44M-4.

After the Helios 44-2 with its preset aperture, most of the plain 44M models that followed had the A/M (Auto/Manual) switch on the barrel that almost all lenses of the 70s and early 80s had, to allow them to be used on cameras with or without open aperture metering – the ability to allow you to always focus at maximum aperture, then the camera would close down to the chosen aperture at the moment of capture.

With the 44M-4 lenses I’ve had however, there’s no such switch, they’re permanently Auto.

I assume by the time these models came out (my model is from 1983) there were few to no cameras around that didn’t offer open aperture metering, so ditching the switch meant a simpler, less expensive design.

The trouble is, on a DSLR with an adapter (I’m not aware of any M42 mount DSLR ever being made!), there is no tab or pin in the lens mount that pushes in the corresponding pin on the lens, which in turn closes down the aperture blades to the chosen aperture.

So in effect the lens can only be used fully open, ie at the maximum aperture of f/2.

Now with a Helios this wouldn’t be a major issue anyway, as they’re capable of some of their loveliest renderings wide open.

But sometimes it’s good to have smaller apertures, especially on bright days when f/2 would overexpose the image.

So with my Helios 44M-4, as I’ve done with perhaps half a dozen other lenses, I’ve performed some minor surgery.

I simply pushed and held the pin in with a matchstick, then placed a drop of superglue on it, and let it dry, so the pin is now permanently pressed in, and it functions like a fully manual aperture lens.

I’ve read of other less permanent solutions involving carefully carved and inserted drinking straws and lolly sticks, but as I’m never going to use the lens on an Auto M42 body, I was happy to make the lifetime commitment a drop of superglue lovingly provides.

In this post are a couple of shots made with the 44M-4.

Whilst I love the eight bladed preset aperture of the 44-2, and the close focusing and arguably even sharper than a Helios potential of the Zenitar, the 44M-4 has enough individual charm to comfortably retain its place in my arsenal.

Its performance is beyond question.

In use, I enjoy the solid, reassuring, build (I’m sure you could drop it from a couple of storeys and the pavement would be the only thing sustaining any damage), the no-nonsense chunky looks, and the easy adjustment of the focus and aperture, both smoother than the other two lenses I’ve mentioned.

As long as I’m shooting photographs with DSLRs, I’ll be using Helios lenses.

Which I anticipate -and hope – will be a very long time indeed.

How about you, have you used many Helios 44s?

Let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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8 thoughts on “Heavenly Helios”

  1. I have several Helios 44s from a 44 (with 8 not 13 blades sadly), through 44-2s, 44Ms and 44M-4s. I was initially puzzled by the need for superglue for the 44M-4. All my M42 adapters were chosen with the lip to depress the pin when required. But I guess if you are adapting to Pentax K and variants, the flange distance is similar so the adaptor is very thin with no depth to add the lip.

    1. Ah you’ve reminded me there was an early 13 blade Helios! I stalked these for a while and they do pop up from Russian sellers, but are very pricey, when in effect they’ll likely give very similar images to the 8 blade 44-2. Also I think the 13 blade is only in M39 mount, which isn’t as straightforward to adapt to other mounts.

      I have had the third party adapters with the thicker body but they’ve been difficult to remove and the extra thickness impacts the focus distance of the lens. I’ve used the official Pentax version for years, which sits complete inside the K mount of the camera with nothing protruding forward, and is very easy to remove by pushing in the little spring with a finger nail. I’d strongly recommend these over cheap third party adapters, for Pentax K bodies.

  2. Personally I have never seen the point of buying a lens that is purposefully soft on clarity. You can achieve that effect with a good lens and some plastic wrap.
    Or my eyesight. That does it too.

    1. This reminds me a thread on Pentax Forums I was following a few years back where people were using decent lenses, but then screwing a simple cheap UV or similar filter on front, which was deliberating scored or sanded, to see the outcome.

      The Helios 44s are capable of more than enough sharpness for my needs, they just render the soft out of focus areas in more interesting ways than most lenses. You can’t recreate the unique character and rendering of one lens by adding plastic wrap (or a roughed up filter!) on the front of another lens, it’s all in the design of the lens elements, the glass etc, not what’s in front of it.

  3. I have never owned a Helios-44 lens and most likely never will. My challenge with owning classic manual lenses is that the prices have gone bonkers higher than I want to spend. I am still building out my Fuji X lens kit. Even if I adapt them to my Fuji X, the crop factor changes the FOV.

    I am reluctant to spend money on the older lenses for my Minolta XD-11 and X-700 when I should be saving my pennies to complete my Fuji X kit.

    1. I’ve not been in the market for a Helios lately, but as I said in another recent post, the similar Zenitar cost just over £20, with a camera that I immediately gave away. I don’t think anyone need pay more than about £20-25 for a Helios, but even at double that I’d say they’re still good value for what they do.

      Good point about crop factor. The 58mm Helios 44s on my APS-C Pentax DSLR gives an 87mm field of view, which I really like, but obviously it’s some way from 50mm, if that’s what you want. I always liked the 58mm of the Helios on a film body, it got me closer and more intimate than a standard 50mm. But yeh that’s something to consider, especially when it comes to wide lenses. On my Micro Four Thirds Lumix the crop factor is 2x, so even a pretty wide 24mm lens (on a 35mm film camera) is 48mm on the Lumix. The Helios becomes 116mm field of view.

      I think for anyone with a modern camera, the native lenses available are pretty different to classic manual lenses (via using an adapter) and can’t really be compared in either direction. They each serve a different purpose that the other can’t.

  4. I’ve always had my eyes on getting a Helios 44K, to avoid the need for a good M42 adapter (I don’t have one).
    I could be totally wrong but I feel the M42 process, where if I want to shoot at f5.6 or f8 (and I do quite a bit), I would have to compose through a dark viewfinder – it would take away from the photographic experience. There’s few things I like more than looking through a viewfinder and through the glass of a fast prime.
    Back to the 44K… I have seen one in person and the build quality has left me a bit hesitant. But I think I’ll try one out eventually. I’ve had other priorities in terms of lens to buy, but I have to say that now I have everything I can ever need*, so anything else I buy, will be just for fun.
    *Finally bought that 21mm Limited… so now I have the perfect primes setup with the 21mm and 70mm Limiteds, plus I can always have a 30mm or 35mm along for a 3-lens setup similar to what people used in the film days.

    1. That’s not how I use M42 lenses, I nearly always compose at max aperture then stop down to where I want and shoot, with the camera on Av so it chooses the required shutter speed. Some lenses I just know how many stops/clicks I need down from maximum, but my favourites are probably the preset aperture lenses like the Helios 44-2 and Jupiter-37A.

      You don’t really buy a Helios 44 for build quality, they’re a world away from a Takumar. Tough and well built in that sense, but nothing like as smooth and luxurious.

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