You all know I love old film cameras and lenses, right? Well, this is a classic from the former Soviet Union. It’s the Helios 44 58mm f2; an oft talked about piece of glass inΒ  gearΒ  circles, and one of the most mass produced lenses in the world.

I really enjoy my old Soviet cameras, and tend to post about them an awful lot here. I think it’s the chunky industrial design and finger straining ergonomics that I find interesting (though, to be fair, a camera like the Zarya is exquisitely smooth).

I’m not an especially technical person, so I’ll not be going into great detail about optical properties, lens distortion or aberrations. Besides, there are plenty of other places on the web to find out information like that, especially on this rather popular chap! Before I go any further though, here’s a photo:

Helios 44 lens
Helios 44-2 58mm f2 lens – KMZ factory

Helios 44 – the TANK !

Note the solid metal barrel construction. Like most Soviet lenses, the Helios 44 is built like a tank! This particular example is a bit faulty though. The focus ring works like a charm, but the aperture gets stuck around f5.6. I recently sourced another one from Poland (not pictured), but they are the same model. Indeed, they were made in the millions, so finding them is not a problem.

I took the Helios out for a spin on my little Olympus E-PM1 digital camera. There’s nothing quite like seeing a big old heavy Soviet lens sticking out of a sleek modern Japanese digital camera (nations getting along, right?) ! It’s all manual focus of course, and with the focus ring on this example moving so smoothly, nailing focus was fairly easy. Check out the photos below (straight out of camera, no other processing). And please remember to click each photo to make it larger and clearer:

Helios 44 lens - tree branches at sunset
Helios Gold

I love the way the glass has rendered the golden colours of sunset in this photo! To my naked eye, the sunset wasn’t actually this golden, so I wonder if some subtle property of the lens and older glass coatings emphasised the warmer parts of the spectrum?

Helios lens - urban geometry
Golden Geometries

Once again, the light looks very warm in the photo above. I like the curves and angles in this photo.

Milano Cafe, Adelaide
Milano Blue

I had to push the ISO up beyond what I’d normally prefer with this little camera (1600 is normally my limit on it), so you can see some chroma noise in the darker areas, but I just like the way this image looks. I had the lens wide open at f2 for all of the late evening and night photos.

Helios 44 - Chinese restaurant Buddha statue
Night Buddha

This was my favourite of the night! As I was walking down the street, I noticed this image of the Buddha gracing the hallway of a Chinese restaurant. I like the way the door frames it and the combination of colours. It was quite a challenge because of the lack of light. I had to hold very still in order to make this one.

Helios lens bokeh
Centre of Attention

Look closely and you can see the ant nestled amongst the white petals. For a mass manufactured lens from 1978, it’s pretty sharp ! Just goes to show that the combination of old and new technology can yield some interesting results. At a wide aperture, the background is softened nicely, even on this Micro 4/3 camera.

Helios 44 lens flare
Helios Lens Flare Surprise

Finally, here’s an example of the famous Helios 44 lens flare. Many camera buffs would cringe clinging to their modern multi-layered, ED glass, but I love this effect! See how it softens the image? This is an effect that some people spend time recreating in Photoshop. I’m getting it with a cheap old lens from 1978.

In use, the Helios 44 is reassuringly heavy and solid. If you’re going to source one on ebay, it’s best to buy one that has either been serviced, or is in good working condition. Though taking it apart is more straightforward than other lenses, it’s still no easy task; and the Helios was produced in such great numbers that finding a good working one shouldn’t be too hard.

The most common problem with the Helios 44 is that the original cheap wax used to grease the innards and focussing helicals tends to seize up after several decades. I think this is what has happened to my old copy. Servicing it is an option, but I decided to buy a new one at a good price instead.

I have recently had the good fortune to buy a Samsung NX200 for only 100 clams plus shipping! The Samsung in question is very similar in design to the old Sony NEX models and features an APS-C sized sensor. The great thing is that it’s also mirrorless, which means that I can liberally use old lenses on it! I’ve wanted an APS sensor in a mirrorless body for these old lenses for a while now and I could not resist at this price. Just quickly: the kit lens was busted beyond repair when I received it (I knew that before buying..but who cares when I have all of these great old lenses anyway!), and the digital sensor had smudges and fingerprints all over it. I’ve no idea what the seller had done with it (maybe a small child had stuck a wet finger or two in there…who knows), but I got out a few swabs and some IPA (Isopropyl Alcohol) and cleaned that sucker up good and proper! It now works like a charm. Sadly, Samsung have recently announced their exit from the camera market, but that’s really no surprise considering the number of players saturating the shop shelves and vying for our dollars.

Anyway, my good fortune aside, I went out very quickly with the Helios lens mounted on my NX200 and made this photo in the garden:

In the garden - Helios 44 lens on Samsung NX200 digital
In the garden – Helios 44 lens on Samsung NX200 digital

Ok, it’s not the greatest photo – I certainly don’t claim it to be – but you can see some more swirl in the out of focus areas that is a characteristic of the Helios lens. This effect is not as easy to see in the photos preceding this photo as they were made on the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor of my Olympus Pen. You can also see the characteristic flare of the older Helios 44 lenses towards the bottom edge.

Now, here’s a little teaser for you all. I’ve actually modified my original Helios lens since first posting this article in 2015, and have come up with the following rather lovely result:

Swirly bokeh - Helios 44 lens
Swirly bokeh – Helios 44 lens

It might surprise you to learn that this was made on the smaller Micro Four Thirds digital sensor of my Olympus OMD EM5. Normally you can’t see that amount of swirly bokeh due to the fact that the smaller sensor only records light from the sharper centre area of the Helios lens. My modification has amplified the effect among other qualities. I’ll be posting about this soon and including more examples. If you’d like to have the article hit your email inbox as soon as it’s posted, don’t forget to subscribe using the subscription boxes dotted around this site. I don’t publish every day, so I won’t be spamming your inbox! Thanks in advance for your interest.

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Helios 44 lens review – an old Soviet classic !

22 thoughts on “Helios 44 lens review – an old Soviet classic !

  • May 19, 2018 at 6:12 pm
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    Steve – just ran across this old post where you suggest reversing the front element. I tried this but it doesn’t fit – the first element seems to bump up against the second and the front mounting ring will not go on. Perhaps this is because I’m using the silver 44 mk1 (m39) 13 bladed verison?

    Reply
    • May 25, 2018 at 3:05 am
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      I have the old silver version as well, and I believe, from memory, that reversing the front element will not work. I have not tried it on mine. However, you could try separating the glass with a rubber ring. As I have not taken mine apart, I am not sure of the spatial problem. Let me know how it goes.

      Reply
  • July 9, 2016 at 5:04 pm
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    Hi Steve, great article about the Helios 44-2. There are so much contradictory articles in the Internet. I have Nikon crop sensor (DX) D7100 camera. I purchased one Helios 44-2 lens and bower infinite focus correction adapter. The lens is providing very minute swirly effect – almost unnoticeable. I read one article which says that APC sensors will not produce much swirly effects. Even your article supports the same fact. You have mentioned it clearly on the last para. But you have modified your lens to produce more swirly effect even on the APC camera. Can you please show the trick? I am eagerly waiting for it. Even if you have some link in the Internet please post it. I will be very much thankful to you. Kind regards.

    Reply
    • July 19, 2016 at 2:33 am
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      Hi Nirmalya. Thanks for commenting πŸ™‚ I have a Nikon 7100 and rarely use it with old lenses because of the register distance. If you want that swirly effect, here’s the simple trick: remove the front lens element of the Helios 44 and then simply replace it in reverse. That is all you need to do to achieve the effect!

      Reply
      • April 1, 2017 at 4:07 pm
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        Hi Steve,. are there any adverse optical or physical effects of reversing the front glass element? Such as reduced sharpness or a weaker chassis/body seal anything else? Or is it simply (and ONLY) the extra swirl in the bokeh?

        I’ve JUST today sent off my Helios 44M 58/2 lens to a guy here in the UK who’s gonna do some light maintenance, (oil removal on iris blades, re-clicking the aperture ring). So, I was wondering if it might be worth asking him to reverse the front glass element.

        However, I have some queries, will the lens still keep its (newly) outside face firmly sealed against the ‘chassis’,. ? There won’t be any extra gap between the glass and the body, will there? I’m asking because it seems to me that IF the OTHER side to the glass element is even just slightly different to the originally-forward-facing side, it’d potentially allow moisture/mould into the various cavities behind.

        Do you see what I mean? Here’s hoping you can help me very soon, because the guy gets the lens (to carry out basic maintenance work on) on Monday 3rd of April, so I I need to contact him today or tomorrow to ask him if he could reverse the front element.

        Another thought, the picture of the red flower with the soft/dreamy bokeh on the vintage camera lenses site where you linked to this review, is that the effect I’d be getting if I had the front glass reversed? Do you have some examples please, (assuming that’s not what I’d be getting)?

        My primary goal for this lens is sharp portraits with some swirly bokeh on a 1.5 crop-factor Samsung NX11 with the M42-NX adapter I have for it – I’m fully aware that I’d get more (original) swirly bokeh on a full frame camera, (no cropping), hence my curiosity about this tweak you suggested. Thanks for reading all this, much appreciated. πŸ™‚ Please email me, I check often and reply promptly. Thank you. πŸ™‚

        Reply
        • April 2, 2017 at 10:48 am
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          I have just emailed you further details πŸ™‚

          Reply
          • February 28, 2018 at 2:28 pm
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            Hi Steve,

            Can I please join the crowd and get a copy of the details on reversing the front glass element of the Helios ? Sounds like what I need to do to get the effect on my Canon APS-C.

            Thanks,

            Bill Walters

          • March 26, 2018 at 9:42 am
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            Sure thing! Just reverse the front glass element πŸ™‚ The Helios is a pretty easy lens to take apart. Once reversed, you may need to place a rubber band or simlar circular shim under it to get infinity focus, but this effect is really only useful at short distances anyway. If you need any further info, please let me know.

    • February 15, 2015 at 1:31 am
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      Ya know @madam_w three years ago I was making questionable photos with a point and shoot. There’s NO reason you can’t do it !!!!

      Reply
  • February 13, 2015 at 12:11 pm
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    LOVE the golden geometries image. I realize this is a strange connection, but oddly, the architecture and the hue of this image brought back a long-gone memory of a hot, humid morning with my dad at Cape Canaveral in the 80’s. I also love the ant photo. I have dozens of these in my files, except here I can find these lone creatures only on the Queen Anne’s Lace. Ant are fascinating and inspire the imagination.

    Reply
    • February 13, 2015 at 3:22 pm
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      @maesha-shannon I can imagine that visual. There’s a haziness to the image, just like the golden memory of it perhaps.
      Oddly enough, there’s been talk of a brash new ant here called the Hopper Ant. It stings fromt he tail end and can cause anaphylactic shock in some people. A fascinating critter indeed !

      Reply
      • February 13, 2015 at 3:25 pm
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        Australia has entirely too many stinging and biting creatures and plants! πŸ˜€

        Reply
        • February 13, 2015 at 3:50 pm
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          True @maesha-shannon ! Saw a wasp just the opther day dragging a very large paralysed spider to its nest. That really does encapsulate the venomous critters here :wacko:

          Reply
  • February 12, 2015 at 11:50 am
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    :good:
    Hihi.. I had to ‘try’ your smilies… πŸ˜‰

    Warm colours, indeed. My favourite is the first one… ok, the second I mean. πŸ˜€

    Reply
    • February 12, 2015 at 1:15 pm
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      They work @dianette !! See how I can mention you as well? That second photo is from the city of Adelaide. A nice grand old building. B-)

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      • February 12, 2015 at 2:53 pm
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        @steve Yes, I see! :yahoo:
        Adelaide is really interesting! (had no idea you are chewing gum while talking” to me) πŸ˜‰

        Reply
    • February 12, 2015 at 1:20 am
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      Aww, thanks for the virtual rose @sirpamononen πŸ™‚

      Reply

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