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