The recent surge in popularity of mirror-less cameras coupled with affordable lens adapters has effectively elevated a handful of mostly-forgotten legacy lenses to a new level of popularity that they’ve not enjoyed in decades. One such lens bears the name Helios, and the Helios 44 models in particular are regarded by many photo geeks as being among the greatest legacy lenses to come from the long-departed U.S.S.R.
But why does this lens enjoy such cult status these days? What makes it so desirable compared to its German and Japanese contemporaries? Is it especially lightweight? Does it produce exceptional sharpness?
We wanted to know, so I took the lens for a little walk around Copenhagen to see what it could do.
A bit of history; the Helios 44M is a Soviet-made copy of a rather remarkable and famous Zeiss creation- the Biotar 58mm F/2. The fast, six-element anastigmat is among the most mass-produced lenses in the world, with production spanning over 33 years. As the Ural is to BMW, and the Zorki is to Contax, the Helios arrived a little late and left a little to be desired.
So why is it so popular today?
The first thing one notices when holding the lens is its weight. This entirely metal and glass design is, relative to its small size, a real heavyweight at 300 grams (that’s 10.6 ounces for you Imperial Unit folk).
This may not seem like a lot on paper, but in a bag, pocket, or perched on the front of a camera the density is impressive. And while the weight may be a bit much for some, it also gives a feeling that one’s holding quality goods in the palm.
Then there’s the aesthetics; it’s a beautiful lens when viewed en face, but from the side this changes somewhat. That’s because when viewed from the side we see the rough-looking engravings and multi-colored lines, numbers and dots that indicate focus and aperture number. The choice of colors is a bit jarring, and the metalwork is among the less refined we’ve seen. That said, we are guilty of enjoying the charming nostalgia of a bygone time when we see the the little green inscription that reads, “Made in U.S.S.R.”
When it comes to build quality the Russians have done a decent job. Although not comparable to glass from Leica or even a nice Nikkor, the focus ring spins smoothly enough (though our copy does get a bit tight in cold weather). The aperture ring’s motion is similarly acceptable, though we wish the f-stops were spaced a bit more freely. Tight placement means it can be a bit finicky to hit the desired f-number.
Age (or misuse) has caught up to many Helios lenses, with aperture blade synchronization failing in many examples. The product of this being that bokeh highlights can appear lopsided at times.
Naturally the legacy nature of this lens means that shooters wont get an f-number displayed in the viewfinder, as we see in modern lenses with fancy circuitry. And while their are M42 mount adapters available that boast of chips for reading aperture values on modern machines, these shouldn’t be trusted. These cheap adapters often provide the camera with a false aperture value of 0 or 3.2, depending on the model.
So it’s a well-built lens that’s compact and relatively fluid in handling. But what is it like to shoot? And what kind of images can it make? The photos it makes, as with all lenses, is the true measure of the Helios’ value.
First thing’s first, the 58mm fixed focal may be a bit odd if you’re used to the more common standard prime focal lengths, these usually being 35mm and 50mm. But this unusual focal length is something that should be embraced, as it forces the shooter to be more creative. Taking a step backward or forward to frame the subject, or approaching a shot from a different perspective might help photo geeks see things just a bit differently.
Shooting wide open presents a mixed bag of image aberrations and desirable traits. For one, the lens exhibits moderate vignetting and softness around the edges when shot at F/2. This can imbue images with an ethereal quality typically found in the oldest of antique lenses. Depending on what the shooter is trying to achieve, this can be charming or bothersome.
Stopped down to F/5.6 or F/8, things sharpen drastically. Images are relatively crisp and detailed, though I stress the qualifying term. Shots are only impressively sharp in relation to this lens’ wide open performance. When compared to other contemporary lenses at any F-stop, the Helios just isn’t super sharp; adequate, but not worthy of note.
Tonality and color are very nice, with the lens producing soft, warm colours. Even in the chilly November air, it renders the autumn sky and the crispy leaves in earthy splendor.
And now we get to the showpiece of the Helios 44M; the bokeh! And this bokeh is truly unique. In fact, it’s this bokeh that first drives many photophiles to buy the lens.
When shot wide open with a subject in the midground, it’s possible to get what’s commonly referred to as “swirly bokeh,” in which the background seems to swirl and bulge around the center of the frame. When shot with a central subject, this is a very cool effect, and one that is difficult to find in any other lens. Used with taste, it can help to make some very interesting shots.
So when all is said and done, is this a lens that you’ve got to own?
For me, the feeling of old, Russian glass in my hands never goes out of style. And the swirly bokeh in union with the effect of the strong vignette makes this perfect for unusual portraiture. Though restricted from use as a truly versatile all-rounder due to the focal length, experimental photogs will love its eccentricities.
Those on the fence should also consider the Helios’ $25 price tag. That price point, and the great feeling it gives in use, make it easy to recommend.
If you’re looking for a legacy lens with some peculiar qualities, and one that might get you of your comfort zone once in a while, you may just fall in love with the Helios 44M.
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