Helios 44M 58mm F/2 Lens Review – Another Round of Russian Roulette

Helios 44M 58mm F/2 Lens Review – Another Round of Russian Roulette

2400 1350 Josh Solomon

Our frequent coverage of lenses and cameras from the former Soviet Union might make us seem like ardent fans of the subgenre, but I can assure you it’s not the case (true at least for the members of the CP writing staff who aren’t named Jeb). I’ve come to the conclusion that despite their internet reputations for being amazing dark horses, most of these lenses are just sub-par copies of German ones. But there’s one lens in my collection that quietly and consistently reminds me that I don’t know it all, and that lens is the Helios 44M 58mm f/2.

Like many Soviet lenses, the Helios 44M waltzed (or hopaked?) into my life unannounced. It came attached to a Zenit TTL which I wanted to test, but whose busted light meter disqualified it for review (that job fell to Jeb). I quickly unscrewed the Helios from the Zenit and stuck it onto my resident M42 shooter, the elegant Pentax SV.

I had no reason to trust the Helios. Why? It followed the same formula every other lackluster Soviet lens followed; it was a yet another Zeiss knockoff (aping the Zeiss Biotar 58mm f/2), it came attached to a half-broken camera, and it was produced by a factory known for its loose manufacturing tolerances, KMZ (Krasnogorsky Zavod), famous for producing the Industar and Jupiter lenses found on the Leica copies known as FED and Zorki, and since those two lenses ended up being mostly unremarkable, I wasn’t scrambling to get my hands on a Helios.

And right I was, at least at first. The Helios’ build quality ticks all the Soviet lens boxes, for better and worse. It’s incredibly solid in both feel and construction, but has all the sophistication of an Eliza Doolittle. Yes, it packs in all the accoutrements of pricier manual focus SLR lenses, like a focusing scale, half-stop clicks between f-stop markers, and a depth-of-field preview wheel, but the execution here is pretty dismal. The aperture ring feels entirely too loose, my copy has a stiff focus action which on occasion aggravates my carpal tunnel syndrome, and the depth-of-field preview wheel sometimes decides to stop down of its own accord.

But most people will tell that the saving grace of many less-than-stellarly-built Soviet lenses is their overall image quality in relation to their cost. This is an assertion that has time and again proved to be wildly exaggerated, if not flat out wrong. After having been sufficiently disappointed by the performance of a couple of other Soviet “sleeper” lenses I really wasn’t expecting much from the Helios 44M.

Its stellar reputation springs directly from its predecessor, the Zeiss Biotar 58mm f/2. The lens formula itself dates back to the 1920’s and referred to a variation on the six elements in four Double-Gauss formula made famous by the Zeiss Planar. The Biotar was initially manufactured for cinema use, and then adapted for the Exakta mount in 1936. The formula reappeared post-war in the East German-controlled Carl Zeiss Jena plant as the Carl Zeiss Jena 58mm f/2, and was eventually rebranded by the Soviet Union as the Helios 44M we know today.

The first thing that jumps out about this lens’ imaging characteristics isn’t actually the image quality itself; it’s the slightly unusual focal length. The Helios’ 58mm focal length is at the longest end of the definition of the 35mm “standard,” which ranges anywhere from 35mm to 60mm. Avid 50mm shooters may be a little put off by how long this lens is, and die-hard 35mm and 40mm street shooters might find this lens much too narrow for their purposes. I tend towards 50mm, and I find that 58mm works like a charm. It isolates subjects in a clearer way than 50mm does owing to the naturally narrower depth-of-field of 58mm, and presents a slightly tighter, more focused image.

The lens also has a reputation for the unique way it renders bokeh. Wide-open at f/2, the Helios 44M exhibits a signature bokeh swirl, something commonly associated with older lenses. This swirl has become a calling card for the lens and is one of the reasons the Helios has a cult following, but I personally find the effect a little jarring and its usage often gratuitous. Fortunately, the narrower-depth-of-field naturally provided by the 58mm focal length makes subject isolation available at a wider range of apertures, offering some control over how much swirl exists in a given image.

Across the f/16 to f/2 aperture range the Helios 44M remains remarkably consistent. The lens wide-open does exhibit a slight loss of contrast and somewhat pronounced vignetting, but when closed-down things sharpen up considerably. And it’s not just sharp for a Soviet lens, it’s sharp compared to any and all. This is one of the rare Soviet lenses whose optical quality gets very close to the standard set by its forebears. Although the narrow focal length limits its usage for wide landscapes, its sharpness corner-to-corner and above-average resolution past f/5.6 makes it a wonderful choice for general purpose photography, and its surprisingly good center sharpness and subject isolation at f/2.8 and f/4 make it an excellent lens for portraiture.

Color rendition on the Helios does follow the Soviet standard in that it offers a cooler, muted color palette. Contrast is muted as well, which does make for some flat, cold, and somewhat lifeless photos overall, especially when adapting the lens to a modern mirrorless camera or DSLR. This isn’t a huge deal; pushing around the contrast and saturation sliders in Lightroom or Photoshop solves this problem entirely, as does shooting more vibrant, saturated films such as Kodak Ektar, Kodak Ultramax, or Fuji Superia 400.

All that said, the most attractive part about the Helios 44M, and most Soviet lenses, is the price point. The Helios 44M on its own can go from anywhere from $30-80, depending on condition. I do recommend looking out for Helios 44M’s that are attached to Zenit SLR’s, as they often go for the same price. That said, I do recommend ditching the Zenit and mounting the lens to a Pentax M42 mount camera like the Spotmatic or the SV for an easier shooting experience, unless you really like fighting with your equipment.

After being disappointed by Soviet lenses in the past, the Helios 44M was a pleasant surprise, and has become a welcome sight on my SV. Its slightly narrow focal length suits my style of shooting very well, and the images it makes impress me almost every time. It’s a genuine Soviet sleeper lens, and deserves every bit of praise it gets.

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Josh Solomon

Student, photo geek, contributing writer. When not jamming with my band in L.A., I'm shooting uniquely mechanical cameras.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
11 comments
  • I heard about Helios lenses and went searching for one, with no idea of what version to get. I managed to find this particular version for $50AU and I am so pleased with the results it produces. Amazing!

  • Hey Guys, I have the same version and its one of my favourite lenses. I think a lot of people come for the swirly Bokeh but stay for the imagine quality.

    it’s worth noting that mine does not mount on my Spotmatic F, earlier models might be better off, i use mine on a Praktica instead. I have the same issue with the popular Zeiss Jena Sonnar 135mm, wont mount easily.

    Still its a great lens and its character really helps set it apart from the many other 50mm lenses for M42.

  • I own a 44M-4 (not sure what the difference is in comparison to the 44M) and absolutely adore it. Usually shooting it on my Fuji X-T10 it’s my go to portrait lens. Although straight out of camera the images are a little flat, as you say push the contrast and saturation up in Lightroom and you can get some great results. Seeing as my perfect copy only cost £8 I’m a huge fan.

  • Yep, I gotta agree. I got mine attached to a cheap Zenit E. The camera never worked but I was smitten with the lens. Now I shoot it with my Pentax Spotmatic or MX. It was really only after I went into a panic after I thought Id accidentally got rid of it that I realised how much I loved it. (I actually even love the cheesy swirly bokeh.)

  • I have one of the older versions of this lens it’s heavier slightly shorter with a narrow stop down ring at the front of the lens, this needs stopped down after you choose the aperture or you end up taking pics wide open, this lens has been paired with my Pentax SV for around ten years and is always my go to sunny 16 combination, I pick this up when I start to lose it with medium format ( a work tool ) which happens several times a year the simplicity of a sunny 16 combination always frees up the mind and gets the creative juices flowing once again, the Pentax SV is an ideal no nonsense tool and once you familiarize yourself with an old Helios lens you will find yourself using both without thinking, it becomes second nature a perfect pairing although I’m sure it would work on other cameras I’ve never found the need.

  • I personally own Helios 44M and its overall a good all around lens, even before you include its low cost, Quality control is spotty, so I cant relate to sharpness after f5.6 on mine lens. Dont misundestand me, its adequate and good but just a bit softier for me (i shoot mostly city structures recently). That being said – its my go to lens usually paired with Zenit 12XP and nothing will make me part with it. Portraits and street photo? Hell yes, it can do it on the level. Just dont drop it on your feet – might need to see a medic after that. Little side note – its flare resistance is low even with sidelight, with serious contrast loss on all frame so use blend or just compensate with PS.

  • Joe shoots resurrected cameras September 5, 2018 at 2:28 pm

    I shoot M42 almost exclusively, but it’s mostly Pentax and Mamiya lenses. If a Helios-44 fell into my lap for a few dollars I wouldn’t turn it down, that said I don’t think I’d go out of my way too far to get one.

  • I have a clean copy of the Helios 44K-4 (k-mount, rather than M42) – later version, better coatings, but has lost some of its swirly-ness in the bokeh…. love it on a DSLR!

  • i’m tired of reading the same rehashed drivel in regard to lenses from the soviet union: »rip-offs«, »lackluster« »sub-par« … what is it with you united statesians (because it’s exclusively you people writing in such a manner) that makes you think you’ve got a free pass to drop condescending and thinly-veiled jingoism in your online articles?

    a »half broken camera« says more about the user than it does about the camera itself. you start out with an attitude that these lenses are basically no good, and when you find out that they are, you act all surprised.you talk about »rip-offs« without reason, ignoring the fact that many of the zeiss lens designs were improved on by soviet developers in later years and decades.

    what’s more, these very soviet designs are being rebranded as »meyer-optik görlitz« and sold for a premium as leica m-mount lenses.

    if you want to be taken seriously, get off your high horse before you start writing an article about photography that brims with misinformation and attitude, but is sorely lacking in the fields of fact- and level-headed approach to the matter at hand. i have read hundreds of articles like yours over the past 10-15 years, and as noted above, it’s always some dude from the usa with the same predictable formular: soviet union products generally shite, but for 2 bucks, they’re a passable option.

    i’d call that a sub-par rip-off of previous u.s.-based reviews, coupled with a lackluster approach to do any serious testing or research. checked your piece on the industar 61 l/d, and it’s the same text more or less, with the lens name changed.

    if your contributions are indicative of the overall non-quality of this site (which i came to by means of link recommendation), then i’m glad i haven’t wasted more of my time perusing it.

    the reference snapshots don’t help much, either … were they shot with a disposable camera?

    stick to your u.s. photo trash, apart from kodachrome i don’t think there was ever a photography product worthy of note coming from the states.

    cheers from a german leica user with leitz/zeiss lenses.

    p.s.: if you want to know how reviews are done and written, check out this site—run by germans, of course: https://www.phillipreeve.net/

    • Your rant doesn’t change the fact that a much larger percentage of Soviet era lenses (compared with Japanese and German lenses of the same era) are malfunctioning or broken when they come through our camera shop. There is a pile of Soviet lenses here that cannot be sold and must be repaired (but never will be, because they aren’t worth the time). If you’d like proof that Soviet era lenses are lacking in quality control I’ll send you this giant box full of them and they can collect superior German dust in your superior German basement.

      Next, Meyer Optik Gorlitz (umlaut passed over because my American fingers are too fat and lazy to manipulate all those keys) which you hold up as a beacon of quality just filed for bankruptcy. So they must be doing a good job, right?

      Lastly, we have five writers and hundreds of articles on classic cameras and photography. The two you referenced were written by the same person, and it’s possible that his writing style doesn’t work for you. That’s fine. I don’t love every writer I read either. But instead of condescending and dropping your own “thinly-veiled jingoism” on us, why don’t you read something from me, or Dustin, or Chris, or Jeb. Actually, let me help you – here are a few articles written by Jeb in which he talks about how much he loves Soviet cameras and lenses.

      https://www.casualphotophile.com/2017/11/13/kiev-60-ttl-camera-review/

      https://www.casualphotophile.com/2018/06/28/one-roll-five-countries-with-the-half-frame-agat-18k-film-camera/

      https://www.casualphotophile.com/2018/05/21/fed-5b-camera-review-35mm-film-rangefinder/

      Your comment doesn’t bother me, personally, because it’s over-balanced by the thousands of incredible and positive messages I’ve received from people who tell me that this website has helped them enjoy this hobby, or introduced them to photography, or film, or a lens, or a camera, or simply entertained them. I’ve only taken the time to respond to it because I don’t typically allow people to walk into my house and stomp on my children without at least suggesting that they perhaps shouldn’t do that.

      Cheers, from a stupid American.

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Josh Solomon

Student, photo geek, contributing writer. When not jamming with my band in L.A., I'm shooting uniquely mechanical cameras.

All stories by:Josh Solomon