If you’re looking to get started collecting old vintage lenses from the 80’s and 90’s, then the Helios 44 series is a great place to start. They are known for their beautiful large swirling bubble bokeh.
There are several variations of this lens all with different character. I have the 44M, the 44-2 and 44-4. They are all similar and different but built with the same goal – to copy the Zeiss Biotar.
In terms of quality and performance, these lenses are great for non-radioactive vintage lenses.
In this review I’ll only be discussing the 44-2. I’ll have more reviews on the other lenses as well.
You can buy these lenses on Ebay, or even on Amazon. I’ve bought a few off Amazon and a few off Ebay. I prefer Amazon personally but sometimes they are harder to find.
I also don’t buy UV filters for these old lenses since it’s sometimes almost just as cheap to buy a new lens if anything happens.
You’ll also need an adapter depending on your camera. I use the Fotasy adapters.
- Helios 58mm f2 44-2 M42 Mount Lens – Amazon
This lens is not radioactive.
- M42 to Sony E-Mount – Amazon
- M42 to Fujifilm X-Mount – Amazon
- M42 to Canon EFM – Amazon
- M42 to Nikon 1 – Amazon
- M42 to M43 Mount – Amazon
- M42 to G-Mount – Amazon
Helios 44-2 First Impressions
Of all the Helios lenses the 44M-2 might be my least favorite lens to use, but it has some of my favorite character.
The reason for this is because of its “preset aperture” that makes selecting the aperture a pain.
How it works is the aperture has two rings, one ring to set the aperture limit, and the other to adjust the aperture within that limit.
So if you set the aperture to 5.6 with the primary ring, then your secondary ring will allow you to throw the aperture between f2 to f5.6 without ever passing f5.6. Which is pretty cool, except the secondary ring doesn’t let you know what aperture you’re actually on between that range since it doesn’t line up to any numbers. All this just makes adjusting aperture too complicated.
Of course if you were shooting video and wanted some sort of de-click aperture with a preset limit, then this might be just what you’re looking for.
Like a lot of other vintage lenses you have to always be aware of what you’re doing if you want the best results. Although the Helios 44-2 is a great little lens with some decent sharpness with great bokeh, it will flare like crazy compared to many modern lenses, it has some issues with spherical aberrations.
For this shot I was at about the minimum focus distance from my daughter in her car seat, focusing on her eye lids. I was somewhere around f5.6.
Corner To Corner Sharpness
Center Sharpness is passible on the Helios 44M-2 but the edge performance is pretty bad and the corners are even worst.
This is not too unusual for old 35mm lenses that are being adapted to deal with the micro lenses found in a modern digital sensor, especially full frame sensors. Perhaps one day curved sensors will solve this problem.
On something like an APS-C camera the crop gets rid of the worst of it, but you’ll still notice it in the extreme edges.
These soft edges are not necessarily because the lens isn’t capable of producing good detail in the corners and edges, but because the corners and edges are actually slightly out of focus since this lens has some pretty bad spherical aberrations. You can focus for the edges, but then your center falls out of focus.
So, the higher your f-stop, the more depth of field you get and your corners should get sharper. However, diffraction will cause you to loss resolution overall, so you need to adjust your aperture accordingly.
Also, this will be even less of an issue the further the subject is from the lens, since you’ll get slightly more depth at infinity.
Below is a straight out of camera (APS-C XT2) sample at f5.6. It’s not too bad on an APS-C camera for a lens under $100.
Below is sample where I try to focus at the edges at f2. You can see the center falls out of focus. You can also see there is very little distortion. This was full frame shot on the A7rII.
In terms of overall sharpness, I’ve yet to get an image that has blown me away like I get with the Fujinon 56mm f1.2, especially wide open, but it still can produce some very nice detail at the right f-stop (of around f4-f8) and at the right distance.
Diffraction & The Sweet Spot
I like to do these diffraction tests because they always help to find the sweet-spot of the lens. Typically diffraction is influenced by the pixel pitch of the camera sensor, but – sometimes some lenses still perform better than others.
At f2, even several feet from the wall, the lens is hardly usable unless you’re looking to sacrifice sharpness for big bubble bokeh and shallow depth.
F2.8 is a significant improvement over f2, then between f4 and f8 the lens seem to give the sharpest results.
Bokeh / Swirling Cat Eye Effect
The Helios 58mm f2 lens is known for the swirling bokeh effect, especially the 44M-2. This of course won’t appear in every image, you sort of have to get the distance and focus just right to get it to get the out-of-focus area to swirl this crazy.
You also won’t get as much of the swirly effect if you’re shooting on an APS-C camera. Below is a sample from the Sony A7rII’s full frame sensor.
Full lens bokeh samples using the Mitakon M42-Fuji FX Speed Master. This allows for a full frame circle of projection on an APS-C sensor. The speed master will add four elements and cuts down a little bit on clarity and contrast.
Flaring & Ghosting
Flaring and ghosting on these retro lenses is usually quite the spectacle and the 44M-2 is no exception. My lens doesn’t specify if it’s multi-coated or not, but honestly I don’t mind.
What’s cool is you actually get those classic ring pattern lens flares that modern lenses typically don’t produce.
I was somewhere around and F5.6 I believe on the left. On the right you can see what flaring becomes at f16.
Compared to other models of the lens the flaring is very interesting. The 44M, seems to bloom and glow more, and the 44-4 maintains a bit more clarity.
Helios 58mm F2 44M-2 Review | Bottom Line
These old Helios lenses are by no means amazing lens compared to what you get with some of the new stuff. While some people may disagree with me here, my argument is that there is more to a lens than center sharpness and micro-contrast.
These old helios lenses have some problems, especially when adapted to digital full frame cameras.
That doesn’t mean the Helios 44M-2 sucks. They don’t, far from it actually, especially when adapted to an APS-C camera or shot in crop mode on a full frame camera.
The 44-2 has some really nice center sharpness and decent micro contrast and the corners are capable of resolving detail as long as you’re shooting subject matter at some distance and have stopped down, not to mention the flaring creates some very beautiful and usable patterns.
All around it’s a very fun lens to use and the image rendering has some really unique characteristics that’s hard to find in modern lenses. For a lens that you can find for around $60 dollars, you can’t really go wrong.
The only that really bothers me is the preset aperture. This was a design mistake that some people were doing back in the early 80’s, and it makes it hard to know what aperture you’re at. Because of this, I often find myself usually picking up my 44M-4 or 44M instead of this one. However, the 44M-2 does have a look slightly different from the other two.
Is the 44-2 the best Helios lens?
I only have three of the helios lenses right now but already I can tell without even testing that the 44-4 is a bit sharper and has better contrast than the 44-2. It’s actually pretty noticeable, especially when shooting at the faster apertures. I say that after testing three different copies of the 44-2.
I’m still testing the 44-4 compared to the 44-2 and I’ll do a full writeup eventually, so maybe there will be other flaws the 44-4 has that the 44-2 doesn’t, but as of right now, I recommend the 44-4 over the 44-2 unless you want a de-click type aperture or one that has been converted to anamorphic.
I’ve also heard the 44-7 is pretty magical if you can find a copy.
Helios 58mm F2 44-2 Sample Images