If you’re looking to get started collecting old vintage lenses, but isn’t prepared to bleed the big dollar for the more expensive lenses, then the Helios 44 series is a great place to start out the passion for Vintage. They are known for their beautiful large swirling bubble bokeh and color rendition. In terms of quality and performance, these lenses are great for non-radioactive vintage lenses but often in need of a good clean and a good lubrication before working satisfactory in cold conditions.
There are several variations of this lens all with different character. They are all similar and yet very different, built with the same goal – to copy the Zeiss Biotar. In this blog I’ll be discussing the 44-2 and in that way build on top of my in my former post where I did a short test of some of my 50mm lenses. The Helios 44 is also very much appreciated among artistic photographers who adores it for its qualities and abilities.
The Helios 44-2 Is possibly the lens i hate to use the most, but at the same time the lens gives me the expressions that is exactly what i love and adore in vintage photography. The biggest pain of this lens is its “preset aperture”, that really makes selecting the aperture a royal pain. The setup includes It works with the aperture having two rings, one ring to set the aperture limit, and the other to adjust the aperture within that limit, all this is making adjusting aperture overly complicated.
Corner to Corner
Center Sharpness is passible on the Helios 44M-2 but the edge performance is pretty bad and the corners are even worst. This is especially pronounced on a full frame camera, but on a APS-C the crop gets rid of the worst of it. In terms of overall sharpness, it is not the go to lens for sharpness. Even if that I would never be considering using this lens “stopped down”, is it interesting to know, that nice details can be twirked at the sweet spot f4) and up in to around f/8, do take the distance into consideration.
Identifying the lens
I am always getting confused about the series of Helios, and judging from the many posts there is to be found on the net, am I not the only one to be confused.
KMZ – Krasnogorskiy Mechanicheskiy Zavod, or the Krasnogorsk Mechanical Plant if you like was the biggest producer of these lenses, and my version also originate from their factories. Their numbering series adds to the confusion but the best description i have found is this :
– since 1971 they used the standard system, where first two digits means year of production: e.g. 7103215 = 1971
– earlier lenses don’t use it: silver models and some black+white models
– silver models are typically 000, 00, 0: oldest models (“red-P / 5,8cm”) are 000 or 00, while later ones (58mm) are mostly 0
– 13 blades vs 8 blades: 000 and 00 lenses have 13 blades; lenses with serial number lower than 022… have 13 blades and higher than 029… have 8 blades; no data for 022-029; I’m not sure, if this is true for every lens, but for many of them it seems to be OK
– black+white models are 00 or 0… later use standard system
so… my guess (only for KMZ Helios 44/44-2 lenses!):
N 000xxxx – N 0017xxx -> silver, 5,8cm red-P, 13-blades
N 0018xxx – N 0072xxx -> silver, no data, likely 13-blades
N 0073xxx – N 0225xxx -> silver, 2/58, 13-blades
N 0226xxx – N 0244xxx -> silver, no data
N 024447x – all later SNs -> silver, 2/58, 8 blades
N 0075xxx – N 0521xxx -> black+white (pre 1970)
00854xx – 011xxxx -> black+white (1970 or early 1971)
71xxxxx – xxxxxxx -> standard numbering system (1971 and later)
as for the system:
000 – prototypes
00 – politics
0 – factory leader
Swirly bokeh with the Helios 44-2 lens
You might have seen images taken with this lens where in which the bokeh appeared to be swirling in a circular pattern. The phenomena is called “swirly bokeh” and certain vintage lenses (Biotar and Petzval) created this effect through a manufacturing defect. You can also find this attribute in this christmas photo, where the swirling is quite visible, without getting overly distracting. The signature of this lens is really outstanding, and their is a huge cult following for a lens called “a Helios 58mm f/2”.