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.