The Helios 44-2 is one of my favourite old lenses. This, along with the Jupiter-9 are my two most used manual focus lenses for stills and video. The Helios 44 line started in 1958. Its initial design is a copy of the Carl Zeiss Biotar 58mm f/2, and was produced by KMZ for the M42 mount. Since that first version, it’s been through several iterations as technology has advanced.
In this video from Manny Ortiz, we see the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 lens in action on a Sony A7RII. When you see the looks that can be achieved by this lens it’s easy to see why this quickly becomes a favourite of all who own one. The fact that they can be picked up for as low as $10 just makes it one that should be in everybody’s bag.
The wonderful thing about these old Soviet lenses, and particularly the 44-2 is that the quality control wasn’t that great. While every 44-2 I’ve used is sharp, they all have very slightly distinct qualities which make each lens unique. I’ve got three 44-2 lenses, as well as a 44m and a 44m-4 and they all give slightly different images.
Some respond to backlight better, others have a little more or less contrast, and they all seem to render the out of focus areas of the shot slightly differently to each other. As they are M42 lenses, you’ll generally need an adapter. I have several adapters for Canon, MFT and Sony to be able to utilise M42 lenses.
I also have a couple of adapters for Nikon, but you have to be careful here as there are two options. The problem with Nikon bodies is that their lens mount is a little further away from the sensor (or film plane) than most other manufacturers. This is why it’s easy to find adapters to put Nikon glass on other camera systems, but often difficult going the other way.
This extra distance means that the lens tends to focus slightly forward of your sensor inside your camera. You get a similar effect to using a very small extension tube. The net result of this is that you lose infinity focus. The basic adapter is this one.
It is possible to attach an M42 lens to a Nikon and retain infinity focus, but these adapters contain a lens element to correct for the focus issue. That element isn’t usually made from the highest quality optical glass. So, you are going to lose a little something, especially shooting wide open. I see a lot of softness, giving almost a glow type effect over the whole image, despite being sharply in focus. Stopping down to about f/4 usually resolves this, but then you lose the depth of field and the whole point of shooting an f/2 lens.
Using an adapter without the optical element, there’s no such issue, but, you do lose focus past a certain distance. This is why I have both, then I can use whichever I need based on the shot I want to get. Adapters for Canon, Sony and MFT camera systems also don’t have this problem.
One thing you’ll want to watch out for with the Helios 44-2 is that many of them in the used market have very oily aperture blades. As long as it’s not so bad that it’s dripping on the lens element, it’s not a problem, but it’s something to be aware of. If you get one like this, you may want to (carefully) dismantle it, clean the blades, and then rebuild it.
They are great lenses, though, and can achieve some fantastic results that are impossible to reproduce with modern glass. With a cost as low as $10 (I’ve even been given a couple of mine for free), what are you waiting for?
What are you favourite M42 or other old lenses? What cameras are you using them with? Are you using them for stills or video? Let us know in the comments.