So it has been a while since my last lens review article in March. This time I would like to review an all-time personal favorite vintage lens of mine, the incredible Helios 44-2 58m f/2. This lens is, to me, everything I could ever hope from a camera lens. As always, I’m not going into technicalities but I will state opinions based on my experience in the field.
Build and Handling
Helios 44-2 was a prime lens that served as the kit lens for Russian-made Zenit SLR series using the ubiquitous M42 mount, which was in production from the 1950s until the 1990s. As always the case with older lenses, the build is full-metal and thus feels very solid and weighty even though the lens itself is rather small. I like how the front element of the lens is hidden quite deep, making a semi ‘hood’. Which is good to protect the lens from renegade lights.
Now here come my favorite parts of the lens, the aperture ring. It’s clickless! While some people would prefer lenses that make clicks when choosing aperture, being clickless is one of Helios’s allures. Combined with its super smooth, super long focus throw and you have a winning recipe for a handy lens for videos. Check out this short video below that I shot using Helios. I could not be happier with the result!
Helios has the maximum aperture of f2 which would probably make you think it’s quite ‘slow’. But on the contrary, for me, it’s as fast as my f1.4 Pentax lens. One thing I want to mention is the rather unusual focal length of 58mm since usually kit lens would be either the ‘nifty-fifty’ 50mm or 55mm. Perhaps 58mm has something to do with the production method or other technical reasons but really I have not found any reason why that particular number though, so if you have something to add just give me a holler.
I have nothing but good things to say about the image quality. Though I do believe when it comes to obtaining vintage lenses your luck plays a big role, I am glad to say that the copy I own is perfect. First, even when wide open at aperture f2, the contrast is rather sharp. Just keep it away from the sun (which would even trouble modern lenses) and you’ll be fine. The lens creates a very creamy background given the right distance as you can see in the photos below.
So far I have often been integrating Helios into my city-night shots. Sharpness-wise it does not compare to a newer lens, but I find the sun-stars produced by the lens extremely appealing. Just look at the photo below! Bokeh performance at night is also more than acceptable. If the bokeh looks a tad dirty that’s probably dust accumulating inside. It’s old after all!
One last thing I would like to point out is the aesthetics. Though constantly hailed as one of the most mass-produced lenses, Helios is — for lack of a better word — a stunning performer. For instance, it’s well-known for its ‘swirly bokeh’ effect. Combined that with the native film-like rendering even when used in digital bodies and you’ll produce some unique shots in no time.
The verdict is clear on this one. I have stated that it’s my personal favorite bar none so I’ll give you the score upfront:
Final score: 10/10
For a lens that could be bought for as cheap as $50, Helios 44-2 punches above its weight in almost every aspect. I don’t really have anything bad about this lens other than given its peculiar focal length of 58mm it becomes an 87mm semi-telephoto lens when paired with APS-C bodies. So if you can, get this lens and you won’t regret it. I promise you that.
More photo samples below: