Helios-44 is a series of standard lenses for SLR cameras, produced in the Soviet Union by KMZ, MMZ, Jupiter from 1958 until 1999; it is considered to be one of the most mass-produced lenses in the world.https://camerapedia.fandom.com/wiki/Helios-44
I’ve had the Helios 44M 58mm f/2 lens for a few years now, but used it very little. Back when I had the Panasonic GH5 I didn’t have the money to buy expensive glass right away, the big thing among videographers on YouTube was using vintage glass with adapters. So I bought a few adapters, some Canon FD lenses, and soon this lens, the Helios 44M popped up on my radar as well. I found a used one at a cheap price online, but upon receiving it I discovered that I just didn’t like vintage lenses that well, and put it back in a drawer. It stayed there for a while, alongside the Canon FD lenses, until I started selling of gear and downsizing be belongings. Most of the Canon FD glass got sold fast, but I kept the Canon FD 50mm f/1.4, which is stuck on my Canon AV-1, and for some reason, I didn’t get myself to sell the Helios.
A few days ago I decided to pick the Helios off the shelf, mount it on my newly acquired Fujifilm X-E3 using a cheap adapter from ebay, and took a few shots on my daily trip to a nearby lake.
The lens is quite heavy, all-metal, clunky, and the adapter makes the whole thing a bit more wiggly than I’m used to. I turned the camera to Manual-mode, enabled shooting without a lens in the menu, and used focus peaking. The focus ring is decent, but the clicking of the aperture ring is not up to the Fuji-standard, but considering this is probably a 30-year-old lens, I’ll forgive all that.
Wide-open the lens is pretty soft, at least mine is. Even when stopped down the image is lacking contrast, and it seemed like that made the focus peaking, which usually is top-notch on Fuji, a bit more unreliable. I’ve seen other reviews that claimed the softness and lack of contrast was greatly improved by stopping down, but no such luck in my case.
I tried taking a few shots, but it just seemed boring, bland, and not inspiring at all. The landscape shot above was ok, but I had to add more contrast and clarity in Capture One than normal to get a decent image. But then I tried taking the photo below, and the main attraction of this lens became apparent.
This lens is mostly known for the swirly bokeh, which can be seen in the photo above. These photos would be much more interesting with a human interest in the frame, but it was just me, so this photo of a concrete slab will have to do. But look at the edge of the frame, in the trees and in the water, that’s the only reason to use this lens; swirly.
This lens, and again, this might just be my lens, is strangely soft in the edges. Look at the foreground in front of the boat in the photo above.
Taking photos against the setting sun gave me some interesting flares. The photo below has that nice, muted vintage look, which I like, and the focus was on the text, but zooming in close made it clear that this is not a very sharp lens.
Second try – bokeh overload
The next day I went out in the garden and took a few shots to maximize the bokeh taking photos close to the minimum focus range. All photos were taken on the X-E3 & Helios wide open.
I struggled to get correct focus when I got this close, and when the depth of field is so narrow, the peaking was also very thin. To combat this, I changed the drive mode to 8fps, high-burst mode on the X-E3, and took a bunch of photos each time the focus peaking came close. It gave me more photos in focus, but this is not ideal.
But look at the swirly bokeh! The lens has character, there’s no doubt about that, but it might be too much for some.
Stopping down the lens gave more details in the background, and the peaking was easier to use as well. Didn’t see a huge increase in sharpness or contrast though.
Compared to the XF 56mm f/1.2
I also wanted to compare the Helios 44M 58mm f/2 to my XF 56mm f/1.2, because they should be close to the same focal range. I didn’t measure it, but it seems like the Helios can focus closer, but with so little depth of field I did experience similar issues getting things in focus manually.
Overall, the images shot using the XF 56mm was much sharper, but this is to be expected. They had more contrast, needed less work in post-processing, had better colors, but the bokeh was surprisingly similar in my opinion.
Stopping the XF 56mm down to f/2, trying to match the Helios f/2 aperture, it seems like the apertures down compare 1:1. The Helios seems to have a more blurry background at f/2 than the XF 56mm at f/2.
So how do they compare? XF 56mm wins all categories, except price, and perhaps the bokeh on the Helios is a bit more special, but the images you get from the XF 56mm are much nicer. But, for me, the biggest difference is my confidence when I use the XF 56mm; I had to work a lot harder to get any usable photos using the Helios than with the XF 56mm, which makes me grab the XF 56mm for any work including a model or any fast-changing scenarios. Just using the Helios more and get to know it a bit better might remedy this, but it’s just too unpredictable to be anything else than a novelty lens compared to the XF 56mm.
On the other hand, if you look at what you can get out of a lens costing approx $50-60 compared to the XF 56mm costing $849, it’s a great bargain. Another option is the Viltrox AF 56mm f/1.4 at $329, but I haven’t tested that one yet.
Using adapters with old lenses
As mentioned earlier, I’m using a cheap, dumb & empty adapter, found on ebay.
This $20 adapter does nothing but compensates for the flange distance, and because it is a tiny bit loose, it might have influenced my results quite a bit. Another option would be to buy what is known as a focal reducer, which in addition to adjusting for flange distance also has a piece of optic inside which gives you approximately a stop of light more. I’d have to use some sort of ND-filter to use it wide-open in daylight, but that might give better results, and be good for some strange, experimental photos in low light as well.
Did I like using the Helios 44M 58mm f/2 on the X-E3? Not at first, but after a while, the process of getting things in focus took away my attention from the awful shutter sound of the X-E3. And it did take me back to shooting more like I did when using my old film cameras, which was both interesting and frustrating. The focus peaking on the X-E3 was a bit tricky to use, especially when the depth of field was very shallow, but I think the out of focus problems I experienced even when the shot was in focus according to the focus peaking, was mostly due to the lens, and not the camera. And, when looking at photos up close, the lens was very soft, with other color artifacts as well. This added character on some photos but was just terrible on others. Still, when I got the photos into Capture One I did like some of the photos a lot, but I had to process the photos more than I usually do, like adding more contrast and clarity, sharpening and structure, and the photos very still very soft.
Pros for this lens are
- it can be found cheap online. I bought mine for approx $55.
- the bokeh has a special character not seen in many lenses
- it gives your photos a natural, vintage look
The cons for this lens are
- it’s soft, even when stopped down
- it’s heavy, especially with the adapter, on my small X-E3
- the adapter on ASP-C will make the lens longer and might give a very clunky feeling
- using focus peaking when the depth of field is very shallow can be tricky
I’ll keep my lens for now, but will use it for experimental photography only. When it works, ie. when I do things right, the lens can give you beautiful images, but you have to be patient, and manual focus is not for everyone. Using it on my small X-E3 it gave me a more film-like experience, and as an additional camera to the X-T3 with the XF 56mm f/1.2 attached, could give you a few shots with a different feeling, but using the Helios only would drive me mad.
In short, it’s a special lens, and not for everybody, but it’s cheap, and can give you very nice, allthough soft, results of you’re more patient than me.