Colluding with Russian Lenses – the Soviet Helios Series / by Jeremy Mudd

Zenit Helios Lenses - M44-7 on the left, M44-2 on the right.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with two Russians over the last few years. They have flaws, but to be truthful its their flaws that make me enjoy spending time with them. Often they are unpredictable.  One of them is a real problem child. And the other is clearly guilty of “Russian Interference”.

Who am I talking about? It’s not “who”, but “what”. I’m talking about the Soviet era Helios lenses. I have two of them in my possession; the M44-2 and the M44-7. These lenses were made in the 80’s and 90’s and were attempts by Zenit at copying the well-known Zeis Biotar lenses. Both of them are 58mm, which is an odd length but fairly common in Eastern European optics. And both are an f/2. There is a third Helios, the M44-4, but I don’t have that one (yet).

Modified M44-7 at infinity focus. You can see the rear element sticking out just a little too far. Works OK with crop bodies like my D500 and D7100, but not good with any full frame or 35mm cameras. “Russian Interference” at its worst. :)

I’ll start with the M44-7. I picked up my copy of this lens a few years back on eBay. Someone had modified the lens before I purchased it. They removed the M42 screw mount and replaced it with a Nikon F mount so it would work on Nikons without an adapter. Sounds like a great idea, no? Well, no, it wasn’t. Because whomever did the work on it didn’t use a spacer between the lens and the F-mount, so that when used on a full-frame camera with the lens racked all the way back for infinity, the mirror strikes the back element. Russian Interference, you might say. When shooting close-up its not an issue, and I didn’t discover it until having it for awhile and shooting stuff further away. However, it does work fine with a crop-sensor camera because the mirror is smaller and occupies a smaller plane during its movement. So that’s where its lived most of its life since I purchased it.

Image shot with the M44-7 lens. This was shot at f/2, with the background only 6-8 inches behind the wildflower. Note the very “swirly” Bokeh and the sharp center area where the wildflower is. Also there is some slight vignetting in the corners that disappears as you stop down on this lens.

Grass - This shot really illustrates how things get Bokeh’d out at f/2. There’s a patch in the front/middle that’s somewhat sharp and in focus, but quickly things go swirly right behind it. Again, vignetting at the corners.

Another M44-7 image. This illustrates how the further away your background is, the swirlier (is that a word?) the Bokeh becomes. Note that this was wide open at f/2 and not all of the subject bloom is in focus.

The M44-7 is often regarded as being the “better” of the M44-series lenses as its Bokeh is considered to be a little more pleasing, and it tends to be a little sharper at the corners. To be honest since it only lives on my crop-sensor bodies like my D500 or D7100, I wouldn’t notice or care since that area isn’t captured. I do love its creamy and swirly Bokeh. It’s fairly predictable, and when stopped down to around f/4 its fairly “sharp”. Its certainly not as sharp at my Nikon 50mm f/1.8D but that’s not why I like using this lens.

Another M44-7 image, this time shot at f/4. You still get the swirly effect in the Bokeh and some decent sharpness on the subject. Still some vignetting present. I like how these lenses render the blues and yellows.

An M44-7 image shot at f/2. The Alliums in the background were relatively close to the one in the foreground so they aren’t as swirly. The grass behind them with the dew on it, however, is just swirly Bokeh balls.

The M44-2 I picked up about a year ago because I wanted a Helios lens that I could use with my full-frame digital and 35mm film cameras, and I was also interested in the slightly different look this lens renders. It’s considered to be more swirly or harsh as compared to the M44-7. The example I picked up on Ebay had an adapter screwed onto the M42 mount so it could be used with a Nikon. This meant no element interfering with the mirror (yay!), but it also means the lens is about 2 inches longer than its M44-7 brother.

Gum Tree leaf shot with the M44-2 at f/2. Not even the entire leaf is in focus at f/2. Bokeh is a little less predictable, depending on what’s behind and the distance. In this case its another Gum Tree branch, a Pine Tree, and the sky in my backyard.

Tulip in my front yard, shot with the M44-2 at maybe f/3-ish. Hard to tell with the way the aperture ring works on my version. I just know it was slightly stopped down off of f/2. The Flox blooms in the background were only 6-8 inches behind the Tulip. Notice that on this and many of the other M44-2 shots the vignetting is less than the M44-7 - that goes against the common wisdom that I’ve read.

The M44-2’s other drawback, or “plus” depending on how you look at it, is that the f/stop ring is smooth in movement. No detents or clicks to tell you what f/stop you are changing to. This is often desirable by folks who do video. In use, looking at the ring while turning it doesn’t make it any better at knowing where you are in the range; on my copy the numbers are backwards so it says you are at f/16 when the lens is wide-open, and f/2 when fully stopped down. That’s OK. It mostly lives at wide-open or nearly wide-open anyway. Is it sharp? Its fairly sharp, just not at the outer edges of the frame. Again - this isn’t the lens to grab if I care about being tack-sharp. The copy I have also suffers from having some oil on the aperture blades, and can also be sticky at times when moving the focus ring.

Everything I just wrote above sounds like the M44-2 is a problematic lens, and to be fair and honest, it kinda is. At least my copy is. But I still love it. The Bokeh of the M44-2 is super dreamy and very painterly. I personally can’t get enough of it, but I can see where it could be polarizing to some. It definitely is an “artistic statement” you are making by using it.

Crocus bloom in the front yard, M44-2 at f/2. Note that only the front of the flower is in focus. The brown left-over leaves from Fall are blown out nicely, even though they are only inches from the bloom.

Overall, I wouldn’t say that either version of lens is really “sharp”, but as other reviewers have stated, they are “sharp enough where they need to be”. Which means that mostly in the center of the frame there is a decent amount of sharpness. This, combined with the quick fall-off and swirly Bokeh, really helps separate your subject from the background. And with today’s modern processing, you can sharpen it a bit more and it looks great.

Lily - M44-2 at approx f/3-ish. Most of the flower is in focus but the leaves and grass behind it are Bokeh’d out nicely. This was shot on my Nikon F5 with Fuji 200C film, rated at 100.

Also know that like most older lenses, they are prone to flare when pointing into direct sunlight. For some this is an “added feature”, for me, I generally just avoid pointing any lens directly into the sun. Having a lens hood does help with angled light though, and that’s why you see one on my M44-2 lens.

The way I like to shoot both lenses is in A-mode. That way the camera figures out the speed I need for proper exposure and I can just concentrate on composing the scene and trying to get SOMETHING in focus. It helps that I have my diopter set to my vision to see what’s in focus, along with the great “arrows and dot” read-out in the bottom left of the Nikon camera viewer. This is a big help in focusing. The other thing to know about using these lenses is that your camera doesn’t record the f/stop in the EXIF data because they aren’t electronic and it can’t read where its at. No big deal to me, really.

Wildflower this past weekend at Tom’s Pumpkin Farm in Miamisburg, Ohio. Shot on the M44-2 at f/3-ish.

Anther Wildflower from this past weekend at Tom’s Pumpkin Farm in Miamisburg, Ohio. Shot on the M44-2 at f/3-ish

You’ve probably noticed that most of the Helios images I’ve posted here are flowers. I go through phases in regards to what I like to shoot - usually when flowers are in bloom I’m shooting bugs and flowers. Often I am walking around with two cameras - one set up for bugs and the other for flowers. That doesn’t mean that the Helios lenses aren’t great for other subjects like portraits, landscapes, etc. I think if I were really into portraits one of the Helios lenses would definitely be in my bag at all times.

Renee hiking at Germantown Reserve last weekend. This was just after sunrise, and the sun was putting a shaft of light thru the trees lighting her. Shot at approximately f/5.6. Note the swirly Bokeh balls in the background and how they become a little more oblong at the edges. This is a characteristic of both lenses to varying degrees. Renee hates this shot so don’t tell her I used it.

I think that most people who like playing around with Lensbaby lenses and other oddballs like that will really enjoy the Helios lenses. They have a distinctive “look” that is difficult to replicate any other way, and are fun to play with. Both variants can be found on eBay for less than $75 each depending on condition and seller’s location.  I’d recommend against buying one that’s been modified to an F-mount and look for a nice example with the screw mount instead – then purchase an M42 to F adapter. It guarantees you don’t have a mirror hitting issue, and you might want it for other lenses anyway.

Other lenses to consider if you are looking for interesting Bokeh, without spending an arm and a leg on the Lomo Petzfal lenses, are the older Nikon 50mm f/1.4 NIKKOR-S.C. Auto lenses. These were made from 1966-1974 and have some interesting Bokeh when shot wide open. Not quite as swirly but still a pleasing, different look. Again these are manual focus lenses – they also have sharp glass and render images very nicely, especially when stopped down a stop or two.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any questions. If you have one of these lenses and enjoy using them, let me know! I’d love to hear some other thoughts about them.