Made in the USSR: Soviet-era lenses on a modern digital camera

A few years ago, I saw a Linus Tech Tips video talking about the Helios 44-2 58mm lens. It intrigued me a bit at the time, but I never really gave it much thought. The b-roll shots that they used to show off the lens were interesting, but not Earth shattering. I did a little research at the time on them but didn’t take the plunge. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and I was browsing Kai Wong’s video backlog (Kai is of DigitalRevTV fame) and he had a video titled “5 Best 50mm Lenses under $100” Once again, the Helios 44 came up and I finally decided to take a serious look at them.

So what does 20+ year old lens from the Soviet Union do that modern glass can’t? With all of the advances in optics, coatings, and electronics, why would I use something that’s older than I am?

First a bit of a history lesson. The Helios 44 is a series of lenses that was made starting in the 1950s all the way up to early 2000s. It was effectively a Soviet copy Carl Zeiss Biotar 2/58. They would generally mount to an M42 screw thread (some were M39 and Pentax K compatible). With such a long production time frame, it’s considered one of the most mass produced lenses in the world, making them incredibly easy to find today for very little money. It features a 58mm(ish) focal length and maximum aperture of f/2.0.

With all that, why is this lens so special? It’s not Carl Zeiss optics for cheap and it’s not the sharpest tool in the box. The reason hobbyists gravitate towards this weird piece of vintage glass is the extremely unusual bokeh it produces (for the non-photography nerds, “bokeh” is the term for the out of focus blur generally found in backgrounds, more on that here). Most bokeh is spherical or round. The bokeh produced by the Helios 44 lenses is swirly. That makes for some interesting artistic effects for portraits, close ups, and even video work.

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Swirly bokeh, yes please

 

Sure, there are other lenses that do this, but most of them cost more than $50. They’re probably also for a specific modern camera mount, so you couldn’t just drop it on whatever camera you happen to own.

About 2 weeks ago, I decided to pick up one of these lenses to experiment with. Armed with a minimal amount of knowledge, I hit eBay and found myself an inexpensive example of a Helios 44. I looked for a seller in the US (faster shipping times) and found one with Nikon F Mount adapter for about $65. Cool! After I bought it, I started doing some research on the particular model I was going to get. It turns out that what was coming to my door was a 44m-6.

Some searching led me to the conclusion that I had bought the wrong lens. It turns out there were several generations of the Helios 44 and it was the 44-2 that produced the maximum amount of swirly goodness. Still, I’d read that the 44m-6 would also do it under the right conditions, so I decided to give it a go. I also decided I should look for a proper 44-2, so back to eBay I went!

In reading up on the lenses, it looks like my copy of the 44-2 was made in 1982 and the -6 was some time in the mid-90s. Visually, there is a difference. The -6 is a bit shorter, heavier, and generally more solid. Ergonomically, however, the -2 is the one I prefer. It has both a clicky aperture control ring and a non-clicky one! The clicky ring sets the aperture limit while the non clicky lets you slide between wide open and the limit. Really cool, especially for videographers!

The -6 is much more in line with modern lens design, with a focusing ring towards the front of the barrel and the aperture selector towards the back. The -2 has (from front to back) clicky aperture selector, smooth aperture selector, focusing ring. Really weird.

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Another big difference between the two generations is the internal aperture control mechanism. The newer -6 has a pin on the screw mount that needs to be pushed in to actually close the aperture to the set amount. This would presumably allow the camera body’s exposure system to meter while the lens was wide open and then close the aperture when the shutter was pressed. The -2 lacks this and the aperture is set directly by the control ring.

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These are all old lenses, so how would you use them on a modern camera body? That’s where adapters come in! The adapter is essentially a piece of metal (or sometimes plastic) that simply allows you to physically mount a lens made for one type of camera onto another type. I had managed to get a couple over the course of this experiment, including 2 Nikon F mount adapters and a Canon E mount (which I have no use for). Generally when you adapt a lens like this, you don’t get any of the information about the lens passed to the camera, so some bodies will get really confused. You’ll be shooting manually anyway, so get ready for a ton of trial and error!

For these lenses in particular, I found out that there are a couple different options on the adapters:

  1. Infinity Focus – Without corrective optics, putting a M42 lens on a camera will result in a macro lens. You can only focus on subjects close up, and you won’t be able to focus on anything much further out. An infinity focus adapter will have a small lens element that corrects this.
  2. Aperture pin functionality – Remember that aperture pin on the -6 that I mentioned earlier? Without a raised lip on the adapter, the pin will always be in the disengaged position, meaning you will never be able to change the aperture on the lens. Not a problem with the -2!

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With all that in mind, it’s time to put the lens on the camera and start taking some photos! I primarily bought this to experiment with for doll and figure photography, so here are a bunch of shots that I did.

Overall, I’m really happy with these lenses. They aren’t the easiest to use, but if you nail a shot, it’s quite rewarding. If you like to experiment, enjoy a challenge, and love really interesting bokeh, it’s hard to pass up one of these lenses. Just make sure you get a 44-2 the first time!

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