Let’s step back in time. It’s late in the USSR’s life, about a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As the Cold War slowly draws to a close, Soviet factories are busy pumping out knockoff replicas of pretty much every western luxury, and that included camera lenses.
One of these knockoff lenses was known as the Helios 44M-2, a 58mm lens with a wide F2 aperture that is believed by many to be a knockoff of an old Zeiss Biotar lens (but don’t worry, this one isn’t radioactive).
Known for its incredible and unique swirly bokeh, this old Soviet lens is both very cheap and very plentiful in the modern day, showing up online on sites like Amazon or eBay (w/ adapters often included), and even being unearthed in thrift shops and garage sales.
Anyways, now that the history lesson is over, let’s jump right in and talk about why this old hunk of heavy metal is so damn cool.
Looking for just a quick summary before jumping in?
Size & Weight
So first off, let’s talk about size and weight.
As you might expect, this lens is pretty damn chunky.
Size-wise, it measures a length of around 4 inches (10.6cm) with the required Sony e-mount adapter.
While not absolutely gigantic, it’s still fairly large considering this is a prime lens.
In terms of heft, it weighs in at a chunky 14oz (397g) with the included adapter.
This thing feels HEAVY-duty on Sony’s modern compact cameras (even on my fairly big a7iii).
Is the lens well-built?
But hey, all that heft goes somewhere.
Like many products from the former Soviet Union, the Helios 44M-2 is big, chunky, and has a lot of quirky character.
Materials & Longevity
Material-wise, the entire lens is made out of metal.
It’s cold to the touch, and you can really feel the ex-Soviet quality. In this case, I say quality to mean big and heavy.
Speaking of quality, the entire concept of “quality control” was not even a thing in many of these old Soviet factories, so you never knew how your copy of the lens would hold up.
Luckily, being so old, most of the copies you’ll find online have stood the test of time and should last many years to come.
No Weather Sealing (unsurprisingly)
If you’re the type to seek out weather-sealed lenses, I think it should be pretty obvious that this old beast lacks anything of the sort.
This thing wasn’t meant to be expensive or high-end, just a mass-manufactured cheap piece of glass to feed the USSR’s trade-restricted photographers.
Built to last?
So, you might ask, is this lens actually built to last?
If you had asked me that question when this lens came out, I’d say no.
Well, I’d probably say yes assuming I was being interviewed by the Soviet Union’s State Media, but secretly I’d say no.
At the time, as stated, quality control was a completely unfamiliar concept in the USSR’s factories.
However, many years later, I think it’s safe to say that the copies of the Helios that you buy now should last a while.
After all, these have survived decades already.
Ergonomically, the lens actually feels pretty comfortable to use.
It’s incredibly heavy for its size, sure, but I find it actually balances pretty well on my a7iii.
A bit front-heavy perhaps, but I actually didn’t feel much fatigue when running around with it all day.
The gigantic, cold metal focusing ring makes a nice gripping point.
Also, thanks to the small-ish size, I can easily toss it into my camera sling if needed.
Now that we’ve covered all the useful attributes of the build, let’s talk about the pure aesthetics of this lens.
I understand beauty is subjective, but I absolutely love how equally ugly-yet-beautiful this lens is.
It’s pure black, without much flair, but the barrel has these really nice-looking engravings.
One of the aperture rings (yes, there are two, which we will cover later) is red and green which, while a rather odd combination these days, was fairly common on a lot of vintage lenses back in the day. Even knockoffs, apparently.
Alrighty, now that we’ve talked about the physical attributes of the lens, let’s cover sharpness, optical quirks, and, of course, talk about the iconic swirly bokeh.
As you might expect, sharpness isn’t all that great.
When wide open, center sharpness is iffy and the corners are a soft buttery mess.
When stopped down, centers start to look decent but the corners are still very… weak.
There’s also some field curvature, probably some of the worst I’ve ever seen.
However, you’re not buying the Helios 44M-2 for the sharpness, but rather the unique bokeh that no other lens can match.
And yes, the bokeh is fabulous. It takes some skill to perfect, as you need to find the perfect aperture/subject distance ratio, but it just really is so gorgeous and unique.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the bokehlicious goodness that this lens produces.
Chances are, if you’re reading this review, you’re probably already aware of the peculiar, swirly bokeh that this old beast puts out.
Now, it does have some weird character when it comes to actually rendering this insane bokeh in the first place.
You have to really be a certain distance away from your subject, and you have to play around with focus until you get it right. Explaining it over text is hard, but getting the iconic bokeh takes a bit of work.
Also, it should be noted that you’ll see much better bokeh on full frame. You can still use this lens on a crop-sensor camera, of course, but it really comes alive with a full-frame camera’s larger sensor size.
Optical Quirks & Flaws
Alright, so the bokeh is godly, but what about other quirks and flaws that make a lens… unique?
First off, believe it or not, the lens actually doesn’t suffer from any sort of major distortion.
Even when shooting straight lines (architecture, for example), you’ll find you rarely need to make any corrections in post.
Shockingly, the lens also handles chromatic aberrations better than you’d expect.
You’ll run into some issues with extreme lighting situations, but nothing that I found to be absolutely egregious.
Vignette is also relatively well-controlled, at least when stopped down.
When shooting wide open, it’s fairly noticeable but easily fixable in post-processing.
Plus, with the insane swirly bokeh, a bit of vignette actually goes a long way in adding even more subject isolation and emphasis.
Flare Resistance (non-existent)
Alright, folks, this is where stuff gets crazy. Like many old lenses, the Helios 44-2 flares more than a JJ Abrams movie.
Every single light source will cause insane, movie-level flaring, even a simple table lamp. And you know what? I love it.
The flaring is nuts, but it really adds so much character to this lens.
If used right, it can add quite a bit of artistic character to your photos. I don’t mind it at all.
Overall Optical Performance
So yeah, overall optical performance is probably about what you’d expect.
Sharpness isn’t great and field curvature is pretty wild.
However, the flaring and iconic swirly bokeh come together to create just such a lovely and unique look.
Modern lenses simply don’t have this kind of character.
Focus & Other Notes
Alrighty, next up, let’s focus on focusing (see what I did there?).
Like many old vintage lenses, manual focus feels fabulous and fun.
The focus ring on the Helios 44-2 is well-dampened and, from what I could tell, fairly accurate.
Of course, the lens does suffer from decentering, so sometimes half the frame will be in focus and the other half won’t, but hey, it’s all part of the fun. Think of it as a discount tilt-shift lens, perhaps?
In any case, I found this old clunker to be really fun to focus with. There’s an unmatchable charm that comes from using one of these old, metal beasts.
Aperture Ring (weird)
The last weird thing we have to touch on is the aperture ring. Or rather, the two aperture rings. Yep, two.
One of them, as you might expect, changes the aperture. It does the job well. The other ring, for whatever odd reason, sets a limit to the aperture.
What this means is you’ll have to turn one ring to change your aperture “limit” and then spin the other one to actually set the aperture itself.
While this is a bit of a goofy design that can get annoying, it’s another weird quirk of this lens that just adds to the charm.
Yes, it’s fun!
I honestly adore this lens.
It’s dumb, and it’s soft, but the bokeh it produces and the character it provides are nearly unmatched.
The horrific corner sharpness doesn’t even matter because every photo will just be a mess of crazy swirly bokeh balls anyway.
If you’re looking for a fun (and super cheap) lens to play around with, the Helios 44M-2 is the way to go.
I’ll put purchase links down below if you are interested in checking it out, as it comes with the e-mount adapter pre-attached and included (if buying on Amazon).
Thanks for reading, I hope you have fun with this insane and hilarious lens. 🙂
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