The $10 lens.
The Ге́лиос 44M ƒ2.0 58mm lens is a copy of the Carl Zeiss Biotar 2/58 lens and was made in the USSR between 1958 to 1992.
There exist several variants of the Helios 44 and they are most famous for:
- Excellent center sharpness at all apertures.
- "Dreamy" (cats-eye) bokeh when wide open.
The Helios 44M is mainly a portrait lens on 35mm film cameras & thus works best on FF cameras. On my crop DSLR, the focal length (92mm equivalent) is closer to the 85mm short telephoto prime lenses.
Made from aluminium, the Helios feels totally different from the other plastic lenses I own. The focus/aperture rings are stiff to turn and the glass probably contains some radioactive elements. However, the most impressive thing is its weight – it's quite heavy (325g) and feels as solidly built as a Soviet T-34 tank.
A proper vintage lens. Made in 1977. ;)
The 'coolest' thing about this prime lens is that it's totally manual. There is no Auto Focus. You have to turn a ring to change focus (from 55cm to ∞) and another ring to change the aperture (from ƒ/2 to ƒ/16). You can see the 8-bladed aperture above.
Although it has an Automatic/Manual switch, that doesn't work because it needs an adapter that can mechanically push a spring rod in the lens to stop down the aperture. Most DSLRs meter (i.e. measure the light input of the scene) with the lenses at their widest aperture and only changes the aperture to the desired one at the moment of taking the photo. The camera calculates the change in light when moving to a smaller aperture and compensates for it.
What this means on my Helios is that when I take a photo in Av-mode, with camera aperture set at ƒ/2 and lens aperture set at ƒ/2, the photo is correctly exposed.
However when I take a photo with camera aperture set at ƒ/4 and lens aperture set at ƒ/4, the camera goes bonkers and the photo is exceedingly bright. That's because the camera thinks that it's metering at ƒ/2 and over-compensates for ƒ/4.
The solution in Av-mode is to set in-camera aperture to ƒ/4, lock the exposure settings with the lens at ƒ/2, change the aperture of the lens to ƒ/4 and then take the photo. In practice, this two-stage photo-taking is cumbersome and only suitable for still-life scenes.
The other solution is to go full manual. Control aperture, shutter speed and ISO independently. :)
The Helios 44M 2/58 is a lens made for Zenit cameras with a M42 screw mount. To be able to fit it on my Canon, I had to buy an M42 adapter with AF confirmation (to shoot photos in non-Manual modes, the lens needs to send a signal back to the camera when the subject is in focus).
Instead of going for the cheap ones, I went for an EMF programmable M42 adapter. The programming, which may appear cryptic at first, allows me to add a maximum aperture (ƒ/2), focal length (58mm) and back/front focus compensation for the lens. The first 2 is only good for EXIF, but the back/front focus compensation is absolutely essential, especially for vintage lenses.
The problem with old lenses is that over time the optical parts inside move and when you try to focus using the viewfinder, the focus of the resulting photo may appear further back (back focus) or in front (front focus) of the desired focus point. On Canon bodies, thanks to AF micro adjustment compensation, we can fine-tune the final focus point (it's a focus plane BTW).
In the close-up focus range, the Helios does have some back focus issues and I did try to program-in the compensation for it… until I discovered a much better way to focus.
Using the Live View.
One of the reasons why I bought a Canon is because it's hackable. I can run custom firmware on it, like Magic Lantern, which adds a lot of useful features like an Intervalometer, RAW video, Kelvin white balance, Zebras, custom grids, Trap focus, etc. (exactly like CHDK on my S100). The feature that is most useful for manual lenses is focus peaking.
What focus peaking does is that it shades the areas that are currently in focus in Live View (it computes the focus according to its own algorithms). So all you have to do is look at the LCD, move the focus ring and take a photo when the part you want in focus becomes shaded.
The truth is that the viewfinder on DSLRs weren't designed for manual focusing. After using the focus peaking tweak, there's no way I'm using the viewfinder ever again (on manual lenses). The only inconvenience is that using the LCD drains down the battery faster than usual.
So, how about the performance of the lens? The reason why most people love the Helios/Carl Zeiss Biotar vintage lenses is because of the swirly bokeh effect. Depending on the focus plane, the Helios delivers creamy to the dreamy bokeh.
Unfortunately, on a crop lens, the subject has to much further away to obtain the cats-eye bokeh. Somewhere between 1.5 to 2m, the perfect distance for portraits. So to capture this phenomenon, I had to do something I almost never do - shoot portraits.
Of pets, obviously. Portrait photogs love this lens because the bokeh surrounds the subject and gives more emphasis. The swirly bokeh is in fact due to a defect in the construction of the lens elements.
Before I discovered focus peaking, I was pretty disappointed with the sharpness. However, the lens is dead sharp at the centre and only loses sharpness at the corners when wide open.
One of the challenges while shooting wide open is that the focus plane is extremely narrow, less than 1cm for close-ups.
When shooting plants and flowers, I have to account for movements of the camera and wind moving the subject. Remember that there is no image stabilisation on the Helios.
In terms of colours, photos on the Helios 44 come out like pastel. The only thing I'd do in post would be to increase the contrast. Do note that all photos taken with Helios 44 in this post haven't been processed except for resizing.
Stopping down from ƒ/2 to ƒ/4. Notice the increase in sharpness and how the camera over-compensates.
When shooting at ƒ/2, flare is a problem. If there's too much light (something very common in Mauritius), the image loses sharpness and there is some purple fringing (due to the cheap lens coating).
Sometimes objects in focus may appear to glow. To avoid this, while shooting in direct sunlight, a lens hood is a must. Well, if you have a 50mm ƒ/1.8, there's a good news – the same lens hood (ES-62) also fits on the Helios 44.
Video performance? The stiff focus ring doesn't help. I still need a proper tripod.
The bokeh monster
The Helios 44M 2/58 is not really $10. If I account for the shipping & the M42 adapter (which is more expensive than the lens!), it cost me around $40. For that price & the bokeh I've been getting (rivaling the f/1.8s & f/1.4s), it's definitely a bargain. I've been so enamoured with the bokeh that every shot I've taken has been with the aperture wide open.
I'll be honest – it's not a lens you can use as a walkabout lens as the lack of AF is too much of an inconvenience. This lens is meant for situations where you can experiment and shoot at your own pace – portraits, still life and even street photography (you are forced to pause & observe).
The only negative thing about this lens is the fungus growing on it…
The web-like threads growing on the edges, at the back of the front element. Turns out fungus love Mauritius' climate. :(