The Helios 44-2 is no stranger to me whatsoever, the First Impressions headline is one I simply use as my review series. I've owned this lens since back in my Canon days, however, it was only used sparingly. I never really mounted it on my camera or even kept it in my bag due to my lack of focusing ability.
Luckily for me, the Fujifilm system solved that issue, the focusing peaking option is gold, especially on my X-T1, and since I sold all my Canon mount lenses this was the only tele lens I owned. I had my setup all planned out before I even made the switch I was going to use the XF 18 for street and the Helios 44-2 as my prime, but things took a turn, Fujifilm discounted their lenses (this is now a standard thing) and I talked myself into picking up the XF 56 f/1.2. The lens again was shelved, but for whatever reason, I'm motivated to bring it out and see what it can do with this new technology I'm now equipped with.
Focal length (35mm format equivalent)
Angle of View
Helios 44-2 58mm (M42 Mount)
6 elements in 4 groups
Number of Blades: 8
Normal: 0.5m - to infinity
The build quality on this lens is excellent, which is to be expected from a Russian manufactured lens, however, when I did my research and read that this was the kit lens for the old Soviet-era Zenit cameras, I was amazed. They definitely don't make them like they use too...
I went with the m42 mount, I read it was the better of the bunch, and at first glance my research appeared to be accurate, but... there were some design issues, when you purchase this lens you have to be very careful, many of them have been taken apart, cleaned and rebuilt, I know mine was, actually so were the previous 2 I owned. The aperture rings are backward (mine starts of at f/16 then ends at f/2) and focus rings have a lot of give to it.
I'd assume if you did your research you'd be able to find a better physical copy, I've been paying around $60 for mine, I've seen some far less expensive, and others a bit more, so purchase at your own discretion. The lens itself also comes in several different versions, but I've read the Helios 44-2 produces the best "swirly bokeh" out of them all.
Handling this lens can be a little tricky, it's manual focus only, and if you aren't used to shooting in this manner then it can get frustrating quickly. I started off with the Canon 6D, and after a week or so I ditched the lens. The second time around I had a greater appreciation for it, I understood its capabilities and knew what situations I could use it in and which ones I couldn't, my subject had to be still, and once I figured that out things became much, much easier.
In order to use the lens with my Fuji system I had to order an adapter, I went with the Fotodiox, mainly because of their price point and my previous experience with the company. If you're someone who wants to shoot this at its natural focal length then give one of these focal reducers a try, they'll allow you to shoot at 58mm, while providing an extra stop of light as well.
Let's be honest, this is the main reason you're all reading this right? I know it's the reason I purchased the lens, that swirly bokeh! The Helios 44-2 is one of the few lenses to produce this look, and if I'm not mistaken it's definitely the cheapest, but is it worth it?
In my opinion, hell yes. When I purchased this lens I really wanted to replicate the swirl that previous owners before me had showcased. It was unique, amazing and unbelievable. When I got the lens into my hands I was the most excited I've ever been, especially when it came to photography. I didn't have to work hard to achieve the look, I took my Canon 6D outside and after a few snaps, I had what I wanted. I noticed later on though that the swirly bokeh wasn't always going to be prominent in my images. This was even more noticeable when I made the switch to Fujifilm, with the APS-C sensor you lose a bit of the image quality, and that can cause the cat-eye effect to slightly be less visible.
After the bokeh craze wore off I decided I wanted to take the lens out to the streets. This is an odd move considering the 87mm focal length it presented, but to my surprise, it actually handled itself very well. Stopped down the lens produced sharp images, not corner to corner sharp, but sharp from a first glance perspective. I shot anywhere from f/2 to f/8 in the images below, check them out and judge for yourself.
The Helios 44-2 has been a lens that has simply got lost in my rotation, it's literally sat in my bag for months, in fact, I haven't used it since November of 2014. When my XF 56 went down, I had to resort back to it, and man!!! I forgot how amazing it can be, yeah, it's soft wide open, but in a good way... If that makes sense. When you look at its quality and compare it to lenses 10x the cost you really don't see the difference. Now obviously once I get my XF 56 back, it'll be my go-to portrait lens, but moving forward I'll always remember that this gem produces a look few lenses can replicate, it gives me confidence, to be creative and really slows me down. For the swirly bokeh alone it's more than worth the asking price. At $60 this should be in every photographer's bag.
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