Heavenly Helios

Since stumbling across my first Helios – a dusty 1973 44-2 sadly neglected at the bottom of a box of random accessories at a camera fair, that I paid a mere £7 for nine years ago – perhaps 25 more have passed through my hands.

My original c1973 Helios 44-2

Over half of these have been examples of the Helios 44-2.

I love the quirky look, the near bulletproof build, the eight aperture blades which give more rounded bokeh highlights, and most of all the preset aperture, which makes fine tuning depth of field an utter joy.

I’ve also had a number of variants of the later 44M models, a more rare and unusual 44-3 (like a 44-2 in an 1980s upgrade body), and a not strictly Helios, but by all accounts its successor, the plastic yet highly endearing Zenit MC Zenitar-M2s.

In my current stable, just three Helios remain.

First, that original 44-2 which I doubt I’ll ever part with.

Also, the also aforementioned Zenitar descendant.

And finally a fairly standard and common 44M-4.

After the Helios 44-2 with its preset aperture, most of the plain 44M models that followed had the A/M (Auto/Manual) switch on the barrel that almost all lenses of the 70s and early 80s had, to allow them to be used on cameras with or without open aperture metering – the ability to allow you to always focus at maximum aperture, then the camera would close down to the chosen aperture at the moment of capture.

With the 44M-4 lenses I’ve had however, there’s no such switch, they’re permanently Auto.

I assume by the time these models came out (my model is from 1983) there were few to no cameras around that didn’t offer open aperture metering, so ditching the switch meant a simpler, less expensive design.

The trouble is, on a DSLR with an adapter (I’m not aware of any M42 mount DSLR ever being made!), there is no tab or pin in the lens mount that pushes in the corresponding pin on the lens, which in turn closes down the aperture blades to the chosen aperture.

So in effect the lens can only be used fully open, ie at the maximum aperture of f/2.

Now with a Helios this wouldn’t be a major issue anyway, as they’re capable of some of their loveliest renderings wide open.

But sometimes it’s good to have smaller apertures, especially on bright days when f/2 would overexpose the image.

So with my Helios 44M-4, as I’ve done with perhaps half a dozen other lenses, I’ve performed some minor surgery.

I simply pushed and held the pin in with a matchstick, then placed a drop of superglue on it, and let it dry, so the pin is now permanently pressed in, and it functions like a fully manual aperture lens.

I’ve read of other less permanent solutions involving carefully carved and inserted drinking straws and lolly sticks, but as I’m never going to use the lens on an Auto M42 body, I was happy to make the lifetime commitment a drop of superglue lovingly provides.

In this post are a couple of shots made with the 44M-4.

Whilst I love the eight bladed preset aperture of the 44-2, and the close focusing and arguably even sharper than a Helios potential of the Zenitar, the 44M-4 has enough individual charm to comfortably retain its place in my arsenal.

Its performance is beyond question.

In use, I enjoy the solid, reassuring, build (I’m sure you could drop it from a couple of storeys and the pavement would be the only thing sustaining any damage), the no-nonsense chunky looks, and the easy adjustment of the focus and aperture, both smoother than the other two lenses I’ve mentioned.

As long as I’m shooting photographs with DSLRs, I’ll be using Helios lenses.

Which I anticipate -and hope – will be a very long time indeed.

How about you, have you used many Helios 44s?

Let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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Heavenly Helios