Helios 44M & Blossoms

I recently bought an old lens on eBay for ~£11 & had the first real chance to try it out today. I’ve been noticing beautiful blossoms all over St Andrews over the last month or so, but haven’t really had time to take any photos. Luckily today on the way back from the hardware store I came across a tree that was still well endowed whilst the rest are starting to fall bare. All the photos on this page were taken with the new lens; there’ll probably be another post later of some blossoms/flowers that I took with the 28mm Sigma, abusing it’s under-advertised macro capabilities.

A bit about the lens. The Helios 44 is a Soviet copy of the Carl Zeiss Jena ‘Biotar’, a 58mm f2 with 6 elements in 4 groups. Several Soviet factories manufactured the Helios 44 as the standard prime for Zenit SLR cameras. My particular sample is one of the earliest, the 44M, made in 1978 by Красногорский механический завод (Krasnogorskiy Mechanicheskiy Zavod, better known by their acronym KMZ & their dove prism logo). It seems they kept improving the design & manufacturing the lenses for decades, but this early design came before the advent of multi-coating so will probably suffer badly from lens flare & may warrant getting a hood for it, but it also has an 8-blade aperture rather than the 6-blade of the later versions. This gives it a wonderfully smooth bokeh, though the lens is incredibly sharp (even surprisingly so wide open at f2). After some of the shots I took today I understand what some people have said about the bokeh looking almost ‘swirly’ in shots involving foliage in the out-of-focus regions.

It’s an M42 screw mount, but you can buy adapters to every modern mount under the Sun (Pentax K in my case) for a few pounds. It seems that some of the very latest revisions were available in Pentax K mounts, but are rather rare & certainly won’t sell for just £11.

Build quality is excellent, reminding me of old Pentax M lenses but a lot chunkier; the thing exudes the sorts of qualities that make you think it would waltz through a nuclear holocaust just to take photos of the aftermath & sell them to AP. I’ll try to get some photos of the lens itself, maybe compared to my Pentax M 50mm f1.7, but that will have to wait for another time.

All of these were shot wide open at f2, with ISO cranked down as low as it goes on the K20D (100). I think this is the first time I’ve had a genuine reason to use the body’s fastest shutter speed (1/4000)!

K20D seems to consistently underexpose by about 1 stop with this lens. Couldn’t see the photos on the camera’s screen at all because of how bright the sun was, so had to go by the histogram & hope to get the exposures close enough.

Should’ve stopped down a bit on some of these. The M42 to K adapter isn’t perfect, because without modification the body can’t stop down the lens at all (M42 uses a pin that moves perpendicular to the K mount’s lever). Luckily the early versions of the Helios 44, including mine, have a manual/auto switch on them for controlling the aperture, so I can permanently stop down the aperture if needs be; just isn’t very handy if it’s too dark to see with a small aperture!

Luckily managed to avoid shooting towards the Sun or any reflections so I didn’t get any nasty lens flare in these. Never really knew how useful multi-coating actually was until I started pointing this lens at direct light sources!

Effective focal length on the K20D’s 1.54x APS-C crop is 89mm. Combined with the nice smooth bokeh, it should prove to be quite a nice portrait lens, should I ever have the opportunity to get into such a thing!

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