Helios – by Howard Grill

Last month, I discussed the search for finding meaning in one’s photographs and how that search could inform all aspects of a photographer’s work. The resultant introspection led me to conclude that working with a Helios lens could enhance my message, given the mysterious look it imparts. And thus, I found myself descending the rabbit hole of Helios lenses. While I ultimately bought two of them, there are aspects of the lens, its manufacture, and how it is purchased that I wish I had known beforehand. I am glad to say that, after reading this article, you will not have those same concerns. Before getting into the specifics of the lens, the obvious question is why. Why should you be interested in photographing with an antiquated Helios lens? One word. Bokeh. The resultant images can boast a unique “swirly” bokeh in the out-of-focus areas. I say “can” because, frankly, it can be hard to control and understand exactly what situations induce it, particularly in a “modified Helios” (more on that in a moment). The unique bokeh that the lens is known for seems related to multiple factors including the brightness of the background, the distance from subject to background, and the aperture used. But that lack of complete control is one of the joys of using it. One thing is certain; it adds the sense of mystery I was looking for.

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To enhance its unique characteristics, the lens is frequently modified in one of two bizarre ways. When purchasing a pre-modified lens, it is essential to understand which modification you are ordering. The first modification, called the “Petzval” mod, reverses the lens’s front element. This results in a marked enhancement of the swirly bokeh while also softening the focus and allowing the highlights to impart a glow. While modifying the lens is not a particularly difficult task (here’s a video on how to do it yourself), I took the easy way out and purchased mine pre-modified. The second modification, called the “Trioplan” mod, reverses the lens’s rear element. This results in the so-called “bubble effect,” where the out-of-focus areas render with a bright, bubbly appearance. The Trioplan is a less frequent modification that, at this point, I have not experimented with.

The vast majority of Helios lenses made were the model 44 (there was also a model 40, which is a completely different lens, not discussed here). It is important to understand that there were many Helios 44 model variations manufactured over the years, and, while there is some debate about which produces the most swirly bokeh, most agree that it is the 44-2 version. Thankfully, the 44-2 also happens to be one of the easiest to find (other models include the 44, 44-3, 44-M, 44-M4, 5, 6, and 7).

The Helios 44-2 is a completely manual lens that has a focal length of 58 mm, a maximum aperture of f2, and a minimum aperture of f16. It also has a rather unique design that results in allowing an infinite number of aperture settings. The aperture for any exposure is set using a “click ring” at the front of the lens, but a secondary ring is then used to open the lens up to its widest aperture for focusing (though I find it is easier to focus at f5.6 than at f2). After focusing manually, turn that secondary ring as far as it can go in the other direction and it stops down the aperture to what was set on the “click ring” in order to take the photo. But, unlike the “click ring,” that secondary ring has no click-stops and smoothly decreases the aperture from wide open to the pre-set aperture, and you can make the exposure at any point within the secondary ring’s turn. My favorite way of using the lens is to set it to f5.6 for focusing and then, while looking through the viewfinder, turning the secondary ring, watching the effect of the changing aperture in real-time. When I find a look I like, I trip the shutter without knowing the exact aperture setting. There are literally an infinite number of f-stops.

The modified Helios renders the highlights with a “smeared” and glowing effect, giving them a three-dimensional appearance. / © Howard Grill

The lens has an M42 screw mount, which means it will require an adaptor to use with today’s digital cameras. This is not as significant a problem as you might think. There is a plethora of M42 to Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. adaptors. When making a purchase, the lens often comes with a free adaptor to whatever major camera brand you specify. The adaptor that came with mine works flawlessly. How did this lens come to be? A bit of history is in order at this point. My understanding is that at the end of World War II, the Russians went to the German Zeiss factory to obtain (some would say steal) the Zeiss Beata 58 f2 lens design to manufacture a less expensive version of it. The resultant Helios lenses were produced at three different USSR plants, denoted as KMZ, MMZ (also known as BeLOMO), and Valdai from the mid-1960s through the early 1990s. KMZ was the earliest manufacturing plant used and is said to have produced the best quality lenses, both optically and mechanically. Unfortunately, it also made the fewest (approximately 10% of the total) of these otherwise mass-produced lenses. The MMZ facility produced lenses of high quality as well (in 5 different modifications over the years), nearly on par with the KMZ lenses. However, The Valdai plant produced lenses of somewhat lower quality, both optically and mechanically. The Valdai lenses tend to have more oil on their aperture blades and some wobbliness of the rear flange. That said, I have a Valdai lens and am quite pleased with it. If you plan to use the unmodified lens, which imparts a less marked swirly bokeh and considerably less highlight “smearing” and glowing, I would suggest purchasing an MMZ or, if you can find one, an M42 mount KMZ. Be aware that some early KMZ Helios lenses were manufactured with an M39 mount and retrofitting these M39 lenses is not as simple as just purchasing an M39 adapter. The easiest way to purchase a Helios is on eBay, with prices ranging from 90 to 150 US dollars, plus a shipping fee. The best sellers (one very reputable seller is Retro Foto House, but there are others as well) will be knowledgeable about servicing the lens and will have disassembled it, cleaned the oil from the aperture blades (one of the most significant mechanical issues), ensured that the focusing mechanism is smooth, and accurately report the condition of the optics. Of course, once the lens is modified by reversing the front or rear elements, all bets are off in terms of optical quality, and it’s no wonder that the focus is soft.

Though unquestionably present, the Helios effect is a bit less evident in this photograph.
© Howard Grill

Most of the Helios lenses you will find on eBay are located in Ukraine or countries that were part of the former USSR, so it will likely be a month or more between purchase and delivery. Whichever lens you buy, the fun starts when it arrives at your door. I wish I could say that one particular subject, lighting condition, or specific shooting distance was most likely to accentuate the swirly bokeh, but there is great unpredictability. The best way to learn the lens is to simply go out and photograph, experiment, and enjoy the loss of control.



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