Low-cost lens cavalcade #9

Here we are at one of the most hyped lenses in all of photographic history: the 58mm f2 Helios M44-2!

Is it as good as the tales it generates?

I say “most hyped” because it is all over the Internet in its many incarnations to the extent where it has become legend. Or perhaps myth. You see the history behind its legend includes a certain factor which is largely ignored these days, if not edited out completely: it’s cheap. The truth is this Biotar-based design was churned out in the Soviet Union for years in large numbers, making it highly available and, originally, not very costly. So we start with a good lens design, make it in vast quantities over a long time, and the next thing you know word gets out that you can get the equivalent of a Zeiss lens for pocket change.

Yeah, well … currently there are three available near where I am and the asking price is anywhere from $90-$150. Not exactly cheap for a 50-year-or-so-old lens of dubious quality and origins. Fortunately mine came at the bottom of the lens deal box so I was not out a lot of money to try it. I would have been sad to pay today’s asking price for one of these. Honestly they used to be offered up for like $10.

But is it worth any price at all? Good question. Setting aside the fan-base hyperbole and the coolness of having a “commie lens” (not so cool in the post-USSR era which has made Russian goods more readily accessible), just how good is it? (We must also ignore the manual-only aspect because that is part of why you get this sort of lens in the first place.)

Full disclosure: my example, built in the KMZ factory and thus supposedly one of the superior editions, is damaged. Some previous idiot stored it with no rear cap and so there are a couple of quite noticeable chips on the rear element. As you probably know a small fault on the back of a lens turns into a bigger problem than it would on the front because of the ratio between the two ends. Mine is also stiff to focus to the point where it has a tendency to unscrew in its mount instead. There is also some oil visible on the diaphragm blades.

Nevertheless, it shoots pictures.

Snow on trees scene.

At 58mm on the Sony a6000 it’s the equivalent of 87mm full frame, which is not a focal length I typically use.

Better close than far.

With good lighting conditions the contrast and colour are pretty good. As light falls off the rendering is not so spectacular. So how is the all-important sharpness?

The full image.
Cropped segment of 100% image.

Not bad, especially considering the damage. It’s no Super Takumar though. Nor is it a real Zeiss Biotar (yes I have used one). With certain lighting conditions you can see some chromatic problems, despite the fact this thing has a ‘built-in’ lens hood due to the deeply recessed front element.

Just a ‘snapshot’.

It’s clunky to use, make no mistake. Not smooth and the rings are no pleasure to handle either. With the mount adaptor it’s quite a handful of lens. Over-all it has a sort of “arty” aspect to it, albeit not one that I find particularly pleasing (especially not given the quality of operation). No, I did not even try to judge the you-know-what cliché effect because I’m not interested in that. Such would be akin to evaluating a flare filter or something, and not in keeping with the straight-up lens testing I’ve been attempting here.

Artistically viable.

I’m giving the Helios 44-2 a “good” rating, and would not be surprised to find that other copies of this same lens might rate very good as it has potential (a number of sites have mentioned some significant variations in performance and quality depending on the place and year of manufacture as well as the actual changes made).

Right now it is sitting with a front and rear lens cap on, tucked into a hard leather snap case in a drawer. I probably won’t be using it much, but of the ten lenses I acquired in this deal it is definitely one of the better ones. And if the current asking prices are in any way based on reality it’s one that makes the whole purchase worthwhile on its own.

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