Bokehdocious! Through the Lens of the Helios 44-2

Bokeh is a lot like music, in one could say "there is no good or bad bokeh, just bokeh you like and bokeh you don't like."

But, I'm getting ahead of myself, as most people are not even familiar with the term.  In fact, Chrome's built in spell checker is flagging every instance of me typing the term "bokeh."

Bokeh is a photographic term referring to the appearance of out-of-focus parts of an image.  In many cases, such areas will often simply appear blurry or soft, but, as been found with certain lenses, these areas will often exhibit their own characteristics that will, based upon the tastes of the viewer, either add or detract from an image.  Adjectives often used to describe the bokeh of an image range may include "creamy" or "swirly," "smooth" or "busy," or may even describe shapes evident such as "oblong" or "doughnut."

I for one tend to like to play around with a little lively bokeh, so when I heard about a certain popular Russian made lens being described as a "bokeh monster," I was quite intrigued.

The lens is the Helios 44, a copy of the Zeiss Biotar.  It provides a 58mm focal length, and an f/2 maximum aperture.  It is stated by many to be the most common lens in existence world-wide.

I found a copy on ebay selling for $27 from the Ukraine, so I snapped it up.  However, before I really got a chance to get out and give it a true whirl, I got a little busy.  I took a few photos with it, and then tried it mounted to some macro tubes, where it performed quite well.  As a result, it sort of became my tagalong macro lens, and I never took the time to take normal shots with it.  

Seeking to remedy that shortcoming, I took this lens out with me over the past week to shoot in a range of conditions, both to see if I could generate that "swirly bokeh" but also to see what it was capable of on a wider scale.  Below are some of my fun findings from this experiment. 

With a deeply recessed front element and plain bulky front ring, the Helios 44-2 doesn't quite win the style points of today's lenses.  

Focusing is shown only in meters, providing a little test to one's school age acquired skill set.  To the right is a rather bulky adapter to mount M42 lenses on the Micro 4/3 bodies.

Unlike the majority of lenses built today, which feature a 5 or 6 blade iris, the Helios features an 8 blade  iris.

A general example of the Helios bokeh, stopped down to f/4 at 1/2500. ISO 200.


Bokeh, but no real swirl.  Taken wide open f/2 at 1/4000. ISO 200.

Contrast definitely helps in bringing out the bokeh.  Despite flat light here, I was able to add contrast in Photoshop to improve the effect.  Open at f/2 aperture, 1/640 sec. ISO 320.

Something of a macro, even without the use of tubes.  Shot at f/2 at 1/2000. ISO 200.

Nice painterly strokes in the backdrop.  Aperture f/2 at 1/1000. ISO 200

When I took some photos with this "tunnel of trees" in the backdrop, I began to notice hints of the swirl in in the trees behind.  Shot open at f/2, 1/640, ISO 200.

Taking a photo of the street lamp, I definitely found some impressive swirling in the bokeh behind!  Aperture f/2, 1/1600 sec shutter speed, ISO 200.

 A close up of the previous shot showing in detail the way the bokeh is handled by the Helios.  

Shooting into the sunlight, I'm also able to get some nice swirly bokeh. f/2 at 1/640, ISO 200.

Bokeh is also quite possible at night in lights that are in out of focus areas.  However, it works better with smaller light sources than those shot here.  Aperture f/2 at 1/50, ISO 800.

One day headed home, I recalled what would be the perfect subject to attempt, an old property marker in Columbia.  Ideal distance between subject, camera, and out of focus areas.  Taken wide open at f/2 1/80 shutter speed, ISO 200.

Nailed it! f/2, 1/50. ISO 200.

I also wanted to compare the bokeh on the Helios to another one in my collection.  Fortunately, I have a Konica 57mm f/1.4 that is both fast and has a similar focal length.  Below are three images. The first of  is from the Helios, and displays a markedly different bokeh in the blooming trees in the backdrop.  The second is from the Konica and is also shot at f/2.  The third is from the Konica and is shot at f/1.4.  Both of the Konica images display a much softer style of bokeh, with markedly different shapes.  For comparison, one can simply look at the pair of red and white "bokeh splotches" along the left border to see a decided difference how each lens portrays the out of focus areas.  

Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 1/4000 ISO 200

Konica 57mm f/2 1/4000 ISO 200

Konica 57mm at f/1.4 1/4000 ISO 200

But just because the Helios is well known for its unusual bokeh that this lens is simply a one trick pony!  I find that is adaptable to wide range of shooting situations and moods.  

Taking street scenes wide open, the Helios displays a dreamy charachteristic absent from most current day lenses.  Taken open at f/2 at1/4000. ISO 200.

Stopped down just a bit, the dreamy quality vanishes, leaving a lens whose in-focus areas are really quite sharp!  Taken at f 2.8 at1/2000. ISO 200.

And stopped down below f/5.6, you'll get some razor sharp images from the Helios.  This was taken at f/11 for 1/640 second at ISO 200.

All told, I am quite satisfied with my Helios 44-2, its versatility, and its really nice rendering of color!  It definitely will see more use from me in the future, and not just as a fun macro lens.