Bokeh Shootout: Helios 44-2 vs 44-3 vs 44M vs 44M-4

Helios 44-2 vs 44-3

The Helios 44 family of 58mm f/2 manual focus lenses has been a popular topic of online discussion, sample photos, and head-to-head comparisons…and for good reason. These lenses are cheap, generally well made, and produce some very unique “swirly” bokeh (especially on a full-frame bodies). Let’s compare four of these models in terms of the out-of-focus bokeh they produce and see if there is a clear winner. We’ll compare the original Helios 44-2 vs the 44-3, 44M, and 44-M4.

Common Lens Details

Much has been written about all four of these Helios lenses, so I won’t dig deeply into the individual specs. But they have some main common specifications that should be pointed out:

  • Focal length of 58mm
  • Maximum aperture of f/2
  • Minimum aperture of f/16
  • Manual focusing
  • All-metal construction

I’ve also done other reviews and comparisons of Helios lenses that you can check out.

And I should mention that most links in this review are affiliate in nature (Amazon or ebay).

Lens Differentiators

These Helios lenses do have some differences from each other, so here’s a short biography of each lens:

Helios 44-2

  • Made in 1981 at Valdai Optical-Mechanical Factory
  • Smooth-turning aperture ring (no preset clicks/detents)
  • Aperture blades: 8
  • Focus ring is near the rear of the barrel, aperture ring is at the front (reverse of most lenses)

Helios 44-3

  • Made in 1990 at MMZ (Minsk Mechanical Factory)
  • Smooth-turning aperture ring (no preset clicks/detents)
  • Aperture has a “minimum aperture lock” feature that limits how small the aperture can go by turning a locking collar to a preset aperture value. Could be useful for switching between wide open and a specific smaller f-stop (street photography?)
  • Aperture blades: 8
  • Focus ring is near the rear of the barrel, aperture ring is at the front (reverse of most lenses)
  • Multi-coated front lens element

Helios 44M

  • Made in 1982 at KMZ (Krasnogorsk Mechanical Plant)
  • Aperture ring with preset detents for primary f-stops in half-stop increments
  • Auto/Manual aperture preset lever; allows for instantly switching between max aperture (f/2) and another f-stop as set by the aperture ring. This is useful for street photography (zone focusing, etc).
  • Aperture blades: 8
  • Minimum focusing distance of 0.55m, which is slightly less than the other three lenses tested (0.5m)

Helios 44M-4

  • Made in 1988 at KMZ (Krasnogorsk Mechanical Plant)
  • Aperture ring with preset detents for primary f-stops in half-stop increments
  • Aperture blades: 6

Helios 44-2 vs the Others: Test Conditions

At the time of this article’s penning, it’s approaching Christmas, and what better prop for testing bokeh than a Christmas tree with lights?

I used a Sony A7III body to test the lenses, paired with a Fotga M42 > E mount adapter to mount the lenses. The camera was mounted on a Zomei tripod, and the adapter stayed on the body throughout the testing process. I swapped out the Helios lenses between shots, being careful not to move the camera or tripod position. Not exactly scientific, but I think the results are consistent enough to demonstrate the differences between the lenses.

Camera Settings

  • Manual exposure mode
  • ISO 640
  • Shutter speed: 1/125

Lens Settings

  • Aperture: f/2
  • Focus set to minimum/closes distance setting (to maximize bokeh appearance)

Helios 44-2 vs the Others: Results

I was expecting quite a bit of variance between these lenses…but three of them performed nearly identically in terms of defocused bokeh ball quality. There was some (very) minor color rendition performance variance, but the 44-2, 44-3, and 44M-4 all produced nearly identical results (see sample images below).

The Outlier: Helios 44M

The outlier of the group was the 44M. The quality of the bokeh is clearly less blurred, almost as if it were stopped down from the maximum aperture of f/2. I double checked the aperture and shot the 44M test multiple times, but came up with the same result. The Helios 44M (or at least this copy) produces less pronounced bokeh than it’s cousins…at least in this test with these parameters. Again, check out the images below and you’ll see it quite clearly.

Sample Images

You can see the classic Helios “cat’s eye” bokeh shapes at the edges of the images, and then get closer to circular towards the center. Note that the 44-3 appears to have some dust that is manifesting articles in the bokeh balls.

Helios 44-2

Helios 44-2

Helios 44-3

Helios 44-3

Helios 44M

Helios 44-M

Helios 44M-4

Helios 44M-4

Possible Reason for the 44M Variance

I believe the the reason that the 44M performed differently from the others is because, according to the focus distance markings on the barrel, it has a minimum focus distance of 0.55m, whereas the other three can all focus just a touch closer at 0.5m. I focused two of the others to as close to 0.55m as I can approximate (it’s not marked), and the images looked almost just like the 44M.

If I Could Only Keep One…

If I could only keep one, it would be the 44M-4. It’s got that classic Helios bokeh, it’s pretty sharp at f/2.8 and smaller, and the focus and aperture rings are in the common locations that  most people are used to. The only downside, if you plan to stop it down to f/4 and beyond, is that it’s 6 aperture blades make for some very geometric-looking bokeh. If you’re shooting wide open or close to it, this won’t matter much.

Second place would go to the 44M because it’s also sharp in the center, has the controls where you expect, and has that really cool aperture preset lever mentioned previously. This could be really useful for street photographers that use the “zone focusing” technique and like to be able to get the lens for f/8 quickly and accurately when needed. And frankly, it real-world portrait shooting situations, I’m not sure the 0.05m difference in minimum focusing distance is going to make that much difference.