A lot has been written about the many versions of the Helios 44 lens. It’s beloved by frugal photographers the world over for its dreamy / swirly bokeh, high availability on the used market, and of course the low price. Many of them are M42 mount, allowing them to be used on many different types and brands of cameras, including the most recent crop of mirrorless bodies.
The Helios 44, and all its variants, is a 58mm f/2 lens (minimum aperture is f/16). It is a Soviet-era copy of the well-regarded Zeiss Biotar lens formula. These lenses were manufactured between the late 1950s through the early 1990s. They were made at different manufacturing plants over that time, and there are several iterative versions. The original 44 was followed by the 44-2, 44-3, 44M, 44M-4, and a slew of others. They are all basically the same optics, but with different mechanical specifications (aperture blades, preset vs auto aperture, focusing distance, etc). Some were multi-coated, others not.
The copy I recently acquired is a 44M-4 (6 aperture blades, multi-coated) made by Krasnogorskiy Mechanicheskiy Zavod (KMZ). Many of the 44 variations have manufacturer symbols or codes printed on the front lens area just below the filter threads. Here’s a great resource to decode those symbols: Russian optical manufacturer logos.
Which Version Helios 44 is Best?
Ask three Helios fans which version is best, and you’ll likely get four answers. The collector community lore is that the earlier the lens was made, the swirlier the bokeh. But early lenses also suffered from poorer optics and more frequent mechanical failures (according to collectors).
For what it’s worth, I’ve shot with a 44-2, 44-3, 44M, and 44M-4, and the real outlier was the 44M (details here). The other three yielded nearly identical results. Your testing may show otherwise. And there are at least 10 other versions of this lens you could potentially find on the market at any given time. Here’s a nice summary of the variations from Camereapedia.
It’s cheap, it’s relatively fast, it’s got a quirky focal length that works as a short portrait lens on many camera bodies, and the bokeh has a nice swirl to it (like a Petzval lens, only less intense). Average price on these is about $50, depending on the rarity of that given version and the overall condition. It’s a definite value. It’s not nearly as swirly as Lensbaby Twist 60 (my review is here), but it’s also significantly cheaper. And besides, it’s way cooler to rock Soviet / Cold War gear than new hipster gear.