April 2024 | Gear

The often overseen Helios 44-3 58mm f2 lens

Helios 44-3 58mm f2 MC BelOMO

Once you start looking into vintage lenses with an M42 mount, it is hard to miss the Helios 44 lenses. In my experience, the one most mentioned is the 44-2. I looked at many photos, tried to get as much information about the lens as possible, and looked at even more pictures and videos. My curiosity got the better of me, and I started to look for one. When buying an old lens online, you never know what you get. I have been lucky so far, and this lens is no exception.

The consensus seems to be that the 44-3 would be more expensive than the 44-2. It has better build quality and is multi-coated while maintaining its signature image rendering. When I found this lens, it was less expensive than its older siblings, so I bought it instead of the 44-2.

The Helios 44-3 58mm f2 is a manual-focus lens known for its unique optical characteristics. It’s often associated with swirly bokeh. This line of lenses is from the Soviet era and was widely used on various Zenit SLR cameras in the 1980s and 1990s. My copy was made by BelOMO (MMZ) in 1985.

The Helios 44 lenses were produced in huge numbers, and with the exception of the early versions with 13 blades, they are not exactly rare.


Lens Specs

Basic Info:Manual focus, aperture control with preset ring
Optical Design Range:Biotar (6 elements in 4 groups)
Focal Length:58mm
Aperture Range:f/2 – f/16
Number of blades:8 rounded
Angle of View:40°28
Minimum focus distance:50cm
Filter size:52mm
Lens coating:Multicoated
Year Manufactured:1985
Betty's portrait with the helios 44-3

Build Quality

The build quality of my Helios 44-3 is very good. It feels solid; nothing is loose, rattles or wiggles. The lens looks a bit beaten up, but at almost 40 years of age, this does not come as a surprise. The glass shows no sign of haze or fungus and has no visible scratches.

Helios 44-3

The focus ring is quite smooth, maybe slightly stiff. I need to be careful not to unscrew the lens accidentally, something that won’t happen with a bayonet mount. This is the case for all my screw mount lenses, especially when the focus ring is a bit on the stiffer side. The aperture mechanism works as it should. No complains here. I’d say that the lens is in very good condition and fully working.

Hands-on Experience

One thing to look out for is that not every M42 adapter will work with this lens. At first, I tried a Fotasy M42 adapter, which worked well for other lenses with this mount. After screwing it on the lens, the focusing mechanism could not work anymore; it was too close to the adapter and would not turn. I tried the K+F Pro adapter, and it works without a problem. The K+F adapter leaves some room between itself and the focusing ring. No esoteric modifications are needed – just a different adapter. Lenses made after 1991 are said not to have this issue.

On with the experience. A lens with a preset aperture mechanism was new for me. At first, it was a bit strange. However, it is not rocket science, and once I got a hang of it, I started to enjoy it. I can set it up to have the full range of the f-stops, but I typically want to use this lens between f2 and f4. I set the maximum f-stop to 4 and can enjoy my desired f-stop range without thinking about it. The preset ring is clicked, and the actual aperture ring is click-free. There is one caveat with this preset experience. The f-stop numbers edged in the preset ring do not align with the selected f-stop. It doesn’t bother me that much since I know the selected range. With a click-less ring, I would have to look at the lens when I change the aperture, which can sometimes be annoying. At first, I thought this might irk me, but it doesn’t. One less thing to fret over when using the lens.

This lens can be used for all kinds of shooting styles, but for me, it works best with relatively close objects. It is excellent for portraits: pets, people, flowers, etc. Since it is not sharp towards the edges on a crop sensor and even less so on full-frame, I wouldn’t want to use it as a lens for landscapes or architecture. There are better options for this.

Using a fully manual lens on a mirrorless system is great. Focus peaking is awesome, and without it, it would be more difficult to get in-focus images (true for all manual lenses).

Cherry blossoms

The photo of the cherry blossoms (above) shows the lens’ signature swirly bokeh. On a full frame you would verly like have more if the swirly effect. I looked for the right composition to make this happen.

The image below shows the lens’ capability to transition from focused to blurry. The transition is smooth and very pleasing.

Old, rusted back yard gate lock

Helios 44-3 and Bokeh Balls

The following two images show the bokeh balls the lens can produce. Our christmas tree was a good object for this.

Especially in the right photo you can see dust particles that are inside the lens. While those typically do not appear on regular photographs, they do show up in those bokeh balls. Given the age of the lens, the amount of dust seems to be rather minimal.

Image of bokeh balls
Image of bokeh balls


The Helios 44-3 works well for infrared photography. I used it with my IR converted X-E1. The image below is not a masterpiece, but it shows the important information: no hotspots.

Helios 44-3 infrared, no hotspots


I really like this lens. It can create swirly bokeh when the conditions are perfect. That’s probably easier done with a full-frame camera since one will see the entire area, not just the sweet spot like on a 1.5 crop. But it also produces a beautiful, more controlled bokeh without looking boring. This lens does fit my shooting style, and I am enjoying it very much. Some more images can be seen in my Helios 44-3 album on Flickr.

It is still relatively inexpensive compared to some of the other lens brands, such as Meyer-Optik Görlitz, Carl Zeiss Jena, and so on. I’d love to get the Car Zeiss Jena Biotar, which costs quite a bit more, but based on comparison lens tests, the Helios 44 is pretty much as good as the Biotar. There are differences, but not enough to justify the higher price.

Bottom line, I’m happy with my Helios 44-3.



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