I must admit I love the swirly bokeh of the Helios 58mm f2 lens. It suits portraiture best when the right conditions are met for the bokeh to swirl around the subject.
The right conditions usually mean the right camera to subject distance, in this case from about 2 to 4 metres for the camera to subject distance.
The right background needs to be chosen. The swirling effect of the bokeh seem to come from imperfect formation of light circles from the center of the frame (where they are round) to the edges of the frame (where they are elliptical). So the background should have many points of light. For example, light coming through leaves or light coming from the many buildings in a city background at night or light coming from a lighted Christmas tree. It is a unique imperfection of the Helios lens design. With modern lenses perfectly designed through the aid of computers, you only get perfectly round light bokeh.
Lastly, you need to open up the lens to its largest aperture – f2. The subject matter is best placed in the center of the frame as that is where the lens is sharpest at full aperture. The sharpness falls off steeply toward the edges at this aperture.
The Helios-44 lens comes in many variants and were made by several different former Soviet eastern bloc manufacturers. Camerapedia has a good description of the many variants.
Recently I conducted a quick and dirty comparison of four Helios-44 lenses for their swirly bokeh and center sharpness. They are, in order of manufacture year, the Helios-44-2, Helios-44M, Helios-44M-4 (2 lenses).
These were attached to a Kipon M42-FX BAV-Eyes 0.7X adapter and mounted on a Fuji X-T1 to have full lens coverage with no crop (and hence full extent of the swirly bokeh) on the APS-C sized Fuji sensor. All shot at their widest aperture of f2.
The comparison photos below:-
Helios-44-2 (8 blades, stepless aperture)
Helios-44M (8 blades)
Helios-44M-4 (6 blades)
Helios-44M-4 (6 blades)
The verdict? Seems like all have a similar bokeh effect and more or less the same center sharpness (handheld). Colour is warmer from the Helios-44-2. Perhaps this difference is from the coating of the lens – single coated vs multi-coated lens. I am not the expert here. Perhaps someone could tell me.
The 44-2 and older 44M-4 (SN87405245) do not focus to infinity. Hence the only usable ones to me for photography are the 44M and newer 44M-4 (SN88158346). This was the primary reason I did the test.
These lenses are fun, relatively cheap and have a cult following. In fact so much fun, I am taking one out for a spin in the near future and hopefully post more swirly bokeh photos in this blog.
Thanks for reading!