Creating Swirly Bokeh with the Helios 44-2 lens

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I recently bought a Sony A7 to compliment my Canon 6D DSLR. A friend convinced me that having small-form, full frame camera would be an entire different way of shooting. I value his opinion, so I picked one up. You can see how I used it in my last article:  when to trick your camera for the perfect exposure.

A New Love of Prime Lenses

I started off with a Sony 55mm f/1.8 and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens that requires a Sony adapter. The 55mm shoots like a dream and is insanely light-weight.

The 24-70mm and adapter are super heavy and ridiculously front-heavy. It’s a great lens but after taking it out a few times, I concluded it wasn’t for me. I really enjoy having big apertures available for low light so I started looking for another prime lens.

A Lens Defect Leads to Awesome Bokeh

I was looking through photos on Flickr and noticed a few images in which the bokeh appeared to be swirling in a circular pattern. It was awesome and unlike anything I had ever seen!

I did some quick digging and found out this was called “swirly bokeh” and certain vintage lenses created this effect through a manufacturing defect. Well, this “defect” looked really cool to me and I wanted to incorporate it into my lens collection.

Meet the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 Lens

sony a7, helios lens,

Sony A7 with Helios 44-2 58mm f/2.0 lens

I quickly found out that there is a cult following for a lens called a Helios 58mm f/2. This was a Russian-made lens that essentially tried to emulate a famous Zeiss one.

Several companies made these lenses over several decades, in the millions of units, so they aren’t exactly rare. This means they are really inexpensive because they are so common.

Where to Find the Helios 44-2 Lens

Out of the several models of these lenses, the Helios 44-2 model lens reportedly creates the “swirly bokeh” I was looking for. I did a quick search on Ebay and quickly found a ton of these for sale out of Russia and the Ukraine.

After looking at several of them I found one in excellent condition and ordered it for less than $50 including shipping. What a deal! I’ve seen plenty of people get even better deals on Ebay than I did.

Mounting it on the Sony A7 Camera

sony a7, helios lens, helios 44-2,

Mounting the Helios 44-2 to the Sony A7

These lenses were created for the Leica M-mount so I needed to get an M mount adapter for the Sony A7. I picked up a $10 Fotasy M42-NEX adapter which works perfectly.

It looks like a Franken-camera. I really dig how crazy this thing looks. Other photographers have stopped to ask what the heck this lens setup is.

Using Manual Focus and Manual Aperture Lenses

english setter, helios 44-2 lens,

The Sony A7 focus assist feature makes it easy to nail perfect focus each time.

I’ve never had a lens that was manual focus only, much less manual aperture. Instead of using a front or rear dial on the camera to choose your aperture, you grab a ring on the front of the lens to change it by twisting it to the left or right.

Some of you reading this are used to these type of lenses, but this was new to me.

Using the Manual Aperture Lens

While the aperture ring took some getting used to it really slowed my photo-taking process down. The aperture ring on the front of the lens reads 16 on the left, then 11, 8, 5.6, 4, 2.8, and 2 as you turn to the right. Simply twist the dial to change the aperture.

Manual Focus Rocks with the A7 and the Helios 44-2

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Light pole in a Missouri truck stop parking lot surrounded by corn.

The standard challenge with manual focus is trying to eyeball the focus correctly. You might think your subject is in focus but you might be just an inch or two out of focus.

The A7 has focus assist (also called focus peaking) that lights up in-focus sharp details in red so you know what part of the image is in focus. This makes it so simple.

Taking a portrait? Twist the focus ring until a person’s eyes are rimmed in red and guarantee the eyes are sharp in focus. It’s so easy its almost like cheating!

Finally – the Swirly Bokeh

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This unfocused image shows the popular swirly bokeh effect

I bought the lens right before a two-week trip to St. Louis, Missouri to visit family. It arrived the day before we left so it was ready to go right away. After a quick test shoot I decided I was going to shoot this Helios 58mm 44-2 exclusively for the entire trip.

Finding the swirly sweet spot

I took the lens into my in-laws yard to find out how best to find the swirly spot. When you shoot wide open at f/,2 close up to the subject, the background is a beautiful, buttery, soft bokeh.

flowers

This image was shot up close which caused the background to blur too much for the swirl I was looking for. I aimed up at a leaf that was a little further away, still shooting wide open at f/2.

It isn’t swirly bokeh yet, but it definitely has more shape to it. I’m getting closer.

branch bokeh

I took another shot with a subject at mid range, perhaps 4-5 feet away while still shooting wide open at f/2.

swirly bokeh, helios lens, helios 44-2

Can you start to see the swirl shape in the background? This photo showed me I’m getting closer. It seems that you need some decent distance from your subject, and you need some background that can fall into swirly bokeh in the distance.

I aimed up at a birdhouse about 8 feet away, which conveniently had a cute little toad in the lower peep hole and took the shot.

swirly bokeh, helios lens, helios 44-2

Success! Apparently you need a pretty good distance in the background so the little light spots and details can register into that swirl shape. I’m really in love with this Helios 44-2 lens.

The Helios 44-2 lens is fast with the f/2 aperture, weighs next to nothing, and was incredibly inexpensive at less than $50 including shipping. Even at very small apertures, it tops out at f/16, the lens puts out beautiful images.

Mississippi river,

The first of many manual focus prime lenses

I’ve had such a great time with this lens that I’m going to purchase more manual focus primes. The glass creates very unique images and I can’t wait to pick up my next one.

Have you ever mounted older lenses with your DLSR camera?

If so let me know what lens(es) you have in the comments below as I’m looking to try out even more. Share your images too please.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Mike Newton teaches photography learning shortcuts and other photo hacks at Hacking Photography. He is a full-time advertising photographer in San Diego California. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, or his personal photography site.

  • ktowng

    Very Cool! I just bought this lens on ebay and can’t wait to try it out.

  • ktowng

    Benson, it looks like your experimenting worked. Very nice swirl in this pic. How has the lens been since then? I just bought one on ebay and can’t wait to experiment myself.

  • Nice article. I use my Helios 58mm F2.0 on my Fujifilm X camera and the colors and bokeh are simply beautiful.

  • Tomas Eicher-Lorka

    here is my picture taken with helios 44m 🙂

  • Peter Neale

    I think that they have not been made since the early 1990s. The Soviet camera industry virtually collapsed when the Soviet Union collapsed. What was left was knocked out by the digital revolution a bit later. I have three Helios-44s, the newest of which is from 1993. By the way, you can usually pick the year of an FSU (Former Soviet Union) lens by the serial number. The first two digits are the year of manufacture.

    For a real adventure with FSU lenses, try to get your hands on a Helios-40 85mm f1.5. They are big and heavy enough to have their own tripod mount, and somewhat rarer and more expensive than the Helios 44. Being 85mm and f1.5 they are real bokeh monsters, and the depth of field at f1.5 is razor thin which makes them a bit fiddly to focus. The later ones have M42 mount, but the early ones have M39 though still with the same register as M42. The other quirk with the early ones is that they have a really unusual 66mm filter thread. I have one from 1966 which has both M39 mount and 66mm filter thread. It is fairly easy to get an M39 to M42 adapter, and possible but not so easy to get a 66mm to 67mm filter adapter.

  • Richard

    “These lenses were created for the Leica M-mount so I needed to get an M mount adapter for the Sony A7. I picked up a $10 Fotasy M42-NEX adapter which works perfectly.”
    I hate to be pedantic but these lenses are not “Leica M Mount” they are M42 mount which is something completely different. M42 is an old screw mount commonly used on Praktica and Pentax SLRs, the Leica M Mount is a bayonet fitting. You correctly bought the M42 mount adapter but if someone wrongly bought the M Mount adapter it would be useless.

  • Zsofia Reibli

    Mark, Mike:
    does the Petzval know anything extra compared to the Helios? I just discovered about this bokeh and i’d like to experiment with it, but in fact, the petzval looks incredibly expensive and the helios really cheap. i dont know if there’s a reason for that….?
    See you 🙂

  • Philippe

    Very interesting !!! So I bought this lens for my a7 but I don’t really understand because when I shoot I don’t see that swirly effect, or it’s a mini swirl.. I seen also on other tutorial, people modified there lens… They inverse the font lens.. Do you you know something about it ? Thanx a lot for your article and sorry for mybpoor English.. I’m French

  • Eamontron

    I bought a 1978 Helios 44-2 on the back of this article – £25 from ebay!
    Currently waiting for the M42 adaptor so I can use it on my Nikon 🙂

    Can’t wait to try it out.

    (Picture taken with smartphone)

  • The swirly effect from the Helios 44 is more pronounced on crop sensor and 35mm sensor bodies, but it is possible to create a great swirling effect with a simple hack. I’ve attached an example of what can be done with an old Helios, a DIY hack and a Micro 43 body. Here’s my Helios 44 write up: http://sjp.id.au/photography/helios-44-lens-review/

  • chris c

    Here’s a picture I took after getting my 44-2 and just messing around with it. I was maybe 2 feet from the guitar, and the guitar about 3 feet off the ground if I’m remembering correctly. The first picture is straight off the camera, second one is after tweaking in Lightroom

  • Jakub Šišák

    The Helios lens only works on Canon full frame camera with some modofication. The mirror will alway hit the rear of the lens. Some have sugested shim to raise it or thicker adaptor rigns but you will loose the ability to focus accurately, to infinity or all together. I modified mine and it was worth the effort: http://jakubsisak.tumblr.com/post/128680966703/helios-44-2-58-mm-f2-modification-for-canon-full

  • dobrej napad. mam ale strach, ze by se piliny pak dostaly na senzor, cim jste to vycistil, vysavacem?

  • Jakub Šišák

    Piliny se dovnitr nedostaly. Kdyz jsem s tim byl hotovy, tak jsem to vyfoukal stlacenym vzduchem a sklo vycistil. Objektiv me stal $35 USD tak jsem si rekl ze to stoji za to. ted funguje perfektne.

  • Rob Gipman

    I made a tilt-shift from my Helios as the Jupiter-9 is far better than the Helios https://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/23605089985/

  • Salvatore Benvenga

    Excuse me but….when you write” These lenses were created for the Leica M-mount so I needed to get an M mount adapter for the Sony A7. I picked up a $10 Fotasy M42-NEX adapter which works perfectly.” probably you intend not Leica M mount (as this one is M39) but Pentacon/Pentax M42. I’ve all the Helios 44M series for collection. It is a great lens. If you shot a same picture using the same f/ it is very hard to distinguish the little difference between each other. I love my 44M-2, as it was my first Helios, but probably the 44M-3 (similar to 44M2 series) and 44M-7 are my best choice but sometimes it depends from a personal influence. Futhermore you have to consider that these lenses were made in 3 differents plants (KMZ, MMZ, Jupiter Valdai) and a same lens may be slightly different depending of the plant. Usually Valdai (jupiter) is most valuable rather than other, but my MMZ 44M-3 is very good and Valdai 44M is good too. Each Helios 44M series was made for several years in a great number of lenses and you can find the same lens coming from different plants. I tested all the Helios with my Sony A7 and on Fuji XT1 too. They works greatly and you really can taste the flavour of the vintage lenses and their amazing pictures.

  • pl capeli

    love your writing …. if you use an apsc digital with a speedbooster and fast glass you can get some amazing bokeh action speedboosters shring the image circle exiting the lens making lenses behave as on full frame but with an extra stop of speed and sweet full frame like bokeh

    i love adapted glass and made a homemade adapter in 2009 out of a bodycap some giant washers glue filter rings and an old nikkor h,, befor mirrorless adapters were available

  • Marie

    Do they make a similar lens for a Nikon?

  • Irimia Alex-Adrian

    I have canon FL135mm 1.:3.5, canon FD 50mm 1:1.4 and FD 17mm 1:4, and a sony a7ii. Check out IrAL PICTURES on facebook, last album, all these 3 lens was used

  • K.G.W.Abeytunge

    I think the much wonted “swirly bokeh” is an unwanted distraction in the background. I think it is best to put your background completely out of focus so that your subject would stand out. After all it is not the background we are shooting for!

  • Julian Richards

    The one to watch out for is the Jupiter 9 at 85mm and f/2.0. I’ve used an awful lot of sometimes very odd old lenses. https://www.facebook.com/CaveArtFilm/ Oldest of all being a Thornton and Pikard “Amber” lens of 1890.

  • jameswburke

    Hey Mike. Great demonstration of this old-school lens. I’ve dug out my old Pentax and Bronica film camera kits and bought adapters for them. Check out this shot of a Pentax 50mm SMC lens on modern Canon DSLR 70D body. I’ve a few others on 500px. Have linked to your article from my blog (barrowvalley.net). It’s a new lease of life for my old lenses and great to use old-school techniques of pre-focus and manual settings on a camera again. https://500px.com/photo/147788619/catkins-no-2-by-james-burke?ctx_page=1&from=user&user_id=8289525

  • Hey Mike. Great demonstration of this old-school lens. I’ve dug out my old Pentax and Bronica film camera kits and bought adapters for them. Check out this shot of a Pentax 50mm SMC lens on modern Canon DSLR 70D body. https://500px.com/photo/147788619/catkins-no-2-by-james-burke?ctx_page=1&from=user&user_id=8289525

    I’ve a few others on 500px. It’s a new lease of life for my old lenses and great to use old-school techniques of pre-focus and manual settings on a camera again.

  • The M42 mount is a simple screw mount, very popular in its day. It was developed by Zeiss for their Contax, but the best seller was Pentax, who used it for the Spotmatic, so it’s usually known as the Pentax screw mount.
    You seem to confuse it with the Leica M mount, used by their modern rangefinders, which in fact, is totally different. It’s a bayonet mount who substituted Leica’s earlier 39mm screw mount.

  • Dylan

    Thank you so much for this post! I recently bought the 44-2 Helios to pair with my A7 and couldn’t figure out how to get the swirly bokeh, so this helped a lot! Since I’m a college student on a budget I’ve been using all of my old MD mount Minolta lenses on my A7 and I absolutely love shooting with them! The bokeh is strong when it’s wide open and they capture so many colors it’s great! I highly recommend shooting with the Minolta 1.7 50mm and the 2.8 28mm

  • Lana Belinsky

    I can recommend Meyer Optik lenses. Trioplan is something to die for! I have a newer (Trioplan N 100 f/2.8) model, the black zebra. It has fewer blades than the aluminum older version but is sharper and looks modern on your camera. What a bokeh it gives!!! Its pricey, though definitely worth every cent. I am now looking for a Helios too and am confused by all the different types. Many say 44-2 is the best, but even for this model there are several types (lenses look different in ads)..

    The site doesnt allow to load more photos in this comment, Ill add in the next one

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ca33e7182eba941373b5c18b7f8ae571e07c0528df6f3b5e887b615e2d5d75ac.jpg

  • Lana Belinsky
  • Fatih akçay

    hi, I have helios 44M -4 58mm f2 lens, is the difference between 44M-2 ?

  • Iosif Simon

    Some shots I took with this lens:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V94Hza7qybU&t=1s

  • dude

    This is the most belligerent thing I’ve ever seen…I LOVE IT!!! lol

  • lewisfrancis

    Great overview of how to get the effect, but it’s not a “manufacturing defect” in the lens as the author states, but rather an older optical design — modern lenses correct for these distortions.

    The effect is not for everyone, but I find the effect charming, myself, and have several vintage lenses that produce swirl to different and sometimes dramatic extents.

  • Nemmondom Meg

    And what was the lens? As it was not the Helios if it had f1.4

  • Grumpy Binka

    Rainbow Imaging 25mm F1.4 C Mount Lens

  • Here’s my very own list of favourite MF lenses. It’s in italian, but i’m sure you can understand what lenses I am talking about:
    http://www.videoreflex.org/obiettivi-economici-sony-e/

  • Schucoman

    Just saw some shots using this lens on the DPS FB page. I had that lens on my old Zenit B. It was awesome, should have kept it!

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