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Zenit MC Helios 44K-4 58mm f/2.0 Vintage Lens Review

John Riley reviews the "Zenit" MC Helios 44-4K 58mm f/2.0 vintage lens in K-Mount, with a full-frame DSLR.


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MC Helios-44K-4 58mm f/2.0

 

If we rewind time to our distant youth, many photographers who discovered photography in the 1960s or 1970s may well have started with a Zenith SLR camera, courtesy of low-cost factories in the former USSR. Manual focus, maybe not even with a built-in meter, fully manual exposure being calculated by the table printed inside film cartons or perhaps with a small handheld exposure meter. The basic lens was the 50mm f/3.5, but a little further up the scale was the 58mm f/2, based on the Zeiss Biotar design and offering what was considered a very classy optic. This version, the 44K-4, is in the same line, but of much later vintage, perhaps up to the mid-1980s, and is reviewed here in Pentax K mount rather than the traditional M42 screw mount. It offers multi-coating, a more streamlined body and a lack of the classic aroma of machine oil that pervades many early Soviet products. Let's see how the lens fares using the 36MP Pentax K-1 DSLR.

Zenit MC Helios 44K-4 58mm f/2.0 Handling and Features

Mc Helios 44K 4 58mm F2 Front Oblique View

First off, why 58mm for a standard lens? Traditional lens designs meant that it was much easier to make fast lenses if the focal length was slightly longer. Thus many lenses would be 55mm or even the 58mm favoured by the Zenit lines. Actually, 58mm is not necessarily a bad idea as it does mean that there tends to be a tighter composition, whereas many photographers would tend to crop a 50mm image slightly anyway. In terms of this lens and the Pentax K-1, when switching on the first thing is that the camera asks us what focal length the lens is. This is for the purposes of the SR (Shake Reduction) system that is built into the body. 55mm was selected for the review, there being no 58mm setting. It is worth mentioning that if used on an APS-C cropped format camera, the “35mm equivalent” focal length becomes 87mm, definitely in the realm of a portrait optic in terms of perspective.

Mc Helios 44K 4 58mm F2 Compared To Pentax 43mm F1,9
MC Helios 44K-4 58mm f/2 (left) Compared To Pentax 43mm f/1.9

The lens is small and light, weighing in at a modest 258g. Construction is solid but more sophisticated than the earlier versions were. The lack of the aroma of machine oil has already been noted. The front of the lens gives us a standard 52mm filter thread. The lens cap is a soft plastic push-on design that easily falls off. Looking into the front element, we can clearly see the bright metal of the six-leaved diaphragm. Ideally, these blades should be less reflective, but they are not too different from a similarly designed Pentax lens, the 43mm f/1.9 Limited, that was on hand at the same time.

The manual focusing ring is smooth and quite firm, offering a good feel to the focusing experience. Focusing is down to 0.5m, about average for its day, a maximum magnification of about 1:10. A slight operational point is that the focusing movement operates in the opposite direction to Pentax lenses, and as this is a K mount version it would have been useful if the direction of focusing had been the same. This becomes important when using several manual focus lenses as it avoids confusion and speeds up the photography.

Mc Helios 44K 4 58mm F2 Depth Of Field Scale
Depth Of Field Scale

The focusing scale is viewed in a small cutout and this version of the lens is clearly marked in metres only. The depth of field scale is actually useful as the focusing travel is sufficiently long. There is an Infra-red focusing mark, used with IR film as the lens is not corrected to bring IR light to the same focus point as visible light. It could be equally useful on a DSLR.


Mc Helios 44K 4 58mm F2 On Pentax K1

There is an aperture ring, with click stops, but there is no “A” setting as the mount is entirely contact free. No electronics means that the Pentax body is used in manual mode. The procedure is straightforward enough – set the aperture to the desired value, press the green button and the camera will set the appropriate shutter speed. It's simple and works, but is obviously slower than using an AF lens. The aperture ring is click stopped, as mentioned above, but the clicks are very indistinct and “notchy”. But it serves its purpose.

Optical construction is 6 elements in 4 groups, pretty much as expected. This at one time would have been considered a complex lens compared to the simpler Triotar (3 element) and Tessar (4 element) designs that were commonly used. There is still an advantage to fewer elements in that there are fewer air/glass surfaces to create internal reflections and reduce contrast.

The 58mm focal length is a definite advantage when it comes to manual focusing, giving a crisp, decisive point of focus. It is also useful as a short portrait lens, giving a pleasing, natural perspective to images of people. Manual focusing will never be as quick as the modern AF lens can provide, but with practice, we can learn or re-learn the appropriate skills and it becomes second nature. Of course, for slower tripod-mounted shooting there is no problem with speed.

Mc Helios 44K 4 58mm F2 Rear Oblique View
 


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Comments


franken Plus
16 4.9k 4 United Kingdom
8 Jul 2019 2:42PM
I probably had an older version on my Zenith E in the late sixties early seventies and it performed really well for the time. I got really sharp prints from it in my darkroom. Sadly, both camera and lens ended up in a river when I slipped on a steep river bank.

Ken.

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alan53 11 United Kingdom
9 Jul 2019 9:21AM
Rather than quoting a 58.0mm focal length for each and every sample photo, would it not be more helpful to give information on the aperture settings used?
9 Jul 2019 9:56AM
@alan53 - Yes, agreed, unfortunately there is no EXIF data as there is no electronic contact between these lenses and the camera. It would entail keeping paper notes for all the images, which is quite onerous and frankly I was never any good at remembering to do that, even when people bought me notebooks made for the purpose. The bokeh shots are an obvious exception. However, you are right and next vintage review I will attempt to record all the apertures used. It would be useful.
9 Jul 2019 9:46PM
John, how does the K-mount version (tested here) compare to the older M42 mount versions when it comes to the "swirly bokeh", that the images above don't show.
I have a couple of the M42 versions, and on the K-1, indeed the crop sensor K-3, produces that bokeh mentioned when subject to background is from a certain distance. I do like the 44M series of lenses though, great fun.
9 Jul 2019 10:38PM
@Offertonhatter - It would be interesting to compare the different lenses, but there are lots of them and they span a long period of time. It's a bit beyond the scope of what we were doing here. Subject to availability of lenses, perhaps an earlier one could also be looked at to see what the differences are.
robmathieson New Member
21 Jul 2019 9:08AM
A great review of one of my favourite lenses. I have this K-mount/Pentax lens and one modified to Nikon mount and use them both on film and digital. It has a great mix of qualities, sharpness and contrast with distinctive bokeh and flare (for when you need it).
I believe the 58mm focal lengths was to make the image through the viewfinder the same size as the image seen with an open left eye. A feature popular with 1960s rangefinders and SLRs.

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