HACKING THE HELIOS 44-2 FOR NIKON
The Helios 44 (58mm f/2) has become somewhat of a cult classic in recent years. This is predominently because of its swirly bokeh attributes in earlier versions, coupled with the fact that it can be picked up for under £25 for mint condition copies. The lens is a Soviet copy of the Carl Zeiss "Biotar" optical formula, of 1939.
It was first produced in 1959 and was manufactured right up until the early 1990's and is available in single and multi-coat versions, as well a different mounts (Zenit, M39, M42 and even Pentax K). One of the most popular and common versions of the lens is the 44-2 which is available in M42 mount.
Anyone who shoots Nikon, is probably aware of the limitation of using M42 mount lenses with Nikon bodies. Adapters are available but, due to the registry distance of the lens you get around 30-40cm of focusing distance on a 50mm type lens, which pretty much renders them useless for most subjects. To get around this, adapters with corrective elements are available. While these do allow for infinity focus, the quality of the glass causes huge image detail loss and is not something I recommend.
Thankfully there is a way to hack one version of the 44-2 model so that you can use it on Nikon bodies, achieve infinity focus and avoid hitting the mirror as well. It is also relatively simple to do as well, although you do require precision screwdrivers and some thin wire. I used some copper bonsai wire, that I had lying around which is around 1.5mm in diameter. The version of the 44-2 lens you will need is the "zebra", which is recognizable by it's body and black/bare metal scalloped focus barrel. This particular hack doesn't work for other 44-2 versions that I am aware of, having tested it on a different version of the 44-2. The idea is to move the entire optical group closer to the camera sensor by adjusting the infinity focus.
Now before you begin, understand that this guide is for information purposes only and you perform the conversion at your own risk of damaging the lens or your camera body mirror. On the D800, it worked perfectly for me. However, other Nikon camera bodies may have different mirror sizes or distances and so I cannot guarantee the success on your particular body. So with all that said and acknowledged, the proceedure is as follows.
Firstly, I suggest you work at a table, with good light, preferably with a white towel or cloth laid down. The reason for this is that if you drop any of the tiny screws, they will be more visible and won't bounce/roll off the table and disappear into the carpet. Tools required - 1-2mm flat screwdriver. Thin wire approximately 2mm thick. I also highly recommend that you have a magnet handy. Should a tiny screw fall to the floor and disappear into the carpet pile, the magnet will stand a much better chance of finding it.
(1) Take your lens and hold if firmly in your hand. With your other hand, grab the aperture ring and actuator and turn them anti-clockwise. The aperture may turn to f/16 before the front of the lens begins to unscrew. Normally it doesn't take a lot of force before things start moving. It does take a short while (about 25-30 rotations) until the optical group separates from the body of the lens.
(2) Upon removal, inspect the shaft of the optic group. On it you will find a metal spacer ring. In the two copies of the 44-2 I own, these were silver coloured and actually differed in thickness quite considerably - probably why the conversion only worked for one and not the other. This ring needs to be replaced by the bonsai wire. Simply wrap the wire around the optical group and snip with some cutters. Ensure the wire is tight to the shaft. If need be, remove it and make the circle slightly smaller/tighter than the shaft requires. It will then be under tension and hold it's position. If when resassembling the lens, the aperture dial doesn't rotate, the wire is either too thin, or the rear of the body is pinching the mechanism. Essentially what you are aiming to do is reduce the thickness of the spacer to move the optical group nearer the sensor. Once you have wrapped the wire round the shaft, put this part of the lens safely to one side.
(3) Next you need to remove the focus barrel. This is achieved by removing the 3 small screws located at 120º intervals around its circumfrence. You don't need to remove them completely but, just enough so that the barrel will come lose. The screws are very small and can be a nuisance to restart in the holes, so keep them in the barrel if you can.
(4) Now do the same thing to the lens body part that has the aperture values etched into it. Likewise, this has 3 screws that need to be undone enough to allow its removal.
(5) Rotate the bare focus barrel until the helical is exposed. Here you should see the infinity stop, which is a small screw that is located on the underside of base that the optical group sit on. When looking at the top of the lens with the optical group removed, you should see a little silver "dot" on the black surface. This is the top of the screw thread. If you flip the lens over you should see the screw that needs to be removed. By doing this, you again allow the optics to move closer to the camera sensor. The screw can be a bit tricky to remove, as you have approach it at an angle. Sometimes it's easier to insert a flat head at 90º to unscrew it intially. If you can't unscrew it in this manner, you will have to remove the focus ring. This has 3 tiny screws in it that have to be removed first. Then using a lens spanner/wrench, the ring has to be twisted off. If you don't have a lens spanner, this can be a problem.
(6) With the infinity stop screw removed, simply replace the body parts you removed in steps 3 and 4. Take care not to overtighten the screws as they are easily sheered off. Also, make sure the focus distance scale of the focus barrel and the red arrow align. There are only 3 positions the aperture etched section can go in, so if it doesn't line up initially, just relax the screws and rotate until the red arrow is over the (M) next to the 0.5 at closest focusing distance. Obviously the red arrow will now go past the infinity symbol at the other end, as we have removed the stopper screw from inside.
(7) Insert the optical group back into the body of the lens and screw together. It should be tight enough so that you can move the aperture dial and preset dial without the lens unscrewing again. If it does, tighten it further. As mentioned earlier, if after tightening the aperture ring fails to move or is very stiff, the wire we are using as a makeshift spacer is either too thin, or out of position. You may need to fine tune its position in the groove.
(8) Screw the lens into the M42 > Nikon adapter and mount on your camera. Focus to infinity and see if can see detail in distant objects. Bear in mind the 44-2 isn't the sharpest lens out there, so there may be a bit of softness. Now use your camera's live view. If everything has gone to plan, the mirror should clear rear element of the lens and your view on the LCD screen appear as normal. If not, you will hear it connect and only see a partial image.
Depending on you camera body, you may need to fine tune things with regard to wire thickness and the position of the rear element mirror to achieve clearance. Even if you don't quite achieve infinity focus, you should at least have more than enough focusing distance to play with to make the lens a viable option for portraiture, which, let's face it, is the main reason for using this lens. Other conversions call for placing wire behind the rear doublet, which changes the forumula. This technique simply moves everything backwards.
That's about it. I hope this guide proves useful to you and if you follow the steps above, you shouldn't run into any problems. Feel free to share this guide using the social media buttons below.