How to Create Swirly Bokeh (With the Helios 44-2 Lens)

The post How to Create Swirly Bokeh (With the Helios 44-2 Lens) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mike Newton.

Create artistic photos with swirly bokeh!

A few years back, I purchased a Sony mirrorless camera to compliment my full-frame Canon DSLR. (A friend convinced me that having a small-form, full-frame camera would be an entirely different way of shooting. I value his opinion, so I picked one up.)

After working with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, however, I found that I wasn’t completely happy with what it offered; it was too heavy, and I wanted something light. I knew that I wanted a lens with a wide aperture, so I started to do research into my different options.

While looking through photos on Flickr, I noticed a few images where the bokeh appeared to be swirling in a circular pattern. It was awesome and unlike anything I had ever seen, like this:

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh

I did some quick digging. I soon found out this was called “swirly bokeh,” and that certain vintage lenses, such as the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2, produce the effect through a manufacturing defect. Well, this “defect” looked extremely cool, so I decided I wanted to purchase a Helios 44-2 for my collection and create some swirly bokeh of my own!

Below, I share everything that followed, including the trial-and-error process I used to (eventually) capture the bokeh I was after. If you’ve purchased the Helios 44-2 but you’re not sure how to use it to get its artistic bokeh, or if you’re simply looking for a way to elevate your portfolio with creative effects, then read on!

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

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh
My Sony mirrorless camera with the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2.0 lens.

As I said above, I learned that certain vintage lenses were capable of creating the swirly bokeh effect. I discovered that there is a cult following for a lens called a Helios 58mm f/2, and that it’s a Russian-made lens that essentially tried to emulate a famous Zeiss lens. The manufacturers’ goal wasn’t to create swirly bokeh, but that’s what happened – and as artistic photographers, it’s something we can exploit!

Several companies made these lenses over several decades, and millions of units were produced, so the Helios 58mm f/2 isn’t exactly rare. That’s good for us creative photographers; since they’re so common, they’re ultra-inexpensive.

Where to find the Helios 44-2 lens

Now, there isn’t just one version of the Helios 58mm f/2 lens. However, through my research, I learned that 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 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!)

How to mount the lens on a modern camera

Helios 44-2 lenses were created for the M42 mount. Therefore, unless you already shoot a camera that uses this mount, you’ll need an M-mount adapter. Since I have a Sony a7 mirrorless camera, I picked up an M2-mount to E-mount adapter that works perfectly: this $10 Fotasy M42-NEX model.

(Of course, if you use a different camera system, you’ll need a different adapter, but there are plenty of cheap and effective options on Amazon!)

With my lens mounted, I found that my setup looked like a Franken-camera:

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh
Mounting the Helios 44-2 to the Sony A7.

Honestly, I really like how crazy this thing looks. Other photographers have stopped to ask what the heck my lens setup is!

Working with the Helios 44-2 lens

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh
The Sony A7 focus assist feature makes it easy to nail perfect focus each time.

Before I explain how to create swirly bokeh, I want to emphasize: The Helios 44-2 lens is not designed for modern cameras and therefore doesn’t contain modern technology. It focuses manually, and the aperture must be adjusted manually, as well.

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. (If you’re used to that type of lens, then you’ll be in better shape than I was – photographing that way was totally new to me!)

The aperture ring took some getting used to, and at first, it 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.

A light pole in a Missouri truck stop parking lot surrounded by corn, taken with the Helios 44-2. There’s no swirly bokeh here – but I’m getting there!

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.

Fortunately, my Sony a7 has a focus-assist option (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 far simpler to get right.

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, it’s almost like cheating! Many other mirrorless cameras offer this feature, too, so if you don’t own a Sony a7 model, check your camera manual to see whether your camera can do the same.

How to create the swirly bokeh effect

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh
This unfocused image shows the popular swirly bokeh effect!

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

When I arrived in St. Louis, I took the lens into my in-laws’ yard to find out how best to create the swirls. When you shoot wide open at f/2, and you get close to the subject, the background is a beautiful, buttery, soft bokeh:

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh

However, as you can see in the image above, the swirl effect doesn’t always appear. My flower photo was shot up close, which caused the background to blur too much for the swirl I was looking for.

So I picked a subject that was a little farther away, still shooting wide open at f/2:

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh

The result didn’t have swirly bokeh, but the bokeh definitely had more shape to it. I knew I was getting closer.

I kept my aperture at f/2, then took another shot with a subject that was slightly farther away – perhaps 4-5 feet:

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh

Can you start to see the swirl shape in the background? It became clear that I needed a good distance from my subject, as well as a background that included enough small highlights to fall into swirly bokeh in the distance.

Finally, I aimed my Helios 44-2 lens at a birdhouse about eight feet away, which conveniently had a cute little toad in the lower peephole. Here’s the result:

Helios 44-2 lens swirly bokeh

Success! This shot also helped me realize that you need a pretty good distance in the background so the little light spots and details can register into that swirl shape. As long as you use a wide-open aperture, you choose a subject that’s reasonably far from the background and your lens, and you make sure that the background has plenty of little highlights, you can get the same results!

Of course, you’ll also need a Helios 44-2 lens and the relevant adapter, but like I said, you can grab these for cheap online.

Go create swirly bokeh with your Helios 44-2 lens!

I have to say: I’m really in love with my Helios 44-2 lens.

It offers an f/2 maximum aperture, weighs next to nothing, and is incredibly inexpensive – remember, I grabbed mine for less than $50 (including shipping). Even at very small apertures, the lens produces beautiful images. Here’s another example photo, this one shot at a much narrower aperture:

The Mississippi River
The Mississippi River photographed with my Helios 44-2 lens.

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.

Hopefully, you can use my walkthrough to capture some amazing swirly bokeh of your own. If you struggle to get good results, you can always head out into your backyard or a nearby park – like I did – and experiment with different subjects and distances. Soon, you’ll be creating some wonderfully artistic images!

Now over to you:

Do you plan to use a Helios 44-2 lens? Have you ever used one? Share your thoughts (and images!) in the comments below!

The post How to Create Swirly Bokeh (With the Helios 44-2 Lens) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mike Newton.

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