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Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm F2 VS Helios 44-2 58mm F2

Updated: Mar 24, 2023


Here we have the classic battle of two lenses.

German vs Russian, carl Zeiss vs Helios.

Which one's the best? Well, we'll get to that, but first, a bit of history on both.


Produced from 1936 to 1960 and produced in many variations, the Biotar was developed by the famous lens designer Dr Willy Walter Merté for Carl Zeiss. In 1936, It was the standard lens on the famous Kine Night-Exakta by Ihagee, the most technically advanced 35mm camera made prior to World War II.

Creating such a fast lens prior to WWII was one of the greatest feats in the history of optics since it was designed and built without the use of computers. All of the optical calculations were done by hand by teams of optical technicians.


Near the end of WWII in February 1945, the United States Air Force and the British RAF bombed Dresden, creating a massive firestorm and heavily damaging the Zeiss factory in Jena. Plans that had been developed for an SLR camera conceived in 1937 were lost, and many of the designers and machinists working on the project were killed.

Incredibly, only a few years later in 1949, Carl Zeiss Jena rose from the ashes to release the Contax S, the World’s First 35mm eye-level single-lens reflex camera with a glass prism finder and interchangeable lenses.


This revolutionary camera was also the first to use what is now known as the M42 Mount, Universal Screw Mount, or Pentax mount. It was another nine years before the Japanese caught up by developing the Nikon F, Canonflex, the Pentax Spotmatic, and other eye-level SLRs with interchangeable lenses and focal-plane shutters.


The very first of what we now call a “kit lens” to come with the Contax S was the Biotar 58mm f/2 lens, which had to be specifically developed for the camera because the internal mirror meant that the flange focal distance of the lens had to be shorter, and the focal length adapted for use with a prism. It’s reported that the speed of the lens was necessary because the viewfinder of the Contax S was dim, but it's suspected that the designers simply attempted to get as much performance out of the pre-war design as possible. The 58mm focal length provided 1:1 viewing on the Contax S focusing screen.

After WW2, the Jena factory fell within the Soviet Occupation zone, & the Soviets seized factory equipment, plans & even german technicians. The problem was that the Zeiss Biotar was manufactured to work with German Schott glass, & this didn't exist in the Soviet Union, so the optical formula had to be recalculated for Soviet glass by D.S. Volosov. The Soviet lens was manufactured at the KMZ factory ner Moscow and went through numerous variations over the years.




 

Widely referred to as the most popular lens of all time.

It starts in September 1939: Germany invades Poland from the West, sparking WWII. Something that affected the entire globe, and specifically reached the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia. Russia was suddenly in need of optical instruments for the Red Army.

The primary suppliers of these optical instruments were companies like Zeiss, Leica, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Fujifilm. And these are all companies in Axis Power countries.

On February 1, 1942, by the order of the People's Commissariat of the armament of the USSR, a state optical plant known as Krasnogorsk Mechanical Works or KMZ, was born in Sverdlovsk Russia.

Fast forward a couple of years and the Red Army now occupied East Germany. Specifically Jena, Germany, where Zeiss glass is manufactured. There, the Russians helped themselves to the Zeiss Biotar lens formula. They proceeded to use this stolen Zeiss equipment to develop their own optical devices for the War.


As mentioned above, The Soviet lens was manufactured at the KMZ factory ner Moscow and went through numerous variations over the years. The Helios 44 was the first of the series of 58mm f/2 lenses and featured an M39 mount. A version came later that was called the 44-2, which would become one of the most popular models for soviet photographers before bursting onto the global scene. A 44-3 was also created, adding an MC layer. Both the 44-2 and 44-3 would feature an M42 mount, essentially doing away with the M39 mounts for good. One of the most interesting facets of the 44-2 was its relatively inexpensive manufacturing cost due to the metal and hardened plastic that made up the lens. These materials gave the 44-2 a sturdy feel that photographers loved, and the unique performance of the lens made it a favourite for many.


So, just how exactly did this lens become so popular?

While at first glance the Helios 44-2 is a basic legacy lens, it has retained its popularity due to its character and famous ability to create a “swirly bokeh” in photos. Thus giving the photos a slightly unfocused look with swirly effects that centre around the subject being captured. With its low price and incredible history, the Helios 44-2 is a legacy lens worth adding to your collection - if not for the effects, then surely for the conversation starter!




 


Pros of the Helios:

  • It has a good build quality

  • An optical design that produces some fantastic swirly bokeh

  • it's cheaper to buy than they Biotar

  • Easily adapted to digital cameras

  • It's quite small, so it's easy to store in your kit bag

  • Fantastic for portraits

  • Sharp when stopped down

Cons of the Helios :

  • Quite heavy for the size of it

  • Not as sharp as the Biotar

  • Can hit the mirror if being adapted to a full-frame digital camera

  • Can provide low contrast images

  • Flares when shot in direct sunlight

  • Doesn't hold its value as well as the Biotar


 


Pros of the Biotar:

  • Fantastic build quality

  • An optical design that produces some fantastic swirly bokeh

  • A small size that's easy to store in your kit bag

  • Very sharp, even wide open at F2

  • Fantastic for portraits

  • Holds its value better than the Helios

Cons of the Biotar:

  • More expensive to buy than the Helios

  • Can be difficult to adapt to digital cameras

  • Can produce flares in direct sunlight

  • Can hit the mirror if being used on a full-frame camera

  • Quite heavy for the size of it

So, now you're probably asking yourself which lens is better?

In my opinion, the Biotar wins hands down, every time, it's sharper than the Helios, it has a better build quality and in my opinion, it has better optics.

Now, don't get me wrong, by no stretch of the imagination am I saying that the Helios is a bad lens because it's not. It is a fantastic lens in its own right, and it's a lens that I have in my own personal collection and use on a regular basis.


So, which lens should you buy?

To put it bluntly, if you're serious about photography and are determined to get one of these lenses, and your budget will stretch to it, go for the Biotar, every time, but if it won't, then go for the Helios.

But then on the other hand, if you're just dipping your toes into the rabbit hole that is vintage lenses and you're not sure whether it's going to be for you or not, or maybe you just want to try out the 58mm focal length, then go for the cheaper, but still very capable Helios.


In reality, there isn't really a right or wrong answer here, both are fantastic lenses in their own right and you're not going to know which one that you prefer until you've used both of them.


Whichever one you choose, just enjoy using a piece of photography history,


Both of these lenses are available on our site. View them below and choose for yourself.






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