Secondhand week: using old lenses on digital cameras

by Julia Wald

The appeal of using vintage lenses on modern cameras has never been stronger. Matt Golowczynski speaks to five converts to find out why

Photographers have long partnered camera bodies with lenses developed for other systems, although in the past few years the concept has crossed much further into the mainstream than before.

Much of this is down to the influx of modern mirrorless systems, which suddenly made it possible to create many new and intriguing – if sometimes incongruous – camera and lens combinations. New systems continue to be introduced, and with them, further adapters to broaden pairing possibilities.

While photographers have found success in mounting vintage lenses on to bodies from a variety of camera lines, the Micro Four Thirds format deserves special credit here. The relatively short flange-to-back distance (i.e. the distance from the sensor to the lens mount) of the first mirrorless system models has meant that many older lenses with a variety of fittings could simply be mounted with what is essentially a simple extension tube.

The first thing anyone keen on getting started with using vintage lenses should check is whether the lens they wish to use will mount their body. That typically means finding a suitable adapter, and a quick online search should reveal whether this exists. Specialists such as Novoflex and SRB Photographic cover many of the most popular combinations, and adapters that don’t require any glass will often be priced at around £20-30. Of course, the more exotic the combination, the more you should be prepared to pay.

Many photographers also find such adapters online at eBay, Amazon or Facebook Marketplace, and these are also good places to locate older lenses. While many interesting lenses can be found for as little as £5 or £10, they are naturally likely to be in a less-than- ideal condition, so it’s worth asking questions and examining as many images as possible if it’s not possible to physically assess the lens.

The benefits of such camera-lens partnerships are manifold. Perhaps you have some existing glass or you’ve spotted a cheap lens you’d like to make use of because it differs in some interesting way from a more modern optic. But for many, it’s less about resourcefulness and more to do with aesthetics. Older lenses often have a character that’s absent from modern optics, which opens you up to achieving a style of your own. And it’s arguably this more than anything else that unites the five photographers below.

Ethan Bates

I first picked up a camera three years ago: a Nikon Coolpix L840 point-and-shoot. I had no desire to get into photography at the time, but I loved travelling and wanted to take pictures of all the places I’d been to. I then bought a Sony A6000 and shot with the kit lens for three weeks before I realised I could get an adapter that allowed me to use old lenses. I got my first vintage lenses and haven’t looked back since.

‘My mentality is that to master your trade you have to master your tool – so how can I be the master of my tool if the camera is doing all the work for me? I really believe in the power of learning on vintage glass. For one thing, you’re in full control and you’re not just pressing buttons.

‘You can get any lens and take amazing pictures, because they all have their characteristics – but you have to have a good body. For example, I know several people who shoot with Canon cameras that don’t have the focus magnification option. A couple of local guys I know sold their full-frame Canons to get a Sony A6000, and now they’re in love with it because they have this option, as well as focus peaking.

I shoot a lot of portraits and landscapes, but I get bored doing the same thing over and over. I use macro lenses a lot and my entire [lens] kit is vintage. I use the A6000 and an A7, and I have at any given time four or five lenses, including the Vivitar 28mm f/2.8 MC, Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm f/3.5 and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/2 lenses. I like to stick with Zuiko lenses because they all need the same adapter. I actually have two Zuiko adapters, just so I can swap the whole thing, which is good for speed when shooting portraits and moving around.

‘The only issue I have had with vintage glass so far is with a Helios 44-2 lens. It doesn’t like to focus to infinity, quite likely because the M42 adapter places it a little too far from the sensor. But I love the look of it, and I continue to use it.’

Klaudia Eysymontt

‘I learned about the idea of using vintage lenses on modern cameras from my husband’s brother. I started to read up on them and find examples from photographers already using them, and when I realised that some of the lenses weren’t expensive, I decided to give it a try.

‘Vintage lenses give images an unusual charm. The kind of bokeh they can produce is either very hard to achieve with modern lenses or not possible at all. Sometimes the result is pure magic, even if a photo isn’t perfectly sharp. They fit perfectly for portrait photography because of the shallow depth of field, but what I love is that I can use them to shoot both amazing macro shots and beautiful portraits.

‘Currently, I own three vintage lenses: the Helios 44M-4, Pentacon auto 50mm f/1.8 and Helios 44M-2 with a Petzval effect modification, and I use them all on a Nikon D7200. The Helios 44M-4 was a gift that started my adventure with manual lenses. I have a fondness for it because it belonged to my husband’s father, but I love the results I’ve achieved with it. My favourite, however, is the Pentacon auto 50mm f/1.8 as it produces beautiful colours and bokeh.

‘The next lenses I plan to buy are the Super Carenar 55mm f/1.4 and Meyer Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8. They are not expensive but give a lot of possibilities when shooting portraits or nature photography.

‘What I don’t like about vintage lenses is the reflections; pictures taken in full sun are low in contrast and pale. The lack of AF can also be hard, because in some conditions it’s difficult to set the focus manually. Often, I shoot in low, artificial light, which takes lots of patience and concentration. It’s also easy to miss the perfect moment, which is why it’s not really an option to take images of anything that’s moving.

‘The thing I like the most about these lenses is the beautiful bokeh. Some pictures, just because of appropriate exposure, look almost surreal and out of this world. With a little bit of water mist in the air, the results are dreamy. The lenses I use are very bright, which gives me more control over depth of field, and that helps a lot when taking images with sunset light or in rooms with weak artificial light.

Benjamin Dupont

‘I started to use vintage lenses about a year and a half ago. I like the retro look and I used to do a lot of post-processing with filters to achieve it. But I wanted to get out of that – which is why I decided to go for vintage lenses.

‘The first lens I bought was a Helios 44-2, which is a 58mm f/2. It only cost me $30 but I quickly got some good shots with swirly bokeh. I then got the Jupiter 11: a 135mm f/4 Soviet lens, all metal and glass. F/4 isn’t that wide if you want bokeh, but the sharpness is incredible. I could see the tiniest hair on my son’s cheek when I zoomed into the image.
‘I bought the Olympus OM Zuiko 28mm f/3.5 and, more recently, the Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8. If I had to keep one lens, it would be the latter. It doesn’t have the swirly bokeh of the Helios 44-2, but in terms of colour rendition, sharpness and contrast, it’s one of the best.

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