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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Classic Glass

Your favorite optics live again—in digital reincarnation

Labels: LensesGear

In the early 1970s, when SLR photography experienced its first major growth spurt and digital was an uncommon phrase that referred to the use of one's fingers, the Holy Grail of lenses, at least for Nikon owners, consisted of three Nikkors: the 24mm ƒ/2.8, 105mm ƒ/2.5 and 50mm ƒ/1.4. Add a 55mm ƒ/3.5 Micro-Nikkor and the ultra-exclusive 80-200mm ƒ/4.5 Zoom-Nikkor, and you had a set of glass that could handle virtually any photographic assignment—if you could afford them.

When autofocus cameras crept into the market in 1985, camera and lens manufacturers began the slow process of replacing most of the classic glass with AF models. Manual-focus lenses stuck around for a while, even on AF bodies, but the handwriting was on the wall. Lenses that were already a generation old, like the Minolta MC series, Canon FL series and Nikon non-AI models, rapidly dropped in resale value. By 2003, as digital SLRs moved into the mainstream, most of the older optics were relegated to the closet. Compact zooms in the 18-55mm range replaced the familiar 50mm "normal" lenses, and cameras embodied auto exposure, autofocus and auto-almost everything.

Manual-focus lenses became complicated fountain pens in a world of quick and nimble ballpoints. Lenses that had made their bones by delivering clear, crisp images fell into disuse because they were incompatible with the newer camera bodies. Even legendary lenses became paperweights.

Today, your favorite lens can live again. Mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX, Samsung NX and Micro 4/3rds bodies all accept lenses with virtually any mount via an adapter. Regular 4/3rds bodies (the Olympus E-620 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, for example) do, too. We can thank the reduced distance from the lens mount to the sensor for this largesse. It's not widely known, but Canon DSLRs also readily accept adapted lenses with non-Canon mounts.

Are They Really Better?
Some of the older lenses developed outstanding reputations for sharpness, durability and color rendition. There's no denying that many were exceptionally good performers. But bear in mind that, before digital, photographers rarely examined images at life-size and larger. Now, it's common for pixel peepers to grab that Lightroom magnifying tool and click to 200% or 400%. Overall, it's fair to say that older optics weren't subjected to such stern scrutiny as often as modern lenses are today.

How does old glass compare? On a Micro 4/3rds camera body or a standard 4/3rds body, the effective focal length of any lens is doubled, so a 100mm ƒ/2.8 performs like a 200mm ƒ/2.8, for example. Depth of field is quite shallow. When a subject is isolated from the background, it appears to be sharper. Since the 4/3rds sensor is smaller, only the center portion of the lens is used; edge-to-edge sharpness is extremely good. Old lenses can perform better on modern mirrorless digital cameras than they did on 35mm boxes.

On the other hand, older manual lenses are exactly that: older and manual. Forget about autofocus and auto diaphragms. You can use Aperture Priority automation, but you must stop down the lens to the working aperture after manually focusing. Because many vintage lenses were produced before multilayer lens coating appeared, you're likely to encounter more internal reflections and lens flare. And many older lenses are larger and heavier than their 21st-century counterparts. That's not a big deal if you're carrying an old 35mm ƒ/2.8 or 50mm ƒ/1.4. But if you opt for a 300mm ƒ/4, you might be surprised by how much a six-element lens can weigh.


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