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.
Where older lenses really shine is in the bang-for-the-buck category. Even if you can't afford a 200mm ƒ/2.8 telephoto, you may well be able to spring for a 100mm ƒ/2.8 and an adapter that doubles its focal length, providing essentially the same thing for a fraction of the price.
What Do You Need To Make It Work?
Used lenses can be found at many photo specialty stores, on eBay and Craigslist, and in other peoples' attics. Lenses with aperture rings are easier to adapt than those without. If you want to get your feet wet, look for a 50mm prime lens from virtually any major manufacturer. Back in the day, nearly every 35mm SLR was sold with a 50mm normal lens of one sort or another, and there are literally millions of them in circulation. Because they're so common, you can often find them at ridiculously low prices. Act fast, however; every day more people discover how easy and powerful it is to adapt classical glass to modern cameras, and market prices are creeping upward.
Adapters are available from many sources. Two companies that offer nearly every possible combination are Fotodiox (www.fotodioxpro.com) and Novoflex (www.hpmarketingcorp.com). If they don't have the adapter you're looking for, odds are that it doesn't exist. Adapters can range in price from about $25 to around $200 depending on the mount combination, complexity and quality.
Adapters fall into at least four categories. At the simplest level, the adapter does nothing more than couple the lens to the camera body. One level above is the adapter that incorporates an internal mechanism to facilitate closing down the lens aperture. Needless to say, if a lens doesn't have an aperture ring (like most modern AF/AE lenses), this feature is imperative.
Moving farther up the ladder, there's a family of adapters that have built-in chips that enable focus confirmation. While not quite as effective as focus peaking, confirmation is very helpful. You'll find many adapters for Canon DSLRs with the focus confirmation feature.
A fourth type of adapter couples otherwise incompatible combinations of cameras and lenses and allows infinity focus by introducing a single glass element between the lens and body. Adding a slice of glass behind the rear element rarely yields sharp results, so beware before purchasing one of these adapters.
Precautions When Shopping For Old Lenses
The most common defects found in old lenses are internal fungus (often described as "haze"), oily or sticky diaphragm blades, and deep front element surface scratches. These are usually deal-breakers. A fourth but less common flaw is a seized or stubborn focusing helicoid—a lens that's cosmetically perfect to visual inspection may require more force than necessary to focus. That won't necessarily diminish performance, but it will make it harder and certainly slower to use.
The aperture ring should move smoothly and the detent at each ƒ-stop should click with authority. Dented filter rings are often forgivable, but be aware that they're always the result of impact, and that impact may well have caused damage that can't be seen.
Don't worry about small amounts of internal dust, minor scratches (sometimes referred to as innocent-sounding "cleaning marks" in online descriptions) or scuffs on the lens barrel. Finding a previous owner's Social Security number scratched into the side of the lens may be disconcerting, but it won't affect sharpness or anything else.
Some Of My Favorites
On Micro 4/3rds and Sony NEX bodies, a 50mm ƒ/1.4 becomes a truly spectacular 100mm portrait lens. The Asahi Pentax Super Takumar, in its M42 threaded iteration, has a handy top-mounted cam that makes it easy to close the aperture to the preselected ƒ-stop after focusing. Bargain 35mm ƒ/2.8 lenses become very useful 70mm ƒ/2.8s, good for portrait and general use, and 100mm ƒ/2.8 lenses are transformed into dramatic 200mm ƒ/2.8 telephotos.
If you're looking for a fast, medium-long telephoto, pick up a 135mm ƒ/2.8 (270mm equivalent). Once you get accustomed to the manual focus and exposure process, you'll find this combination ideal for birds and other wildlife.
Attaching the adapter to the lens is straightforward. Removing it can be another matter altogether. The better adapters have a sturdy button-type lever that lowers the locking pin that holds the adapter onto the lens. Cheaper adapters use a bent piece of steel instead. If you plan to move the adapter from lens to lens frequently, that flat metal tab can be bothersome and sometimes even painful to operate. The button-type lever is much more comfortable.
In a nutshell, all operations are manual. Focus is manual, but many digital cameras provide focus confirmation. The Sony NEX-6 and Pentax K-01, for instance, offer focus peaking. When a subject is in focus, the borders between highlight and shadow areas shimmer to indicate that correct focus has been achieved. In some instances, this assisted manual focus may yield better results than autofocus, depending on the subject and lighting conditions.
Correct exposure is set either manually or by using Aperture Priority. While these options may seem cumbersome today, they were de rigueur back when these old lenses were brand-new. In either case, it will be necessary to focus with the lens wide open and stop it down to meter and before releasing the shutter. The process takes time and, if you've never done it, a bit of practice.