Photography cameras has been around for quite some time now, and with modern technology we see some truly outstanding digital cameras out on the market now such as the Sony A9, the Canon 5D Mk4, the Panasonic GH5 and even the much smaller Sony A6500. As you learn more and more about taking photos, and even during the process of taking photos on your smartphones, there will be times you want just that little bit more from your camera; be it more magnification, sharper images, better boken, etc, and some enough you will be looking at getting another lens for your camera that fits your needs……even phone cameras now have all sorts of lens add-ons such as the Zeiss ExoLens or the range from Bitplay.
Coupled with modern camera, manufacturers have produced some fantastic lens to accompany them such as the Sony GM series lenses, but they all come with a premium price tag. Modern science has allowed these manufacturers to examine all the physics behind an optical lens to produce sharper images, faster/quieter auto-focus, creamier and more circular bokehs, but as mentioned these come at a cost.
Around 7-8 years ago, the uptake of digital cameras mention a lot of older film cameras got forgotten which meant that prices for these camera bodies and lens dropped in price, supply and demand, which was heaven for those that know about adapting older lenses as there were bargains to found all over the place. As more and more people come to realize the cost effectiveness of purchasing and using older lenses, prices have shot risen and you will have to go hunting for a good bargain now.
You would be surprised to find out that a well made lens dating back to the 50s and 60s can produce stunning super sharp images. Optics manufacturing has not improved all that much, so the old glass can even produce sharper images than modern ones. Then there are what I refer to as the small quirks of older lenses. Due to the older designs of internal mechanisms such as focus rings, aperture blades, etc you will find on some older lenses given you a more distinct look, and it doesn’t have to have a retro look to them. Take the infamous USSR-made Helios 44-1 58mm f2.5, these produce sharp images in the centre, but the main reason people buy this lens is because of the unique swirly bokeh you can achieve wit them.
The first prime lens I got for my Sony A7ii was the Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8, which is a great lens, super sharper and with greater colors. But that was not cheap, coming in at over HK$6000 (it was just a smidge under USD$800). My main lens that I use at events, the Sony FE GM 24-70 f2.8 was an eye-watering HK$16000 (over USD$2000)! So modern lenses are not cheaper. As a side note here, if you ever decide to ever change from one brand to another like I did from Canon to Sony, factor in not only your image requirements but also the cost of the new ‘eco-system’ of lenses you will need. The first 2 vintage lenses which I bought was the Helios mentioned above costing HKD$600 (plus another HKD$100 for the M42 to E-mount adapter) and a Super Takumar SMC 28mm f3.5 at HK$900. Food for thought.
Even with the internet, a lot of people discard old lenses they find in a shoebox in their storage room as rubbish, not looking up what they might be worth so there are a few bargains to be found, and I’ll go through my ‘channels’ later on.
Grab hold of any number of old lenses, and you will immediately notice the difference it feels in your hands compared to that of a modern lens. Modern lenses use all sorts of technological advancements in the design such as internal mechanisms and materials used, given them a more pristine and sometimes lighter feel. Older lenses tend to be (and especially those that date further back) made with metal casings given them a more sturdy and robust feel. I’ve seen some 50+ year old lens covered with scratches and knicks, but they still take amazing photos as the internal workings have not been affected.
Then there is the focus ring, older lenses just have to right feel to them when you turn the focus, a fluid motion that sits in-between loose and tight, which you just don’t get with modern lenses as most people just rely on the auto focus…..
Grab yourself an EF mount Canon camera or an E mount Sony camera, and the entire world of vintage lenses opens up to you as manufacturers have produced all sorts of adapters for all sorts of old lenses. Starting from under HK$80 a bog standard adapter lets you mount on old lens, and as you go up in price you will find more and more features such as auto focus on the later lenses being usable, and lens information being able to be relayed to the camera.
The vast majority of these vintage lenses will be manual focus, so you can forget about auto focus. Some of the desirable lenses made in the 80s may have auto focus, and if you pair these with an adapter that can let your camera control it, then you might get auto focus but mostly much much slower than that than on a native lens.
Because these older lenses are basically mechanical, they don’t record any data to be sent to the camera, so EXIF data is out of the window, and post-editing takes a little more effort especially if you want to eliminate any lens distortion in the likes of Adobe Lightoom. There are no lens profiles for these lens, so you will have to play around and find a profile that is the most suitable.
Also, with modern cameras being weather-proof, don’t expect a 50 year old lens to be so. So aside from them being robust, you will have to look after them in terms of moisture and dust, so when you pick up an old lens and it is in pristine condition, think of how much care its previous owners have taken to look after it.
Seriously, if you have a friend that knows about vintage lenses, let him/her be your best pal. Otherwise you will be on endless websites/forums/Facebook pages reading and asking a million questions to get you started, and in particular how one model of lens is different to what seems like the same model but with an extra, or missing, a few letters of the alphabet.
In my pursuit of understanding more and more about vintage lenses, so that I have a better understanding on which to look out for and which to avoid, it’s become a nightly history lesson. More on that later.
A Super Takumar lens is different to a Takumar lens, the MC Rokkor is slightly different to the MD Rokkor, and Nikkor AI is different to a Nikkor non-AI……..the list is endless.
I hope I haven’t put you off yet!