One of the truly heartening aspects of the digital era is the way that interest in old lenses from the pre-AF era has been rekindled. Who’d have thought that dusty mechanical lenses, would suddenly be desirable again? In fact, some of the more exotic types have leapt up in value, commanding eye-watering price tags.
This is all due to the advent of the mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras have a weird advantage over their DLSR cousins, with the clue being in the name – they don’t have a reflex mirror inside the body. This means that the distance from the sensor to the lens mount – known as the flange focal distance – can be made far smaller than a DSLR. The practical upshot of this is that a lens designed for an old film SLR can be fitted to a mirrorless camera via an adapter. All the adapter has to do is exactly match the flange focal distance so that the lens can still focus on infinity.
There are one or two drawbacks to using old lenses of course. One is that they’re generally manual focus only. However, for subjects such as landscape or still life, this isn’t too much of a disadvantage. Plus, mirrorless cameras usually have an option known as focus peaking. This is an aid that adds a coloured highlight to the edges of anything in a scene that’s sharp. With focus peaking turned on it’s surprisingly easy to achieve sharp focus quickly and consistently. (You can generally choose from a range of focus peaking colours. I generally use red, which stands out nicely when shooting landscapes. If the subject is predominantly red, when shooting flowers say, then I just pick another colour.)
Another drawback is that the aperture needs to be set manually too, via the aperture ring on the lens (assuming it has one, but legacy lenses usually do). As there is no electronic connection between the camera and lens you won’t get confirmation of the aperture setting in the viewfinder. This means that it’s always worth a quick look at the aperture ring before you shoot, just to make sure that it hasn’t been nudged out of position. (Trust me on this, it can happen…) That lack of electronic communication also means that the aperture value isn’t recorded in the EXIF metadata of the images you shoot. If you want to keep a record of the aperture used then you’ll need to note it down by hand.
You might be wondering at this point why you’d want use old lenses. And that’s a fair question. After all, modern lenses are generally very sharp and fully integrated with the camera you use. The reason is largely aesthetic. Old lenses may not be the sharpest you can buy. They may also have other flaws, such as chromatic aberration or vignetting. But the images they create often have a pleasing character that – more technically accomplished – modern lenses can’t emulate. Plus they are – those exotic lenses excepted – often a small fraction of the price.
If that’s sparked an interest, then there are three lens ranges it’s worth looking at: Canon FD, Minolta MD and Olympus OM. (Nikon and Pentax owners shouldn’t feel left out. Lenses designed for those systems can also be used on mirrorless cameras. However, old Nikon F and Pentax K lenses are generally still compatible with current DSLRs and so aren’t ‘obsolete’ in the same way that the other three types are. This means you still pay a premium for older Nikon and Pentax lenses.)
I’ve used a number of Canon FD lenses, and – as long as you pick wisely – they’re great. There’s a refreshing simplicity to them, as well as a pleasing weight and solidity. I occasionally shoot with a Minolta MD 50mm too. This I use attached to my camera via a reversing ring, which turns the lens into a very effective macro lens. As with the Canon FD lenses there’s a good weight to it, and turning the aperture and focusing rings has a tactile quality that is strangely satisfying.
Legacy lenses can be readily found in second camera shops and online. Another good place to look is eBay, though it’s worth checking the seller’s rating and recent feedback before making a bid. Finally, it’s also worth looking in charity shops. This is usually fruitless, but it’s worth it when you find a suitable lens: the price is usual better than a camera shop or eBay too, and of course the money is going to charity.
When buying an older lens pay particular attention to its condition (whether that’s looking at it directly, or by reading the seller’s description). I’m not that worried about marks or scratches on the lens barrel, though I would never buy a lens that was dented in any way. (That’s an indication that the lens may have been dropped at some point, which could mean that the lens optics may be out of alignment). Speaking of optics, over time lenses can get dust on the internal optics. A little bit of dust is fine, and won’t affect image quality. Stay clear of lenses that have scratches on the glass though, or that have signs of fungus. If you can, check that the focusing and aperture rings turn smoothly and don’t stick.
In terms of adapters, you need to match the legacy lens mount with the lens mount of your camera. If possible, I’d try and spend as much money as you can afford; really cheap adapters can be flimsy and aren’t machined with the necessary accuracy to allow infinity focusing. Metabones adapters are great, if expensive. Slightly cheaper are Fotodiox adapters, which is the type I use.
So, although it may seem eccentric, it’s worth giving some love to an old lens. Be careful though. It can get very addictive…