I was looking for a new or used 135mm or 200mm prime lens for my Fuji mirrorless camera and I found the choice both limited and expensive. However, as I searched, recommendations for vintage lenses from the 1970’s started popping up and this opened a whole new world to me!
I ended up buying an Asahi Super Takumar 150mm F4 costing £49 from a vintage camera dealer on eBay, it even came with its original case.
I chose this specifically for deep sky astrophotography, and it hasn’t let me down. As with most vintage lenses the lens coatings aren’t up to modern standards or in a few cases are radioactive! So, I expected some flaring or chromatic aberrations/ purple fringing. So far this has been too bad and dealt with in post processing.
*FFE is Full Frame Equivalent
I enjoyed the experience of setting my aperture on the lens and manually focusing, and as I wanted a prime lens for cityscapes and street photography, I did a bit more research.
There are lots of vintage lenses out there. Some of the Russian copies of German lenses are quite revered for their optical flaws and characteristics. The build of some early Vivitar branded lenses were outsourced to Japanese manufacturers Cosina and Kino whose lenses are considered high quality.
I opted for a Chinon tapered barrel 28mm f2.8 prime. Chinon were eventually bought by Kodak. The standard Chinon 28mm f2.8 doesn’t get great reviews; however, the tapered barrel version was understood to be the same spec of the Tamron CW28 or Kino Optical. A prime f2.8 lens for £30 was too good to refuse! I took it out to Birmingham to give it a test and not only were the results pleasing, but it's also a very nice lens to use!
I’ve since searched my loft to retrieve a lens I already own off my Pentax film SLR camera, the Tamron Adaptall 2 80-210mm, last used 22 years ago! A quick clean and it’s working just like new. This was a popular but unusual lens in the early 1980’s, given the way it zooms and focuses off the same barrel. I was delighted with this as it’s a focal range I thought I didn’t have.
What is a vintage lens?
A vintage lens is simply one that would have been used on film SLR cameras. The majority are all metal and solidly constructed, and available on various mounts, M42 screw in, Pentax K, Nikkor, Canon FD Bayonet, Olympus OM etc.
Will it work on your camera system?
Using an appropriate adapter for your camera and vintage lens mount combination will allow you to attach the lens. Most adapters are dumb (no electronic connection) and relatively cheap in the range of £10-£25.
There are plenty of mount adaptors available. I have an M42 to Fuji camera and a Pentax K to Fuji camera to suit my lenses. A quick internet search of “mount adapters” for your camera will bring back a plethora of results.
As there is no electronic connection, your camera may not detect a lens and prevent shooting. In some cameras there is a menu item called something like “shoot without lens” which you just need to turn on. You can keep it set all the time.
It’s best to research how your brand of camera connects to vintage lenses and any additional settings, or considerations.
Benefits of a Vintage lens?
The main benefit is the price. Typically, you can pick up a prime vintage lens for anywhere between £15 - £60 on eBay or any of the independent camera shops online. The more revered or limited copies can go for up to £200 plus. So long as there is a market if you don’t get on with the lens chances are you will be able to sell it for near what you paid for it.
If you are unsure as to whether you would use a prime, macro, or zoom lens then this is a cheap way to experiment. You can always re-sell the lens if you want.
Each lens has its own characteristics, the swirly bokeh of a Helios 44 58mm being an example. Be aware that there may be several versions of the same lens and each one will have different sharpness etc.
Specific bokeh or other characteristics like flare, or softness of a lens, might be something you are after.
The sharpness of vintage lenses might not be on par with some of the modern-day lenses, especially wide open, some are though. Even if they are slightly less sharp, processing software today can sharpen up an image.
On an APS-C camera the crop on the lens typically retains the sharpest part of the lens i.e. the centre, it also reduces the chromatic aberration you can encounter in the corners.
You will need to buy a mount adapter. If there are a couple of lenses you are interested in try and buy the same mount version to save having to buy multiple mount adapters, e.g. M42 and Pentax K.
Mount adapters are designed to keep the precise distance between your sensor and the lens as originally designed for film SLRs. As a result, the focal distance markings will undoubtedly be slightly out. E.g. infinity focus on my lenses occurs just before the infinity marker on the lens. If you have focus peaking this doesn’t matter. If you don’t have focus peaking, you may want to test infinity and mark the new position on the lens barrel somehow.
These are manual lenses, you focus manually, and you set your aperture manually. As a result, you can only shoot in Aperture Priority or fully Manual. If you have a mirrorless camera, it may have Focus Peaking. Turn this on, then as you turn the focus ring the in-focus parts of your image will turn red (yellow or blue). Alternatively using Live View, you may be able to zoom in x5 or x10 and focus that way.
Your photo will not include the focal length or the aperture data from the lens. Some camera systems will let you add a focal length for a mount adapter in the menu. This will then show in the data, e.g. 210mm.
There is no image stabilisation on the lenses. If you have In Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) on your camera, great. If you don’t and you are hand holding, then to avoid camera shake your slowest shutter speed should be set to the focal length you are shooting e.g. if shooting at 28mm then 1/28 or 200mm then 1/200. If you have an APS-C camera, see how you get on with this, but you may need to increase your speed to your crop factor x the focal length so 1.5 x 200mm = 1/300.
Any coatings won’t be as good as today’s lenses; however, this can be addressed in processing. The picture of the bird in this blog had quite a bit of purple fringing but you can hardly see it after applying the chromatic aberration/ purple fringe correction. That said go for a multi coated lens and you’ll get some protection; you can always pick up a cheap lens hood to help with the flare.
I mentioned some lens coatings being radioactive. These will generally have a yellow hue on the lens. You will be able to find details of radioactive lenses on the internet.
Buying old lenses is not without some risk, and why you should look carefully at the description and the images provided when buying online. Always ask questions, specifically; is the lens clean, free from scratches, oil, and fungus. You will always get dust but make sure it's not excessive. Also ask that the lens is in working order, the aperture ring clicks each stop, and the focus is smooth and dampened. Buying from vintage camera dealers may mean you pay a few pounds more, but they will provide decent descriptions, reply to messages quickly, and some offer 14-day return (postage at your expense).
I found these sites useful for researching;
Lens reviews - https://www.pentaxforums.com/userreviews/ has a database of lenses and the different versions of the same lens and mounts. They are populated by peoples own reviews and of course they may not be using same camera as you, but typically the number of reviews and scores should be a good indication of quality.
I’ve been very happy with my choice of old lenses and enjoy the experience of taking the photos. It’s often said that you will improve your photography using just one prime lens for a while. So why not make it a cheap vintage be it a 50mm, 35mm or 28mm?
If you have any questions just let me know.