Why choose a vintage lens?

There are many reasons why people choose to use vintage lenses. Many just opt for the chance of experimenting with their photography. Some people buy a particular lens for the Bokeh it produces, or its level of sharpness, or just perhaps for its unique character. Some use vintage lenses as an alternative to expensive digital lenses.

They have character

From a technical viewpoint vintage lenses are not better than modern lenses – in fact from an optical viewpoint they are likely quite inferior – in theory anyways. What they are however, is much simpler in design. There is no auto-anything – manual focus is top dog, as is aperture adjustment. They also have qualities that modern lenses often try to avoid in their design, e.g. optical aberrations. Yet it is these imperfections that provide vintage lenses with one thing new lenses often lack – a sense of character. We’re talking contrast, distortion, chromatic aberrations, illumination (flaring), and vignetting. This gives the images created a very distinctive look (although likely not as distinctive as it would coupled with various types of film). Sometimes this is in the way they render out-of-focus regions in a image or perhaps the sharpness of the image, or colour-rendition. Some people like to use vintage lenses because they produce nice contrast, or have nice bokeh, but it is all highly subjective. One person’s “bokeh-monster” will be another nightmare.

Some people may choose to use only vintage 50mm lenses. You may question why someone needs half a dozen different 50mm lenses, but the reality is that they may all have unique, noteworthy attributes. Many manufacturers produced a number of 50mm lenses at any given time, all with differing characteristics. For example, they may have used different (i) lens formulae, (ii) optical glass, (iii) aperture system (e.g number of blades), or (iv) lens speed. A lens is the sum of all its characteristics, not just the focal length.

They are (mostly) available at a good price

One of the main reasons people like to choose vintage lenses is affordability. Most vintage lenses fall into the “reasonably priced” category, usually somewhere in the range of US$80-250. It’s hard to talk too specifically about lens prices because of the broad range of lenses. However within the scope of a particular lens it is also possible to have a wide gamut of prices usually largely dependent on the condition of the lens. There are a lot of good vintage lenses that don’t get a lot of coverage that are extremely well positioned from a price point.

There are of course some vintage lenses that are expensive, but that is usually because they are (i) rare, or (ii) too popular. For example superfast 50mm f/1.2 lenses are not cheap, but you probably don’t need a superfast lens. Others, like say the Zeiss 50mm Pancolar, is expensive because it is well known to be a good lenses. Sometimes a good lens will be talked up by someone in a video – this causes a run on them, and hence pushes up the cost. Some lenses like the Pancolar 55mm f/1.4 are so rare they are often advertised in the C$3-5K range. Vintage lenses are often chosen as an alternative to modern lenses, or perhaps to try out a lens of a certain focal length before buying a modern version. For example, an 85mm equivalent for the Fuji-X system would be the Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R WR, which retails for about C$1300. It is possible to get an Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 55mm f/1.8 for about C$100 – slightly slower, but less than 10% of the cost.

They are well built (but can have some flaws)

Lenses of a certain vintage are built like proverbial tanks. Many of those built prior to 1970 are predominantly made of metal and glass. It was in the 1970s that plastics started to creep into the manufacturing process. There are pros and cons to each. More recent vintage lenses likely have lens coatings and optics that are much better than older lenses whereas earlier 35mm lenses featured solidly build body’s with aluminum lens barrels and stainless steel mounts. Of course not all vintage lenses are worthy. The downside is that vintage lenses can suffer from any number of maladies, some superficial like cosmetic scratches on the barrel, some affecting the functionality such as stiff focusing ring, and others more serious affecting the optical surfaces of the lens, e.g haze, scratches, and fungus. The other thing to think about is weight. Modern lenses typically have a lot more optical elements, and hence are larger and heavier than most equivalent vintage lenses.

They provide an education

One of the issues with digital cameras is that so much is automated. That’s not a bad thing in a lot of situations because it allows you to concentrate on framing the shot. However because of this, the inner workings of the camera are sometimes lost to the photographer. Using vintage lenses means you have to gain a more intimate understanding of how apertures work, and master the art of focusing. However on the flip-side you do gain better control of the photographic process.

They are eco-friendly

Lastly, using vintage lenses is very eco-friendly. The lenses already exist, and apart from buying an adapter, which can be used for any vintage lens with the same mount, there is very little in the way of a carbon footprint (save postage if bought online). Well-built products, have a longevity that keeps them out of landfills. Vintage lenses are inherently sustainable for a number of reasons: (i) No requirement for more materials to build the lenses (plastics, electronics, glass); (ii) Little to no pollution; and (iii) Interchangeability, i.e. the same lens can be used on different cameras, and so changing systems only means acquiring a new adapter.

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