Vintage lenses – some general FAQ

Here are some questions relating to vintage lenses, things that people might like to know before they dive into the world of vintage lenses (and how to choose them).

Can any vintage lens be used on a digital camera?

Just about. Most mirrorless full-frame and crop-sensor cameras can be used with vintage lenses, but there are some lenses which don’t work, either because they have a strange lens-mount, or the lens itself projects too far beyond the mount into the camera.

Are vintage lenses affordable?

Vintage lenses were once quite inexpensive, but as more people discover them, some are increasing in price – well the popular ones are. That being said, they are still often cheaper than modern glass, especially the faster lenses. For example, the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 sells for around C$100-150. The 8-element version of the lens, the Super-Takumar, in good condition usually sells for C$300-500 (which is still pretty affordable). The most affordable vintage lenses, are often those mass-produced kit-lenses that don’t get a second look at. Leica lenses are nearly always expensive.

What is the best vintage lens?

There is really no such thing, because the inherent character of a lens is very subjective. Many people swear by the Carl Zeiss Jena lenses, others prefer the Asahi Pentax Takumar series, and yet others gravitate towards Nikon. There are a lot of “best vintage lenses” lists out there, but it is best to look at reviews of people who use a lot of vintage lenses. For example Zenography, Simon’s utak, or Mark Holtze all have great vintage lens reviews on their respective YouTube channels.

Is there such a thing as a perfect vintage lens?

No, even the most sought-after lenses can have limitations. For example the 8-element Takumar 50mm f/1.4 does not outperform other legacy lenses in certain situations. It can be quite soft when the lens is shot wide open in some circumstances, and is a heavy lens. Yet people are still charmed by the lens because it does a really good job with colour rendering. It produces warm colours with very little vignetting. The Takumar lenses also have good ergonomics.

What about vintage zooms?

Some people like them, others don’t. The reality is that there are many really good, well-built early zoom lenses out there, and because they are often so underrated, they are really quite inexpensive.

Aren’t newer lenses better?

Newer lenses are more technologically savvy, and the glass is likely to be near perfect (although truthfully there is no such thing as a perfect lens). Modern lenses built for digital cameras try very hard to remove abnormalities, which is the very reason most people gravitate towards vintage lenses. Modern lenses are also inherently more complex. For example the Olympus Zuiko 25mm f1.2 Pro (MFT 50mm FF equivalent) has 19 lens elements in 14 groups, including low dispersion, high-refractive, and aspherical elements. The vintage equivalent, the Olympus OM Zuiko AUTO-S 50mm f1.2 has 7 elements in 6 groups. Vintage lenses often use a very simple optical designs that have been around for a hundred years. Do you really need a lens with 15 lens elements, or will 6 do?

Are all vintage lenses manual?

Practically all vintage lenses require manual focus, and manually setting the aperture. Manual focusing is slower than autofocus, but most mirrorless cameras provide tools, e.g. focus peaking, to help with the process of manual focusing. Manual focus lenses might not be an optimal choice for activities such as travel involving fast-paced tourism, but it brings you closer to understanding the subtleties how a camera-lens combination works.

Is there a good range of focal lengths?

Brands aside, there is usually a good selection of focal lengths available. The most common focal length is 50mm, because of it’s “normal” status, and the fact that it came as the standard “kit” lens on most cameras. After that there is a good range of wide-angles (28mm, 35mm), and short telephotos (85-135mm). Ultra-wide angle lenses are rarer, yet there seems to be a wide range of telephotos (possibly because they aren’t as popular).

What about the build quality of lenses?

Many of these lenses were built tough. They featured solidly build body’s with aluminum lens barrels and stainless steel mounts. Without a bunch of electronic and motors inside to facilitate things like auto-focus, vintage lenses can often be quite compact, and light. They are robust, easy to fix, and lack the complex electronics of modern lenses (meaning they will last for decades).

How does adapting a vintage lens to a crop-sensor affect it?

Most vintage lenses were designed for 35mm film cameras, and their equivalent is full-frame digital cameras. So a vintage lens put on a crop-sensor camera will behave the same way as any other lens on a crop sensor, i.e. its angle-of-view will be modified. For example you could choose any vintage 50mm lens, and when added to an APS-C camera it would behave like a 75mm lens in “full-frame equivalency”. Used on a camera with a MFT sensor, it would behave like a 100mm FF equivalent.

Can vintage lenses be used to create retro-looking images?

Possibly, it really all depends on the type of lens, and the type of digital camera it is used upon. There are many more variables involved with using digital cameras, as opposed to film cameras. It is possible to try and replicate the “look” of old photos, but digital cameras will not replicate film 100%.

Where is the best place to buy vintage lenses?

I have covered this in a separate post. I also maintain a list of “Where to buy what”.

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