Choosing a vintage lens – classic focal lengths

The number one choice when selecting a vintage lens is usually focal length. This post will look at the classic types of focal lengths, to provide some insight into choosing one to suits your needs. For each lens focal length, I have included some of the more popular examples of lenses. I have not included cost estimates, because they can be so varied, and dependent on a number of factors.

The values provided for the “crop sensor” denote the full0-frame equivalents when the lenses are used on crop-sensor bodies. For example a vintage 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor will behave the equivalent of a 75mm lens on an SLR. That means a 24mm super wide angle lenses on a DSLR will behave like a wide on an APS-C sensor, and a normal lens on a MFT sensor. Crop sensor focal lengths are simply calculated by multiplying the focal length of a lens by the appropriate crop factor: 1.5 (APS-C), 2.0 (MFT). Note that angles shown represent the angle-of-view (AOV) of the lens and are always horizontal. The AOV for the crop-factors are calculated in the same way as for the focal lengths.

Standard lenses (40−58mm)

Normal lenses tend to produce natural-looking pictures. There is a broad range of lenses in this category, both from the perspective of cost, weight, and aperture (speed). Wide apertures in the range f/1.2-1.4 are ideal for talking available light pictures indoors and out. Average aperture lenses are f/1.7 or f/1.8. Generally lens prices increase as apertures increase, hence why slow lenses are often inexpensive (and plentiful).

50mm (40°)

The 50mm lens is the most ubiquitous of all vintage lenses. Just about every camera came standard with a 50mm lens. 50mm lenses can generally be categorized into “fast” and “slow” lenses. Fast lenses are generally those with apertures of f/1.5 and larger, whereas slow 50’s were f/1.7 to f/2.8. Slow lenses are typical of the standard kit lenses found on cameras of the period, in part to reduce the cost of the basic system. Some higher end models were given an f/1.4 lens, and some like Canon advertised their Canon 7 rangefinder with the “dream lens”, the 50mm f/0.95. The super-fast lenses were designed for low-light situations, and really don’t make a lot of sense for the average photographer.

  • Examples Asahi Takumar 50mm f/1.8; CZJ Pancolar 50mm f/1.8; CZJ Tessar 50mm f/2.8; Meyer-Optik Görlitz Oreston 50mm f/1.8; Mamiya Sekor 50mm f/2; Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.8;
  • Crop-sensors − 75mm (APS-C), 100mm (MFT)

55mm (36°) and 57/58mm (35/34°)

Some cameras came standard with the “other” normals, 55mm and 57/58mm, depending on the manufacturer. Many of these lenses are from the period when SLR first appeared. Some suggest this was because of mechanical limitations imposed on producing fast 50mm lenses (impeded by the existence of a mirror), others suggest it is because photographers preferred the longer focal length because it was more portrait-focused. So the late 50’s to early 60’s saw a number of these lenses appear. 58mm lenses were generally f/1.4 to f/2, and 55mm were f/1.7 to 2.

  • Examples Helios-44 58mm f/2.0; Konica Hexanon AR 57mm f/1.2; Minolta Rokkor MC 58mm f/1.4; CZJ Biotar 58mm f/2; Mamiya Sekor 55mm f/1.4; Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8;
  • Crop-sensors − 83/87mm (APS-C), 110/116mm (MFT)

40mm (48°) and 45mm (44°)

These focal lengths are not that common, usually appearing in the guise of “pancake” style lenses. These lenses are more likely to be found on fixed-lens cameras, for example the point-and-shoot Olympus Trip 35 (Zuiko 40mm f/2.8). These lenses are ideal for people who work outdoors, as they are light, and compact. They fit very discretely on any camera, but like many compacts look almost comical on larger cameras. These are the focal lengths closest to the diagonal of 36×24mm film, with 40mm offering 48.46° horizontal AOV. Generally they had apertures in the f/2 to f/2.8 range. Within the mainstream of lenses, these intermediary lenses are somewhat inconspicuous, possibly because there aren’t that many examples.

  • Examples Konica Hexanon AR 40mm f/1.8; Asahi SMC Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8; Minolta Rokkor MD 45mm f/2 (pancake)
  • Crop-sensors − 60/68mm (APS-C), 80/90mm (MFT)
Classic focal lengths, and their associated AOV (horizontal).

Wide-angle lenses (28−35mm)

Any lens shorter than a normal focal length qualifies as a wide-angle. They range from extreme fish-eye to the more moderate, and useful 24-35mm category. We have divided these into the “normal” wides, described here, and the super-wides. As the focal length decreases, the wide-angle characteristics increase – greater angle-of-view, greater depth of field, and greater apparent distortion.

35mm (54°)

Before the 1970s, the 35mm was the “standard” wide angle produced by many manufacturers. As such it was often the workhorse of wide-angle shots from the days of the rangefinders up to the 1970s, when wider lenses started to appear. Due to the increase in AOV, many photographers preferred its perspective and as a result was often carried as a secondary lens. It has a horizontal AOV of 54°, and was usually available is a wide range of apertures, from f/1.4 to f/4, and therefore there is no shortage of these wide-angle workhorses, and therefore can be quite inexpensive.

  • Examples CZJ Flektogon 35mm f/2.8; Enna München Lithagon 35mm f/3.5; Konica Hexanon AR 35mm f/2; Asahi Super-Takumar 35mm f/3.5
  • Crop-sensors − 52mm (APS-C), 70mm (MFT)

28mm (65°)

The 28mm has become the “standard” in wide angle lenses since the 1970s. Like the 35mm, there are copious lenses with many differing characteristics out there.

  • Examples Asahi Takumar 28mm f/3.5; Minolta Rokkor MC/MD 28mm f/3.5; Asahi Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5;
  • Crop-sensors − 42mm (APS-C), 56mm (MFT)

29/30mm (64/62°)

Quite a rare option, it provides a small variation on the 28mm.

  • Examples Meyer-Optik Görlitz Lydith 30mm f/3.5 (also Pentacon 30mm); Pentacon 29mm f/2.8, and its predecessor the Meyer-Optik Görlitz Orestegon 29mm f/2.8
  • Crop-sensors − 44/45mm (APS-C), 58/60mm (MFT)

Moderate telephoto lenses (85−135mm)

These are likely the most common telephoto lenses, the moderate telephotos are often considered “portrait” lenses. Often reasonably fast and lightweight, they are easy to hold by hand they provide at least twice the magnification of normal lenses. Angle-of-view is generally 20-30°.

80−90mm (25-23°)

These focal lengths were common in rangefinder lenses, and are sought after for taking portraits, likely due to their limited compression effects. Apertures range from f/1.8 to f/3.5.

  • Examples Jupiter 9 85mm f/2.0; Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 85mm f/1.8; CZJ Pancolar 80mm f/1.8; Helios 85mm f/1.5
  • Crop-sensors − 127-135mm (APS-C), 170-180mm (MFT)

105mm (19°)

Sometimes overlooked, but just slightly narrower field (19°) than the more popular 85mm (24°).

  • Examples Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 105mm f/2.4; Meyer-Görlitz Trioplan 105mm f/2.8
  • Crop-sensors − 157mm (APS-C), 210mm (MFT)

120−150mm (17-14°)

The ubiquitous 135mm is the most common lens in this range, and there are a lot of them. The 135 was likely the “standard” telephoto until telephoto-zooms started to make inroads in the 1970s. Available in a wide assortment of apertures, f/2.8 and f/3.5 were the most common.

  • Examples − Hard to pick one 135mm, there are SO many. CZJ Sonnar 135mm f/1.5; Meyer-Optik Görlitz Orestor 135mm f/2.8; Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 135mm f/3.5
  • Crop-sensors − 180-225mm (APS-C), 240-300mm (MFT)
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