Choosing a vintage lens – some FAQ

This is a follow-on to the general FAQ on vintage lenses, and answers questions related more to choosing a lens. There are often no truly definitive answers, i.e. there is no “one” perfect vintage lens.

Which focal lengths should I start with?

The most common focal length is 50mm, therefore this is the lens I would suggest starting with. On a crop-sensor such as APS-C, this will give you a 75mm moderate range telephoto, good for portraits etc. Next in line would be a 35mm, because this will give you a “normal” 52mm on an APS-C camera. At the end of the day, the focal length you choose is based on your photographic needs.

Do I need a fast vintage lens?

Sure, 50mm f/1.2 lenses are fast, and f/1.1’s are even faster, but in all likelihood you won’t need to spend the extra money for a fast lens. As digital cameras have higher native ISOs, lenses with f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8 and even f/3.5 are more than usable. Besides which, superfast lenses have a lot of limitations, and do you really want to spend that much money?

Should I choose a lens based on specifications?

Sometimes people will choose lenses based on its speed, i.e. large apertures. Don’t choose a lens based solely on its specifications. A lens has to have a real need for it to be useful, not a numeric one. If you have the wherewithal to buy a 50mm f/1.1 lens, then you have to actually be in a situation to use it, unless of course you are a collector. Besides which the character of a lens is more than just it’s technical specifications.

Should I choose a lens based on its aesthetic appeal?

Sure, why not. I know most people think about the optical appeal of a lens, or the fabulous bokeh it will produce, but the reality is that aesthetics have to play some sort of role. I prefer the look of the older aluminum/chrome lenses over their matt black successors. For example I really like the “fat” version of the CZJ Biotar 75mm f/1.5 made from 1952-1968. It is made of aluminum and has an extremely scalloped focus ring, but these days it sells for upwards fo $2000, so not exactly affordable. I am also drawn towards the Zeiss lenses with the “Star Wars” motif, e.g. Pancolar 50mm.

Aesthetically pleasing lenses anyone?

Are hyped up lenses worth it?

Maybe, or maybe not. In reality how good a lens is is very subjective. Choosing a lens based on a single persons opinion may be somewhat flaky. If a number of people share the same opinion, then it may be worth pursuing that lens. However hyped up lenses often become quite expensive, or even hard to find. For example the the Helios-40 85mm f/1.5 is quiet a hyped up lens – great if you are crazy for Bokeh, but for $500 too expensive for a 85mm lens.

Are lenses nobody talks about worth it?

This is the flip-side to hyped-lenses. The problem with lenses nobody talks about is that nobody talks about them, maybe because they are mediocre, or perhaps nobody has explored them properly. Of course once people get wind of a lens that has been ignored for decades but has some endearing characteristics, expect it to become more expensive, and harder to find. These lenses are often quite cheap, so maybe it’s worth a risk?

Are legendary lenses really that good?

Some lens reviews like to use terms like “legendary”, “mythical”, and “superior”. It is all very subjective. Some lenses do have the qualities to pull off being given one of these monikers, but many aren’t. For example the Carl Zeiss Pancolar 80mm f/1.8 is considered by most to be a really exceptional lens. It is very sharp, and has great bokeh, but the downside is that it isn’t that common, and therefore prices range from C$1200-2000.

Does the brand matter?

Most camera companies produced good lenses. Some people say Zeiss are the best (East or West Germany, that is the question?), others lover Asahi Pentax, and still others like Canon, or Nikon. It’s really all about what lens characteristics of a particular manufacturer you end up coveting. That being said, even prominent companies produced some dog lenses. There were also companies that just produced a certain genre of lenses – for example Heinz Kilfitt (München) produced macro (they produced the first macro lens), telephoto and zoom lenses, such as the famous Killfitt Fern-Kilar 40mm f/5.6 used in the movie Rear Window. (I’ll be doing a separate post on brands)

Are third-party lenses any good?

People also forget that there are 3rd-party lenses, from manufacturers like Soligor, which are usually pretty good, and often quite inexpensive. It often depends on the characteristics of individual lenses.

What things do people forget when choosing a lens?

The most common are likely size and weight. Faster lenses are generally larger, and heavier. An early lens may be made of chrome-plated steel and therefore much heavier than the aluminum lenses that followed. Also, cheaper lenses may not be built that well, i.e. using lower quality components, or heaven forbid plastic parts.


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