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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Choosing a vintage lens – things to consider

After looking at the basics of vintage interchangeable lenses, there is a point when you will have to make some decisions about choosing a lens. There are literally millions of vintage lenses out there in the ether. Some are exceptional, most are good, some are mediocre. But even mediocre lenses can be interesting if they are cheap enough, and you want to experiment (even if that involves taking a lens apart and putting it back together again).

Choosing a lens is often quite a daunting experience, because there are so many possibilities, and it can be hard to narrow things down. Some people only buy lenses from a single manufacturer, others only buy lenses of a single focal length, others only buy lenses from a specific time period, and still others buy lenses that have a cool bokeh effect. The type of vintage lens you buy is a very individualistic thing. You can read the reviews about particular lenses, and formulate your own opinion about buying a lens, but you never really know what you get until you use it. Lenses come in different versions, and sometimes from different factories. Choosing a lens is also more than just looking at quantitative data such as lens sharpness, it is often more about the aesthetic appeal of the image produced, than the exactness of the MFT (Modulation Transfer Function) diagrams.

The best place to start is to decide what the lens will be used for. This aids in determining the focal length and lens characteristics, helping to constrain the search. For example someone who takes architectural photographs may be interested in a shift perspective lens such as the Olympus OM 35mm f/2.8 Shift lens. For astrophotographers, a sharp lens that is well corrected for coma is important. Those who take portraits may opt for a 85mm lens. If you have no specific needs, then start with a 50mm lens – it is by far the most common vintage focal length (and every manufacturer produced various models). Don’t forget that a lens behaviour will depend on the size of the camera’s sensor it is used on. For example a 50mm lens with a standard 46° diagonal angle-of-view, will behave like a “full-frame” 75mm lens on an APS-C sensor (with a diagonal AOV of 32°), i.e. the 50mm lens will be “the equivalent of” a 75mm FF lens.

Things to consider when choosing a vintage lens: lens use, focal length, budget, features, aperture, brand
Things to consider when choosing a vintage lens

Once you have an idea of the focal length, then you need to decide what features you want: must-haves, nice-to-haves, and things-not-needed – and of course how much you want to spend. Choosing a focal length is of course the easy part. Now you have to choose a brand, and a configuration (aperture, number of aperture blades, mount). This is harder because there are a lot of choices. Sometimes the best approach is to take the lead from someone who has done some of the hard work for you. For the beginner, there is very little difference between any 50mm lenses from the core camera manufacturers: Pentax, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Zeiss, etc., they are all pretty good. Of course the “elephant in the room” is often budget. Choosing an upper limit on how much you are willing to spend on a lens will help constrain your search from the get-go, which helps avoid pursuing lenses that are nice, but just ooh too expensive. it you can’t afford it, don’t go there.

Now with a focal length, and a budget, it’s time to explore aperture, or lens speed, i.e. when the aperture of a lens is completely open, how much light comes in. In situations where you are shooting in broad daylight, then is there any need for a 50mm f/1.4 lens, or would a f/2 suffice? For example, Canon 50mm rangefinder lenses were produced in three different types: f/2.8, f/1.8, and f/1.2. The f/2.8 is 128g, the f/1.8 is 270g, and the f/1.2 is 322g. The f/1.2 lens will provide a lot of light, but at 2.5 times the weight. A lot of effort can be put into deciding the speed of the lens. However the faster the lens, i.e. the larger the aperture, the more expensive the lens will be. Don’t spend a lot of money on your first few of lenses. You can experiment with these lenses and decide whether using vintage lenses is for you.

Canon rangefinder 50mm lenses

Once you have chosen a lens, it is good to review some of the literature on the lens. How expensive is it? What about availability – is it common or rare? Is the lens generally found in good stead, or is it susceptible to abnormalities such as fogging/hazing, or has a front lens which is easily scratched? For example it is common knowledge that some of the Canon rangefinder LTM mount lenses are very susceptible to fogging. Is it easy to repair if there are issues?

Then it helps to look at some reviews, either on blogs, or videos. Just remember that reviews are a subjective viewpoint from someone with similar or differing circumstances to your own. Try and stick to reviewers that have a long history of reviewing vintage lenses. If their lens review, how did they evaluate the lens? Did they show actual photographs taken using the lens, in a good variety of situations? Did they take the shots using the same sensor size as your camera has? Was it a review performed with the lens on a film camera? It’s best to look at several different views, but always keep in mind that the lens you might buy will be different to the one they are reviewing. It could be a newer model of a lens which uses the same optical formula, but is housed differently, or uses a different aperture mechanism, e.g. number of blades; or perhaps it uses a different type of glass in some of the lens elements, e.g. thoriated versus regular glass. There is never a guarantee that the lens you buy will behave in exactly the same manner.

Don’t choose a lens solely on its specifications. Just because a 50mm f/1.2 lens seems like a good idea because it is rare, and some people proclaim it as the “best” lens, does not mean it will work properly for what you want it to do. Don’t be swayed by the large collections of some photographers. Some people take photographs for a living, and so may have more requirements, and also more ability to sustain large collections. Having dozens of 50mm lenses is fine, if you can afford them, and if you are actually going to use them (and it’s easy to fall down this rabbit hole). You may decide after some investigation that the lens you had coveted it really not something you need – for various reasons. Maybe it’s too expensive? Maybe it’s too hard to find? Maybe it is notorious for needing repairs?

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.