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Adapting Vintage Legacy Lenses For Use On New Digital Cameras

A whole world of old lenses are out there waiting to be explored, you just have to know what you're looking for and that's what John Duder is going to help you out with.

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Leitz Summar

 

Over the last few years, there’s been a growing fashion for using older lenses on digital cameras. They can give a different and beautiful look – but they can also be not very good.

There are several ways in which an old lens may give a nicer result than a modern one: mostly, this is due to the way that lenses have become sharper, with less tendency to vignetting and flare, while giving higher contrast. In other words, it’s the imperfections that make the older lenses interesting.

There’s one other thing, though, that’s relevant; older lenses are mostly fixed focal length, which goes with wider apertures than many modern lenses. A kit zoom lens will typically be f/3.5-f/5.6, while the ‘nifty fifty’ that came on every SLR in the Seventies was f/2, f/1.8 or even f/1.4, so an older lens can give shallower depth of field than most photographers are used to, as even a ‘professional’ zoom lens only opens up to f/2.8.

Don’t confuse shallow depth of field with ‘Bokeh’ – this Japanese word describes the quality of the out-of-focus area, not the fact of it being out of focus. Good Bokeh is smooth, creamy – no odd distortions, no geometrical shapes.

 

Definitions To Make A Note Of

Here are three terms you'll hear quite a bit in discussions about legacy lenses: 

Flare – stray light spreading across the image, reducing contrast – like sunshine on a dirty car windscreen.

 

Garden images taken with Summar, showing flare

Garden images taken with Summar lens showing flare

 

Vignetting – darkening of the image at the corners and edges. It’s usually greatest at maximum aperture – and it’s so attractive that it’s become a standard digital editing feature, at the same time as camera and lens makers are incorporating in-camera correction to make modern lenses free of it! Look at the comparison shots from a 28mm lens at f/2.8 and f/8.

Garden image taken with the Summar lens showing flare vignetting

Garden images  taken  with Summar lens showing vignetting

 

Softness – (of both contrast and rendering) can be flattering, which is why softening skin tones has become a standard digital edit. Harsh contrast is often unkind to skin and other subjects, and so a lens with less inherent contrast can work well, especially in very directional light. At full aperture, the softening can be very noticeable (see the shot of St Matthew’s Hall). Modern cameras, with their very high shutter speeds, allow you to use f/2.8 even in sunshine.

 

Comparison shot from Canon 28mm lens

Comparison shot from Canon 28mm lens at f/2.8

 

Comparison shot from Canon 28mm lens

Comparison shot from Canon 28mm lens at f/8

 

28mm at f2.8 DSC07824

Architectural shot with 28mm lens at maximum aperture, showing falloff and softening towards the edges.

 

CSCs & Old Lenses

Adding an adaptor to a lens moves it further from the plane of the sensor so that most old lenses are only usable for close-ups on the average DSLR. The lack of an automatic aperture mechanism that couples to the camera mean that there is often only a dim viewfinder image, which makes it hard to focus accurately. Together, these factors limit what you can do with a DSLR.

Transplant the lens to a CSC, with its electronic viewfinder (which compensates for the stopped-down lens) and its short back-focus and suddenly the lens will focus to infinity and focus peaking and in-viewfinder magnification make it really usable.

One thing to note is that using a lens on a smaller format than it was designed for will mean that it has a longer effective focal length than marked. For instance, a 50mm lens will be something like a 75mm or 80mm equivalent on a crop-frame sensor, and 100mm on a Micro Four Thirds body.

 

Outdoor portrait of Queen Vikki captured with Canon 100mm f/3.5

 

Exposure & Modes

With my Sony bodies, Aperture priority is fine – whatever aperture the lens is set to, the camera will adjust the shutter speed to suit it: other brands may need to be used in full manual mode. And remember that the lens will have no electronic links to the camera so that there won’t be any embedded EXIF data. If you want records of each exposure, you’ll need to revert to the old-fashioned system of writing things down (or possibly dictating notes into your mobile ‘phone).

 

Opening Up Possibilities

Most old lenses are just a little bit softer than modern ones – less sharpness, less contrast. They are OK, but they don’t repay the effort of using them with spectacular and different results. Just less good images.

But then there are a few that are different. The Holy Grail of old lenses is something that gives a delightful look, where the softness flatters, rather than simply blurring detail.

The most hyped lens is the Meyer Trioplan 100mm f/2.8. Meyer made second-line lenses for East German cameras: well below the Zeiss designs, but a lot cheaper. Meyer cut costs with fewer elements, manual diaphragms (in most cases), and smaller maximum apertures. The worst lens I ever owned was a Meyer Optik Lydith 30mm f/3.5. It was never sharp, at any aperture, anywhere in the frame.

But the Trioplan seems to have been decently sharp (tele lenses are easier to design than wide angles), and gives unusual out-of-focus areas, often with a bright ring round them. Not classically good Bokeh, but highly distinctive, so that it’s been put back into production. You can pay £1,000 for the glossy update, and even the original lenses are selling around £400 on eBay.

 

Joceine Brooke-Hamilton with Canon lens

Joceline Brooke-Hamilton captured with Canon 100mm f/3.5

 

Distinctively Different

I own two lenses make me want to use them repeatedly because they give distinctive and lovely results. But there may be more to find – I own a Canon 28mm lens that gives very soft corners at wide apertures, but I haven’t tamed it on the Sony body. Yet…

 

pre-war Leitz Summar

 

One delight is my pre-war Leitz Summar – an f/2 standard lens that had a reputation for flare and softness. It’s uncoated, as all lenses were when it was made in 1937, but it’s not as unsharp as you’d expect. It gives a very gentle and civilised view of the world, but it’s more or less unusable against the light, despite the most carefully-engineered lens hood I’ve ever met. It also gives ferocious vignetting and edge softness at full aperture, giving an almost 3-D look to the pictures.

 

pre-war Leitz Summar

 

My other favourite is a Canon 100mm f/3.5, dating from around 1960. At that time, both Nikon and Canon were selling rangefinder cameras which were compatible with the earlier, screw-thread Leica cameras and lenses, and were working hard on surpassing Leitz lens quality.

 

Canon 100mm f/3.5

 

My Canon is remarkably sharp, even at f/4, but has very soft tonality indeed – the contrast is incredibly low. It also suffers massive flare if there’s a light source in the frame, despite being a coated lens. It’s part of my essential kit for portraits and nudes these days, and I would recommend buying one to any Alpha 7 user with similar interests. Currently, they sell for less than half the cost of a Trioplan, though there isn’t the halo effect – the Bokeh is, I reckon, rather better than that of the Meyer lens: just less characterful!

 

Talking Technical

 

Three things to bear in mind:

If the lens has an automatic diaphragm mechanism, you may need to do something to stop it down to the taking aperture that you want (or to open it up from the minimum aperture). For instance, Olympus OM lenses have a small tab, 180 degrees from the lens release button, to stop down the diaphragm. If you don’t press it, you will shoot everything at full aperture. Other brands may stop down unless you take steps to open the aperture up. Either way, you need a workaround to give you control of the aperture.

And remember that you are not used to manual focus. It will take a bit of practice to get good at it, and the screen of your DSLR is not designed to be particularly helpful – there’s no microprism spot in the middle, no split-image rangefinder to help you out. 

You may, therefore, find the results from even the most exalted lens disappointing, especially as the out-of-focus and vignetting effects are greatest at maximum aperture. Be ready to persist, and you will be pleasantly surprised at how good the best lenses are: they will be the upper-bracket ones, mainly from the most reputable manufacturers. For instance, you will find that a Contax-fit Zeiss Planar 85mm f/1.4, a Nikon 50mm f/2 or a 35mm f/2.8 Pentax stacks up really well: a Cosina zoom lens is not going to beat any records for sharpness!

But beware the rose-tinted effect. Lenses that were wonderful in their day will not better the sharpness, contrast and coverage of the modern equivalent, partly because they were designed for use with film, which is less shiny than a sensor so that reflections were less of a problem. So if you want ultimate sharpness, splash out for a recent design – some of the latest designs from Sigma and Sony are amazing and deliver more sharpness than most sensors can take.

 

Rachelle portrait with Canon 100mm f/3.5

Rachelle Summers portrait with Canon 100mm f/3.5

 

Try It – Don’t Take Anyone’s Word For It

I have been amazed that some togs have raved about the quality of some pretty unspecial film lenses – notably the Helios-44 that graced so many Zenit bodies in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. I own one, and on film, it’s notably less sharp than my Planar, and with less contrast.

However, on digital, I wonder if the lack of contrast compensates for one of the real problems with digital – the straight-line relationship between exposure and response. Film has ‘roll-off’ at full exposure, so there isn’t sudden burn-out of highlights. With digital, it’s there, then it’s gone. Effectively, you may be increasing the dynamic range of your sensor.

So don’t dismiss any lens on the grounds of what you think you know: look at the results, and see if it works.

 

Kasumi Jiggle portrait in mirror with Canon lens

Kasumi Jiggle portrait in mirror with Canon 100mm f/3.5

 

Give It A Go!

If you have a CSC, and a few old lenses, it’s worth scouring eBay for adaptors (typically between £10 and £20) and giving them a try. Although many sources warn about cheap adaptors, I have not had problems – it’s worth going carefully when you use a new adaptor for the first time and backing off if the bayonet mount is stiff or scratchy.

Be prepared for a good deal of disappointment with results: you’re looking for something distinctive and attractive, and if the lens is just not as sharp as a modern optic, you may get some satisfaction from having got a result, but no special look to the pictures.

Even if you don’t own a CSC, it may be worth playing with your DSLR, though most combinations of lens and body are only suitable for close-ups.

Go on – experiment!

 

French Chloe captured with a Canon lens

French Chloe portrait captured with Canon 100mm f/3.5

 

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder celebrated fifty years since developing his first film at Christmas – on Christmas Day 1967, the only present that mattered was a developing tank and chemicals, so that he was able to develop a negative film in the morning, and process a film for black-and-white slides in the afternoon. He doesn’t remember Christmas dinner – but he was only 14 at the time.

A way of saving money developed, so to speak, into a lifelong obsession.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits, and nudes. He’s been a member of Ephotozine since 2003 and joined the Critique Team a few years ago.

Now retired from his day job, he is keen to share his cumulatively acquired knowledge and experience (CAKE) with others: and who can resist CAKE? He runs lighting tutorial sessions and provides one-to-one coaching for photographers.

 


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Comments


pablophotographer 7 1.1k 347
16 Feb 2018 9:25AM
Great article dudler Smile

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josa 6 25 Czech Republic
16 Feb 2018 1:25PM
I preffer "Kasumi Jiggle portrait in mirror with Canon 100mm f/3.5"Tongue
Robert51 10 7 90 United Kingdom
17 Feb 2018 8:33AM
Great read John and something I do myself. Why waste old lenses you have come to love for the cost of a cheap adapter.

The strange thing is I was just reading an article " Old Timers: Using 1980s Minolta Lenses on a Modern Sony Digital Camera " and the great thing was the joy that came from going back to doing it all yourself when shooting. Just enter the title in the search engine if you want to read it.

Thanks again John...
dudler Plus
15 855 1483 England
18 Feb 2018 5:52AM
Thanks for the link, Robert!

Interestingly, the author is going the long way round for no reason - I actually have and use a number of Eighties Minolta lenses on my Alphas, using the Sony LA-4 adaptor, which gives them full AF/AE abilities.

You can see the results in my portfolio, as I haven't (yet) felt the need to upgrade... The original 50mm f/1.4 remains about the best A-mount standard lens (I've had a dalliance with a Sigma, but while it's four times the bulk, it's no better - the Art version, via an adaptor, probably is better, though!) However, things are changing, and the latest generation of lenses from all the manufacturers are better, and not just marginally. Because Sony are starting from scratch with E-mount lenses, they may be a little ahead of the field.

One slight downside of the earliest Minolta AF glass is that the MF rings are very slim, and extremely difficult to adjust when there's a lenshood on. Slightly later ones have a broader rubber focus ring which is far easier to use. But when AF was new, nobody really worried about MF capablility...

The real fun coems with lenses that are significantly different in the way they render the world
UKmac 13 5 Scotland
18 Feb 2018 8:20AM
Good article, I use an old Canon FD 400mm f4.5 with my 6D & 5D that been adapted for EF mount, hence no interposing glass. What a lens... still have a couple of lenses to finish off, FD 200mm and 135mm. I prefer the old type glass to new and at a fraction of the cost to new EF.
dudler Plus
15 855 1483 England
18 Feb 2018 12:54PM
Thanks, Steve!

That sounds like quite serious commitment to older lenses: and it brings out another reason for this kind of hybrid shooting - cost. You're working far harder than I am on this, to get the register of the lenses right. CSCs really do make it easy, in every way...

I do hope you'll post some results on EPZ in due course.
petebfrance 7 2.8k France
18 Feb 2018 2:44PM
Nice article. I may one day try a CSC, but at the moment am enjoying my old Carl Zeiss Jena and Pentacon lenses on a Pentax DSLR. There's a limited choice of lenses I can use because of the registration distance, of course, but I find the characteristics of these old ones appealing. Originally I used them occasionally on Pentax SLRs and for some reason was unimpressed, but with more time (retired) and digital I find that I'm appreciating them more - not least because they don't cost an arm and a legWink
AlexandraSD 7 762 United Kingdom
19 Feb 2018 8:56PM
Very nice read, and accurate too, agree with everything you say!

Anybody wanna buy my old Jupiter M39 mount lens collection? Wink
20 Feb 2018 7:24PM
I love using old lenses, they provide so much creative moments. Some (Takumars) are just as good as the latest and greatest optics produced today, and could be used for, some may say, "professional" photographs. Others like the Helios 44m-2 produce unique "Bokeh"
At the end of the day, as photographers, we have an idea, and use the lens accordingly. A good photographer will create something special and magical, no matter how old or new the lens is, which means something else, they are loving their journey and having fun with equipment, which is what it is all about anyway - The Love of Photography"
stevepwest 1 15 United Kingdom
22 May 2018 2:40PM



This stitched panorama was taken using an old Sigma 24mm prime lens from an old Nikon film camera. The shot was taken fully manual anyway so no worries about lack of autofocus etc. The eagle-eyed may spot the anomalous EXIF data that resulted from using a non-CPU lens.
dudler Plus
15 855 1483 England
23 May 2018 9:30AM
Of course, Nikon make backwards compatibility a feature of their system... That helps! The beauty of a Sony body, though, is that a cheap adaptor makes it compatible with all lenses!

I admire the hard work you've put into this image to construct the panorama.
18 Nov 2018 5:25AM
No mention of the fantastic Konica Hexanon AR range of lenses or the M-Hexanons? Both give terrific results on the Sony A7 series cameras: with lens free adapters so no image degradation.
dudler Plus
15 855 1483 England
18 Nov 2018 2:26PM
No mention because I have no Konica lenses...

Part of the charm of older lenses is the imperfections some of them have. My extensive selection of Zeiss glass for my Contax bodies are no fun, because they just work... I suspect the Konica kit is similar. Great if you have focal lengths you want, but lacking interest compared with more imperfect lenses.

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