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Why & How To Choose A Manual Focus Lens For Your DSLR Camera

Professional photographer Anna Kelaidi believes we should be paying more attention to old, manual focus lenses and here's why.

|  400mm f/6.3 T2 in Interchangeable Lenses
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Soligor 400mm F6,3 Front Element View
 

"Wait...what? An f/1.8? That's incredible! My Canon lenses start at f/3.5 at the best! Hmm... I wonder if there’s a way to use this manual lens on my DSLR..." I had this thought some time ago, and that’s when I started my online research on how I could use a manual lens and what kind of pictures it would produce.

I have two lenses from two different cameras left over from my days at photography school: a Japanese Seagull (Minolta) and a much older yet better, Russian Zenit. But even if I didn't have any manual focus lenses of my own, it would be tremendously easy to buy a bunch of them for a  much cheaper price than the average new lens.

You can find them almost everywhere - in your basement, at a flea market, at a photography store that sells secondhand equipment, on Craigslist or other online selling sites, and even in antique or second-hand stores. Did I mention eBay and Amazon?

 

Why use an old manual focus lens?

Why go to all that trouble to find an old manual focus lens? Why would anyone want to try to focus manually without features like autofocus and stabilisation? Well, it might make you a better photographer and another plus of manual lenses is that they allow you to see depth of field effortlessly, so it's easier to understand how it works and take full advantage of it. 

 

Sound crazy?

Back in the days when we couldn't check the back of the camera to approve a photo and the film roll carried only 36 positions, photographers were blindly familiar with their equipment. They needed to be if they wanted to go home with a contact sheet they were satisfied with.

True, it’s a bit old-fashioned to turn the aperture ring in order to set the exposure and squeeze your eye in the viewfinder so you can focus sharply, but the manual lens truly teaches you the inner workings of your camera. Plus, they’re more reliable.

They’re purely mechanical, not electronic, so they’re built to last longer. With manual lenses, there’s no getting frustrated that it takes an eternity to focus and doesn't trigger if the background is not bright enough.

Also, as odd as it might sound, focusing with a manual lens can be more accurate and faster than with autofocus, it just takes a little practice. Plus, you don't have to change settings or metering modes through your camera’s menu.

There have been plenty of times where I deliberately switched the lens' button from autofocus to manual focus so I could take the picture faster. “Well, okay,” you might be thinking, “I can just turn the autofocus to manual on my camera anytime I want! Why bother going out and getting a manual lens?” Sure, you could do that, but why not go find a much cheaper lens with a much higher glass quality?

So if I’ve finally persuaded you and you’re ready to go manual, here's what I suggest you do.

 

Soligor 400mm F6,3 In Packaging
 

 

Check for damage control

Before you buy a secondhand lens, you need to know how to be able to spot any damage. If all you have is the word of the person who's selling it you, then good luck! You should always inspect a lens thoroughly before you even consider purchasing it.

If you decide to buy online, there are two steps to take so you can avoid bad surprises. First, go for a cheap lens as if you receive a damaged one, it won’t hurt your bank account as much. Secondly, always check the online reputation of the seller and the reviews from previous buyers.

In case you buy the lens from a store or flea market, here’s what you should pay attention to:

1. Check for any visible damages such as scratches, nicks, interior dust, haze or even fungus in the optics. The glass must be in perfect condition as the lens won’t give you clear pictures, no matter how cheap it is, if it's damaged and you’ll be wasting your money.

2. Get your hands on the lens, try it and test it. You should be able to turn its aperture and focusing rings with no effort, obstacles, or noise. If you hear cracking or any other weird noises that don't belong to a well-lubricated and clean lens, again, don't buy it. Try each of the apertures and in-between stops one-by-one, and make sure the zoom ring goes all of the way to the engraved numbers (if looking at a zoom lens).

3. Open the aperture up full and look through the lens in front of a well-lit area, both in wide and zoom mode. This will show you every alien body that is between the optical parts of the lens. 

4. Be aware that there are different varieties and quality of lenses so do a little research before you go shopping. If possible, try to mount the lens on your camera or the seller's camera and take some pictures. (Note: you may need an adapter.)

 

Soligor 400mm F6,3 On Pentax K 1
 

 

Figure out what lens you want

No matter what focal length you’re looking for, there’s one thing all photographers can agree on: the faster the lens, the better so think f/1.0, f/1.2, f/1.8 or f/2.0. 

Also, some photographers choose to buy prime lenses (both modern and legacy) and not zoom ones since they are significantly sharper. This is because primes have a smaller number of glass elements inside them, often with smaller dimensions as well as a wider aperture, and glass quality is usually better, too.

 

Get the appropriate adapter

Even though some manufacturers are still using the same mounts, albeit updated, it's worth checking to see if you need an adapter. The most common adapter for mounting older manual lenses on your DSLR is the M42 screw mount, and you can find a plethora of them online but do keep in mind that different lenses will need different mounts (some screw on while others feature a bayonet lock)

Having said that, they're not really that expensive so you can quite easily purchase different mounts for each manual focus lens you plan on buying and keep them permanently mounted together.

M42 to Micro 4/3

 

Know how to use your new-old lens

Once you own a good, old, fast lens and it’s mounted on to your DSLR, set your camera mode to M for Manual and select the right ISO and shutter speed on the camera body. Next, choose the aperture you want to use from the lens and you're ready to go!  I hope you enjoy the world of manual photography! 

 

About Author: Anna Kelaidi 

Anna Kelaidi is a professional photographer and a freelance content creator. She's writing about digital & analogue photography, image editing techniques and photo gear as well as photo & video tips for both newbies and professionals. Apart from that, she's interested in studying the psychology of photography, helping people to train their eye. 

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