What to Look for When Choosing a Vintage Lens

As visual creatives, we all strive to craft frames that stand out from the rest. We select subjects and shoot in environments that will stamp an image as our own. While a photographer’s gear may not be as important as their vision, it can aid in setting us apart from the crowd in the tidal wave of social media timelines and galleries. Many photographers of varied skill levels have found their unique look in classic lenses while others find that a vintage lens’ fully manual controls allow them to take the time to more deliberately compose the contents of their frame. Born in an era when film stock and system glass where what determined the look of your image, these lenses were not designed in a fully virtual space with the goal of a clinical result. They were built with the intent of producing character, of having a “look”.

 

Get Creative! A 58mm f1.4 re. Topcon’s Rendering Paired w/ a Cellphone Mirror Reflection

 

Once you have decided to invest in vintage lenses for your kit, there are a few things that you should know about selecting a new-to-you lens. Whether you shoot Mirrorless or DSLR, stills or video, the tips below should help you in choosing a lens that will suit your personal style for what you want to create.

Adapters

With very few exceptions (I’m looking at you Nikon DSLR shooters) the use of a vintage lens on a modern camera body will require an adapter. Adapters range in complexity, functionality and price but all do one basic thing; they marry the lens’ mount to your camera body’s native lens mount. In many cases the adapter also serves to make up the distance from the lens’ rear element to what would have been the film plane. On a digital camera, your sensor plane. This is what determines the length of an adapter.

Mirrorless Adapters

The advent of the interchangeable lens Mirrorless camera and the resurgence of classic lenses in the market will forever be linked. The lack of a mirrorbox allows for the use of lenses from virtually any lens mount or camera system. From 100+ year old large-format brass singlet lenses to tiny inexpensive f1.4 cctv lenses, with Mirrorless your adaptation options are nearly limitless.

 

Focus Helicoil and Internal / External Bayonet Mount From a Russian Kiev Sacrificed to Make

an Adapter for a Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.5 Sonnar From the Contax Rangefinder System

 

Adapters for mirrorless bodies tend to be a bit longer and can offer additional features due to their increased real estate. Look for options like built-in ND filters, close-focus helicoils, and even speed-boosters that widen your field of view while seemingly defying physics to allow more light to hit your sensor on APCS and Micro 4/3 cameras.

 

Leica M to Sony E Adapter Featuring a Close Focus Helicoil (Lens: 40mm f2 Summicron-C)

 

The takeaway is that if you have a Mirrorless camera and a vintage lens there is an adapter out there to satisfy your needs. Old glass and Mirrorless were made for each other.

DSLR Adapters

As a rule DSLR cameras are less accepting of adapted lenses due to the size of their mirrorbox. However, this does not exclude you from shooting vintage glass. Modern Nikon DSLR bodies are able to accept virtually every lens that Nikon has produced (excluding the S-mount lenses from early Nikon rangefinders). Nikon bodies with the screw drive auto-focus ability can even use early Nikon AF lenses to great effect. Canon DSLR shooters can use vintage Canon lenses from the early FD line as well as the nFD mount but will require an adapter with a glass insert to allow for infinity focus.

 

Nikon 20mm f2.8 AF Nikkor (non-D) Adapted to Sony a7

 

As mentioned above, DSLR lens adapters often require additional optics to achieve infinity focus. I tend to suggest getting an adapter that foregoes the glass element and sacrificing the ability to focus at infinity as many users report that their camera’s mirror sometimes hits the element in the adapter. There are ways to work around the issue with mirror contact such as using mirror lock-up and live-view but ultimately the solution is impractical. If achieving infinity focus with vintage glass is a must and you shoot either Nikon or Canon, consider adapting a vintage lens from the Leica R-mount. Adapters are available in both R to EF as well as R to F. In each case the adapters allow for infinity focus and they won’t break the bank either.

 

Canon FD Mount 50mm f1.4 Adapted to Sony E Mount

 

Rangefinder Adapters

Albeit a smaller segment of the market, rangefinder shooters have been adapting vintage lenses for many years. Simple adapters are available for L39 to M-mount which are keyed or coded to bring up appropriate frame lines. There are even Contax RF mount to Leica L or M-mount adapters with built-in focusing helicoils that accept both internal and external CRF lenses.

 

Carl Zeiss 35mm f3.5 Adapted From the Contax Rangefinder Mount (CRF / Nikon-S) 

 

Sensor Size

Most readers of this content will be aware that there are presently three common sensor sizes available in digital bodies. In order of size from largest to smallest we have Full-Frame, APS-C and Micro 4/3rd’s. The three things to be aware of here are sensor coverage, crop factor field of view equivalency and the crop factor’s effect on image quality.

When selecting a vintage lens for your camera body you will want to be sure that the lens’ image circle is large enough to cover your sensor size. Full Frame cameras may not be  compatible with some c-mount vintage offerings without selecting a crop mode or cropping in post-processing, as the film used in their native cameras was smaller than the Full Frame sensor. Full Frame users are also a bit more likely to see vignetting at the corners of their images, a trait common to some older lenses when shot wide open. Also, be aware that Full Frame sensors with very high megapixel counts like the original Sony a7r are prone to color-casts near the edges of the frame on most wide angle vintage lenses. Aside from these potential issues, Full Frame users will typically realize the sharpest results from adapted vintage lenses. This is because there is no crop factor magnification of optical flaws in the lens elements which were designed to be used with film equivalent to the size of the Full Frame sensor.

APS-C shooters are less likely to have frame coverage issues with lenses designed with smaller image circles. Generally speaking crop sensor users will see no vignetting when adapting lenses made for 35mm film cameras. When selecting a focal length remember to keep your sensor’s crop factor in mind, multiplying stated focal lengths and apertures by 1.5x to get an idea of the working field of view and equivalent depth of field.

 

35mm f1.4 CCTV C Mount Lens Adapted to APS-C Center Sharpness at f1.4

 

Those with Micro 4/3rd’s sensors rarely need to be concerned about sensor coverage as even wide angle C-mount lenses will cover the sensor with little to no vignetting. Options for lenses that perform as a wide angle equivalent will be harder to come by considering the 2x crop factor of this platform. It should also be noted that as you will be recording a 2x enlargement of the image a 35mm vintage lens was designed to produce, critical sharpness will be less than that of cameras with larger sensors. That said, vintage lenses are quite popular in the Micro 4/3rd’s community and lens sharpness is rarely a complaint. Remember, creativity over the clinical.

Video vs Stills

While none of the following considerations would disqualify a vintage lens for a stills shooter, these are a few things that videographers should look for in a legacy lens.

Long Focus Throws

A feature of classic 35mm lenses that has been drawing in the video crowd is the long focus throws that were commonplace in the manual focus film days. It’s not uncommon to find lenses with over 300 degrees of focus rotation. These long throughs make it simple to pull focus or add a gear for pulling focus on a follow focus set-up.

Click-less Apertures

More common in lenses made before the 1960’s, click-less apertures with blade counts into the 20’s allow smooth operation of aperture adjustments without the stepped transitions of clicked irises. Apertures with many blades maintain more circular bokeh balls even when stepped down. Furthermore, lenses that have clicked apertures are often fairly easy to de-click with minor disassembly of the lens. Popular lenses for de-clicking are well documented with tutorials available for those with steady hands.

 

Zeiss-Opton 85mm f2 with Clickless Multi-Bladed Aperture

 

With long focus throws and multi-bladed clickless apertures, vintage lens provide a very cost effective solution when compared to budget busting cine-lenses. Throw in the ability of these classic lenses to create stunning flares and it’s easy to see why so many video shooters are building out kits with vintage glass.

Lens Condition

In the world of vintage lenses it’s not uncommon to find yourself buying a lens that’s 75 years old or more. In a lifetime of service these lenses are bound to show some signs of use. While some of these wear conditions can be merely cosmetic, it’s important to note that some imperfections can affect the quality of your image.

 

25mm f3.5 re. Topcon Adapted in “User Condition” with its Hood / Filter Holder

 

An Image I Shot with the Combo Pictured Above

 

Cleaning Marks

While the occasional NOS (New Old Stock) lens may turn up, for the most part you will be buying used glass. It’s often the case that these used lenses will have cleaning marks on the front element of the lens. In all but the most extreme cases these marks will not effect your image. Heavy cleaning marks on the rear element of the lens are less common but should be seen as a negative that may cause image quality loss, especially when the lens is stopped down.

Lens Separation

Over time it is possible that bonded lens groups become separated. This can be caused by time, inferior cement types, exposure to extreme weather or even drop damage. Separation is often repairable but that cost should be factored into your purchasing decision. While slight separation at the edges of a lens group can sometimes go unnoticed in your images, particularly on crop sensor bodies, this type of imperfection should be carefully considered when thinking about the purchase of a lens. A good seller will be sure to disclose this in a listing and this condition will reduce the value of the lens.

Dust Specks

Vintage lenses were not weather sealed and in turn were not tightly sealed. Because of this it is not at all uncommon to have a few dust specks inside of the lens body. Generally speaking this will not reduce image quality and has little effect on the price of a lens. Don’t confuse small air bubbles in a lens element for dust. Air bubbles in optics are not uncommon in lenses made before the 1950’s.

Oil on Aperture Blades

Ideally a vintage lens will have an aperture with clean, oil-free blades. If you are considering a lens with oily blades it’s important to know the extent of the issue. A touch of oil on blades of an unserviced 70 year old lens is not generally an issue. However, if the aperture is stiff or the blades look soaked in oil this could be cause for alarm. The oils have the ability to break down and actually etch the interior glass surfaces causing reduced image quality. If your lens has oil on the blades it’s a good indication that servicing is needed.

Lens Haze

Often a byproduct of broken down lubricants or poorly formulated early lens coatings, haze on the interior lens elements can affect the quality of your images in some lighting conditions, particularly when shooting in bright sun. The look of a hazed lens is often soft and lacks contrast and color saturation of a clear copy. Sometimes hazing can be repaired but if the haze is etched into the lens coatings the damage is often permanent. Hazed lenses are not to be fully disregarded as in some shooting conditions the haze may not be noticed. There are a number of classic lenses prone to haze that sell well in the market.

Fungus

Lens fungus is something that a lot of photographers are unfamiliar with until they start shopping for vintage glass. More common, but not exclusive to moist regions and environments, fungus can infiltrate a lens body and rapidly grow given the right conditions. While minimal fungus on forward lens elements may not be visible in your image, a proper full service and deep cleaning of the lens is recommended to protect against the fungus spreading and causing irreparable damage to the lens surfaces. Although it’s a topic of some debate, there are those that contend that bringing a lens with fungus into your collection will contaminate your other lenses, even modern ones. If purchasing a lens with known fungus issues, include the cost of a full lens servicing with a reputable technician skilled in fungus remediation. Do this and you may just come out ahead on the deal.

Dents and Dings

One of the best things about the handling of vintage lenses is their all metal construction. This gives the lens a great feel in the hand and strengthens the lens body resisting damage. However, as many of these lenses have been on the planet for the better part of a century, it’s not uncommon to see some dents or dings. While minor damage near edges where separate parts of a lens barrel come together might be largely cosmetic, significant dents in the filter threads of a lens can be cause for alarm. If the filter threads are deeply dented it may seriously reduce the extent to which the damaged lens can be serviced. On some lenses the front lens elements or groups may need to be removed in order to clean or repair aperture blades, for instance. Furthermore, you need to consider that that result of an impact that crushes in the front threads of a lens housing may also cause separation in lens groups or decentering of the construction. Lenses with heavy filter thread damage will often be priced accordingly and if no other issues are present the lens may provide years of good service.

Character

So this is why we do this, right? Whether it’s the classic looks of the actual lens itself, the buttery smooth feel of the manual focus ring or the stunning flares that the optics allow for, we are all after some sort of character in a vintage lens. Those of you that are just here for a budget, fast 50mm will be back soon enough for the character.

 

Street Photography w/ a Late 1940’s Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.5 Adapted to a Sony a7

 

While I won’t get into specific lenses and their unique attributes in this piece, some of the things that you can find in a vintage lens are as follows.

Swirly Bokeh

At wide apertures some vintage lenses will render their out of focus elements it a pronounced swirling style. A look that is very most clear when specular highlights are present throughout the frame. While certain Soviet made 58mm f2’s are notorious for this effect, I’ve also seen wild swirling bokeh out of budget, department store brand 135/3.5’s from the 1980’s. Part of the fun of vintage glass is taking a chance on an inexpensive lens only to find that it produces unique results.

Flares

Early lens coatings were a good start at controlling flares and inter-element reflections, but ultimately they were not that effective. You won’t find me complaining about it though. When shooting into the sun expect to see excessive colorful flares across your frame. Work angles to craft your desired look like a guitarist working feedback against an amplifier. An added bonus is that you can bounce light at hard angles off the interior of your lens adapter. This look is unique to mirrorless cameras with adapters about an inch long. Pair an adapter flare with a centered sunrise for a look that is difficult to replicate in-camera.

 

Flare as a Compositional Element

 

Bounce Flare From the Interior Barrel of the Len Adapter

 

Center Focus

Earlier lens designs struggled to achieve sharpness across the frame. When shot wide open expect some lenses to be sharp only in the very middle of the frame. When working centered weighted compositions you’ll find that your shots take on a great tunneled look. Something you won’t find in the ultra corrected glass of today.

All Those Aperture Blades

While not present in all vintage lenses, it is not uncommon to find irises made of over 20 blades. These apertures remain almost perfectly round throughout their range. The result is bokeh balls that avoid the hexagonal look of later lenses when shot stopped down. It is very uncommon to find modern lenses with this unique build.

 

20 Aperture Blades on a 135mm f2.8 Soligor in Exakta Mount

 

Warmer Tones

Some early lenses, particularly fast 50mm’s out of Japan, had a lens coating on them that has yellowed over the years. These examples will tend to produce images with a warmer overall tone to them, a look quite pleasing to many of today’s photographers. You won’t want to store these yellowing lenses under your pillow though. It turns out that the coating responsible for this look is also somewhat radioactive. I suppose it’s a give and take with all things in life.

I hope that this guide helps to give you some direction when shopping for a vintage lens. As with all creative tools it’ll be up to you to craft photos and shoot video that harnesses the unique attributes of these classic optics. I think you’ll find that the experience of working with these lenses is not only rewarding, but a bit addictive as well.

 

 

 

You can find me adapting all sorts of vintage lenses on Instagram or check out my portfolio. Take a shot with a vintage lens that you’d like to share? Tag me in your image or shoot me an email through my site so I can check it out.

 

 

Author: Andy Shields

All Images Copyright Andy Shields