How to use, choose and adapt old film lenses for your new DSLR
Most of the old vintage lenses can be used to create that unique film look that you are trying so hard to achieve in photoshop and like one of my favorite arguments for film being better than digital is that it feels organic. Film is not exact from roll to roll; like snowflakes, each roll is unique. A systematic pattern of pixels will not produce the randomness of halide crystals in an emulsion. People tend to forget that the lenses are what make things inherently different. Using vintage lenses, with all of their flaws and imperfections, can help give your images a more film-like look without heavy post production…
Back in the time before the use of computers, lenses were made by hand and had character to them. They could vary from one to another, especially the off-brand ones. It wasn’t uncommon for a photographer to have a slew of nifty fifties each with its own characteristics.
One of the reasons I chose Zeiss ZE was the smooth manual focussing. So I was moving out of my comfort zone which was the normal autofocus and stabilized way to a fully manual focussing way it was quite interesting…
A little anecdote: I love the story about how Stanley Kubrick found his perfect lenses. He pushed the boundaries of moviemaking in many ways, and was responsible for some of the most enduring visuals in cinema. When he made Barry Lyndon in 1975, Kubrick shot with two ultra-rare Carl Zeiss primes, which had originally been created for NASA for use in the Apollo space program and were modified for Kubrick to use with a Mitchell BNC camera (which was also specially modified to accept the lenses). Carl Zeiss made ten f/0.7 prime lenses in the 1960s, selling six to NASA, keeping one, and selling the remaining three to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Using the 50mm and 35mm f/0.7 lenses, Kubrick was able to film some scenes purely by candlelight.
Camera companies have aimed for perfection in modern lenses so much they have made them uniform and void of character (I am talking about lenses not the subject that is being captured).
Each one of Kubrick’s lenses behaved like the characters in one of his films; they had imperfections and flaws. To write a perfect character would be boring; they could do no wrong, be incorruptible, and would have no secrets to hide. The audience loves flawed characters, ones that have secrets and imperfections. If lenses were characters helping tell your photographic narrative, would you choose the perfect one or the one that has a bit of character? I have an ensemble of characters, each with their own flaws, which help me better share my photographic story.
Working with old glass the pictures it produces can be hit or miss. Why then do I keep it? One words: Different. Old lenses have been stored in closets, garages or attics. These are not ideal locations. Humidity and prolonged temperature changes can cause the coatings to wear and degrade. Shooting through partial or missing coatings can cause interesting bokeh or lens flares.
With focus peaking and smaller flange distances, mirrorless cameras have made it more convenient (and cost-effective) to use vintage lenses in the digital age without the use of corrective optics. Most photographers would rather create “imperfections” in a controlled environment like Photoshop/Lightroom than experiment with vintage glass; this can help establish an identity or brand. Plugins or recipes can be repeated to give two images the same look, but what can’t be mimicked easily are optical abnormalities in old glass.
The photographic community tends to dwell in facts and figures. DXO marks and MTF charts get tossed around like they are gospel. The tests are done in controlled studios under certain parameters; they will not tell you how a lens will behave in a certain situation. I believe that the every standard 18-55mm kit is inherently better than some old glass produced 20 to 30 years ago.
Whatever lens you choose, be it vintage or modern, don’t sit on the facts, number of elements, nor the shortcomings it has over another lens. Go out and shoot with it! The best lenses are always the ones you have with you.
Using manual focus on those old lenses will slow you down a little. Not too much, just enough to make you think about your shot. You will feel more connected to your camera and to the process of shooting.
Some tips when outfitting your digital camera with vintage glass
There has been a recent revival among vintage lenses in the photo and filmmaking community due to the ease of adapting them to mirrorless. Perhaps it’s the hip look or the affordable pricing that is driving pros to shoot and experiment with used glass. For now, you can still get many lenses for a bargain – but with the recent uptick in popularity the price of used lenses will increase as well.
What You’ll Need
- A digital SLR
- A vintage manual-focus lens
- An adapter ring
How It Works
Attach the adapter ring to the lens mount the same way you would attach a lens to your camera. Then attach the whole thing to the camera body.
Each lens-to-camera combination calls for a different adapter ring. For example, fitting an Olympus lens on a Canon camera requires a different adapter than a Pentax lens does.
Sometimes you need to figure out even when the lens fits the camera that it doesn’t hit the mirror at infinity focus.
There are P67 RADIOACTIVE thorium-containing (thoriated) lenses so decades-Old Lenses may be Radioactive, especially if they’re Made by Kodak. There are a list of them by searching on the web and according to Camerapedia, typical radiation from these glass elements approaches about 10 milliroentgen per hour (mR/hr) at the lens surface, decreasing to almost undetectable levels by the time you’re as few as 3 feet away. By comparison, a chest X-Ray exposes you to about that same amount, and dental x-rays can expose you to as much as 40 mr/Hr in one sitting.
I don´t know what this exactly means and how much of a threat this may be; nevertheless its a little disturbing about having a radioactive lens…
Canon FL 55mm F 1.2 with Edmika adapter on Canon 5D (it doesn’t had the yellow cast typically stated in the forums as a hint of thoriated ones) however I didn’t keep the lens I only heard possible radioactive… thorium-containing… this lens has perhaps a little to much of “character”… I put the excuse to not to buy stating that there were no longer spare parts for Edmika adapters available…
Tair-11 2.8/133mm KMZ M39-M42 adapter on Canon 5D (I didn’t expected that the Tair actually had the cat eye bokeh. Shooting without a lens hood and you will get some nice flare… it surprised me positively that my lovely russian lens wasn’t a radioactive (thoriated) lens…