Manual focus lenses.
Call them what you will. This article is asking, and answering, why I think you should have at least one of them in your camera bag.
But first, I’ll tell you how I came to love them.
For years I was not so much into photography itself but into the idea of getting into it.
Eventually, after finding myself with the time and money on my hands for really the first time, I took the plunge and decided to buy a nice camera.
I researched my options for months, reading and reading reviews and opinion.
In the end, with price, features and sensor size all in mind, I went for the Sony NEX.
One thing that every review mentioned about the NEX range at the time was the native lenses. Specifically, the limited options and the high price.
I sort of mentally skipped over this issue, telling myself that the kit lens would probably do me. That it’ll be good enough. That I don’t know anything about lenses anyway.
I soon began to realise that, like most photographers who have ever thought the same, I was wrong.
I wanted a prime lens.
I wanted f1.8.
My first vintage lens
Looking again at the native NEX lenses, I soon saw that the reviewers had been right.
Sony had by this point expanded the range, but the prices were still ridiculous in comparison to the Canon and Nikon equivalents.
Disappointed, I dug deeper and eventually found a page that led me to buying my first vintage lens.
So the first reason the idea of buying a vintage lens interested me was, rather unromantically, the price.
The second most important factor at the time, again rather unromantically, was the size.
This consideration pushed me ever closer to the F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8.
I hadn’t yet learned the value of shooting with a prime lens, which meant I didn’t really want a huge lens on the small body of my NEX if it couldn’t even zoom in!
What, exactly, would be the point of that?
My kit lens was already huge, but at least it was versatile.
No. If I’m buying a single length prime lens, it has to be small.
And I know how naive that sounds looking back, but that was how I felt.
As you may have seen on the page linked above, a massive plus point of the F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8 lens on the Sony NEX bodies, apart from how small the vintage lens is itself, is the size of the adaptor.
First impressions of my first vintage lens
Once I’d actually bought my first vintage lens, and adaptor, and got to play with it, I instantly felt… is that it? I mean, my kit lens can cover 38mm.
The only real advantage of the F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8 seemed to be the size of it on the camera body.
After walking around Shanghai for a couple of hours though, I soon changed my mind.
Shooting wide open was great fun, and I was enjoying manually focussing on such massive cliches as flowers, parked bicycles, and people’s faces on the subway – in black and white of course, because random photographs of people on the subway have to be in black and white, don’t they?
I later learned I was sacrificing sharpness by shooting wide open, but who cares? I was like a kid in a sweet shop.
I’d played around with manual focus on my kit lens before, and enjoyed doing so, but this was somehow much more fun.
Of course, I couldn’t zoom in or out.
Before I bought the F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8, I had wondered how I would get on with using a vintage lens.
As it turned out, I loved it.
It makes you think more about your composition, because some things are out of your reach. You become more creative, more analytical, more involved.
You become a better photographer, in my opinion, by having to do all the thinking and moving by yourself.
Vintage lens, vintage car
If we allow ourselves to be shallow for a second, vintage lenses also just look a lot cooler.
But let’s not kid ourselves here; this is important.
I used to drive an old Mini and it was the best car I’ve ever owned.
In fairness, the competition was only ever Ford Fiestas and Vauxhall Corsas, but they were safer, more comfortable and much more reliable. So why would I have wanted the Mini?
I can compare my vintage lenses to that, with the kit lens being the Corsa (sorry, kit lens).
Safer? Yes, you might miss focus on that important shot with the vintage lens.
More comfortable? Yes, you can forget about the focus ring with the kit lens.
More reliable? Yes, but the old classic lens is easier to fix if something goes wrong.
Which car would you rather take out on a Sunday afternoon? Especially if the Fiesta was an automatic. And we’re talking about a Sunday drive here, not commuting.
Because I think most people buy vintage lenses for pleasure, not work.
Vintage photographs from a vintage lens
I like the feeling I got when driving the Mini, and it’s the same when using a vintage lens.
It doesn’t end when you finish shooting though.
That feeling a vintage lens gives you continues into your pictures. There’s a softness that modern lenses have done all they can do to eradicate.
State of the art lenses are great at what they do, capturing images with unreal sharpness, but we sometimes want a more classic look.
You can turn down the sharpness, you can soften edges, add filters in Lightroom, but you’re fighting against what the modern lens maker was aiming to achieve.
Using vintage lenses means an inherently vintage look to your photographs.
The bold bits in this article have been summing up why I think you should have a vintage lens in your camera bag, but I’ll recap in case you missed any.
Let’s ask again.
Why use vintage lenses?
- they’re fun
- they’re inexpensive
- they can help you improve as a photographer
- they look cool
- they give your photographs a unique look
So, all things considered, why wouldn’t you want to own at least one of them?