If you’ve ever considered using vintage lenses on your digital camera but haven’t yet taken the plunge, it’s possible the thing holding you back is uncertainty.
Uncertainty in how it all works, and uncertainty in whether you’ll be able to make it work for you.
I’m here to dispel those misgivings. The technical aspects of using vintage lenses on digital cameras are not hard, and nor are the creative ones.
That means, in most cases, a simple adapter is all it takes to fit the lens to your camera, and a little time practising aperture priority mode and manual focus is all it takes to get you shooting with it.
Fitting a vintage lens onto your digital camera
In an ideal world, all camera manufacturers would have used the same mounts on their lenses and bodies.
So of course, in the real world, they didn’t. And that’s why we have lens adapters. As far as using vintage lenses on your digital camera goes, there are a few things to know about them.
First is that there are countless adapters on the market and knowing which one you need means knowing what mounts both your camera and your vintage lenses have. But because I don’t know what gear you have, that’s not something I can tell you here.
The second point to make is that not all lenses can be fitted to all cameras, even with adapters. This is due to the distance between the lens and the sensor in the camera. Again, this differs between manufacturers. Nikon DLSRs are especially difficult to use vintage lenses on, while Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras are pretty easy.
To see if there’s an adapter available for your camera / lens combo, you can head over to this guide here.
The final point is that you won’t always need an adapter to use a vintage lens on a digital camera. If you have a Nikon DSLR, you can use most vintage Nikon lenses on it without an adapter, due to the mount being the same. The only difference is having no electronic communication between lens and camera.
This will be true of most lenses and bodies where both the mount and the distance between the lens and sensor are the same. I can’t tell you all the combinations where this is or isn’t the case, but I can say this: if your camera body is a different brand to your vintage lens, you’ll likely need an adapter.
Again, go here to see if any are available.
Learning how to use Aperture priority mode
Once your vintage lens is fitted to your digital camera, with an adapter or otherwise, it’s time to learn how to shoot with it.
The lack of electronic communication between lens and camera will probably mean having to both change your aperture and manually focus on the lens itself, and not in-camera. This means no auto-mode and no auto-focus.
This in turn means shooting in Aperture priority mode and using manual focus.
Don’t let this intimidate you. Learning how to shoot in Aperture priority mode isn’t difficult, and getting good at both that and manual focus will only help your photography overall.
It’s a timeless skill. Camera technology changes, but learning how to shoot in Aperture priority mode means being able to use most vintage lenses out there – and modern ones too.
To shoot in Aperture priority mode, you need to understand how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed work together. You can learn all about that through this comprehensive guide, but I’ll give you a quick-start, step-by-step outline here too.
Before you begin, you may have to tell your camera you’re shooting with no electronically connected lens attached. For Sony cameras, this means going into the menu and turning on the ‘release without lens’ option.
This might be worded differently for other brands, but the function remains the same.
Once that’s done, set your camera to Aperture priority mode. This will either be A or Av, depending on the brand, and means the following: you change the aperture value on your vintage lens, and your camera will change the shutter speed to suit.
Then, set your ISO value depending on the light you have available. As a general guide, go with the following:
- if you’re in bright sunshine, try ISO 100 or 200
- if it’s cloudy, try ISO 400 or 800
- if you’re inside, try ISO 1600
What you do next depends on what you want your photographs to look like.
Shooting your vintage lenses for blurred backgrounds
Turn your aperture ring to the smallest value it will go to. If you have a vintage prime lens, this may well be f1.4, f1.8, or f2.8. Once it’s at this value, take a look at the front of your lens and you’ll see how open it physically is.
At this point, your shutter speed should be quick enough to achieve a sharp image. 1/125 or above is probably enough to protect you from any camera shake but, with your aperture wide open, it will probably be a lot higher.
If it’s unnecessarily high, like 1/2000 or 1/4000, you can lower your ISO a couple of stops to bring it back down, as a lower ISO will help your image quality.
With your aperture set to a low f-value, you will have a shallow depth of field in your image. If you now manually focus on an object wherever you are, the background and foreground will be blurred.
Try it, and take a few shots to practice, with the understanding that the subjects of your photographs don’t really matter, but getting the focus and shutter speed right does.
Now would also be a good time to learn that lenses are typically not at their sharpest when wide open. Close your lens up a couple of stops, to f2.8 or f4 perhaps depending on what your lowest number is, and shoot again.
The in-focus subjects in your image should look sharper than when you shot them wide open, and you’ll have a little more depth of field to play with too.
Shooting your vintage lenses to have everything in focus
Now if you turn your aperture ring to f8, you’ll notice a few things happen.
First is that your depth of field will increase a lot. Those blurred backgrounds and foregrounds will go away and much more of your shot will be in focus.
The second thing to notice is how closed up the lens aperture is. Take another look at the front and see how much smaller the hole is than before.
In fact, you can switch back and forth between wide open and f8 now and see it open and close for yourself.
This closing up of the aperture means that your shutter speed will have slowed considerably. If it’s now too slow to get a sharp image, so below 1/125, for example, increase your ISO to speed it up again while remaining at f8.
You can now take a few practice shots with much more in focus than when your lens was wide open.
Again, the subjects of your images don’t matter. What does is getting a sharp image with both good focus and high enough shutter speed.
Improving your shooting with vintage lenses
At this point, I would continue to practice shooting inanimate objects with your vintage lenses, both at a couple of stops up from wide open and at f8, before you start trying to capture moving scenes with them.
Remember to set your ISO value first depending on the light available. Then set your aperture value depending on how much depth of field you want. Finally, make sure your shutter speed is enough to have no blur from camera shake.
Change settings as necessary to get the shutter speed you need – by changing your aperture value if you can, and by changing your ISO if you can’t.
Then make ten or twenty photographs of objects or people with out-of-focus backgrounds and / or foregrounds, and ten or twenty photographs of wider scenes with everything in focus.
A good way to get proficient is to decide what you want your photograph to look like first, and then figure out how to achieve that. This includes knowing how changing your aperture will affect your shutter speed before you do it, which is one of the most important things to learn if you’re to get good at shooting with vintage lenses on your digital camera.
Trust me when I say that, with practice, this will begin to come to you naturally.
Once you can do this without thinking too much you can move on to shooting more fluid scenes – maybe some vintage lens street photography – if you like.
To get really good at that though, you’re going to need to know how to zone focus.
Using vintage lenses on your digital camera
If you’ve only ever shot in automatic modes with your digital camera, be they auto-exposure, auto-focus, or just auto-everything, the idea of shooting manually with vintage lenses can be intimidating.
I understand why, but I want you to know it’s something you can learn without too much trouble. Every shot here was taken with a vintage lens on a digital camera, and I had no idea how to do it either until I decided to learn.
Those steps again were:
- find the right adapter for your lens / camera combo
- learn how to shoot in Aperture priority mode
- shoot inanimate objects with blurred backgrounds
- shoot inanimate scenes with everything in focus
- take it to the next level by shooting fluid scenes
If you don’t yet have a vintage lens and don’t know which one to buy first, you could check out the reviews I’ve written of the ones I’ve owned.
Once you’ve picked one up and have had a chance to play around, let us know in the comments below or on Twitter how it’s going!