Why Use Vintage Camera Lenses?

In a time when most people have a small but highly capable digital camera in their pocket in the form of a mobile phone, it’s somehow heartening to see the continued popularity of using vintage lenses on mirrorless and DSLR cameras too.

As we’ll get into later, it was the emergence of those mirrorless cameras that gave a second lease of life to so much of the classic glass being shot today.

If you’re yet to take the plunge and try a vintage lens of your own, it might be that you’re unsure on how. Don’t fret, though. This post – how to use vintage lenses on your digital camera – has you covered.

Before that though, you might be wondering why? Why use vintage camera lenses on your mirrorless or DSLR at all? Fortunately, the post you’re reading now has you covered there too. Read on to find the answers you need and more.

Using vintage lenses will save you money

Let’s get this point out of the way first, to save you having to scroll down to see how much getting into vintage lenses is going to cost you.

The good news is, as you might expect from something that is decades old and of a simpler construction, vintage lenses are generally cheaper than their modern equivalents. Sometimes by a large amount, too.

This was the main reason I first got interested in them a few years ago. Having bought a Sony NEX mirrorless camera, the time soon came when I wanted a prime lens to use as well as the standard zoom kit lens.

Looking around though, the native Sony options were just too expensive. Further looking around however led me to find a much cheaper option: an unassuming little lens called the F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8.

By way of comparison, check the price of a Sony 35mm lens to that of the F.Zuiko 38mm. Or a Sony 50mm lens to the options you have for a vintage 50mm one.

There is the further cost of buying a lens adapter if your new set-up needs one, which it probably will, but they are plentiful and inexpensive too.

The one I needed to use my F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8 on my Sony mirrorless, which was a PenF – NEX, was somewhere around $20.

Plus, if you have multiple lenses that have the same mount, you only need to buy one adapter for them all. I use the same one for both my 55mm Super-Takumar and my 28mm Super-Takumar.

Of course some vintage lenses are more expensive than others, but you’ll generally save money by buying them over the new lenses being made today.

Further factors like their solid build quality, ease of fixing if something does go wrong, and holding their resale value should you want to sell and recoup your money to buy another one are all things that should be remembered too.

f.zuiko-38mm-f1.8

You’ll love the image qualities of vintage camera lenses

People talk about image quality when discussing camera gear. In fact it’s perhaps the single most important consideration when spending a lot of money on the latest shiny cameras and sharpest new lenses.

And with good reason, to be fair. After all, why else are you even doing photography if not to be getting results that you like?

When talking about vintage lenses though, another big consideration is the qualities of the image you’ll get. The character you get in your photographs.

Brand new, state-of-the-art lenses great at what they do. Along with all the ways they communicate electronically with the camera, they capture images with unreal sharpness too. It’s just that you might not always want that.

You can turn down that sharpness, you can soften edges, you can add vintage filters in Lightroom, but you’re merely fighting against what the modern lens maker was aiming to achieve. Throw too many tweaks at it in post-processing and you end up with something that just looks forced.

Using vintage lenses means having an inherently vintage look to your photographs. You can get the iconic bokeh with something like a Helios 44-2, the soft dreamlike feel to portraits or macro flower shots, the natural colours and tones of everyday scenes, and the satisfaction of knowing it’s all genuine too.

Remember, just as the image quality of each vintage lens is different, so too are the image qualities. New lenses are technically great yet can be too clinical. Images shot on vintage lenses have imperfections that you’ll love.

You’ll find shooting vintage lenses fun and satisfying

While the results any piece of camera gear gives you are important, the enjoyment that comes from using it is a huge thing too. It is for me as a hobbyist, at least. I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t fun.

I remember getting that first vintage prime lens – the F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8 – and going out to play with it in the streets of Shanghai. And I remember my general first impression being… is that it?

My kit lens could cover 38mm. And zoom in and out. And do autofocus. The only real advantage of the F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8 seemed to be the small size of it on the camera.

It only took a couple of hours of walking around and shooting for something to click and my mind to change. And it hasn’t changed back since.

Shooting at f1.8 was great fun, and I was enjoying manually focusing on such massive cliches as flowers, parked bicycles, and laundry hanging out to dry. Every inanimate object was a potential subject. As were any people just walking down the street.

None of the photographs were anything to write home about and I later found out I was sacrificing sharpness by shooting wide open, but who cares? It was my first time shooting with a prime lens, vintage or not, and I was having a great time. Shooting with vintage lenses is just fun.

And once you get better at it, it’s more satisfying too. Zooming with your feet becomes second nature and becoming quicker and more accurate with manual focus means every nailed shot comes with a bigger sense of achievement than they would have with your kit lens.

Using vintage lenses helps improve your photography skills

Please note that subheading does not state that using vintage lenses will make you a better photographer. That’s a much bigger and more subjective concept that I’d rather not start promising you.

It feels like too much a superficial and unquantifiable thing to start making definitive statements like that about. Who’s to say your work really is any better just because it was shot on vintage lenses instead of modern ones?

They’re not a magic bullet. But what they do is force you to build some skills that give you the platform to become better. And that’s as much about learning how cameras work as it is the results you get out of them.

Because old lenses can’t communicate electronically with newer cameras, you won’t be able to shoot on any kind of full automatic mode. Your options will likely be manual or aperture priority.

My opinion is shooting in manual mode is highly overvalued and occasionally used by certain people to think they’re better than others just because they use it.

It’s a good idea to learn how it works so you understand better how a camera works, but once you’ve done so it’s mostly unnecessary and actually restricting for everyday shooting.

For those reasons and others, I recommend shooting in aperture priority mode. This post explains how.

Aside from the technical camera handling skills you learn from shooting with vintage lenses, the fact that it’ll probably be a prime lens helps you think about your compositions more too.

Some shots you could have got with an 18 – 55mm zoom lens will be out of your reach with a 35mm prime, at both ends of the scale. So you’ll have to get creative and analytical and make it work with what you have attached to your camera.

If you’re shooting street photography, you’ll have to learn zone focus too. That’s a good thing. Another string to your bow.

And the best thing about all this is that, if you’ve only ever shot a digital camera with a modern lens and its automatic modes, the skills you learn from shooting a vintage lens are a stepping stone to being able to use all sorts of other cameras too.

Once you know how they work, they all pretty much work the same. There’s no way I’d have been able to use this fully manual Holga film camera or my Yashica Electro film rangefinder without what I learned from using vintage lenses on digital.

Using vintage lenses opens up a whole new world of glass

It was really the advent of the mirrorless camera that brought vintage lenses back into the consciousness of so many digital photographers who had been unaware of their charms for so long.

For a lens to focus properly on a camera, the distance between its glass and the sensor or film in a camera has to be a specific distance.

With that distance being relatively deep on DSLRs – due to the need to house the mirror that sends the image up and over the sensor and through the optical viewfinder – finding adapters that enabled non-native lenses to maintain that distance on a camera wasn’t easy.

Nor was it really necessary enough for people to want to, what with such a huge catalogue of native lenses for most camera brands and good backwards compatibility too. If people had a Nikon, they’d probably be happy to use new and old Nikon lenses etc.

However, as mirrorless cameras have a smaller distance to the sensor inside, there’s a lot more breathing space to be filled with a lens adapter. This makes it far easier to find vintage lenses that you can use, and it often doesn’t matter which brand they are.

If you find a vintage lens for sale, there’s probably an adapter for it. If you have a mirrorless camera, you’ll probably be able to find an adapter that fits the aforementioned lens to it.

All things said, the ability to mix and match camera and lens brands has probably never been as high as it is with vintage lenses on mirrorless cameras.

If you have DSLR already, you’ll be able to use off-brand vintage lenses on it to a degree. Less so if it’s a Nikon though, unfortunately. But if you really want to open up the world of classic glass, you’ll have more freedom with a mirrorless.

If you’re looking to buy one and are unsure of what to look for in the multitude of options out there, this comprehensive guide will help.

f.zuiko 38mm f1.8 sony nex 5n

Some downsides to shooting with vintage lenses

I’m not going to publish this post as a one-sided gushing sales pitch for vintage lenses, though. That would be unfair when there are some cons to be aware of too among the many pros.

First is related to the earlier statements about how they help you improve your skills as a photographer. Just be aware that this won’t happen overnight.

If you’ve only ever shot with a digital camera on a full automatic mode or even with just your phone, getting used to vintage lenses does have a learning curve. A fun and rewarding learning curve, but a learning curve that you should be aware of regardless.

Second is that shooting action photography on vintage lenses can be hard. People did use to have to do it before we had autofocus and object tracking of course, but innovation happens for a reason too.

I’ve never had a problem shooting what I like to shoot with a vintage lens, but then I’ve never tried to pick out individual racers at a Moto GP with one, for example.

Third is the possibility for older lenses to develop fungus or haze in their glass elements, or have oily aperture blades. In a lot of cases though, fungus doesn’t affect or show on the photographs, even if it’s visible in the lens.

If aperture blades become oily though, they can stick open or closed for a fraction of a second and ruin your exposure, depending on how you shoot. My 35mm Minolta lens has oily blades but as I tend to shoot at f8 all the time, it’s never affected my work.

All of these are worth knowing about and checking for before buying any vintage lens, though.

The fourth possible downside is adapter build-up, depending on what vintage lenses you buy and how long you keep them. This might sound like another kind of fungus on your adapters, but it isn’t. I just mean a build-up of too many adapters over time in your cupboard.

Again, if you have a lot of lenses that use the same mount, you can have a single adapter for them all. And if you ever sell your vintage lenses on, you can always sell their adapters with them to keep your unused surplus down.

The final con to buying vintage lenses is that some of them might be radioactive. The Super-Takumar 55mm f1.8 is a famous example of this.

Quite how radioactive they are is something I’m not qualified to say but it’s not something I’ve ever worried too much about. You can read more on the subject here and various other places online.

Again, just something to be aware of before buying if it would concern you.

So again, why use vintage camera lenses?

To recap all the reasons given why I think you should try at least one vintage camera lens:

  • they’re often inexpensive and will save you money
  • they give unique image results that you’ll love
  • they’re a lot of fun and highly satisfying to shoot
  • they help you improve your skills as a photographer
  • they open up a whole new world of glass for you

If any or all of that has whetted your appetite, you might now be wondering which one(s) to buy, and from where.

There are so many lenses out there that I couldn’t possibly give any definitive answers to that first question, although the reviews I’ve written for the ones I’ve owned and shot can give you some ideas for starters.

Aside from those, I would suggest you start with the focal length you like to shoot at and then check out what’s available on some of the online marketplaces that stock vintage lenses. Some of my favourites are listed here:

I hope that’s answered the question of why to use vintage lenses on digital cameras. If you’re interested in trying but are now wondering how, please check out this next post that explains all. 🙂

If this post has whetted your appetite to try some vintage lenses for yourself and you want to learn even more, dig into some of these other guides and articles: 

  1. How to shoot in aperture priority (essential for vintage lenses)
  2. How to shoot street photography with vintage lenses
  3. A guide to buying a mirrorless camera for vintage lenses

And if you think others will enjoy this post on why to shoot vintage lenses too, help them find it by sharing or pinning.  😀

4 thoughts on “Why Use Vintage Camera Lenses?”

  1. I know what you mean Lee, when it comes to owning something that is no longer in production. As cliche as it might sound, forgotten old is new. Technology allows us new comforts; with cars it starts with automatic transmission and now we’ve got self-driving vehicles. And perhaps those kinds of cars will be roaming most of the streets in the world, there will still be at least a few of us who would like to take a hold of the wheel and be a driver for once.

    Reply
    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Dmitri. I haven’t heard that phrase before! I like it though. Of course, being a big enough fan of old lenses to make a website about them, I agree with your point.

      The only time I ever drove an automatic car was in the States. Back in the UK, manual is the norm. As much as I enjoyed driving a Mustang down Highway 1, and who wouldn’t, there’s just something really satisfying about changing down a gear to overtake someone. It’s somehow not the same just putting your foot down in an automatic transmission vehicle.

      I feel the same way about vintage lenses. I take satisfaction from knowing my good shots were all done with manual focus and at a fixed length.

      There will always be a market for manual cars, absolutely, but as the decades pass it may become a hobby. Nobody in the western world commutes to the office by horse, but we still use them for leisure. Maybe manual cars will go the same way. I think manual focus lenses already have, but the old-fashioned qualities of them and the pictures they produce holds massive appeal for me.

      Reply
      • It seems to me that almost anyone can take a technically perfect picture with modern cameras and lenses – but, too often, I just get the feeling that such photos are TOO sharp and take your eye away from the overall image that (one hopes) the photographer was trying to capture. With age, our eyes deteriorate, too, and it can be a shock to see what’s really there! I only have about 3 ‘modern’ lenses – everything else, whether used on film cameras or DSLRs, are ‘vintage’: my favourite combination being a Nikon D200 with a 55mm f1.8 Pentax SuperTak – the images glow and don’t ‘hurt’ the eyes. If I want auto-focus to speed things up for sport etc, there are plenty of vintage autofocus zooms that do the job very nicely: a Nikon 24-120mm ‘Streetsweeper’ being a great choice. These lenses do a terrific job for a fraction of the cost of a modern lens, and are far better built.

        Reply
        • Thanks for taking the time to comment OF. Apologies for taking so long to respond. Do you post your images online anywhere? Would like to take a look if possible!

          Also, I’ve just been reading up on issues with using Super-Takumar lenses on Nikon bodies – namely with not being able to focus to infinity, or using an adapter with an extra element that decreases image quality instead.

          Have you found a way round this problem on your setup?

          Reply

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.