Old Lenses on New Cameras – A Beginner’s Guide

When considering whether to buy a “vintage” lens to put on a modern camera body, there are a few things to consider:

1) Will it work at all?
2) Assuming it works, what lens should I get?
3) How do I take good pictures with this thing?

This episode is to answer question 1. It’s the simplest.

When electronic auto-focus was invented, camera and lens manufacturers rushed to produce systems that took advantage of the technology. The lenses weren’t necessarily optically better, but they were a heck of a lot more convenient. Nowadays, auto-focus performance is one of the things lenses and cameras are graded on, and it can allow photographers to get shots they never would have before. Cameras can actually track a moving object and keep the focus on it.

But what became of all those old manual-focus lenses?

They’re still out there, sitting in closets and gathering dust in pawn shops, forgotten. And while optical and manufacturing technology has advanced in the last few decades, there are some very nice lenses that can be had for a very good price.

But before you go diving through eBay, scratching your head over Russian-made bargains and obscure Japanese masterpieces, there are a few fundamental questions you need to answer. The most important is, “Will this lens work on my camera?”

The question is pretty simple to answer, but first there are a few things you need to understand. They aren’t complicated, so pretty quickly you will be able to build a list of which lens mounts work for you.

A brief aside: The answer to the question “Can I make this work on my camera?” is always yes. You can find a way. HOWEVER, some lenses will require an adapter that has yet more lenses in it, which will cost a lot and impact the quality of the photo. So I’m concentrating here on simple mechanical adapters that don’t have any glass elements themselves.

Most of the “will it fit?” answer is simple geometry. Each lens is designed to fit on a hole on the front of a camera. The two key measurements of that hole are how big it is, and how far from the film or the sensor the hole is. If the lens expects a smaller hole than the one on the front of your camera, no problem. If it needs a bigger hole, you’re out of luck — you can’t enlarge the hole in the front of your camera without a saw.

Similarly, the lens expects to be a certain distance from the film (this is often called the flange distance or register). If your lens expects to be farther from the sensor, that’s fine; the adapter can push it farther back. If it needs to be closer, then even if you find an adapter the lens is going to be poking down into the guts of your camera, which is not good.

There is a tricky range where the lens expects to be just a tiny bit farther from the film, and in this range, though it’s theoretically possible to make an adapter, the adapter would have to be so thin it’s not practical to manufacture.

For example, my camera body has a Canon EF mount. The flange distance is 44.00mm, and the diameter is a mighty 54mm. I can safely assume that it will be easy to mount any lens that expects to be 45mm or farther from the camera, and needs a hole less than 54mm. There is a range between 44 and 45mm that is dicey; the metal used to make the adapter has to be extremely thin. (That’s too bad, because There’s a Minolta lens at 44.5 that I really want. It’s a magical lens, a lens that literally* redefines bokeh.)

You don’t have to go through the will-it-fit calculation every time, of course. I happen to know that old lenses with the very-common M42 mount work just fine on my camera with an adapter that costs maybe $5 or less. Therefore one of my common eBay search terms is “M42”. Here is a list with many of the mounts you will encounter. If you shoot with a Canon EF, the size of the hole is never an issue (the EF hole is very large), so this even more comprehensive list may be helpful.

Suddenly you have a very long list of great lenses to choose from! There are a couple more things to take into account, however.

When you are shooting, it is best to focus your shot with the lens aperture wide open. That means that when most lenses are “at rest” they are all the way open. Older lenses have a mechanical link to the camera, either a pin or a lever that is activated before the shutter releases, that closes the aperture down to your selected value.

Obviously modern electronic cameras lack that linkage. However, most lenses also have a button on the side of the barrel that closes the aperture. The original intent was to allow the photographer to get a better feel for the depth of focus they would be getting for the shot, but you can hold that down when you fire the shutter and get the f-stop you want. Pushing sideways on the lens is a great way to get unwanted camera shake, however.

As an alternative, you can look for lenses with “preset” in the description. These are lenses that allow you to disable the aperture mechanism (or sometimes these lenses just don’t have that mechanism). My Mir-42 is a good example of one of these; I can get the focus wide-open and then flip the switch on the side to put it into preset mode. Once that’s done I can shoot normally.

So now you have a couple of keywords to look for when searching for old manual-focus lenses. You know which lenses will physically fit on your camera, and you know which ones will be easier to work with. That won’t help you figure out which lens you should buy, but it will sure rule out a bunch you should not.

____

* yes, literally.

Sloth vs. Vanity

I’ve had a beard almost continuously for the last couple of decades. Not because I think I look particularly good with a beard, but because shaving is a pain in the butt. I just let the damn thing grow, occasionally cleaning up my neck while I’m in the shower, and every now and then pulling out the heavy-duty hair clippers (those little groomer things are helpless against my facial hair) slapping on the #2 guide, and hacking the thing back.

A couple of times recently I’ve been even more slovenly than usual and allowed my beard to get quite bushy. This time around, I decided to have a little fun with it. I shaved off most of it, but kept the goatee. Since then it has gotten even longer, and I’ve been shaving the rest of my face.

Yep, I’ve been doing almost as much work as going completely clean shaven. You see, I like the way the thing looks. Vanity has stepped up and bumped Sloth to the curb, at least for a while.

“How long are you going to let it get?” the official sweetie of Muddled Ramblings asked me a few days ago. I didn’t really have an answer for her. Later I came to another realization: I don’t even know how to trim the dang thing. So for now at least, it’s still getting longer.

This weekend I decided to take a few self-portraits to memorialize Vanity’s time in the spotlight. I have an old Russian Industar 50 lens (no need to add vignettes in post!) that I ended up getting for almost free, that I had yet to really play with. It came with a yellow filter, which is useful for Black and White (mostly outdoors, but hey). Black and white shots of my salt-and-pepper beard (more salt these days) seemed like a swell idea, so that’s what I did.

One thing about a manual-focus lens, self-portraits are a little trickier. Happily my eyefi mobi lets me see the pictures on my iPad without me having to move from my spot. Even with that, I ended up throwing away a lot of shots that weren’t in focus. Once the shots were loaded onto my computer, I converted the RAW files to black and white. The hard part there: which black and white? I spent quite a while fiddling with settings, and I could have spent even longer, but good ol’ Sloth intervened.

I was taking a beard-stroking picture, but I fumbled with the camera controller. Came out all right, though.

I was taking a beard-stroking picture, but I fumbled with the camera controller. Came out all right, though.

One thing about this facial hair setup, my cheekbones are visible. I should smile in pictures more often.

One thing about this facial hair setup, my cheekbones are visible. I should smile more.

The first time I've seen what it looks like from the side.

The first time I’ve seen what it looks like from the side.

A more dramatic pose.

A more dramatic pose.

Technical notes:
These were all shot with a Canon 5D Mk III, ISO 100 at 1/125 s. I started with the lens at f/3.5, but lost too many shots to focus and stopped it down to f/5.6-ish. (The aperture on the Industar is continuous, not “clicky” like on most lenses with manual aperture controls.) Light came from one strobe to my right (and reflected in my glasses), and another at very low power above and behind my head.

1

Lens Lust: The Phases

One thing about owning a camera whose nature changes when you change lenses — you start looking at a lot of lenses and imagining what you could do with them. Lens lust is perfectly human and even healthy. A few years ago I really started to appreciate what you might call extreme lenses, the lenses that push the boundaries of what is possible.

I even bought one kinda-extreme lens, and I still covet that lens’s even more extreme little brother, a lens made by Canon that cannot be matched on other SLRs because of physics. (The hole on the front of modern Canon cameras is larger, and the size of the hole is one of the things that limits what a lens attached to it can do.) I will own that lens one day.

But after a while, you’ve seen all the great lenses. You’ve appreciated the Noctilux and the latest Zeiss offerings, and you’ve seen that less-than-ten-made gigantic-yet-fast telephoto selling for the price of a modest home. (The perfect portrait lens, if you can get half a mile from your subject.)

Window shopping is about surprise, about finding something new and delightful, and people simply aren’t designing new crazy-extreme lenses fast enough. So now when I go hunting for over-the-top, cost-no-object glass, my response is “oh yeah, that one.” That doesn’t mean I might not linger over the specs, but it’s like I’m re-reading a favorite novel.

Then there is the magical day when you discover a whole new category of lenses to lust after. And this time around, a lot of them are pretty cheap. Welcome to the world of vintage glass. If you don’t mind undertaking the chore of focussing the camera yourself, a whole new world unfolds.

Although I assume technology has changed the way lens makers go about their craft, Zeiss lenses have been very good for a very long time. Others have been trying to knock Zeiss off their pedestal for a long time as well. Pentax made a serious run at Zeiss and produced some optically excellent lenses with superb build quality, and these days you can find those lenses cheap. And while shopping you can appreciate that the radioactive 8-element 50mm (it has thorium in one lens element) is not as good as the 7-element design that followed, with its expensive-to-manufacture curved interface between two glued elements, but that the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar is maybe a little better than the SMC Tacumar that followed. I expect that I’ll have a Pentax in the barn before too much longer.

And then there’s Zeiss itself. It was in the wrong half of Germany and at the end of World War Two and the whole damn factory, engineers and all, was carted off to Mother Russia. Some say quality degraded over time, but you can find some very cheap Russian lenses that are actually improvements on the Zeiss designs — improvements made by the Zeiss people themselves.

Which is all to say when you open yourself to vintage glass, not only do you find some pretty spectacular deals, you find some pretty cool stories as well. Learning the histories of some of the seminal lenses in photography is a special lens-lust bonus.

But while they’re not making enough crazy-extreme new lenses, they are by definition not making any more historically-iconic or secret old-school super-bargain lenses. Lately, when I’ve popped over to eBay to type in sexy lens phrases, I see the same list I always do. My fantasy wish list is becoming more stable; there are no new surprises as some oddball piece of glass hits me from out of the blue. I think there are still some discoveries in the vintage realm; some of the “vintage” lenses I drool over have performance comparable to modern lenses, but farther back in time (and cheaper yet) there are lenses that give a different feel to the photos. I picked up one Russian 50mm for pretty much free that falls into that category, and I will be doing a series of self-portraits with it in the near future.

But finding those lenses doesn’t provide the same visceral rush. You’re not really looking for the gems, the designs that were ahead of their time, you’re just choosing out of a bucket because what you want is the “bucket” look.

s-l500Are there new horizons? New categories of lenses I haven’t discovered yet, that I can drool over and study to learn their nuances? I hope so. There is the category “new lenses that act like old lenses”, discussed under the banner “lomography”, and while some of them are funky, I haven’t found any compelling reason not to just use an old lens instead. In fact, most of lomography is about using crappy old Holgas, pinholes, and plastic lenses, but if you really insist on spending money you can find a funky brass-bodied lens with apertures you slip in through a slot on the side. So… actually, it looks like I’ve already worked that vein dry.

I suppose it’s a sign of maturity, when you’ve taken a passion to where there are no more surprises, but it’s also an indication of why maturity sucks. I guess now I should spend more of my time looking at photographs, rather than lenses. After all, that’s how you become a better photographer. But I’m also an engineer, and I’m unapologetic for my fascination with this interface between art and engineering.

And I’m thinking that lens designers need to get off their lazy asses and make more wacky stuff.

3

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

Lady Byng, taken with my Mir-24

Lady Byng, taken with my Mir-24

I have always enjoyed playing with my Russian-made Mir-24 lens. It’s manual focus, so it can be difficult to catch fast-moving things like small dogs (I find myself setting the focus then moving the camera to get the subject in focus), but there’s a low-saturation retro feel to the shots.

It all started when I wanted a reasonably fast 35mm lens cheap, and I was willing to live without all the automatic stuff to save money. The key is to look for “preset aperture” — some lenses keep the aperture wide open to help focussing, then when you take the picture a mechanical linkage in the camera closes the aperture to the desired size. “Preset” means it lacks that linkage. Many lenses come with an M42 mount, which (with a cheap adapter) work great on my camera.

My copy of the Mir-24 lens isn’t really that great, but it works, and at f/2 it’s faster than the Zeiss lens it ripped off. The construction is solid. No regrets on that purchase whatsoever.

So why has it taken so long for me to search Mir M42 on eBay? Wait, what? A 65mm TILT lens? Oh, crap! Then I searched on Jupiter M42 (Jupiter is another Russian brand, related to Mir) and… aaarrrrgh! So… many… things…

To all my Eastern European friends: Go clean out your parents’ closets! I want me some Russian-made optics!

Sneak Peek…

This is a test shot I took this afternoon while setting up for a very fun (some might even say silly) holiday-themed shoot.

My co-conspirator and I have some post-production and copy writing to bang out before we can share the product of our labor, but I think you will enjoy the result.

ties

(As always, you can click to biggerize the photo.)

Serious Telephoto

This is about 1/3 of a camera I spent a summer serving. You might recognize it from the movies Contact and 2010: Oddesy Something-or-other, or maybe from the cover to that Night Ranger album you’d rather forget.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Note: You do not want to watch Contact when I’m in the room, unless you want to hear me complain at length about how that’s not really how a radio telescope works. I can’t help it!

I was just a lowly grunt at the VLA, but I worked the quiet night shift and when data came off the antennae and passed through my system (using a special memory array to accomplish fast Fourier transforms on the data to convert it from time-based to space-based), I would become the first human being ever to see Things Out There.

Yeah, chills.

I’m pretty sure that specialized, really expensive piece of hardware could still outperform my phone for that one specific task. Probably. But then again game engines use that same math, so maybe not. The PDP-11’s that fed the data into and took the data out of the array were what once was called minicomputers before microcomputers ate them for breakfast after Moore’s Comet hit.

I spent free time working on the Silicon Graphics workstation to make false-color images that looked cool — uh, I mean, enhanced the features the scientists wanted to study.

I have some OK gear of my own now, but I won’t be photographing quasars shooting out gas jets the size of galaxies.

If you’re ever on a road trip across the southwest, I recommend highway 60 for Salt River Canyon alone. On your way through New Mexico be sure to stop off at the VLA and walk around a bit. It’s a hell of a camera.

1

How’d They Do That?

One of the magic things about a tilt-shift lens is that if you can find a vantage over a cityscape and look down, you can make images that look inexplicably toy-like. Something about the altered perspective monkeys with the cues our brains use to establish scale.

Here’s a great example (© Jay Lee*):

There’s an Audi ad running right now that says, “this car is the best toy you will ever own.” It blends a child’s fantasy with footage of the actual car. Helicopters abound. But many of the “actual” shots have a distinctly toy-like look to them, much the way the tilt-shift-from-above shots do. Granted there’s a ridiculous amount of post-processing in the ads, but I have to think that the original videography is the foundation for that toy-like quality. Yet the perspective is not the down-from-above angle that I would expect.

I’d like to meet the director of photography for that ad and learn how he did it.

_____
* Jay Lee also weaves bacon.

1

The ‘Before’ Session

Before my appointment with Mindy this evening, I thought I’d better commemorate what I was about to lose. Of course, you can click the pictures to biggerize them.

Because hair, that's why.

Yep, the hair had only hours left as part of my head. I pulled out a couple of lights, a box fan, and my favorite portrait lens and took a few selfies.

It turns out ten seconds is not quite enough time to find your mark (has to be perfect for the focus), get your hair blowing in the wind, get into position, and finally switch off the photographer and activate the inner model to throw some personality back toward the camera.

Who knew the line between glam and metal was so narrow?

Glam

Glam

Metal

Metal

Guitarists: pay no attention to my left hand; getting that detail right was just one detail too many.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.


I can see opportunities lost in all of these poses, but that’s the way it goes. I’m featuring ones here that show my hair in all its glory. Yes, an ‘after’ episode is coming soon. I’ll leave you with another guitar solo face.
Guitar solo face.

Guitar solo face.

2

Old Glass

Some nights, when sleep seems like a bad idea, I drift through ebay looking at old camera lenses, mostly for educational purposes. There was a time in the 1970’s, for instance, where computerized lens design and super-high-tech coatings for the glass became common. Many very good lenses were created, only to be quickly outmoded by the autofocus revolution.

When Canon embraced autofocus, they took the opportunity to redesign their mount, making the hole bigger and farther from the film/sensor. This provided tangible benefits for super-high-performance lenses, but it meant that none of the pre-autofocus lenses were compatible with the new cameras at all.

With a few exceptions that don’t apply to everyday photographers, you can’t shoot old Canon glass on a new Canon body.

Nikon, meanwhile, kept the geometry of its older cameras so that old lenses would still work. Funny thing, though. According to the sources I read late last night, they way Nikon does light metering when one of those old lenses is attached really isn’t very good.

The sweet spot: Old Nikon lenses on a modern Canon body. The adapter costs only a few bucks and you can get a great lens for a song (though it’s a costlier song now that people are catching on). Apparently Tim Burton shot a whole movie (one even I had heard of) that way, with a variety of older Nikon lenses on Canon 1Ds. That has to make the brand snobs squirm a bit.

That Nikkor 50mm f1.2 AiS.C is looking pretty nice right now. Someday…

Call Me Badass

The other day I looked in the mirror after I had been driving. I was still wearing my hat and shades, and I had to laugh. With my too-long-untrimmed beard I looked like, well, not me.

Yeah, not so much a mild-mannered geek as a stereotype from from central casting to be in the background for a scene in a “rough” bar. (Which, in fact, I was once paid to be.)

There are other shots in the batch that don’t make it obvious I was using shoot-through umbrellas (you can see them pretty clearly in the glasses), but I chose these based on different treatments of the light, and for my expressions. It’s a slow process when you have to stop and go behind the camera to see how a shot worked, then getting back in front and duplicating your head angle but altered just a smidge. So getting the reflections under control never really happened.

By the way, the background for those shots is a sneak peek at the shoot I’ll be doing with Harlean (who is a fiction) this afternoon. A shaky phone-camera look behind the scenes:

The set for today's shoot.

The set for today’s shoot.

Pet Photography

Today I pulled out the magic portrait lens and pointed it at the newest member of the family. See, I’m not just going to bombard the Internet with stories about my pet and a glut of pictures only I can appreciate, I’m going to bless the Web with wacky anecdotes of my four-legged friend and share with you my artistic imagery. You see how completely different that is?

Joking aside, I did try to capture a feeling of just who this dog is, and I think to a certain extent I was successful. Of course, you are the final judge of that.

2

Cactus Flowers

The light was a little funny yesterday. Even with the sun high in the sky, there was a reddish quality to the light, as the sunlight was filtered through the smoke of the nearby wildfire. I went out back so see if I could get a good shot of the smoke to the east or to the west.

Side fact: to face the new fire to the east of here, an elite team parachuted in. Once on the ground, the decision was easy: get the hell out of there. Last I read, exactly zero people were fighting that fire. Just too dangerous.

Anyway, I failed to get any interesting smoke shots. But I did notice that some of the prickly pear was in bloom. When you’re a dude trying to get better at what he does, you take pictures of stuff like that. In fact you lie in the dirt and try not to roll over into cactus to practice the shot.

Here’s what I got (click to biggerize):

FR5A1903

cactus flower 2

cactus flower 1

cactus flower 4

The last one there, I had another shot that technically, by the numbers, was better-composed. But I like this one more. So there. I was throwing my aperture all over the place, trying to get the out-of-focus parts to be properly out of focus, and I got a wide range of results. But in the end, I got home covered in dirt, with a couple of nice pics on the chip.

And that’s what it’s all about.

1

How to be a Good Photographer

1. Buy a camera
2. Take pictures
3. Delete 95% of the pictures you take.

The top photogs delete 98%. Maybe 99. That’s how good they are.

Fun With Lights

There’s a big ho-down comin’ at work, and my boss was asked to come up with a list of pending accomplishments for her team, accompanied by pictures. So, I needed a picture of me writing, to accompany the announcement that I will soon be finishing Munchies, my long-anticipated novel. Anticipated by me, anyway.

Now, all that was required was a simple picture of me at the computer. But in my head this portrait quickly grew to include dramatic lighting that somehow gave a Munchies-like feel to the picture. That meant color gels, splashes on the walls, and dramatic light on the face, preferably from the glow of the screen.

It was also fun being the talent for once, while my sweetie gave direction from behind the camera.

In the end three of the lighting setups were moderately successful; I have picked out representatives from each of those to show below. The pictures are unaltered except for some cropping; color and exposure are straight off the camera.

For all these setups there’s a tight-beam green-gelled strobe is directly behind my head. In the first two another strobe is splashing light against the wall behind me. I’m thinking it would have been cool to make it a strong primary color, just so see how it looked, but I didn’t do that.

The second and third pictures have only the computer’s LCD screen lighting my face. This required very long shutter times to capture enough light. (The light from the strobes is a fixed quantity no matter how long the shutter is open, so you use exposure time to adjust the mix between flash and ambient light.) Quite a few almost-awesome shots were lost because I wasn’t holding still enough.

Anyway, here are some samples from the shoot. As always, you can click to biggerize them. All the shots were taken with my 85mm lens at very wide apertures to keep exposure times from getting totally ridiculous.

Two strobes and overhead halogens

Two strobes and overhead halogens

Two strobes and screen light

Two strobes and screen light

One strobe and screen light

One strobe and screen light

Not appearing in this list are shots where the green light was behind to my left, where it shone on my face a bit. An interesting effect, but it didn’t really work out this time.

1

A Couple of Nature Shots

It is spring here in my little slice of heaven, and recently I’ve pointed my camera at flowers and stuff. Here is a shot or three of the results. There are things I’d like to change in each, but it’s a lazy Saturday and putting up pictures on a blog is easier than many of the other things I’m supposed to be getting done. For whatever reason, these look a lot better when you click on them to biggerize.

I forget what this flower is called, but it's nice.

I forget what this flower is called, but it’s nice.

I’m tempted to monkey with this photo more to make the flower pop better, but that’s really not how this plant rolls. It’s not a popper. I wish I’d stopped down a bit more to get the fungus on the log a little more in focus.

Apparently these are very bad to eat.

Apparently these are very bad to eat.

I really like this one, except for one frustration: the one point in the entire picture that the eye is first drawn, the little bit of grot on the mushroom cap, is just the tiniest bit out of focus (105mm lens very close to the mushroom means very shallow depth of field even at f/4). It’s hard to get the focus just right when you’re holding the camera at arm’s length. The focus is close enough that my eyes try to adjust, which of course doesn’t work and merely annoys them. Still and all, I’m pretty happy with it.

Not sure the tree, either.

Not sure the tree, either.

This is a cropped section of a set of pics I took this afternoon to feed a larger episode about photo composition, depth of focus, and bokeh (and when bokeh isn’t all it’s cracked up to be). That’s the episode I should be working on right now. There are a couple of nice bright-pink-on-deep-blue-sky shots in the batch I look forward to sharing.