Please take a second when reading through to closely look at all the images in this post. They were shot on my regular full-frame Canon DSLR workhorse, however, they were not shot using any of my modern lenses but using cheap vintage lenses picked up inexpensively on ebay. When I say inexpensively, I mean really, really inexpensively, some for as little as £12 but averaging £30-£35.
This is the story of how I became addicted to vintage lenses, it’s not a highly technical article containing DXO info, optical maths and jargon, it’s about my own personal experience of using older lenses and the ‘feel’ of the resulting images.
I use my DSLR for work all the time, I generally use a battery grip, both for extended battery life but also because I’m a big guy with big hands and the grip affords me greater comfort on long shoots and the convenient repeat controls for shooting in portrait orientation that I couldn’t really do without. The only other addition is a modified viewfinder, an extension which makes being a glasses wearer significantly less annoying when spending a lot of time behind the camera. All this adds up to a great, familiar, comfortable system for daily work use. The unfortunate negative aspect of this is that it weighs a lot – in the studio, with the additional flash trigger in the hot-shoe and an average sized lens fitted, it’s an arm killer but that’s ok, it’s often on a tripod or I’m able to put it down, take rests etc. The thing is, I also like to take it out with me at weekends purely for fun, and shoot street, landscape, wildlife etc., and for this, unfortunately, it’s completely unmanageable.
So, the hunt began for a good lightweight ‘daily-carry’ camera, something with great image quality but also great portability, oh, and obviously the ability to shoot in fully manual mode and RAW format. Already being invested in the Canon system, I figured that it might be worth exploring the Canon EOS M compact camera, which with an adapter could take all of my existing lenses… 30 seconds on Google later, the M was off the list, receiving universally terrible reviews for it’s slow focusing and general ‘poor feel’ in use. The M is quite long in the tooth now too with a new model arriving soon which may well be far better but until such a time, it was definitely not up to it.
This brought me to the Fujifilm X100t which is a lovely looking and hugely capable little compact camera. I’m not at all a hipster but I do appreciate the retro styling of the X100t, I think it looks fantastic but this would never ultimately influence a buying decision, I’m far more concerned with functionality and quality, utility always trumps aesthetic.
For the very reasonable £879.00 asking price, the Fuji is an excellent camera, very much geared towards the current trend for street photography and would no doubt make a great weekend carry. A few things were niggling me though, could I really be happy with a fixed lens? Would my fists of ham and fingers of butter find the small body and controls fiddly? Would I be happy with the smaller files from the tiny 16mb sensor? The only way I would really know would be to buy it and give it a go – it was decided – that weekend I would go and get one.
Later that week I was doing a regular clean of my DSLR, nothing crazy, just a general strip down and clean. I live on a relatively small island and I’m frequently on beaches with all the associated sand and potential saltwater ingress that entails. I took off the battery grip, viewfinder extender and lens and as ever I carefully inspected around every button, seal and control for sand grains and removed any smudges, marks, grease etc. It was then that I had a sudden revelation, my monstrously heavy, absurdly big DSLR is actually pretty damn small and compact. This may seem obvious to you but I had never really thought about how much additional ‘stuff’ I generally have bolted on to it. As I held it in my hands, all the familiar controls fell instinctively to my fingertips, it was so comfortable and suddenly so light!
That weekend, rather than buying the X100t, I instead grabbed my now ‘naked’ camera, popped on a Canon ‘nifty-fifty’ 50mm F1.8 Prime and headed out. (The Canon 50mm F1.8 is a hilariously cheap, plastic, noisy, almost toy-like, lightweight lens, made for sixpence in China but it’s optically brilliant. Not just brilliant for £71 – it’s a genuinely a good lens from which I always get great results, I’ve used it for product shots, portraits, all sorts, it never fails to surprise me.) That trip out, I managed to take a couple of decent enough shots, my ‘new’ camera and lens combination was feeling pretty good – I had found my perfect weekend camera – it was my midweek camera I had all along!
Ok, camera sorted, what lenses do I need to make this setup perfect, I’ve just saved the £879.00 I was going to spend on the X100t, what lovely L Series Prime lenses do Canon offer?, the plastic-fantastic-nifty-fifty is fun but I’d like a good 35mm prime for street shooting. I can always sort of justify lens purchases as ‘they’re for work’ (honest!) but I was slightly taken aback by just how pricey they are, the Canon 35mm F1.4 L lens comes in at a hefty £900.00, more than I was going to spend on the entire Fuji camera, it’s heavy (ish) too at 900g and not entirely compact, for a prime its pretty bulky.
Then it hit me. I remembered reading a short article somewhere about the resurgence in use of ‘vintage’ lenses, thanks, in part to the new hipster movement of shooters who favour more traditional methods and style and given the choice would shoot film for everything. These too-cool-for-school types love old lenses, and the old Pentax M42 system lenses seemed particularly popular. A quick search later, I found that Canon EF to Pentax M42 adapters were widely available for between £5 and £10 so I bought one. They come in two types a completely basic one which is a simple mechanical coupling which allows the physical connection of an M42 lens on a Canon EF body and a more advanced one which has a tiny chip in it that allows some very basic focusing communication between the lens and body. Either way, shooting has to be fully manual or aperture priority and focussing is totally manual, the addition of the chip providing focus confirmation, which I find incredibly handy being so used to fast, accurate, auto-focussing lenses.
I’m not going to list all the vintage M42 lenses I’ve collected, you’ll think I’m somewhat crazy, let’s just say, I have most situations covered and leave it at that. I will talk about he various manufacturers a little and what to watch out for, what to look for and what to expect if you decide to experiment with this yourself.
The M42 mount was first introduced by Zeiss in 1949, so some lenses you stumble across will be extremely old, most of mine are 70's and 80's. I tend to look for lenses which have been forgotten, maybe left in a draw or camera bag for the last 20-25 years, often in their original felt-lined leather cases. All that said, don’t worry too much about cosmetic condition – clear, fungus free optics and smooth aperture and focus are far more important. My first M42 purchase was a Photax Paragon 35mm, F2.8 from the 70’s, it’s an all metal construction, almost all lenses were back then, it has lot’s of wear and paint damage, patina from decades of use but it’s smooth, sharp and renders colour really quite well, even at it’s widest settings. With that, I was hooked, nightly e(vil)bay hunting began and the daily excitement of yet another parcel arriving became the daily routine. My name is Steve and I'm an addict.
Finding specific information about lenses from this era is quite tricky, lots of manufacturers were branded and re-branded under many different names, quite often for different countries too. Over the last few years, I’ve become quite fond of Soligor lenses despite them being (at the time of manufacture) cheap, kit lenses for low end film cameras. Surprisingly, they’re built quite superbly, they feel precise in use and the character of the resultant shots is very pleasing, to my eye at least. I find it amazing to be able to purchase all metal, German or Japanese made prime lenses with incredibly wide apertures, in sometime ‘as new’ condition, that somehow, when combined with today’s DSLR technology can provide incredible results – for as little as £7.90 + £1.99 p+p.
I think it important to mention, the whole vintage lens thing is not a practical alternative to modern glass, it’s simply an interesting experiment, an enjoyable yet inexpensive folly. The vintage lenses, at wide apertures at least, have significant vingnetting and varying sharpness issues from one to another, they’ll suffer flaring in circumstances where more modern designs just wouldn’t and as mentioned earlier – focussing is all on you, no auto focus. What you’re getting though is 75-80% of the optical performance of a modern lens at a tenth of the cost, surely that sounds appealing? Most photographers suffer from GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) we crave new equipment constantly, believing it'll make our shots sooooo much better. The truth is, as we all know deep down but won't admit, we only utilise the equipment we already have to about 30% of it's capacity and there's so much more to a great photo than the gear. Think of all the iconic photo's of the last 50-100 years from people like Henri Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams or Diane Arbus, think what they shot with, how primitive their set-up's would seem to us now, but they were able to produce images that we still find extraordinary today. Even an entry level DSLR with a kit lens, far exceeds what those great photographers had access to back then and yet we make excuses, always claiming to need more expensive kit... we don't.
What focal length lenses have you been ogling on-line recently, what have you been coveting? Let’s start at the really low end – maybe you’ve been thinking about a super-wide 28mm? Canon’s nice little F1.8 will set you back £370, a completely mint M42 screw mount Soligor 28mm F2.8 will cost you between, £15 and £30, oh, plus £7.00 for an EF/M42 adapter!
Aha, I hear you cry, but that’s only a 2.8, the Canon is 1.8, and yes, you’d be absolutely right, however, wide open the Canon is slightly soft, realistically, you’ll most likely to stop it down to 2.8, just to tighten it up, to get it properly sharp, the Soligor, by some inexplicable freak of chance and physics, is sharp at 2.8 – in the centre area at least. The Canon holds centre sharpness further out to the extremities of the frame, the Soligor drops off sooner but the fact that they’re so close, so wide open is amazing.
I'm assuming it’s a result of the lower number of elements in older lenses rather than the adapter and mount giving an optimal distance from the sensor surface that makes the images so nice, but it’s a mystery to me. All I know is that the bokeh is quite lovely on most of them, they tend to have a greater number of often curved aperture blades, than modern lenses which give creamy out of focus areas, smooth, round ‘bokeh balls’. Yes, the vignetting can be quite severe on some but the cost of experimentation is so low, it sort of doesn’t matter. For me, dark image corners and old-school drop-off gives the shots great character. On the flip-side, if it bothers you, they’re easily corrected in Lightroom or Photoshop anyway, although that’s kind of missing the point.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning manual focussing. I’ve been shooting for about 15 years now, I’ve always benefitted from the luxury of auto-focus. During that time, I’ve often pondered the whole rangefinder thing, how do people possibly manage manually focussing? I figured that it would be a case of just toughing it out and suffering the inconvenience of manually focussing but shockingly, what has actually transpired is that I’ve found manual focus a pure joy, a new pleasure – in slowing down, my shooting has improved, that extra split second to ponder the shot longer is hugely beneficial, the mechanical interaction with the camera is just so enjoyable, it’s very hard to explain but it’s added a new aspect to my photography I couldn’t possibly have predicted. So smitten am I, that even with a modern L lens on my camera, I find myself manually focussing, just for the sheer feel of it.
My current vintage lenses include examples from Soligor, Asahi Pentax, Hoya, Carl Zeiss, Photax Paragon and SMC Takumar, in various conditions from completely mint and ‘as new’ to battered and worn but they all give pleasing and very different results and are incredibly enjoyable to use. When throwing a modern Canon L lens in my bag, there’s always the slightly nervous thought of dropping it or even leaving it somewhere or losing it, at massive cost and distress, with vintage lenses, yes, it would be a shame to ding or drop one but the knowledge that it could be replaced for £30.00 rather than £1,500.00 or more is relaxing and stress-free. There are times too, when the environment may be sub-optimal for waving around a huge, attention grabbing, bright white, pro lens – I’ve taken shots in Watts, South Central Los Angeles and the less attention you draw somewhere like that is certainly going to be beneficial. Even in ‘safe’ street shooting environments, these vintage lenses are small, don’t draw the eye and don’t make possible subjects nervous when they're pointed at them, their behaviour doesn’t change, they are less likely to freeze when you look like a hobbyist rather than the paparazzi.
So, have I convinced you yet? Are you considering it? – although, thinking about it, why am I trying to convince you? – I’ll most likely end up in a future ebay bidding war with you, resulting in me paying far too much for some ultra-rare Russian made M42 lens that I don't need but really want… like I said earlier, my name is Steve and I'm an addict.