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Old Glass For New Sensors - Vintage Lenses Part 1

Old Glass For New Sensors - Vintage Lenses Part 1



One of the most difficult things about starting up in photography is, unless you have a considerable amount of funds to start with, you won't have all the lenses you probably want. To be honest, even the most basic camera body is probably sufficient for most amateur photographer’s needs. However, it is the lenses that really make the difference. 

Cameras go down in price the second you buy them, but lenses aren't the same. They can be used across numerous camera bodies. The lenses that attached to the first Canon 5d still work on the Canon 5d mark 4. The downside is that even used lenses are pretty expensive. If you want a fast portrait lens, that's $1,000 bucks. You want a long range wildlife lens? That'll be $2k. Before too long, photography turns into a bank account diminishing proposition.

So what to do? Well, anyone who regularly reads this blog will probably already know the answer.


What are vintage lenses?


Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I love vintage glass. Believe it or not, photography has been around for a lot longer than digital cameras. Before light was captured on digital image sensors it was captured on film. However, due to increased cost and the ease of digital photography, film cameras and the lenses are seldom used anymore. 

However, just because the lenses aren't used to shoot film doesn't mean that they lost their ability to gather light. That's right, vintage lenses can be used just as successfully on modern digital cameras as they were on film cameras of ye olden times. 

Seriously, if the lens was good 50 years ago and it still physically works (I.e. Focuses and isn't covered in lens mold, yes lens mold is a thing) it should work great for your modern digital camera. There are several pros and cons to using vintage lenses on your modern camera, and that's what this blog post is about.  



The most obvious tick in the "pro" column is the cost of these lenses. For example, a new canon 50mm 1.4 lens costs around $350.00, while I was able to get an old Canon FD 50mm 1.4 for $10 at a thrift store. A Canon 300mm f4 lens is nearly $1,400.00 while the FD version of this lens can be found on eBay at the time of this writing for less than $70.00. I bought an 80-200mm f2.8 constant aperture lens for under $100.00. This lens would normally cost around $2,000.00.

The moral of the story is that for under $200.00 I bought three lenses that can shoot portraiture, wildlife, and semi-macro shots. You simply cannot beat vintage lenses in terms of value. It's not possible with modern lenses.  



As I said, vintage lenses offer you the ability to shoot different kinds of images without the ghastly cost of modern glass. There are a lot of photographers out there who will try to tell you that camera gear doesn't matter, and it's the photographer and photographer alone who matters when it comes to making an image. This is partially true, but it is also partially false.

If you want to shoot wildlife, you will either need to be part ninja or you will need a telephoto lens capable of shooting animals from far away. If you want to shoot pictures of bugs, you will either need a honey I shrunk the kids machine or a macro lens.  

One of the best things about this is the lenses it keeps you from buying. For example, the modern 100-400mm lens for my fujifilm camera is about $2,000. I bought a vintage 100-500mm and found that I don’t use it all that often. It’s too big, it’s too bulky and I only use that focal length sporadically. Otherwise, I might have rented or bought this lens only to find out that I don’t really like or need it. 

The great thing about vintage lenses is that you can experiment with a lot of different kinds of photography and subjects. Macro shots, wildlife photography, portraiture, wide angle, etc. Because the lenses are inexpensive you can try them all without breaking the bank. 


The bottom line is that a lens that was good 50 years ago will still be good today. Nothing has changed about light, optics, or really the fundamentals of photography in the digital camera era. The great lenses of yesteryear are still great today. 

The other thing I love about vintage lenses is that they have a signature all their own. It's hard to describe , but they have a unique look to the images they create. It's something you don't really get with modern glass. To sum it up, old lenses have soul.  

Manual focus


Manual focus is one of the biggest downsides to vintage lenses, but it’s also an upside. Slowing down and taking your time to think about what you’re doing can be a really good thing. 

For starters, it’s is really gratifying to draw your subject into focus with your own two hands rather than the push of a button. It makes you feel more involved with the whole process. It feels like YOU took the picture rather than the camera.

The other thing I’ve noticed about slowing down with your photography is that you tend to get more keepers than with the spray and pray method. You tend to think more about your shots, and to put more time into the framing and composition of your shots when you have to manually focus them. I can’t explain why this is, but I and many other photographers have found it to be true. 

The other thing to keep in mind is that manual focus isn’t the end of the world. Many years ago, photographers didn’t have the luxury of autofocus or 15 frames per second. Some of the best pictures in the world have been shot using manual focus. Even the olympics used to be shot using manual focus before the point and shoot days of autofocus. It’s something you can use today and you can still get great shots. 


Manual focus

I know, I know, manual focus is listed above as one of the primary pros or good things about manual focus lenses. Why is it also listed as a con in this section?

Everything I said above is true. The olympics used to be shot with manual focus lenses, it can help you slow down and think more about your composition, etc, etc. However, today, the olympics are shot with autofocus cameras and the fastest autofocusing lenses available to make sure to get that shot.  

Autofocus can be the difference between getting a shot and missing it. There is no substitute for autofocus in the vintage len world. It is a big downside of vintage glass and there's no way around it.  

You could save up for other lenses

The low cost of these lenses is one of the greatest things about them, however they aren’t free. There is something to be said for saving up for the lens you really want. Sometimes, the inclination is to keep buying these vintage lenses because they are so cheap. However, by the time you factor in the cost of all these lenses, you might be closer than you think to the lens you really want. 


My recommendation to combat that is to figure out the kind of lens you want (portraiture, macro, telephoto, etc) and then do your research on which vintage lens is best and buy. Once you have the lens you want, buy only that lens to try it out and then save up for the modern equivalent if it’s something you really want.  That way you don’t end up like me with about 400 manual focus lenses.


Vintage lenses are built like Brick outhouses, which makes them durable and pleasant to handle. However they are as heavy as a brick outhouse. You might not think that a few extra ounces will make much of a difference, but if you keep more than one lens in your camera bag, you WILL notice the extra weight. 

Modern lenses are often made with lightweight plastics and alloys to make them durable and lightweight. You will definitely notice the difference between modern lenses and their older brethren. 

Resale value

Another problem with vintage lenses is the resale value. With modern lenses, the resale value is typically pretty good with a lot of people lining up to buy. Most of the modern lenses I have purchased, I have either made back most of my money or made money when I have sold them. This means that changing camera systems or upgrading your lenses isn’t too costly because you can always sell modern lenses for close to the price you paid for them. 

Vintage lenses typically don’t enjoy the same high resale value that modern lenses do. The demand just isn’t there for most of them. Sure, there are some high end Zeiss and Leica lenses that retain their value, but for the most part, it’s hard to unload your vintage lenses when you’re done with them.  


In closing, I LOVE vintage lenses. I personally think that the pros outweigh the cons. There is something deeply satisfying about manually focusing on a vintage lens before pushing the shutter button. It makes you feel like you're part of the process of making your image. 


Sure, you will miss pictures because of manual focus, you might be able to get technically better results from a modern lens, and manual lenses are heavier than their modern counterparts. However, those old lenses give your images a look that cannot be achieved with modern glass. I don't know what it is, but I love the look of an image shot with vintage glass. 

You're the only one who can decide if using vintage glass is right for you, and hopefully this blog post made the choice a little easier. The next two blog posts will discuss where and how to get vintage lenses and how to use them on your camera. In the next blog post, I’m going to talk about how to research, choose, and use vintage lenses. In part 3, I’m going to tell you how and where to get these vintage nuggets of photographic value. Stay tuned and enjoy! 

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