Better Lenses for Less Money: How To Use Vintage Lenses with Your DSLR
Back in the day (i.e. 7th grade), we “borrowed” our dad’s camera gear. Eventually, when we could afford a camera of our own (i.e. age 27), we finally gave it back.
Now we’re thinking of “borrowing” Dad’s lenses again, because using vintage lenses on our DSLR is a lot easier than we thought.
All you need is a cheap adapter ring that allows you to attach a particular lens to your camera. And manual-focus vintage lenses are all over eBay, dirt-cheap and ripe for the plucking.
Yes, you have to use manual focus, but you won’t miss autofocus as much as you think. Especially when you consider that vintage lenses are better-made, more reliable, and exponentially cheaper than comparable autofocus lenses.
So dust off your dad’s gear. Fling wide the closet doors, and hike up to the attic! Shake down your relatives for all the old lenses they have stashed away. It’s time to become the gear-geek you always wanted to be.
p.s. Thanks Dad!
Why Use Vintage Lenses?
Vintage lenses (even the lesser-known brands) tend to be made better than modern autofocus lenses. You know how driving a Mercedes feels better than driving a Hyundai? Same thing.
Using manual focus on those old lenses will slow you down a little. Not too much, just enough to make you think about your shot. You feel more connected to your camera and to the process of shooting.
And, last but not least, vintage lenses have flooded the market since the digital revolution. You can pick from up for much less than they’re really worth, and a mere fraction of what a comparable autofocus lens would cost. We recently picked up a mint-condition 80-200mm telephoto lens and an adapter for less than $50.
What You’ll Need
- A digital SLR
- A vintage manual-focus lens
- An adapter ring
How It Works
Each lens-to-camera combination calls for a different adapter ring. For example, fitting an Olympus lens on a Canon camera requires a different adapter than a Pentax lens does.
An easy way to find an adapter for the lens you want to use is a keyword search on eBay. In our case, we found an Zeiss M42-mount lens that we wanted to use with a Canon EOS Rebel. So we searched for “Canon M42 adapter” and there it was!
Since adapters are so inexpensive (around $5-$25) you might as well get one for each lens you buy. Just attach it to the lens, and you’ll never have to give it another thought.
What Works & What Doesn’t
Each brand of camera has its own idiosyncrasies about which lenses will work and which won’t. Here are the basics:
- Nikon cameras work with most vintage Nikon lenses, but they don’t work with most third-party lenses (like Olympus or Pentax).
- Canon and Olympus cameras don’t work with most vintage Canon lenses, but do work with most third-party lenses.
- Pentax cameras work with nearly all Pentax lenses, and any third-party lens that uses the Pentax mount.
- Sony cameras work with some Minolta lenses and lenses with “M42”-style mounts.
Where To Find Vintage Lenses
eBay is a great place to start. There’s a large selection, you can search for particular lenses or adapters, and sometimes there are great deals to be had. Of course, it’s also the first and last stop for many shoppers, so it gets picked over pretty quickly. Craigslist is another good online source for camera equipment.
Camera shops that sell used gear are good bets, since many old-school photographers think of them first when they decide to de-stash. Fleamarkets and thrift stores can also yield good results, and don’t underestimate the sheer gold you can find at pawn shops.
What to Look For
When you buy online, you only have the seller’s word for the condition of the lens, so be careful and be sure to read their return policy.
In general, aim for the widest aperture you can afford (i.e. choose f2.8 over f3.5). Lower f-stop numbers are always more desirable because they let in more light.
Here are a few popular, well-made lenses to keep an eye out for:
- Olympus Zuiko 28mm f3.5
- Olympus Zuiko 24mm f2.8
- Zenitar 16mm f2.8
- Olympus Zuiko 50mm f1.8
- Pentax SMC Takumar 50mm f1.4
- Zeiss 85mm
- Zeiss 135mm
We were inspired and informed by Russ Juskalian’s article in the New York Times.
Opinions, reviews and advice abound on what lens works well with which camera.
The forums at fredmiranda.com and manualfocus.org are terrific sources of information, but be prepared for some technical jargon.
If your camera is a Canon, check out this article for information on which lenses will work, and what kind of adapter you’ll need.