Pros and Cons of Using Vintage Lenses On Modern Mirrorless Digital Cameras
When full frame mirrorless digital cameras started being manufactured a few years ago, it breathed new life into a vast amount of vintage film camera lenses. There are many pros and cons to using vintage lenses on modern digital cameras. In this post I am just going to focus on my top 5 pros and cons.
The viewpoint of this review is based my on real world experience of using vintage lenses for everyday photography situations. I’m not going to go into MTF charts, perfect scenarios in the studio, etc. I want to provide a review of my experiences.
Vintage Lenses Quick Background
Lenses are generally considered vintage if they were made for cameras that used film. They are manual, meaning the aperture and focusing is controlled manually on the lens. All this manual work is very different from today’s auto focus auto adjust image stabilization lenses. While many of the vintage lenses are older, some of them aren’t all that old in some cases. For instance, Canon FD lenses were manufactured up until 1995.
Just because these lenses aren’t new, doesn’t mean that they don’t have amazing optics. An example of this are the old Leica lenses. They have amazing optical quality. Therefore, old doesn’t always mean less optical quality.
There is almost no end to the variety of vintage lenses. There are vintage optics made for cameras, but also enlarger lenses, or cinema specific lenses. While there are some optical limitations, vintage lenses offer the creative photographer a lot of flexibility to transform old optics to create a genuinely unique photography style.
With all of this great flexibility there are also trade offs. Below are my top 5 Pros and 5 Cons for using vintage lenses on modern digital mirrorless cameras.
There Are Many Adapters Available
It was only a few short years ago that mirrorless cameras became a reality. Mirrorless style cameras have a shorter physical distance between the lens and the sensor of the camera due to the mirror box being removed. Without going into a long optics, geometry lesson, this created a market for adapters that mounted vintage lenses to the mirrorless cameras.
Fast forward a few years, and there are all kinds of adapters being made for many lens, and camera formats. For instance, I use an adapter to mount Carl Zeiss Pentacon 6 mount lenses to my medium format Fuji GFX 50s. I also have at least 10 different adapters for various lens mounts for my Sony A series mirrorless cameras. The list just goes on and on. These cameras and adapters have made it possible to use vintage lenses that were thought to be in full retirement because film was not being used very much anymore. They open up a whole new world of opportunities.
That Vintage Look
Many vintage lenses had very specific traits that made them produce images that “look” a certain way. Carl Zeiss lenses are known to have amazing micro contrast and create an almost 3D lifelike look. The Russian Helios 44-2 is famous because of its “swirly” background in images. These are just two specific examples. There are so many more, that there is no way to list them all here.
Mounting these unique lenses to a modern digital camera can breath new life into these lenses and provide the photographer with lens, camera combination that is truly expanding the photographer’s creative opportunities.
Without All The Modern Electronics Lenses Can Be Quite Compact
This is an often-overlooked advantage of these older lenses. Since they do not have electronics in them, vintage lenses in a lot of cases are smaller and lighter than modern lenses. This is really noticeable with the vintage medium format lenses. Therefore, they are easier to carry around. In some cases it also makes it easier to blend in. This really exciting for say a street photographer who is trying to go unnoticed, or a nature photographer doing a long hike to get to the scene they want to photograph.
Truly Being Creative
With the almost limitless combinations of cameras to lenses a photographer can truly be as creative as they want. You can make use adapters available for most vintage lens, or you can get really adventurous and fabricate your own adapters. Either way this gives you the flexibility to match lenses to cameras in ways that were never possible before.
Take advantage of the vintage lenses with “soft” focus for your portraits, find those great macro lenses that make your subject come to life. This allows the photographer to be creative with their images in the camera when they take an image. This only increases the possibilities once someone starts to edit the images in their favorite digital workflow like Capture One, Photoshop, or more.
Cost – No List Of Vintage Lens Pros Can Happen Without Mentioning The Affordability Factor
These lenses are usually less expensive compared to the modern new digital lenses. In many cases they show a lot of wear and use which helps hold their cost down.
A few years ago these lenses were much less expensive, but now that more people are using them the prices have climbed up a little bit. Don’t let that fool you though, as these lenses still carry a massive value for the money spent. Additionally, you can still find great deals on these lenses at places like swap meets, yard sales, estate sales and more.
Vintage Lenses Are All Manual
This is really the elephant in the room with vintage manual lenses. They are all manual! This means you have to be really comfortable with manually focusing and manually setting your aperture or these lenses are probably not for you.
Two areas of photography that this is really noticeable are sports and wildlife photography. When focusing speed and accuracy are important to you to get the shot, these vintage lenses can fall short for you.
Exif Data (Your Settings And Camera/Lens Data)
This is for all the people out there that use their exif data to tag and catalog their photography. There is no exif lens data because the lenses don’t have any electronics. Therefore, when processing these images you have to take an extra step to add the focal length and aperture to the images, as long as you know what they are. That means taking good notes while out shooting.
The lack of data can also hinder people learning photography. All the information we can see when reviewing our images helps us get better my seeing what works and doesn’t work for us. Without this information you can see an image you really like, but not know the settings you used or focal length. This again requires great notes while out shooting.
Even though I learned to shoot using film and wrote lots of notes while out shooting, it is just not always practical. I would not want to try to take notes while out shooting stars or the milky way at night. Writing in the dark is just not my idea of fun.
Vintage Lenses Can Have Fungus Or Other Nasty Things Harmful For Your Camera
Okay, so this is actually a kind of scary thing. You do not want to expose your modern digital cameras to fungus or high amounts of dust. This is really bad for your sensor.
Vintage lenses can get moisture in them, and then fungus can start to grow. This far more common than one thinks about, and is a great reminder to always store and care for lenses properly. New lenses can also get fungus as well, but age does increase the chances. Fungus is not only bad because it can get on your sensor, it also eats the coatings on lenses and can even etch the glass. In this case even if the lens is professionally clean it can still affect the image quality the lens produces. I recommend staying far away from lenses with fungus, or lenses that were cleaned due to fungus.
Dust is another bad thing here. If you purchase a vintage lens and don’t clean it thoroughly, that dust can get transferred to your sensor in your camera. This will create spots on your images and you will need to get your sensor cleaned.
Not Always The Best Optics Or Lack Of Coatings Against Flare
Some old lenses have amazing optics and some do not. Some older manufacturers had a lot of tolerance from one lens to the next, and that means you might get a good copy or a not good copy. A lot of this goes back to price, if you are spend a few dollars on a lens it’s probably worth the gamble, but if you are paying a premium for a rare lens it can be risky and remember there is no warranty.
Optics also includes multi, single, or even no coatings. The coatings on modern lenses really cut down flare and take a lot of the work out of worrying about it. Keep this in mind when you are looking at a vintage version of a lens and one is $25 and the other next to it is the same focal length and aperture but is $200 but has an “MC”. MC stands for multi coating, which generally will reduce flare.
Lot’s Of Time Researching To Find What Works And Translating Focal Lengths
This last con is something that we tend to not account for in our lives. Time! It takes a lot of time to find all the components needed to mount a vintage lens on to a modern digital camera. Lots of research around which focal length is right, which adapter do I need, am I paying too much for the lens, the list goes on and on.
For the professional photographer shooting products (just an example) this might not be a great use of your time. Time spent researching might be better spent getting that next client, or paying gig.
Conclusion Pros And Cons Using Vintage Lenses:
- There Are Many Adapters Available
- That Vintage Look
- Without All The Modern Electronics Lenses Can Be Quite Compact
- Truly Being Creative
- Cost – No List Of Vintage Lens Pros Can Happen Without Mentioning The Affordability Factor
- Vintage Lenses Are All Manual
- Exif Data (Your Settings And Camera/Lens Data)
- Vintage Lenses Can Have Fungus Or Other Nasty Things Harmful For Your Camera
- Not Always The Best Optics Or Lack Of Coatings Against Flare
- Lot’s Of Time Researching To Find What Works And Translating Focal Lengths
As you can see there are many things to think about before diving into the vintage photography lenses arena. There are many Pros and Cons using vintage lenses, and I have just listed my top 5 for each above.
I hope this list helps you in your decision of whether to invest in these lenses for your photography. For me, I really enjoy using these lenses and some of my top selling fine art photographs were taken with vintage lenses.
Tell me about your thoughts and experiences with these vintage lenses in the comments below. Are there any Pros or Cons you think should have been in my top 5 and weren’t? I’d love to hear from you.
Check Out Reviews Of Specific Vintage Lenses:
Don’t forget to look at the images on my site in the galleries starting at: https://mjvphoto.com/the-art/. Hopefully you find some of them inspirational for your own photography adventures, or maybe you find an image you want to call your own.