Vintage Or Modern Super Telephoto Lens For Wildlife Action Photography


Which is better, Vintage Or Modern Super Telephoto Lens on a modern digital camera for wildlife or action photography?  There are a variety of vintage super telephoto lenses around with different levels of quality.  They can be adapted and used on modern mirrorless digital cameras for wildlife and action photography. Many of these vintage super telephoto lenses are budget friendly compared to modern super tele lenses. Given this, are the vintage super telephoto lenses really the bargain they appear to be? Does it make sense to use these lenses? Can you get these lenses to produce sharp images consistently compared to more modern lenses? Read more to find out.

Image of 5 Super Telephoto Lenses Canon Pentacon 400mm and 500mm

This image shows the 5 super telephoto lenses used for this comparison. From left to right are the Canon FD 500mm f8 Reflex, Canon FD 500mm f4.5, Pentacon 500mm f5.6, Canon DEF 500mm f4 V1, and the Canon EF 400mm f5.6


What is a Super Telephoto Lens –

Typically, super telephoto are lenses 300mm and longer. These lenses are typically used for wildlife and sports/action photography. With wildlife, the longer the lens usually the better it is as long as it is still high quality.
They are usually built to the highest standards and quality. The super teles tend be the top of the lens lineup and therefore tend to have all the best latest technology built into them.

Vintage Lenses Vs Modern Lenses –

Lenses are generally considered vintage if they were made for cameras that used film. They are usually manual, meaning the aperture and focusing is controlled manually on the lens. For additional information on vintage lenses don’t forget to read the Pros and Cons Blog Post.
Modern lenses have way more technology built into them. Whether that is auto focusing, image stabilization, or more precise lens coatings on the glass. Modern super telephoto lenses are truly amazing lenses, but they come with the amazing price tag as well.
Will the manual work of the vintage lenses be too much, or is the image quality results good enough to enjoy the cost savings?

Lenses Used For This Comparison –

Lets walk through the list.

  • Canon FD 500mm f4.5 – The Canon FD 500mm f4.5 L was first announced in 1979 and was first used in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It was Canon’s flagship of the FD lens lineup and is considered a very sharp lens even today. To see a complete review of this lens visit the FD 500mm Blog Post.
  • Canon FD 500mm F8 Reflex Lens – This lens has a lot going for it. Of all the super teles this is by far the lightest and smallest. That is a huge advantage if you want to pack the lens around, or handhold it.  The downside is it is fixed at f8, so it limits your shutter speed abilities.
  • Pentacon 500mm f5.6 – This beast is a medium format super telephoto, is extremely large and weighs a ton. It also was designed for medium format and will that be enough to give it some extra resolution needed for modern digital mirrorless cameras. If you want more specific information about this lens read the Pentacon 500mm Blog Post.
  • Canon EF 500mm f4 – This is the version 1 of this lens. Therefore, it is a modern lens, but it is still a couple generations old at this point. The lens has image stabilization and auto focusing not available on the vintage lenses.
  • Canon EF 400mm f5.6 – This lens was first made in 1993. It has been around for a long time was still available new until just recently. It has auto focusing, but no image stabilization. The Canon 400mm can be purchased used for well under $1000. This is a great price to get into the super telephoto world.  Being able to regularly handhold this lens is huge plus.  See the image of the plane below to see how sharp this lens is.

How The Lenses Performed –

Comparing so many lenses at the same time was not easy. My method is more about the results I got in the real world, than staring at MTF charts.
A few general findings –

  • The larger super tele’s require using a tripod pretty much all the time given their weight. Think Canon 500mm f4.5, Pentacon 500mm, and Canon EF 500mm f4.
  • The Canon 500mm reflex and Canon 400mm lenses were great for moving around due to their smaller size and weight.
  • Having auto focus dramatically increased the amount of in focus images.

Images –

The No Parking sign shows a clear winner with the Modern Super Telephoto EF 500mm f4 on the far right.  The colors are more true and the overall sharpness is outstanding.  The sample images were taken using a tripod and selected from multiple shots.

This compares the 500mm lenses to each other.

This compares the 500mm lenses to each other. The Modern Canon 500mm f4 is the far right image.


The following 3 images are the 500mm lenses hand held. 

The Canon FD 500mm f8 Reflex lens had a significant drop off in light at the edge of the image.  This is seen with the vignetting below, even after editing out some of it.

Canon f8 reflex hand held

Canon f8 reflex hand held

The Canon FD 500mm f4.5 produces a sharp image when you get the focus correct.  I was really surprised how off the color was compared to the modern lenses.  This can be corrected but takes a lot of editing or custom profiles.

Canon f4.5 vintage hand held

Canon f4.5 vintage hand held

The Canon EF 500mm f4 has better color rendition in the grays and is sharper on the sign.

Canon EF 500mm f4 hand held

Canon EF 500mm f4 hand held




How The Vintage And Modern Lenses Performed –

All of the vintage and modern super telephoto lenses did well except for one.  As a result, I am going to list them from my most likely to least likely to use.

  • Canon EF 500mm f4 – This lens is the most expensive of the group, but it really does produce the most consistent high quality images. The 500mm f4 Version 1 can be found for under $2000 US.  That is much lower than a new 500mm super telephoto, but still way above some of our budgets.
  • Canon EF 400mm f5.6 – This is one of the best budget super telephoto lens that you can buy for well under $1000 US. The auto focus makes this lens more usable for moving subjects and it is easy to carry. It also works on any of the modern EF cameras natively without needing an adapter.
  • Canon FD 500mm f4.5 – This lens still produces amazing images when you get the focus correct. I really like this lens, but I find I get way more keepers with the 400mm above. The FD 500mm and EF 400mm are about the same price used.  Therefore, the FD 500mm falls to 3rd on my list.
  • Pentacon 500mm f5.6 on the Fuji GFX 50S – This lens is just too big and heavy to carry around. The images are good but not knock your socks off worth it. It does have a great history, but I would choose many other lenses ahead of it.
  • Canon 500mm f8 Reflex – This lens is just not sharp. I wanted it to be sharp enough, but compared to others my example could not get close to anything else. It is the lens on this list that I just cannot suggest as an option even though it can be found for $100.

Conclusion Vintage Or Modern Super Telephoto Lenses–

There was a clear winner here in quality and consistency. This was not a surprise, but what was surprising is by how much better the 2 modern lenses were with consistency.  I really enjoy using vintage lenses on modern digital cameras, but the super teles might not be the best place for them.
Budget is something that we all have to keep in mind when looking at new/used lenses. There is a real balance between spending funds on gear versus having the funds to travel and use the gear. In the case of the super telephoto primes it is definitely better to save up some dollars and get something a little better.

Overall there are a lot of modern lenses in this segment at many different price points. They start anywhere from $900 US on sale and up. The newer zooms are super attractive given the ranges they cover, but the more budget friendly they are they tend to come with an image quality cost.
I truly like vintage lenses and especially the ones that produce special qualities, but in the super telephoto range I have to say save your money and get something modern.
What are your thoughts? Is there a vintage super tele that you really like? I’d like to hear from you. Leave a comment below.
Don’t forget to look at the images on my site in the galleries starting at:  Hopefully you find some of them inspirational for your own photography adventures, or maybe you find an image you want to call your own.

Additional Images –

Canon FD 400mm f5.6 image of a vintage prop plane flying

Canon FD 400mm f5.6. This is a great super telephoto lens on a budget. The auto focus is great and this lens is sharp.


California Poppies shot with a Canon FD 500mm f4.5 vintage lens on a modern digital Snony A7 II

Poppies captured at f5.6 with a Canon FD 500mm vintage telephoto lens adapted to a modern digital camera. Note the extreme shallow depth of field.  This lens is great when you hit the focus right on.


Mallard Duck

The Modern EF 500mm f4 V1. This modern lens really shines over the vintage 500mm’s I compared it too.