Ah, lenses. You got that expensive camera body, now you need to put some glass on the front of it to take great pictures. But it’s expensive. Like, really expensive. Like, sell a kidney on the black market for the down-payment on one expensive. So what’s a poor schlub like you supposed to do when you want to take great pictures, but you don’t have the pocketbook of a Rockefeller?
Well, one option is to go with less-expensive native glass that require some sacrifices in exchange for being, relatively, inexpensive. Usually these lenses will be slower apertures—often times those apertures will be variable. By and large, they are by no means “bad” lenses, but for that low price, compromises will have to be made.
Another attractive option, especially for photographers shooting still or slow-moving objects such as landscape, product, food, or architecture and real estate, where auto-focus isn’t such a concern, vintage manual lenses can be a terrific alternative for the price-conscious shooter.
For the scope of this article, I’ll mostly be talking about less-expensive vintage manual lenses, more than the expensive modern ones, which, aside from being manual aren’t that vastly different from their equally modern auto-focus brethren.
When I talk about vintage lenses, I mean old lenses—“vintage” is just a euphemism so we don’t have to say “old”—that you can find on ebay, or in thrift shops, or flea markets. There are vintage manual lenses out there that can be found on for as little as $10, and for as much as several thousand. It all depends on where you look, what you’re looking for, how rare are they, and so-on. Any vintage lens, providing they’re clean, and well taken care of, will give you the same image quality as they did 40+ years ago, and will likely give you that same image quality for 40 more.
One of my favorite features of a vintage lens is their construction. Their (usually) all-metal construction is top-notch, especially lenses from the early 1980’s or earlier. They feel solid, heavy (in a good way) and they’re built like tanks. They’re not full of electronics and motors, so there is less worry about lens failure that can frequently occur with modern lenses full of motors and electronic components. They just work! The spectacular build quality, also make them a joy to use. They just feel great in the hand.
Another great reason vintage lenses are great is they can easily be adapted to almost any camera body for little money. If I want to adapt a modern Canon EF lens to my Sony E-mount body, I have to buy a “smart” lens adapter like one from Sigma or metabones, which cost a pretty penny, and even then my autofocus speed will usually be degraded. When adapting a vintage lens, you just need a $20 or less “dumb” adapter, with no electronics/contacts to worry about. However, you lose the ability to capture exif information, so if it’s important to you to include this info in your images, you will have to remember/jot it down, and then manually add it later.
There are great vintage lenses from most of the usual suspects you know today: Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Zeiss, Voigtländer, and… well, I could go on for hours it seems. The point is, if, say, you have a Canon camera, and you just love the look of Canon glass, but are short on cash to pick up modern EF or RF glass, you can find vintage Canon FD glass that will give you that signature Canon look, and allow you to stick with your preferred brand.
For me, personally, by far my favorite vintage glass is old Minolta glass from the 70’s. The MD Rokkor line to be exact. I was introduced to these lenses by my uncle who had given me a batch of Minolta glass when I upgraded to full-frame. He hadn’t used them in years and I was just getting started, so he figured it would be great to learn with it. I treasure all of these lenses. Some of my favorite photos were taken with these lenses and you’d have to pry them from me if you wanted them.
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room. No auto-focus can SUCK. It absolutely sucks when you’re trying to shoot moving objects like animals, kids, or sports. You get used to it, but landing a perfectly sharp image of a bird in flight with a 200mm f/2.8 manual lens seems to rely more on luck than it does skill. So, if you’re shooting moving objects, be prepared to take 300 images and get four or five that are usable… or just get auto-focus lenses, because if you’re shooting sports you’re probably a professional anyway, and can afford it. Also, while the better construction is a definite advantage, being all metal and glass can make these lenses HEAVY. My Minolta Rokkor-x 200mm f/2.8 lens is a beast and weighs a LOT in my camera bag. If you’re doing a lot of hiking around, I promise you, by the end of the day, you will be feeling the additional weight from these lenses. Finally, flare resistance can be a HUGE pain in the junk. These lenses are old and don’t have the modern coatings newer lenses have, so you are much more at the mercy of the sun and bright, direct lights, so you have to be careful and thank more about how you shoot.
Overall, while there are some disadvantages to owning manual glass, but to me the advantages far outweigh them. They allow you the opportunity to use some truly exceptional glass even if you don’t have a ton of money, plus they’re just a metric frick-ton of fun to with. I definitely feel every photographer should at least try out some manual glass at least once and see what they can do with it. Who knows, perhaps you’ll discover a whole new aspect to your photography and how you shoot.
Give it a shot!
If you’re interested to learn more, there is a fantastic list of inexpensive manual lenses over at Phillip Reeve’s blog. It’s geared toward Sony shooters, but these lenses can no doubt be adapted to other mounts.