Vintage lenses can give a memorable patina to your moving image or photograph — something that takes the edge off an over-sharp, antiseptic digital image and lends it some character.

I have a lens obsession. My relationship with glass goes beyond a mere appreciation for focal length. I have a deep fascination with vintage lenses. Each shiny little bauble has the ability to take an average image and infuse it with something unique. The right lens can change more than the field of view — it can change the overall tone of the image. Vintage lenses can give a memorable patina to your moving image or photograph — something that takes the edge off an over-sharp, antiseptic digital image and lends it some character.

The magic of the image

I was 12 years old when I got my first 35mm camera. An Olympus OM-10. My dad took me down to a local camera store one Saturday afternoon and we explored that musty old camera shop. I took in the smells and the imagery of overstuffed shelves and cabinets filled with peculiar equipment. The lure was intoxicating. I found the environment enchanting. There was an air of alchemy about the place. I knew that the excitement I was feeling signaled the beginning of something that would shape me for the rest of my life.

Now in my 50s, I have been trying hard to return to that place, so many years ago, to reconnect with those feelings of mystery and magic that drew me to photography at such an early age. Decades later, after years of making images, the process has become mechanical.

Prestidigitation has been replaced by digitalization. We have entered a new computerized world of photography that is technology based —calculable and raw. Images are no longer the result of trial and error, or faith mixed with chemistry. Instead, images are the product of plug-ins from a pull-down menu in some piece of video editing software.

The vintage appeal

It is for this reason that, in recent years, cinematographers in Hollywood have been driven into backrooms and basements at their local rental houses, looking for a way back in time, for some forgotten pathway — perhaps a set of old lenses that might restore their innocent vision. They adriven by a belief that, by looking at the world through ancient glass, we will see things clearer — with a touch of nostalgia.

I collect vintage lenses for the same reason. With the plethora of new gear that floods the market every year, there is an ever-growing supply of cast-off equipment.  Treasures sit in closets, collect dust on shelves in some camera store or sit unnoticed in an unmarked bin at any of a number of anonymous estate sales. These items are ubiquitous on eBay or Amazon, for sale to the curious or the cost-conscious. Yes, many of the classic lenses of yesteryear can be had for a trifle — a fraction of the price demanded by the fast and furious marketplace for newer photo and video gear. Like the proverbial island of misfit toys, they wait for a new life.

So for those of you who want to infuse your images with a little panache, I have gathered a list of some of the legendary lenses from the past 60 years. It is impossible to include everyone’s favorites — this article would never end. However, I have selected a nice cross-section of legends from my own experience, along with a critique of the individual lenses for those who share my passion or wish to experiment with new tools for making great images.

A few things to consider

Focus control

Photographic lenses have shorter focus throws than video lenses, typically a quarter to one-third turn. This will make focal points resolve quickly in and out focus when shooting video. To extend the duration of a focus throw, one may employ a follow focus attachment. A 0.8 pitch gear, or focus gear, must be attached to the lens to allow for follow focus control. Once applied, a finer degree of control is possible with a vintage lens.

It is common for vintage photographic lenses to have witness marks and distance scales on the top portion of the lens barrel. Typically these same markings appear on the left side of a cinema lens barrel, where the camera assistant can see them clearly while pulling focus. In addition, the distance markings for a photo lens will indicate fewer focus stops between minimum focus and infinity. Again, use of a follow focus may extend the rate of transition through each of these focus stops and will provide a dry-erase ring to transcribe your distance markings.

Witness marks, distance and depth of field scale shown on a vintage Canon 135mm f2.8 FL lens.
A Fotga focus assist handle – requires lenses to employ a pitch gear system for control of focus.
A flexible focus pitch gear.  This item can be adjusted to fit around a variety of lens barrel sizes.
Every follow focus device comes with a dry-erase ring that can be marked with focus distances.
My Lumix GH4 equipped for video with a Fotga focus assist, Canon 135mm f2.8 and focus gear.

The majority of vintage lenses are manual focus. This new skill set will evolve with practice. Manual focus is preferred for video because it offers a greater level of creative control. For photography, manual focus may help to improve your shot selection by requiring patience and more deliberate framing choices.

Light and color rendition

Modern digital cameras employ higher native ISOs. Typically 400, 800, or more. As a result lenses with minimum f-stops of f1.8, f2, f2.8 or even f3.5 are perfectly usable, and less expensive to acquire than models with minimum f-stops of f1.2 or f1.4.

Another added benefit of vintage lenses is that their color rendition is often more natural looking over a greater range of tones than that of modern lenses. This is because they were constructed to work with film stocks, which have a greater dynamic range than most modern digital capture devices. Only in recent years has that gap narrowed.

Sharpness

This brings us to the matter of sharpness. The resolution of most vintage lenses is quite good. However, they may appear softer than their digital contemporaries. This is often due to a lower overall contrast resulting from fewer low-dispersion optics in lens construction, fewer anti-reflective coating layers, or the exclusive use of spherical elements in lens construction. Since the incorporation of low-dispersion glass and aspherical lens designs, digital lenses now possess finer resolution.

Metadata

Lastly, manual vintage optics are non-electronic lenses. That means that the camera will record metadata (EXIF) for images/exposures relative to camera settings like shutter speed, ISO, FPS, picture profiles, etc. However, no lens data will be included, such as f-stop, or focal length. This information must be entered manually, through your editing or color correction software. Likewise, no auto-focus is possible, and vintage lenses do not possess optical image stabilization.

So many choices — where to start? 

All lenses chosen for this discussion are “standard” photographic lenses. Standard lenses represent the equivalent field of view to the human eye’s central magnification–­what we see minus any peripheral vision.

Standard lenses represent the equivalent field of view to the human eye’s central magnification–­what we see minus any peripheral vision.

I chose samples, ranging from 40–50mm, designed to work with full-sized image sensors or film stocks. Because the sensor in my camera is smaller than a full frame sensor, there is a crop factor of approximately twice the original focal length. So, these lenses are essentially like 100mm telephotos. This is fine with me, as I prefer longer focal lengths for most shooting. I like the lens compression a telephoto demonstrates and the nice bokeh that results from wider apertures. This keeps my backgrounds simple and softly out of focus.

Common characteristics of vintage lenses

With all of this in mind, here are some of the qualities you can expect to encounter when shopping for a vintage lens:

  • Durable all-metal construction
  • 5–8 blade diaphragms. Fewer blades saves cost – more blades creates rounder bokeh.
  • Typically full-frame coverage (24x36mm zone of coverage from photo lenses)
  • 49mm to 58mm accessory threads for round filters
  • M42 or bayonet flange (adapters couple with Canon EF, MFT, Sony Nex, or Fuji-X etc.)
  • Single coated elements that flare easily, or multi-coated elements for color saturation
  • Softer contrast and more natural color rendition than digital lenses
  • Spherical designs prior to 1991. Aspherical optics came after 1996 (convergence of light vectors corrected lens aberrations – namely chromatic fringing or “purple edges”)
  • 47 to 48-degree field of view (resulting from slight variations in optical design) 

How it all works

Adapting these lenses was simple. Each vintage lens has a thread or bayonet mount that is proprietary to its particular brand. Mount adapters are chosen based on the style of the legacy flange. “Flange” is a term used in optics to describe the means by which a lens is attached to a camera body.

An adapter consists of the branded lens flange at one end, and a mirrorless flange on the other. Common mirrorless mounts styles include Micro Four Thirds, Sony E-mount, or Fuji-X mount. There are several manufacturers of flange mount adapters, including Metabones, FotodioX, K&S Concepts, Fotga, Vello, MFT Services and Novoflex to name a few. However, it is wise to test a variety of adapters, as some are higher quality than others. I usually purchase my adapters from Amazon or eBay. They typically range in price between $15 and $300.

Pictured here is a Konica AR lens to M4/3 adapter.

The limits of lens adapters

These days you can couple virtually any vintage lens to any other branded camera body, regardless of the age of either component — with a few exceptions. This is because of something called flange/focal depth. In the past, the FFD of different cameras varied from one manufacturer to another, making cross-compatibility impossible. However, nowadays, as long as the lens you wish to try is from a system with a flange/focal depth deeper than that of the camera you wish to couple to, the combination is possible. This means we can adapt lenses meant to serve 35mm film cameras, or full-frame digital devices, to mirrorless camera bodies because they have a shallower seating for their lens.

Flange distances differ between full frame cameras and mirrorless.  cameraergonomics.com.au 

My Panasonic Lumix GH4 has an MFT sensor and lens mount. When you take into account the original flange depth of my camera (approx. 17.5mm), and add to that the depth of the adapter (approximately 25-27mm), the total adapted lens depth is equal to what the vintage lens originally worked with (approximately 40-55mm). This makes the two pieces compatible. However, the reverse scenario is not possible. MFT lenses are not adaptable to full frame cameras because the image projection will not cover the bigger sensor at its native depth.

Pictured is the FOTGA lens adapter designed to couple a Minolta MD lens to my M4/3 camera.

It’s all about the cone of coverage projected by the lens onto the image plane, or sensor. Traditional full frame lenses project an image that will cover a sensor measuring 24mm x 36mm (full frame), at their respective depth (based on brand). Micro Four Thirds lenses project an image meant to cover a sensor measuring approximately 17.3 x 13mm at their respective depth.

Crop factor and focal length

The reproduction ratio, or crop factor, of the full frame lens to the MFT sensor is the product of the diagonal of the 24 x 36 format (43.27mm), divided by the new diagonal of the MFT sensor (21.64mm), computed as 43.27/21.64, or 2X. Thereby making the appearance of your 50mm full frame Nikon lens equivalent to a 100mm lens on the Panasonic GH4.

My Helios 58mm f2.0 (M42 mount) adapted to my Sony FS5, using an M42 to Sony Nex adapter.

My short list of classic photographic lenses that offer unique results

After an exhaustive search of the internet, I was able to flesh out my collection of vintage glass to a suitable list of performers. I was eager to get out and give each of them a modest field test. Of course, the “kid in the candy store” impulse led me to one of my most cherished places — the Rocket Fizz Candy Company! The owner there was kind enough to give me free rein over the store one afternoon so I could shoot some tests. I also put the lenses through their paces at magic hour near Lake Baldwin in Orlando, Florida, before settling in at my favorite pub to compile my notes and enjoy a frosty Guinness with my old friend Scott — the bartender at the Bull and Bush.

The following chart offers some of the basic specs of each lens tested. 

My findings

Zeiss Planar 50mm f1.7

To lead off this “glass menagerie, I have chosen the Zeiss Planar 50mm f1.7 from the Contax line, introduced in 1973. This lens is a classic, with a design that first arrived on the scene at the turn of the twentieth century. Other than the proprietary T* super multi-coatings, and improved build quality, this lens still reflects the original Planar concept, including Schott glass elements. Despite its feature set, this standard only uses a 6-bladed diaphragm, unlike some of its contemporaries. Diaphragms with 5 or 6 blades display out of focus highlights with polygonal sides, where lenses with more blades in their diaphragm show rounder bokeh. This lens can be had for around $150 — a bargain when you consider that it sports the coveted T* optical coatings. These coatings give still images and video footage beautiful contrast and sharpness.

Bartender Scott, from the Bull and Bush Pub. Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.7 T*, wide open at ISO 1600.

Carl Zeiss JENA DDR 50mm f2.8

The Carl Zeiss JENA DDR 50mm f2.8 lens is a unique looking fellow. Its nickname is the “zebra” because of the appearance of its knurled and striped focus and aperture rings. The Jena lenses were made in the original Zeiss factory, in Jena Germany. During the allied occupation of Germany, soon after WW2, the Western powers divided the Zeiss company — moving half of the operation to Oberkochen under allied control, while the Soviets absorbed the remainder into the Kiev Camera Works, in Jena and Dresden, in part for war reparations. In the years that followed the Jena factory sustained itself by supplying lenses for the Zenit company.

The fit and finish of the Jena lens is crude, no doubt due to the limitations of the early Soviet era manufacturing. The glass itself is very sharp. Despite historical records that indicate all Zeiss lenses were T-coated after circa 1945 or so, my Jena lens does not kick back the lively colors that my other Zeiss lenses marked T* reveal. Therefore, I am of the belief that this lens may be pre-war and is only MC coated.

Sarsaparilla taffy at Rocket Fizz Candy Co. Carl Zeiss-JENA 50mm f2.8 wide open at ISO 200.
Chocolate confections at Rocket Fizz. Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm f2.8 2 ISO 400, has nice DoF roll-off.

Yashica 50mm f1.9 DSB (1973)

At $35, the Yashica 50mm f1.9 DSB (1973), is perhaps one of the best deals I have found second hand. Purchased through KEH Camera Brokers in Atlanta, Georgia, this lens was a kit lens designed to accompany the Yashica FX-2 and FX-3 cameras as an affordable, entry-level 35mm package. The lens is as sharp as its Carl Zeiss cousins but does not boast the T* coatings. Instead, this lens is of the DSB variety — a single coated design that has a medium contrast and a softly refracted quality to the backgrounds. The absence of super multi-coating creates a distinctive bokeh that is a nice departure from the typical twinkle of MC lenses.

These Yashica lenses have excellent build quality. The helicoid focus mechanics are smooth and consistent, and the diaphragm ring has soft but accurate click-stops. The build is aluminum and chrome plated brass with a tactile rubber focus grip for a firm feel. There is also a decorative silver crown around the end of the barrel.

Brian remembers the fallen. Yashica 50mm f1.9, wide open at ISO 100.

Nikkor 50mm f2.0 (1962)

I love Nikkor lenses. The older the better. Old Nikkor primes from the 60s were built to last. They are all metal, including the focus rings, which are fluted for a firm grip. The lenses are generally heavy, due to all that metal and glass, but they exude a certain confidence that journalists of old must have found reassuring and reliable when out in the field, surveying the war zones of the sixties and seventies.  Baseball bat dependable, as Dad used to say. I think these non-ai specimens, and their later cousins, make great every day carry lenses precisely because of their build quality — but, also because of their classic tone. My Nikkor 50mm f2.0 (1962) reflects a beautiful cobalt color from the front element, is not prone to flaring, and has a wonderfully neutral tone.

Candy stix at Rocket Fizz! Nippon-Kogaku 50mm f2.0 at ISO 1600. Notice the bokeh highlights?

Olympus OM (G. Zuiko) 50mm f1.8

The Olympus OM (G. Zuiko) 50mm f1.8 lens has, by far, the smoothest focus feel and the finest construction of all the lenses I tested. Its compact size and quality are unsurpassed. The materials and handling of this high-end equipment are what drew me to the Olympus line so many years ago. The spun aluminum barrel fitted to the chrome plated brass flange is accented by the rubber focus grip and the beautiful amber and aquamarine coatings that reflect back at you when you gaze into its internal groupings. This lens has remarkable bokeh at wider f-stops, often resembling the results from the Helios mentioned later.

The lens feels expensive. Ironically, it was a full $100 cheaper than the Zeiss Planar 50mm F1.7 discussed earlier. This lens came with a used price tag of around $100-$150. With the exception of a “chunky” f-stop ring, and a six-blade diaphragm, the differences between the “Zuiko” and the  Zeiss are indistinguishable. Both are razor sharp, but the Olympus has a kinder contrast than its Zeiss counterpart.

Mother Nature with fawn. Olympus OM 50mm f1.8, wide open at ISO 1600.  “Bokehlicious!”

Konica AR 40mm f1.8

The Konica AR 40mm f1.8 lens is, to my mind, the first actual pancake lens. It is small and thin, and it weighs in at a mere 140 grams. Its original length is around 27mm, but the MFT adapter adds another 13mm to the overall size. Even so, it feels nice in the hand when mounted to the GH4. This lens is sharp and renders a medium contrast to its images. The beautiful coatings make this lens difficult to flare, and the fast f1.8 maximum aperture performs better than the Zeiss 50mm f1.7 at wide open.

At 40 millimeters, the Konica AR is at the wide end of the range of “standard” lenses, but it conveys a natural field of view that, when adapted to the GH4 becomes a comfortable 80-millimeter equivalent. That makes this lens great for looser portraits and all around shooting. It is also a great focal length for most video coverage, offering medium close up framing and a modest bokeh.

Takumar 55mm f1.8

The Takumar 55mm f1.8 is a legend. This lens, with its M42 native flange, is easily adaptable to modern digital cameras and has an extraordinary resolution suitable for modern images. Its compact size and all metal construction make this lens a super value at $45 used. When matched with an MFT adapter, I was able to marry this lens to my GH4 with an added benefit. Many of the M42 to MFT adapters on the market come built with three set-screws that allow for the flange to be rotated, so the witness mark is on top of the lens for photography, or at the side for video shooting. This is something that cannot be done with bayonet flanges because the tines on the bayonet are designed to lock into place.

Shooting darts on Halloween, at the Bull and Bush. Takumar 55mm f1.8, wide open at ISO 400.

Canon 50mm f1.4 FL

The Canon 50mm f1.4 FL is an impressive piece of glass! It sports an all metal construction, including the focus grip. The f-stop ring is situated near the front element, like an Olympus lens, and has a beautiful 2-tone black and silver color scheme that makes it easy to pick out the aperture ring at a glance. The front element has a rich amber reflection that kicks back, suggesting that the color rendition will be slightly warmer with moderate to higher contrast than some of its competitors.

These lenses were among the first to incorporate the rare quartz fluorite in their design. Fluorite is a unique glass that has extra-low dispersion qualities that reduce internal flaring of the image and aid in color registration. Since fluorite is rare, glass elements are not comprised of fluorite, rather, modern glass elements are coated with fluorite minerals to provide outstanding sharpness and clarity.

Lynn selling Halloween wreathes. Canon 50mm f1.4 FL. Wide open at ISO 100.  Neutral colors!

Minolta 45mm f2.0 Rokkor-X

The Minolta 45mm f2.0 Rokkor-X is another pancake-style lens from the early 80s. It’s a bit smallish, so not too heavy for a walkabout and very portable and discreet. It seemed to be a perfect pairing for my GH4. The equivalent focal length of 90mm made it the perfect portrait lens for people pictures, and the fast f2.0 aperture gave these images nice comfortable focus roll-off in the backgrounds. This lens is also very sharp, with natural color rendition — which is proving typical of all the Minolta vintage lenses tested.

Rocket Fizz soda selection. Minolta Rokkor-X 45mm f2.0 wide open at ISO 200. It’s razor sharp!

Minolta 58mm f1.5 Rokkor ML

The Minolta 58mm f1.5 Rokkor ML is another vintage lens that was a pleasure to shoot with. The native 58mm focal length translated to a 116mm equivalent on my GH4, giving each frame an intimacy that I like from a longer telephoto shot. The field compression of this lens was very noticeable, especially at wide f-stops. The resulting separation was perfect for creating interesting visual focal points.

Maple bacon taffy! Minolta Rokkor 58mm f1.4 ML. Wide open at ISO 400. Nice BG compression!

Helios-44M 58mm f2.0

The Helios-44M 58mm f2.0 is a standard lens produced in the former Soviet Union by KMZ (Krasnagorsk) from 1958 until 1999. It was sold together with the Zenit 35mm camera and is considered to be one of the most mass produced lenses in the world. This exotic lens is based on the Zeiss Biotar 58mm f2.0. It is a fast 6-element anastigmat and was available in both single-coated and multi-coated versions. The image quality from this lens was quite remarkable with a warmth to the renderings accompanied by a signature soft bokeh that was quick to flare.

Washington Street fountain, Thornton Park, FL. Helios 44-M 58mm f2.0 wide open at ISO 800.
Lulu my cat!  Helios 58mm f2.0 @ f2.8, ISO 400.  The sharpness of this lens was a big surprise!

Sources for sales (used):

Rediscover the magic

Given our fixation with resolution and other aspects of digital imaging, I often wonder if we are exhausting ourselves with the pursuit of unsustainable perfection? In our effort to sanitize our photography of all flaws, have we robbed ourselves of the subtle, charming imperfections we associated with our traditional analog images? Once upon a time, grain (now supplanted by “electronic noise”), flares, Newton rings, aberrations and softness were the very things that lent character to our renderings.

Now, with each passing year, and each new design, manufacturers are breeding out that visceral thing that bewitched our creative psyche in the first place. And, evermore we seek to replace what was lost through digital filters and software. Might we instead consider delving into the world of vintage lenses to restore that unique quality to the images we produce?

Michael Walsh
I am a retired Gaffer. I have enjoyed 26 years working on movie sets all over the United States. I was a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Studio Employees. I have been fortunate to collaborate with some of Hollywood's most talented people. I am a veteran of 74 feature films and over 400 episodes of TV.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Michael!

    This is Josh from Bremen, Germany. I am receiving the Videomaker Newsletter since quite a while now and this is one of the best articles I have read so far. Love to hear the experience coming through here. Thanks for sharing! By the way, its not only the veterans dreaming themselves back to good old times, lots of friends in my age (30) shoot on old optics, often to get that beautiful patina or some beautiful flares. This one for example was made by a friend with the Helios and some kind of selfmade anamorphic adapter. He said the workflow was awful 😀

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  2. Hi Josh!

    Greetings from Florida, United States!

    Thank you for reading my article, and giving such generous feedback. This one was a labor of love! I have to give a special thanks to Nicole and her team at Videomaker for a great job with the layout. I checked out the link you sent me, and I loved it! The song was very catchy, and the flares were very beautiful. That is what attracted me to the Helios lenses. I have one that is the original build, and one that has been altered by the Iron Glass company, from Ukraine. They put an interesting streak element in the lens, and a vignette disk that stretches the bokeh like an old Panavision C-Series anamorphic lens. The results of that test are what inspired this article. I hope to acquire more Krasnogorsk lenses in the future.

    Thanks for being a Videomaker subscriber, and thanks again for your comments!

    Mike

  3. Great Article, but surprised to see my all-time favorite manual lens missing… The Asahi Pentax Super Multi Coated (SMC) Takumar 50mm f/1.4… I just love what wonders it does with full frame bodies like the Canon 5D!

  4. Hi Prashant,

    Yes, the Super-Takumars are all excellent lenses! I was first acquainted with them when I shot on my Pentax 6X7, years ago. Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to acknowledge everyone’s favorites here! As a result, I picked my favorite, the 55mm because of its slightly longer focal length (I think I mentioned my preference for longer lenses). I also considered the Takumar 28mm, because of its translation to Micro 4/3 applications, but had to resign myself to discussing only standard lenses in this piece.

    Thanks for reading!

    Mike

  5. Hi. Nice post.
    I have not been able to find more specs about the 7 elements Olympus OM G Zuiko 50mm f1.8 you reviewed.
    Could you please expand?
    Thanks.

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