Vintage lenses: perfect imperfection

This is one of my favorite topics in photography, but I have to warn you right now: once you go down this rabbit hole, there’s no easy way out! Consider yourself warned and enter at your own risk.

I was lucky enough to have discovered the world of mirrorless cameras back in 2015 by the hand of my good friend and photographer João Almeida, who at the time was already in the process of making the switch from DSLR to mirrorless. João had some old manual lenses from his film cameras and he showed me how he could easily use them on his Fuji with an adapter, as an alternative to the much more expensive modern lenses. So as soon as I got my first mirrorless (a Samsung NX300, great underrated camera by the way), I also bought a Canon FD 50mm f1.8 for approximately 30€ and used it alongside the zoom kit lens. The best part of this decision was that I got used to manual focusing right from the start and it became almost second nature.

Since then I’ve changed cameras several times, bought and sold dozens of lenses (most of them modern Fuji X-mount), but guess which one I still own today? That’s right, the Canon FD 50mm. I did trade the f1.8 version for the f1.4 along the way, but other than that it’s the lens that I’ve owned for the longest period of time. At the moment I own 5 lenses and only one of them is a “modern” Fuji: the magical 35mm f1.4, which is an amazing piece of glass but still the one I use the least nowadays. The reason why I prefer vintage lenses is because they all have very distinctive characteristics and imperfections that in my opinion help to offset some of the coldness of digital, giving the photos a more organic film-like look. I also prefer manual focus (except for some very specific situations) and old lenses are much better at it than the modern ones which use focus-by-wire systems.

What I’ve recently discovered is that much to my surprise, this is still a fairly unknown topic for a lot of people out there, so I figured I could write an article to share my experiences and maybe help others get started in this area.

So, first things first:

How do you mount an old lens on a modern camera?

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of adapters: regular adapters (also known as “dumb adapters”) and focal reducers or speedboosters. Most of them are limited to using manual focus only, but there are some newer models that provide auto-focus even with old manual lenses. Since those are still pretty rare and I’ve never tried one, I won’t discuss them here.

The easiest way to get started is with a regular adapter: these are basically just pieces of plastic or metal designed to put the lens at the same distance to the focal plane that they would’ve been in their original cameras. There are no electronics involved so they’re very cheap (10€ or less on Ebay), you just need to know the mount of the lens you want to use and look for the corresponding adapter (example: a Canon FD mount to Fuji X mount). When using these adapters you should take in consideration the crop factor of your camera, assuming you’re not using a full-frame digital. Most mirrorless cameras use APS-C sized sensors which are smaller than full frame sensors; on Fujifilm that crop factor is 1.5, meaning that a 23mm lens will be roughly equivalent to a 35mm on full-frame (1.5 x 23mm=34.5mm). When using an old full-frame lens on these cameras, you will in fact only be using the center portion of the lens because the outer edges will be outside of the sensor area.

Why is this relevant, you might ask? Well, apart from the different field of view, you will also lose some of the original lens character since you’re not using the whole glass. This is particularly relevant in a lens like the Helios 44M, for example, where its main characteristic – the swirly bokeh – is more pronounced towards the edges, so you’ll lose much of that “magic”.

That’s where focal reducers come in: these adapters include a piece of glass in the middle that works as a reverse tele-converter, shrinking the image to fit the smaller APS-C sensors. I’m not going to pretend to understand all the technical mumbo-jumbo involved in this process, but I do know that as a result a few amazing things happen: first, because these adapters introduce a reducing factor of usually around 0.7, they basically cancel the crop factor of the APS-C sensor, making a 35mm lens behave close to an actual 35mm instead of a 53mm (35mm x 1.5 x 0.7 = 37mm). Secondly, you gain 1 stop of aperture (hence the name speedboosters), meaning that a f1.8 lens will become a f1.2 and will give you roughly the same Depth of Field you would get on a full-frame camera. Last but not least, in the process you also gain 1 stop of light that you can use for faster shutter speeds or lower ISOs.

 

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The only downside is the cost: the top brand making focal reducers is called Metabones and I can tell you a single one of their adapters costs more than all my 4 vintage lenses combined! I was lucky enough to find a great deal on a used one for my Canon FD and I can confirm the quality is amazing and the sharpness of the lenses seems to actually increase, but I realize very few people will want to spend this much money on an adapter. Fortunately, there are much cheaper Chinese alternatives with pretty good quality. I’ve recently bought a Pixco focal reducer for my Minolta MC Rokkor 55mm with very low expectations, but I was quite surprised with the results. I compared it at to the Metabones with the Canon FD 50mm and at f5.6 the image quality difference is negligible; if I pixel-peep I can see the Metabones is slightly sharper in the corners but it’s hard to tell how much of that is coming from the adapter or the lens. More importantly, in real life usage it’s virtually indistinguishable.

So, after this incredibly long introduction, let’s get to the fun part: the actual lenses! Like I said earlier, I’ve bought and sold many of them over the last few years, but these are the ones that have withstood the test of time and still get regular use. There are gazillions of other great old manual lenses worth checking out, so investigation is definitely the key here. I would recommend Jonas Rask’s website as a starting point for this process, he’s an amazing photographer and a total vintage lenses geek, it’s where I learned most of this stuff from.

 

Canon FD 50mm f1.4 / Canon FD 35mm f2.8

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The Canon FD 50mm f1.4 is my favorite vintage lens and the one I’ve been using for the longest time. To me the price/quality ratio on the whole FD line is just unbeatable: they’re cheap, solidly built, plenty sharp for my needs and the lens coating gives the images a slightly warmer tone that I prefer over more neutral renderings. I have the most recent version (usually referred to as nFD or new FD), which is smaller and lighter than the previous ones, but in terms of quality I believe there’s not much difference between them. Manual focusing on these lenses is a breeze, the focus ring is fairly large and works smoothly. The f1.4 aperture on a focal reducer becomes something like a f1.0, which is quite a bokeh monster… needless to say that manual focusing at these apertures requires some serious skills and it’s not really suitable for all subjects. When shot wide open in high-contrast scenes this lens has a bit of a soft glow around the highlights (as most vintage lenses do) but it’s not too overpowering.

Recently I also got a Canon FD 35mm f2.8 for my Canon A1, but I’ve used it on the Fuji X-T20 too and the results have been great, it shares all the qualities of the 50mm f1.4 except for the much smaller aperture.

The best thing about the FD line is that since they were so popular back in the 70s and 80s, millions of them were built and it’s still very easy to find a copy in mint condition for cheap. They cover pretty much all of the focal lengths you’ll ever need, which makes for a great alternative if you’re looking to expand your collection of primes without breaking the bank. That being said, the prices have been slowly increasing over the last few years due to the rising popularity of mirrorless cameras, so I wouldn’t wait too much to get a decent copy for a fair price.

 

Samples with a regular adapter:

Samples with a Metabones focal reducer:

Helios 44M-4 58mm f2

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These old Russian lenses have gained quite a cult following over the last few years and have quickly become a vintage classic.
The Helios are famous for one thing and one thing only: that crazy swirly bokeh! This was actually an unintended design flaw in the earlier models, so as the company improved the quality of the lenses in subsequent versions, that particular characteristic was greatly reduced. Because of this, the more sought after versions nowadays are the original 44M version, the 44M-2 and 44M-4. Personally, I chose the 44M-4 because it’s a good compromise between sharpness and the swirly bokeh, the previous versions have more swirl but lower sharpness.

Still, truth be told, none of these lenses are particularly sharp when shot wide open and they’re very prone to flare – and not in a good kind of way, I’m talking about the type that completely destroys the contrast in the image so a lens hood is highly recommended. They also seem to produce more neutral, somewhat muted colors, compared to my other lenses (which isn’t a bad thing per se, depends on your preferences).

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are huge quality variations between different copies of the same model. They were manufactured between 1957 and 1992 and they’re considered to be one of the most mass produced lenses in the world, but I have a feeling quality control wasn’t really a thing in Russian factories back then. They have some known durability issues, so it’s not that easy to find a mint copy nowadays. Fortunately they’re still pretty cheap so it’s not too serious if you get a lemon.

 

Samples with a regular adapter:

Samples with a Metabones focal reducer:

Minolta MC Rokkor 55mm f1.7

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I got this one about 10 minutes after attending a Jonas Rask webinar on vintage lenses, as I’m sure many others did too. It was one of Jonas’s top recommendations and I can totally understand why: they’re very cheap, extremely well built and perform brilliantly, not to mention they’re very compact and look stunning on Fuji’s cameras!

The 55mm f1.7 is generally considered to be one of the sharpest Minolta lenses within the 50mm range, although my perception is that it’s slightly less sharp than my Canon FD 50mm f1.4; I’ve never actually tested this though, so take it with a grain of salt. My favorite thing about the Minolta is the way colors seem to pop with this lens, I think it has something to do with the coating used but whatever it is it looks amazing! The only thing I dislike is the aperture ring which goes straight from f1.7 to f2.8, but it’s not too big of a deal.

This lens didn’t get much use up until recently, only because the 83mm Full-frame equivalent is not really my cup of tea. However since I got a focal reducer for it it’s been getting much more use and I have a feeling it may even overshadow the Canon FD 50mm in the near future.

 

Samples with a regular adapter:

Samples with a Pixco focal reducer: