Who needs autofocus?
September 15, 2020 1:50 PM   Subscribe

Mirrorless cameras have made it easier for photographers to adapt vintage lenses to digital devices. Why use vintage glass? Because older lenses are cheap, can be weird and fun, and have a quality of craftsmanship that is rarely found in modern gear. Plus, shooting video with a 137-year-old lens is just cool. Certain lenses are prized for their retro character or swirly bokeh (others are, well, mildly radioactive). If there's a lens you want to try, there's probably an adapter for it – and if not, you can always 3D print your own.
posted by oulipian (38 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Decaying thorium atoms create defects in the glass called F-centres which, as they accumulated, would cause the glass to acquire a yellowish or brownish tint. This wasn’t much of a problem with black-and-white film, but it would cause a shift in the color balance which was particularly serious for the color reversal (transparency) film favored by professional photographers in many markets. (My 1952 vintage lens has a slight uniform yellow cast to it—much lighter than a yellow filter. It’s easy to correct for in digital image post-processing.) Annealing the glass by exposing it to intense ultraviolet light (I’ve heard that several days in direct sunlight will do the job) can reduce or eliminate the yellowing.
The idea that thoriated glass lenses can be retrobrighted amuses me for some reason.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:01 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


Posts like this are how you end up on Ebay at three in the morning bidding on sixty year old Soviet glass because it should work on modern Nikons and it's not that much money, really....
posted by mhoye at 2:05 PM on September 15 [20 favorites]


That 1880 lens video was beautiful. Good glass is timeless.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:07 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


For travel, I've got a Canon SL2 because I had a handful of Canon lenses and wanted something that worked with them. But smaller.

But I really wish I had just gone with something mirrorless instead. They're easier to throw in a shoulder bag and carry around than anything with a pentaprism. I do have a couple of older screw-mount lenses that I've got an adapter for (the 50 1.4 Super Takumar is fun) but it always feels weird manually focusing it on the end of modern DSLR.
posted by thecjm at 2:13 PM on September 15


I could use being retrobrightened some days...

For my own photographic style I very much prefer modern lenses, so this topic is of only casual interest to me. (and it's not like I haven't already spent way too much money on a hobby...) But I'll be following along and checking out all the links because it's always fun to see what sort of stuff others are doing.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:13 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


I just cut to the chase and vintage lenses on vintage cameras. I have a first generation black-body Pentax Spotmatic with 50mm, 28mm and 135mm M42 lenses that are wonderful although the 50mm 1.4 has some of thorium yellowing. I left it out on the porch a lot this summer and that seemed to clear it somewhat.
posted by octothorpe at 2:18 PM on September 15


Fun videos to try and guess how they'll come out. I think the $0 Crapinon lens was my favorite.
posted by msbutah at 2:25 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


I do have a bunch of adapters for my Sony to fit Canon FD lenses, Pentax M42 and C-mount lenses which were fun to play with but I've mostly given up on digital cameras these days.
posted by octothorpe at 2:35 PM on September 15


Nothing is damped like the focusing ring on a M42 era Pentax lens. So buttery...

I spent a few years shooting primarily a 55mm M42 lens on my Pentax K100D, but when they switched from CCDs to CMOS I found something was just missing when trying to use the vintage lenses.
posted by selfnoise at 2:58 PM on September 15


As my only camera up through early college was a Rollei 35, i must treat this is an extremely dangerous article and avert my eyes. Finding a way of putting an extendable lens on a Micro 4/3 camera would cause me to hemorrhage my life savings.
posted by q*ben at 3:04 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


I’ve been messing with Helios, older Nikon and some other glass lately. Sometimes I just want to slap on the Sigma 18-35 f1.8 and go, but the old lenses are fun when I have the time to mess around.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 3:23 PM on September 15


I'm kind of sad Mirror lenses aren't very popular anymore. Sure they have small, fixed apertures, manual focus, and weird bokeh, but could that be engineered away in future? Where else can you get a 500mm lens that fits in a pocket, barely weighs more than a pound, and costs $200?
posted by Popular Ethics at 3:28 PM on September 15


Ouch. The 135 year old lens videos both feature the back side of Notre Dame (before the fire).
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:44 PM on September 15


If a human had a bunch of lenses that used to fit a cannon AE1, what modern mirrorless camera would that human look for?
posted by furnace.heart at 3:59 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


I recently picked up a Nikon Z7 for the simple reason that there's over 50 years of Nikon F mount glass that can be adapted to it. I bought a few Nikon mirrorless lenses for it but I keep reaching for an old 100mm series E lens that is just buttery. I've also got a Mamiya 80mm f1.9 that i was using with a tilt-shift adapter on a Fuji GFX 50 and for $40 I bought an adapter for the Nikon Z. It's really an amazing time in the world
of camera technology but it's definitely NOT a good time to be a working photographer.
posted by photoslob at 4:07 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


If a human had a bunch of lenses that used to fit a cannon AE1, what modern mirrorless camera would that human look for?

These are Canon FD lenses and you should be able to buy an adapter for any popular system. You will have to control aperture manually but otherwise they should operate the same since IIRC those were manual focus.

Mirrorless systems have very short flange distances and you can always add distance basically just by making a tube, so adapting SLR lenses for mirrorless use is usually straightforward.

If you want the lenses to retain the same field of view, you'll want a full frame mirrorless camera; APSC or micro 4/3rds will apply a crop factor.
posted by selfnoise at 4:22 PM on September 15 [3 favorites]


furnace.heart -- Those old FD mount lenses can be adapted very easily to the modern Canon mounts with a simple and inexpensive adapter. The super-cheap ones are just a simple tube with no glass, but they won't allow you to use the full focal range of your old lenses. Opt for one that has a focus-correction lens [example] which allows infinity focus. You can also find adapters for just about any other system. Sony, in particular, is a popular platform for adapted lenses.
posted by theory at 4:38 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


I just got a mirrorless Nikon Z50 with the two Z mount kit lenses, but haven't had a chance to try it out yet. Very excited though. Adapters are available for the Z50, but one thing to consider is if the camera itself doesn't have shake reduction you might want a VR lens. Another consideration, again for the Z50 at least, is that the kit lenses, in this case surprisingly good ones apparently, have been specially engineered to go with the body. This sounds like more of a retro thing anyway, but if simply picture quality is the issue then you might need a fairly good lens to equal them.
posted by blue shadows at 4:46 PM on September 15


The really interesting adapters I’ve seen around for mirrorless also add autofocus, by providing the digital interface, setting the lens to infinity focus, and moving the lens in and out, changing the objective.

It’s amazing how much access to modern kit with old lenses is possible.
posted by aurynn at 5:07 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


I shot a few films on legacy/budget lenses. One of my favorites is this cheap Fujian CCTV lens which is under $30 and has incredible bokeh.
posted by iamck at 5:30 PM on September 15


I went with a mirrorless camera over a digital SLR largely because I can adapt my Leitz lenses, which are still remarkable. I have a set of Summicrons, including the 35mm mentioned in the "quality of craftsmanship" link in the post. Entirely manual, but that was true on the Leica as well. Beautiful lenses.
posted by Surely This at 5:30 PM on September 15


It's been a while since I shot much, but I'm rather fond of the Pentax 50/2.0, which has a really crunchy bokeh- not right for everything, but it has its moments
posted by wotsac at 5:47 PM on September 15


For those who have thorium-yellowed glass, apparently the IKEA goose-neck lamp JANSJÖ is great for retrobrighting them.

You can adapt almost anything to a micro four thirds camera because the sensor is half the size of 35mm film. Unfortunately for me, I think it's a dying format. I still need to pick me up one of those swirly bokeh Helios lenses.
posted by Defective_Monk at 6:07 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


I bought an Nikon adapter for my SMC Pentax 50 f/1.4; annoyingly, it doesn't quite focus on infinity, but it kills as a macro lens. Same goes for my 45mm pancake lens that was for a Pentax MX: so smol ...

Wish I had the money for a micro-4/3: I'm stuck with a 12 year old DSLR that isn't so great, with pixel counts way below my phone.
posted by scruss at 6:15 PM on September 15


Would be cool if there were some old really long lenses that was affordable. 90 or 100 is good but 2-300 would be fun with a tiny body stuck to the back.
posted by sammyo at 8:37 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


I have always wondered if anyone has ever tried building a digital camera module that fits into a film camera, so people could use all those expensive film cameras that just gather dust in their cupboards.. It would have a very thin flat panel containing the ccd and electronics, attached to a film role-sized part that held the battery and linked to the film advance lever to control functions.
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:57 PM on September 15


90 or 100 is good but 2-300 would be fun with a tiny body stuck to the back.

back during lockdown when all there was to shoot was the moon through our bedroom window, I threw an old Five Star 500mm lens on my Fuji mirrorless. no image stabilization, no autofocus, a minimum aperture of f/8... and an effective focal length of 800mm. it did make for some rewarding images, in spite of (or because of) its limitations.
posted by One Thousand and One at 9:19 PM on September 15


I got a first gen sony a7 a couple years back, mainly to give a new lease on life to all my accumulated Nikoor AIS lenses. But since adapters are so cheap, I've managed to find a bunch of other glass I mostly prefer instead, that never would have worked on the FE2 I bought working in a camera store in college.
My 20mm f4 still sees a lot of use, that is a remarkable lens. My 35mm f2 not so much since I got a Sigma Art 35. The nifty fifty gathers dust since I found a good value Summicron. Assorted other fun lenses rotate on and off: a personal favorite is the 38mm lens from a 70s Yashica rangefinder some industrious ebay soul mounted in the focus helical of a Russian L-mount lens. This thing on the full frame makes pictures reminiscent of snapshots on transparencies from my childhood. Crisp, clear centers, sort of iffy corners,
Oh, and shooting like this gains you access to a fun and sympathetic subculture. I met a random Italian fellow on a Parisian subway and we communed over our sonys with their random vintage glass to the consternation of our respective parties.
Sony announced a new body yesterday that finally does away with the stupid fake pentaprism hump all full frame manufacturers have somehow deemed necessary, except for Sigma and Leica. This new body will have a viewfinder to the side instead. This is the camera I've been waiting 20 years for.
posted by St. Oops at 9:44 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


anyone has ever tried building a digital camera module that fits into a film camera

There is a history of less-than-successful attempts to do this. But if you're handy with a soldering iron give it a go.

Ah, and something that needs mentioning: dust is a real problem for mirrorless cameras, especially if you're always swapping lenses. And DO NOT USE a canned air blower to clean the sensor, something I learned the hard way.
posted by St. Oops at 10:42 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of sad Mirror lenses aren't very popular anymore. Sure they have small, fixed apertures, manual focus, and weird bokeh, but could that be engineered away in future?

At least one of those flaws was already engineered away in the past!

I have an Ohnar 300mm mirror lens with a f/5.6 - f/16 aperture range. The iris diaphragm is in the front of the lens, 67mm wide, 15 blades. The bokeh get even weirder with it stopped down, because the aperture becomes a very thin ring.
posted by automatronic at 2:32 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]


90 or 100 is good but 2-300 would be fun with a tiny body stuck to the back.

Keep an eye on ebay and places like KEH. You'd be surprised what old manual focus 300 2.8's are selling for. I've seen a few beat ones going for $800!

Also, Tokina announced a new 400mm f8 mirror lens recently. It was inexpensive and full frame.
posted by photoslob at 5:23 AM on September 16


Decaying thorium atoms create defects in the glass called F-centres which, as they accumulated, would cause the glass to acquire a yellowish or brownish tint. This wasn’t much of a problem with black-and-white film, but it would cause a shift in the color balance . . .
This waved every bunk science red flag in my head. . . but, it appears to be entirely true. (I haven't verified the sunlight claim, but it's plausible, given the published data at shorter wavelengths.) This post has been a useful reminder about how wrong I can be at separating science from pseudoscience. Neat!

I also realize how lucky I am to work, professionally, at a wavelength where you can buy cheap, off-the-shelf materials with an index between 1.8 and 3.3, without having to mess around with thorium. (I guess we do mess around with stuff like silane. . . but, we don't have to hold it up to our faces.) It makes anti-reflection coatings challenging, but everything else is easier.

Also, this is a fun post. Not becoming a camera tech guy has been a life-long struggle for me. I keep telling myself that I'm content to watch from a distance.
posted by eotvos at 7:16 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]


Folks on the very useful Cinematography Mailing List confirm that the sunlight trick works.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 7:46 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]


Would be cool if there were some old really long lenses that was affordable. 90 or 100 is good but 2-300 would be fun with a tiny body stuck to the back

Browse here. M42 lenses are typically cheap and very easy to adapt.

The problem with really old long lenses, though, is that they tend to be very heavy and then manually focusing at that focal length means dealing with razor thin depth of field.
posted by selfnoise at 12:13 PM on September 16


> 2-300 would be fun with a tiny body stuck to the back

I've got a Canon FD 300 f/4 for my Olympus E-M5 ... okay so the lens weighs several times as much as the camera but it does have its own tripod mount and its pretty good as a birdwatching lens. I've got to make a little folding sniper bi-pod for it some day.

Is it actually better than cropping the middle out of the kit 14-150 zoom? Probably only if you want the brightness or the very shallow DoF or the exercise from carrying it around.

The Olympuses are great because the image stabilization is in the body and still works when you've got vintage lenses on it (you have to dial in the focal length though, so not much use with zooms) so you can shoot with that 300 hand held at 1/50s (if your wrists are strong enough :-) )
posted by nickzoic at 10:51 PM on September 16


@automatronic: ooh, I've always been tempted by those. Is the annular bokeh horribly unpleasant or just weird?
posted by nickzoic at 11:06 PM on September 16


That's one of those things that depends on your personal taste, I suppose.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:16 AM on September 17


I (do mostly highly technical product) work with Fujifilm GFX 100, and for personal work I’ve recently started playing around with adapters for old lenses (I’ve a lot of old Hasselblad V stuff for instance), and it’s quite fun. The modern Fuji lenses are so sharp and clinical, but using the old lenses can give really interesting results. I’ve recently got an adapter with tilt and shift movements for Pentax 645 which is really fun to use - and with the digital focusing aids, you don’t really need autofocus all that much

I didn’t know about the sunlight trick, I shall give it a try with some old lenses for sure
posted by boogieboy at 11:14 AM on September 17


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