Digital photography has seen considerable growth in recent years, and many of the prominent camera manufacturers have reduced their ranges of film cameras to minimal numbers, or discontinued them altogether. The adoption by many photographers of digital methods has led to a large and varied selection of vintage lenses, as well as film cameras, being liberated to the second-hand market. Many of these can be purchased for far less than the cost of the equivalent lens from the camera manufacturer's current range, and can provide a low-cost way to build a flexible camera and lens system, as well as providing learning opportunities for mastering the basics of photography.
Reasons to Use Vintage Lenses
Every photographer has their own motivation and inspiration. Developing their skills with vintage lenses provides just another aspect to the art, though there are numerous reasons for deciding to use vintage lenses.
One of the best reasons to purchase vintage lenses is basically that of learning. Modern digital cameras are loaded with all manner of automated shooting modes and features designed to take work away from the photographer. While this might be desirable for the beginner or amateur, once the photographer progresses beyond this to the keen amateur phase, they'll want to learn more about how photography works, and there's no better way to do this than by working with the equipment on a totally manual basis.
Alternatively, the beginner photographer could equally well purchase a digital body alone, and partner this exclusively with low-cost vintage lenses, using these as a stepping stone to formulate decisions on which modern lenses to buy, evaluating the types of lenses and their own needs, if it's as yet unclear which lenses will form the final basis of the camera outfit.
Many of the standard lenses supplied with digital cameras, while quite functional, don't have quite the same build quality as those from previous eras. Many modern lenses are built with plastic casings, whereas those from previous eras were typically of metal construction.
Optical quality is a key element, though, and it should be possible to buy a vintage lens that far exceeds the quality of a modern lens of the same price.
Vintage lenses have poured onto the used market since digital photography was launched, and they can be bought for a fraction of what an equivalent lens from a maker's current range would cost. In many cases, it's possible to acquire two or more vintage lenses for the price of one modern example.
Matching Vintage Lenses to Digital Cameras
With a large and varied number of lenses available on the used market, it would be impossible to provide a definitive, comprehensive list of which lenses can be paired up with which cameras. For the more prominent camera makers, here are some broad guidelines to compatibility.
Current Canon digital cameras use their EF mount, which was introduced when they were still making predominantly film cameras. When introduced, this change in mount style rendered the previous FD mount, and those that preceded it, all but obsolete. Therefore Canon cameras don't work with the majority of vintage Canon lenses, but will work with a good number of third-party lenses, given that suitable lens adaptors are available.
Unlike Canon, vintage Nikon lenses will work with the majority of lens/camera combinations, but Nikons don't tend to work with generic or third-party makers' lenses. If in doubt, it is important to check with the seller and if possible, take the camera the lens is intended for when viewing it. If the lens does not fit or is not compatible, it is important to know before making the end purchase.
Pentax have instituted, in the main, full backward compatibility for their lenses and cameras, and users of Pentax camera bodies can employ any K-mount lens from their back catalogue. However, some third-party lenses which, on the face of it, have a standard K-mount, have incorporated slight variations, and their operation may not be guaranteed. Also, the more recent versions of the Pentax mount do not have full compatibility with all previous lens ranges.
Both of these makers (Minolta's camera business was taken over by Sony in 2006) have changed their lens mount systems, and vintage lenses are likely to require use of adaptors.
Especially with older products, it is important to do sufficient research before making a final purchase. Checking other users' experiences is one really useful way to ensure an investment is made.
Potential Compatibility Problems
Some vintage lenses have extensions which protrude into the camera body, some were designed with levers that link into mechanisms within the camera, and some have optical elements that could interfere with mirror operation. Pre-purchase research should include looking at both the potential lens, and the lens with the camera body for any compatibility issues.
Buying Vintage Lenses
Together with sufficiently researching the makes and models in general, it is equally as important to check the specific item in question.
Optical condition is paramount, and if personal inspection of the lens is possible, the front and back elements should be carefully scrutinised to ensure they are free from scratches, dirt, and any other contamination. Look through the lens for signs of any contamination on the internal elements. If the lens is being purchased online, or remotely, read the description carefully and consider the seller's return policy, if they have one.
Style and Facilities
Broadly speaking, the lenses with the widest aperture at the chosen focal length should be the preferred choice. The lower the F-number of the lens, the wider its aperture, and the more light it admits. As an example, an f/2.8 would probably be preferred over an f/4, as it would be more usable in low light, and even in good light, would permit higher shutter speeds, which may be an advantage for moving subjects.
A vintage lens is unlikely to have any automation which will work with a digital camera, but may have features like an integrated lens hood, or tripod mount, and these may be factored into a buying decision.
Many lenses were supplied with custom-fit cases when new, and the inclusion of one of these may factor into the buying decision as well.
The inclusion or otherwise of the original packaging should always be taken into account. A careful owner who retains the original boxes and inserts, and possibly also the owner's manuals for their lenses, is likely an owner who has taken good care of them. The original packaging will also protect the lens in transit, should it be a remote purchase.
Vintage lenses can offer the beginner or experienced photographer a learning experience, and they can also enable the acquisition of a wide-ranging camera system at considerably less than the cost of current digital-compatible lenses.