The growth in digital photography has led to many photographers upgrading their systems, and as a result, many vintage lenses have become available on the used market. Many vintage lenses have no automated features, and hence provide a low-cost method to practice the basic elements of photography, free from camera automation and control.
Using Vintage Lenses
There are a number of reasons to favour vintage lenses.
Modern digital SLR cameras commonly feature a host of automated functions, designed to enable the photographer to merely press the shutter, with the assurance of a reasonably good picture. While this is a valid approach for those who don't wish to learn about the process of photography, it does insulate the photographer from the mechanics of the process. As the beginning photographer progresses, he or she may want to know more about how things work, and how they can influence the quality of their work. Taking manual control of what they do through the lens can aid this learning experience. Many vintage lenses lack the ability to work with the automated features of modern cameras, and hence prompt the photographer to take control of their work.
Many photographers and reviewers hold the view that modern lenses, to a certain extent, lack the build quality of vintage ones. Newer lenses, especially the standard, short focal-length types supplied with new camera outfits, tend to be of plastic-body construction, and lack the solidity of many vintage lenses, which were typically built from metal. The optical quality of many vintage lenses is held to be preferable to their modern equivalents, and in the view of many reviewers, can yield better results.
Vintage lenses have been reaching the used market in larger and larger numbers as the adoption of digital photography has grown. As more lenses reach the market, their rarity decreases, and prices naturally fall. In many cases, it is possible to acquire good to high quality vintage lenses for far less than their modern equivalents.
Vintage Lens Matching
Matching a vintage lens to a camera body will vary in approach, according to a variety of manufacturer's approaches to the backward compatibility of their lens mounts, and depending on whether the camera body in use is a modern digital one, or a vintage film camera. Matching a vintage lens to a vintage camera body is much simplified if the camera body is from the same range and era as the lens being considered, less so if the manufacturer is one of those who have changed their lens mount system. Adaptors are available for many combinations of lens and camera body, mostly for adapting generic lenses to specific camera bodies, but also for adapting one camera maker's lenses to another's bodies. The variations and combinations are too numerous to list exhaustively here, but here are a few guidelines for some of the most prominent makers and types on how lens mount systems have changed.
Generic lenses are those made by lens manufacturers who don't make matching camera bodies. Some models have generic screw-thread mounts, and are designed to be fitted with adaptors to tailor the lens to a specific camera maker's body and mount style. Others are fitted with specific camera mounts in order that they can be directly mounted onto a camera without the need for an adaptor.
With their last generation of film SLR cameras, Canon changed the style of their lens mount system altogether, rendering their newest camera bodies incompatible with lenses of the previous mount style(s) and vice versa. The current mount is the EF, the previous the FD. Canon bodies can be used with a good selection of generic or third-party lenses, provided a suitable adaptor can be found.
Nikon have maintained the general style of their F mount over the years, and generally speaking, Nikon lenses of any age will work with Nikon bodies of any age.
The oldest Pentax lenses were fitted with screw-type mounts, but for a number of years, Pentax has been using variants of its K-mount system. Various features have been added to this mount system over the years, but Pentax have always maintained compatibility such that the vast majority of K-mount lenses will work with any K-mount system camera body.
Minolta's SLR camera division was taken over by Sony in 2006, and in common with Canon, changes have been made to their mount system, rendering many of their vintage lenses incompatible with modern bodies. Olympus have also modified their mount design in the past.
Online research can unearth a wealth of information on the history of various lens and camera mounts, revealing which manufacturers introduced compatibility breaks when they changed lens mount styles, and which have retained backward compatibility. Discussion forums can often be a valuable resource, as discussion between a number of contributors will tend to bring issues to the fore more effectively than single-user websites and experiences. These are sometimes brand-specific, and quite commonly cover the prominent manufacturers as well as lesser-known ones. A number of websites are devoted specifically to issues of lens compatibility, sometimes for one brand, and sometimes for various and generic brands.
Certain vintage lenses were built with projections and mechanisms that extend into the body of the camera. These could be optical elements, or possibly levers or mechanisms. While these may be perfectly usable should the photographer have the matching vintage body, pre-purchase research when buying across brands should look at both the prospective lens purchase in isolation, and at the lens/camera combination for any compatibility issues, as incorrect use could potentially damage a mismatched body.
Especially with vintage items, it is important to consider a number of specific factors before deciding on a purchase.
The most important aspect of a lens is optical performance, and if the lens can be inspected before purchase, scrutinise the front and rear elements carefully for damage, dirt, or other issues, as well as looking through the lens for any signs of internal damage, water penetration, or fungus. If personal inspection is not possible, perhaps because the purchase is being made online or at a distance, be sure to check if the seller has a returns policy, and the process for taking advantage of it, if needed.
If presented with a choice of lenses at a particular focal length, it is recommended that the one with the widest aperture be chosen, as this will benefit the photographer in low-light work, and will also be advantageous when photographing moving subjects, as it will enable a faster shutter speed. The aperture specification is indicated by an F-number, usually printed around the front optic on the lens, but if not, shown as the lowest number on the aperture ring. The lower the F-number, the better, as the lower numbers indicate wider apertures, and hence more light admitted to the camera. The lens may have integral features such as a tripod mount, or an extendable lens hood, and these may influence a buying decision.
Determining whether or not a lens for sale includes the original packaging materials, and possibly the matching instruction manual, will help in assessing the condition of the lens. Any owner who retains all of these is most likely to be an owner who has looked after their lenses. Many vintage lenses would have had custom-fit cases supplied with them when new, and the inclusion of a case such as this, as well as providing a carrying case, will further reinforce the case for the previous owner being a careful one. Both the original packaging and lens case, if included, will serve to protect the lens when in transit should the purchase be a remote or online one.
Vintage lenses can help the beginning photographer, or even those who have been relying on modern automation for a while, to learn the basics of manual photography, as well as enabling this at low cost when compared to modern equipment.