Vintage Lens Buying Guide

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Vintage Lens Buying Guide

Vintage lenses can be defined as lenses originally meant to be used with older film-based SLR, or single-lens reflex, cameras. This article will focus on lenses meant for still cameras, as opposed to lenses for movie or video cameras, or other types of optics.
Choosing the right vintage lens means having a good understanding of the camera it will be used with and a firm grasp of the basic technical aspects of photography. The type of fitting governs the compatibility of the lens with the camera. The focal length, aperture size, and focus define its functionality. Even the size and weight of the lens matter. It can affect how easy it will be to use with a particular camera. Vintage lenses can be heavy, and modern cameras are very light. The balance and structural integrity of the set-up is sometimes a consideration, especially with vintage ultra-telephoto lenses.

Vintage Lenses for Vintage Cameras

Of course, a vintage lens can be used with the sort of camera it was originally intended to work with. This simplifies things, because matching the fitting to the lens is reasonably straightforward. If the original camera manual is not available, then it should be possible to find it online, and it will supply the information needed to match the lens to the camera’s fittings. For a standard SLR that uses 35mm film, it is often a straightforward matter of matching the lens to the camera’s brand. For less common types of cameras, proprietary lenses will be clearly labeled.

Can a Lens for a Conventional SLR Work with a Digital Camera?

Some vintage lenses originally intended for film cameras can work with digital SLRs. However, not every DSLR can use vintage lenses. Some digital cameras with interchangeable lens systems are based on optics with smaller diameters than traditional film-based SLRs. Others use modern, proprietary mounts and fittings.
In some cases, there are mount adaptors that can allow a digital camera to be used with vintage lenses. Be aware, however, that using a vintage lens will likely make some of the digital camera’s features unusable. For example, the focus and aperture of the lens may need to be adjusted manually. Photographers who use older vintage lenses with their digital cameras need to be familiar with the operation of a fully manual, film-based SLR.

The Details on Fittings

Below are a few common vintage fittings with discussions of how they can work with modern digital cameras.

Nikon F-mount

Introduced in 1959, this fitting type is still being used in Nikon digital SLRs.

Pentax K-mount

Introduced in 1975, this fitting type is still being used in Pentax digital SLRs.

Canon EF-mount

Introduced in 1987, this fitting type is still being used in Canon digital SLRs. Older Canon lenses require adaptors.

Minolta Alpha, A or AS-mount

Introduced in the mid-1980s, this type of fitting was later adopted by Sony and will fit Minolta and Sony Alpha DSLR cameras.

Minolta MD, MC or SR-mount

Introduced starting in 1958, these fittings are generally compatible with each other and with vintage, manual Minolta SLRs. They can be used with some DSLR cameras, including Sony and Minolta products, with the use of an adaptor.

Four Thirds mounts

This standard is used in a number of modern digital SLRs, including Olympus and Kodak cameras.

Wikipedia is an excellent source of information on the various types of lens fittings, and information on some of the less common lens mounts can be found there. Do everything possible to confirm that the mount will match the camera before ordering a vintage lens. Adaptors are available to fit common vintage lenses to common DSLR cameras.

Lens Types and Focal Lengths

The focal length is the distance that the interior of the lens needs in order to bring the image into focus. The focal lengths for standard lenses range from as little as 8 mm for a fisheye lens to 150 mm or more for an ultra-telephoto. Some vintage lenses have only one focal length, and others, called zoom lenses, can be adjusted to a range of focal lengths.
The options for focal lengths and focal length multipliers on eBay are not very popular ways for the sellers to classify the lenses, because they express the focal lengths in multiples like 10x. Focal lengths are traditionally referred to by distances in millimetres rather than by the number of times the image is magnified.

Fisheye

16 mm or less

less than 1/2x

Ultra Wide Angle

17 mm to 24 mm

less than 1x

Wide Angle

24 mm to 35 mm

less than 1x

Standard

36 mm to 60 mm, commonly 50 mm

roughly 1x

Telephoto

85 mm and up

2x and up (140 mm is 4x)

The rest of eBay’s lens types are based on features or special uses, rather than on focal length. A Macro/Close Up lens allows for clear photos of objects that are small and close to the camera. A Teleconverter lens is a lens that can be added on to another lens. It magnifies the center of the image, thereby creating a more powerful telephoto effect. An Image Stabilisation lens helps to compensate for small movements of the camera during exposure. Perspective Control lenses are used mostly in architectural and landscape photography. They can adjust the position of the image within its perspective structure; for example, by preventing the convergence of parallel lines when photographing a tall building or a cliff face.

Focus

The focus of a camera lens brings objects at a particular distance into clear focus, while objects that are closer or further away may appear blurry, especially in low light. The focus on most fully manual SLR cameras is adjusted by twisting a band on the lens, and many vintage lenses will still need to be adjusted that way.

Apertures

The aperture is the diameter of the opening that allows the light to reach the film. In practice, the aperture size governs how much of the photo will be in focus. With a small aperture size, the object that is being focused upon and other objects at the same distance will be the only things in focus. Everything else will be blurry. As the aperture increases, the camera will capture a greater depth of field. Most photographers appreciate being able to use a wide variety of aperture diameters, depending on the effect they want to create. A wide open aperture requires more light to produce a good photo at a given exposure.

In Conclusion

Both film camera hobbyists and digital photographers can buy vintage camera lenses through eBay. The key is in finding the right lens for the camera and the right lens for the application. Know the camera before buying the lens, know how cameras and lenses work, and know how the camera will be used. Then, find the perfect vintage lens using eBay’s categories and search function

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