A glass act: using old film camera lenses on modern bodies

By Geoff Harris

You can tell when you’ve made the transition to being a more ‘serious’ photographer when you start to worry as much about your lens as your camera body.

The kit lenses that come with most new cameras as part of a package, or ‘kit,’ are usually pretty basic, depending on the camera and manufacturer.

Many DSLR kit lenses in particular tended to be distorting, plasticky things which did the job, but often held the photographer back as their skill level grew.

The problem is, new lenses can be expensive. You can snap up a second-hand Fujifilm X-T2, an older but still very capable mirrorless camera, for about £500, but a decent 50mm lens from the same maker will cost the same amount again.

One option is to use older, used lenses, particularly film camera ones. Many of these are superb; although they don’t have the same optical technology as a modern lens, they are often very well made, and have a particular charm and character.

With manual focus you lack AF subject tracking for fast moving subjects but pre-focussing and faster shutter speeds help

Take the Olympus OM 50mm f/1,4, a fast, bright and sharp ‘nifty fifty’ for the old OM film SLRs. You can get them off eBay or from a dealer for about £100 – the latter option is safer, as they will come with a warranty.

It seems like a no-brainer, but there are some important considerations to bear in mind. Depending on the type of older lens and the adaptor you buy (more on this later), most older glass won’t communicate with the modern autofocus system on your camera, so you will have to use manual focus. Indeed, many mid pre-1980s lenses were entirely manually focus anyway (fun fact: Leica had an early autofocus system but abandoned it, which is the photo tech equivalent of the guy at EMI who passed on signing The Beatles).

Having to manually focus all the time might sound scary, as we have all become obsessed about super-sharp images these days, but don’t panic.

A lot of modern cameras now have ‘focus peaking,’ which is a big help when it comes to manual focussing. As you turn the focussing ring on the older lens, the edges of your subject appear in a variety of customisable colours in the camera’s viewfinder as the subject comes into focus. You can also zoom in via the rear LCD on your camera to check sharpness, or in the viewfinder. Clever eh?

Manual focus is a lot easier with older lenses if your camera offers focus peaking. This is a crop from an image taken from the other side of the road and the sharpness is impressive.

Another popular technique is to prefocus on a particular scene before an item of interest enters into the frame – a bird or pedestrian, for instance. Now, modern AF systems are very, very clever, so don’t expect the same ultra-sharp results when focussing manually, particularly with moving subjects, but you do get better with practice. Indeed, with street photography, I find pre-focussing can be faster than fiddling around with AF points, and it’s a good skill for any photographer to learn.

Smaller older ‘prime’ lenses on a smaller camera body are ideal for unobtrusive street shooting

As well as manual focus, you will often need to adjust the aperture on older lenses via its built-in aperture ring. This takes a bit of practice but it’s a great way of understanding how aperture choice affects exposure, rather than being dependent on your camera to work it out.

As mentioned, the other big consideration with older lenses is whether you will need to use an adaptor. Again, this depends on the lens make and your camera type; old Nikon F lenses can usually be used on Nikon F mount DSLRs without an adaptor for example. For the latest Nikon Z series mirrorless cameras, however, an adaptor will be needed.

Adaptors can be expensive, but fortunately there is a wide choice of third-party ones available, often made quite cheaply by Chinese makers and sold on eBay. You get what you pay for, and they don’t have the build quality or smart technology of a top-end adaptor (such as metering and autofocus support), but many do the job well.

In the images here, I used a lovely old Leica R-mount 50mm Summicron lens on a modern Leica CL digital camera. The adaptor, made by Fotasy, cost about £15 from eBay and I am pretty happy with the results. Adapters from K&F Concept are another good budget choice. To put it into context, a Leica M mount adaptor for the CL, which lets me use Leica M lenses on it, costs £350! So if you acquire a few old lenses and only use them on an irregular basis, a cheaper adaptor can be a big money saver.

Manual focus is a lot easier with older lenses if your camera offers focus peaking. This is a crop from an image taken from the other side of the road and the sharpness is impressive.
Shooting in Manual mode you can control all aspects of exposure with older lenses, even though the lens/camera communication may be limited

As well as getting to grips with manual focus and adaptors, you also need to remember that if you use a 35mm film camera lens on a digital camera with a sensor smaller than 35mm (APS-C, for instance), you will usually get some cropping on the image. So a 50mm lens designed for a 35mm camera will appear to ‘zoom in’ on the subject, as the focal length is effectively magnified.

This is not a major problem so long as you factor it in; indeed, the crop factor can actually give you more ‘reach’ for everyday photography.

To conclude. Experimenting with old film lenses can be a lot of fun and give you some cool creative effects – distinctive bokeh, or background blur, being one example. But I’m not necessarily advocating going out and buying the cheapest adaptor you can afford. You should always check online to see if there are any issues that have been identified with the type of adaptor you are planning to buy, and your type of camera; you don’t want to damage any of your camera’s sensitive connections or electronics.

A decent budget brand, such as K&F Concept, however, should be a pretty safe bet, however, particularly if you don’t mind manually focusing.

One final word of warning; once you get hooked on old film-camera lenses, the costs can start to escalate, defeating the original purpose. Although many are still a lot cheaper than modern AF lenses, they are also becoming popular with film makers after more of a ‘vintage’ look – so prices are steadily rising.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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