12 Great Vintage Lenses for Creating Retro-Look Images

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Why mount classic lenses on your digital camera? Because they have character! As many of today’s creative digital shooters have discovered, some of the great old lenses of the analog era can capture images that have that elusive quality known as character. In other words, they render subjects like portraits and landscapes in a distinctive and appealing way that can’t quite be conveyed in words. Back in the day, writers tried to express these qualities by referring to the “rounded,” “luminous,” or “plastic” rendition of a specific lens. But by the Mid-20th Century, most optical scientists had dismissed such terms as imprecise and speculative, turning to resolution and, later, MTF testing to quantify lens-performance parameters. Over the past 20 years or so, we’ve swung back to using more subjective terms such as bokeh to describe the visual appearance of the out-of-focus areas of the image. While we still rely on objective testing to determine the sharpness, detail, and contrast performance of a lens, many art and creative photographers are focused on making images that capture a traditional look that sets their work apart.

Above image: Coffee House Portrait. Rolleiflex Automat MX with 75mm f/3

Mother and Child. Bronica-S2A; 75mm; f/2.8 Nikkor; f/3

In other words, for photographers who want to create unique retro-look images that express their personal style, character can be even more important than such time-honored criteria as MTF and resolution numbers, corner-to-corner sharpness, freedom from aberrations, evenness of illumination, high contrast, low distortion, and color fidelity—in short, all the criteria lens testers consider crucial in evaluating lens performance. Indeed, using vintage lenses on digital cameras has become so popular over the past few years it has spawned a cottage industry of companies offering relatively inexpensive adapters that let you mount most vintage lenses on your current digital masterpiece (especially mirrorless models) with varying degrees of convenience and functionality. Unfortunately, this trend has also resulted in skyrocketing prices for certain vintage lenses, some of which have become cult classics.

Woman in window light. Leica IIIf with 50mm f/2 Summar; 1/50 sec; f/4

Advice on adapters: opt for well-made, high-quality lens adapters even if they cost more, steer clear of adapters that include optical elements to allow your vintage lens to focus to infinity because they can compromise character, as well as image quality, and do an online search, starting with the B&H website, to find the adapters and combinations that work best with your specific setup.

Graphic Artist. Topcon Super D with 58mm f/1.4 Topcor; f/3

Tips on Choosing and Using Vintage Lenses

Many older lenses have fungus in the glass, and balsam (optical cement) separation. Both defects are difficult or impossible to remedy, so pick another lens. Tiny scratches or minor blemishes in the coating are common and seldom affect image quality, but you should be able to negotiate a lower price. The bottom line: always check out older lenses very carefully before you buy!

Vintage lenses, especially those made prior to WWII, exhibit greater sample-to-sample variation than modern lenses so, if possible, try the lens out before you commit to buying it.

Glenda. Topcon Super D with 58mm; f/1

Uncoated lenses are quite prone to flare when shooting against the light, and single-coated lenses are not as resistant to flare as multi-coated ones. These are not really defects, but it’s important to adjust your lighting and composition accordingly. Using a properly fitting lens hood can help, in some cases.

Check the B&H Used Department website and other used equipment sites to determine the price range of the lenses you want to buy before you pull the trigger. Actual selling prices of used lenses are the best guide to their value.

Look for lower-cost alternatives to lenses prized by collectors. For example, a five-element 100mm f/3.5 Leica screw-mount Canon is a better and more practical alternative than the rare and expensive 105mm f/6.3 Leitz Elmar, even though both can capture beautiful retro-look images.

Taxi Driver. Canon F/1 with 50mm f/1.4 Canon FD; f/2

12 Great Vintage Lenses for Capturing Classic Images

1. 58mm f/1.4 Auto-Topcor (aka R.E. Auto-Topcor) This amazing 7-element 5-group double-Gauss-formula lens, based on the Zeiss Planar, was produced in several versions, from about 1963 to 1980. All of them deliver outstanding sharpness wide open, but bokeh improves noticeably by stopping down to f/2 and smaller apertures. Indeed, the lens is acclaimed as a “bokeh king” and prized for its beautiful natural rendition of portrait and scenic subjects. It also provides a bright 1:1 viewing image and focuses to a tad under 18 inches for compelling close-ups. This Topcon/Exakata mount lens is most commonly seen in chrome, but was also available in black finish.

2. 50mm f/2 Leitz Summar (uncoated) The first “super-speed” f/2 normal lens for screw-mount Leicas, Leitz turned out 127,950 of these collapsible 6-element, 4-group beauties, from 1933-40. My version is sharp in the center, but quite soft at the edges at f/2, surprisingly sharp overall at f/5.6 on down, renders moderate-contrast images with that classic “roundness,” and produces gorgeous bokeh.

3. 85mm f/1.5 Helios-40-2 Made in Russia, from the mid-1950s to the ’90s, this ponderous 6-element Double Gauss lens is said to be based on Zeiss Biotar design, and it’s usually found in an M42 (Pentax/Practica) mount in black finish and manual (pre-set) aperture configuration. It’s not very sharp wide open, but it delivers the much sought-after “swirly bokeh,” with backgrounds like trees and flowers, and it’s quite sharp stopped down. A new version of this lens re-introduced in 2013 is available new and, thankfully, they haven’t “improved” it.

4. Canon FD 50mm f/1.2 L Identifiable by the L on its identification ring, and a red band in front of its focusing ring, this superb 8-element 6-group multicoated super-speed normal lens incorporates one aspheric element and a floating-element design to achieve exceptional performance, even wide open. Produced from 1980-1988, it’s prized for its sharpness and contrast at all apertures and over its entire focusing range, down to 18 inches, and it’s great for low-light work. The downside: mediocre background bokeh at common shooting distances, a common problem with aspheric element lenses. If bokeh is more important to you than sharpness at wide apertures, consider the more common (and less costly) non-L version of the Canon FD 50mm f/1.2.

5. 100mm f/2 Olympus OM Zuiko Auto-T Introduced along with the multi-spot-metering Olympus OM-4, in 1983, this 7-element, 6-group classic is one of the few Olympus lenses of its era to incorporate ED glass. It delivers outstanding sharpness, even wide open, impressive color accuracy, and buttery smooth bokeh. It has a floating rear element to suppress distortion, is a superlative choice for portraiture, still life, or nature, and can focus down to 1:5 for stunning close-ups.

6. 58mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar Dating back to the 1930s in uncoated form, this long-running, 6-element, 4-group Gauss formula lens, made by the former East German branch of Zeiss, is typically found in an Exakta or M42 screw mount. It’s sharp wide open, especially near the center of the frame, has superb creamy bokeh, and is a great lens for portraiture in crop-sensor or Micro Four Thirds System cameras, where it provides a medium telephoto effective focal length.

7. 100mm f/3.5 Canon or Serenar This exceptional 5-element, 4-group medium telephoto Leica /Canon screw-mount lens was first offered under the Serenar name in silver finish, in 1953, and later under the official company name, Canon, in black and silver, in 1958. Pictures taken with it have that classic look— sharp with excellent contrast, creamy bokeh, and that indefinable luminous quality. Color rendition is beautiful, and its compact size makes it great for travel. If you prefer a faster 100mm Canon screw-mount lens, check out the 100mm f/2 Canon of the same era. It provides superior depth-of-field control, has similar imaging characteristics, but it’s heftier.

8. 35mm f/2.4 Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon The 6-element, 5-group retro-focus design of this East German (DDR) classic dates back 1950, but the f/2.4 version in easily adaptable M42 screw mount is the best of the bunch. It delivers outstanding sharpness and color fidelity, even wide open, and close focusing down to 7-1/2 inches (!) in a compact, well-balanced package. Build quality is excellent, and its creamy bokeh is gorgeous. The more common 35mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon is an excellent more economical alternative.

9. 35mm f/2 Leitz Summicron-M In production from 1979-1996, the series IV, 7-element, 5-group version of this exquisite lens (serial numbers 2974251-3880946) is widely hailed as the “Bokeh King” and commands fancy prices. Lately, there’s been considerable pushback from Leicaphiles asserting that the original 8-element version or the current ASPH version are better choices and have even better bokeh. My observation: The version IV I used on a Leica M9 captured images with that luminous, rounded look and awesome bokeh, especially when stopped down to f/4-5.6. A cool alternative: the pre-ASPH version of the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M.

10. 50mm f/1.4 Super-Takumar Asahi Optical Company, makers of the renowned Pentax line, is known for its outstanding lenses, as epitomized by this 7-element, 6-group Zeiss Planar-inspired classic. It’s been offered in various iterations, e.g. the Super-Multi-Coated and SMC Super Takumars, in both M42 and K mount. All of them are excellent performers and opinion varies as to which is best, but all are bargains. When it comes to beautiful image quality and gorgeous bokeh, along with impressive sharpness at wide apertures, I cast my vote for the original non-multi-coated version in screw mount.

11. 35mm f/1.8 W-Nikkor C The first high-speed wide-angle for the Nikon S2 rangefinder camera of the 1950s, this high-performance 7-element, 5-group classic is surprisingly compact and uses rare earth lanthanum glass to enhance its performance. It’s amazingly sharp for a lens of its specs and era, has beautiful bokeh at wide apertures, and captures images with that indefinable vintage feel.

12. 35mm f/2.8 Leitz Summaron This nearly symmetrical 6-element, 4-goup lens was announced, in 1958, as a slightly faster variation of the classic 35mm f/3.5 Summaron, and it’s available in a 39mm Leica screw mount or M bayonet. Though compact and light, it features solid, all-metal construction and has a nearly circular 10-bladed diaphragm to enhance its already creamy smooth bokeh. It captures images with a luminous vintage look, but it’s as sharp as the 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH or 35mm f/1.4 Summilux at moderate apertures and has excellent color contrast. More economical alternatives: 35mm f/3.5 Leitz Summaron; 35mm f/2.8 Canon or Serenar in screw mount.

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