How “good” are vintage lenses when used on modern digital cameras? In a word, vintage lenses are “fine,” though I would have to immediately follow that statement by adding, “It depends,” because there are always exceptions to the rules, though even in these cases, the lens in question often works fine albeit with a technical or optical shortcoming of sorts.
Original photographs © Allan Weitz 2020
When adapting older-generation film camera lenses to DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, most perform well in terms of sharpness, color fidelity, color saturation, contrast, and other qualifiers of image quality. Others do not fare as well, though depending on what you’re looking for, you might prefer the look of the photographs you take with this so-called sub-par lens. Sometimes flare, ghosting, and overblown swirling highlights are exactly what you are looking for.
Regardless, with few exceptions these lenses are still quite usable and, in many cases, they render the image with unique visual signatures that cannot be duplicated by their modern-day, “new-and-improved” counterparts. This isn’t to say newer lenses take sharp but boring photographs—that’s simply not the case. What I am saying is that while modern lenses feature quick and accurate autofocusing, image stabilization, and are made of notably lighter construction materials, older-generation versions of these very same lenses often capture photographs with extremely close, if not identical, image quality to their modern-day counterparts—and at a far lower cost.
For example, the above Zeiss Makro-Planar macro lenses have Contax C/Y lens mounts that can be adapted to most cameras. They are manual focus down to life size and built like missile launchers. Cost? I paid about $800 for the pair and have since used them on Sony A7-series cameras and Leica M10-series cameras with excellent results.
Sometimes the only differences between older- and newer-generation lenses are the coatings, which, depending on the lens coatings and the type of photographs you take and where you take them, may or may not make any difference.
It should be noted that many of the vintage and older-generation lenses mentioned in this B&H Explora post can often be found in the B&H Used Department.
Lens Adapters: Inexpensive or Pricier Ones?
If you plan on using a lens with a mount other than your camera’s, you’re going to need a lens adapter. I’ve personally used lens adapters that cost $12, lens adapters that cost more than $200, and lens adapters at every price point in-between. The costlier adapters were invariably constructed of stronger metal alloys and machined to tighter tolerances, which, taken together, better guarantee spot-on alignment between the focus plane of the incoming image and the camera sensor (or film surface).
As a rule, aluminum does not wear as well as stainless steel and brass, and with time, regardless of how tight the fit may be when new, the fit between the lens, adapter, and/or camera body can develop a measure of play, which in turn can compromise image sharpness. This isn’t to say you cannot or will not get years of use from a less expensive adapter but, in the long run, I’ve found better-made adapters are worth the cost premium.
Pentax M42 Screw-Mount and K-Mount Lenses
The M42 screw mount dates back to 1938. It was originally designed by Carl Zeiss as a lens mount for a new line of Praktica cameras. Also referred to as a Praktica screw mount, in the 1960s it additionally became known as the Pentax screw mount when Asahi Pentax adopted the lens mount for its then newly introduced Pentax single lens reflex cameras. M42-mount lenses were also produced by Zenit, Zeiss Ikon, Zeiss Jena (former East Germany), Voigtländer, Fujica, Ricoh (currently the parent company of Pentax), Yashica, Petri, and Sears, which was also manufactured by Ricoh.
Over the years, Pentax has produced literally millions of Takumar-branded screw-mount lenses, and many of these lenses are quite notable, especially some of the SMC (Super Multi-Coated) Super Takumars. A Pentax lens that’s often mentioned as a top-shelf image maker is the 50mm f/1.4 SMC Super Takumar, a Planar-type lens design that has been produced for decades. Regardless of vintage, Super Takumar 50s hold up to scrutiny even when used on higher-resolution digital cameras.
Earlier vintage Super Takumars, like their contemporary manual-focus counterparts from Nikon and Canon, featured solidly built aluminum lens barrels with stainless-steel mounts. These lenses were built for the long haul, which is why they are still common 50 or more years after they were originally introduced.
My first SLR was a Pentax H3v. (The top-of-the-line Spotmatic, which had a built-in meter, was out of my price range.) I bought it with a 50mm f/1.4 Super Takumar and a 135mm f/2.5 Super Takumar, which is a terrific portrait lens and short telephoto. Some of the images I captured with these lenses I still consider “keepers.”
In 1975, Pentax transitioned to the bayonet-style K-mount, which has been the standard Pentax lens mount to this very day. In addition to Pentax, K-mount lenses are also produced by about a half-dozen other manufacturers. Though often overlooked, there are many Pentax Super-Takumars available at very affordable prices.
Over the years, Pentax has also produced a series of compact full-frame 35mm lenses to complement its smaller consumer DSLRs. The smaller form factor of these compact Super Takumar lenses makes them equally well suited for use with other brands of mirrorless cameras via lens adapter. These compact Pentax lenses are available new and used.
Nikon, which started out as a lens manufacturer (Nippon Kogaku), first gained recognition when it started producing affordable alternatives to Leica rangefinders, which took the photographic world by storm a quarter century earlier, in pre-WWII Germany.
Many of Nikon’s earliest lenses were like Nikon rangefinder cameras, thinly veiled knockoffs of Leica screw-mount cameras and lenses. Nikon soon began developing lens designs of its own, many of which evolved into some of the same lenses we use to this very day. Some of them. Nikon’s 35mm f/1.8 W-NIKKOR C rangefinder lens—one of the fastest wide-angle lenses in its day—and the multi-generation classic Nikon NIKKOR 105mm f/2.5 portrait lens are among the several rangefinder lenses that were reengineered for use with Nikon’s first SLR—the Nikon F.
In terms of quality, 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s vintage Nikon NIKKOR manual focus lenses are built like tanks, and many of the classics, such as the Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 and NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 AI-S, are still in production after 30-plus years. This isn’t to say there aren’t any newer-generation AF NIKKORs worth mentioning. Nikon’s trio of full-frame autofocus macro lenses, which includes the Nikon AF-S Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED, and AF Micro-NIKKOR 200mm f/4D IF-ED, are three among many outstanding lenses that are not only affordable new, but can often be found used and occasionally factory refurbished in the B&H Used Department.
A long-time Nikon user, some of my personal NIKKOR favorites include the 105mm f/1.8 AI-S, which is an outstanding portrait lens with phenomenal image quality, and the 15mm f/3.5 AI-S, which was, for the longest time, one of the few (relatively) affordable rectilinear ultra-wide-angle lenses on the market.
One last Nikon lens worth checking out if you’re into compact glass is the 45mm f/2.8 GN NIKKOR, a sharp pancake lens originally intended for flash photography but reintroduced in later years as a compact normal lens; it was available in chrome or black. A similar 45mm f/2.8 pancake lens was produced by Zeiss for Contax DSLRs.
Canon FD Manual-Focus Lenses
When autofocus technologies first came to light, Canon pounced on them and quickly knocked Nikon out of first place among professional shooters. Production of Canon’s manual focus FD-series lenses came to a grinding halt while the R&D money was redirected to further development of newer Canon EF autofocus lenses. As a result, the value of a lot of truly fine Canon FD lenses—including manual-focus Canon L-series lenses, dropped like a midwinter Arctic Express from Canada.
Many of the original Canon EF autofocus lenses featured the same (or near-identical) lens formulas as the manual focus FD-series lenses they replaced. And many of these lenses have stood up well to time. All you need is an adapter and any of these fine optics can be put to good use.
Canon L-series lenses are Canon’s finest, and many of the original manual-focus versions can also be purchased at prices far lower than their contemporary Canon EF counterparts. Wide-angle, manual focus Canon L-series lenses include the 7.5mm and 15mm Canon FD fisheyes, FD 14mm f/2.8L ultra-wide, and FD 24mm f/1.4L. Other Canon wides include the FD 17mm f/4 and FD 20mm f/2.8. Need speed? There’s always the ever-classic FD 50mm f/1.2L and FD 85mm f/1.2L.
Telephoto manual-focus L-series lenses include the FD 200mm f/1.8L, FD 300mm f/2.8L and 300mm f/4L, FD 400mm f/2.8L, and FD 500mm f/4.5L. And let us not forget a dozen-plus FD L-series zoom lenses and the newer EF autofocus lenses, all of which are available used.
Minolta Rokkor lenses are as capable as the best of them. And if you happen to be the owner of a Sony A-mount camera, which uses the Minolta bayonet mount, the number of used lenses you can mount on your Sony A-series camera is staggering.
Two Minolta Rokkor lenses that portrait photographers tend to use are the Minolta MC Rokkor 58mm f/1.2 and the Minolta MD 85mm f/2. Minolta also made excellent wide-angle lenses, including the MD W.Rokkor 24mm f/2.8, which was so good it was rebranded by Leica for its R-series cameras.
Minolta also made a neat 45mm pancake lens, the Minolta Rokkor-x 45mm f/2, that was a stop faster than the 45mm pancake lenses made by Nikon and Zeiss.
On a personal note, I prefer the older manual focus Rokkor lenses over the newer models, specifically because I prefer the all-metal construction of older Minolta lenses. The newer models, including many of the AF Rokkors, are made of polymer materials, which simply do not feel as solid as their metal-alloy counterparts. They are sharp, but the ergonomics and tactile attributes of these lenses have always left me cold.
Zeiss lenses have been considered among the gold standards of the camera industry for over a hundred years. This means there are many very good lenses available in a wide variety of lens mounts. And many of these sleepers are very affordable. As an example, a Carl Zeiss Jena 20mm f/4 Flektogon is a sharp, extremely well-corrected M42-mount ultra-wide-angle lens that was manufactured from 1963 to 1978 by Zeiss Jena (Carl Zeiss’s so-called East-German counterpart during the Cold War). Clean samples can be found for $330 to $400 online or at the B&H Used Department, when available. If you’re looking for a very good—and very affordable—ultra-wide, this is a great option.
Another East German classic that’s quite inexpensive is the Zeiss Jena Triotar 135mm f/4 Sonnar (later shortened to “S”); a simple, 3-element portrait lens that was widely produced with M42 and other lens mounts.
If you prefer newer lens designs, there are numerous Zeiss options on the market. Zeiss Batis autofocus and Zeiss Milvus-series manual-focus lenses are older lens styles designed for Nikon (ZF, ZF.2) Pentax (ZK), and Canon (ZE) that have been updated. Though the newer Batis lenses feature autofocusing, are notably lighter weight, and are better corrected for aberrations, the differences in image quality are negligible among the many variants I’ve shot with over time.
Cost-wise, these older Zeiss lenses cost notably less than their newer Batis and Milvus counterparts, depending on the vintage and condition of the lens. Other Zeiss lenses worth looking for are the equally fine optics produced for the Contax SLRs made by Kyocera (1983-2005).
Depending on the lens, these solidly built, manual focus lenses were manufactured either in West Germany or in Japan by Cosina, Zeiss’s long-time manufacturing partner. These lenses had Contax/Yashica (C/Y) bayonet-style lens mounts, which are easily adaptable to most mainstream mirrorless cameras and DSLRs.
As for value, I recently purchased a pair of Zeiss Makro-Planar C/Y-mount lenses—a 60mm f/2.8 and a 100mm f/2.8—both of which focus to life size, for a total cost of $800. Even with the added cost of a pair of higher-quality C/Y-mount to Sony E-mount and Leica M-mount lens adapters, I was able to purchase both of these solidly built, incredibly sharp macro lenses for less than half the price of either of their current replacements.
Olympus OM Zuiko Lenses
The fact that Olympus OM-series digital mirrorless cameras are small and compact shouldn’t come as a surprise because Olympus OM film cameras were also small and compact. For this reason alone, it’s well worth looking at Olympus OM film-era lenses.
Over the years, Olympus produced several generations of compact prime lenses. Some of the more noteworthy of the lot include the Zuiko 50mm f/2 macro, Zuiko 90mm f/2 macro, and Zuiko 100mm f/2. Longer high-speed telephotos worth checking out include the Zuiko 180mm f/2, Zuiko 250mm f/2, Zuiko 350mm f/2.8, and Zuiko 350mm f/4.5.
Olympus also produced a 35mm f/2.8 shift lens, a fast 90mm f/2 macro, and a 100mm f/2 portrait lens that portrait shooters often mention as a favorite.
Introduced in 1954, Leica continues to produce M-mount lenses to this very day. Though current aspheric Leica M-mount lenses are among the sharpest in the industry, many enthusiasts prefer the look of older-generation Leica glass. Regardless of your personal preferences, there are numerous Summicrons, Summitars, Elmars, and other Leica classics available and many are—believe it or not—affordable.
Leica M-mount lenses have also been produced (and continue to be produced) by Zeiss and Voigtländer, and many of these retro-style lenses are surprisingly sharp, not to mention very well made.
Considering the fact cameras and lenses have been around for more than a century and a half, we could go on forever listing oldie-but-still-darn-goody lenses, but I’ve run out of my share of allotted space.
Are there any lenses I’ve missed that others should be aware of? If so, let us know in the Comments field, below—we’d love to hear about more great and affordable glass.
To talk about Pentax photo optics, there are common SMC lenses, and the 'star' lenses, and limited lenses. These 'star' optics are intended to enthusiast photographers and are technically at a high level. Say, I prefer Canon and will shoot Canon, but I love Pentax as well. To be added, you can promote your skills if you are shooting any Pentax lens from the market and you can become a professional photographer while shooting any Pentax lens. After all, Pentax produced some time so-called 'limited' optics, that are intended for gear collectors. These are not standart focal length prime lenses and provide good quality image. These lenses do not contain plastic molded aspheric, for example. The used gear market contains many variants of Pentax lens gear, mostly Pentax-M and Pentax-A mechanical bayonet optics, prime and zoom. Write carefully description of the product offer, and this is a win-win variant for those who wants new condition lenses.
You've got it all wrong.
"It’s no big secret that the Minolta bayonet mount is one and the same as the modern Sony A-mount", because it isn't. Minolta Rokkor lenses are not compatible with Sony A-mounts. There is no such thing as auto focus Minolta Rokkors. LIke how Canon ditched their FD lens mount in 1987 for autofocus EF lens mount, Minolta ditched their Rokkor lens in 1985 for the autofocus Maxxum/Dynax/Alpha Mount. It's that system that is compatible with the Sony A-Mount.
Worth mentioning in the Olympus section is the OM Zuiko 500mm ƒ/8 Reflex. You may have gotten burned out by cheap and crappy mirror lenses, but this one is a cut above the rest, while being lighter and more compact than other highly regarded mirrors, like the Nikon and the Zeiss ones.
I hope everyone caught the speed/or how wide the old lenses are, pay big bucks today for fast glass. Canon Ftb user and keep till digital, went Sony 2014 and used all that glass for a year (even today). Both 100 and 200 macro with extension tubes are used by pros and with Sony's MF highlight easy to focus steps for more in-focus. The old are so small and yes you have to work like the old days with a log book. Yes able to capture no post program can do, prism filters of old hard to come by but effect are great. And you can put EXIF data with image using LensTagger in Lightroom.
A slight correction: it was Canon that was the Leica knockoff, with the Leica screw mount. Nikon was a knockoff of the Zeiss Ikon Contax, and it used the Contax bayonet mount. (Nikon also made some screw mount lenses, but didn’t make a camera with that mount).
What about Zeiss Contax 645 lenses? They are superb in their image quality.
I have a range of them from 55mm to 140mm and would love to use them on my Canon 5Ds-r and Sony A7111
Who makes an adapter for them?
Rollei produced a range of 35mm SLR cameras from the '70's up until '90's. The cameras featured Rollei's QBM mount (Quick Bayonet Mount) with an assortment of lenses available from Carl Zeiss as well as their own line of Rolleinar lenses. In addition to the Zeiss and Rolleinar lenses, there were a handful of lenses from Schneider in the QBM mount.
I own a few of the Zeiss lenses including the Distagon 35/1.4 and Planar 85/1.4. These two lenses, in the QBM mount, uses a very unusual triangular aperture opening. Talk about bokeh especially with the 85mm!
I have a few Minolta Rokkor lenses that I bought back in the mid 70's & early 80's that I still use on my SONY A6000 I love them.
They maybe manual and heavy compared to my kit lens but they are so great to use.
They include a 50mm MC Rokkor PG f1.4, 28mm MC W.Rokkor f2.8, 24mm 5MD W.Rokkor f2.8, 100mm MD Tele Rokkor f2.5 & there is also a 50mm MD Rokkor f1.7
Before you ask, no I'll never sell them, but I could be tempted to swap them for a new A7 RIII body (just joking).
I need them as they fit perfectly on my XE1 & XD7 SLR's
Leica R lenses are easily adaptable to modern digital cameras. I know this article is about buying vintage lenses that rival their modern day counterparts for cheap. But, what about lenses that are vintage that dont have modern day counterparts and could arguably be better then Leica and Ziess. Depending on the focal length some of these type of lenses can be had for a few hundred dollars. Some focal lengths with larger aperture are not so cheap and go up the thousand. I am talking about Rodestock lenses.
How come I can not edit my comment? Lol? Rodenstock
My first serious camera was a Nikon FTn I bought overseas in the early 70's. That camera is long gone and now I use the Sony a7 series of cameras. I've taken to buying some of the old Nikkor glass that I coveted but couldn't afford in my youth.
Not all old Nikkors are created equal so here is my list of some of the better ones. 24mm 1:2.8 wide angle. The 50mm 1:1.2 which replaced the 55mm 1:1.2 that is not as sharp. The 55mm does have its place as a buttery soft focus portrait lens, it makes a woman's skin simply glow. The 55mm 1:1.2 is a killer night-time available light combo on the front of my a7Sii.
The 105mm 1:1.8 the author mentions is a very nice lens but comes with a hefty price tag, Consider the much cheaper 105mm 1:2.5, it was designed for close focus and was the go to fashion/beauty lens of the 70s.
In the longer focal lengths the 200mm 1:2.8. It is sought out by collectors and still fetches upwards of $2000. Consider the 180mm 1:2.8 at a few hundred. In the super tellies you can get a 600mm 1:4 for the tenth of the price of a modern AF version. They weigh a bit more than this old man wants to pack so consider the lighter 500mm 1:4 or 600mm 1:5.6.
It seems everyone has to have the sharpest available lenses but these old manual focus lenses have a character and quality that you can't get these days. a few of them can be had for around $100 and an all metal Metabones F to E adapter is another $99. The cost of entry is pretty low so it won't hurt much to get into it.