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Are vintage lenses better?

There are several reasons why today's photographers and videographers would choose vintage lenses over their modern-day counterparts. Vintage lenses are plentiful and in most cases are a fraction of the cost of a modern equivalent; aesthetically they can produce images which have a different look and feel that many photographers enjoy.

In the post below I will give you my reasons for having a selection of vintage lenses in my collection and in later posts explain how I use them along with my thoughts on individual copies and example images.

Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm F2.8

How I came to use vintage lenses

When I moved from my Nikon digital DSLR system to the Fujifilm mirrorless system I had to slowly build up my lens collection again. I had a nice 50mm vintage lens that I liked to use on my Nikon and decided to buy a cheap adaptor to allow me to use it on my Fujifilm X-e1. Later I started to experiment with old film cameras which I would buy from eBay. Often these would come with a lens or two, and I bought more adaptors so I could use them with my digital camera.

Nikon 50mm shot @ F1.4

Vintage lenses are great value.

Lenses produced for film cameras were made in large quantities and over a long period. Most people think of vintage glass as having been produced in the 60's 70's and the eighties. Typically these lenses can be had for under $100 which can be far less than today's alternatives which afford the photographer the opportunity to build a lens collection affordably and of course they keep their value and could be sold on when no longer required.

Choice

By using adaptors, lenses from a variety of manufacturers can be used on today's cameras. I use the Fujifilm mirrorless system and have adaptors that allow me to fit Canon FD, Olympus, Nikon and M42 lenses. Adaptors can be had relatively cheaply and I have not had any issues using the low cost Chinese manufactured options.

Olympus 50mm @ F8

Character

Vintage lenses have character. That's hard to put your finger on I know but lenses from the analogue era can produce some interesting results which whilst not pixel perfect are, full of character! This is all subjective but the bokeh, softness and contrast of older lenses can give images a unique retro look. With my Fujifilm camera I can also use Custom Setting feature to replicate old film stocks which just adds to the fun.

Motivation and interest

As a hobbyist photographer it's all too easy to get stale and loose interest. I'm writing this at the start of 2021 and for most of the past year travel restrictions have been in place and most of us have been confined to home, lacked much social activity and been unable to get out and explore as much. These are the usual opportunities to reach for your camera and get some inspiration from new places and people.

However, I have used the time to research vintage lenses and build on my collection. I have revisited my local area and had a lot of enjoyment trying out my new/old gear. I have joined vintage lens groups on Facebook and started to see what other photographers are doing and share my stuff.

Using vintage gear isn't a panacea for boredom but it's an opportunity to expand your hobby and explore something new.

Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm f2.8

Where and how to buy

There are a number of photographic stores and specialist sellers on Etsy etc. who will sell refurbished vintage lenses usually with some sort of warranty and a good description on the condition along with any issues the item may have. My own preference is to shop on eBay and take my chances.

eBay provides a lot f choice and there are still some bargains to be had. Apart from looking for a particular lens it's worth looking at old film cameras up for sale which will sometimes come with a lens or two and sometimes a whole collection. The sum of the parts is often less than the cost of the individual items and you can sell on the items you don’t want.

The downside is that quality can be variable and unknown. Sellers often come across things in their garage or loft or when clearing out a house. Items are often sold as "working when last used" or "untested", " looks ok, etc. If it's clear the seller is no expert then aside from looking at the photographs and asking a few questions it's down to your judgement. I have yet to have any problem but these lenses are 40/50 years old so do not expect pristine!

Having said all that most vintage lenses were well build and made to last and many may have had little use and been lying around for decades. I will cover some of the thinks to look out for in more detail in a later post and link to it from here once I publish.

Olympus 135mm @F8

Conclusion

Vintage lenses are not better than glass designed for today's digital cameras. They offer an affordable alternative, a different look and can spark your creativity. I certainly think you should try them and if nothing else, it will expand your interest and creativity. Like anything else there are pros and cons and I will explore some of the disadvantages in a follow up post.

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