So you’ve just picked up a new mirror-less camera. Maybe it even came with a kit lens. Good stuff, and the kit lens is pretty decent, too! You’ve been having fun with that zoom and are starting to think about some new lenses. Great! But the internet’s been yelling at you to ditch the zooms and scoop some primes. Decent advice; prime lenses typically offer the best image quality in the smallest package. So after months of research, you can’t resist any longer. You won’t be happy till you’re shooting primes.
You head online to window-shop and come down with an immediate and acute case of sticker shock. Primes are expensive. For reference, Fujifilm’s XF 35mm ƒ/1.4 averages a cost of around $500. This is a fair price for an amazing piece of glass, but it’s not affordable for everyone. So what do you do if you’re one of those (reasonable) people who desperately want to shoot prime lenses, but find it difficult to justify the high cost? I’m afraid the only solution is to give up photography and start collecting various lengths of string found in the wild. Sorry.
Wait. No. Come to find out, there is an alternative. By using manual-focus vintage lenses, you’ll be able to satisfy all your photographic needs for an absurdly low price. Vintage lenses will let you shoot everything from landscapes to portraits, street shots to macro. Furthermore these lenses aren’t just extremely affordable, they’re also exceptional in the areas of build quality and image quality. So let’s take a look at how to score a whole bag of fantastic lenses for the same cost of a single modern lens.
When striking out to buy a suite of vintage lenses, your first bit of research should be to figure out which adapters are available for your mirror-less camera. This will point you toward which company’s lenses you should look to purchase. Canon, Nikon, Voigtlander, and Minolta are some of the most popular vintage lenses, and adapters are plentiful that allow mounting these on many modern mirror-less cameras. Look for adapters from Fotodiox, or Metabones, as these tend to be well-constructed, metal offerings.
Less capable adapters don’t allow infinity-focus. This is constricting in that the photographer won’t be able to fully focus with any given lens. This is a product of the mathematics of the lens’ flange distance in relation to the sensor of the camera to which it’s being fitted. Also notable is that some adapters use a glass element in order to achieve infinity focus. This is not ideal, as it affects image quality and diminishes the amount of light that passes through to the sensor. The engineering behind all this can get a bit technical/boring, so just look for a glass-less adapter that boldly advertises an ability to focus to infinity.
It’s also good to remember that mirror-less cameras usually feature crop-sensors. If you’re unfamiliar with crop-sensors, a bit of reading can help clear things up. The takeaway is that these sensors are smaller than the 35mm format that’s been the standard since the ancient days of film. The smaller sensors found in many of today’s cameras require the shooter to multiply the lens’ advertised focal length by a crop-factor (usually x1.5 or 1.6). This means that when you’re buying a lens that says, for example, 35mm it may not be a true 35mm once it’s fitted onto your camera. If your camera isn’t a full-frame machine you’ll need to do the math. For the Fujifilm X-E1 used in this article, the crop factor is x1.5. Different machines have different crop factors, so do your research.
Once you’ve determined your crop factor and found your adapter it’s time to decide which manufacturer’s lenses you’ll collect. If you’ve inherited an old stash of camera gear from a relative, or you’ve got your own vintage lenses from cameras past, then the decision becomes easier. If you’re starting fresh, the decision is more tricky and there aren’t any real tips to guide you. Since the idea is to create a lens suite on the cheap, you’ll be best served by choosing a manufacturer whose lenses are affordable while still offering the quality and performance your style of photography demands.
Use your own discretion when selecting which lenses to buy. Understand the type of shooting you do most and tailor your shopping list to suit. If you’re never going to shoot a portrait, skip the portrait lens, and if street shooting is your bread and butter then perhaps buy a couple of interesting standards. It’s not a bad idea to buy a vintage lens guide from whichever company you choose. All the manufacturers had them, and they’ll list every lens available as well as offer incredibly detailed information about construction and operation. Use the guide to mix and match lenses to create your own unique assemblage of glass that perfectly fits your habits, style, and budget.
For the sake of this article, we’ll look at how to create a full-featured kit using Minolta lenses. By the end, our bag will contain a wide angle, a standard, a portrait, and a telephoto lens. To satisfy all these focal lengths with first-party mirror-less system lenses you’d be looking at a cost of around $3,000. By using manual focus Minolta (or any other brand) glass you’ll see that it’s possible to fill your bag with comparable glass for under $500. Pretty damn cheap.
The wide-angle lens is a staple of photography. Used in architectural shooting, landscapes, cityscapes, and street photography, the wide-angle lens is one of the most versatile and artistically relevant lenses you can own. With vintage lenses, typically the wider a lens the more that lens tends to cost, so shooting on a crop-sensor camera makes finding an affordable wide-angle lens even trickier. Because of the crop factor, to get even a moderately wide focal length will require an extremely wide lens. For example, to achieve a 24mm focal length on a crop-sensor camera would require a 16mm lens, which would immediately blow most people’s budget.
It becomes apparent pretty quickly that the widest one can get while maintaining a semblance of affordability is going to be a crop-factor adjusted 35mm. For this we’ll select the Minolta MD 24mm ƒ/2.8. This lens has fantastic sharpness across the entire frame, even when shot wide open. With the lens stopped down a bit the crispness becomes downright amazing. Chromatic aberration and distortion are both virtually non-existent. This is one of the best wide lenses Minolta made, and is criminally overlooked these days.
Since we’ve got a 35mm lens already, we’ll aim to add an affordable 50mm to our vintage kit. Somewhat confusingly, adding a 50mm lens means that we’ll actually be shopping for a 35mm Minolta lens. Again, this is because of the crop factor. This in mind, the 35mm lens becomes a 52mm, which is a perfect standard focal length and excellent for street shooting, snapshots, traveling, and general use.
The Minolta MD W. Rokkor 35mm ƒ/1.8 is a pretty fast lens, and used on the Fujifilm will offer tack-sharp images even in low-light. All lens’ aperture are affected by your camera’s crop factor in the same way that it affects focal length, so the ƒ/1.8 isn’t actually 1.8. Even so, this lens is still good enough wide-open to create decent bokeh. If you’re a bokeh fanatic you’re likely going to shell out the coin for an ƒ/1.2, or opt for the Fujinon XF lens, but if you’re not completely obsessed by those blurry balls of light then the Minolta 35mm will be good enough. It can create enough subject isolation to get the job done, and the lens’ contrast, color, and sharpness are second-to-none.
Here’s one of the best bargains in vintage lenses. Aside from necessitating manual focus, the Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm ƒ/1.4 is a no-compromise portrait lens. Shooting on a crop-sensor mirror-less ups the focal length to around 85mm, which is nearly perfect for portraiture. The fast aperture of ƒ/1.4 is enough to create fabulous subject isolation and massive bokeh balls of glory. Shooting wide open is the business, with creamy and dreamy shots coming effortlessly. The lens isn’t as sharp as some of the more modern or expensive lenses, but there’s a unique quality to the softness that’s actually pretty pleasing, especially in portraiture. Stop the lens down to ƒ/4 and things sharpen nicely.
The build quality is amazing. Entirely metal construction, excellent optic coating, and a smooth-as-silk focus action are standout features. But the most impressive facet of this lens is the price. You can find this portrait-shooting masterpiece for as low as $50. That’s unbelievable.
Shooting a tele-photo on a crop-sensor camera can get a bit bonkers, especially if the camera lacks in-body stabilization. The Fujifilm X-E1 used here doesn’t sport this feature, so shooting handheld at an equivalent 202mm focal length is pretty shaky. Still, the Minolta MC Tele-Rokkor 135mm ƒ/2.8 is usable with a steady hand, or certainly usable with a tripod. The 135mm focal length from Minolta encompasses a collection of lenses of differing quality. Some 135s are on the lower end of the quality spectrum, with lackluster contrast and sharpness. There are a few examples, such as the later MC and MD versions that are pretty legendary in all respects. Even with a subpar early model, the price is unbeatable. You’re looking at a 200mm lens for around $40.
When looking for a 135mm, try to find the later MC/MD version featuring four elements in four groups. This will usually bear the moniker “Rokkor”, or “Rokkor-X” without a letter suffix as seen on earlier versions (Rokkor-PF, for example). Use the Fuji’s manual focus aids such as expanded view and focus peaking, and you’ve got a pretty decent telephoto solution at a fantastic price. Just lay off the caffeine before shooting.
And there you have it. For around the cost of a single auto-focus mirror-less lens a photographer can fairly easily build a complete and capable lens lineup. Naturally these manual-focus lenses won’t be ideal for fast subjects, sports photography, or other tasks that demand extremely quick focusing, but the build quality and optical characteristics make them an option worth considering.
There’s nothing like the feel of an exceptional piece of vintage engineering in your hand, and these lenses don’t disappoint. If Minolta isn’t your jam, options abound from the likes of Nikon, Pentax, Canon, etc. The important thing is to find a lens set that fits your needs and budget. Good luck out there.
Let us know which vintage lenses are your favorites in the comments.
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