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Vintage Lenses in the DSLR Age
Posted Jul 1, 2010 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Reading this article will save you thousands of dollars. I know that statement sounds like something you'd hear while channel surfing at 3 a.m., but it's absolutely true. All you need is the time it takes to read this article, an open mind, and an adventurous spirit. So let's get started! If you're one of the thousands of videographers who are currently or have recently upgraded to a DSLR such as the Canon 5D Mark II, EOS 7D, or Rebel T2i for video, you've likely experienced the sticker shock of how much money you'll need to invest in lenses. The cost of DSLR purchases is completely different from investing in fixed-lens camcorders; the $2,500 or $1,700 you spend on the 5D or 7D (respectively) is just the beginning when it comes to equipping these cameras to get the shots you want. The conventional wisdom is that there are two ways forward when it comes to lens purchasing: One way is to invest in the fastest glass you can find and write it off as the cost of doing business. The other way is to make compromises and buy slower glass at a lower cost just so you have something to start out with in the hopes of upgrading to something better later. We'll look at the pros and cons of each.

Choosing Your Glass
Let's say you choose the first option and go with the Canon brand lenses. For a minimum suite of lenses for shooting a wedding video, you're looking at an investment of about $2,768. This would include a 17mm-55mm f/2.8 with image stabilizer ($1,119), a 70mm-200mm f/2.8 without image stabilizer ($1,300), and a 50mm f/1.4 ($369.95). You can cut this total nearly in half if you go with lenses from companies such as Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron. But you're still looking at a sizable investment, and the price tag could double or triple if you buy duplicates for a second and third DSLR. You'll be amazed at how quickly it adds up.

The upside of this approach is that there's a reason the Canons are so expensive. They feature quality optics both in build and image quality. If you take care of them, you'll never have to buy lenses again, and you'll be able to resell them at the cost you paid for them. The downside is that they're expensive, and the high cost of just getting started might be a deterrent to those who want to get in the DSLR game.

If you choose the second option, you'll save some money, but you won't get the most you can out of your equipment. The lenses on the budget end of the spectrum tend to be slower and cheaply built. If you're on a budget, you can get a Tamron 18mm-250mm f/3.5-6.3 ($329) and a Canon 50mm f/1.8 ($99) and be somewhat OK for less than $500 per lens suite. But you have to make compromises when it comes to the speed of your main lens, and the budget lenses might be difficult to use in dim locations such as a wedding reception venue. Still, choosing cheaper glass is a good way to at least get started with DSLR video on a restricted budget, but it's not the best way, by far. That leads us to the third way forward: vintage lenses.

Going Old School
Once again, let's take the example of the minimum suite of lenses you'll need for a wedding shoot. Here are the lenses that are in my bag and the prices I paid for them:

  • Standard Zoom: Tokina RMC (OM mount) 28mm-70mm f/2.8-4.3, $35 (shipped)
  • Telephoto Zoom: Vivitar Series 1 (OM mount) 70mm-210mm f/3.5, $90 (shipped)
  • 50(ish) fast prime: Mamiya Sekor (M42 mount) 55mm f/1.4, $40 (local pickup)
  • Adapters: $20 x 3 = $60
  • Grand Total: $225

Canon 550D Rebel T2i with Helios 44M

If you go this route and have a lens budget of $500, you'll have money left over. You can add a few other lenses that I have in my bag just for fun:

  • Helios 44M (M42 mount) 58mm f/2, $35
  • Mamiya Sekor (M42 mount) 35m f/2.8, $27
  • Jupiter 9 (M42 mount) 85mm f/2, $128
  • Adapters: $20 x 3 = $60
  • Aggregate Total: $975

Shot with the Canon Rebel T2i and Jupiter-9 85mm

By now, you probably have a few questions, and they are probably in this order:

  1. Where did you find these lenses a such a great cost?
  2. What lenses can be adapted, and how do I go about doing it?
  3. Are these lenses any good?

Let's go in the opposite direction, because in order to really appreciate the price of these classic lenses, you have to understand the value of vintage lenses, especially for the videographer. Let's start with the objective qualities of manual focus (MF) lenses and move toward more subjective areas.

Build Quality
Most MF lenses that were made before the '90s tend to be made of metal. This results in a much heavier lens but also a more rugged build. These babies are built to last.

Aside from ruggedness and a solid feel in your hands, the manual focus rings on the old lenses are generally smooth and dampened with long focus throws. This makes sense; back in the day, that was the only way to focus your shot, so manufacturers couldn't skimp on that part of the lens design. Aside from image quality and cost, the reason I love working with MF lenses is the confidence I have in nailing perfect focus every time without the need for any expensive accessories. I can't overstate the value of this feature.

Finally, on the subject of build quality, the aperture ring is right on the lens. Owners of the Canon XH A1 already know how fast and convenient this feature is, and it's just as great to use on a video-equipped DSLR. Imagine, for instance, that you're following the bride and groom from the inside of the church to the outside. What's faster than stopping down the aperture through the lens to maintain perfect exposure? This is another feature that makes working with vintage lenses preferable to working with the newer autofocus (AF) lenses for event filmmakers. It's much faster and more intuitive than doing it electronically.

Assorted MF Lenses
Assorted lenses in the Dallas Wedding Films collection: on the camera, Vivitar 70-210 3.5 (OM mount). On the table, top to bottom: Mir 24M (35 f/2), Mamiya Sekor 55mm f/1.4,Helios 44M (58mm f/2), Jupiter-9 (85mm f/2), Tokina RMC 28mm-70mm 2.8-4.3.

There are two ways to talk about optics when it comes to classic lenses. We'll start with an objective view and then move into more subjective areas. Objectively speaking, a 50mm f/1.4 MF lens from the '70s will give you the same light sensitivity and focal length as a digital AF 50mm f/1.4 lens made today. Physics doesn't change. The most significant advancements in lens technology that have occurred are lens coating to reduce flare, image stabilization, and, of course, AF controls. If you don't need those things and if all other things are equal, you should consider investing in a prime lens from the last century.

The second aspect of optics comes down to personal taste. When I started collecting vintage lenses to fill in the gaps in my lens suite, I was just looking at focal length and maximum aperture. What I discovered, though, is how different brands of lenses have their own distinct character. Due to the varying approaches to contrast, sharpness, bokeh, and flare control of lens makers, it's possible to get a totally different picture using different lenses that share the same focal length and aperture.

After a while, you'll start to seek out lenses that have a certain look to them. For instance, as of this writing, I find the look of the Russian Helios lenses the most intriguing, and I'm working on completing a set. For some of you, the Super Takumars by Asahi might pique your interest, while for others, it might be Carl Zeiss glass. The point is, whatever look you're going for, there's a lens out there for you.

More vintage lenses
More fun lenses shown here, clockwise from top: Jupiter-9, Helios 44M, Mir 24M

What Lenses Will Work and How to Adapt Them
Did you know that you can adapt 11 different lens types to the Canon Digital EOS cameras without loss of infinity focus or the need of a glass element? Here's the complete list of lenses, according to Bob Atkins Photography:

  • Contarex
  • Contax RTS
  • Leica R
  • Nikon
  • Olympus OM
  • Pentax K
  • Pentax Screw (M42)
  • Petri Bayonet
  • Ricoh Bayonet
  • T2 mount
  • Yashica FR, FX

That is one heck of a back catalog of lenses out there at your fingertips. So how does one go about bringing those classic lenses out of retirement? Just get an adapter. The job of a lens adapter is not only to conform your legacy lens to the Canon EF (electrofocus) Bayonet mount but also to correct the lens registration (the distance from the lens to the sensor) so you can focus to infinity. There are several inexpensive adapters out there, and I'm sure some of them are great, but the ones I like to use are the Fotodiox brand adapters. They're competitively priced and have a solid feel to them. I highly recommend them.

Once you attach the lens to your Canon T2i, 7D, or 5D, you'll get a screen that reads, "please press ‘live view button.'" After you press the button, your lens should work like any of your other lenses in video mode. The only difference will be that you won't have in-camera aperture control. But you do have the aperture ring, which, frankly, is more preferable anyway.

Check out the bokeh
Check out the bokeh achieved with my favorite MF lens (and the Canon 550D), the Helios 44M.

Where to Buy Vintage Lenses
So, finally, how does one find these alternative lenses? There are several ways to go about buying vintage lenses, depending on how much time you have and how much money you want to save. The easiest way to find vintage lenses is through the used sections at Adorama (www.adorama.com), B&H (www.bhvideo.com), and, my personal favorite, KEH.com (www.keh.com). Unlike B&H and Adorama, KEH only deals in vintage cameras and lenses, and the selection is pretty extensive. The prices also happen to be pretty competitive with the "Buy It Now" prices on eBay.

The only downside is that if you're looking for a model that's rare in the U.S. (such as any of the Russian-made lenses or a Meyer-Optik), you might be out of luck. Also, while the prices are amazing when compared to what modern AF lenses go for, there are even better deals out there. It just takes a little more work, which brings us to our next stop: eBay.

eBay can be a great resource for not only finding a great deal on lenses but also for finding rare lenses. While the eBay lens seller is savvier these days, it's still possible to come across someone who just wants to get rid of some old lenses that are collecting dust in the closet. These listings aren't always as easy to find, and you might need to search in the "not specified" section of the camera lens search. This is a little more time-consuming, but there's a better chance of finding an auction with no bidders or a seller who is willing to sell his or her lens outright for a few bucks. You just never know.

Another great resource is your local craigslist. Sometimes, you will see people selling their cameras with lenses at the site for rock-bottom prices. But you can also post a "wanted" ad for the lenses you're searching for. Out of all the online methods, this one is probably my favorite way to go about getting lenses. You don't have to spend hours looking for lenses; the people who want to sell will find you. It saves a lot of time and, potentially, a lot of money.


Pawn Shops
The best deals to be had, though, are in the real world, but they might require the most time investment. Every now and then, you'll get lucky and find some used lenses at rock-bottom prices at pawn shops. That's how I found my Telesar 28mm f/2.8 with macro ring for only $10. The upside to going the pawn shop route is that the dealers aren't as savvy as someone from B&H or KEH. That means you can walk into a pawn shop and walk out with a lens potentially worth 10 times what you paid for it.

The flip side is that a lot of pawn shops don't accept the old manual focus lenses because they think the lenses won't sell (and they're usually right), so finding a treasure trove of classic glass is going to be very hit-and-miss. What I would advise is to call ahead and check if the shop has lenses in stock before heading out. I would then make a list of the places that carry MF lenses and start shopping.

Another place to check for manual focus lenses is the local buy-and-sell shops in your area. They're sometimes listed as consignment shops, and you might get lucky and find dozens of old lenses just sitting there collecting dust. That was my experience when I went into a buy-and-sell shop and found an old Zenit camera with a Helios lens attached to it for only $35. More than likely, you won't find an awesome Soviet lens in a buy-and-sell shop. But at the very least, you may find some incredible values there if you're willing to sift through a lot of stuff to find them.

Quite possibly the best place to get a great price on vintage lenses is at a flea market. Many people on forums talk about vendors willing to make a deal for an entire box of old lenses. We're talking pennies on the dollar here. The downside is that you can spend a day going to the various flea markets and come home empty-handed. Vintage lenses can be found at flea markets, though, as I got a 70mm-150mm f/3.8 from one. However, you're going to waste a lot of time trying to find those treasures. Old 35mm lenses are the proverbial needle in a haystack when it comes to the chaos that is the flea market circuit, so be sure to set aside a Saturday or Sunday if you go this route. The savings, though, might be worth it.

Finally, don't be shy about asking your friends or relatives if they have an old Pentax camera or an old Olympus sitting in the closet. Chances are, you can get quite a few free lenses to start out with, and they will most likely be well taken care of. If you do know someone who might have some old cameras and/or lenses, you can place an order for some adapters, and you'll be shooting in no time. It's worth trying out.

Testing the Lenses
I am by no means an expert on testing lenses, but these few steps should help you when it comes to picking out a functioning lens. The first thing I do is take off the lens caps, give the lens a good cleaning with your lens cloth, and hold it up to the light. What you're looking for are things like internal dust, oil, and fungus. If everything looks good, then the next step is to check the mechanics.

With the lens still up to the light, open and close the aperture blades to ensure they are opening and closing smoothly. If the aperture ring does not respond to your twisting, don't panic. On some of the old lenses, there's an automatic/manual switch. Just move it over to manual, and you should be able to see the blades open and close. Next, twist the manual focus ring. The signs of a good focus ring are smooth as silk movement and the right amount of resistance. You don't want one that is too stiff or too loose.

Whenever possible, bring your camera along with some adapters when you shop for a vintage lens. This will serve two purposes. The first one is obvious: There's no better way to check out a lens than to put it on the camera itself. Another less obvious reason is for taking pictures of the lenses and lens mounts if you're not sure about their compatibility with your camera.

Are Vintage Lenses Right for You?
We've gone through a number of reasons to go with vintage lenses, but in all fairness, they might not be right for you depending on your needs. This may be due to the older technology inherent in classic glass.

  • No image stabilization: There is no such thing as image stabilization (IS) on vintage lenses. For those of you who use monopods, tripods, and other stabilizing equipment, the lack of this feature will not be a deal breaker for you. I use a Spiderbrace, and I have gotten very acceptable footage out of my non-IS Vivitar 70mm-210mm zoomed all the way in-no microjitters at all. However, for those who shoot handheld and use IS lenses to smooth out the microjitters and bumps, the necessary adjustment in shooting with a camera support system might be a large hurdle to overcome.
  • No autofocus: This is not really a big deal for us, but if you plan on going to the dark side and shooting stills, the lack of autofocus might be a deal breaker if you want to move a little faster on a shoot. Getting off your shot might be a tad slower with manual focus than autofocus. Again, I can't see this being a problem for the vast majority of videographers, but I felt it was fair to mention it.
  • LBA (Lens Buying Addiction): While this is not a scientifically diagnosed medical condition, it's worth discussing because when great classic lenses are in the impulse-buy zone, it's important not to get too crazy about collecting them. When most of us look at AF lenses, the prohibitive cost slows us down and forces us to really consider what we need to do the job. The same process applies to buying vintage lenses. Figure out what you need first, fill those niches, and then maybe expand your collection from there. After all, you don't want to collect a bunch of 50mm lenses when you still have a 35mm, an 85mm, and a long zoom to buy. Once you have your lens suite set up, then you can look into expanding your collection.

Final Thoughts
One thing I don't want readers to take away from this article is that I have something against modern AF lenses. I have a Tamron 17mm-50mm f/2.8 and a Canon 50mm f/1.8 in my bag, and I love them and use them quite often. The main purpose of this article is not only to offer an alternative to AF lenses but also to offer hope to people wondering if they can afford to upgrade to DSLRs for video. Some of you might use manual focus lenses as a stepping stone to the Canon L series or Zeiss Z series, or, if you're like me, you might like the look of classic glass and stay with vintage lenses. Whatever the case may be, I hope this article saves you hours of research and thousands of dollars. Best of luck.

Chris Watson (dynamotv at earthlink.net), a two-time EventDV 25 all-star, runs Dallas Wedding Films in Dallas. A multiple international award winner, producer of two popular training DVDs, and speaker at industry conventions, Chris and his work have been featured on The Wedding Bee, Livin’ the Simple Life, and Platinum Weddings.

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