Whether you have a large collection of old lenses you’d like to keep using, or you simply want to try something a bit offbeat, shooting adapted lenses has become more prevalent. The two driving factors (from my perspective) are the advent of D-SLR video, and mirrorless camera systems. Both of these are well suited to, and quite supportive of, shooting manual focus lenses on an adapter.
Having shot a range of older lenses adapted onto Pentax D-SLR and Micro Four Thirds formats, I’ve found it to be an excellent way to improve technique, as the camera won’t take up the slack if you drop the ball. It’s also quite motivational (and on some levels inspirational), as you find yourself pushing to eke the best out of each piece of glass, and exploring new ways to “capture the moment”, as it were.
Lenses and Adapters
As an (over-)active collector of older cameras, I have amassed a collection of older lenses. This tends to guide my second hand lens buying, as I like the redundancy of having a film option should the lens not work out on digital. As with any lens purchase, I aim for the best quality I can: this generally means a fixed focal length, bright maximum aperture, and excellent build quality.
My adapters are the opposite of my lenses. Needing adapters for many different mounts, I turned to eBay, and sought out the cheapest adapters. Since adapters are tubes or rings with mounts at either end, this hasn’t turned out badly: besides the odd mount needing tightening, they all seem correctly machined and aligned.
The Shooting Experience
Once mounted, adapted lenses handle as well as native lenses. The difference, especially on mirrorless cameras, comes when mounting a heavier lens. If handled without care, these can apply enough force to damage the lens mount.
Due to a lack of electronics, the camera body has to be set to the “shoot without lens” mode (or equivalent; it differs by manufacturer). I leave my cameras set to this, as it makes no difference when a native lens is mounted. Metering modes are often limited, too, as the matrix meters used in most cameras are incompatible with older lenses.
Focus and aperture settings are manual. Once you adjust to having these controls on the lens, it’s a non-issue. Many newer cameras also include focus aids, such as peaking (flashes the in-focus area in a bright colour) or magnification (of the focus point), to help you nail critical focus. I don’t use magnification (I don’t have a camera with peaking, so that’s a moot point) unless I’m doing close-up or large-aperture work, in which case I use 5-10x magnification. Other than those instances, the viewfinder is good enough to focus with.
I’ve often found older glass lacks contrast and tends to flare more easily than newer glass. I think it’s a combination of lens coatings, materials and designs, all of which have evolved dramatically. For some subjects, I love the atmosphere low contrast and flare brings. In some cases, it also adds bokeh that new lenses struggle to replicate. Case in point are lenses like the Meyer-Optik Trioplan 50/2.9, with 12 rounded aperture blades forming a perfect circle, compared to the seven of most new lenses. This gives diffuse orbs, rings, and sometimes even a tornado of blur.
One thing to be wary of is how suited to digital capture some lenses are: some perform as well as (or better than) newer ones, while others are significantly worse. The classic example of this is my Soligor 70-220/3.5: a brilliant lens on film, but woeful on digital. Between f/3.5-11 on digital, everything is surrounded by an angelic halo that eradicates detail. The halo disappears at f/16-22, by which time you’re losing detail to diffraction, noise (you’ll be at a very high ISO, make no mistake), and probably a relatively slow shutter speed. The Soligor isn’t alone, however, as I’ve encountered this on a Zeiss (the horror!) lens, too. The difference was, the Zeiss could be corrected by stopping down 1/3 stop, rather than 13/3 stops.
If you’re looking to re-instate your old SLR lenses, or after a vintage feel for stills and video, shooting adapted lenses is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. With adapters available readily and cheaply, as well as a bounty of diverse lenses on the second hand market, it’s an accessible, educational, and enjoyable field to move into.