Shooting with Adapted Lenses

Introduction

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.

Life is black and white on the green pastures of Seacliff. Olympus OM-D with Tokina 17 mm f/3.5 (Olympus OM Mount). 1/1250 s, ISO 200.
Life is black and white on the green pastures of Seacliff. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Tokina 17 mm f/3.5 (Olympus OM Mount). 1/1250 s, ISO 200.

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.

I've owned this for three years and still haven't put a roll of Super-8 film through it. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Soligor 70-220 f/3.5 C/D. 1/40 s, ISO 6400.
I’ve owned this for three years and still haven’t put a roll of Super-8 film through it. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Soligor 70-220 f/3.5 C/D (Olympus OM Mount). 1/40 s, ISO 6400.

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.

Puss sunbathing (and shedding fur all over the sofa). Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Meyer-Optik Trioplan 50 mm f/2.9 V (M42 Mount). 1/160 s, ISO 400.
Puss sunbathing (and shedding fur all over the sofa). Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Meyer-Optik Trioplan 50 mm f/2.9 V (M42 Mount). 1/160 s, ISO 400.

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.

The chicken made its escape after it was discovered acting like a rabbit. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Topcor-S 50 mm f/2 (L39 Mount). 1/500 s, ISO 200.
The chicken made its escape after it was discovered acting like a rabbit. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Topcor-S 50 mm f/2 (L39 Mount). 1/500 s, ISO 200.

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.

This is part of a bush lily, with some trees behind it. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 50 mm f/1.8 (Olympus OM Mount). 1/100 s, ISO 1250.
This is part of a bush lily, with some trees behind it. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 50 mm f/1.8 (Olympus OM Mount). 1/100 s, ISO 1250.

The Look

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.

Apparently, it's autumn (or fall, whichever way you're inclined). Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Meyer-Optik Trioplan 50 mm f/2.9 V (M42 Mount). 1/200 s, ISO 200. Note the bokeh in the tree canopy.
Apparently, it’s autumn (or fall, whichever way you’re inclined). Note the bokeh. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Meyer-Optik Trioplan 50 mm f/2.9 V (M42 Mount). 1/200 s, ISO 200.

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.

A stream through the Botanical Gardens, brought to you by: cold, wet feet; a near accident on a muddy incline; and another near accident on a wet rock. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7. 1/800 s, ISO 200.
A stream through the Botanical Gardens, brought to you by: cold, wet feet; a near accident on a muddy incline; and a near accident on a wet rock. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7. 1/800 s, ISO 200.

Conclusion

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.

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