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vintage lenses

It’s all the rage these days to play with adapted vintage lenses. Have to admit it is a pretty cool concept and quite fun to do and experiment with. So what do you need to know before you buy your first vintage lens? For me, the most important part of the process of acquiring an old/ vintage lens is due diligence.

What is due diligence?  It is an investigation regarding certain aspects or qualities of the lens or pertaining to lens. To make it easier, let’s call it research or documentation and here’s a 7 Step Guide for Buying Vintage Lenses in 2016.

1. Is it radioactive?

It’s 2016 and adapting lenses to your modern digital camera is cool but is it healthy as well?


Did you know that some older/ vintage lenses are radioactive?  I didn’t know either until I found this list. According to Camerapedia typical radiation levels can approach 10 mR/hr as measured at the lens element’s surface, decreasing substantially with distance; at a distance of 3 ft. (.9 m.) the radiation level is difficult to detect over typical background levels. For reference, a typical chest x-ray consists of about about 10 mR, a round-trip cross country airline flight exposes a passenger to 5 mR, and a full set of dental x-rays exposes the patient to 10 mR to 40mR.

The first thing I do before deciding whether or not to buy an old/ vintage lens is check the list to see if that particular lens is radioactive. If it is, I’m not going to buy that lens even if image quality is superb or if it has a great design or the price is really cheap. The last thing I want to worry about is the radioactivity of a lens and its effects.

So next time you want to buy an old/ vintage lens, check the radioactive lenses list!

2. Do you like the design?

If you look for a lens to be a long term companion and friend, design matters. The shape and throw of that that focus ring, the color of the lens, the all around shapes and that beautiful glass. Sure all vintage lenses will have an interesting look but some of them will appeal to you because of their design. However if the lens gives photographs a certain look, a certain bokeh pattern then the exterior of the lens may not matter as much.

3. Is it easy to adapt to your current camera mount?

Older lenses come in different mounts as well. Probably the most common vintage lens mount is M42, a screw thread mounting standard for attaching lenses to 35 mm cameras, primarily single-lens reflex models.

A M42 mount lens is an easy and cheap way to enter the adapted lenses world. Other mounts may be the Fujinon, Olympus OM, M39 Leica, Nikon, Canon FD, C (CCTV) etc.

Before buying a certain lens be sure to find out what mount it has and whether or not that specific adapter if available at your local camera store or on Ebay.

4. Price

Vintage lenses prices have increased in the past 5 years due to the fact that a lot of hipsters people are using them. Still you can still get some great deal on lenses even on ebay but it might tale some work and time.

Before making that vintage lens purchase be sure to check ebay prices as well just to be sure you are not overpaying. However if you get the chance to personally inspect the lens paying a bit more may be advantageous as you get to be sure of the quality of the lens you are buying so paying just a bit more than you would on ebay might not be such a bad thing.

5. Image quality/ Image samples

When buying an older/ vintage lens you should know that they are just not as sharp as modern day lenses. Depending on the year it was manufactured, a vintage lens will not be as sharp compared to your underestimated modern day kit lens.

swirly bokeh

Swirly bokeh made with Helios 44-2

However remember you’re buying a vintage for the experience and sometimes for it’s unique, distinctive look. Prior to buying the lens do a quick google search with the name of the lens and look at some image samples. A distinctive look that a lens renders might be appealing to others but not to you so be sure to know how the lens performs before buying it, it will save you time and money.

For ease of access do a google search for the name of the lens followed by “flickr” (e.g. “Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 flickr” – the first or second result will be the flickr group where people all over the world showcase their pictures taken with that specific vintage lens).

6. Reviews

Other people have owned or bought the vintage lens you might want to get your hands on and those people were kind enough to share their tests, reviews and image sample with you for free. Aren’t people just awesome?

So before buying that vintage lens you found a great deal on, first look for some reviews and find out more about the lens like how sharp it is, whether it’s fun to shoot with, does it render a unique look, build quality, general pros and cons.

7. Focal length equivalent  

If you want to adapt a certain lens to your full frame camera the focal length of the lens will remain the same (e.g. a 50mm lens adapted to a full frame camera will give you a 50mm angle of view 50×1; a 50mm lens adapted to a Sony or Nikon aps-c sensor camera will yield a 75mm equivalent angle of view – 50×1.5; a 50mm lens mounted to a Canon aps-c sensor will give you a 80mm equivalent on full frame – 50×1.6;  a 50mm lens mounted to a micro 4/3 sensor will yield a 100mm lens equivalent in full frame terms – 50×2).

Calculating equivalent focal length for your sensor:

Full frame: Lens focal length x 1

Sony, Nikon Aps-c: Lens Focal Length x 1.5

Canon Aps-c: Lens Focal Length x 1.6

Micro 4/3: Lens Focal Length x 2

This is very important because if you’re shooting on a crop sensor you’ll get very different results depending on focal length used which means a 50mm vintage lens will probably not be the best street photography lens for your crop sensor camera.

So depending on what you like shooting you should carefully choose your focal length to suit your photography style.

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image credit digitalbolex, MC Rokkor-PG f/1.2 by sanmai, swirly bokeh by viktor