We are currently in what I believe to be the most exciting point in photography ever! Never before has such a broad range of photographic options been available. Regardless of what kind of photographic medium one likes, there are ways to access it. From the “humble” cell phone all the way to wet plate collodian, cutting edge digital and everything in between, these styles of photography are being practiced across the World! Since the advent of mirrorless digital cameras, adapting vintage lenses to digital has become immensely popular.
Conventional wisdom in photography over the years has stated that it’s better to invest in good lenses rather than camera bodies, particularly if your budget dictates that you make a choice between the two. Today, more than ever I believe that is true! In this post I’m going to discuss why I feel the best value for money in photography is manual focus SLR lenses combined with mirroless digital cameras!
So here are seven reasons why I believe manual focus SLR lenses are the best value for money in photography today.
Large variety of lenses to fit every budget.
Unique optical characteristics
Small, light and high quality
Best of both Worlds (Film and digital)
Next best thing to analogue!
Classic lenses enhanced by modern technology.
So let us unpack each of these points one by one, and at the end I’ll give some recommendations on lenses.
Large Variety of lenses
Though the earliest 35mm SLR cameras were being brought to market in the mid 1930’s, they really only began being mass produced in the early 1950’s, starting with companies such as the Asahi Optical Co. (later called Pentax) and then later, Minolta, Nikon, Canon, and Olympus to name a few. But manual focus SLR lenses have been in mass production ever since, and some companies such as Zeiss have produced “show piece” optics such as the Otus Distagon 55mm f/1.4 that have set new standards in what ultra high resolution lenses can achieve but these lenses sell for a whopping $4000 USD… On the other side of the budget spectrum there are some superbly capable SLR lenses from all of the above manufacturers for very reasonable prices in places such as eBay, Craigslist, flea markets and thrift stores.
One of my favourite lenses of all time is the SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7, a truly superb optic that is still very much useable on today’s modern digital cameras and can be easily found online in great condition for under $50 USD with some patience and careful searches on eBay. The two images below were made on that lens, I’ll do a review on it soon!
Unique optical characteristics
Modern day lenses are generally speaking, extremely well corrected for aberrations and for the most part very sharp. But their rendering can often be quite lifeless as a result! Classic lenses often have very unique rendering that makes for very artful imagery yet in many cases are equal to the modern optics in terms of sharpness. It's the unique character of these lenses that can also set your images apart, creating a beautiful look! When one takes into consideration the tens of thousands of used lenses out there in the second hand market, and the large variety of digital bodies available, the possibilities are endless!
Small, Light and high quality
In addition to being highly creative optical instruments, they are also generally speaking smaller and lighter than most modern lenses. Most classic lenses are made almost entirely from metal and glass, built to incredibly high standards, and their focus and aperture rings are precise and a joy to use! As travel lenses they’re hard to beat! Slip a light weight 50mm prime in your backpack and you’re all set! In addition to being small and light, they’re also incredibly reliable due to their all mechanical build, adding to their appeal as travel lenses. Classic lenses are often 50 or more years old, working perfectly, and will probably continue to do so well in to the future. This adds to their appeal as a reliable travel companion.
In conjunction with the above mentioned build quality, manual focus SLR lenses can be adapted to pretty much every brand of mirrorless camera on the market today. Adapters can be found for all of the most popular classic lenses to all of the modern day mirrorless bodies. The most common mirrorless mounts currently available are Sony (Full Frame and APS-C), Fujifilm X (APS-C), Nikon Z (Full Frame and APS-C), Canon RF (Full Frame) and the L mount alliance (Full Frame and APS-C) of Leica, Panasonic and Sigma. The ease with which SLR lenses can be adapted to mirrorless means even if you change camera brands over time, all of your lenses will be fully useable via adapters! This truly makes classic lenses a long term investment that will remain relevant for a very long time to come!
Best of both Worlds
If you have a large collection classic lenses of one particular brand / lens mount you can easily operate film and digital bodies together with a common set of lenses! For example, in my kit I have a lot of classic Pentax K mount lenses and I am able to use them on my Fuji XE3 and Leica SL via simple adapters. There is a further benefit to this… all the filters you might use for your digital camera will also work on your film cameras!
Next best thing to analogue
My main passion is analogue photography, but using analogue cameras introduces a whole host of considerations that one doesn’t need to worry about on digital. We covered this in Episode 3 of our podcast: https://www.framefocusfoto.com/podcast/episode/2a79cfb3/episode-3-finding-the-right-camera
But honestly, using old manual focus lenses is tremendous fun! It also gets one close to the analogue experience in some ways, but with convenience of digital! In addition, I believe learning to focus manually will improve your photography, because you’re forced to have a subject to focus on. You are far less likely to snap away without at least giving your picture some consideration before hand. Manual focus is also very quick and easy on modern mirrorless cameras due to their high resolution EVF’s allowing you to zoom in to 100% magnification to make sure focus is spot on. Most mirrorless cameras also allow for focus peaking in the EVF, which highlights all the in focus areas in the frame.
Classic lenses enhanced by modern technology
The latest mirrorless cameras are packed with incredible technology! Let’s take In Body Stabilisation (IBIS) as an example. IBIS allows much lower shutter speeds to be used handheld than was possible before! Combine that with the superb high ISO capability of modern cameras and you are easily able to use moderately fast classic primes such as a 50mm f/2 lens in low light!
Some of the latest cameras also offer pixel shift (Pentax, Sony and Panasonic) which moves the sensor in either direction either half a pixel, or one full pixel. This negates the resolution lost from the bayer arrays that are used to derive colour on digital sensors, allowing for incredibly high resolution photographs. In the case of the Sony A7R IV it is possible to create a 241 megapixel image!!
I’ve always believed that accurate focus is far more important than an ultra sharp lens, as I mentioned above the high resolution EVF’s that the latest mirrorless bodies have allow you to zoom in to a 100% real time, this really makes nailing focus very easy, and enjoyable!
There are loads of other features on the newest cameras, far too many to mention here. Suffice to say that mirrorless cameras are breathing new life into a long line of legacy lenses that were temporarily forgotten during the “DSLR Dynasty”
If you currently own a DSLR, there are options for using manual focus SLR lenses, but they are far more limited. If you currently own a mirrorless camera then simply find a nice manual focus SLR lens and a cheap adapter and get shooting! It’s inexpensive to get started and so much fun!
The three classic "nifty fifty" 50mm SLR lenses that I feel are a good starting point (and that I have personally used a lot) are:
SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 (Pentax K mount)
SMC Pentax-M (or A) 50mm f/2 (Pentax K mount)
Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (M42 screw mount)
All three of these lenses I have used extensively and had superb results from them! The two K mount models can be found for very little money and a cheap adapter can be found for probably the same price as the lens ($20-$50 USD). The Super Takumar is a little more expensive ($100 range) but it's is extremely sharp and has oodles of Vintage Character!
However you certainly don't have to start with these. There are endless great 50mm lenses from all the major manufacturers that adapt to mirrorless easily and will provide outstanding results! Every other focal length imaginable is available too, so take your pick!
Long live the vintage lenses!!