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!