Classic Lenses on Modern Cameras

Any photographer who has shot film most likely has a fondness for SLR optics. And for good reason.

What traditionalist could resist those click-stop aperture rings, silky smooth manual focusing controls, and beautifully machined bayonet mounts? Many of these optics are still available for excellent prices on the used market, not to mention those prized possessions we have stashed in the closet.

The problem is, aside from occasionally pulling out the cameras they mate with and lovingly winding the film advance lever, we don’t have any practical uses for classic lenses. Or do we?

Thanks to adapters by Rayqual, Novaflex, and others, we can put those classic primes to good use on modern cameras. Mirrorless bodies seem particularly easy to adapt, since their adapters don’t require additional optics, which often degrades image quality.

I have a nice stash of Zeiss lenses that I once shot with on my film Contax cameras. I purchased a Rayqual adapter for $149, and was able to mount those primes on my Olympus O-MD camera bodies (as shown in the illustration at the top of the post.)

Because the effective focal length is double thanks to the smaller Micro 4/3 sensor, I enjoy relatively fast apertures at telephoto-like focal lengths. For example, the shot below was captured with the 50mm F/1.7 Zeiss lens on an Olympus OM-D E-M1, wide-open at F/1.7. It feels like a 100mm optic when looking through the electronic viewfinder.

Cat with Zeiss 50mm on E-M1

I’ve also had very good luck with my 85mm F/2.8 prime. Again, I shoot wide open with it, and it feels like I have a pretty fast 170mm telephoto.

The center sharpness is quite decent on these lenses, and I love the way that the background becomes creamy smooth. The electronic viewfinder on the Olympus works fairly well for manually focusing. And for exposure, I set the mode to aperture priority, and just shoot as I normally would.

Personally, I enjoy the intersection of nostalgic manual focusing and aperture ring click-stops, combined with the ease of digital capture.

Would I shoot with these lenses all the time? No, I don’t think so. I still want autofocusing and programmed auto exposure. But when it’s time to slow down a bit and be more methodical with my shooting, I do enjoy putting these lenses on and seeing what kind of images I can create.

It’s a heck of a lot better than having them just there in the closet.

Text and photos by Derrick Story, Associate Editor for c’t Digital Photography Magazine.

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  1. Will Dwinnell

    Having begun with 35mm film, I too have a number of old lenses in perfectly good condition (with the exception of a single-ring zoom which is a bit loose). I came to the same conclusion you did: Some of the lenses are worth experimentation on modern camera bodies, but the lack of auto-focus, metering, etc. can be taxing on the photographer. Still, some old equipment features outstanding optics, so they’re worth the effort. Situations in which settings other than focus can be set infrequently lend themselves to use of this old gear. Two examples would be macro photography or when the photographer is seated in a theater.

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