All Shawn McCully wanted was a lens for his digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. Little did he know he was searching for the holy grail of amateur photography, and hoping to do it on the cheap. “I just wanted to be able to shoot family and friends indoors without a flash,” he said. He also wanted his digital Canon 40D to take photos with a buttery smooth background and only the tiniest area in focus.
Canon sells a lens that would have been perfect for McCully, if not for its $1,500 (about Rs70,000) price tag. So, McCully, a 32-year-old lawyer from Bellevue, Washington, turned to his closet where, like so many recent converts to digital photography, he had a stash of manual-focus lenses from his days shooting with film. One lens in particular, a Canon FL 55-mm f1.2, bought around four decades ago by McCully's father, was nearly identical to the contemporary offering from Canon. But it would not fit McCully's digital Canon.
With little more than a cheap metal ring found on eBay, a Dremel tool and a sander, he was able to convert the old lens so it would mount on his new digital camera.
For the vast majority of DSLR users, the switch that turns off the camera’s autofocus system is nothing more than a curiosity, some kind of vestigial remnant from a mechanical evolution. But a renewed interest in the deliberate twisting of a lens to focus has generated a market for decades’ worth of optics that have been gathering dust in closets and taking up space on camera store shelves.
Paul Yates, 38, a manager of technical training at Toronto’s Q9 Networks, says he shoots almost exclusively with vintage lenses these days, though he had been firmly ensconced in the autofocus camp. He switched to older lenses not just for the good deals or the slower shooting, but because each lens attached to his DSLR camera created a unique look, even when the lens was the same focal length. He also says he believes that a manually focused lens often surpasses the accuracy of the few autofocus lenses he owns. “There is a tactile quality to holding on to a metal focus ring,” says Yates. “The damping of the ring—the resistance—allows me to fine-tune the focus so much more accurately.”
Usually, all that is needed to get many vintage lenses working on a new camera is a simple twist-on adapter, costing $10-30. Because each adapter is unique to a specific lens mount and camera combination, and adapters are relatively inexpensive as camera gear goes, photographers usually buy a separate adapter for each lens. They can be found on EBay. Many vendors sell generic adapters, but it is best to search online for reviews on the quality and compatibility of specific lens, camera and adapter combinations. Online photography communities such as Fredmiranda.com and ManualFocus.org are good places to start the research.
But like shooting with a manual lens, buying them can be complicated. For mechanical and optical reasons, some brands of DSLRs work with a wider array of vintage lenses than others. Nikon DSLRs can take scores of vintage Nikon lenses without adapters. But the Nikon cameras don’t work well, if at all, with the majority of vintage lenses from makers such as Olympus, Pentax and Zeiss.
Canon cameras have the opposite characteristic. They are incompatible with most vintage Canon lenses, but with cheap adapters, they can mount dozens of brands of third-party vintage lenses. Olympus DSLRs can mount most of the same vintage lenses Canon cameras can, along with vintage Olympus lenses with adapters.
Pentax DSLRs can mount just about every Pentax lens ever made and the third-party lenses that use the Pentax-style lens-mount. Sony DSLRs are the least compatible. Those cameras work with certain Minolta lenses and, with an adapter, lenses that use what is known as a M42 screw mount.
Steal the frame
If you want to experiment with manual-focus lenses, here are a few popular choices that can be found in excellent used condition on EBay or for slightly higher prices at camera shops that carry used gear. The decades-old Olympus Zuiko 28mm f3.5 and Zuiko 50mm f1.8 are steals at $30-60. Comparable autofocus lenses cost $100-300, depending on the manufacturer.
The wide-aperture Pentax SMC Takumar 50-mm f1.4 ($80-100), and SMC 50mm f1.2 ($300-500), are one-half to one-quarter the price of comparable autofocus lenses, as are a handful of Contax/Yashica Zeiss 85-mm and 135-mm telephoto lenses ($150-600). And the wide-angle Olympus Zuiko 24mm f2.8 ($125-175) can produce such stunning images that it compares favourably with a few lenses that cost more than $1,000—even when used on cameras such as the Canon 5D and 1Ds series.
While vintage lenses are often cheaper, smaller in size and built more solidly, there are a few caveats about using them on new cameras (besides the potential peril of purchasing antique mechanical equipment in a state of disrepair).
Getting used to manual focus can be difficult, particularly for younger photographers born in the digital era. Most will need to learn the art and science of manually adjusting the aperture, or f-stop, of vintage lenses.
A vast majority of today’s photographers haven't been required to shoot in full-manual-everything in decades, but not everyone finds this aspect of using vintage lenses a nuisance. Some even find it an advantage, laced as it is with nostalgia.
©2008/The New York Times
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