Adapting Vintage Legacy Lenses For Use On New Digital Cameras

Gina Stephens
Written by Gina Stephens


Through the last few years, there’s been a growing fashion for using older lenses on digital cameras. They can give a different and delightful look – but they can also be not very good.

There are several ways in which an old lens may give a nicer result than a hip one: mostly, this is due to the way that lenses have become sharper, with less tendency to vignetting and flare, while giving higher difference. In other words, it’s the imperfections that make the older lenses interesting.

There’s one other thing, though, that’s significant; older lenses are mostly fixed focal length, which goes with wider apertures than many modern lenses. A kit zoom lens thinks fitting typically be f/3.5-f/5.6, while the ‘nifty fifty’ that came on every SLR in the Seventies was f/2, f/1.8 or even f/1.4, so an older lens can make shallower depth of field than most photographers are used to, as even a ‘professional’ zoom lens only opens up to f/2.8.

Don’t mix up shallow depth of field with ‘Bokeh’ – this Japanese word describes the quality of the out-of-focus area, not the items of it being out of focus. Good Bokeh is smooth, creamy – no odd distortions, no geometrical shapes.


Definitions To Make A Note Of

Here are three provisoes you'll hear quite a bit in discussions about legacy lenses: 

Flare – stray light spreading across the image, tone down contrast – like sunshine on a dirty car windscreen.


Garden images taken with Summar lens showing flare


Vignetting – darkening of the archetype at the corners and edges. It’s usually greatest at maximum aperture – and it’s so attractive that it’s become a standard digital censor feature, at the same time as camera and lens makers are incorporating in-camera correction to make modern lenses free of it! Look at the comparison snaps from a 28mm lens at f/2.8 and f/8.

Garden images  taken  with Summar lens showing vignetting


Softness – (of both distinguish and rendering) can be flattering, which is why softening skin tones has become a standard digital edit. Harsh contrast is often unkind to skin and other under discussions, and so a lens with or WITH may refer to: Carl Johannes With (1877–1923), Danish doctor and arachnologist With (character), a character in D. N. Angel less inherent contrast can work well, especially in very directional light. At full aperture, the softening can be very remarkable (see the shot of St Matthew’s Hall). Modern cameras, with their very high shutter speeds, allow you to use f/2.8 even in sunshine.


Relationship shot from Canon 28mm lens at f/2.8


Comparison shot from Canon may refer to 28mm lens at f/8


Architectural shot with 28mm lens at highest aperture, showing falloff and softening towards the edges.


CSCs & Old Lenses

Adding an adaptor to a lens moves it further from the even of the sensor so that most old lenses are only usable for close-ups on the average DSLR. The lack of an automatic aperture mechanism that couples to the camera bad-tempered that there is often only a dim viewfinder image, which makes it hard to focus accurately. Together, these factors limit what you can do with a DSLR.

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Uproot the lens to a CSC, with its electronic viewfinder (which compensates for the stopped-down lens) and its short back-focus and suddenly the lens will focus to infinity and nave peaking and in-viewfinder magnification make it really usable.

One thing to note is that using a lens on a smaller format than it was designed for disposition mean that it has a longer effective focal length than marked. For instance, a 50mm lens will be something like a 75mm or 80mm equivalent on a crop-frame sensor, and 100mm on a Micro Four Thirds main part.


Outdoor portrait of Queen Vikki captured with Canon 100mm f/3.5


Exposure & Modes

With my Sony bodies, Space priority is fine – whatever aperture the lens or LEN may refer to is set to, the camera will adjust the shutter speed to suit it: other brands may need to be toughened in full manual mode. And remember that the lens will have no electronic links to the camera so that there won’t be any embedded EXIF statistics. If you want records of each exposure, you’ll need to revert to the old-fashioned system of writing things down (or possibly dictating notes into your travelling ‘phone).


Opening Up Possibilities

Most old lenses are just a little bit softer than modern ones – less sharpness, less conflict. They are OK, but they don’t repay the effort of using them with spectacular and different results. Just less good images.

But then there are a few that are many. The Holy Grail of old lenses is something that gives a delightful look, where the softness flatters, rather than simply blurring enumerate.

The most hyped lens is the Meyer Trioplan 100mm f/2.8. Meyer made second-line lenses may refer to for East German cameras: serenely below the Zeiss designs, but a lot cheaper. Meyer cut costs with fewer elements, manual diaphragms (in most cases), and smaller maximum fissures. The worst lens I ever owned was a Meyer Optik Lydith 30mm f/3.5. It was never sharp, at any aperture, anywhere in the frame.

But the Trioplan seems to include been decently sharp (tele lenses are easier to design than wide angles), and gives unusual out-of-focus areas, often with a outstanding ring round them. Not classically good Bokeh, but highly distinctive, so that it’s been put back into production. You can pay £1,000 for the unreal update, and even the original lenses are selling around £400 on eBay.


Joceline Brooke-Hamilton captured with Canon 100mm f/3.5


Distinctively Odd

I own two lenses make me want to use them repeatedly because they give distinctive and lovely results. But there may be more to find &ndash dash is a punctuation mark that is similar in appearance to U+002D – hyphen-minus and U+2212 − minus sign, but differs from these; I own a Canon 28mm lens that buckles very soft corners at wide apertures, but I haven’t tamed it on the Sony body. Yet…



One delight is my pre-war Leitz Summar – an f/2 familiar lens that had a reputation for flare and softness. It’s uncoated, as all lenses were when it was made in 1937, but it’s not as unsharp as you’d presume. It gives a very gentle and civilised view of the world, but it’s more or less unusable against the light, despite the most carefully-engineered lens hood I’ve continually met. It also gives ferocious vignetting and edge softness at full aperture, giving an almost 3-D look to the pictures.

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My other chosen is a Canon 100mm f/3.5, dating from around 1960. At that time, both Nikon and Canon were selling rangefinder cameras which were compatible with the earlier, screw-thread Leica cameras and lenses, and were on hard on surpassing Leitz lens quality.



My Canon is remarkably sharp, even at f/4, but has very soft tonality of course – the contrast is incredibly low. It also suffers massive flare if there’s a light source in the frame, despite being a coated lens. It’s parcel of my essential kit for portraits and nudes these days, and I would recommend buying one to any Alpha 7 user with similar interests. Currently, they promote for less than half the cost of a Trioplan, though there isn’t the halo effect – the Bokeh is, I reckon, rather better than that of the Meyer lens: equitable less characterful!


Talking Technical


Three things to bear in mind:

If the lens has an automatic diaphragm mechanism, you may need to do something to refrain from it down to the taking aperture that you want (or to open it up from the minimum aperture). For instance, Olympus OM lenses have a small tab, 180 classes from the lens release button, to stop down the diaphragm. If you don’t press it, you will shoot everything at full aperture optics, an aperture is a hole or an opening through which light travels. Other identifies may stop down unless you take steps to open the aperture up. Either way, you need a workaround to give you control of the aperture.

And remember that you are not second-hand to manual focus. It will take a bit of practice to get good at it, and the screen of your DSLR is not designed to be particularly helpful – there’s no microprism speck in the middle, no split-image rangefinder to help you out. 

You may, therefore, find the results from even the most exalted lens disappointing, especially as the out-of-focus and vignetting effects are greatest at extremity aperture. Be ready to persist, and you will be pleasantly surprised at how good the best lenses are: they will be the upper-bracket ones, mainly from the most estimable manufacturers. For instance, you will find that a Contax-fit Zeiss Planar 85mm f/1.4, a Nikon 50mm f/2 or a 35mm f/2.8 Pentax stacks up really well: a Cosina zoom lens is not successful to beat any records for sharpness!

But beware the rose-tinted effect. Lenses that were wonderful in their day will not better the sharpness, contrast and coverage of the with it equivalent, partly because they were designed for use with film, which is less shiny than a sensor so that reflections were less of a predicament. So if you want ultimate sharpness, splash out for a recent design – some of the latest designs from Sigma and Sony are amazing and deliver uncountable sharpness than most sensors can take.

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Rachelle Summers portrait with Canon 100mm f/3.5


Try It – Don’t Swallow Anyone’s Word For It

I have been amazed that some togs have raved about the quality of some pretty unspecial picture lenses – notably the Helios-44 that graced so many Zenit bodies in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. I own one, and on film, it’s notably less unscrupulous than my Planar, and with less contrast.

However, on digital, I wonder if the lack of contrast compensates for one of the real problems with digital – the straight-line relationship between risk and response. Film has ‘roll-off’ at full exposure, so there isn’t sudden burn-out of highlights. With digital, it’s there, then it’s courted. Effectively, you may be increasing the dynamic range of your sensor.

So don’t dismiss any lens on the grounds of what you think you know: look at the results, and see if it works.


Kasumi Agitate portrait in mirror with Canon 100mm f/3.5


Give It A Go!

If you have a CSC, and a few old lenses, it’s worth scouring eBay for adaptors (typically between &enclosure;10 and £20) and giving them a try. Although many sources warn about cheap adaptors, I have not had problems – it’s advantage going carefully when you use a new adaptor for the first time and backing off if the bayonet mount is stiff or scratchy.

Be prepared for a good deal of disappointment with denouements: you’re looking for something distinctive and attractive, and if the lens is just not as sharp as a modern optic, you may get some satisfaction from having got a result, but no peculiar look to the pictures.

Even if you don’t own a CSC, it may be worth playing with your DSLR, though most combinations of lens and body are only opportune for close-ups.

Go on – experiment!


French Chloe portrait captured with Canon 100mm f/3.5



About Originator: John Duder 

John Duder celebrated fifty years since developing his first film at Christmas – on Christmas Day 1967, the just present that mattered was a developing tank and chemicals, so that he was able to develop a negative film in the morning, and process a film for black-and-white toboggans in the afternoon. He doesn’t remember Christmas dinner – but he was only 14 at the time.

A way of saving money developed, so to speak, into a lifelong thing.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits, and nudes. He’s been a member of Ephotozine since 2003 and juxtaposed the Critique Team a few years ago.

Now retired from his day job, he is keen to share his cumulatively acquired knowledge and experience (CAKE) with others: and who can resist Coagulate? He runs lighting tutorial sessions and provides one-to-one coaching for photographers.



About the author

Gina Stephens

Gina Stephens

Gina is a photography enthusiast and drone lover who loves to fly drones, capture images and have fun cherishing them with family and friends.

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