Adapt and Rediscover the Charm of Vintage Lenses
Exploring the creative possibilities opened by legacy glass
By Fenwoodian in Articles and Tips on May 23, 2019
Welcome to the exciting world of adapted lenses: this is where old, manual focus, modestly priced, prime lenses are rediscovered and given a new life on modern digital cameras! Adapted lenses are being used more and more for producing fine art images, especially when exceptional bokeh, color, and 3D-like depth are required.
There are two ways to adapt a lens.
- Attach a temporary/removable mount to the rear of the lens. These temporary adapters can be “dumb” (having no electrical communications with the camera) or “smart” (having full electrical communications with the camera). The dumb temporary rear mount adapters are usually inexpensive and of low quality. The smart temporary rear mount adapters are expensive and do enable auto focus. Both varieties are fast and easy to attach and remove from a lens; but they are not as tight and secure as a permanent mount is. Temporary mounts by design are loose and bit sloppy. They can wobble/rotate/shift.
- Attach a new permanent mount to the rear of the lens. These permanent adapters are usually “dumb”. Their prices fall in between the two types of temporary adapters mentioned above. These permanent adapters at a minimum will require removal of the original lens mount, and will often require significant modification to the lens.
I prefer the permanent adapter option. Permanent adapters offer a more secure attachment to the camera. Premium permanent adapters, if installed properly, will result in no loss of image quality when used. The same cannot be said of the temporary/removable types of adapters.
Editorial note: the genuine Pentax M42 to K-mount adapter is by far the most popular adapter for Pentax users looking to get started with adapting lenses, since M42 lenses are abundant, easy to adapt, and work without any optical limitations.
7 Reasons to Adapt Lenses
There are dozens of reasons why there’s a resurgence in using old adapted lenses. Below are the seven reasons why I sold my auto focus, modern zoom lenses and replaced them with vintage prime, manual focus glass:
- They don’t make lenses like they used to. In the old days, they used toxic compounds in their optical glass (toxic lead, radioactive thorium oxide). Due to environmental regulations this type of glass can no longer be made. Also, older lenses did not use exotic ED glass and aspherical molded elements in their designs. Modern computer designed lenses put a premium on sharpness at the expense of color fidelity, micro contrast, 3D-like depth and bokeh.
- Older manual focus lenses with metal construction last longer than modern lightweight plastic auto-focus zoom lenses.
- Vintage lenses use a simpler optical design. Most of my favorite lenses have optical elements numbering in the single digits. I don’t care the rendering produced by high element count lenses.
- Older lenses often have “defects” that are designed out of modern lenses. Defects like vignetting and field curvature that create depth in photos.
- Many individual old lenses produce images that have their own look, personality, soul, character, and signature. While images produced by modern lenses look mostly the same.
- Manual focus prime lenses are easy to repair and clean.
- Vintage lenses are cheaper than modern lenses. I often buy cheap older lenses that are defective (fungus, dust, scratches, oil on blades, stuck aperture, stiff focus) or being sold for parts. Often they are quickly repaired and good as new.
4 Reasons Not to Adapt Lenses
Of course there are equally valid reasons that lead some photographers to choose not to use adapted lenses. Below are some of the main arguments for not using adapted lenses:
- You must specify the focal length for in-camera Shake Reduction to work optimally (and of course, in-lens stabilization, if any, will not work)
- The aperture must be set using the rotating aperture ring on the lens. It cannot be set using the camera's dials.
- You lose all electronic communication between the lens and the camera. The lens name and aperture will not be recorded in the EXIF data of the image.
- Auto focus will not work, the lens must be manually focused.
- Not all lenses can be adapted; some might require an adapter that compromises image quality or prevents the use of infinity focus
Adapted Lenses - Not for Everyone
Each photographer must determine for him or herself if adapted lens’ advantages outweigh their disadvantages. It’s an individual decision whose answer will vary depending upon your style of photography.
I primarily shoot still (or slow) moving subjects and have found that adapted lenses work great for me. A friend only shoots fast moving birds and wildlife. He needs fast, auto focus lenses for his type of photography - adapted lenses do not work for him.
Most lenses that are adapted are fast, prime, full frame lenses. I prefer to use my “full frame” adapted lenses on a “full frame” digital cameras. While adapted full frame lenses can certainly be used on cameras with smaller sensors, you will lose some of the “goodness” of the full frame lens and underutilize its’ capabilities by using it on an APS-C or a Micro 4/3rds camera.
My favorite camera for adapted lenses is the Pentax K-1 (original or mark mark II) DSLR camera. It costs $1,799 and there are 40 adapters available for it currently at B&H Photo. In addition to these adapters, Leitax sells high-quality permanent Pentax adapters that will enable the following lenses to be used on K-1 cameras: Leica-R, Contax, Nikkor, Carl Zeiss, and Olympus Zuiko-OM. The K-1 has IBIS (in body image stabilization) which counters the loss of stabilization in an adapted lens. It also has a high resolution “pixel shift” shooting mode. Pixel shift greatly improves an images’ sharpness (typically the greatest weakness of vintage lenses).
Finally, all Sony full frame mirrorless cameras are pretty good at accepting adapted lenses because they have a shorter sensor to lens (a.k.a registration) distance than DSLR cameras have.
It’s important to use only the highest quality adapters. Cheap, generic adapters, made in China are sometimes poorly made. They sometimes have jagged metal burrs on them that can break off and fall inside your lens (or camera).
A manufacturing company located near Barcelona, in Catalonia, Spain called Leitax sells the best permanent adapters in the world! Given a choice, I will always choose a Leitax adapter over any other type of adapter. Leitax adapters are better made than the original OEM lens mounts that come on premium lenses. Currently, Leitax offers lens adapters for the following cameras: Nikon, Sony, Fuji X, Sigma, Pentax, and Canon.
My second favorite adapters are made by a German company called Novoflex. They too are of extremely high quality.
The most popular lenses to adapt are prime lenses that are manually focused. Most are fast (generally f/2 or faster) and have a rotatable aperture ring. The following are my all-time favorite adapted lenses:
- Olympus Zuiko-OM (100mm f/2, 50mm f/1.2)
- Contax Carl Zeiss for CY (85mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4)
- Meyer-Optik Gorlitz (MOG) M42 (58mm f/1.9 Primoplan, 100mm f/2.8 Trioplan)
- Fujinon (50mm f/1.4, 55mm f/1.6)
- Leica R (80mm f/1.4 Summilux, 50mm f/2 Summicron, 135mm f2.8 Elmarit, 180mm f/2.8 Elmarit II non-APO)
- Zeiss ZF “Classic” lenses (135mm f/2, 100mm f/2, 35mm f/1.4)
- Bronica SQ Medium Format (150mm f/3.5)
- MOG Diaplan 80mm f/2.8 Projector Lens
Some of the lenses are listed in the Pentax Forums lens database.
Some lenses are difficult (or nearly impossible) to adapt. For example, certain lenses will require two different adapters. Using two adapters is not a good idea because you’ll have twice the number of mounting surfaces that can misalign. Two adapters also tend to make the lens unbalanced and front heavy.
Certain Nikkor F mount and Zeiss ZF mount lenses need their aperture rings ground down during adaption. While not difficult to do, I’m always hesitant about making such a permanent and highly visible modification knowing that it will reduce the resale value of the lens.
Many Olympus OM Zuiko lenses require custom plastic inserts and/or little springs be fabricated and installed in order to operate the aperture after adaption. These added steps are time consuming and tedious.
Some auto focus lenses require that the auto focus mechanism inside the lens be either removed or disabled. Doing so often permanently eliminates that lens’ ability to auto focus.
Topcor and Exacta lenses have mounts that are extremely difficult to adapt. I will never again purchase a lens with one of these mounts.
Finally, some lenses cannot be adapted to due differences in the registration distance, which prevents infinity focus or necessitates the use of an adapter with a "corrective optical element" which in turns degrades the image quality and defeats the purpose of adapting the lens to begin with. A good example of this would be Canon EOS or autofocus Nikon F-mount lenses, which generally aren't compatible with the Pentax K-mount.
Back in the mid 1900’s, years before the invention of digital cameras, optical lenses were made for many different non-photographic purposes. They were used in: slide projectors, movie projectors, enlargers, X-ray machines, projection TVs, and even oscilloscopes.
Many of these vintage unconventional lenses have unique optical characteristics and unusual aberrations that cannot be matched by modern lenses. It’s these rare and special optical characteristics that make creative photographers want to experiment with these seemingly useless old lenses.
There are two ways that I use these atypical lenses. I adapt them for use on my digital cameras. Also, I’ll take them out and “lens whack” with them.
Most of these unconventional specialty lenses are difficult to adapt. By using creative engineering, I’ve been able to successfully adapt a number of TV, projector, X-ray and oscilloscope lenses.
Nine times out of ten, the image quality produced by these home-built Frankenlenses disappoint. But every once in a while a “happy accident” occurs and the images they create are out of this world!
Join Our Club
If you like to capture photographs with personality and exceptional bokeh/color/depth, consider using adapted vintage lenses on your digital camera. The images you capture will be unlike those produced by your modern lenses. Share your photos on the forum or in one of the many lens clubs!
In the comments section below, please share your experiences with adapted lenses. Also, let us know if you’d like to see more articles on adapted lenses (maybe on “how to” adapt lenses?).