Updated: Mar 24
It's a fact that many of today's photographers have used a vintage lens at some point in time, be it on a film body, back when the world was analogue, or just as a taster on a digital body. Not only is it a cheap alternative to a modern lens, it also presents a wonderful opportunity at learning photography fundamentals. But, is it really worth it? Let's find out.
Let's begin with the advantages of using a vintage lens on modern DSLR cameras.
1. Gain Better Control Over the Photographic Process – There is no better way to get to know how it felt back in the old days. Nothing is automatic with vintage lenses, the control is fully manual in every way possible, which can be very useful for the photographer.
Using a vintage lens will pretty much force you into understanding focus better by training your eye to see when you are in or out of focus, not only this, you control the aperture with a ring on the lens, you can pretty much preview depth of field in real time.
Image taken with Helios 135mm f/2.8
2. Get the most for your money -
There isn’t a cheaper way to get solid glass with nice and wide aperture for 1/10th or less of the price of the modern counterpart, which at the same time has a great build (mostly whole metal build) and is quite heavy (this one varies with taste, I personally like heavy lenses, it adds a sense of quality. As well as a whole variety of different focal lengths, from fast primes to zooms.
3. Unique Effects –
Some vintage lenses have effects that are unique and look really good when properly used. For example, the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 is known for its swirly out of focus bokeh, which is best used to emphasise portraits with a nice bokeh background which leads the eye towards the middle of the image.
This image was taken with Helios-44-2
5. Understanding the Physics Behind Creating Photos –
Getting to know the physics behind the way your image is created allows for great amount of possibilities when it comes to improvising, planning or adapting.
Using vintage lenses helps greatly due to the fact that you’ll need to calibrate the flange focal distance, maybe even disassemble, clean and reassemble the lens all by yourself, which will lead to a greater amount of knowledge about the optics, focus points, diffraction and so on
Disadvantages of Using Vintage Lenses-
However, there are also some downsides when it comes to using vintage lenses, even though some of them depend on the kind of photographer you are.
1. Learning Curve –
The reality is that it takes some fiddling until you get the hang of it. It won’t work out for you if you are the kind of photographer that likes to rely mostly on camera metering, focusing and exposing.
For example, the shot below is a shot that was taken using a fully manual vintage lens, that in camera I thought was in focus, but when I got it onto the computer, it turned out it was out.
2. Almost not Good for Action –
I say almost because if you are a master at focusing, nothing will prevent you from using vintage lens for action shots. Otherwise, you're likely to miss focus.
4. Calibration –
The flange focal distance must be exactly the same, so some calibrating must be done in order to achieve sharp infinity focus. That is why you need a decent adaptor. Take some time to get it right.
5. Requires Maintenance –
Let’s face it, vintage lenses are old. Just the same as old cars, if you maintain them well, they will serve you a lifetime.
While on that matter, the most common issue with vintage lenses is that the focus ring is hard to turn, and the problem is in the grease under it. This requires an hour or two to fix, and if you do it right, that will probably be the only time you’ll need to do it.
Here at Gibsoncameras.com we have plenty of vintage lenses, as well as vintage bodies, if you'd like to purchase the 135mm Helios f/2.8 used for the images above, you can do so from our site.