A while ago, I wrote an article on vintage lenses. I personally adore vintage lenses. But the reality is that they aren’t that easy to use. In fact, they aren't easy to use at all. However, that doesn't mean you can’t ease it up a notch. Vintage lenses are being used out of nostalgia and (mostly) due to the fact that they are cheap (well most of them). Added bonus is that some of them are really sharp and others produce unique effects.
Focusing With Vintage Lenses
First and biggest problem that you could have with vintage lenses is focusing. Manual focus on modern day cameras is hard. But people had less problems back in the day, right? True. That is due to the build nature of vintage cameras. If you grab one vintage SLR and look through its viewfinder, you’ll notice that it looks quite different. It doesn't have the focus points that modern day DSLR’s have, but it has something that DSLR’s don’t have. That circle in the middle is split, often diagonally. As long as you see the split you are out of focus. It was that simple. Obtaining a tack sharp focus on vintage cameras was really trivial. Modern day cameras don’t have the circle, well at least not stock. You can buy a third party focusing screen, katzeye for example, and replaces your default one with that screen. Most of the third party screens contain both the digital focus point marks and the split circle, which is good for both worlds.
Another thing that can help you with improving your focusing is buying adapters with latest generation of focus confirm chips. I say latest generation because they can be adjusted to match the maximum aperture of the lens and the focal length. It helps with metadata and some camera measurements as far as I know.
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Since you’ll need adapters for the lens, and you will be attaching the chip to the adapter it is wise to get one adapter per lens. This is due to the fact that you won’t need to reprogram the chip every time you swap a lens, and you’ll be able to calibrate infinity focus for each lens once and never bother with it again. It is also good for traveling since you can use default brand back caps, as you would use with your new generation lenses.
Pairing Your Vintage Lens With a Camera
Additionally if you have decent collection of vintage lens, it is nice to have a camera which can make the most out of it. Certain cameras won’t allow vintage lens at all, others will leave you with everything manual without any metering and what so ever. But there are cameras which work completely with vintage lens. Luckily my Canon does – meterings, AV, TV, even full auto works (tried it just to see how it handles). The only thing I need to do is focus and pick my aperture.
Maintenance of Your Vintage Lens
Maintaining the lens will make your life easier (except during the maintenance duration). When the focus ring operates smoothly and without much effort it will allow you to focus much faster and more accurately than when you don’t need to fight with that ring. Also if you prefer you can unclick the aperture ring on almost any vintage lens, that way you can adjust the aperture by any value you want. Want to shoot at f4.7? You can do that. That is also good for video and you will have smooth and gradual aperture motion.
Shooting Videos With Vintage Lenses
For those DSLR video shooters, there is one thing that vintage lenses offer that is usually better than the modern counterparts: the focus ring. The focus rings on vintage lenses spin up to 270 degrees, and since it is made out of metal it is easy to attach gear for follow focus. Many videographers prefer vintage lenses for DSLR video for that reason. Cheap and easy to modify and use. Couple that with the declicked aperture ring and it makes videography a breeze. In addition, being full metal, vintage lenses can take on much accessories which are attached by mechanical pressure. Who would imagine that vintage lenses had so many good properties, right?
At the moment I’m using vintage lens for portraits, particularly I use Helios 44m-4 58mm f/2. I’d probably use the nifty fifty instead of this one but I really love the swirly bokeh this one creates. The viewfinder size is kind of limiting (since my EOS 1000D has a small one) but with enough practice, or focus peaking in live view I overcome that issue easily. I tend to use it for portraits and I love the results. My next vintage purchase will be the Pentacon 135mm f/2.8 because it is extremely sharp with very little distortion and vignetting, and it has excellent bokeh shapes, not too soft, not too sharp.