You are on a budget so, much though you might love to, you can’t buy all the new lenses you’d like. Sure the new 24mm Sigma lens looks cool but you have enough bank loans already and one for a camera lens might just break you – what do you do? Simple, use old lenses.
Chances are that if you are an obsessive budget photographer you probably already have an old film SLR or rangefinder and a collection of lenses. If not, go out and get one, they can be had very cheap. My own film SLR a is a Zenit 122 with an M42 mount, you can pick up M42 mount cameras for next to nothing and there are hundreds of lenses out there. I’ve got a Hanimex MC Auto 28mm, a Helios 44-4 58mm and a Jupiter 37A 135mm – all very cheap.
Of course the first use you should put all of this kit to is film photography! So go ahead, I’ll wait . . . still shooting? Ok, come back when you are done . . . good to go? Great.
Now for the other use you can put the lenses to, making your digital photography more interesting. Now, I have a Nikon D70 SLR but the focus screen is terrible for manual focusing – seriously, it is light years behind the Zenit for this. Instead I have a Samsung NX100 (bought cheap on eBay as it had no lens with it) that has a focus peeping (zoom) feature that makes manual focus a hundred times easier. It is possible to get better focusing screens fitted to modern DSLRs but for the price you can probably get different camera that will do better. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my D70 but it is only going to be used with autofocus lenses from now on.
But how can you use an ancient M42 mount lens on a fancy-shmancy digital camera-thingy? I hear you ask. Well by using an adapter of course! Some lovely people make adapters that allow the mounting of old lenses on new cameras, isn’t that nice of them? Of course they do charge for them, but as I got mine for £4, including postage, they don’t charge much.
Old film lenses are meant for what is now called ‘full frame’ when talking about sensor sizes so (depending on your sensor) you may have to do some recalculating to work out what the crop factor does to the focal length. To be honest, this doesn’t really matter all that much. Look at the image on the screen and you will soon get used to what each lens gives you.
If you are obsessive about your images being pin-sharp at all times then old lenses may disappoint you unless you use the smallest apertures at all times. Then again if you are obsessive about pin-sharp images you should probably save all you can and go for the newest and most expensive lenses. However, old lenses have a remarkable thing many modern lenses lack – character. If you use the same colour setting on your camera each lens will render the colours differently, there will be differences in the levels of contrast when shooting black and white. Also, as your old lenses are far more likely to be prime lenses than zooms the chances are they will have much wider apertures than your modern lenses. My two Nikon zooms have minimum apertures between 3.5 and 5.6 depending on the focal length (I also have the 50mm 1.8 but it is the only modern prime I own), my M42 lenses go from 2 to 3.5 as a minimum. Even at 3.5 there is a world of difference in terms of depth of field and bokeh.
Sometimes I am looking for a pin sharp image so I use my D70 and modern glass, it does the job great. Sometimes I am looking for something different though, and that is what old glass offers – some of the quirkiness of film photography with the convenience of digital.