Whilst my first SLR was 35mm (a Praktica BMS Electronic), I reached a point around three years ago where I discovered that certain 35mm film SLR lenses could be used on certain digital cameras, some directly, others via cheap adapters.
This was a game changer for me, and, perhaps perversely, actually fused and intensified further my love of vintage cameras and lenses.
After an initial disappointing foray with a Pentax K-x DLSR (capable enough but tiny viewfinder and very plasticky, so a huge let down coming from cracking little Pentax SLRs like the ME Super), I discovered the Sony NEX range.
So since the summer of 2014 I’ve been experimenting with different vintage lenses on a used NEX 3N, and very recently with a few lenses on a Sony a350 DSLR.
With most lenses, you’d assume that if they’re good on film, they’ll be good with digital cameras too. But some have surprised me.
I don’t want to get too much into the practicalities of actual use of vintage lenses with the NEX and a350 (that’s potentially another post), but instead look at a few lenses that have been only average to good on film, but, to my delight, have excelled digitally.
Of course, you won’t find any scientific evidence here, no shots of brick walls or pinned up newspapers, or 100% detail crops. That’s not my style, or interest, at all.
But what I do hope to share here are three of the gems I have found, then a few of my own speculative theories about why they seem to have performed so well via a digital sensor than a frame of 35mm film.
First, three of the best lenses.
1. Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro
I bought this lens because certain reviews felt it was as sharp as a prime lens. And Minolta prime lenses are indeed very sharp.
Up to this point, 90% of my photography was with 50/55/58mm lenses, so I was interested in experimenting at both the 35mm and 70mm ends of the MD Zoom. If it lived up to its reputation, this plan was cheaper than buying an equally good 35mm and 70mm lens.
Plus the lens focused pretty close (around 0.33m), something I always appreciate and enjoy.
I tried the lens with my Minolta X-700 body.
If you don’t know, the X-700 has one of the greatest, brightest viewfinders ever seen on a 35mm camera. With a Rokkor 50/1.4 or 58/1.4 lens it was breathtaking.
But with the MD Zoom and its maximum aperture of f/3.5, it was still good but obviously not so bright and clear.
The size of the lens, though compact and relatively lightweight for a zoom, seemed bulky and clumsy on the X-700, especially as I’d been used to 50mm primes.
The whole experience was kind of awkward and I wanted it to be over quickly. Like trying to make conversation with the husband of one of your wife’s best friends, at a wedding neither man really wanted to be at.
On the NEX though, the lens was a revelation.
The size was very appealing. Because of the slimness of the NEX, the entire camera virtually became the lens. Or the other way around. Changing the focal length (ie zooming) and focusing was easy and smooth.
The pictures blew me away – the colours, the sharpness and the deliciously smooth bokeh, none of which seemed to ever be possible with the X-700.
This shot is straight out of the NEX with zero processing except an export from RAW to JPEG.
This lens was the last Minolta SR mount lens I eventually sold when I decided to focus on just M42 and Contax/Yashica mounts a while back – outlasting even the glorious and beautiful MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4. Which is testament to how much I loved it using it. But only with the NEX.
2. Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7
Yep, another Minolta, who made a long line of 50 and 55mm lenses, which can seem baffling similar. In short, all you need to know is they’re all pretty fabulous.
I’d already had some of the older version from the late 60s and early 70s, and been impressed by their build, smoothness and performance (on both film and digital). I got this MD attached to an X-300 body I wanted to try as an alternative to the more sophisticated X-700 mentioned above.
This MD 50/1.7 is from a later era (mid 80s I think) where the legendary Rokkor name had been dropped, as well as many of the metal parts.
On the downside, the lens felt a bit plasticky compared with something like its MC Rokkor-PF 55/1.7 predecessor – still one of the most luxurious lenses I’ve used in any mount.
On the plus side, the MD is very small, and very light. Which, matched with the NEX, made a whole lot of sense.
This lens wasn’t bad on film, in fact it was very good, and if you put photographs made with the MD 50/1.7 next to those made with something like the aforementioned 55/1.7, I’d struggle to identify which was which.
But because of its size and light weight, and because somehow it seemed to be even better digitally than the others, it stands out as one of the best lenses I’ve used with the NEX.
3. Cosina Auto Cosinon 135mm f/2.8
As mentioned before, my default focal length is 50/55/58mm. In an effort to widen my experience, and because they are plentiful and cheap, I decided to explore some 135mm lenses, in M42 mount.
A few weeks later, I ended up with four.
The Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Electric Sonnar 135/3.5 and Jupiter-37A 135/3.5 are both glorious and rightly have lofty reputations. If you want a 135, either will no doubt delight you.
Another I came across was a Reveunon 135/2.8, with beautiful big blue multi-coated glass, which proved to be very decent in performance, but let down by its not very close focus. So that one went.
A little later I found a Cosina Auto Cosinon 135/2.8, which a friend mentioned he had used and been impressed with, plus it was super cheap (something like £12).
On film, or digital, the Sonnar and Jupiter-37A are wonderful. Trying the Cosinon on film, I was distinctly underwhelmed compared with the other two, despite enjoying using the lens.
Then one warm day last summer I decided to try taking some shots of the kids playing in the garden, and picked the Cosinon.
The results absolutely delighted me, and though I must have taken thousands of photographs of the children in their short lives, these were instantly up there amongst my very favourites.
Again, straight out of the NEX, no post processing.
Since that day I’ve kept the humble Cosinon, and though I’ll probably never bother shooting film with it again, I know its potential with digital will put a smile on my face many times in the future.
So these are three examples of lenses that have highly impressed me with digital photography.
What about the theories as to why?
First, the part of the lens that is being used.
The NEX, like my a350, has an APS-C crop sensor. The surface area of the sensor is only about two thirds that of a frame of 35mm film.
So compared with shooting the same lens on film, with the NEX/Alpha, it’s like taking only the central part of the photo.
Imagine having a large photograph, then putting a frame with a thick border on top. You crop the image from its full size and lose the outer edges, all the way around.
The benefit of this is that for most lenses, when they start to show flaws and failings, its at their outermost edges, at wide apertures.
Pair the same lens on a crop sensor and you instantly remove those outer edges and use only the central part of the lens where it performs at its optimum. Stop it down two or three stops and you can create stunning sharpness, contrast and colours.
Second, the physical handling of the lens.
Whilst this doesn’t directly impact the final image, it goes a long way to how we the photographer are able to get the best from the lens.
Put simply, the lenses you love using most are the ones you’re going to shoot most with, and try hardest to get the best images with.
Any lens that’s frustrating or indifferent in use isn’t going to inspire the photographer to be at their best, or try to find the best compositions.
So lenses like the Minolta MD Zoom, which for me were ungainly, even annoying, on a film body, came into their own with something like the little NEX, where almost all your physical contact is with the lens, and they suddenly become far more comfortable and natural feeling.
Third, the character and construction of the lens.
Some say that there are no bad 50mm lenses, because the relatively simply construction of the elements of the lens is hard to get wrong. You just get different degrees of excellent.
So I wonder if for other lenses, their internal design is somehow better suited for digital sensors. Part of this might be down to theory one, and the optimal part of the glass being used.
And/or it might be that for some lenses, the character – and the unique way they shape and interpret the light that flows through them – is better syncopated with the way a digital sensor (or in my specific experience a Sony APS-C digital sensor) also shapes and interprets the light that hits it.
As I explained at the start, I don’t have the science behind this, it’s just my theories based on my experience and limited knowledge.
To get to the point of this whole post.
Even if you shoot loads of film, it’s well worth getting a digital camera that’s easily adaptable to vintage lenses (my own experience would recommend Sony NEX or Alpha).
First you have a cheap (after the initial, modest, outlay) way to experiment with all kinds of lenses with immediate feedback and the ability to get to know a lens in a matter of hours, rather than the weeks it might take with film.
Second, because, like I have, you may well find some absolute gems of lenses that are overlooked on film due to merely adequate performance, but really come alive on digital.
I always try to come back to the core purpose and message of 35hunter – “Hunting for balance and beauty, camera in hand”.
Hunting for beauty sometimes means grabbing your favourite film camera and lens and exploring some of the most amazing places you know.
And sometimes it means picking up an obscure vintage lens or two from eBay or a charity shop and playing with it in your back garden to see what you coax from it.
Either way, that pursuit of beauty – and the enjoyment along the way – always makes the experience worthwhile.
What has been your experience of using vintage lenses on digital bodies?
Let us know in the comments below.
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15 thoughts on “With Eyes Reborn”
I’m enjoying reading your thoughts, but one thing stands out for me here. You say: “it’s well worth getting a digital camera that’s easily adaptable to vintage lenses (my own experience would recommend Sony NEX or Alpha).”
I’ve no experience of the Sony NEX, but I do have an Alpha 300. Not too many adaptors for the Alpha range, I think. SRB Photographic list five, compared to nine for the Canon EOS, including Con/Yash and Olympus OM. And if you scan eBay, you can get them chipped for the focus “beep” too. Did you ever consider a nice Canon 450 or 650 dslr?
Hi Adrian, thanks for commenting!
The NEX has a wealth of adapters – I’ve had M39, M42, Pentax K, Olympus OM, Konica AR, Minolta SR (MC/MD) and Contax/Yashica (C/Y). There are others!
Yes the Alphas have fewer, but I decided a while back that my favourite lenses are M42 (which led to me selling all my Pentax K and Minolta SR bodies and lenses, and prior to that, Olympus OM, Canon FD and Konica AR kit), and they adapt very easily and cheaply to the Alphas.
That option, plus the native vintage Minolta AF lenses, means I really don’t have any need for anything else on my a350.
Canon EOS are quite possible the most adaptable mount out there. Canon were supremely clever in making their mount so large that virtually all others could be adapted.
For my EOS 300v (film body) I have M42 and C/Y adapters. Which is why when I was researching DSLRs a couple of months back the EOS range were top of the list. But I tried a 40D and didn’t much like it, then tried a Sony a100 and a350 and really liked them both. So I went with the a350, knowing the M42 adapter was available, and being aware of the excellent vintage Minolta AF lenses I’d briefly dabbled with on film last year.
So yes I considered a Canon but from what I tried, preferred the Sony.
I wouldn’t rule out a Canon DSLR in the future, maybe one of the original 5Ds, to try the full frame option…
Firstly, I don’t own a digital interchangeable-lens camera, so I’m not equipped to experiment with this. My wife has a Nikon D3200; perhaps I could borrow it and buy adapters for it.
Secondly, all of this talk of Minolta lenses made me want to shoot some of mine. So I got out my XG 1 and mounted my 45mm f/2 Rokkor, which is a curious little lens. My son is working toward his driver’s license so we got in the car today and drove out to a town I used to live in, about 70 miles away. I shot an entire roll of Fujicolor 200 in the XG 1 on the way.
Jim I think unfortunately from what I’ve read, Nikon cameras are the least adaptable out there.
Canon EOS DSLRs and Sony E mount (like the NEX mirrorless series) are among the most easily and widely adaptable.
Over here a decent Canon or Sony can be had used for under £100.
The Minolta 45/2 is a curious one. Their prices have risen as there are very few 45mm lenses in any mount, plus the small size and light weight appeals to the digital crowd.
I had one for a while but found the 50/55 f/1.7s had the edge, and something like the late MD 50/1.7 is a fantastic performer in a light body.
The extra 5mm width on the focal length and few grams in weight weren’t significant enough for me to keep the 45/2.
But I’m looking forward to seeing what you captured with yours!
Thanks for the tips. I see I can pick up a reasonable used EOS DSLR for under $100. That’s encouraging.
The 45/2 has some interesting bokeh. Otherwise, it’s a good enough lens. But I also own an MD 50/1.7 and an MD Rokkor-X 50/1.4 and so really, there isn’t much reason to use the 45/2. Beyond just feeling like it, that is, which is what drove me yesterday. Here’s a post that shows photos from an earlier roll I shot with this lens:
It’s hard to argue against the EOS juggernaut! You can see why so many people use EOS film and digital bodies.
I often debate with my film cameras about keeping just the EOS 300v and selling everything else. I can use all my M42 and C/Y lenses on it, with reliable exposure, all the settings I’ll ever need, in a small light package.
I’ve been tempted by the EOS digitals too (an EOS 300D, essentially the same as the late 300 film cameras but with a digital sensor can be had for about £50 here) but the Sony a350 won me over with its functions, features and usability.
I checked out your Minolta post and left a reply there.
[…] With Eyes Reborn […]
Hi Dan, I’ve only just come across your blog and have been enjoying reading it. Keeping the obsessively curious and acquisitive collector/gearhead under control so that the artist and practitioner doesn’t lose perspective is something I think many of us can relate to and not just with photography .. ask any fisherman, hifi buff or cyclist. I like your pictures too 😉
Personally, I haven’t used a serious camera in years, my last one was an old Rollei SL35e which I loved but which died back at the turn of the century. Life stuff and finances meant I didn’t replace it and I had a series of digital point and shooters since which I found fiddly and frustrating … my interest in photography waned.
At the beginning of the year I was seriously ill and a long recovery found me enjoying long walks in the local countryside over the spring and summer and documenting them with a borrowed LUMIX point and shoot. Using it with serious intent rather than just family snaps brought back into focus what I like and dislike in a camera. The menu diving, the frustrations of trying to get it to do what I want rather than what it wants, the shear fiddliness of it all and the fact that it appears to have no meaningful range of apertures available marred (but only slightly) what was actually a great experience. To be fair most of the time it was fine, but the times it wasn’t loomed large. With winter here, me back at work (and getting paid again) thoughts have turned to photography and the idea of getting a better camera.
The idea of a mirrorless that can adapt a variety of older lenses and which gives me better control appeals (especially to my inner gearhead). The Fujifilms may be better for me rather than the Sonys though. Their emphasis on physical controls is something I hope I can relate with better as the constant menu diving on so many digital cameras is part of what I find so frustrating and disconnecting … also why I want something with a viewfinder even if they are electronic.
I’d appreciate your thoughts and advice. Thanks again for a fascinating blog.
Hi Tony, thanks for your reply, and great to have you with us.
My camera usage has evolved fairly quickly at times over the last few years. I haven’t used any of the Fuji cameras so I can’t comment on them, but I know a lot of people love them, others don’t at all. I think you’d have to try one out in a shop at least initially to see how it felt for you. Or if you can borrow one from someone for a more extensive “play” even better.
Of the Sony NEX series I had the 3N which I can say has many fantastic pluses. Image quality is high, exposures excellent, and adapatability unbelievable for using vintage lenses (though I believe Fuji, micro 4/3 and others are also widely adaptable).
I used my NEX almost exclusively on Aperture Priority (Av) mode and rarely touched any other controls, as I said the metering was excellent. I used it at ISO400 nearly all the time too, I just liked the slight noise/grain as I don’t like a super clean and clinical digital look.
The screen with its tilt feature made it very versatile, and focus peaking was very useful shooting with old lenses – it would be very difficult to focus much of the time using just the screen.
Things I didn’t like so much (and ultimately led to me selling it a couple of months ago after owning for about 3.5 years) were the handling and lack of viewfinder (VF).
Handling wise it always felt like a device at arm lengths length, rather than a “proper” camera. This is why I bought an old Pentax DSLR (K10D). It’s hugely bigger than the Sony but the handling is fantastic, it fits like a glove.
The lack of VF with the Sony also added to that detached device experience. Again I got the K10D to have a digital camera with a great VF. To me the immersive experience of photography is really important and it wasn’t really there with the Sony. I would bear that in mind.
Ultimately you need to think about why you photograph and which factors are most important. Think about aspects like handling, size, viewfinder, how many lenses you really need (and which focal lengths), which lenses you enjoy most (modern AF, older AF, older manual etc, which mount) and so on. And of course whether you need an interchangeable lens camera at all. Don’t discount a capable digital compact! Which brings me too…
In recent months I’ve discovered the Ricoh digitals like the GX100 (24-72mm zoom) and GR Digital III (28/1.9 prime). They have been an absolute revelation. The handling and user interface are fantastic, I’ve never used a camera like them.
With the results I’ve been able to get with these humble compacts and the experience of shooting them (not a DSLR with a viewfinder, but so compact and convenient) going into 2018 I’m seriously questioning whether I need a DSLR at all (or anything with an APS-C sensor, let alone full frame).
I’ve also had some brilliant fun using my iPhone (5c) with the Hipstamatic app too. Again, many people have switched to a phone cam completely and are getting wonderful results as well as a very liberating experience and having a compact camera with them at all times. Like the Sony NEX you’re not going to get the full camera experience of using something like a DSLR but the compactness and convenience might outweigh this. Worth considering in your deliberations.
Hope that helps Tony! As I said, getting down to why you photograph and what kind of camera would be most suitable and convenient for that, is the crux of it.
Let me know how your thinking goes…
Thanks Dan, I think a trip to the local camera shop for a play is in order. I know I want something with a viewfinder (evf or optical I’m not overly fussed), that gives me aperature priority auto exposure and access to a variety of adapted lenses, a good manual focussing experience and at least one cheapest mid range autofocus zoom for snappy time. Other than that it’s down to the handling of the thing. Finances dictate something secondhand and I’m not concerned about having the latest and greatest necessarily, but do appreciate good quality when I handle it. That would be my shopping list whatever I wanted to do with to it I think.
At the moment landscapes and close ups of things I come across on walks, but who knows where it will lead. It’s a creative outlet.
Fuji X or Sony E mount seem to be the ones that fit the bill. not keen on the micro 4/3 option simply because the crop factor makes wide angle old lenses not an option, even with a focal reducer.
I would agree Tony that from your wish list the Sony or Fuji cameras seem the best fit. If you want mirrorless, plus an APS-C sensor.
If you’re not as concerned about size, I would think about a Pentax or Canon or even Sony DSLR, all APS-C too. They would likely be cheaper, and arguably more versatile.
I came close to a Canon DSLR but the one I tried I didn’t like the small VF so I went with a Sony (a350, then an a100 which are older but I found better). Eventually I came back to Pentax and the K10D which is about as good as a DSLR is going to get for me, experience wise. Later Sony and Pentax DSLRs have a tiltable screen as well as VF.
Remember that with the Sony E mount mirrorless (I can’t speak for Fuji) that once you have a lens and adapter (especially if you’re thinking about focal reducers too) their compactness is greatly compromised, and in fact I found the balance of the Sony and Pentax DSLRs with the same lenses is much better.
Like I said before, my NEX always felt like a device stuck on the back of a beautiful vintage lens rather than a “proper” camera.
Again, depends on your needs! A NEX or Fuji with a native compact prime lens will retain its compact size and logical handling. It’s when you start adapting lenses you have to consider crop factor, handling, adapter size etc.
Hope that makes sense.
It’ll be a month or two yet anyway, so I’ll probably get a chance to have a play with a couple before making a decision. I took a tumble, cracked a rib and have to take time off again (stupiditynin my part … lesson learnt … don’t race electric scooters against your 10 year old niece on slippery surfaces).
Here’s my thinking on mirrorless. Reasons for wanting to go the mirrorless route …
1) short flange distance means all lenses are theoretically adaptable with infinity focus, rather than the subset a DSLR inevitably means, even the EOS (which I guess is probably the most adaptable of the DSLRs)
2) Manual focus aids on an EVF that you don’t get with optical viewfinders. I did actually briefly try out a camera with an evf in the summer (a Lumix FZ90) and found the manual focussing very usable. The only DSLR I have used (a Nikon of some sort), the manual focussing through the optical viewfinder was horrible … just a flat matte screen, not easy even in broad daylight.
The last time I used a serious camera in anger was back in the film SLR era. Back then I had a diagonal split screen and a microprism ring round it. Focussing My old Rollei with a reasonably fast prime was a joy. That Nikon was like going back to the dark ages for manual focussing. I know the expectation is that you will autofocus with these things, but it seemed like a step backwards for manual use and as I understand it, that’s par for the course on modern DSLRs (though correct me if I’m wrong).
I’m pretty sure solid manual focussing is something I will need. My frustrations with autofocus in the past have had a lot to do with spending as much time or more getting the damn thing to focus on what you actually want to be in focus rather than what it thinks you want to be in focus, than it would take to just manually focus it in the first place.
You could be right about balance, but whenever I used a camera in the past with a substantial lens, I tended to cup it in the left hand under the lens mount closer to the balance point, rather than holding the camera body itself, so it may not be a big issue. Any lens that’s still front heavy carried like that probably needs a tripod anyway 🙂
Thanks for all your input. It’s given food for thought. I’ll let you know where I go with it. I like the look of the Fuji X-T1, but If I try one and like it I’ll have to stick with this old Lumix for now as that will take a bit of saving up for even second hand. It’s tempting to just get a very cheap DSLR in the meantime and try out a few M42 mount lenses, but I have a nasty suspicion I’d just spend my money on lenses 😉 Maybe just a better idea to learn to get the best from what I have and save … life and it’s conundrums heh.
Tony, I think your reasoning is all sound.
Thoughts to add –
“With mirrorless all lenses are adaptable” – Yeh this seemed a wonderful idea to me too. I ended up going through seven or eight different adapters with my NEX – and a bunch of lenses with each of course. Then realised that M42 offers all I could ever want in a manual focus lens (Takumars plus a few more quirky Russian lenses, a couple of Zeiss if you like those (Flektogon, Pancolar, Sonnar) what more does anyone need?), and Pentax K offers arguably an even better, higher quality range of options, plus some automation, depending which lens/camera you use. Hence settling back with a Pentax DSLR (plus M42 adapter). Maybe we all need to go through this, but you realise virtually all brands made a few excellent lenses, and for me Asahi / Pentax offers the best value and fabulous build and performance.
“Manual focusing with the Nikon DSLR was horrible” – I’ve found this with a number of DLSRs, shockingly poor VFs! This is why I sought out one of the best on this front, the Pentax K10D which I think has 95% view and 0.95x magnification. I also fitted an aftermarket split focus screen (about £15 from Japan) which aids greatly with manual focus lenses too. Make sure you check the VF spec of ANY camera you’re exploring, you might be very disappointed!
“Balance” – Yes there is the genuine issue that more balanced cameras enable you to shoot at lower shutter speeds without camera shake. The K10D is a heavy beast, but very comfortable and stable to hold. I never got that with the Sony NEX really, it was nearly always front heavy once you add an adapter plus lens.
“Very cheap DSLR plus M42 lenses” – You could do a lot worse, and not much better! Going a little older and focusing on practical things like the VF spec rather than sensor MegaPixels is the secret I think. The K10D has that 95% 0.95x VF, and “only” a lowly 10MP CCD sensor. But it makes beautiful images. Much rather have that than say a 20MP camera with a rubbish VF.
If size and weight is an issue, then you’re probably not interested in a DSLR, but since you mentioned the “very cheap DSLR” option, it sounds like you’re open to it. Even something like the original Canon 5D might be of interest, they’re very affordable these days compared with being well over £1000 new (and of course they’re full frame which saves all the focal length multiplying, crop factors etc, if that appeals).
Oh and ps. I forgot what drove me to comment in the first place. Doh. A question about the MInolta zoom in fact. From the post it looks as though the issue you had with it on the Minolta body was more of a handling thing than an image quality thing. Can you give us an idea of what it was like in terms of the image quality at full frame? Did the crop on the Sony hide an nasty edges or was it just the handling? Useful to know for anyone adapting for use on Full frame or using a focal reducer on APSC
Tony I had no issues with image quality with the Minolta zoom, but I’m not the person to ask about high quality. I’m not interested in 100% crops and pixel peeping. That Minolta was probably the best quality zoom I’ve used, on digital. I didn’t use it enough on film to comment, I couldn’t get past the handling. Bear in mind this was the exact same lens design Leica used for their 35-70mm at the time and it’s regarded by many as one of the best zooms made in any mount. I wouldn’t expect it to disappoint!
The 35-70/4 AF “Baby Beercan” is a great one too, and I used it manual focus with no problems most of the time. Very impressive performance especially for its price (around £20-30).
Hope that helps you.