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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