For the last five years I’ve been experimenting with vintage manual lenses on modern digital cameras.
This came about originally from using the lenses on the 35mm film cameras they were intended for, and delighting in their beautiful build quality, smoothness in use, and the fantastic photographs they could produce.
Then, in the spring of 2014 I discovered that Pentax had used the same basic K mount since 1975 and any of these lenses could be used on a modern Pentax K DSLR. Even better, you can also use the older M42 screw mount lenses, via a simple adapter.
So I bought a Pentax K-x DSLR, an M42 adapter, and started to experiment.
Subsequently, I’ve used vintage lenses on a Sony NEX 3N, a mirrorless body with APS-C sensor (same size as in the Pentax DSLR), a couple of Sony Alpha DSLRS (a100 and a350), a Panasonic Lumix GF1 mirrorless Micro Four Thirds (M43) camera, and four other Pentax DSLRs – a K10D, a Samsung GX10 (clone of the Pentax K10D), a Samsung GX-1S (clone of the Pentax *ist DS2), and most recently a K30.
Here’s my summary of using legacy lenses, and specifically M42 lenses, on these different types of cameras, and how well (or not!) it’s worked for me.
For each, I’ll describe the different approaches I’ve tried, and the pros and cons.
Pentax K-x DSLR
Although the K-x had Live View (LV) – ie you could use the screen to compose and focus – 99% of the time I used the viewfinder (VF), to try to emulate the immersive experience I’d had with my 35mm film SLRs.
I used Aperture Priority (Av) mode mostly, so I could set the aperture manually on the lens, then rely on the camera to choose the correct shutter speed.
With most M42 lenses, there are three approaches.
1. Set the aperture first, then compose, focus and shoot.
The upside is this is fast and convenient. Especially if you don’t need to alter the aperture often between shots. Also you can see the depth of field you’ll get, as the lens is already at the aperture to take the photograph.
The downside is that the smaller the aperture, the darker the VF becomes, which can make accurate focusing a challenge with manual lenses.
2. Set the aperture, then switch the lens to Auto (A), so the aperture fully opens. Most M42 lenses have this A/M switch on the barrel. Then compose, focus, and flick the switch back to M (Manual) so the aperture blades close down to the chosen aperture, and shoot.
The upside is the VF is at it brightest as the lens is fully open, making it easier to focus. You can check depth of field when you flick the A/M switch, and adjust if necessary, without needing to refocus.
The downside is there’s an extra step switching the A/M switch each time, and if the lens isn’t that fast at maximum aperture anyway (say f/3/5 or f/4), the VF could still be challenging to focus with.
3. Get to know your lens(es) well enough so you know how many click stops it is from wide open to your desired aperture.
So perhaps you want f/5.6, which is five clicks away from the maximum f/1.8 on a 55/1.8 lens.
You compose and focus with the lens wide open, close the aperture down five clicks, and shoot.
The upside here again is having the lens wide open gives you more light through the VF to help you focus.
On the downside, you’re clicking up and down the aperture range every photo, and if you want to use a range of apertures you need to remember how many clicks away each are.
Plus different lenses will have a different number of clicks, depending on their maximum aperture, whether they have half stops, and so on.
This is not a good technique if you need to change aperture and/or lens often.
A way around this is to forget about the actual aperture number, compose and focus with the lens wide open, then simple close down until you have the depth of field and/or shutter speed you want, then shoot. Which is often what I’ve done, as depth of field is much more of a priority for me than shutter speed.
Another downside with this approach, as before, is a slower lens may be tricky to focus even wide open.
So those are the three main ways I’ve used the lenses to focus and choose my required aperture. None are ideal!
On the metering side, in my experience it’s not been straightforward either.
Only on very few occasions have I shot a picture with the standard metering and got a great exposure. I nearly always needed to use the exposure compensation (let’s call this EC) to compensate for the camera under or over exposing on the first try.
Now, if you had to find the correct EC once by trial and error – a kind of one off exposure calbration for each different lens – then you could just leave it set and shoot away happily.
But again I’ve nearly always found that if a lens needs say -0.3 EC wide open, at f/4 it might need +0.3 or +0.7. At f/8 you might need +1 or +1.3.
Digital in my experience needs a far more precise exposure than film too, so you can’t just be within a stop either way and it looks fine, as is the case with colour negative film.
In short, there’s a fair amount of trial and error to get consistent exposures. Which isn’t consistent across all lenses either.
If you shot with just one lens, at one aperture, then you could find the sweet spot with the EC and forget it.
But most of us need different depth of field or are responding to different lighting levels each time we use our cameras, so we’re highly likely to use a range of apertures.
Plus a big reason for using an interchangeable lens camera is to use more than one lens!
In summary, with the Pentax K-x, I found the fiddling around with aperture rings and A/M switches, the need to tweak exposure compensation at virtually all apertures to get the right exposure, and the difficulty in focusing (even wide open with some lenses), really inhibited my enjoyment of using these beautiful old lenses.
So it was because of the above frustrations using my original Pentax DLSR, the K-x, that I looked for other (easier!) options to shoot vintage lenses digitally.
I discovered the Sony NEX range, and in late 2014 bought a nearly new NEX 3N.
Again I used M42 lenses on Aperture Priority mode, letting the camera choose the correct exposure.
The shooting process went like this –
Set lens to required aperture. Compose, focus, shoot.
I used the NEX’s screen to focus, which was also tiltable, and had focus peaking to aid focusing, which helped massively.
In terms of focusing and metering, the NEX performed fantastically.
The screen and focus peaking made focusing easy and exposures were very consistent with barely any need for fiddling with exposure compensation.
For more challenging focusing situations, I could open the lens wide, then focus more critically, then stop down the lens to the required aperture before shooting.
Because I could see the lens (as I wasn’t looking through a VF) I could easily see the aperture markings.
Or I could just adjust the aperture until I had the depth of field and/or shutter speed I wanted, as with a DSLR.
This all sounds like a dream.
So why did I sell my NEX, albeit after thousands of photographs?
It almost comes down to one word. Handling.
Because the NEX 3N is so much smaller than a DSLR, it doesn’t have a decent hand grip, even with a small native lens.
Plus, to use a vintage lens, the required adapter has to position the lens the same distance from the camera’s sensor as from the film plane of an original M42 camera.
So this adds the length of the lens again on the front of the camera. Even with a compact 35 or 50mm lens, the camera is then front heavy and unbalanced.
Because focusing is via a screen not a VF, I ended up holding the camera almost entirely by the lens, not the body, which then made it a little awkward to operate the shutter button with your wrist bent back, rather than in the more natural position it finds itself in with a DSLR using a VF.
In fact much of the time I modified my hand position so the fingers of my right hand were underneath the body, and my thumb was on top operating the shutter button.
So all this awkwardness meant a significant disconnect from the camera, and indeed the whole photography experience.
Yes the NEX was a fantastic tool for making pictures, easy to focus, and reliable in its exposures. But it was just that, a picture making tool, not a camera, and one with the aforementioned ungainly ergonomics at that.
I always felt like a man handling a new born baby for the first time, not quite sure where to put my hands, constantly trying to find a comfortable hold, and terrified of dropping it.
In fact the NEX ultimately became a lens testing tool, as I began what became an almost never ending quest to find the perfect collection of lenses – and sell the dozens I didn’t quite enjoy enough with some pretty sample pictures on eBay along the way.
An additional frustration was the colours the Sony produced.
They were somehow too bland, too cool, and I was forever experimenting with presets in LightRoom to try to get colours I like. Warmer, more natural colours that I knew I could obtain shooting the same lens with a film camera and something like the wonderful FujiFilm Superia 100 film.
In summary, the disconnected experience and awkward handling, combined with the disappointing colours that led to too much time spent post processing, meant that I never felt anything like as much enjoyment and immersion using the Sony NEX as with an SLR, or even a DSLR.
Sony Alpha DSLRs
So I decided to try a DSLR again, and in early 2017 I bought a Sony a350.
This operated much like my former Pentax DSLR, the K-x, but I hadn’t realised I could only use the a350 on Manual (M) mode, not Aperture Priority (Av). Which added further fiddling about I didn’t want.
After further research, I bought an older a100, which could use AV mode with M42 lenses, and a simple adapter.
Again the VF wasn’t great (I was still using cameras like the Pentax ME Super, Contax 139 Quartz and Minolta X700 as my yard stick for how amazing a VF can be), so focusing with manual lenses was difficult, and again to make this as easy as possible you needed maximum aperture, then to stop down just before shooting via one of the methods described above.
The Alphas did seem more consistent with their exposures, and the final images I did prefer somehow than the Pentax K-x, and certainly the NEX, especially with the a100.
I put this down to an older, lower MP CCD sensor giving a look and colours I prefer to the later, higher MP CMOS sensors in the Pentax K-x and NEX.
So the Sony DLSRs were better in some ways, and perhaps the best overall option I’d tried up to that point.
But they still presented a number of obstacles to enjoying my old M42 lenses to the fullest.
Pentax DSLR (V2)
After better results in some ways with the Sony a100, I thought about what I wanted to improve. Mostly, it was the quality and size of the VF, and perhaps the colours too.
So after further research I came across the much revered Pentax K10D, their flagship pro DSLR at the time of its release in 2006, and picked one up for a shade under £100, 11 years on.
The K10D is indeed a wonderful camera. The handling is fantastic, and the output of its 10MP CCD sensor (made by Sony, ironically) is lovely, especially at its native ISO100.
The VF was larger and brighter than in the Sony a100, and with a split focusing screen and magnified eyepiece, became about as good as it gets with a DSLR and manual lenses.
But it had similar exposure inconsistencies to the K-x. In fact I recall it required more exposure compensation, which again varied with different lenses and at different apertures.
Because of the manual operation of focusing and setting aperture, then the trial and error exposure often needing multiple attempts to get the exposure right, I was spending five or 10 minutes on a single image, which might take 30 seconds with a film camera and the same lens, or indeed with the Sony NEX.
So with every exposure taking, to put it bluntly, too much effort and faffing about, the sheer bulk and weight of the K10D started to wear thin.
Next, I tried its contemporary sibling, the Samsung GX-1S, which was a Samsung rebranded Pentax *ist DS2.
This shared the same VF as the K10D, with a slightly lower MP sensor (6MP CCD, again Sony made I believe) that made just as lovely images, in a considerably smaller and lighter body.
But the amount of manual input was the same, for setting aperture, focusing and tweaking exposures. Again it all just seem like too much effort for the results I was getting.
And the VF, whilst very good compared with other DSLRs I’d used, was still tricky to focus with, especially compared with an SLR.
Panasonic Lumix GF1
So I decided to try mirrorless again, but a slightly different route, via the Panasonic Lumix GF1 Micro Four Thirds body.
As I’ve spoken about before, the GF1 is on paper a wonderful camera, and it oozes class and quality.
Combine this with on board settings that allowed me to produce contrasty b/w images I loved straight out of camera, and I should have been dancing for joy.
So what was wrong this time (I can sense you rolling your eyes at my apparently endlessly high expectations of a digital camera to shoot my old lenses with!)?
Similar to the Sony NEX, the handling of the GF1 is just rubbish.
I don’t know who designs these cameras without putting a decent, curved, rubberised and/or textured grip on the front. But what kind of hands do they have??
I like to close my fingers around a grip like on a bike or a car steering wheel. Or a DSLR!
With almost dead flat front and rear surfaces like on the GF1, you end up either trying to clutch it with your hands like a duck beak, or trying to curl your fingers tight, with barely any fingertip in contact with camera. Is this just me?
Moving on, also as with the NEX, the required adapter adds so much bulk and ruins the handling further. It ends up feeling like an awkward device, and not a “proper” camera.
An additional issue is the crop factor. By this point I was well used to using 35 and 55mm lenses on APS-C sensor cameras with a 1.5x crop factor. So a 35mm lens gives an equivalent 52.5mm field of view (35 x 1.5), and a 55mm lens gives 82.5mm.
And since the DSLRs I’d used, as well as the Sony NEX, all had the same size APS-C sensor, these altered fields of view I’d become accustomed too over the previous three years or more, and seemed normal.
In fact putting a 35mm lens on an SLR again, I was usually surprised how wide the view was.
But the GF1’s Micro Four Thirds (M43) sensor is smaller, with a 2x crop factor. In terms of image quality, it still creates wonderful images, more than high enough resolution for my needs.
But with vintage 35mm film lenses, a 35mm lens was then cropped to 70mm, and a 55mm lens then gives 110mm.
This greater difference between the lenses’ original field view suddenly became much more apparent, and working backwards, with an M43 sensor I’d need a 17.5mm lens to give me 35mm, and a 27.5mm lens to give 55mm.
The nearest matches – an 18 or 20mm in M42 mount – are rare and expensive, and even a 28mm lens that’d give a 56mm field of view is not like using a 55mm lens, due its greater distortion, and usually a 28mm lens has a much slower aperture (most typically f/2.8 or f/3.5) than a 55mm f/1.8 lens.
So I came to the conclusion that you may as well give up trying to match your previous favourite focal lengths, and either accept and embrace the 2x crop factor, or ditch the M42 lenses altogether and use a native M43 lenses that will give you your favoured focal lengths naturally.
The latter option is pretty much what I’ve done with the GF1, the only lens I use now is a native M43 mount 7Artisans 25/1.8 lens.
Even if I tried a smaller M43 body with better handling, there’d still be the issue with the adapter making the camera unbalanced, and of course the crop factor issues, so I see little point in trying.
So M42 on M43 just didn’t really work for me.
Pentax DSLR (V3)
So back I went to DSLRs for a third round, this time a K30, with about as good a VF as you get with an APS-C DSLR, excellent handling, in a pretty compact and light package.
There’s so much to love about the K30, it’s a cracking camera.
But, the same issues remain when trying to use M42 lenses.
The need to focus wide open, or at least close to it, then stopping down, either through the aperture ring’s click stops, or using the A/M switch.
The inconsistent exposures when using different apertures and different lenses, so the exposure compensation button is in almost constant use, and a composition rarely comes out exposed correctly the first time.
Aside from having more control over your final image in camera, the K30 is really not much different to the Samsung GX-1S I had, and that camera somehow output images with my character. Again, I would guess this is a 6MP CCD sensor compared with a 16MP CCD sensor.
What hasn’t helped (or perhaps has helped, in terms of me reaching a conclusion) is that using the only lens I have that’s specifically built for a DLSR, the Pentax-DA 35/2.4, is light, quick, easy, consistent in exposure and delivers really quite lovely images, especially considering it’s a plastic AF lens.
Using the Pentax-DA just further emphasises the contrast and additional fiddling required with M42 lenses.
My conclusion is really what I think I’ve known for a long time, I’ve just not wanted to admit it.
M42 manual lenses can’t be used on digital bodies without some significant compromise or other.
The two cameras that remain of those above are the Lumix GF1 and Pentax K30 DSLR.
The lens I’ve enjoyed most on the GF1 has been the 7Artisans, which gives much of the manual and tactile pleasure of M42 lenses (manual focus, manual aperture, metal body) as well as something of a vintage look to the final images.
I can’t see me finding a better lens, for my needs, so either I stick with that, or decide the whole set up is not for me and sell it on.
It’s a similar, albeit slightly different, story with the K30.
As I said just now, the lens I’ve enjoyed so far by far has been my Pentax-DA 35/2.4, a lens specifically designed for Pentax DLSRs, with its compact and very light body, and reliable exposures.
Using each of these two cameras to their own strengths, with their own native lenses, and forgetting about M42, would seem to be the most sensible and most enjoyable way forward.
Which leaves the only available cameras to use my M42 lenses on as the two film bodies I still have, my Asahi Spotmatic F and Contax 139 Quartz. Neither of which I’ve actually put a film through in about 30 months…
So, despite my fondness of them and the hundreds of lovely images I’ve made with them, my M42 lenses now seem all but redundant.
The only other option I can think of that I haven’t tried is a full frame DSLR. In theory this would give me a better VF, and eliminate the crop factor issues.
The only one remotely affordable is probably an original Canon 5D.
But I’ve heard stories of issues with lenses hitting the mirror, and the same operational issues of focusing and stopping down a manual lens as with any DSLR would still be present.
So it’s not an option I’ve raced out to try.
Any advice? Have you used M42 (or indeed any other vintage SLR lenses) on a digital body with more luck?
Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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