Buying Vintage Lenses – The Two Biggest Traps I’ve Fallen Into

Over the last eight years or so, I’ve had in excess of 100 lenses, perhaps nearer 200 now. 

Whilst I love these old lenses, and there have been very few I’ve disliked entirely, I’ve purchased far more than I’ve needed.

These are most likely the biggest two traps I’ve fallen into. 

1. Thinking I needed a lens in every possible focal length.

I started out with an SLR and a nifty fifty, like most people. In my case, a Praktica BMS Electronic with a Pentacon 50/1.8.

Which suited me just fine – there was so much else I needed to control on the camera, having another variable in the lens I chose (or using a zoom lens) would have been too intimidating at that stage of my photography evolution.

After a while I started exploring other cameras, and lenses of other focal lengths.

Sometimes by choice I’d seek out a particular lens, and sometimes it was just the one that came with a camera I’d bought.

I seemed to have picked up a couple of notions along the way (probably from reading forums about vintage lenses).

First, that primes were far superior to zooms, something I still believe to an extent.

Second, that to have the versatility and range of a zoom, you needed a prime for each of the common focal lengths it covered.

So, if your zoom was 35-70mm say, you’d need 35mm, 50/55mm, and 70/75mm prime lenses.

For a 28-85mm zoom, you’d need a 28mm, 35mm, 50/55mm, and 80/85mm.

But then to have the option to go wider, you might want a 24mm, or even a 20 or 21mm. And to go longer, perhaps 135mm. Or even longer, 200mm.

Then in between these, there are further steps where a prime lens could step up.

And so there was a point where I think had lenses at 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 55mm, 58mm, 105mm, 120mm, 135mm, 150mm and 200mm.

Now really does anyone need a lens for each of 11 different focal lengths?

Probably not, unless you’re a very diverse professional photographer who can photograph anything from macro to portraits to street to landscapes and back again.

This is why most amateur photographs back in the film days had a wide, normal and tele lens, typically 35mm, 50mm and 135mm.

For anything in between you just used the lens that fitted best and physically moved into position.

Letting go of the need to fill every conceivable rung on that focal length ladder meant I could have a far smaller arsenal that I knew – and enjoyed – far better.

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2. Thinking I needed to try every 50/55/135mm lenses ever made.

The second major pitfall was that even if I didn’t have a lens in 11 different focal lengths, I couldn’t possibly settle on the first lens I tried in any particular focal length, in case it was the worst model ever made. Or even mediocre.

Or that it might not offer the greatest sharpness, the smoothest bokeh, the most vibrant colours, the smoothest focusing action, the fastest maximum aperture, the closest minimum focusing distance, or a host of other variables.

Which led to me owning at a guess at least 50 lenses at 50, 55 or 58mm over the years.

And ultimately realising that the good old Prakticar Pentacon 50/1.8 on my first SLR was about 95% as good as anything I’d try subsequently, and certain wouldn’t limit the photographs I wanted to make.

Each of these traps in isolation would be bad enough, but combine them and their power multiplies exponentially!

I needed a prime lens at at least 10 different focal lengths, and each one needed to a very good example so multiple models and versions would need to be explored.

Just do the maths, 10 focal lengths, and trying even five lenses at each and already you’ve totalled 50 lenses.

In some focal lengths there’s a much wider range – it’s very easy to suddenly realise you own 25 50/55mm lenses and a dozen at 135mm, and that all are very good in their own way.

So what’s the point of this post? 

Am I saying you shouldn’t buy more than three different focal lengths (or just get a zoom that covers the range), or that you should only buy one lens at any one focal length?

Of course not, it’s your photography, it’s completely up to you.

But from my own experience, I now know that I didn’t need so many focal lengths, and I know that whilst there are some pretty poor lenses, at the key focal lengths like 35, 50/55 and 135mm, there are plenty of excellent options, I don’t need to own all of them.

How about you? What traps have you fallen into with your photography in the past, and what did it teach you? 

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).

Thanks for looking.

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18 thoughts on “Buying Vintage Lenses – The Two Biggest Traps I’ve Fallen Into”

  1. At one time I was into buying vintage M42 primes on eBay, whatever I saw I used to bid, for some time at least. I eventually stopped when I realised that I was not using them enough, convenience of the double zoom kit meant I was still falling back to them mostly.
    Another personal trap I fell into was shooting RAW on every occasion, and then not being able to process the large number of RAW images that built up. Now I use RAW for selected times, and mostly manage with out of the box jpg shoots.

    1. Deb, I wonder if you reached a point like me where you bought something with great interest, then before it had even arrived, you’d be looking at and buying the next lens.

      So when the lenses did arrive a few days later they were of greatly diminished interest because mentally I’d already moved on to the next one. Not a pleasant cycle to be in.

      I have had similar experiences with RAW in that they’re physically bigger and slower to process, and soon fill up space. And that’s harder to justify when they’re not even “final” images.

      I never knew whether once I’d finished processing and exported as JPEG, whether I should keep the RAW files too. If I did, it made the storage even greater, and I had two sets of images which is harder to organise. If I didn’t, and deleted the RAW files and kept just the JPEGs, I started thinking what’s the point, why don’t I just find a camera (or cameras) which deliver JPEGs I like straight out of camera and cut out all that processing in the middle.

      Which is exactly what I did in the end!

  2. I think the biggest trap is still the time spent looking at and/or researching lenses and sometimes cameras, that I won’t buy anyway.
    Nowadays, any purchase needs to really make sense and fulfill something that I’m lacking.

    1. Yeh I know what you mean, but a part of me really likes that researching and exploring side of things, not just cameras. I like delving into a different world of something, whether it’s films or books, music, a certain camera mount etc. I like the learning journey.

      1. My wife says it’s a guy thing, that we like to obsess over things… it’s part of the male personality apparently…
        I don’t think I can disagree with her though 🙂

      2. I’m not sure it’s that simple, I’ve know a few obsessive women! Perhaps men seem more pre-disposed to collecting stuff though?

  3. Oddly enough I’m looking at more suitable lenses for my Canon now, as the Nikon is clearly giving up. This has led to scary things like Tamron not authorized sales/service, giant import fees to bring things into Canada, and user reviews that are vague and don’t cover the important factors. The trap is assuming that because a lens has a decent name brand on it it’s going to be good. Well Canon is a decent brand and the two lenses I have under their name are mediocre. The thought of shelling out hundreds more for a wider-ranging zoom with a decent brand name on it and getting another failure is daunting.
    I don’t need 100 lenses or even three, just one that covers my range and is sharp with good contrast. They all claim to be great (with long, involved technical construction explanations that are meaningless to end-users), but are they? Buying a pig-in-a-poke is the trap.
    Might as well stick with the old manual Takumars and get results.

    1. I think you won’t go far wrong with the old Takumars!

      The price of modern lenses shocks me, especially as you can buy such glorious old glass – with excellent craftsmanship and quality of materials – for virtually pocket money.

  4. At the outset, I ignored primes, and that was a mistake. Zooms seemed more economical until I started shooting in low light and using 100 ISO film. The first prime I tried was a 50mm 1.7 Maxxum, which was pretty good. But after reading so much about 50s, I got a MD Rokkor 50mm 1.4, and used it first with an adapter on a Olympus e300. I was shocked at the quality of the photos. Now, I have my favorites: 100mm 2.8, Macro AF, 50mm AF 2.8 Macro, which I use Instead of the regular prime and the 28-105mm AF. When using a manual camera, I have 50mm 1.4, 135mm 2.8 and a 28-85mm as favs. I find I am drawn to still life and flowers, so these lenses meet my needs. I still use zooms, but I grab primes much more often.

    1. Ah I had a couple of Rokkor 50/1.4s, and an older 58/1.4 which was possibly the most beautiful looking lens I’ve ever held.

      The 50/2.8 Macro was fantastic too.

      I think zooms muddle one’s thinking too much. You stand in a field with a zoom and don’t know whether to capture the rolling hills in the distance, the beautiful tiny flowers at your feet, or something in between.

      I find that by committing to one lens (at a time) your brain and eyes then naturally seek out the compositions that work best for that focal length, rather than having the almost infinite choice of a zoom.

      Plus all the speed disadvantages you mention. A zoom with a maximum aperture of say f/4 but then isn’t great until another stop or two is vastly more limited than say an f/1.7 prime that’s respectable wide open and great at f/2.4 or 2.8.

  5. One of the big traps I fell into years ago was thinking faster lenses were “Better”. I have since decided I prefer slower lenses, and dislike the weight and bulk of fast lenses. When I lived in the City, I had more need for faster lenses, now, not so much.

    1. It also depends Jon on how good the faster lenses are wide open. I’ve had f/1.4 lenses that have been barely usable wide open but f/2 or f/2.8 lenses that are great at every aperture, including wide open. I’d rather take one of those that a faster lens that partly unusable!

  6. Coming back to film a couple of years ago after a fifteen year break, I continued on where I had left off with Contax. The Zeiss glass is the reason I bought my first one in 1984, the difference now is I have able to afford to add to the original Planar 1.7/50, and I have gradually collected four more lenses, the Distagon 2.8/25, Vario Sonnar 3.3/28-85, Vario Sonnar 4/80-200 and the Tele-Tessar 4/300. All superb glass, and I just don’t need to think about it any more. Similar with medium format, I was given a Mamiya RZ67 with two lenses, and I have added a couple more, so I am covered from wide angle to medium telephoto. The Zeiss lenses are quite expensive for good examples, but outperform modern kit lenses, and are MUCH cheaper than modern pro lenses which they compare very well with. The Mamiya lenses are very inexpensive for what you get, so I am a pretty happy photographer, especially as I can use the Zeiss glass on my Canon DSLR as well,

    1. Gotta love those Contax bodies Steve! Though as we’ve discussed before, my experience with a Planar was a bit disappointing and it was no better than the Yashica ML 50/1.7 or 50/1.4 I had and that cost about a quarter and a third of the price of the Zeiss Planar respectively.

      1. That’s a marvellous camera, I used to call mine the beauty and the beast rolled into one machine… I wish there was a digital camera that felt that good to hold and use…

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