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Vintage Lenses on Digital Cameras
a critque

When I started writing these stories, and I thought that I was writing a blog, I promised I would occasionally write on photography. I haven't done much of that. Last week Perry sent me an article which he thought may interest me. It did, but not for the reason he assumed. I was actually quite annoyed reading this.

The article was published by the New York Times on 10th September, 2008 and written by Russ Juskalian, "a freelance writer and media critic who covers the media, technology, science, politics, and economics among other topics".

I hope this article and my comments are not too technical for most of my readers. I have left out some of the real technical stuff, like which mounts go best with which cameras. Really a bit irrelvant in my opinion.

I've reprinted most of the article here with some of my comments [in square brackets].

ALL Shawn McCully wanted was a lens for his digital single-lens reflex camera. Little did he know, he was searching for the holy grail of amateur photography -- and hoping to do it on the cheap.

"I just wanted to be able to shoot family and friends indoors without a flash," he said. He also wanted his digital Canon 40D to take photos with a buttery smooth background and only the tiniest area in focus.

Canon sells a lens that would have been perfect for Mr. McCully if not for its $1,500 price tag. So Mr. McCully, a 32-year-old lawyer from Bellevue, Wash., turned to his closet where, like so many recent converts to digital photography, he had a stash of manual-focus lenses from his days shooting with film.

One lens in particular, a Canon FL 55-millimeter f1.2, bought around four decades ago by Mr. McCully's father, was nearly identical to the contemporary offering from Canon. But it would not fit Mr. McCully's digital Canon. "I realized I could probably figure out how to make this thing work," he said. [All OK so far, but this is not telling the full story. I have been using Canon cameras for over thirty years, first an EF and then an A1. Both of these cameras use semi automatic exposure setting and manual focusing. Between 1971 and 1987 all Canon lenses used the FD breech lock mount. The last Canon (film) body with an FD mount was the T60 introduced in 1990 those Canon started marketing the new autofocus EOS series on 1987.

It was in 1987 that I was passing though Hong Kong on my way to Australia. I decided to buy Jill one of the new automatic point and shoot cameras that were starting to flood the market. She had expressed interest in photographing the kids but couldn't handle my SLR. On doing a bit of research, I thought that it would be better to buy her one the "new", recently been released, Canon EOS (autofocus) cameras. I thought I would also be able to use my current lenses on this camera too and enhance my shooting possibilities.

It was only when I got to Australia that I realised that my old lenses were useless on the new camera. I figured, well, I'll go and buy an adapter. Right. Big mistake. Yes an adapter was available but it cost around $500 and I would lose all the new features of the new camera. No autofocus and, if I remember correctly, not even automatic exposure. For the same $500 I could buy a couple of new lenses.

I also think that it is a strange claim made in this article that the only way to take effective family photographs is with an f1.2 lens. With a group photograph taken in a room, shooting at f1.2 will give you a depth of field of about 3 millimetres. In other words if your eyes are in focus, your nose certainly won't be, and neither will your eyebrows, or your lips. Your ears will be a fuzz. And this assumes that everyone's eyes in the photograph are equidistant from the film plane -- an absolute impossiblity. The big advantage of an f1.2 lens is that it gives you maximum light in the viewfinder, making (manual) focusing easier. The standard 50mm lens in the "old days" was f1.8. For quite a bit more money, many bought an f1.4 lens, giving an extra half a stop of light. f1.2 were always prohibitively expensive. They required lots more optics.

But this was all when applied to 50mm lenses. Once you moved up into telephoto or down into wide angle range, the best you could hope for was f2.8 -- and on a zoom, well maybe f3.5 to f4.5. I shot with only a 50mm lens for my first year in photography -- rather limiting really, though a great education experience.

Fixed focus lenses give (and always have) you a larger aperture (smaller f number) than zooms. Today people prefer the flexibility offered by these variable focal length lenses. (They always did, but they were once very expensive, so people developed excuses why fixed lenses were better. They probably are a bit, but flexibilty also always has a price tag.)

I would guess f4 or even f5.6 would easily give Mr. McCully his required background blur and allow him to have his family in full focus. I do agree that the extra stops allow you to shoot in low light. But there are other options: a tripod, increasing ASA (what was once film speed) -- you couldn't do that on film cameras (I don't want to get into the technical -- yes you could, but not on a frame by frame basis and more complications too), bounce flash, introducing interesting/artistic blur. But remember, a picture taken in a dark room will always be just that.]

With little more than a cheap metal ring found on eBay, a Dremel tool and a sander, Mr. McCully was able to convert the old lens so it would mount on his new digital camera. And he thus disproved an axiom of photography that had seemed as immutable as the laws of physics: when buying a lens for a D.S.L.R. camera, "low cost" and "ultra-wide aperture" are mutually exclusive terms. (A lens with a wide aperture, or a large optical opening, makes it possible to shoot in dim light and to produce very blurry backgrounds. [So? And I do love the synonym "blurry" for out of focus.])

For the vast majority of D.S.L.R. users, the switch that turns off the camera's autofocus system is nothing more than a curiosity, some kind of vestigial remnant from a mechanical evolution. But a renewed interest in the deliberate twisting of a lens to focus has generated a healthy market for decades' worth of optics that have been gathering dust in closets and taking up space as dead inventory on camera store shelves. [I agree that manual focusing on an autofocus camera is not as easy as it used to be. However the blame is not on DSLR. Autofocus lenses came out more than ten years before the first DSLR. I think in this whole article, you should read "autofocus" whenever it says D.S.L.R.

My wife's original EOS and my later Canon EOS 50 were film cameras, but were effectively stripped of manual focusing capability. On the early EOS, focusing was achieved by pointing the centre of the viewfinder at the object to be in focus and the shutter button pressed halfway. The EOS 50 is neater. It has five focus points spread around the viewfinder (later models have more focus points). You look at the point on which you want to focus and camera jumps into action, picking up your eye movements and focusing where you are looking.

The real reason for not being able to manually focus autofocus cameras is that the basic viewfinder has changed. On my EF and A1(and other cameras of the vintage), you had three levels of focusing. The coarsest covered most of the finder area and was the ground glass. It is made of little glass prisms covering the area of the finder. This glass is basically what you have on the EOS series and later cameras. It's hard to get an accurate focus by only using this area of the glass. An f-stop value of greater than f2.8 is likely to turn the glass black.

Then there is a centre circle on the glass which is much more finely than the outside glass. This allows for a better, more accurate focusing. But the best focusing feature is the little centre circle. This has a horizontal line across its centre. This is great for absolute focus. An vertical line in the image crossing this line will be split. Only on exact focus will the vertical be joined. As you turn the focus ring, the two lines come together.]

Photographers who had been all too happy to hold down the shutter button in a practice known as "machine-gunning" or "spray and pray" are now searching online for vintage lenses with exotic names like Pentax Takumar, Voigtlander Nokton, Chinon, Kiron, Fujinon, Hexanon and Rollei. [This is just not true -- spray and pray - autofocus is very, very accurate. I miss manual focus, but I can not criticise autofocus. It does it's job, and does it well.]

Paul Yates, a manager of technical training at Toronto's Q9 Networks, says he shoots almost exclusively with vintage lenses these days, though he had been firmly ensconced in the autofocus camp.

He switched to older lenses not just for the good deals or the slower shooting, but because each lens attached to his D.S.L.R. camera created a unique look, even when the lens was the same focal length. "I might buy five 50-millimeter lenses because they each produce images with a different character," Mr. Yates, 38, said. [This is absurd. You're just telling me that the old lenses weren't as good as modern day lenses because the glass wasn't ground as well. Your making a feature out of something that was flaw in the older technology. Today all lenses are ground under computer control. You can't compare the quality today of "cheap" lenses with even the most expensive old lenses, which were hand ground over months. If you want fuzz, try a Lensbaby attachment or go all the way and buy a Holga or other toy camera now that's a different quality. The Holga will even give you random light leakage -- and the Holga has a huge following, that is actually growing.]

He also says he believes that a manually focused lens often surpasses the accuracy of the few autofocus lenses he still owns. "There is a tactile quality to holding onto a metal focus ring," said Mr. Yates. "The damping of the ring -- the resistance -- allows me to fine-tune the focus so much more accurately. When I manual-focus with the newer lenses, they just don't feel the same." [I agree but the ring wasn't made to be used all the time. "surpasses the accuracy" -- let's just put that down to a subjective opinion. I had a look at some of Mr Yates work. I really like it a lot, but if I need to use one word to describe his work -- soft focus.]

Usually all that is needed to get many vintage lenses working on a new camera is a simple twist-on adapter, costing $10 to $30. Because each adapter is unique to a specific lens mount and camera combination and adapters are relatively inexpensive as camera gear goes, photographers usually buy a separate adapter for each lens. They can be found on eBay, though some manufacturers, like Pentax, sell their own. Many vendors sell generic adapters, but it is best to search online for reviews on the quality and compatibility of specific lens, camera and adapter combinations.

While vintage lenses are often cheaper than their modern counterparts, smaller in size and built more solidly, there are a few caveats about using them on new cameras (aside from the potential peril of purchasing antique mechanical equipment in a state of disrepair.) [Yes, and what may these be? I own a Canon 50mm f1.8 (autofocus) lens -- belive me I have never had a lens this light. But I (almost) never use it. My heavy, cluncky Canon 2-135 and 70-300 are just more useful.]

Also, getting used to manual focus can be difficult, particularly for younger photographers born in the digital era. Most will need to learn the art and science of manually adjusting the aperture, or f-stop, of vintage lenses. Photographers haven't been required to shoot in full-manual-everything in decades, but not everyone finds this aspect of using vintage lenses a nuisance. Some even find it an advantage, laced as it is with a bit of nostalgia. [Wow teaching a new generation on how to really take a photograph just like grandpa did.]

"It's more like the photography process that I was used to back in the day," said Mr. McCully. "It slows me down and makes me think about what I'm shooting. And it's more fun."

[Ken Rockwell bought this up a while ago and I think it is the real solution re what this article is really trying to say. Don't just buy old lenses buy the old body too a film body. You can pick up a top of the range Canon F1 or Nikon F5 for bobkes (literally for beans), for a song. Film technology has advanced to an incredible level, and even simple photo shops today can develop these at a high quality, scan them and put them onto a CD for you, with a proof sheet screened onto the CD itself. Sounds too good to be true. True focus, cheap, quality. And if it breaks down, chuck it -- just buy another for, yes, even less bobkes.]

Please feel free to and don't forget to stop by my site to look at my latest (and classic) photographs. There are even some photographs there which I took on my trusty Canon A1.


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