Old Glass: How to Use Old Film Lenses with New DSLR Cameras

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Do you want a sharp and well built lens? Of course you do. Everyone does. Think you can’t afford great glass? Think again. You may not be looking in the right place.

If you’re like me, browsing through latest high-end lenses can be a little depressing. The cost of luxury grade glass can easily peak in the thousands of dollars. What if I told you that you could have excellent lenses without breaking the bank?

Front View

Recently I learned about a method for retrofitting older film lenses to function with our modern cameras. The possible bad news is that these are mostly manual focus prime lenses so your autofocus and metering won’t work (with one exception we’ll talk about later). The great news is that the majority of these lenses are built like photographic tanks and possess extremely capable optics. These lenses are also readily available and affordable on most any budget.

So how is it done? How can you make a twenty, thirty, or even forty year old piece of gear work with today’s advanced camera bodies? Believe it or not, the answer is deceptively simple. For virtually every lens and camera combination there is an adapter that will enable you to use any lens with any camera – regardless of manufacturer. Here’s an example:

I have an old analog Nikon F3 that was given to me by my father along with a couple of lenses: a Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8.

50mm and 85mm

The entire kit remained mostly forgotten in a camera bag, and in storage for years. One day I stumbled across some information about how a few photographers were using old M42 Zeiss screw-mount lenses with their DSLR’s using adapter rings and producing outstanding photographs. That got me thinking – if it were possible to find adapters for these old M42 lenses, could there also be manufacturers who produced similar adapters for other lens types? Almost instantly the old Nikon leaped from some distant corner of my memory. My main shooting body is a Canon 7D MkI. Could I possibly use those thirty year old Nikkor film lenses on my 7D Canon? Shockingly, the answer was yes! All I needed were these unassuming aluminium adapter rings which I sourced on eBay for about $12 USD each.

One side of the ring matches the Nikkor mount.

Adapter Nikon Side

The other mates with the Canon body.

Adapter Canon Side

The entire process is very simple; the adapter simply snaps onto the lens.

Nikkor Without
Without the adapter.

Nikkor With
With the Canon adapter.

Then it’s business as usual attaching the adapted lens to the camera. Just line up the indicator dot with the mounting dot on your camera body.

Mount Point

You’re done.

Body Fit

The adapters are also removable if you choose to do so later by depressing a small spring catch (most brands have these).

As I said earlier, these are completely manual lenses. Meaning that you adjust your aperture by hand as well as focusing the lens.

50mm

Personally, I enjoy the deliberateness this action forces. You have to think about your composition so much more, and you get to experience the effects of aperture adjustment literally first hand.

Aperture Blades 85mm
The impressive aperture blades on this beautiful Nikkor 85mm.

Don’t worry if this manual operation doesn’t appeal to you. The exception concerning the adapter rings I spoke of is that some are now being made with focus indicator chips built into the adapter. While this chip doesn’t enable you to use autofocus, it does allow the lens to communicate to the camera when the selected point of focus has been obtained. This is complete personal preference. I opted for the non-autofocus indication adapters because I wasn’t comfortable using aftermarket electronics of that type with my camera. Again, this is a completely subjective.

Please Note: Neither the author nor Digital Photography School are responsible for any damages to your camera or lens as a result of using aftermarket devices. Please be an informed photographer prior to attempting any modifications to your precious gear!

Now, here are some images produced through a little Frankensteinish innovation.

Bee

Color Traffic

Bw Traffic

Grass

Leaves

Nothing Free

Rain on Glass

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Adam Welch is a photographer, writer, educator, adventurer, baconographer, and beerologist currently based in the western portion of his home state of Tennessee. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com or pick up his new book Cameras in the Wild.

  • Rob Gipman

    Besides L glass on my 5d4, a helios-44, a Jupiter 9 and some sigma mini-wides 24 and 28mm

  • Michael Zweifel

    If you have a Pentax K mount you can use any Pentax k mount lens with no adapter, but if you want to use M42 or other lens then you will need a adapter. I have found many used Pentax lens for great prices at Goodwill and Pentax Cameras too.

  • Michael Zweifel

    I do love Pentax and will always. I Have film SLR and DSLR’s

  • Michael Zweifel

    I use K(R) lens by removing the pin. I use a lot of old Pentax lens on my K20D with no problem.

  • Michael Zweifel

    Try KEH.com they have lots of used lens of all kinds at great prices.

  • ChrisKahl

    This is why I’ve stuck with Nikon all these years. Every Nikon lens I have works on my newest digital body. While I have certainly fueled my GAS with newer AF lenses, I still have a bunch of very solid old MF lenses I can slap onto my FF D600 and take great photos.

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