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How to Use Old Lenses with New Digital Cameras (with Bonus Video)


They say time flies when you’re having fun. I’ve been having so much fun that I realize it has been over six years since I first talked to you about how to use old lenses with new digital cameras

A lot has changed when it comes to going about using vintage camera lenses with our modern digital camera bodies. Well, things haven’t exactly changed but have rather “progressed” from where they were just a few years ago.

Let me show you now, how you can easily use classic glass with virtually any interchangeable lens digital camera…with a few exceptions.

Old lenses and new digital cameras

Understanding old lenses

Vintage lenses are a fantastic gateway into the world of photography. Many are usually cheap (relatively) and comparatively well constructed. Additionally, the majority of old lenses are surprisingly sharp with fast apertures, even by today’s standards.

Speaking of current standards, seeing as the majority of these types of lenses were manufactured for use with 35mm film, they are essentially ready-made to match with the growing number of high resolution full-frame digital cameras available to us today.

Vintage Nikkor 50mm lens mounted to Sony A7R

Some of these lenses also add a unique character to your images, which might or might not be desirable depending on your own expectations. Lenses such as the legendary Helios have become prized lenses for portrait photographers and videographers due to its distinctive “swirly” bokeh.

Photo of Nikon F3 taken with Helios 44-2 lens

This photo was made with the Helios 44-2 at its maximum F/2 aperture. Note the distinctive swirl of the background.

Check out this cool tutorial on how to simulate this effect in Photoshop

In short, vintage lenses bring a lot to the table in terms of sharpness, build quality and cost-effectiveness. This is all well and good, but how do you get these old lenses to fit your camera?

To find out, keep reading.

This is the cool part.

Adapting vintage lenses

When it comes to using old lenses with new digital cameras, there are two things to consider: lens mount compatibility and a little thing called “flange-focal distance.”

We’ll talk more about flange-focal distance in the next section, but for now, let’s focus (haha) simply on how to get a lens from manufacturer A to fit on a camera from manufacturer B.

It’s all really quite easy – mostly.

You can use old lenses with new digital cameras by means of an adapter

You’ll need an adapter to use your old lenses with new digital cameras. However, this isn’t limited to vintage glass, as today, there are quite a few ways to use even modern lenses across a wide range of camera platforms. For our purposes, though, we’ll stick to showing you how to use older lenses.

The first problem an adapter solves is the conversion of your lens mount to the mount your camera uses.

Think of the adapter as a “connector” with one side matching the lens and one side matching the camera. This allows us to physically attach the lens to the camera even though they sport different mounts.

Different lens mounts of old lenses

Here we see some examples of various vintage lens mounts.

There are all sorts of adapters available on the market today. They range from the alarmingly cheap to the shockingly expensive and everything in between.

Some are complex with electronic components intended to aid in metering/focusing with autofocus lenses, and some are as simple as small rings of metal.

Adapters for using old lenses with new digital cameras

A few adapters used for fitting various vintage lenses to new digital camera bodies.

Now, you may be thinking that all you need is an adapter that will convert a lens to a certain mount, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Let’s talk about what might be the most important factor when it comes to using old lenses with new digital cameras – flange-focal distance.

Flange focal distance

No matter the lens, you will have to overcome something called “flange-focal distance” if you choose to adapt older lenses for your digital camera.

This is where you have to be careful because there are some lens adapters out there that do not take this very important aspect into account.

Without the correct flange-focal distance, your adapted lens will not be able to focus correctly. In some cases, it will not focus at all.

Flange-focal distance of the Canon 5D MK3

Although crucial, flange-focal distance is extremely simple to understand. Flange-focal distance is the distance (in millimeters) from the rear mount of the lens to the focal plane of the camera, which can be either film or a digital sensor.

Your focal plane is designated by that little symbol that looks like a ‘0’ with a line.

Image demonstrating the focal plane of a Sony A7R

Different cameras all have different flange-focal distances and vary widely between manufacturers. Compensating for this differing flange-focal distance is a key factor when it comes to determining whether or not your adapted lens will be able to obtain the correct focus.

So, in reality, your lens adapter needs to not only act as a mount converter but also be able to accurately correct for the specified focal-flange distance.

Flange-focal distance and the mirrorless advantage

Up to this point, we’ve only explained what flange-focal distance (FFD) is and why it’s important. Now, we’re going to discuss the practical aspects of FFD when it comes to actually adapt your old lenses to new digital cameras.

More specifically, we’ll touch on why mirrorless cameras are so versatile when it comes to adapting various camera lenses.

An old Nikon G-mount lens mounted using an adapter to a Sony A7R

Hypothetically, you can adapt virtually any lens to fit any digital camera. However, this is not always practical. In some cases, it would require massive modifications to your camera.

The reason for this all goes back to the importance of FFD. With a camera manufactured with a relatively large FFD, like a Canon DSLR (44mm FFD), it becomes quite easy to adapt the lenses for that camera to one with a smaller FFD.

Seeing as the majority of older lenses were made for cameras with mirror mechanisms, most of them will have a FFD larger than today’s modern mirrorless digital cameras.

An example of this is using Canon EF mount lenses with Sony mirrorless cameras like the A7R.

Since there is no mirror reflex mechanism, the A7R has a relatively tiny FFD of 18mm. So in our case, all that is required to achieve the correct FFD of the Canon lens (44mm FFD), and thus facilitate proper focusing, is for the adapter to provide 26mm of spacing in order to reach the correct 44mm FFD of the Canon EF lens.

Lens mount adapter for Sigma lenses

Sound a bit confusing? It’s okay! I’ve put together a super short video that breaks down how FFD works in simple terms.

As I mention in the video, you have to be mindful that you aren’t buying a lens adapter that does not compensate for the needed difference in FFD.

There are quite a few adapters on the market that are essentially only “mount adapters,” that just convert one lens mount to another while not enabling the lens to actually achieve focus. Not only that, you run the risk of damaging your precious camera should the lens intrude too far inside the body – more on this and other complications in the next section.

Common complications

Using old lenses with your modern mirrorless or DSLR cameras has a lot of benefits. Many of these older lenses are sharp, fast and brilliantly constructed. Unfortunately, with age comes a few problems. I’ve listed a few things to watch out for below. Some are obvious and some you might not expect.

  • Dust and fungus – Older lenses can have dust and lint inside the lens as well as fungus growing on the lens elements. There can even be a separation of the optical coatings should the lens elements feature this. So when considering purchasing a vintage lens to use with your digital camera, make sure it comes from a reputable place. Also, examine the lens closely for any flaws.
  • The infinity focus problem – We’ve already talked about how important FFD is for focusing, and if you are primarily a landscape or astrophotography shooter, you’ll want to pay special attention to infinity focus. Should your adapter be only slightly too large, meaning it goes past the FFD for the particular lens you’re using, the lens will not focus to infinity. In most cases, the adapter will physically be minutely shorter so that the adapted lens will focus past infinity for this very reason.
  • FFD incompatibility – Perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind when using old lenses with new digital cameras is that many lenses aren’t backward-compatible. This means, instead of requiring an adapter to compensate for larger FFD, the lens needs to be mounted closer to the focal plane. So, lens intended for mirrorless cameras (with short FFD) can’t be adapted to DSLR bodies (relatively large FFD). Refer to the video for a bit more info on this.
  • Potential camera damage – Always remember that it’s up to you to decide if you want to try adapting any lens to your camera. There is always a chance of damage, and this risk goes when electronic adapters are involved. Furthermore, some lenses can protrude inside of the camera body, which could possibly damage digital sensors and other internal mechanisms.

Some closing thoughts…

I sometimes wonder if the original makers of some of my vintage lenses ever thought about the manner they might get used thirty, forty, or even fifty years down the road.

Making use of old lenses with new digital cameras is not a new concept. However, with the recent rise in popularity of mirrorless digital cameras, their use is becoming more and more common.

With the correct adapter and a bit of basic photographic know-how, you can put many of these beautiful old lenses to work for you with minimal investment in both time and money.

So whether you’re looking for a budget-friendly way to make great photos or you’re simply a fan of the character of old glass, I believe you’ll find it worth your while to try out some vintage lenses for yourself.

Have you used some old lenses with your digital camera? We’re all camera geeks here, so we’d love to see your results! Feel free to post your images made with old camera lenses below.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Adam Welch
Adam Welch

is a full-time photomaker, author and adventurer. Find him over at aphotographist.com
and check out his brand new video eCourse on Adobe Lightroom Classic!

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