Photographers like to talk about gear. Discussion about the latest and greatest camera equipment is common. That’s fine to focus on if you think you can improve your photography, or if you like talking about new shiny things. And you have the money to satisfy your desires.
Photographers who can’t afford to keep upgrading their gear tend not to talk about it so much. It can become depressing. Some of them also understand that purchasing the latest camera gear may do very little to improve their photography. Sometimes using older gear invokes more creativity.
What is it about old, manual focus lenses?
I’ve been taking photos for a long time. It was years before I had a camera capable of autofocus, let alone any autofocus lenses. I had to learn the old fashioned way.
This was my first camera and lens – a Nikkormat FTN with a 50mm f/1.4 attached. I continued to use this lens for 27 years until it finally was not in focus all the time. I think it’s worn out; the glass elements are slopping around inside.
Manual focusing is not so difficult. It’s like learning to drive a manual shift car. It takes some practice. Once you can, you never forget how. You may get a little rusty if you haven’t done it for a while, but before long, you’ll be driving along and not thinking about it.
Old lenses were built more solidly and feel different in use. Because of their build quality, they can last longer. Many of them are as sharp, if not sharper, than modern lenses.
Take a look back at some of the famous photographers of the last century. Photographers including Sebastião Salgado, Don McCullin, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others did not rely on modern autofocus lenses.
Using manual focus lenses can help you improve your photography
You have to slow down and think more about what you are doing while using a manual lens. Well, initially, you do. After some practice, you’ll find manual focusing comes pretty naturally.
So much attention in photography is on doing things fast. Manual focus has a bad rap because it’s slower than autofocus. I don’t perceive that this always has to be a negative thing.
Slowing down can help you see more and to think more about what you are doing. Using a manual focus lens can encourage you to become more engrossed in your photography. Without relying on autofocus technology, you have to use alternative means of capturing the photos you want.
Creative thinking becomes more to the fore when you do not have autofocus lenses to use. You must consider more carefully what you want to focus on. This is never a bad thing to master.
Learning to prefocus so your subject will be sharp when it’s time to take the photo is a great skill to have. With a manual focus lens, this becomes less optional.
Any of these methods, when practiced enough, will become second nature. You’ll find yourself using them no matter what lens you have on your camera.
Diversifying your lens options doesn’t have to be expensive
Old lenses are available secondhand almost everywhere at reasonable prices. If you have a new camera with a kit lens and want to add another lens or two, consider buying used.
Picking up an older 50mm lens will not set you back as much as a brand new lens. Depending on what brand camera you have, you may also need to purchase an adapter. This will allow you to mount older lenses to your digital camera. Nikon users have the advantage here.
I was able to keep using my original lens on each camera I upgraded to because Nikon never changed the lens mount. Any older Nikon lens will attach to every Nikon camera. Some very old lenses may lose some metering functionality but otherwise, work very well. Some may also need slight modification.
Adapters are available for just about every camera and lens combination. Once you’ve bought your first old manual focus lens, it may pay to stick to buying the same brand. That way you can use the same adapter.
Manual focus lens structure and build are much less complicated than autofocus lenses. The higher quality older lenses are sturdy and robust. There are three main things to look out for in second-hand lenses:
- Indications that they have been dropped or otherwise mistreated. Dings and heavy scratches on a lens are not a good sign.
- Fungus in the lens is another thing to watch for. Dirt on the outside is easy enough to clean off. A lens with fungus on the outside or any of the inner lens elements can be expensive to clean and may well be damaged beyond repair.
- Thirdly, the focusing ring can become stiff and hard to turn, particularly if the lens has not been used for a long time. You can repair it, but repairs can become expensive, depending on where you live.
I picked up a bag of camera gear at a general household auction years ago. In it was a Nikon FM2 body with an MD4 motor drive. I knew I could sell the drive for $400. The camera had a 135mm lens on it with so much mold you couldn’t see through it. That was worthless. Also in the bag was a 55mm micro Nikkor in lovely condition.
I bought the lot for $250, then sold the camera and motor drive and kept the lens. I made around $350 on the deal, plus I got to keep the lens, which I still love using. If you know what you are buying you can be lucky enough to end up with another lens and it not cost anything.
Main drawback of older lenses
Build quality and glass are not often a problem in good-quality older lenses. Coatings of lenses have improved over time. Modern lenses have coatings developed for use with digital cameras.
Chromatic aberration, also known as purple fringing, is more prevalent in old lenses. This is because the lens coatings are different. However, post-processing software can often fix the problem pretty well.
Lack of sharpness at wide apertures can sometimes be an issue with older lenses. Avoiding using the widest aperture setting can often alleviate this problem.
Diversifying your gear options with older manual focus lenses is worth considering. If you’re a student on a budget (or anyone else on a budget!), picking up a second-hand lens or two will help you in a number of ways:
- You’ll be saving money
- You will have to learn to use manual focus
- Second-hand lenses keep their resale value more than new lenses
- Working more slowly will help your photograph in other ways too
When looking to buy older lenses, it’s best to do your research carefully first. There’s no point buying a lens that won’t work with your model of camera. Get on the internet and specifically search for the camera and lens you want to combine. If it can be done, someone has likely blogged about it or posted a video to Youtube already.
Do you use old, manual focus lenses? What is your experience with them? Share your experiences and images with us in the comments!