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Tips for Using Legacy Lenses and Shooting in Full Manual

Shooting Manually

Full manual. Two words. Ten letters. Yet those words can be some of the most discouraging for new photographers to ingest. There has long been a perceived over complication concerning shooting in Manual Mode. Personally, I always leave my camera set to manual. Granted, I dont shoot many fast-paced sporting events that require speedy autofocus, or many situations where there is constantly fluctuating light. Still, the idea of controlling the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus, all independently of your camera’s computer, unsettles even experienced photographers at times. Happily though, not only is there a swelling community of photographerss who are embracing the somewhat challenging, but highly organic and rewarding, benefits of shooting manually…but also upping the ante by adapting completely analog legacy lenses for use with their cameras.


In this article, you will learn how to enjoy what might be considered a devolved methodology of making photographs using legacy lenses, and shooting in full manual mode. Full manual lenses, are generally built to exacting quality standards, but are relatively low-priced, which makes them great for beginners, and those shooting on a budget. Furthermore, adapters are available for virtually all mirrorless and digital SLR camera systems, so that you can start making great photographs using these low-tech lenses. Let’s jump right in.

What are Legacy Lenses?

Lenses that were geared for use with older film camera (35mm or medium/large format) systems are called legacy lenses. Glass of this type are non-motor driven, and operate autonomously of your camera. This means that the focus and aperture selection are all accomplished inside of the lens, which is controlled by you. There is no electronic communication between the lens and the camera. You must use the lens’s aperture, and focusing ring, to produce the desired depth of field and focus. Legacy lenses are generally made of metal, making them relatively heavy, but heartily constructed.

Which lenses are fully manual?

Full manual lenses does certainly not include all legacy lenses. Many manufacturers still make completely manual lenses, engineered specifically for the digital camera market. A lens is designated as being fully manual when there is no control being provided by the camera. However, there are quite a few fully manual lenses which have incorporated focus indicator chips into their design. While remaining fully manual, these types of lenses will communicate with your camera when focus has been achieved.


Adapting lenses to your camera

In a previous article on dPS we discussed how easy it really is to use legacy lenses (and other non-native glass) with your digital camera. The same holds true. All that is needed to enable the use of fully manual legacy lenses to be used with your modern digital camera body is a simple adapter.


These adapters vary in capability from simple adapter rings, to advanced electronic contraptions, with focus indicator chips of their own. Keep in mind though, there are a few things to consider before adapting any non-native lens to your camera. More on that shortly.

Using your camera in full manual mode with manual lenses


You’ve found an elegant legacy lens and located the appropriate adapter for your particular camera system. You’re excited and ready begin shooting completely manually, so now what? Well, take a breath and exhale a well deserved sigh of relief, because all of that was the hard part. Now all that’s left are a few quick steps. The first of those steps is to switch your camera into Manual Mode. This is almost always done by moving your selector wheel to M for manual mode. This will give you, the courageous photographer, complete control over all aspects of the shot. If you are using a completely manual lens, or a legacy lens, everything except the shutter speed will now be manipulated using the lens. The aperture will be controlled using the aperture selector ring, and so too will be the focusing.

This is a breakdown of the essential features found on an adapted, full manual legacy lens (in this case a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8).


Here are a few tips for using your camera in full manual mode, in conjunction with a fully manual or legacy lens:

Focus Peaking Function

Some cameras now incorporate a technology called focus peaking which visually outlines the edges of the most in-focus area of a scene,, before the shutter is ever released. The technology detects the area of the most contrast between pixels, thus determining what region is most in focus. Though not perfect, this a great option to aid with manual focusing.

Focus Magnifier

Not all camera bodies come equipped with the focus peaking feature, but most modern digital cameras are capable of focus magnification. This lets you digitally magnify the scene, and inspect areas for proper focus. I use focus magnification in all of my landscape work. It is a great way to achieve pin point focus on the areas where precision is a necessity. (Note: this is usually available in LiveView mode).

Shoot RAW

Yes, the old shoot RAW lecture again. Even though focus correction can’t be achieved, even in RAW format files, it will however give you much more room to work on contrast and clarity. This will sometimes help to salvage an image that may otherwise be culled.

Things to consider before using legacy lenses

Along with all the benefits of shooting manually with legacy and full manual lenses, there are also some things to remember before, and during shooting times.

Complete Autonomy of the Camera

There is of course no electronic communication between the lens and the camera, unless you have chosen an adapter or lens equipped with focus indicator technology. So there will be no way to use your shutter priority or aperture priority modes.

Physical Considerations

Some lenses will obstruct the mirror function of digital SLRs. This is one of those things that carries a little bit of buyer beware baggage. Make absolutely sure that the lens you are adapting to your camera does not physically occlude the operation of the mirror, this will damage your camera, possibly beyond repair. This becomes less of an issue with mirrorless camera systems.

Crop Factor

The crop factor of any lens is dependant on the size of the image sensor (or film) being used. Always be mindful of the interactions between your lens, and whatever size sensor you are using, be it full frame of APS-C (cropped). Most legacy lenses were intended for use with 35mm film. This will play a major role in your practical focal length, when shopping for lenses of the prime variety.


Fully manual and legacy lenses have a firm grasp on today’s digital world. Though viewed as antiquated by some, the essential elements of this type of photography can produce exceptional images. Shooting in Manual Mode gives you ultimate generalship over your work, and allows you to take every aspect of photo making into your own hands. Not only is the use of legacy and manual lenses a cost efficient way to make photographs, but it is also a reflection of a time when the buck stopped with the photographer, not the camera.

Newer isn’t always better. And even though manual shooting might not be the most effective course in some situations, there is no reason why it should be discounted in today’s modern era. Full manual shooting allows you to use lenses of extremely high quality to fully realize your creative vision, in ways you may not have otherwise been able to accommodate. Take your photography back to the future, and go beyond the realm of the automatic.

Do you have a favorite manual setup that you use regularly? Share it in the comments below!

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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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