Way back in 2005 when I got my first dSLR camera, the two main options were Canon or Nikon. I went with Canon, and one of the reasons was the fact that the Canon EF mount could adapt to a wider range of old manual lenses than a Nikon dSLR could. My budget was pretty tight back then, so the notion of cheap lenses certainly appealed to me! Over the next few years I collected a number of vintage manual lenses, but I hadn’t really used them much since I did get good modern autofocus glass. I thought it might be fun to give them a try on my current cameras, and introduce them to people now adopting mirrorless cameras as an interesting way to expand their glass options. But these lenses were designed for 35mm film cameras, which only required the equivalent of about 15MP of resolution–how would they do on my R7 (32MP) and R5 (45MP)? I packed up a few favorites and a couple lenses I was never able to use on my mirrored dSLRs, and headed to the Belle Isle Dry Rocks in Richmond to find out.
NOTE: All images below are edited, since I prefer to show what’s possible rather than straight-out-of-camera shots. I didn’t crop much to preserve the field of view of each lens, but I edited as usual for color, contrast, tones, etc.
Vivitar Auto 28mm f/2.5 (Canon FD mount)
Ironically, the one major vintage mount that couldn’t easily adapt to the Canon EF mount was their previous mount, Canon FD. To obtain infinity focus, FD-to-EF adapters needed an optical element, which degraded the image quality too much to be worthwhile. But that’s not a problem with the mirrorless cameras, which have a much shorter register distance (the distance from the sensor plane to the lensmount flange) than mirrored dSLRs, so I could finally try out some of my FD glass. I was eager to try this one, a Vivitar Auto 28mm f/2.5. It’s about a 45mm equivalent on a crop-sensor camera like the R7, but the results looked pretty good.
Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 (Canon FD mount)
At the time I’m writing this at the end of 2022, Canon have yet to introduce an RF version of the 50mm f/1.4 lens, and they’ve blocked third-party autofocus lenses, so the only modern options are a couple fully manual 50mm f/1.4 lenses. Alternatively, you can try the FD-mount 50mm f/1.4! This is another Canon FD lens I never really got a chance to try on my dSLRs, but which adapts well to the RF mount. I found the results to be quite good.
Asahi Pentax Super Takumar 35mm f/3.5 and Super Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (Pentax Screw mount/M42)
There are lots of options in the Pentax Screw mount, commonly referred to as M42. Two of my favorites are these Asahi Pentax Takumar lenses. The 35mm f/3.5 is tiny but mighty, with good sharpness at all apertures even though it’s a little slow at f/3.5. The 50mm f/1.4 is quite solid as well. I think it marginally edged out the Canon FD 50mm for sharpness, though both are very good.
Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 Macro (Adaptall-2 mount)
Tamron introduced their Adaptall-2 line of lenses in 1979, which grew over the next decade or so to include a very wide variety of excellent prime and zoom lenses. The SP (Special Performance) series are especially good, many of them remaining quite useful today. My favorite has to be the SP 90mm f/2.5, which was my first real macro lens. It offers excellent sharpness, color and contrast, with a very long throw for precise focusing. On a full-frame sensor it only provides 0.5x magnification, but on a crop-sensor camera that’s more like 0.8x, and extension tubes can increase that in both cases. I got some good results, as expected!
Again, there are plenty of gems in the Adaptall-2 line, including the SP 35-80mm f/2.8-3.8 and SP 35-210 f/3.5-4.2 zoom lenses, the SP 500mm f/8 catadioptric (mirror) telephoto lens, the SP 17mm f/3.5 wide-angle, and the SP 24-48mm f/3.5-3.8 wide zoom. You can check out the full lineup (and start jotting down a wish list!) at Adaptall-2.
Using Vintage Lenses on Mirrorless Cameras
Today’s mirrorless cameras provide a number of features that make using these old manual lenses easier than ever.
-EVF Exposure Simulation and Magnification: The image in the electronic viewfinder provides a what-you-see-is-what-you-get view as you stop the lens aperture down and adjust exposure settings, which is very handy. As a focusing aid, you can also configure a button to magnify the live image in the EVF to help dial in sharp focus.
-Focus Peaking: Another feature many mirrorless cameras offer is focus peaking, which adds a tinge of color in the EVF to the parts of the image that are in focus. This is very useful for quickly getting focus in the right area, and then you can use the EVF magnification for fine adjustment.
-In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS): Obviously, vintage lenses had nothing like the image stabilization technology we enjoy today. However, with many mirrorless cameras offering stabilized sensors in the form of IBIS, any lens you use can become a stabilized lens–including vintage manual glass. You may need to dial in the focal length in the settings for maximum effectiveness, but any stabilization is better than none!
I find using fully manual lenses can provide an excellent photographic exercise, making you really think about composition, focusing, and exposure settings. To that end, I suggest using Manual mode on the camera, and taking your time as you get used to using these lenses. The lessons you learn will serve you well even when you switch back to autofocus glass.
Check Your Settings!
Before using non-electronic lenses, be aware that you may need to tweak a setting or two in the camera. By default, most mirrorless cameras will not trigger the shutter or take video if no lens is attached. Vintage lenses have no electronics, so the camera doesn’t “see” them and will assume no lens is attached. You’ll need to find the setting to override that behavior–on Canon cameras it appears as “Release shutter w/o lens,” and should be changed to ON. You should also check the IS settings to ensure it’s set to Always for still photos, and maybe adjust the focal length setting as well if needed.
I hope you’ve found this useful–feel free to reach out if I can answer any questions!