The popularity of preset packs to make digital photos look more like iconic film emulsions speaks to our nostalgic desire for certain colours and a “feel” that film cameras offer. But one of the main factors in the way these old photos look has nothing to do with film, it’s the lenses they were shot on.
Words by John Montesi
Vintage lenses feature different glass and aperture blades than modern ones, which impart unique bokeh and micro contrast properties. Once you adapt a vintage lens to a modern digital camera, you’ll realise how much magic is in the glass. No presets needed!
Here are five of the best vintage lenses and a quick lesson on how to use vintage glass on your digital camera.
Canon FD 50mm f/1.8
This is the original ‘nifty fifty’ from the world’s most iconic camera maker, the Canon FD 50mm was offered for many years and featured subtle updates over its lifespan. While some people nitpick which year was the best, any copy that’s in good shape will bring instant throwback photojournalist vibes to your digital camera body.
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Helios 44m-4 58mm f/2
The Helios 44m-4 is an old Soviet Union lens that was produced for nearly forty years. Over its production run, the manufacturer and factory changed more than once, but all versions are known for an iconic ‘swirly’ bokeh that produces images no other lens can match. Over the years, this lens was made with a variety of common mount standards, and most all of them can be adapted to modern cameras. With metal aperture blades, quality glass, and low prices for nice copies, this is one of the most interesting vintage lenses to adapt.
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100mm f/2 Olympus OM Zuiko Auto-T
An early-eighties Olympus lens that debuted along with the multi-spot-metering Olympus OM-4 body, this lens is beloved among vintage glass fanatics for its combination of modern tech and retro image aesthetics. With tack sharp output even wide open, great colour output, and dreamy bokeh in the great 100mm focal length, this seven-element lens is the best vintage portrait lens, producing excellent subject-background separation even at incredibly close focusing distances.
“Vintage glass is a great way to create your own unique photo style.”
58mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar
Early copies of this classic Zeiss lens date all the way back to the 1930s, but the lens was produced for decades after. The most common mount is an M42 screw mount, which is easily adapted to all modern camera bodies.
Zeiss lenses are still among the most in-demand glass in the world, and the 58mm Jena Biotar demonstrates why the brand has its worldwide reputation for quality. This six-element classic lens has great center sharpness, soft bokeh, and works great in full-frame 58mm applications or as a mid-reach portrait lens on crop sensor cameras.
35mm f/1.8 W-Nikkor C
We’d be remiss to not include one of the best Nikon vintage lenses on this list, and the 35mm f/1.8 W-Nikkor C is our pick. It was the first fast wide angle for the 1950s Nikon rangefinders, and it uses a classic (and rare) lanthanum glass for that classic post-war high performance look. While many copies of this lens are pushing fifty years old, it features surprisingly modern ergonomics for focus and aperture settings and remains one of the best vintage wide angle lenses to this day.
How to Use Vintage Lenses on Digital Camera Bodies
If you want to combine a film feel with digital output, vintage glass is a great way to create your own unique photo style using a modern camera body. And the good news is that most camera bodies have used one of a few lens mount standards for the last seventy years. Classic screw mounts, Canon, Leica, and Nikon mounts have been the same for decades. With the right lens adapter matched to your modern mirrorless or DSLR camera, you can mount a vintage lens of almost any standard. Here’s an in depth guide on how to use a lens adapter to combine vintage lenses with digital camera bodies.
Note that most vintage lenses are manual focus only, and the few that aren’t often lose autofocus capabilities when mounted to modern bodies with adapters. So, find a lens adapter, practice your manual focusing, and get shooting!