Use Retro Lenses on Modern Cameras for Filmic Magic

Use Retro Lenses on Modern Cameras for Filmic Magic

In an age of ultra sharpness and perfect optical balance, our technically brilliant images can often lack charm. So in this tutorial, I'll show you how to use retro lenses on your modern digital camera for photographs that have a lot of character and harken back to the days of film.

In this piece, I'll walk you through picking a retro lens, attaching it to your camera, and then making the most of it by choosing the best settings for the job. Then, we'll look briefly at how adding a little editing finesse can enhance your shots further.

1. Find a Lens With Character

Older lenses have fewer features than today's all-singing, all-dancing powerhouses, and as such, are much simpler to operate. Manual focus, electronically adjustable aperture, and no image stabilization are just a few features you won't find on retro lenses. This may seem limiting, but creativity often thrives better under limitation than it does when we're faced with endless choices. 

Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 lens

This old Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 has a fantastic soft-focus quality that evokes intimacy in portraits

Specific lenses are also renowned for their quirks, such as swirly bokeh, soft edges of the frame, or absurdly wide apertures that produce an extremely shallow depth of field. I used a selection of 1960s 50mm lenses for this project. My main image was taken on a Pentacon 50mm f/1.8.

2. Use a Mount Adapter

Mount adapter on camera body

A mount adapter allows you to use lenses with different mounts on your camera body, though you may have limited function if there are no electrical connections

Most likely, unless you're buying lenses that are the same brand as your camera, you're not going to be able to attach the lens directly to your modern DSLR or mirrorless, (even if you can, you still may run into issues). Because the type of mount will be different, you'll need a mount adapter. To use the Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 lens on my Nikon DSLR, I had to use an M42-to-Nikon F mount adapter, which I bought off eBay for around $10.

3. Set Your Aperture First

Aperture ring on lens barrel

Most older lenses will have an aperture ring, and that's what you'll be using since the camera won't be able to communicate with the lens

Since you won't be able to control the aperture via the dials on your camera due to the lack of electronic connections, I recommend setting your aperture on the lens first. Which aperture you want will depend on the focal length of your lens, how bright your shooting environment is, and how much depth of field you want. I captured my portraits shot wide open at f/1.8 on the Pentacon, with the window lighting my subject directly.  

4. Choose the Exposure Length

Shutter speed example in portrait

The slowest your shutter speed should be is the reciprocal of your focal length

In manual mode, the shutter speed and ISO can be set based on your chosen aperture and available light. I recommend a shutter speed no slower than the reciprocal of the focal length of your lens in full frame terms. For example, your shutter speed on a 50mm lens should be at least 1/50 sec or faster. This ensures you capture a sharp image that is devoid of camera shake blur. Just make sure you don't shoot too slowly for moving subjects unless you're introducing intentional camera movement.

5. Use Auto ISO

Auto-ISO for photographs with changing light

Auto ISO automatically adjusts ISO sensitivity based on the light levels and the metering mode you're using on the camera

If you want to go fully manual, then you can. By assigning your own ISO sensitivity, you'll get a better grasp for how much noise there'll be in the final image. However, these retro lenses are favored by photographers because of their analog, filmic quality, so having a bit of noise in the image isn't that much of an issue and would likely add to the analog style.

That's why I'd recommend using Auto ISO. The camera will then automatically adjust the exposure based on the available light and the settings you've got in place. It's particularly helpful for changing light levels or if you want to change compositions during a shoot.

6. Add Finishing Touches

Post-processing enhances retro look in photos

Some post-processing can help embellish the retro style of your finished shot

Now, all you have to do is find the right light and decide on your composition for the ultimate film shot. But there's more you can do: try adding some different effects in post-processing software to enhance the style further. For example, adjust white balance so that it's cooler or warmer, mimicking the biases inherent with film photography, for a polished, finished shot.

Picking a Lens

If you want to read further on which retro lens is right for you, B+H has a great feature called "12 Great Vintage Lenses for Capturing Classic Images" that features some of my favorites.

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Mike Ditz's picture

I have had a few vintage lenses that I use on modern cameras. Only a few are full of character, others are lenses that I could not afford back in the day, but can now.
Some I enjoy using as part of a process as the end result is not all that different than a modern lens. The much ballyhooed Russian Helios with the swirly out of focus background was fun a few times but TBH I felt this was more of a gimmicky bug than a feature. I sold it for $5 more than I paid for it.
I have 3 Contax lenses (28/35/50) that are just great and get used a few times a year. They have been declicked and I often use them for videos. They have a "look". and they are darn pretty.
But the lens I really like is a 1970-80s Nikon 55mm f1.2 Now that has some character! I was told there are spherical and or chromatic aberrations that give it a soft yet sharp glowy look that is great with people. Great to shoot wide open...
The examples in the BH link did not sell me on the lenses - could have been shot with almost anything IMO. Maybe if I saw a print or a better hi res file I could see the magic. Or BH is clearing out the old old stock :)

"Manual focus, electronically adjustable aperture, and no image stabilization are just a few features you won't find on retro lenses." I think this sentence slipped past the editor...

Mike Dochterman's picture

I shoot that Nikkor all the time as DOES give a 'glowy' look.... not unpleasant at all

Deleted Account's picture

Yes! Using two old OM lenses, a 50 and a 135, on my Pen F, set to monochrome 2, and love the results.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

Another is old prizm filters by KenKo some with a hole for bokeh, one for stars with wire line turn adjustable, a couple with prisms (multiple cuts and turnable) Kenko Mirage, Vari Cross many more. I got the back in the 70's film times. Hard to find. But really good effects pre post editing. Fun to play with today and not having to wait a week to see the effects.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

Also Macro lenses 200mm f/4 used with extenders that many many use today still.....

Scott McDonald's picture

I have a fairly decent collection of vintage lenses (50+) that I have in front of my A7RII more often than my AF modern lenses. For me, it's all about the experience of capturing an image that speaks to me when I review it. I "feel" much more involved in that experience when using older lenses and shooting manual focus. It's comparable to driving a manual transmission vehicle (car or motorbike) versus an auto-transmission. With the shifting of gears you "feel" more like you are in an intimate relationship with your machine (not THAT kind of intimate). A good number of economical vintage lenses means that I rarely use the same lens twice in a row...always something new, something different...sometimes good, sometimes is all about that experience. Photography for me is a joy, a pleasure, a treat, a creator of smiles...I leave the technicalities, specs, and pixel-peeping to those looking for clinical perfection in a lens. Nothing wrong with that. Whatever floats your boat!

frank van dijk's picture

"Manual focus, electronically adjustable aperture, and no image stabilization are just a few features you won't find on retro lenses"

This sentence is so confusing, especially the double negative.

Spy Black's picture

"In an age of ultra sharpness and perfect optical balance, our technically brilliant images can often lack charm."

Only if you don't know how to shoot.