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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.