Vintage lenses can be a great way to get some different glass for you to try without spending much money. But, there are also a number of hidden gems that can create stunning and singular results.
My penchant for vintage lenses started primarily because I didn't have much money when I got my first camera. I was in a small photography community of full-time photographers and long-standing hobbyists with f/1.2 primes and telescopic flagship zooms. I remember wondering if I could ever compete with their kits worth more than most cars. Then, I read an article.
I can't remember where the article was or even who wrote it, which is a shame, but it was on a lens called "the Bokeh Monster." I was intrigued. I jumped on eBay to see if there were any available, and there was. I began bidding on a few and eventually scored one for under the expected price I'd read. In somewhat of a minor miracle given that I had no idea what to check when buying vintage lenses, my copy was cosmetically damaged but optically perfect: no scratches, no clouding, no mold. I bought an adapter and took it into my garden to give it a go and fell in love. This marked the start of my burning curiosity into what other lenses of the past could create unique and beautiful looks for my images.
I have owned a lot of vintage lenses and I have a dry container chock full of them. Some have been great, most of have been middling, and a few have been spectacular wastes of money, but I regret none of them. I have compiled a small list of my favorites, but by the very nature of how deep and varied the vintage glass market is, I could not begin to provide an exhaustive list. For whatever purpose you would like a vintage lens — be it macro, landscape, portrait, and so on — there will be options. There is a smattering of lenses that are still usable from the first third of the 20th century (although most are from 1950-1999) and so there is quite the back catalog. Make sure you do your research, however, as believe me, cloudy lenses with fungus are useful to man nor beast. I bought a 400mm prime without seeing the front or back elements because I won the bid with a low-ball offer. It was softer than freshly tumble-dried kittens. However, if you are careful and ensure the glass is clear and healthy, you might score yourself a real gem.
Pentacon 135mm f/2.8: 'The Bokeh Monster'
The aforementioned catalyst for my love of vintage glass. There are a few versions of this lens, and it's easy to get the wrong one. What you're looking for is the M42 15-blade edition. It is these 15 blades that give it the gooey bokeh and a singular look. The 135mm focal length prime has been a staple of the lens industry ever since this era, and the Canon 135mm f/2 remains my most beloved lens to this day. Price-wise, the Pentacon is perfect for a little justifiable foray into your curiosity, with copies on eBay at the moment for around $80, and they're in seemingly good condition.
Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5
This Russian prime started being made around 1950 and continued production up until around the 1990s, so there are a number of them out there. It is said to have been based on (read: possibly a copy of) the Zeiss Biotar, but whatever the case, it's brilliant. It's so brilliant in fact, that in 2013, when a new version was announced, I immediately bought one and loved it. It isn't the sharpest lens, particularly at f/1.5, but as far as character goes, it's right up there with the best. It creates a sort of radial bokeh, which became its signature, and even the 2013 modern version retained that. The vintage versions — for a clean copy — you're looking at paying between $300 and $400, so it's not the cheapest on the list, but it is a hell of a lot of fun.
Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4
Takumar lenses are made by Asahi Optical, which was founded by Kumao Kajiwara, brother of renowned Japanese-American portrait painter, Takuma Kajiwara. A Super-Takumar lens is one with an improved anti-flare lens coating as well as a more sophisticated stopping-down mechanism, according to Wikipedia. Whatever is going on inside, these lenses have a reputation for incredible optical quality, bokeh, and colors, even when wide open, which is typically uncommon in vintage lenses. It's a superb prime that can be picked up for between $50 and $200.
Olympus 100mm f/2 OM Zuiko Auto-T
This lens is famed for being one of the best vintage lenses in existence for portraiture, but I'd argue that it's so much more than that. With a great minimum focus distance for the time, it can really fill a number of roles. Its build quality is great, its sharpness is superb, and its bokeh is buttery. Prices vary hugely, particularly as there is an almost identical version that's f/2.8 instead, but for the f/2, you're looking at around $350-$500 for a well-looked-after copy.
Leica Leitz Summicron-M 35mm f/2.0 ASPH
What Do You Think Is the Best Vintage Lens?
I'm going to leave the term "vintage" pretty loose, but I'd say most would reject any lenses designed for digital cameras, at least for a while. In the comments, give us your vote for king or queen of vintage lenses and why.