5 Great Tips To Help You Make the Most Of Vintage Lenses

Using vintage lenses is a great way to produce images and footage that is full of character. Here are five great tips to help you get to grips when attaching a piece of history to your shiny new digital camera.

The arrival of mirrorless cameras made vintage glass more accessible than ever, with filmmakers in particular benefiting from the distinctive characteristics of older lenses. Resulting footage tends to be less clinical and often more cinematic, though obviously this comes with some significant compromises along the way. To help you make the most of vintage glass, Mark Holtze, a long-time fan of more obscure lenses, has put together a list of five tips to help you make the most of these affordable throwbacks to an analog era.

Focusing accurately has definitely got to be one of the biggest challenges, especially when shooting at wide apertures. Fortunately, mirrorless cameras offer some significant advantages when using manual focus, such as focus peaking and the focus magnifier. I’ve never had great success with the focus peaking on my a7 III, probably because shooting stills at f/1.4 on a 35mm lens needs a very precise degree of accuracy. The focus magnifier, however, is far more effective, though of course, the process is much slower — not great for anything that insists on moving.

What tips would add to Holtze’s list? Let us know in the comments below.

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Sam Sims's picture

I mainly switched to an A7III purposely to use manual lenses as autofocus on the DSLR’s I used never gave me the same satisfaction I had growing up with manual lenses on film cameras.

One method photographers use with manual lenses at shallower f-stops, especially shooting something like fashion/portraits is to get an initial focus then rock the focus ring back and forwards slightly as you take pictures and the subject is moving (and take many pictures just to be sure). The accuracy of this method is not in the same league as autofocus but with a lot of practice, people can get fairly competent at it.

Obviously stopping down and using zone focusing is a tried and tested method, one I use all the time.

Richard Kralicek's picture

It depends on the amount of spherical aberrations, I have few lenses with lots of them resulting in a nice glow on the image when handled properly, which really is a pain. Those lenses have a kind of focus tunnel, where the image looks acceptably sharp without magnification and focus peaking simply can't handle that on my Canon EOS R. Using the magnification in the viewer or on the screen helps nailing the focus. Stopping down sometimes helps, bit not on my Trioplan lens. It worked well with my Lensbaby Velvet56.

When I use my old Canon FD 85mm f1.2 L lens I rarely need the magnification, the sharpness falloff is rather quick, focus peaking works as it should.

Andy Day's picture

Yeah, never achieved good results with focus peaking. Maybe for video where focus is slightly less critical..?

Scott McDonald's picture

Just as Mark stated in his video..."Practice makes perfect..." Of course the word perfect is a stretch, but practicing certainly goes a long way to getting better results while using manual focus lenses, vintage or not. I've got somewhere around 80 vintage lenses that I find are a mix of fun to use, economical to acquire, and have that element of character that everyone speaks of.
They are a great option for mirrorless shooters. I use them with my A7, A7RII, and my Canon M50 with some super results and agree that the magnifier is much better at assisting with focus than the focus peeking options...I've even used a number of them on my M9 and M10, but prefer the results achieved using the native lenses for those cameras.
Using my Leica M cameras helps with my 'practice' anyways since they are 100% manual focus cameras.
Vintage lenses are certainly worth the effort to work with (or just play with) for those with the patience to give them a try!

Andy Day's picture

80! 😮

Steven Blutter's picture

I have many Leitz lenses from the 30's - love the look, weight, size and they focus perfectly on my M240. That said, my current go to is the Summicron-C 40mm

Sam Sims's picture

Worth taking a look at this photographer/YouTuber testing out a couple of vintage lenses on a portrait photoshoot.