So you say that you’re a landscape photographer and the appeal of new gear affects you like every other photographer? I’ve got just the suggestion for you.
Back in the day, prior to the ubiquity of digital photography, film cameras and film camera gear took up more shelf space at camera stores than digital cameras. Even then, let’s say the 1990s and early 2000s, the film cameras that were primarily offered new were auto focus cameras (think F100 and the like). Prior to those, film cameras were all manual focus and even some did not offer internal metering. Back then, the bar for 35mm was set a bit lower – grain and a general lack of sharpness were accepted as part of the film way. Even now days, those qualities are much of why a lot of photographers choose to shoot film. For many people, these qualities which some photographers apply to the lenses used on these cameras.
In this day and age, fast auto focus lenses are getting bigger and bigger and heavier and heavier. For landscape photographers who hike to get the views they want to photograph, the heavy weight of lenses can add up and can make hiking less pleasurable. So, what then is a landscape photographer to do? The first thing to counter the heavy weight would be to consider using manual lenses as opposed to auto focus lenses. And while they do make modern, manual focus lenses, the prices are still pretty high. Manual lenses which were originally intended for film cameras may be considerably less expensive and offer many, if not all, of the same benefits of a modern lens. Indeed, you may well find that the build quality of a vintage lens is in fact better than that of a modern, new manual focus lens (sans weather sealing).
There are several considerations to make when you’re looking into older lenses. It’s true that in many cases their optics are not inferior. The coatings on the other hand are sometimes not on par with the best of modern lenses. With that said, there are pros and cons to every lens and I would be willing to bet that in many cases, a lesser expensive, vintage lens would be the best valued option. Below, I will attempt to go through some of the considerations to make when looking into manual, vintage lenses.
The biggest benefit would have to be the lower cost. Compared with modern manual lenses, vintage lenses are often a fraction of the cost. Take for example, a new high-end Nikon lens is $1,300 compared to less than $200 for an older Nikon lens of the equivalent focal length and maximum aperture. While that is just one example, this relationship is pretty consistent with only a few exceptions. In addition, the average vintage Nikon, Mamiya, and many Canon and Pentax lenses are very well built often with metal barrels that have held up well over the decades.
Aside from the obvious price benefit of vintage lenses, the issue that many people care about is sharpness. For many lenses, the vintage primes often offer similar sharpness but not always. In some (somewhat rare) instances, however, vintage lenses may even have better sharpness than their more modern counterparts. For those vintage lenses which are somewhat less sharp than their modern counterparts, the primary difference comes when they’re shot wide open which, let’s be honest, is rarely done in landscape photography. Moreover, in those instances where the vintage lens remains ever so slightly less sharp even when stopped down, the real question is whether or not the difference would ever be noticed when you’re not doing a side by side comparison. Finally, even if you’re doing a side by side comparison and you notice a slight less sharp image, ask yourself if the price difference between the two lens makes up for it.
The weaknesses, while several in number, are not much of a big deal to me. I tend to avoid the lenses which are susceptible to have the greatest degree of shortcomings and focus on the hundreds if not thousands of different options which are available. The lenses which generally have the most issues are zoom lenses. It’s true, there are some decent zoom lenses but I don’t own any as the ones that I have had experience with would tend to be very soft, particularly at the widest and longest focal lengths. In addition, vintage zoom lenses often suffer from bad mustache and/or pincushion distortion. Along with vintage zoom lenses, vintage wide angle lenses are generally much slower and not quite as sharp as their modern counterparts. While floating lens elements are not a modern development, they were not particularly common. Further, many decent to nice vintage wide angle lenses can be considerably more expensive than more standard or longer focal lengths.
Aside from personally avoiding the above two types of lenses (with the exception of the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 Ai-S which I absolutely love and is actually still sold new), I should also circle back around to the point that vintage lenses may have lower quality coatings than nice modern lenses. The real question is whether or not those lower quality coatings actually equate lower image quality. True, if you’re shooting a back lit scene, you may well see a big difference but for many cases even then, the difference may be negligible. Another weakness that may matter to you but has yet to really make a difference in my life is the lack of modern weather coatings. If you’re someone who typically ventures out into awful weather conditions, perhaps the weather sealing is a must for you but for general purpose landscape photography it isn’t much of a big deal in my opinion.
My first suggestions would be to use lenses you already own (assuming you already have some film gear). If you don’t already have any film gear, I would suggest looking into Nikon lenses. At one point, I had a couple copies of 50mm f/1.4 lenses and I didn’t care for them so I gave them both to friends. I’ve since picked up a 50mm f/2 and while it isn’t quite as fast, wide open the performance is much better but stopped down they’re pretty similar. Some of my favorite glass to use on my Sony is my Mamiya 645 glass which, because it’s medium format, the focal lengths are pretty long and terrific for my style of landscape photography.
Do you have any experience using vintage lenses for landscape photography? What lenses were you using and what did you think?