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If You’re a Landscape Photographer, You Should Seriously Consider Shooting Cheaper, Vintage, Manual Film Lenses

If You’re a Landscape Photographer, You Should Seriously Consider Shooting Cheaper, Vintage, Manual Film Lenses

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. 

Strengths 

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. 

Weaknesses 

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.  

Suggestions

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? 

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37 Comments

Duncan Gruer's picture

Just wondering - are those Mamiya 645 lenses the RF ones?? I have a couple that I was wondering about attaching to my new digital...

James Madison's picture

I'm not sure I know what lenses you're referring to. I'm not aware of any Mamiya 645 lenses marked with an RF. Can you be more specific?

Matt Williams's picture

I think they mean Mamiya 6 glass, which is rangefinder, but Mamiya 645 is totally different.

Mamiya 645 can be adapted to just about any DSLR or mirrorless, but I don't think a Mamiya 6 adapter exists because the lenses have electronically triggered leaf shutters.

Duncan Gruer's picture

Oh dear - senior moment - I have a Mamiya (C220) and a Bronica (rf645) and somehow managed to transpose the 2 in my head and came up with a Mamiya rf645!! Apologies...

Matt Williams's picture

Most of my landscape photography is not wide-angle, and the wide angle stuff I do shoot I'd never mess with vintage lenses. But there are some truly stellar lenses >35mm and especially a plethora of them >85mm.

One vintage lens I've always loved for landscapes is the Contax G 90/2.8. It doesn't have a focus ring (it's screw driven) so you need an adapter with a ring, but the $70 Fotodiox Pro adapter has worked great for me (it took a minute to break it in, then it was smooth as butter). Metabones also makes some.

I'm actually selling my Contax 90 because I picked up a Zeiss 85/4 ZM to use with my Leica in addition to my mirrorless and don't need both.

Other vintage landscape favorites: a lot of the Contax Zeiss C/Y lenses (28/2.8, 35/2.8 PC, 45/2.8, 50/1.4 or 1.7, 100/3.5, 100-300, and my two favorites are the 85/2.8 and 135/2.8).

Also: Voigtlander APO-Lanthar 180/4, Zeiss Makro Planar 100/2, Zeiss Makro Planar 50/2, Minolta M-Rokkor 40/2, Minolta M-Rokkor 90/4, Leica 135/4 Tele-Elmar, Minolta MD 100/2.5, Minolta MD 85/2, Nikkor 55/2.8 Micro AIS, Nikkor 105/1.8 AIS, Nikkor 180/2.8 AIS.

That's a few off the top of my head. Pricing of those varies from incredibly affordable to unicorn expensive (e.g. APO-Lanthar 180).

James Madison's picture

Thanks for chiming in! Those are all some fantastic glass.

Tartaruga Viagem's picture

Which camera was your Contax G 90 attaching to ? There is no Contax G to Nikon F adapters available, because of the flange distance.

Bob Locher's picture

Excellent article. One lens I bought is a 135mm f 2.8 Cosina for Pentax K - terrifically sharp at f 5.6 on my Sony A6500. Kind of a sleeper - but I saw it advertised and recognized that Cosina are the people making the highly regarded Voightlander lenses of today. I figured if they put their corporate name on a lens it had to be good. And I was so right!
The Contax/Zeiss 100mm f.3.5 is another big winner - a pit pricey but light, small, tack sharp and fairly modern coatings. Zeiss quality for a tiny fraction of new pricing.
The Nikkor 55 mm f.35 macro is another keeper to this day.
For landscapes, manual focus is fine, and the focus aids in modern mirrorless cameras make them easy to use.
My experience with vintage zooms is not so good, particularly at the long end of the range, and quite frankly a lot of fixed focus vintage lenses are not very good. But a modest amount of research will quickly point one in the right direction, Hint - avoid the "budget" lens lines of yesteryear and go for the good stuff, still easily available at bargain prices. And after all, at the purchase prices of these lenses an occasional disappointment is hardly fatal.
Cheers

Matt Williams's picture

Seconding the Contax Zeiss 100/3.5 - most of the Contax Zeiss lenses are not just great vintage lenses, but great by modern standards. The 35/2.8 PC, 85/2.8, and 135/2.8 are particularly great as well. And the 100-300 may be the only vintage zoom that I'd ever buy - it's better than many primes in that focal range.

Scott McDonald's picture

Couldn't agree with you more...vintage glass can be a competitive option, especially for those on a budget like me. Choose a decent prime lens 24, 28, 35, 50, etc. and you'll be happy with your results for the most part. Since they are manual focus, and you're most likely shooting on a tripod, they are ideal for landscape...since your subject tends not to be moving all that much! I also support the Nikon endorsement for vintage glass. I have the 28 mentioned, 50, 55, 85, 105, and 135 lenses, and am happy with them all. With today's mirrorless cameras and the proper adapters, they play well together. I use my vintage glass on a Sony A7R2 and my Canon M50.

Justin Sharp's picture

Couldn’t agree more. One consideration when purchasing old lenses is less consistency in the manufacturing of these lenses. With modern lenses, the manufacturing process is largely computerized. Every detail is carefully controlled. There is always a possibility of getting a bad copy of a modern lens but less likely than older lenses. I remember watching a documentary about Stanley Kubrick. He would buy multiple copies of the same lens and test them to find which copy performed the best. Of course, the older the lens, the more this is an issue. The most recently manufactured lens I use was made in 1924 so I deal with this issue frequently.

Justin Sharp's picture

It’s interesting you should say that. Last weekend, I drove over 800 miles doing nothing but taking landscape photos all with pre1920s lenses. I also kept my aperture open, stopping down no more than f/8 the entire time. I guess it comes down to expectations and embracing the qualities of the lenses. They make very soft but beautiful and “moody” (I hate that word) images. Soft but beautiful.

Justin Sharp's picture

The most recent one that I've used is a Bausch and Lomb Protar V. Its a 210mm lens that I have to mount with bellows to focus. I prefer a longer focal length for landscapes.

Larry Clark's picture

When considering a vintage lens for digital -- especially a zoom -- if you are lucky enough to have an overcast day take some test shots of bare tree branches, utility wires, or something else small and contrasty against that sky. Chromatic aberration (CA) wasn't as much of an issue with film, but can rear its ugly head on digital sensors.

Some of my not-so-vintage faves are Zeiss Biogon 25mm f/2.8, Cosina/Voigtlander Skopar 35mm f/2.5, and Leica Summilux 50mm f/1.4 (pre-ASPH). All with Leica M mount, which means adapters are available.

anthony marsh's picture

"Back then the bar was set lower for 35mm, grain and general lack of sharpness"? James Madison has recently published many ill considered essays and this one is no exception. I daresay that LEICA, ZEISS, MAMIYA, PENTAX, MINOLTA and others offered extremely sharp optics which are still eminently usable. Grain??? Is he not aware that grain is a characteristic of certain films and not so much lenses?

Simon Miller's picture

Just to be clear - this is of course an excellent idea but ensure you have a camera with a focal plane - and turn all your IBIS off!!!! Get our Voigtlanders out there

Arthur Morgan's picture

I spent a lot of money buying the best camera and lens that I could not afford.
Why should I now buy a cheap lens that will prevent me from going out to use my wonderful camera?

Buy what you can, and then enjoy it! (My wife does enjoy my prints)

Gil Aegerter's picture

Weight is not necessarily a reason to go to older lenses. My 18-35mm g weighs a tad over 13 punces. My 24mm f2.8 ais is 10 ounces. My 25-50mm weighs 21 ounces. But there are other advantages to older Nikkors -- size of lenses and filters (yay 52mm!), hard stop at infinity (great in the dark for astro). As far as sharpness, a shot with that 24mm ran full frame vertical six columns wide on the cover of the LA Times Sunday Travel section. Works for me.

Adam Palmer's picture

I love my vintage nikkor glass for portraits but for landscapes it's all about wide angle lenses with corner to corner sharpness. Something you didn't used to see a lot of back in the day. My recently released tamron 17-35mm cost me about $500 and is sharper than a lot of $2k zooms from the 90s

Justin Sharp's picture

I mentioned this above so forgive me if you already read my comment, but I shoot nothing but landscapes with pre1920s lenses (mostly with long lenses too). They are very soft but make beautiful photos. I guess it depends on your expectations and embracing the qualities of these lenses.

Guy Butterworth's picture

maybe just shoot film.. save your self some hassle and money . all you need is a lightbox and a lens and film to shoot landscapes and a light meter ... no video functions , no auto focus , no eye or animal detection or ibis , or video just a none electronic camera , film, meter , filters and tripod ...

Timothy Roper's picture

For landscapes, right now I mostly use my Mamiya 6 and its stellar lenses, which are among the best ever made according to some. The results are absolutely amazing. However, I am planning to get one of the new 40+MP mirrorless cameras, and plan to use native lenses on it. I really like auto focus--even for landscapes. It just makes things much easier, and I can't deal with focus peaking and/or zooming to manually focus by eye. So no, I'll keep using my Mamiya lenses when shooting film, but no shooting digital.

Rk K's picture

It would be a more convincing article if it actually had some landscape photos in it, as example. All of these mostly travel snapshots are trivial to achieve with a cheap f4 standard zoom though.

RT Simon's picture

Not really sure about the point of this article, because it is illustrated with such poor quality photographs. Just as a lark let’s submit these photographs to the next F stoppers landscape competition, and see exactly how many of them get the snapshot designation.

BubbA Gumphy's picture

I'm curious - if my Nikkor lenses for my D100 (I went digital in 2002) won't work with my D7500, how does/can a pre-digital lens work with a digital camera?

As for shooting with film lenses, I'd suggest trying to shoot with the cameras and format they were created for. There's a certain elegance to that process.

Zelph Young's picture

One real problem crops up. Many digital cameras do not support manual focus nearly as well as the older film cameras because their viewing screens aren't set up for it. No split screen finders, often darker than our old film cameras.
While I find it very easy to focus with the F3 Nikons the digital offerings are not really set up for it.

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