Old Manual Lenses for Portraits on Mirrorless

Old Manual Lenses for Portraits on Mirrorless

So you finally made the jump to mirrorless! You've got that sexy new Sony/Nikon/Canon/Fuji/Panasonic and you're itching to get cracking on some awesome portraits! It's about then that you realize that the kit lens isn't going to cut it and you didn't quite budget as well as you'd thought for some shiny new system lenses. What's a photographer to do? Buy some cheap, old glass to get you going!

Shooting mirrorlessly offers a myriad of perks. You can't throw a rock and miss an article about eye-autofocus, body size, or low-light performance. But one of the coolest aspects of mirrorless that often gets overlooked is the ability to adapt legacy glass. I know, I know, why bother upgrading (or cross-grading) if you're just going to shoot with inferior lenses? Well here's the thing: A lot of those old lenses aren't nearly as bad as you may think.

Canon 50mm 1.4 fd @ f/2.

Ease of Manual Focus

Manually focusing with a DSLR is possible, but nowhere near as easy as with a mirrorless camera. Magnifying your viewfinder to allow easy focusing is intuitive and efficient with most mirrorless bodies. With my A7III, I put the cursor where I want it, tap my focus assist button, focus, then snap. Even though the viewfinder and LCD on the Sony aren't best in class, they are more than good enough for attaining accurate focus. Focus peaking is fine when you're working at smaller apertures, but when shooting closer to wide open, I find that the colors just get in the way. For you, it may not be an issue at all.

Born to Turn

Physically turning the focus ring on most modern lenses isn't the most pleasant experience in the world. Most manufacturers have moved on from the world of manual focus, and rightly so! The focus rings are stiff, focus by wire (the ring doesn't physically move the lens, making focus unpredictable), and feel like they're mostly there as an afterthought. Manual focus lenses, particularly from before the nineties, were built to be manually focused all the time. Therefore they are usually much smoother and more intuitive to use.

Canon 50mm f/1.4 @ f/2

The Quality Argument

Although many may scoff at using decades old glass on a new camera, much of it is of very high quality. Of course, there are dogs out there, but a quick Google search will tell you all you need to know about an old lens. For this article, with the generous assistance of my neighbors, I used a Canon 50mm f/1.4 FD and a Canon 135mm f/2.8 FD. Of course, these lenses are not as sharp as a mid to top tier modern lens, nor do they have the latest and greatest coatings to prevent ghosting, flaring, or chromatic aberrations. But here's the thing: once you stop down a bit, much of the advantage of modern lenses evaporates. These lenses can definitely hold their own. Even stopping down one stop improves image quality on most legacy manual lenses dramatically. If you want top quality performance wide open, these lenses are definitely not for you. But then again, 90% of modern lenses don't perform well wide open, either. There's a reason Sony's 135mm f/1.8 is so expensive. You get what you pay for. 

Canon 135mm f/2.8 @ f/8

Cost

Of course, the true advantage of shooting with old manual glass is really felt by your wallet. Both of the lenses referenced earlier can be found for $50 to $100. A cheap adapter is all you need to attach it to your camera. I use this one for my Sony. Granted, you probably aren't going to use these old lenses as your main kit. But if you need something while you save up for that dream lens, this could be just the ticket. They're also fun for a little walk around town. There's something satisfying about manually focusing. I can't explain it, but I recommend you try it if you haven't. 

Drawbacks

Not all is roses for these old babies. If you're dealing with moving subjects, manually focusing can be frustrating at larger apertures. There's a reason for the old saying, "f/8 and be there." Manually focusing while a moving subject prances out of your frame can result in many missed moments. If you're not content to stop down to maximize your chances of nailing moving subjects, these lenses aren't for you. Also, the aforementioned ghosting and flaring can cause an extremely hazy image. Shooting backlit may be a recipe for disaster if you're close to wide open.

Hazards of shooting backlit. I missed focus and there's a lovely blue flare on the jacket. But, I like the feel of it, so hey, I'll keep it! Canon 50mm f/1.4 @ f/2

Although I've chosen to keep a couple of cheap Canon FDs, there are many great old lenses out there. What are some of your favorites? Any tips for manually focusing? Let us know.

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17 Comments

You're preaching to the choir. I started using my old Olympus OM lenses (still own OM cameras) on an Olympus and Canon DSLR. BTW, a chipped adapter makes it easy to get the focus on a DSLR.

Now using them on Panasonic, Olympus and Sony mirrorless cameras.

Good article Hans, most modern lenses are 90% perfect. Very sharp and "clean" and I use them all the time.
But when shooting with the old MF lenses, I focus the same way you do and get a very good percentage of tack sharps images.
But when I want something with a different look I use a Nikon 55mm 1.2 from 1970s or Nikon 105mm 1.8 , usually wide open or close to it. The 55mm has a lot of aberrations but is also sharp, there is a nice glow if I use it right. The 105 is pretty perfect, I got it because in the 80s I could never afford one LoL

Another reason I like using the old MF lenses is when doing a portrait it slows things down which changes the dynamics a little bit. Not as slow as shooting film but the pace changes.

Oops I forgot about the Contax 28 35 and 50 I had converted to Canon mount for video now using with a metabones for the occasional video with sony.

There's an old American saying.... "It ain't stupid if it works."
I think we're making too much a big deal of tech that we forget the art.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Absolutely Vladimir. But remember, these companies have to produce things for us to use and for them to survive. I have all the lenses I need right now and most of it is manual focus anyway. Where are you from sir?

Eddy Waddel's picture

I can say my only Af is the fuji 27mf2.8 ...have the Nikkor SMC tak (3) . and have not looked back...i love the manual focus... It gives me the ability to work for my shot..in/out..walk closer back..and also capture some blurry pic..call it creativity(ness)

I started with manual lenses 18 months ago and I’ve been selling some of my autofocus lenses to pick up more manual lenses. They are like driving a manual shift car. It’s a whole different feeling and you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s slowed me down in a good way. I think more about what I’m creating. Super Taks are good and so are Russian lenses: Helios and Mir. I really love Contax Zeiss though. My images look more like film with these lenses. I’ve sold a few precious L lenses to pick up a few Contax lenses.

One thing about manual and DSLR. It’s very possible to use this setup. On Canon you have live view which activates the back screen and makes your DSLR a mirrorless camera. There is a zoom button to check focus. I picked up a used Zacuto Z Finder for $100 and that helps me focus too. It also adds stabilization. I even use it now on my A7R3 in some situations. With a Canon DSLR, you are a little more limited on lens options over mirrorless, but you still have a great selection: Contax, Pentax, Olympus, Zeiss, Nikon, Helios, Mir just to name a few.
If you decide to use live view full time, you will drain the battery faster. So pick up a spare battery or two.

michaeljin's picture

Helios 44M, Biotar 58mm f/2, Helios 40-2, Zeiss Biotar 75mm f/1.5, Jupiter-9, Minolta MC Rokkor 58mm f/1.2, Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2, Nikon 105mm f/2.5 some nice ones at different price points. If you want to get real interesting, you can get one of those Kipon adapters with Baveyes and throw some medium format glass on the body.

Adriano Brigante's picture

I recently mounted a large format lens from the 1930s (Schneider-Kreuznach Zecanar f/4.5 135mm) on my Pentax Spotmatic II from the 1970s using an old Novoflex bellows. It looks funny but the result is pretty interesting.

I like using limited-range macro lenses on a bellows. So I modified a Nikon PB-6 bellows to have an Olympus OM mount on one end, and a µ4/3rds mount on the other. It's almost like using a view camera!

I have all the Olympus OM limited-range macro lenses, and they are absolutely superb within their their ranges. Nikon also made a line of limited-range macro lenses, but the Olympus ones (20/2, 38/2.82, 80/4, and 135/4.5) are much cheaper.

Olympus also made the one-of-a-kind Telescoping Auto Extension Tube, a field-hardened bellows. I have one I modified for µ4/3rds, in order to use the minimum extension better, but also have an extra with the OM mount on the back, for when I want the extra magnification of the OM —> µ4/3rds adapter.

At least 50% of my shooting is with adapted manual focus lenses, almost all from my the Olympus OM film system that I've been shooting since the early 1970s.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Ah yes. I have the Helios 44M 58mm. Very nice lens. Everytime I go to Russia I'm tempted to buy some old CCCP era equipment, but my wife always kicks me in the butt and gives that look. Yeah - that one.

Julien Jarry's picture

In 2018 I shot everything both stills and motion exclusively on Nikkor ai-s primes. It enhanced every aspect of my craft. I sold them after the year was over and now I have an equivalent send of Canon FDs. Amazing stuff.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Thank you Hans. There's not a damn thing wrong with old lenses (unless it's a bad sample). I use them on all my film cameras, dslr's, and mirrorless. Then again....I choose only quality ones anyway. Thanks for sharing.

"Sony/Nikon/Canon/Fuji/Panasonic"

I can't believe you skunked Olympus, who practically invented (or at least popularized) mirrorless!

I'm surprised that focal reducers didn't get a mention. Of course, they won't work on full-frame, but they do tend to make up for some of the inadequacies of so-called "crop" sensors, by restoring half your legacy lens's angle of view, and by using more of the image circle of the legacy lens, resulting in an extra stop and more bokeh.

There are ugly ones out there under $100, and there are marvellous ones out there for $500+. If you have lots of legacy glass in one mount, it can make economic sense to get a high-end one, like the Metabones Speedbooster Ultra, for use with all your legacy lenses. I found the bargain Viltrox EF-M2 to be nearly as good for a quarter of the price, although the Metabones beats it in the corners. This works if you already have Canon EF lenses, but with a thin adaptor, it also works well with Olympus OM lenses. (Unfortunately, you need to tape off the electrical conductors, because the Viltrox thinks there isn't a lens on the other end, and thus shuts down the camera.)

By "pushing defects away," focal reducers actually improve a lens's resolving power at the same shooting distance. (If you move closer to have the same field-of-view with the focal reducer, the resolution boost goes away.)

I generally try to use a focal reducer whenever possible. It makes my Olympus OM 55mm ƒ/1.2 into a 38mm ƒ/0.84! But I also use it a lot with the OM 500/8 mirror:

Keith Mullin's picture

I have inherited Olympus OM lenses in pretty rough shape that can't really be stopped down past 5.6 without showing spots, and some Canon FD lenses in excellent condition. And I literally just now pulled the trigger on 4 more Canon FD lenses from KEH. Even if they aren't in the best shape and have some flaws, I only spent $200 after shipping and taxes.

Dominik Vanyi's picture

For me starting to use manual focus lenses has done wonders and certainly improved many aspects of my photography. For anyone interest how it made me a better photographer you can see my article about this topic at: https://blog.usejournal.com/how-manual-focus-vintage-lenses-made-me-a-be...