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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.