Can You Get Good Photos With a Budget Vintage Lens? We Review the Soligor 300mm 1:5.5

Can You Get Good Photos With a Budget Vintage Lens? We Review the Soligor 300mm 1:5.5

Recently, I bought a Soligor 300mm 1:5.5. It’s over half a century old, built in 1971 by Tokina. I picked it up for a song and decided to put it through its paces.

Across the UK there are Car Boot Sales. (Here, we call the trunk of the car the "boot.") Traditionally, people would turn up with their cars and sell the stuff they no longer needed. Increasingly, they are dominated by traders who make a living from selling secondhand goods they acquired from house clearances and job lots at auctions. You can buy bootleg cosmetics, cheap plastic toys that don’t comply with safety standards, old Pat Boone and Jim Reeves CDs, used DVDs, and nearly out-of-date confectionary. Nevertheless, you can still find people who are selling their old and unwanted clutter that they found hidden in the back of a cupboard.

On one such stall was a guy selling old film camera gear. Between the ubiquitous Practika cameras and Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 lenses that litter these sales, I saw a long, thin lens case. Looking inside, it contained an old 300mm prime lens. The seller wanted £30 for it, which is about $38.

It’s traditional to haggle over the prices, so I offered him £20, and we settled on £25. It was a fair deal for both of us, as I got the lens for slightly less than I would find it on eBay, and I was taking the risk that it would be okay. Meanwhile, he covered three times the cost of his table at the sale with something that had previously been using up space in his house.

The "1" at the start of the serial number shows that it was made by Tokina, the 71 following it is the year of manufacture. (Yes, I have quickly removed my reflection from the glass.)

What Is a Soligor 300mm 1:5.5?

Soligor sold third-party lenses and other camera equipment. It was originally a brand name belonging to the US-based Allied Impex Corporation (AIC) way back in 1938. In 1968, the company formed a German subsidiary, and it was that which commissioned the manufacture of various Japanese lenses under the Soligor and other brand names. It became a prominent lens, camera, and accessory supplier but, sadly, became bankrupt twelve years ago. This particular lens was manufactured by Tokina in 1971 and sold under the Soligor name.

The lens has an all-metal construction, with a good, solid feel to it. It shows little wear. It has an integral rotating tripod mounting collar and an M42 screw mount. It weighs a reasonable 869 g, lighter than most modern 300mm primes.

The front element is coated. It has 5 lens elements in 4 groups.

Its widest aperture is f/5.5 and the smallest is f/32. There are 15 rounded aperture blades, so should give pleasing bokeh.

Out of focus area at f/8. The bokeh is not unpleasant due to the large number of rounded iris blades. There is some colored fringing visible though.

The lens has two aperture rings. The first sets the desired aperture, while the second stops the lens down. When using the lens, you set the shooting aperture with the first ring. Meanwhile, the second ring can be opened to f/5.5, giving a brighter image through the viewfinder, thus making focusing easier. After achieving focus, you rotate the second ring back to where it stops at the previously set aperture, and you then shoot the image. It was quite a faff back then, wasn’t it?

The two aperture rings.

The focusing ring has a good, smooth action with just the right amount of resistance. However, from its closest shooting distance to infinity takes around 300° of turning; this isn’t a quick lens to focus. The shortest marked distance is 25 ft, but I could achieve around 20 ft.

The Lens in Use

I attached the lens to my OM-1 using an M42 to MFT adapter. One of the advantages of using a Micro Four Thirds with legacy 35mm lenses is that the adapter can position the lens at the correct distance from the sensor. With 35mm cameras, when you add an adapter, it moves the lens farther away from the sensor than it was designed to operate. Consequently, it becomes unable to focus on more distant subjects. But with my camera, this would not be an issue.

In the following image, the subject is ¼ mile from the camera. On the left, the image is uncropped. The picture has not been developed. It was shot at ISO 1,200, f/5.5, and 1/2,500 second.

The following is the same cropped image, and it has been developed in Lightroom.

The lens sat firmly on the mount with no unpleasant movement. I found it most comfortable to attach one of the Peak Design Leash strap’s anchor points to the tripod collar.

Compared with modern-day lenses, even standard-grade ones, glass technology has come a long way. One thing that was evident looking through the viewfinder was that there was significantly less contrast than I get from contemporary glass. This is due to the improved coatings and light transmission of modern lenses compared to 50 years ago.

Undeveloped, the images lack contrast. The subject here was about 200 yards from me. ISO1250, f/5.5 1/1600.

One of the things I shoot are abstract images of birds in flight, and high-quality glass isn’t necessary for that. However, as I suspected, being able to focus on fast-moving subjects was nigh on impossible unless I pre-empted the bird’s distance from me and focused on that.

Although it brings advantages in size and weight, f/5.5 isn’t particularly fast. For my first test shots, it wasn’t a very bright day either, so I increased the ISO.

Increasing the contrast in develoment improves the image. ISO 1250, f/5.5, 1/1000

Saying that, I was able to get shake-free shots at relatively slow shutter speeds because of the 7-stops of in-body image stabilization offered by my camera. 300mm on a Micro Four Thirds gives the equivalent reach of 600mm on a 35mm camera, and yet, I was still sometimes able to handhold it at under 1/100th second. However, my hit rate was better when I increased the ISO.

The Lens' Image Quality

As I mentioned above, the contrast using this lens is far less than I achieve with any of my OM System M.Zuiko lenses.

To demonstrate, this first shot of an oystercatcher is heavily cropped with no adjustments applied. ISO 200, f/5.5. As you can see, there is quite heavy fringing along the high-contrast edges. The image isn’t pin-sharp, but I’ve seen worse from cheap modern lenses.

Nevertheless, raw files are adjustable. With the image developed in DxO PhotoLab 6, the images could be hugely improved. At f/5.5 the images were acceptably sharp, and the information stored in the OM-1’s raw files allowed the photos to be adjusted.

I tested the lenses at the other apertures. Unsurprisingly, it performed best at f/8. At f/11, the sharpness was slightly better than f/5.5, but at smaller apertures than f/11, it was too soft for my taste when viewed at 100%. I can envisage some situations where a photographer would take advantage of that softness.

The following cropped but otherwise undeveloped images were shot at f/5.5 on the left and f/11 on the right. At f/11, the image seems sharper, but there are more chromatic aberrations visible.

What I Liked and What Would Have Improved This Lens

There are a few of these floating around on the market, and there will be one more soon, as I will probably either sell it or give it away. That’s not because it’s a bad lens, but I have had fun with it, and it’s time for me to move on. There are things that I liked about this lens that made me glad I bought it.

It was in excellent condition with no signs of wear and no fungus growing inside. For something that is over 50 years old, that’s a boon. If you are buying vintage lenses, fungus growing in the glass is something to look out for.

  • The lens is well-made.
  • The tripod collar is solid.
  • It was possible to handhold the lens using a higher ISO.
  • The lens has a long reach, magnifying distant objects through the viewfinder by about twelve times compared to what the human eye sees.
  • Some photographers might like to use its low-fi, retro look creatively.
  • Surprisingly little distortion or vignetting.
  • It works with the focus assistance setting on mirrorless cameras that outline the in-focus areas.
  • It was inexpensive.

There are, of course, things about this lens that won’t appeal to some photographers:

  • It’s slow.
  • The image quality doesn’t stand up to even some cheap modern lenses. They are soft and exhibit heavy chromatic aberrations.
  • It’s slow with a maximum aperture of f/5.5.
  • The aperture adjustment method is long-winded and unnecessary with mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras that show the image’s exposure through the viewfinder.
  • Focusing on fast-moving subjects is nigh-on impossible.

I shot multiple images of boat rigging and there was no visible vignetting or distortion. Other people testing similar lenses have shown test results with significant vignettes, but even up to f/11 it is well controlled and didn't need correcting.

My Conclusion About This Lens

I can envisage this appealing to three types of photographers: those with next to no budget who want to try a telephoto lens, artists for whom image quality is not essential, and lens collectors.

Old lenses are fun to play with, and I hope this article is a useful introduction to those who wonder about vintage glass. For the equivalent of under $40, it’s worth a try.

There are far better old lenses out there, and I’ll write an article in the near future about some better-quality vintage model that's attached to a film camera in my drawer.

Have you any vintage lenses that you use? It would be great to hear about your experiences with them.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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For the equivalent of $35 or $40 bucks what the heck. I'm not sure what you normally shoot, but I suspect it may not be wildlife where long lenses, 400mm and 600mm are more commonly used. When I see reviews from people that don't normally use "longer lenses" say beyond 200mm, there seems some compulsion to use the thing more like a telescope. 300mm is not that long, and would typically be used for say, sports, or much closer subjects. I regularly use a 600mm lens, and I would never shoot something 1/4 mile away and expect to get good results, due to distortion caused by heat and atmosphere, etc. More likely, at 600mm I'm shooting a songbird not too much farther than beyond the minimum focusing distance to fill the frame. Perhaps a better evaluation could be obtained by trying some portraits (yes sometimes people shoot portraits at 300mm) or a frame-filling small animal, like a rabbit at some distance not far past the MFD.

Thanks for the comment, Nik. I have shot a lot of wildlife around the world over the years, but less recently. I am more into landscapes, abstracts, and shots of people in the environment at the moment. However, I should have this fairly soon: Then I will be back into wildlife again.

Sadly, on the day I was testing the lens for the article there wasn't much wildlife to get close to anything apart from the oystercatcher. Even the usually ubiquitous gulls were in hiding.

Putting 300mm on the MFT camera gives an equivalent reach of 600mm.

When testing, shooting more distant objects gives the opportunity to really check the quality of the glass as you can crop the image to see fine detail. It was a clear morning with little atmospheric distortion when I was shooting.

If you are close up and filling the frame, then tiny details are going to be more than a pixel wide, so will look sharper. That's why I chose longer-distance shots. There were also some closer frame-filling shots in the article like the boat and the mast.

Also, when posting articles here, the full-sized images are displayed relatively small, so will look sharper. So cropping an image down of a more distant object always makes more sense to me. But I get your point. If I get a chance, I'll take it out again and post a close-up for you to see. Thanks.

I totally agree with you, Nic, as in real world usage, we are typically filling the frame with small to medium size subjects when using 600mm effective focal length, and we are typically 12 to 20 meters away from the subject. Unless we're shooting megafauna, then we are typically 20 to 70 meters away from the subject. I would like to see more examples from this 300mm lens taken in situations that are similar to how most people would use it, like the Oystercatcher image that Ivor posted.

Those are cool deals. It's great when you find outstanding gear for so little. Thanks for the comment.

Vintage glass..... yes mainly old M42 adapted to Z9 ,so all manual focus.They work really well for my needs and are inexpensive.I have Prime Pentax and Helios lenses for 28 mm to 1000 mm and they are fun to use and challenging at times to focus.

for ultra focus try using a Hoodman loop in live view mode & zoomed in -- see the difference that makes -- It's a pain but for certain architectural type subjects on a tripod there is more focus to squeeze out only seen w/ a loupe.

There's a lot to be said for shooting with a manual focus lens. Fortunately, with mirrorless ILCs, the image in the viewfinder is so much larger than with many DSLRs making manual focus a viable option again. Thanks for the comment.

I use some old FD lenses , adapted to the Canon 6D ( with a 1.4x adapter to obtain infinity focus) I will get an adapter to use them on the R to use them at the proper focal length and with focus peaking. It’s an advantage of all mirrorless cameras , the short flange distance , it’s possible to adapt just about anything to them ( Nikon Z has the shortest flange distance btw) I like the feel of those old lenses, not as sharp as modern glass, but they do have a certain character

Absolutely, Rudd. I had and gave to a friend a 200mm Pentacon lens and when I look back at the images I got with it, I am really impressed by the feel of them. Thanks for commenting.

Thanks for this article, Ivor. It is interesting and entertaining to see and read about your experience with this vintage lens. I really like your image editing abilities, as evidenced by the work you did on the Oystercatcher photo - you got some skills!

Ivor asked,

"Have you any vintage lenses that you use? It would be great to hear about your experiences with them."

I sometimes use a Canon 50-200mm f4.5 L series lens that was made back in 1988.

What I like about it most is that it is a 4x zoom, which is infinitely more useful to me than the paltry 2.8x zoom factor of the now-popular 70-200mm (which I have no use for). I cannot understand why Canon and others make 70-200mm zooms when they could just as easily make 40-200mm or 50-200mm zooms. Modern technology allows easy efficient manufacture of lenses with this range, and I think that maybe they intentionally keep making the tiny little 2.8x range lens to protect sales of their wider lenses - why give people an single option when you can force them to buy two options instead?

The image quality of my 50-200mm is right on par with any of the modern L series lenses - sharp as a tack, even wide open.

The 50-200mm has autofocus, and it works, but it is slow and "clunky". I mean you can hear this loud noise and feel vibrations as the lens moves its elements back and forth to find focus. I rarely use the lens, solely because of the slow autofocus. 'Tis a pity, really, as I don't know of any other lens made today that covers this range.

Finally, I like the fact that even though the lens is 35 years old, it was made in the EF mount, so no adaptor is needed when using it with any of the most modern Canon DSLRs.

Here's my favorite image taken with the vintage 50-200mm:

That's a great photo, Tom. How fortunate you are to get close to such a superb animal. Thanks for the comment as always.

Canon did make a 28-300 an expensive L lens, a former Canon employee ( a product specialist specialising in lenses) at the canon experience days told me not to buy it , in his opinion zoom lenses with a zoom factor of more than 5 should be avoided. Too big of a compromise in his opinion

Yes I know someone who has that old Canon 28-300mm. It is cumbersome and slow and has terrible image quality - perhaps the worst bokeh and resolving ability of any L lens ever.

There are some excellent zoom lenses with zoom factor more than 5 being made these days. But 10 or 20 years ago they were pretty bad. The Sigma 60-600mm that I use nowadays is a great example of just how far optical engineering has come over the past couple decades, as it is tack sharp at every point in its range, even wide open.

60-600 is still in the telephoto range, I guess it’s harder to make a lens that goes from wide to tele over a huge range. And indeed lenses keep getting better and mirrorless opens up possibilities for lensmakers and there’s a lot of in camera corrections going on with the extreme lenses.
And almost forgot again , impressive shot!

Damn dude. I really dig that photo. Nice work.

Thanks so much!

Interesting lens, especially at that price. Though I wonder what would the resolving capabilities be if examined with a modern sensor at 1:1 with slower subjects to minimize atmospheric distortion (can't tell with 800x600 res images).

While they lacked good coatings, it is interesting to see how far along the simply processing and manufacturing of the lens glass has come.

Yes, I replied to the same point in the comments above. When I have time, I'll try to get a close-up of a typical subject and post it here in the comments. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

I adapted a $60 vintage pentax takumar telephoto prime to my XT-2 and it does gangbusters for portraits! there's some pretty good old lenses out there!

Cool, it would be great to see some examples in your gallery here. Thanks for commenting.

Oh yeah! I'll have to upload some!

"Other people testing similar lenses have shown test results with significant vignettes, but even up to f/11 it is well controlled and didn't need correcting."
I'm not surprised that you didn't see any vignetting. You were on an MFT sensor, 2x crop! It would be interesting to see if there would be significant vignetting if this were adapted to a full frame mirrorless camera.

Right, Leo! Of course there is no vignetting when using a FF lens on a sensor size that is smaller than FF. Duh!

Good point, although I have tried vintage lenses that have vignetted even on MFT.

As to lenses of the past, I owned all of the, then, highly regarded Vivitar Series One glass.
It would be interesting to see how any of them, like the 70-210 fair VS today's offerings.

I own a FD mount Vivitar series one 70-210 1:3.5 and compared to my Canon EF 70-200 F4L USM it is not that good to say it politely. To be fair I compared it on a Canon EOS 6D with a fotodiox adapter, there's optics in the adapter, when I get a FD to R adapter I will try it on the EOS R.