Monday, April 9, 2012

Adapting Manual Focus Lenses to Your Digital Camera - Part IV

Last time we talked about adapting lenses to the M4/3 and Sony E-Mount in Part III.  This time around I am going to share some of my experiences on how to start, where to get lenses, what to avoid when buying lenses and talk a bit about adapter, and finally, why bother with manual focus lenses.  This is a long article and I was debating whether to break it into two, but decided to just leave it as one.

I shot film from early 1980s to about 2001 with only two cameras, and not at the same time!  My first camera was a Pentax Program Plus with a 50mm f1.7, and I later added the 35-70mm f4, and a Sigma 70-210mm f4-5.6 cheap zoom.  Used this setup until 1995, when I got my first AF camera - the Canon Elan II with a EF 28-105mm f3.5-4.5, which lasted until I got my first digital camera, the Canon Powershot G1.  As you can see, I did not have gear acquisition issues back then and was quite happy with what I had.  From the film camera experience, it's kind of natural for me to use manual lenses on digital SLRs.  But, many people who start using DSLRs have never touched a film camera before, so how to you start?

Getting Started

My suggestion is to start simple.  Manual focus lenses are not for everyone.  Some people get very frustrated with getting unsharp pictures from manual lenses due to focus problems, and some just like auto focus lenses more.  If I had to start today, I would buy three lenses to start with: Vivitar 28mm f2.8, Takumar 55mm f1.8 (version doesn't really matter), and a Takumar 135mm f3.5, all in M42 mount.  All these lenses should cost about $100 plus $15 for the mount of your camera.  If you don't like them, you can sell them later at little or no lost of money.  I would spend a lot of time with the Takumar 55mm f1.8, since it's one of the best manual focus lenses and it was built like a tank, and focuses like a dream, not to mention optically excellent.  Use these lenses for at least a couple of months, and see if you start to grow on them.  For people who started out using manual focus lenses with film camera, this is natural, but if you don't find yourself enjoy using them, auto focus lenses are probably a better choice for you.

Megan from 2006 - Canon 10D & SMC Takumar 55mm f1.8

Where to Buy

If you like using manual focus lenses, chances are you will not be happy with what you have for long, and the next thing you do is looking for better and more exotic lenses.   This could be both a good and a bad thing.  The good thing is that you can get some really good fast lenses for a lot less than the auto focus equivalent, and the bad thing is that you could get hooked and addicted.  But, where to get lenses?

For most people, eBay is probably the best place where you can get all kinds of lenses, but unfortunately, it's also one of the most expensive place to buy lenses.  Personally, I never bought a lens from eBay.  Just don't like competing with other people on the price.  My usual sources of lenses is Craigslist, Camera shows, Pawnshops or second hand camera stores, and occasionally, camera stores.  Some of my favourite lenses were bought from my local Craigslist, such as the JML 25mm and 50mm f0.95, Kinoptik 210mm f2.8, and the Kilfitt Makro Kilar 90mm f2.8 at very reasonable prices.  Check your local community or flee market for used camera shows.  Here in Toronto, there are three to five of these shows every year so lots of opportunities to check out some lenses you want to buy.  I occasionally get some good deals on lenses from Pawnshops and second hand stores.  If you live in a small community, unfortunately, you only choice might be eBay.  Just remember, you don't have to buy all the lenses you want in one shot.  Finding one of the lenses you want after a long hunt is a thrill and that's part of the fun.  Make it fun, but don't get addicted.

What to look out for when buying manual focus lenses
First thing first - make sure it's functional.  Aperture clicks and stops down, focusing action is smooth without choppiness.  Aperture and focusing are two most important things to look for, because if these two things don't work, you either can't focus, or shoot wide open all the time, or both.

Other areas of concern is fungus.  Be sure to check carefully there is no fungal growth inside the lens.  Very minor ones, if the lens is cheap enough, can be tolerated, especially if the growth is at the corners.  The worse kind is the one growing in the rear elements.  Generally, avoid lenses with fungus as they will continue to grow and get worse.

Scratches on glass elements.  I am not as concern about this as other people.  I have had lenses which are very scratched up and they produce beautiful pictures.  Minor scratches do not affect the performance of the lens, but heavy and fine scratches all over the lens will soften the lens, and make it more prone to flare.  So, a few minor scratches are ok, and they tend to be cheaper.  Avoid heavy scratches at the rear elements, especially when they are in the middle.

Dust Specks/Haze.  It's unavoidable.  Old lenses are generally not very well sealed and thus dust will get inside more easily.  Again, don't panic when you see a few specks of dust inside. Practically ALL my lenses have some degree of dust problems.  However, haze is a big issue.  Basically it's a layer of very fine dust settled over a long time.  This haze will reduce contrast of the lens, and makes the lens flare easily.  Avoid lenses with haze.

Oil inside glass/Aperture blades.  In many preset type lenses, oil on blade is normal and should not be overly concerned about them.  Some of them have oil on purpose to lubricate the blades.  But for auto aperture type, oil in them is not normal.  Eventually, more will leak out and the aperture blades will stick together and you won't be able to stop down any more.  If you see oil on non-Preset type lenses, it's the first sign that the aperture may stick in the near future.

De-centering issues.  Many old lenses have this issue, especially those that were repaired or opened before.  Generally, the problem is that one side is sharp, but the other side is blurry.  This could also be caused by a cheap adapter, so be sure you know that the problem lies.


Many asked what brand of adapters they should buy.  I really don't know.  Personally, I buy cheap Chinese made adapters and they have been working well for me.  Occasionally, I would buy a few good ones, like those from Fotodiox (pro-series), and Metabones.  High quality adapters can cost hundreds of dollars each.  If you  are just starting out, I suggest getting the cheap ones to try.  Unless you have some very expensive lenses, like a collection of Leica M-Mount lenses, it might make more sense to get a good adapter to share amount your lenses.  Even though I buy mostly cheap adapters, I have spent more than $2,000 on adapters so far, because I have so many different lens mounts.  They used to be very expensive, even for an M42-EOS adapter, until the Chinese started making and selling them.  Generally, common mounts like M42, Nikon, Olympus, etc, are very cheap, because demands are higher and they can sell at lower price but at greater quantities.  More obscure mounts like Alpa, DKL, etc, are far more expensive because there aren't that many lenses out there and therefore demand for them are much lower.

The major difference between cheap and expensive adapters are precision and accuracy.  Cheap adapters usually are not very accurate, and they tend to focus past infinity or not reaching infinity.  Cheap ones are also less precisely made where flatness of the adapter is not guaranteed, resulting in uneven sharpness in the pictures.  But, buying an expensive adapter does not guarantee it would work flawlessly with your lens.  I have one quite expensive and name brand Leica to EOS adapter which would not allow any of my Leica-R lenses to focus to infinity.  Be sure you can return the adapter if they don't perform as advertised.

Now that you have some knowledge of what lenses you can use, and what adapter to buy to get the lens to work on your digital camera.  The final question you might be pondering remains: Why bother with manual focus lenses?

Manual Focus Lenses - the good

Value for the money:
Most consumer lenses that come with the camera these days are not very good.  For one thing, they are slow, Often with a maximum aperture of f5.6 at the long end.  If you need to shoot at low light, you will have to folk out a few hundred dollars for a faster auto focus prime.  On the other hand, there are some great manual focus lenses costing under $40, such as the Takumar 55mm f1.8, which has better quality, in terms of build and optical, than the kit zoom you have.  Yes, it's not fair to compare a zoom to a prime, but if you want low light shooting lenses, there is no other choice.  If you have never used a large aperture lens before, you will be surprised to find how wonderful it is to be able to shoot shallow depth of field.

In Control:
I don't know about others, but I feel a sense of control when using manual focus lenses.  Let's face it, the cameras we have today basically does everything for us.  Auto exposure, auto focus, auto white balance, auto ISO, etc.  I sometimes feel that it's the camera doing all the decision for me.  With manual focus lenses, I control the aperture or shutter speed and focusing.  If you are using manual lenses for video, you will know the focusing on manual focus lenses are light years better than auto focus equivalent.

A satisfying experience:
The feeling after looking at a beautiful photograph taken with a cheap lens gives me immense satisfaction.  True, many manual focus lenses are not cheap, and can be more expensive than AF version, but majority of them are cheaper, especially the common ones.

There are thousands of old lenses out there, most of them are cheap.  You can try many of them without breaking the bank, not to mention the different type of lenses like Cine lens, Lomo effect lenses (Lomo/Lensbabies), Telescopes, microscopes and much more.  All these the original manufacturers do not make. Different lenses give you distinctive looks to your pictures.

Manual Focus Lenses - the bad

No Automation:
With very few exceptions, adapting manual focus lenses on your digital camera means you will lose all the automated features.  There will be no auto focus, no auto aperture control, and in some cases, no metering (for some Nikon consumer DSLRs).

Quality of lenses not guaranteed:
Since most manual focus lenses are old, some are decades old. Even the best kept lenses might have minor issues after so many years of use. Most of them do not look like new (if that bothers you).  Some might have aperture issues, others have focusing problems, etc.  Read the section on "What to look out for when buying a manual focus lens".

Flare Easily:
Old lenses (even many new AF ones) flare easily, as the coating on them (some don't even have coatings) are not as effective as modern coatings.  This problem can be partially avoided by using lens hoods, or not shooting into the light source.

Exposure Variance:
This is only for the Canon DSLRs shooting through the view finder.  Live-view has no problem with this.  Basically, as you stop down the lens, the exposure tend to be less accurate.  My experience shows that some lenses need to be dialed -1 in exposure compensation for each f-stop you stop down.  EVIL camera shooters do not have this problem, as what you see in exposure is what you get.  You will learn to compensate in no time at all, so this is really not a problem.

A word about exotic lenses

Eventually, you will get tired of your garden variety of common lenses you have in your possession, and start looking at more exotic lenses.  Names that you may never have heard before, like Alpa, Dallmeyer, Kinoptik, Angenieux, Som Berthiot, Boyer, Cooke, Kern, Hugo Meyer, Astro Berlin etc, will start to enter your horizon.  These optical wonders are like drugs and can get very addictive and expensive.  Some of these lenses costs thousands of dollars.  Unless you have lots of disposable income, buying these kind of lenses will put a lot of pressure on your finances.  Sometimes it's hard not to think about them.  The first time I saw pictures from Kinoptik 50mm f2 and Dallmeyer Super-Six, I couldn't believe pictures can be rendered and look so beautifully! Make sure you understand that manual focus lenses is for fun and you don't need to spent thousands to enjoy them, unless you can.

This last installment will conclude our "Adapting Manual Focus Lenses on Your Digital Camera" series.  Thanks for reading.  If you have any questions, please e-mail or leave comments.


  1. Thank you for this series! It's the most comprehensive information on the subject I've encountered.

  2. Thanks obakesan and Matthew. I hope the series is useful for people who are looking for lens adapting information.

  3. I know this lens is very easy & I love your blog and your instagram feed.