Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Vintage Telephoto lenses - Are They Worth Buying?

If you are into manual focus lenses, I am sure you have a few El Cheapo medium telephoto lenses; most likely 135mm f2.8 or 200mm f3.5 with brand names like Soligor, Bell + Howell, Sears, Hanimex, or something like that. These lenses are super cheap and come in various mounts. I am definitely guilty of this. But, is it even worth buying these lenses versus a cheap auto focus equivalent in a zoom?

My opinion is that most of these lenses can produce acceptable images, but are hardly stellar. The worse aspect is the color fringing, blooming in wide apertures. Flare is also not great with most of these lenses. For me, any focal length longer than 135mm is not easy to focus critically, and a tripod is really needed. Using manual focus lenses for moving objects is asking for frustration. I think that OEM telephoto lenses have an upper hand over most of the third party cheap equivalence, but that's not to say there aren't good ones. One example is the Soligor C/D 200mm f2.8, and the Vivitar 200mm f3, which is quite good when stopped down a bit. Also of note is the Vivitar 135mm f2.3, which I had for a while but never really used much, but nevertheless a really good lens. Tamron is considered more upscale with its Adaptall lenses. The 135mm f2.5 is a decent performer.

If my experience is any indication, most modern cheap zooms are at least as good, if not better than the cheap 135mm f2.8 or 200mm f3.5/4.5 telephoto lenses. Sure, the zooms don't go down to f2.8 or even f3.5, and the build of the old lenses are way better, but if image quality is not there, they are just nice paper weights.

Salute! - NEX-6 & Vivitar 300mm f5.5 @ f8. Note purple fringing on right. Click for larger.

Allen Garden - NEX-6 & Minolta MC 135mm f3.5. Click for larger.


  1. hello to canada from austria : )

    my hitlist of best tele lenses in terms of color-rendering, sharpness und nice contrast is.

    1) canon ltm serenar 100mm / 3.5 (beats all my other lenses in the range of 85mm to 105)
    2) old nikon zoom 75-150 / 3.5 E-series (beautiful for people and animal shots)
    3) canon fd 135/2

    the old minoltas md/mc are also okay but a little bit blocky and rude in terms of resolution


    1. Yup. Most OEM lenses tend to be better at the telephoto focal length.

  2. Hi, I think you missed an importan point. When I compared the FD 200f4 to the OEM Panasonic 45-200 I found that it was much brighter at the rated f-stop (which was 5.6 so that both lenses could be compared at the same F). The FD200f4 gave me nearly 2 stops more light at the sensor than the zoom did.

    This is due to transmission losses in the glass. This is also the reason that professional cinematography lenses are rated in T-Stops not simply F-stops because inconsistencies in exposure due to lense chances are unacceptable in motion picture.

    1. That's interesting. I know the f-stop is theoretical but two stops of light loss should be considered fraudulent claim. I also have the FD 200mm f4, which is quite a decent lens.

    2. f-stop is simply a ratio of the diameter of the aperture and the focal length. Thats why to know you need to grasp transmission as the real factor. When you see more elements its going to mean less transmission.

  3. Ha! I felt you were talking to me here. I have a 135/2.8 "Osawa MC" and a 200/3.5 "Tele Lentar". As a hungry student I am, I got them really cheap. The 200mm feels all loose and about to fall apart, but I've managed to get many good shots out of it. The 135mm doesn't have as much flaring and washing out problems as the 200mm, it's sharp and contrasty but with a lot of color fringing.

    I love your blog, keep it up :D