Even before I picked up my first Sony mirrorless camera, I've been a fan of vintage lenses. It's just easier to use a tried-and-true lens from years past than to try and find the perfect modern lens on a shoestring budget. True, you probably won't get the latest autofocus capabilities but you'll get a classic look at an amazing price.

I've grown a small collection of different lenses and mounts over the years, and experimenting with these classic lenses on my new a7S III has become one of my favorite camera activities. Read on to see some of these lenses in action and pick up some tips and tricks for getting started.

Before you get started

Your mileage may vary. Lens manufacturers over the years have certainly gotten better with their consistency and quality control, but there is always the possibility of variation between copies of the same model. A glass element that's slightly off-axis can make for a blurry photo. Some versions of lenses may have been redesigned over the years as well, so a 50mm f/1.4 might not be the same 50mm f/1.4.

If possible, check the lens for any dust, fungus or scratches before you buy. If you're buying from KEH, we'll do that for you. Even an 'Ugly'-grade lens may still be usable for your projects. When in doubt, contact us and ask about a certain lens.

Make sure you're purchasing the right lens mount and that you have the correct mount adapter for your camera. In some cases, vintage lenses may require more than just the correct spacing from the sensor and won't operate the aperture correctly without the right adapter.

Getting set up

The first thing you'll need is an E-mount to 'mount' adapter, depending on the mount of your vintage lens. This includes Canon FD mount, Nikon F, M42 and Leica M39 screw mounts, Minolta MD, or even PL mount for larger cinema lenses. These days there are countless options to choose from at various price points. Personally, I've had good luck with adapters from Fotodiox, but I've also heard good things about Fotasy, Novoflex, Metabones & more.

Some manufacturers have even cracked the code for getting autofocus to work on older lenses, including some models that offer AF on lenses that previously only worked manually!

Once you've got your lens and adapter, you're almost ready to start shooting. Give yourself an extra hand with the built-in Manual Focus Assist assigned to a custom function button on your camera so that your screen zooms in on the details while you focus. You can also turn on focus peaking and customize the color and intensity so that sharp areas glow with the color of your choosing.

Example videos

While vintage lenses are great for photography, I've also been using them for video projects to see how they look in action.

The Minolta MD 50mm f/1.4 was one of the first lenses I ever adapted. It's as sharp wide open as it is when it's closed all the way down. Light and nimble, this is my go-to vintage camera lens.

The Helios 40-2 is a Russian 85mm f/1.5 lens with a unique, swirly bokeh that's become instantly recognizable to those familiar with the look. Great for unique portraits, this lens really shines in leafy nature settings.

The Olympus Zuiko 35mm f/2 makes a wonderful walkaround lens that's compact and built like a tank. Great for daily use in nearly any situation.

The Nikon 24mm f/2.8 AI-S is one that took me by surprise. I'll admit that I've never been much of a Nikon shooter, just because I was more familiar with other systems but this lens and other vintage Nikon primes are razor-sharp with excellent build quality.

The Leica 5cm f/2 Summicron is an old design that actually collapses into itself for travel. Leica and Voigtlander rangefinder lenses are both a dream to use for photography, with classic looks. This particular lens even had fungus inside. See if you can tell.

3 Reasons to get your first vintage lens

  1. Modern photography websites are always pushing the newest, fastest, sharpest and most expensive lenses to put in front of your camera. Taking a step back and practicing the fundamentals is a great way to jumpstart your creativity and learn more about the basics of photography.
  2. A vintage lens with manual focus will allow you to spend more time with your composition and exposure. Instead of snapping a quick shot and moving on to the next or 'spray & pray'ing, you really spend time with each shot, making it count. It's almost similar to shooting with a limited number of photos like you'd do in film photography.
  3. You'll be able to find many vintage lenses for quite cheap. As more photographers learn the secret of vintage glass, prices tend to go up but they are very rarely as expensive as new glass. In fact, you can build up a small vintage lens kit for the cost of a modern-day lens.

Final thoughts

There is a time and a place for the newest gear. Of course it's incredibly valuable to have autofocus that locks onto a person's eyes when shooting portraits. Sometimes you need that insane precision. Sometimes you don't. One thing I've learned over the years is that you don't always need the biggest, the best, the sharpest or the most expensive tool to be able to create your vision or tell a story.

For me, the most fun part of photography is creating a memory of something. Frankly, it's more fun to create images with your hands by manually turning the aperture ring or spinning a physical focus ring. More and more third-party lens manufacturers seem to be copying the manual controls and metal construction of vintage lenses as time goes on. I guess that means the classic lenses got something right the first time.

Vintage lenses are inexpensive, with quality construction and they're often just as sharp as their modern-day counterparts. If you're a tinkerer, these older lenses are easier to pull apart and work on by yourself, as well.

So branch out. You'll be able to create unique images and moments by shooting with vintage lenses and a Sony Alpha camera. Who knows? Maybe you'll be the first to shoot a specific rare vintage lens on a modern-day mirrorless.

Bonus tips

  1. Try 'freelensing' for some wild flares and interesting visual effects. Freely hold the lens close to the mount area, angling and tilting to get unique looks.
  2. Often times, these manual focus vintage lenses can be reverse-mounted using a special adapter for macro capabilities.
  3. Adding physical extension tubes will also give you promising macro effects.
  4. Stock up on lens caps and rear caps. These vintage lenses don't usually come with the original protective covers.
  5. Keep in mind that KEH is the world's largest used camera retailer, and our inventory is endlessly changing. Take a look through our inventory and find yourself some new possibilities today.

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