21 Jan

Vintage lenses for large-sensor cameras - Part 2

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Tair lens Tair lens Uli Plank


Here's another chance to read part 2 of this beautifully detailed article on selecting a vintage lens for your large-sensor camera

Part 1 of this article is here

What To Look For

Minolta SR lenses (both MC and MD series - they fit the same bayonet) are not compatible with the newer AF mount, which Sony is still using after they bought Konica-Minolta. But you can get cheap mechanical adapters easily and these lenses are still underrated, so you can get very good lenses at reasonable prices from photographic sources on Craigslist or KEH and on Ebay. Their build quality is excellent, and if they haven't been ill-treated these lenses will show a very smooth focus even after 40 years or more. Some say the older MC series has slightly weaker coating than the later MD series, but I found it difficult to notice much of a difference. The biggest advantage is their consistency in colour rendering over the whole range, which is rare in other lenses. Minolta was one of the few manufacturers of quality optics who had their own plant for making specialty glass, and they obviously made good use of it.

Minolta made a very wide range of lenses, including some expensive professional devices like the 35mm shift lens and the 24mm VFC (Variable Field Curvature) for architecture or the 85mm Varisoft lens for portrayal. These are sought after and their low production numbers accordingly lead to high prices. But some very good and fast 50mm lenses like the 1.4 PG, the 50 and 100mm macros, the 100mm 2.5 or the 135mm 2.8 are still cheap and very usable. Lenses with legendary bokeh (more on that later) are the 35mm 1.8 and the 58mm 1.2, but these are not really cheap, while the 58mm 1.4 comes very close and can still be found for a good price. They also made a very good zoom 35-70mm with constant 1:3.5 which comes very close to primes in quality and was adapted by Leica under their own name – one of the very few classic zooms I consider truly useable for filming. I consider Minolta lenses an insider's tip, and I'm not alone – check outrokkorfiles.com.

Nikon F (non Ai) and Canon FD (non EOS) are great Japanese manual lenses too, but in comparison much more popular and the prices for used lenses are usually much higher without being necessarily superior in quality. A particular drawback of Nikon lenses is their reverse focusing. You'll need to stick to Nikon only or get a follow focus that can be reversed – otherwise it will drive you nuts to focus manually after switching between lenses. Some third-party offers can be great too, but the variation over the whole line of all the Vivitars, Sigmas, Tokinas or Tamrons out there is greater than with the proprietary lenses. One outstanding macro to mention is the 90mm 1:2.5 Tamron SP: check out how expensive even rental for a true cine macro would be! Another great one is the Tokina 90mm 1:2.5 Macro, lovingly also called "Bokina". Pentax K mount and M42 lenses can be quite good as well: some of their “Takumars” are real gems and still a bit cheaper than Canon or Nikon. But speaking of M42 (and M39), good lenses didn't come out of Japan only. While modern Zeiss lenses from Germany are really expensive (even second-hand), you shouldn't count out the former communist block - they knew how to make good optics too.

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  • Worth mentioning is the Canon Serenar line of lenses, these are M39 (Leica Screw Mount) and are very good but not exactly cheap anymore. One thing to watch for is the paint on the lens groups, it is known to become brittle and flake off leaving large black flakes and larger chunks of paint in the image area. They are easy enough to take apart and fix that this shouldn't be a reason to stop a purchase, but it should be a reason to have the lens discounted to affordable levels. They have decent coatings for their age and very good resolution.

    Also of mention that pretty much all of the FSU (Former Soviet Union) lenses that I've seen have needed to have the optics cleaned. the oil used even up into the late 1990's easily evaporates and leaves a coating on the lens elements. This causes loss of detail and increased flair. Even the "pristine" lenses that I've recently purchased benefited from a dis-assembly and cleaning. Some of these went from garbage to good and part of that might have been fixing element alignment issues while working on them. The tell tail sign of oil on the lenses is oil on the iris blades, some sellers suggest the oil is there for proper operation, this is unlikely to be true and is more likely a sign of flooding oil in to unlock frozen parts. The other part was mentioned above, the focusing helix grease tends to get stiff, you can buy a good synthetic grease from MicroTools (USA and EU offices), as well as most tools needed to service a lens. This is an area where buying a cheap FSU lens and learning to tear it apart is both fun and functional, leading to the confidence to pull the Serenar lenses apart and clean, lube, and repaint the lens groups. It also gives the confidence to remove the click stops in the few lenses that have them. There is plenty of information on the web for servicing these FSU lenses and once you get the hang of it the rest are similar enough that you'll figure out how to get inside.

    Also the Konica AR series of lens should not be ignored, they made some very good lenses and the adpaters are normally very cheap.

    I also agree with the above statement that the screw mount lenses have adapters so cheap that you can buy an adapter for each lens, also remember to buy extra rear lens caps for these adapters, JJC makes some decent caps and they are extremely affordable.

    And one last warning... Not all M39 thread mount lenses are the same! Some early Zenit model cameras used the 39mm thread mount but had the flange distance of nearly (but not equal too) an M42 mount camera. You can often still use these M39 for Zenit lenses with a simple M39 to M42 threaded adapter ring, but on the couple that I have received I found you need to go into the lens and change the spacing shims to make it match the M42 flange length, I'm not really happy with either of these lenses as they don't seem to work as well as the native M42 lenses. I suggest trying to avoid the Zenit lenses entirely.

    And finally few of these vintage lenses are truly internal focusing, the length of the lens may change considerably with the focus adjustment (Serenar 135 f4 in particular), most of these lenses focus by shifting the entire lens group assembly forwards so you may need to adjust your mattebox accordingly and the box will need to be mounted on rails so the lenses do not force it to rotate (most video/cinema style mount this way). Since these lenses move the entire assembly they also change magnification, most noticed with very close object distances.

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  • Why is f-l-a-n-g-e in my previous comment considered a banned word?

    As in f-l-a-n-g-e focal length.

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