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08 Dec

Vintage lenses for large-sensor cameras - Part 1

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Blätter Tamron offen Blätter Tamron offen Uli Plank

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In this meticulously detailed feature, Uli Plank shows us how to look for lenses up to 50 years old, and use them with our modern, large-sensor cameras.

Part 2 of this article is here

 Now that small electronic screens have became good enough and camera processors fast enough, recent camera designs are dispensing with the traditional mirror of (D)SLRs to display the image for framing and focusing. Despite their acronym, so called EVIL cameras (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) are getting close to traditional designs in quality, but save a lot of space between the sensor and the lens. The original lenses made for a mount like Micro Four-Thirds (aka µFT) or Sony's NEX (aka E-mount) are very close to the camera. All older lenses were constructed with the necessary space for a mirror to swing back when the shot was triggered. This space can now be used for a simple mechanical adapter, enabling lot of traditional photographic and cinematographic lenses can be used without any quality loss, since no additional glass is needed.

The very short flange distance might even have been planned deliberately (at least in the case of Sony) to give you a wider choice of adaptable lenses, since in the beginning there wasn't a very large range of NEX lenses. Panasonic and Olympus offer a bigger range, since they developed µFT together, and there are even third party lenses like the excellent manual Voitgländer 25mm 0.95 by Cosina. Motion cameras couldn't make use of the swing-back mirror anyway and modern electronic viewfinders can even be better than traditional designs under low-light conditions.

As well as primarily still-photographic cameras like the Panasonic GH2, with its excellent video quality, both Sony and Panasonic now offer motion picture cameras with large sensors and mirrorless mounts like the FS100 and the AF100. It's quite difficult to adapt modern AF lenses from any other manufacturer, since there are no common standards for their electronics. Birger Engineering has announced relatively expensive adapters for the Canon EOS system, but until now they are not out in the wild. The only adapter for AF mounts is the LA-EA1 to attach Sony/Minolta lenses to NEX, but it doesn't support autofocus and the aperture will make some wild moves whenever you try to change it, making it unsuitable for filming. The new adapter LA-EA2 should fix these problems, but it introduces an extra mirror for phase-detection focusing, which might steal some light.

On the other hand, there are thousands of legacy lenses with manual focus and aperture out there, available quite cheaply on Ebay and other second-hand markets. These can often be adapted without any problems. If you bought a large-sensor camera, you'd probably want to work on scenic productions rather than “run-and-gun”, and manual control of focus and aperture would be preferred in most situations anyway. Chinese manufacturers have jumped on this train very quickly and offer pretty cheap adapters for just about anything ever projecting an image to a film plane. Sometimes precision and sturdiness is only so-so, but better adapters can be found from manufacturers like MTF services in Britain or Novoflex in Germany for higher prices. Whichever adapter you choose, the main question will be the choice of the right lens.

The sensor in µFT cameras is typically twice the size of those in a professional TV camera, but is considerably smaller than 35mm cine, while NEX has exactly the size of traditional film (similar to APS-C). So-called full-frame is larger - but this “full-frame” notion comes from photography, not the movies.

Movie people have always been used to a different set of lenses to still photographers, since traditional SLRs use film with the 35mm perforation sideways, while cine cameras exposed a smaller area with the film running vertically. While the lens doesn’t change its optical character at all, the sensor will use a smaller portion of the image projected by photographic lenses, so you'll get a crop factor. If you relate it to full-frame, NEX will crop by a factor of 1.6 and µFT by 2. A 25mm lens on µFT for example will look like 50mm in photography. While this makes most of the traditional lenses more "telephoto", you'll have the advantage of using the best part of photographic lenses, since most of them are weaker in the corners, showing less resolution and more chromatic aberration.

But you'll be hard pressed finding very wide lenses among legacy glass. HDTV on smaller sensors would need very good lenses for full resolution. But on a large sensor a good SLR lens even from 50 years ago should have no difficulties resolving HDTV, since a fine-grained photographic negative would have gone way beyond that resolution. Lenses with C-mount, made for 16mm cine cameras or 2/3 TV cameras, would not have the needed resolution in most cases and would vignette anyway, showing darker or even black, rounded corners.


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  • I have recently started using cheap CCTV lenses on a micro 4/3 camera for some of my stills work. Amazing that I have shot 2 images I really like with a $20 25mm f/1.2 and they are going to get printed for display, I like the look of the lens that much. I just did purchase 2 more lenses, a 50mm and a 35mm but have not tested them yet. When I try them out for video, I think the 35mm is what I'll end up using. Even if they don't work out for video, I will keep using them for stills as they have a quirky look I like a lot.

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  • Libby - that's fascinating! It always comes back to this: distortion can be used creatively. That's why I play my Roland digital stage piano through a guitar amp. Old or cheap lenses are a fantastic way to get an alternative "look. And because they're in the analogue domain, if you get it right, they will look better than any digital attempt to get the same effect.

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by David Shapton
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  • I have a set of 40+ year old Nikkors I use on the VG 20 and EA 50 that perform astonishingly well using inexpensive e mount adapters. Even more astounding is a trio of 55+ year old glass my grandfather gave me, zeiss, angineux and steinheil that also do the deed without issue. As per the article, they are heavy, solid pieces of tech that have and will stand the test of time without question. Good article for sure.

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  • Which nubbins decided on the 'E.V.I.L.' acronym?
    Besides being completely the wrong description for the class of camera in the article, EVIL includes every Broadcast ENG camera from the Analog and Digital eras, plus Canon XL range, HDV and DV units from Sony, JVC, Panasonic,... and a heap more.
    The correct acronym for this particular class of camera is M.I.L.C. - Mirror-less Interchangeable Lens Camera.
    It includes MFT models from Olympus and Panasonic, Nikon's V1 series, Sony NEX and Alpha's, Pentax's K-01 and Q, and all three variants of the Black Magic Design cameras.

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