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I see that there seem to be a lot of lens adapters available on eBay to allow fitting old SLR lenses onto new digital cameras such as the micro 4/3 and the sony NEX cameras. Is it actually worth the effort to mount these lenses to these modern cameras bearing in mind that you obviously loose the autofocus of the digital camera and also loose the split-screen focusing from the old SLR cameras? Does focusing become very difficult? I'm guessing the camera would also have to be used in manual mode as there would be no coupling for the aperture control?

I have a number of old Konica lenses (which I still use) and am thinking of upgrading my digital camera to a changeable lens camera such as the NEX to re-use these lenses. Will this be a practical arrangement and is there actually any optical advantage of these old lenses over more modern ones?

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Be aware that new lenses are optimized for digital cameras, e.g. they try to take into account the fact, that a digital sensor reflects much more light back into the rear of the lens than film does. –  Pete Jun 8 '12 at 7:14

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Breaking down your question:

Is it worth the effort?

If you already own lenses and don't want to spend money on digital lenses, you could say it is worth it. If you don't want to fiddle with the manual focus, it's not worth it. If you have to use this in an environment where fast focusing is critical, then no, it's not worth it. This is a bit subjective.

Does focusing become difficult?

I use a Canon 550D with a Pentacon 50mm f1.8 lens. Focusing through the viewfinder is hard. With a micro 4/3 you don't have an optical viewfinder so you don't have that problem.

When using liveview, focusing is not hard at all. Just enlarge the image several times on the LCD screen and get the focus right. My Pentacon lens does have a tight focus ring, which takes more effort to turn compared to a digital lens focus ring.

Should I use manual mode?

You could use manual (M) mode or Aperture priority (Av) mode. In both modes it is important that your lens diaphragm switch is set to manual. By this you ensure that when you turn the aperture ring, the aperture blades actually move. In auto mode the aperture will remain wide open to allow a bright viewfinder image, only when the shutter is clicked it will change its aperture to the desired value. The mechanism to provide this functionality is not present on modern cameras, therefore set the switch to manual.

In the first mode you would set the aperture on your lens and set the shutter time in camera manually. In the Av mode the camera calculates the appropriate shutter speed based on the exposure it measures. You might have to adjust the exposure by under or overexposing a bit. This depends on your lens. When I use my Canon/Pentacon setup I have to underexpose with one stop to get a correctly exposed image.

Will it be practical?

When you have the time and patience to manually focus and to set your exposure settings, it will be practical. Keep in mind though that old lenses don't have Image Stabilization, so camera shake might become a problem at low shutter speeds.

When you need to focus quickly, or when you're not able to see the LCD screen when taking the shot, it's not really practical.

What is the optical advantage?

This depends on the lenses you have.

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I'm using Contax lenses on an olympus 4:3. I do focus through the optical viewfinder. The live view mode with a zoom may be good for focussing but do not allow you to compose in the same time, so is restricted to studio pictures. –  floqui Jun 7 '12 at 7:19
    
I sort of assumed that there were no optical viewfinders on MFT camera's as they don't have mirrors or pentaprisms. My bad. You could liveview without zoom to compose, get the focus close to correct, then zoom in to get the focus spot-on. I have used this workflow with my DSLR several times without great hassle. Only problem was fast focusing on moving subjects, as pointed out in my answer. –  Bart Arondson Jun 7 '12 at 8:21
    
@floqui - There is only one Olympus 4/3 with OVF (mirror and pentaprism), the Olympus E5. –  Esa Paulasto Oct 24 '13 at 7:02
    
@Esa Paulasto - I have tested today the OM E1 with my contax lenses. The optical viewfinder is good enough to focus (without using the magnification) even better: in low light (as example when you close the lense to gain in DOF) the viewfinder will rise the lightness making easier to focus on it than on the optical viewfinder of my E620 –  floqui Oct 28 '13 at 8:49
    
@floqui - Sorry, my mistake. I got my information from Olympus' own pages, and forgot they only show current production lines. There seems to be several Olympus 4:3 cameras with optical viewfinders. Mirror and either pentaprism or pentamirror. –  Esa Paulasto Oct 28 '13 at 9:25

I use a number of old Canon FD lenses with a Rainbow Imaging adaptor on a NEX-7 and I'm very happy with the results. I've used the 24mm, 50mm macro (and with a 1.5 extender) with very good results. There's a switch on the adaptor that allows one to lock in the lens wide open or to change the f-stop. If walkig around I'll use hyperfocusing with the 24mm since I really don't want to spend time focusing. I usually use aperature priority and switch the ASA as needed to keep the speed fast enough without a tripod.

Even though my hands are small, I always accidently move the lens focus that I set, so I use a small piece of electrical tape to keep the hyperfocual setting.

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This can be great with specialty lenses -- such as mirror telephoto or super-macro lenses.

One poster mentioned lack of image stabilization as an issue, but depending on your digital body, that may not be true. My Olympus E-3 allows me to tell it the focal length of any non-digital lens attached, and IS then works perfectly. This is really useful with my 500mm mirror lens!

Mirror lenses, in particular, lend themselves well to such use. Because they lack an aperture, there's one less thing you have to give up -- you're limited to shooting in aperture-priority or manual mode anyway, even if they could be "hooked up" to the body's digital brain somehow.

This was taken, hand-held, with the Zuiko 500mm f8 mirror lens, at 1/100th of a second!

enter image description here

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If you're looking for high-quality pictures and ease-of-use, this isn't the answer. If you have some old lenses that you want to use and have fun with, then you should definitely get a mirrorless camera and an adapter.

With this setup:

You will lose EXIF information:

  • focal length (a big deal if, like me, you change lenses frequently: you can no longer identify which lens you used by the EXIF data)
  • aperture

You will lose features:

  • AF
  • Tv, P, Auto modes

Depending on the camera, it will be harder to change settings. It takes several button presses to change the IS mode, ISO, or Ev (or the shutter speed when in manual) on my E-PL1. There's no dial for any of those: I have to hunt through a menu to get to them. It's frustrating when I just want to take a picture right now, but I love using these lenses so I put up with it for their sakes.

All of the things you lose are, really, just conveniences. But conveniences are what make more expensive cameras worth paying for.

The Nex's crop factor of 1.5 isn't terrible. If you have that 40/1.8, it'll be like a long-normal 60 instead of a wide-normal 40, so you'll live. I am using it with a 2x crop factor E-PL1 and it's definitely not a normal lens. For one important shot, I took several shots in portrait orientation and stitched them together later -- I do not want to make a habit of that, though. I don't have anything wider, so I can't tell you what it will be like to carry around a 24mm or 28mm lens.

My E-PL1 has in-body image stabilization which is fantastic for manual focus lenses because it actually adds a feature. It also has a dedicated button for zooming in to the center of the image (I have it set at 7x, I think it goes up to 11x?), and although I have to hit the button twice to zoom and then hit another button to exit the zoom mode, it really helps me get the focus right.

With no optical viewfinder, I've had no luck at all trying to capture fast-moving subjects like birds.

The biggest downside to your plan is that the lenses you have just aren't that good. Modern lenses have much better coatings and will give you much, much sharper images with better contrast and less glare. Of course modern lenses are also lighter, often have image stabilization, and if you pick the right ones they also zoom in and out. An f/4-5.6 lens wouldn't beat my 40/1.8 on speed, except that I get a lot of glare with the 40/1.8 wide open and have to stop it down to f/4 to get results that I'm happy with.

enter image description here

This action shot is from my first real outing with my E-PL1, and cropped and then resized to 50% (further resized by StackExchange for inline display; larger version), but otherwise untouched. I assume it's with the 80-200 off-brand f/4(?)-5.6, probably stopped down one stop because there's no flare. With no supporting EXIF data, of course, I can't verify any of that. 1/200s with in-body stabilization (again, fantastic), though I really wish I'd pushed the ISO above 100 to have a chance to freeze the action (live and learn). Well, I'm happy with the result -- and of course it was really fun to have a small, lightweight camera with a fully-manual lens!

enter image description here

(NB: that catcher was drafted by Pittsburgh today, in the 32nd round. Any Pirates fans here?)

So if you want quality or convenience, skip the manual focus lenses and get a cheap all-plastic consumer zoom lens with whatever DSLR or mirrorless camera you want, and you'll be really happy with the results. If you think the manual focus lenses will be fun and you don't mind spending more time to get the shots, then by all means get a camera and adapter for them. You'll have a lot of fun and if you're careful you'll get some great pictures!

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+1 for fun. I've actually been buying random pre-loved lenses from eBay for cheap. But I find that I get confused with which lens I used for each photo as well! –  Kirk Broadhurst Jul 16 '12 at 15:18

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