A few months ago, I found a grubby old manual focus 50mm lens for £3. I was looking for a replacement legacy lens to demonstrate apertures on the photography courses I run; the one I use had failed. This lens had six very visible aperture blades, so was perfect for that job. I took it home and cleaned it up.
Made in Germany in the mid-1970s, it was a Meyer Optik Görlitz Oreston 50mm f/1.8. There was no fungus inside; fungus is something to avoid when buying old lenses as it is contagious and will infect your other equipment. The lens elements were unscratched and the mechanical actions felt solid and unworn.
It has an obsolete M42 screw mount, so I ordered a Gobe lens adaptor to fit it to my cameras. Gobe are a favourite of mine because they use environmentally friendly materials, produce great quality lens filters at very reasonable prices and their customer service is second to none. Better still, they plant trees in Madagascar with every purchase. The adaptor arrived the next day and I mounted the lens on my smallest camera. It has stayed there ever since.
The feel of the lens with its solid build and firm mechanical action takes me back to my old film camera days. The look of the images it produces is great too. I especially like the hexagonal bokeh resulting from the six aperture blades, as opposed to the smooth, round balls of light produced by my modern pro-lenses. The idea of good and bad bokeh, I think, is very subjective and I am not one to comply with fads and trends just because of the Zeitgeist.
The images are a tiny bit soft when shooting at f/1.8, but that gives them an old-fashioned, vintage look. I like shunning the modern aesthetic and trying something different and this lens certainly does that.
DSLR cameras are not designed for manual focus. Because auto-focus is so good, the viewfinder screens are much smaller than they were on film cameras. To get a sharp image often requires use of the live view screen. However, one of the beauties of the mirrorless compact system cameras (CSCs) I use is that the electronic viewfinder (EVF) is large and bright and that makes manual focusing easy. Furthermore, I can programme a button to zoom in on the image to check it is pin sharp. It also has focus peaking, which outlines the in-focus area.
Though a stop slower than some, it is still relatively fast and, at f/1.8, equal in speed to the good, affordable, modern plastic-bodied ‘Nifty Fifty’ lenses some manufacturers sell, another good buy.
Finding that lens got me wondering whether there would be other good film lenses out there. A quick search found plenty more and I bought a Pentacon 200mm f/4 for £30. It’s another lens I was really pleased with, but it became redundant with my latest acquisition, and I gave it as a present for a fantastic photographer friend of mine whose style I knew it would fit.
I should have looked more closely that the third lens I bought. It was a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar lens attached to a Praktica SLR. At first glance it seemed okay, but the aperture blades stick on it and it takes a nice photo. I dismantled it and tightened the return spring on the aperture armature, which helped a bit, but ideally it needs completely dismantling and the blades cleaning. That’s a project for a rainy day.
I saved enough for a new (to me) lens that I had wanted for a long time. I bought a used Four Thirds mount Olympus 50-200 1:2.8-3.5 which I mounted on my Olympus E-M1 Mark ii using an Olympus MMF-3 adaptor. I got it for a song, but there was something amiss with it. It was unsharp when shooting wide open. Also, once in a while the bottom of the frame would be over-exposed. I had it checked over by Olympus who declared it irreparable; if it had been, it would have been worth me paying the repair fee.
So, I sent it back to the shop and bought the later professional SWD version of the same lens. It’s a cracker, fast to focus and pin sharp.
Pro-end Four Thirds lenses are bigger than the Micro Four Thirds equivalents, but you can get them at great prices. However, Olympus converters, like the MMF-1, MMF-2 and MMF-3 are no longer available in the shops, which means buying third party adaptors and the only ones available at the moment come from China and take a month to deliver. According to reports, they have variable manufacturing quality.
There are obvious financial savings made by going for legacy lenses. The used Olympus 50-200mm lens I bought was in excellent condition and cost nearly £1000 less than if I had bought it new; it is still available as a new lens although the Four Thirds mount is now obsolete. If you are buying a new lens, unless you can get a huge discount, it wouldn’t make sense choosing this model.
The much older legacy lenses have a more are manual focus and have a more ‘arty’ feel to them. They are not as sharp and the colour rendering is different and that gives the images a vintage look. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love them. Manual focusing may not be fast enough for some wildlife photography such as birds in flight and DSLR viewfinders are often too small for accurate focussing. But the larger electronic viewfinders plus focus assist in mirrorless cameras make vintage lenses a viable option, but only if you like the look of the images.
From an environmental point of view it is also good to buy used equipment. Everyone is becoming more aware of the impact consumerism is having on the world. Buying used and vintage equipment instead of new makes perfect sense to those, like me, with a green attitude to living.
Back in the early 1980s, my pride and joy was an Olympus OM2n. I had a hankering to get back into shooting film and searched online for a bargain. I found a slightly later OM2 Spot Program with the fast f/1.4 lens attached. It was a real bargain and so I snapped it up; someone told me it was like buying the lens and getting the camera for free.
The Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 now spends much of its time attached to my E-M1 mark ii using a Gobe adaptor. It is beautifully sharp, especially in the mid-aperures, and has no chromatic aberrations, coloured fringing around high contrast edges.
This post is a much extended version of an article first published in The Northumberland Gazette, The Morpeth Herald and the Berwick Advertiser