We live in a wonderful age for photography as far as practicality goes. No longer do we have to carefully open our expensive camera's internals to load our precious film, nor do we have to play "focus by eye" thanks to amazing advances in autofocus technology, that have even found their way into the most humble of everyday items, the mobile phone. So why on earth would I want to take a modern, up-to date, all singing all dancing DSLR and strap 40 year old lenses to it? Today I'm going to try to explain and show you just why.
Along with the advances in camera technology there has been one fundamental change to every photographer's work flow...the move from darkroom to the office. Once we slaved away like magicians washing and swirling our film negatives in various chemicals to produce the final image. These days most of us will return home from a shoot and fire up Adobe Photoshop or an alternative editing program to bring our images to life.
There in lies the problem, these programs give us so much control over the final image that we can often undo or make up for any faults and flaws in our cameras or lenses. For example say I had left my old film camera lens stopped down by accident I have very little chance of returning a correctly exposed photo, however the solution is a few clicks away with todays digital technology. This has meant that, dare I say manufacturers have been able to ease off on quality in order to hit a price point.
Film can only capture what it is shown, that is to say a soft or low contrast lens will produce a soft low contrast image which is almost universally unwanted except in a few circumstances. So older lenses tend to be in my opinion of a greater optical and mechanical quality across the board, infact many of todays most modern lenses can trace their roots and optical formula back to some of the very earliest 35mm SLR lenses.
So what am I getting at here? For very little money and with a little patience you can put together an extremely formidable collection of lenses that with the exception of autofocus will rival and in many cases outperform their modern day counterparts. Alot of the older lenses will also give your images a character that is very hard to replicate. The reason behind this is that today most companies all use very similar coating and glass types to produce their lenses however at the birth of affordable SLR photography manufacturers tried and tested a whole host of different coatings, glass types, aperture blade size/shape all of which can give some of these old lenses a truly unique personality.
Okay so where to start with trying these old wonders? Most (not all) old lenses tend to use a screw threw to mount to the camera, this thread is usually refered to as M39 or M42. A quick search on ebay will reveal that there are adaptors readily available for most modern DSLRs, its best not to purchase the cheapest as they are often poorly machined and depending on the lens you are using will leave you unable to focus to infinity. Speaking of focus it is well worth getting one with the "Focus Confirmation" chip fitted as it will allow your camera to beep and/or flash to confirm that correct focus has been achieved.
So I suppose I should share with you a few of my personal reccomendations on which lenses are well worth getting. The image above is of my own Helios 44 M42 with a Canon EOS adapter. Below is my current list of owned/wanted classic lenses.
Helios 40 85mm f1.5
Jupiter 9 85mm F2
Jupiter 12 135mm F4
Super Takumar 17mm
Super Takumar 28mm F3.5
Carl Zeiss Flektogon 20mm
Helios 44 58mm f2 (I personally prefer the -2 version as it has more aperture blades and no lens coatings so gives a more low contrast image, which when combined with the wide f2 aperture gives a lovely dreamy look similar to the mega expensive Canon 50mm f1.2L)
L series quality from as little as £15! the shot above is from my Helios 44 shot wide open and into direct light this was a pure flare and bokeh test, as you can see it produces superb results.
I mentioned above about the lovey soft vintage look you can achive from these lenses, well above is a perfect example of that, again from the Helios.
The above image was again a pure torture test, this time using a Jupiter 11 135mm F4 the flare is beauitiful and when used correctly can really add to an image, just to note the leaves centre frame are razor sharp.
The above image is from an Asahi Pentax 28mm f3.5 using a 20mm extension tube for close focus. You can see just how sharp this old glass really is. There has been no sharpening applied to this image.
Yes they take a little time and patience to use but for very little money you can produce images with a unique "feel" that sometimes is missing from modern glass. I enjoy getting to know each lens and its quirks so that when the opportunity arises I know I can select the correct lens for the job. So get out there and pickup just one of the many old lenses available and take the time to learn it's strengths and weaknesses, I'm sure you will be pleasantly surprised.
We all know that photography is not cheap once you get past the "pro-sumer" level of products so before you spend your hard earned money on your next lens or body wouldn’t it be great to try it out first? I mean you wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive would you?
Luckily there is a solution in the form of lens rental companies, who for a fraction of the cost of the lens will allow you to use it as your own for how ever long you feel you need to asses its performance/value before parting with your money, superb! however not all lens rental companies are created equal..
Today I am taking a look a Devon based lens hire company Lens Fettish I have used several rental companies over the years but I have to say I will keep using Lens Fettish where possible. The number one reason being that they never seem to sleep! I can contact them any time of day usually via twitter (if you like a bit of banter give them a follow @LensFettish) and I will have a response within an hour most days which is vital when you've been contacted by a client who wants a shoot on a very tight deadline and you need to scramble to organise equipment.
Price is another big factor, many hire companies require you to place a deposit on the item you are hiring which is understandable but if I had enough money for the deposit I'd have probably purchased the lens any way unless it really is a very specialist item such as a tilt & shift lens. Lens Fettish are happy to offer a level of flexibility that no other company has yet been able to match, for example if I need a very expensive lens for a single days shooting e.g. the Canon EF 300mm f2.8 L IS II USM Lens which at the best of times is going to be over £80 per day the last thing I need is to find there is a 3 day minimum hire suddenly making that hire £240 plus postage! thats a hefty chunk out of any profit I was set to make. Lens Fettish have in my experience always gone the extra mile to bend the rules where possible (assuming the lens required is not already booked by someone else) to ensure you get exactly what you need when you need it. To top it off they include sweets with every rental and a voucher for a discount on your birthday!
So if you are are working professional in need of some extra/backup gear for that big shoot or a keen amateur looking to explore the vast array of lenses out there before spending your money give Lens Fettish a try.
Disclaimer: renting is a painful process, having to return a lens you have loved is a sad moment.