Picture This: Past Meets Present
Vintage lenses offer fresh perspectives in today's photography.
By Earl Nottingham
I remember that day in 1973 when I opened the yellow box with the gold foil-lettered “Nikon” emblazoned on it. Inside was a brand-new 55mm Micro-Nikkor lens, one of three lenses that would see me through photography school and serve me for many years thereafter. Imagine my surprise (and dismay) when I just recently saw a reference to that same Nikon lens as now being “vintage,” which, by association, makes me vintage as well.
A quick search shows “vintage” defined as something that is “too old to be considered modern, but not enough to be considered antique — usually an object of high quality and lasting value.” I can live with that!
In recent years there has been a revival in the use of vintage lenses on modern digital cameras. Although camera lenses have been manufactured since the early 1800s, most of the lenses that are considered vintage and compatible with current cameras were made during the 1930s to 1980s. Most are of Japanese, German or Russian origin.
Why, you may ask, would anyone want to use an old lens on a new camera, especially when new lenses and sensors are capable of extremely high sharpness? The answer is that for many creative purposes, vintage lenses can bring their own distinct looks and character to a photograph and mitigate the extreme sharpness in current lens designs. What might be seen as an imperfection in a modern lens becomes an asset in the older lens.
Vintage Helios lens adapted to a modern DSLR
Some of the “imperfections” of the older lenses include various color and optical aberrations, unevenness of illumination (vignetting) and lower contrast. Ironically, many photo apps have been created with the express purpose of bringing back those imperfections by adding a variety of vintage “looks” to a pristine digital image. However, there is a certain visceral satisfaction to seeing the vintage effect directly in the viewfinder, without need for manipulation afterward.
Portrait photographers and filmmakers gravitate to these older lenses for the softer, even romantic, quality they impart to the image, especially the out-of-focus background highlights (or “bokeh”) created when the lens is opened up to its wider apertures.
Most vintage lenses can easily be adapted to a current DSLR or mirrorless camera. Adapters are available for matching almost any lens/camera combination. These adapters typically cost between $10 and $20. Be aware, however, that most vintage lenses are strictly manual lenses, and while they will work on automatic cameras, your shutter speed, aperture (f/stop) and focus will need to be set manually.
Millions of lenses can be considered vintage, but several have achieved cult-like status because of their unique characteristics. I’ve listed several below that are representative.
As the years roll by and the hairs on my head become grayer and fewer, I try to comfort myself with the usual mantras of age denial, such as “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better” or “You’re aging like fine wine.” It’s nice to know that I am now vintage. Maybe someday I’ll even be a classic.
Please send questions and comments to Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at www.tpwmagazine.com/photography.
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