How to buy and use vintage lenses

How to Buy and Use Vintage Lenses

I first became interested in vintage lenses after reading about the Helios 58mm f2 lens in an article on Digital Photography School (the link is further down in the article). Intrigued by the creative potential of the lens, I bought one to use with my Fujifilm X-T1 camera.

Some of you are no doubt wondering what’s so special about it.

The short answer is – nothing. It’s a cheap Russian lens that you can buy second-hand. It’s manual focus and is made for the M42 screw mount. You need to buy an adapter to use it on your camera.

The reason photographers buy the Helios 58mm lens is because the optical faults in its design produce something known as swirly bokeh. Shoot wide open, and take a photo of the right subject, and the background seems to swirl around. It’s unusual and kind of cool when you get it right.

Here’s an example.

Photo of autumn leaves made with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

I like vintage lenses because they bring a fun element into your photography and are ideal for experimentation, especially with subjects like portraiture.

Plus, you can buy the lens for under $100. I have filters that cost more than that. It’s a great way to try something new without spending too much money. It’s certainly a big saving over most offerings from LensBaby and the Petzval and Daguerreotype Achromat lenses made by Lomography.

Vintage lenses and the Fujifilm X-T1

This photo shows the Helios 58mm lens plus M42-FX adapter. The adapter is nearly as big as the lens.

Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens with M42-FX adapter

Here are my observations on using the Helios 58mm f2 lens with my Fujifilm X-T1 camera.

  • It’s important to focus accurately when the lens is wide open. If you nail the focus, the part of the subject that is in proper focus is sharp. If you miss focus slightly, it’s very soft.
  • Electronic viewfinders make focusing with manual focus lenses much easier. For example, the X-T1 has a dual screen setting. You can see the entire frame on the left, and an enlargement centered around the selected autofocus point on the right. This tool helps you focus accurately. The diagram below shows you what it looks like.

Dual viewfinder display of Fujifilm X-T1 camera

  • For the best effect, the background needs to be some distance from the subject.
  • The Helios lens is designed for film cameras, and you can only take full advantage of the swirly bokeh effect if you use it on a full-frame camera. The crop factor of APS-C cameras like my X-T1 means that you are missing out on some of the bokeh. But, as you can see in these photos, you can still see enough of it to make some interesting photos.

Vintage lenses and mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless cameras are ideal for working with vintage lenses, for several reasons.

  • You can buy adapters that let you work with a wide range of vintage lenses.
  • The viewfinder doesn’t go darker as you stop down, allowing you to use vintage lenses at small apertures. This also opens up the possibility of using older good quality manual focus lenses such as Canon FD lenses.
  • Mirrorless cameras have tools like focus peaking (and the dual screen mode on the X-T1) that help you focus manual focus lenses accurately even when working at wide apertures.

Photos made with vintage lenses

Here are some photos that I made with the Helios 58mm lens.

The first set were made in Jing’an Temple in Shanghai, China.

This one of the first photos that I made in the temple with the Helios lens. The out of focus areas look kind of unusual, but there’s no swirly bokeh.

Photo taken in Jing'an temple, Shanghai, China with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

What this photo shows is that the optical quality of the Helios lens is not very good when you shoot wide open, especially at the edges. Check out the bottom left corner to see what I mean.

These ornamental posts caught my eye – I liked the way they receded into the distance, perfect for testing the bokeh of the Helios lens. The bokeh isn’t swirly in this photo, but it’s certainly distinctive.

Photo taken in Jing'an temple, Shanghai, China with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

Then I found this post, with green leaves behind. The bokeh is not quite swirly yet, but it’s getting there.

Photo taken in Jing'an temple, Shanghai, China with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

The next three photos are among my favorite images from the temple. They are close-ups of stone figures on a plinth.

Photo taken in Jing'an temple, Shanghai, China with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

I didn’t quite manage to get the full swirly bokeh effect in the temple, but I learnt more about the lens and its pictorial capabilities.

Here are some more photos taken with the Helios 58mm lens.

Portrait of woman playing trombone made with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

Portrait of Asian woman made with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

Photo of flowers made with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

Photo of flower made with Helios 58mm f2 vintage lens

Researching vintage lenses

The Helios 58mm f2 isn’t the only vintage lens you can buy. If you’d like to learn more about the topic, then read the following article published on Digital Photography School. Make sure you read the comments, as readers have written about the vintage lenses they use.

Recommended reading: Creating Swirly Bokeh with the Helios 44-2 Lens

If you’d like to investigate a specific lens more, then the easiest way to do so is on Flickr. Just use the name of the lens as a keyword, and see what comes up in the search. This will soon give you a good idea of the pictorial capabilities of the lens.

Click here to see the search result for a Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.

Buying vintage lenses

Here’s what else you need to know when buying vintage lenses.

  • Assuming that you are prioritizing creative potential over image quality, you need to know what the pictorial effect of the lens is. What potential does it have for creative photography? You can answer this question with the Flickr search described above.
  • Does the lens have a manual aperture ring? It’s highly unlikely that it doesn’t, but you should check and make sure just in case. Otherwise you won’t be able to change the aperture setting.
  • How much does the lens cost and where can you buy it from? A quick search on Ebay or Amazon should provide the answer. Depending on the rarity of your chosen lens you might have to keep searching until one becomes available. Many vintage lenses are inexpensive, but some cost more. I’ve also noticed that some people overcharge greatly on Ebay, so if you feel a lens is too expensive for what it is then search for other sellers (or wait until another one becomes available).
  • Can you buy an adapter for the lens for your camera? Search on Ebay or Amazon to see if you can buy one. Check the details carefully, some adapters are less well made than others.

If the lens is available, and you like the look of the photos other people take with it, and you can buy an adapter for it for your camera then don’t hesitate – buy the lens, have some fun with it and see how creative you can get with it.

Do you have any questions about vintage lenses, or the Helios 58mm lens? Let me know in the comments.

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Mastering Lenses ebookMy ebook Mastering Lenses shows you how to get the best from the lenses you already own. A comprehensive guide to exploring the creative potential of wide-angle, normal and telephoto lenses, it’s also the ultimate buying guide for photographers thinking about purchasing a new lens for their camera. Please click the link to learn more or buy.

 

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He currently writes for The Creative Photographer, Digital Photography School and Craft & Vision. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences.

Comments

  1. I like the idea, Andrew. But it isn’t always plain sailing. As with any second hand gear, you have to accept it “as is”. And sometimes, when there are defects in a second hand lens, even the vendor has (had?) no idea that the lens was anything less than perfect – well “used perfect”, anyway.

    Out of morbid curiosity, I recently read a “review” or report by a highly qualified and experienced repair technician, on a camera – and accompanying range of lenses – that I had in the past. I loved them to bits and always thought of them as perfect. I was utterly horrified, reading what he had to say about them – based on years and years of experience in dealing with them, as they passed through his workshop, in need of servicing or repairs. I must say, I was quite shocked by it.

    1. Author

      You’re right, there’s always a risk in buying second-hand. You can mitigate it by buying from camera stores that guarantee their goods. The idea of buying vintage lenses though is that they’re not perfect. It’s the optical aberrations that are interesting. They are fun lenses that hopefully help you create images that look a little different.

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