Over the last year or two, I’ve become interested in vintage lenses, and have accumulated a small horde of them. Particularly, old Minolta mount lenses from on average 50 years ago. In particular, there were a couple that I really hadn’t used since purchasing them – not even sure if they were from a garage sale or a pawn shop, but they looked neat, so I picked them up.
I decided to take our girls on a trip to the zoo, and concluded that it might also be a good time to test out a couple lenses.
One is a Minolta 50mm f/2.8 – an all-metal tank with very few bells and whistles. Simply a pedestrian workhorse yearning for a new life on the end of my Nikon DSLR. The other lens I chose was an off-brand, and Image 80-200mm f/4.5. Another curiosity, this ancient piece of glass had some quirks, such as skipping f/5.6 altogether, and a pull over metal shade.
The testing grounds returned some interesting results. I shot both stills and video through a Nikon D7000, and was pleased with what I gathered. The zoom lens was far more sharp than I had anticipated, but also revealed amazing depth of field with creamy, blurry backgrounds. Even in low light, this lens performed fantastically. No real noticeable noise at all, and vibrant colours – especially on a chameleon hanging out on a branch.
Switching out the prime lens, I was happy with the speed of this old clunker. Again, tack sharp and impressive colour from what I had assumed to be garbage glass. I kept this lens wide open at f/2.8 for the majority of my shooting that day, and was not disappointed.
The only real drawback is that these are manual lenses, so it does require some practice to get used to not simply punching a button (for all you back button focus lovers). However, this is also adds to the beauty and appeal of these old lenses. The nostalgia feel is what these babies are all about; the challenge to create with seeming limitations. We’re artists, after all, and sometimes introducing a confine is what can break us out of a creative slump.
Another great advantage of shooting with old manual glass is that you can test out a lens in general. If you’re interested in a 50mm prime, for example, but don’t want to spend the big bucks on a new brand name model, spending a day with a cheapo version might aid in your decision. I have an old Nikkor 200mm f/2.8 that I purchased just for that reason – would a new lens with those qualities be worth it/ Why not test out an older version for under $100 to find out! With the Minolta mount lenses, I picked up an MD-NIK converter – basically a piece of plastic with some glass inside to “convert” the old lens into a Nikon one. These start anywhere from $15, with the sky being the limit, if you want to purchase an autofocus compatible version.
Even if you should come across a lens that simply will not mount to your camera body, there’s always free-lensing. Or, isn’t he cases of an old camera that came with the purchase of a few lenses, you can take it apart and show your kids how a camera works. I’ve done this, and also took the opportunity to grab some macro images of the pieces, saving interesting parts for future art projects.