It’s hard to stand out as a portrait photographer in 2020. It feels like every shot has been done before, and there are no original ideas anymore. In an age of visual overstimulation through social media overloads, photography styles have become less and less diverse. Viral trends on Instagram dictate how many people shoot and edit photos in the hope of reaching the same level of notoriety as the artists that inspired them.
An underutilized way to differentiate yourself from the masses in your photography is by shooting with vintage camera lenses. Vintage lenses have more unique characteristics than modern lenses because of the types of lens coatings, the number of lens elements or number or aperture blades. That lens technology created things like more noticeable lens flares, softer images, more chromatic aberration, and unique bokeh. These characteristics help your images to stand out in a way that many other photographers are not utilizing, making your work seem more original.
What are vintage camera lenses?
Vintage lenses are defined as old camera lenses from the film era. These lenses can be SLR photography cameras or cinema cameras. Another characteristic of vintage lenses is that they are fully manual, meaning manual only control over the aperture and focus rings.
Some of the most exciting vintage lenses available are old cinema lenses initially developed in France, called anamorphic lenses. There is so much to know and learn about anamorphic lenses that they deserve a separate write-up. This article will focus on regular vintage lenses from the film photography era.
Can you use old lenses on digital cameras?
Absolutely old vintage lenses can be adapted to fit DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, and it is usually really inexpensive to do so since there are no electronic connections that need to be made. That being said, a lot of vintage lenses can be very expensive, depending on their rarity and demand. An excellent example of this would be the ultra-rare Nikon 6mm f/2.8 Fisheye Lens, which sold for over $160,000 at auction.
The most commonly used vintage lens mount used are:
- Canon FD lens mount
- Canon FL lens mount
- Nikon F lens mount (pre-autofocus)
- M39 lens mount
- M42 lens mount
- Contax G lens mount
- Yashica/Contax lens mount
Where to buy vintage lenses from?
There are a lot of great choices for buying vintage lenses, both online and offline. Some of the most obvious places for buying vintage lenses are ebay and sometimes Amazon. However, there are lots of other great places to buy vintage lenses. I’ve had great success in finding great deals locally on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Kijiji (the Canadian equivalent to Craigslist), flea markets and specialty local vintage camera sales events.
Best vintage lens adapters
When buying any vintage lens, it is important to check if you can adapt it to the camera you are using. It is pretty standard for most vintage lenses to be adaptable to a lot of popular DSLR and Mirrorless cameras, but you can never be too sure. After you decide on a lens or two, it is essential to get a quality vintage lens adapter that will fit the mount of that lens and your camera. Here are a few to choose from:
Best Canon FD Lens Adapters
- Fotodiox Pro FD to EF adapter (Canon): Buy Canada or US
- K&F Concept FD to M adapter (Canon): Buy Canada or US
- Fotodiox Pro FD to E adapter (Sony): Buy Canada or US
- K&F Concept FD to FX adapter (Fuji): Buy Canada or US
- K&F Concept FD to M4/3 adapter (Panasonic & Olympus): Buy Canada or US
Best Contax Yashica C/Y Lens Adapters
- K&F Concept C/Y to EF adapter (Canon): Buy Canada or US
- K&F Concept C/Y to E adapter (Sony): Buy Canada or US
- Fotodiox Pro C/Y to F adapter (Nikon): Buy Canada or US
- Beschoi C/Y to FX adapter (Fuji): Buy Canada or US
- Fotga C/Y to Micro 4/3 adapter (Panasonic & Olympus): Buy Canada or US
Best M43 Lens Adapters
- Fotodiox Pro M42 to E adapter (Sony): Buy Canada or US
- Fotodiox Pro M42 to EF adapter (Canon): Buy Canada or US
- Fotodiox Pro M42 to F adapter (Nikon): Buy Canada or US
- Fotodiox Pro M42 to Micro 4/3 adapter (Panasonic & Olympus): Buy Canada or US
What are the best vintage lenses?
Asking which are the best vintage lenses will always be a matter of opinion amongst photographers and collectors as each lens has different characteristics and use cases. To make this list easier to digest, I will split the list of best vintage lenses between two categories; the best vintage portrait lenses and the best vintage landscape lenses. I also tried to compile the list with a mix of budget-friendly lenses and some more aspirational vintage lenses which are not out of reach for most photographers.
The best vintage portrait lenses
1. Canon FD 24mm f2.8 Wideangle Prime Lens
The Canon FD 24mm f2.8 is the widest lens on my list of the best vintage portrait lenses. This wide-angle vintage lens has a 24mm focal length and is a great lens to use for establishing portrait shots. Imagine an enchanted forest, during sunset, with the sunlight just peering through the trees. You position the model in the centre of a path with the perfect leading lines towards the setting sun.
Getting in too close to the model you’re photographing can be tricky as this focal length does have some distortion on the edges, so you typically want to frame your subjects near the centre of the lens.
With an f/2.8 aperture, it allows for some tremendous low-light performance than most lenses at only around $100 in price.
2. Pentax Asahi Super-Takumar 35mm f/2 Prime Lens
The Pentax Super-Takumar lenses are a household name of lenses in the vintage community, and one of the most popular Pentax vintage lens. The widely popular lens is known for its unrivalled quality and perfect focal length for portraits, making it one of the most sought out vintage lenses. With all-metal construction, clicked aperture ring, and smooth focusing, the 35mm f/2 is a real joy to use.
This lens tends to be a little on the more expensive side, depending on the quality of the lens. One thing to watch out when buying these old Pentax lenses is for a yellowing of the glass. This yellowing is caused by a thorium oxide coating, which was standard at the time for these lenses. The yellowing can be “fixed” through 24-48 hours of direct exposure to UV light, but it will never be like new again. The Pentax lenses from this generation came in an M42 screw mount, and it can be adapted to any modern DSLR or mirrorless. Check out the list of lens adapters I provided earlier to find how you can adapt this lens to your camera.
Prices range from $150-250 Canadian.
3. Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 S.S.C Prime Lens
This Canon vintage lens is the more widely available version of the legendary Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 S.S.C. Aspherical lens. Both of these lenses came with the then-new Super Spectra Coating (S.S.C), but the Aspherical version featured a modified lens element that was sanded down by hand. This element was able to give slightly better optics than its counterpart. While all other lenses after this generation of FD lenses came with the same coatings or better, they were no longer advertised to do so.
The Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 S.S.C lens gives an ultra dreamy look when open wide at f/1.2, and is one of the fastest lenses available in a reasonable price range. Stopping the lens down to f/2.8 adds a lot more sharpness and contrast to the image and gives you an entirely new look to your pictures, making this lens very versatile.
Prices range from $200-250 Canadian.
4. Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 Prime Lens
Another popular and super unique vintage portrait lens is the Russian-made Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 for the Zenit-series SLR. Its production stopped in the early 90s. This tiny lens rose to popularity from its ability to create the infamous swirly bokeh, in out of focus elements in the background. This helped the lens rise to notoriety for its very unique aesthetic, which is not achievable by many other lenses. There is one other popular vintage lens we will be covering later on this list that achieves the same effect.
With a price of around $50-60, there is no reason not to pick one of these lenses up.
5. Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 MC Prime Lens
Inspired by the former Helios 40 lenses, the Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 MC lens is a sort of reproduction lens of the original vintage lens Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5. This lens, much like its shorter counterpart, the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2, offers the same unique characteristics with the swirly bokeh but at a more favourable focal length of 85mm, which is part of the holy trinity of prime lens focal lengths for portraits.
The reproduction lenses will cost you around $350, while the originals will cost you around 500-$550.
6. Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 Macro Lens
Ironically or not, macro lenses are great for non-macro shots. They are quite brilliant for portraits. They sit within an excellent range of the usually coveted 85mm portrait lenses, and the 105mm and 135mm. The first time I discovered that I could use a macro lens for amazing portraits was back in early 2017 in a grungy alleyway photoshoot where I needed a little more reach, and the 100mm was the longest lens in my bag.
The advantage of vintage macro lenses such as the Tamron is they’re bright (wide aperture), coming in with a maximum aperture of f2.5 that will give you ample light, and super creamy bokeh. This lens comes with an Adaptall mount, which meant that you could swap out the rear mount and use them on Canon, Nikon, and Pentax bodies, making it a very versatile lens.
With prices around $100 for this lens, it’s hard not to have it a part of your collection for use in that perfect moment.
7. Pentax Asahi Super-Takumar 135mm f/2.5 Lens
The second Super-Takumar lens to enter this list of vintage lenses to try with your DSLR or Mirrorless digital camera is the Pentax Asahi Super-Takumar 135mm f/2.5 Lens. There are two versions of this lens, a six-element and a five-element lens. The six-element lens has a cult following and is said to be superior to the five-element version with improved image quality, edge sharpness and aberration correction.
If you are shooting with a 135mm lens for the first time, you will fall in love with it once you do. You will begin to compare your shots between your 85mm and the 135mm lenses, and almost always prefer how portraits look like at the longer focal range.
This lens ranges in prices of around $150-200.
8. Pentacon 135mm f/2.8 M42 Mount Lens
For a slightly cheaper 135mm vintage lens, this very well built German vintage lens provides incredible sharpness, micro-contrast and everything you’d expect a well-built lens to provide. The all-metal body Pentacon 135mm f/2.8 M42 Mount lens has two impressive features that are not found in many lenses of that era. The first feature is its ability to stop down to an aperture of f/22, whereas most lenses had a minimum aperture of f/16. Its second impressive feature also has to do with its aperture and the fact it has a staggering 15 blades, providing some of the most beautiful bokeh you’ve ever seen for an f/2.8 vintage lens.
This lens ranges in prices of around $100-150.
9. Tokina AT-X SD 80-200mm f/2.8 Y/C Mount Lens
The AT-X designated lenses are the “pro” Tokina lenses. TheTokina AT-X SD 80-200mm f/2.8 this is one of the original manual focus AT-X’s launched in 1981, along with a 35-70mm f/2.8, 24-40mm f/2.8, 90mm f/2.5, and a few others.
The best vintage landscape lenses
10. Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5 Lens
If you’re looking for a formidable ultra-wide vintage lens for landscapes, the Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5 might be right for you. This lens has a super-wide 100° viewing angle with a short focusing distance, allowing for some very creative shots. Another optical characteristic of ultrawide is its rectilinear lens design; it will reproduce straight lines without distortion. It is, therefore, a perfect choice for photographing dense urban landscapes from up close.
Prices range from around $800-900.
11. Contax Zeiss Distagon 28mm f/2
Often referred to as “Hollywood Distagon,” in many vintage lens reviews, the Contax Zeiss Distagon 28mm f/2 is a phenomenal landscape lens that truly lives up to its name. The rugged metal lens build has a rubberized aperture and focus rings, which gives Contax of the best manual vintage lens experiences for photographers. The only negative thing that could be said about this lens is the noticeable vignetting and softness when wide open at f/2. Around f/8, you get exceptional sharpness, contrast and no visible vignetting. There is also a more affordable clone of this lens, the Pentax SMC 28 f/2.
The Contax version costs a staggering $1200, but the clone runs for around $300-350, which is a much better deal.
12. Canon FD SSC 35mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift Lens
Tilt-shift lenses are a fantastic tool for photography when used right; the Canon FD SSC 35mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift lens is no slouch. This vintage lens was made in 1973, and by today’s standards still holds up well compared to the much more expensive modern tilt-shift lenses. If you’re asking yourself right now what a tilt-shift lens is, it’s a lens that allows you to shift and tilt the upper portion of the lens in 4 directions. Up, down, left and right. This shifts the depth of field into different directions. Why is this useful, you may ask? Well, for starters, tilt-shift lenses are used to make the surreal-looking miniaturization effects in images.
A more practical use for tilt-shift lenses is to change the distortion of an object. Let’s say, for example, you’re taking an image of a tall building looking up from its base. As the building gets taller, the perspective changes so that the edges of the building converge towards the centre. A tilt-shift lens helps you correct that perspective to make the building more straight, and the side becomes more parallel to each other.
This lens will run you around $500 but make no mistake. When used correctly, the images captured with this lens will help you stick out from the crowd.
13. Asahi Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 Prime Lens
If you’ve read anything about the earlier mentioned Super Takumar lenses, you can understand why and how the Asahi Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 prime vintage lens made it on this list. This fast 50mm vintage lens provides also comes in an all-metal body, and it is exceptionally well put together. Their focus rings are very smooth, and it is a testament to their build quality. Shooting wide open at f/1.4, you will see the classic glow and brightness that most vintage 50mm lenses have. It is best used wide open with a close subject to take advantage of that great bokeh and subject separation from the background. When shooting landscapes, it’s best to stop down to a more workable aperture to provide sharper images between a range of f/4 and f/8.
Much like the other Super Takumar lenses and the Canon FD S.S.C, this lens is also slightly radioactive with the inclusion of a thorium oxide coating. When looking to purchase this lens, look for a copy that does not have any visible yellowing in the lens elements.
14. Canon FD 70-210mm f/4 Zoom Lens
If you’re like me, you enjoy a good zoom lens for landscape photography. There is just something about a zoom lens that makes images look lovely. The compression of the background and how the lenses render light flaring on the edge of the frame makes super zoom lenses like the 70-210mm Canon FD a necessary tool for photography. The Canon FD 70-210mm F4 Zoom Lens is one that I own and would not be recommending it if it wasn’t part of my arsenal.
With prices ranging from only $40-60 Canadian, makes the Canon FD 70-210mm f/4 one of the most adorable vintage zoom lenses. This lens is a must-have for your kit.
The Canon FD mount can be easily adapted to any modern DSLR or mirrorless. Here is a list of adapters for the FD mount to other popular camera systems:
Let us know if there any vintage lens you’ve tried and would like to see on the list!