In a world of mirrorless cameras, vintage glass is coming back and for good reason.
What Constitutes “Vintage” Glass?
I ask this because I don’t know. I actually don’t. The fact of the matter is that you can still buy a lot of manual, vintage-like glass today. In fact, one of my favorite lenses, the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, is still made today and can be had new, though my copy is decades old. And it doesn’t stop there. Nikon alone still makes two 50mm lenses (an f/1.4 and an f/1.2) along with a whole host of macro and wide-angle lenses. When you start to factor in other manufacturers that produce excellent quality manual glass, there’s an entire world of lenses to explore.
With that said, I don’t believe anyone would buy a brand-new lens and call it vintage the day they get it. Instead, if we’re talking about “vintage” glass, you’re picking up something from used departments of camera stores, KEH, eBay, and sometimes, antique shops, if they’re in good shape and you’re lucky. So, why vintage lenses? Surely, they are not as good, right? Wrong. Glass from the 60s and newer is still just as capable of a sharp image in most situations.
Comparing Apples With Apples
To make a comparison of vintage manual focus lenses with newer autofocus lenses, I think it’s only fair to compare results from similar circumstances. For me, I often have my lenses stopped down one or two stops. With the exception of maybe portrait work, weddings, or event photography, I can’t see why someone wouldn’t be okay with stopping down a couple stops. Further, when I’m taking a photo of a scene and I want the best corner-to-corner sharpness I can get, I’m not shooting wide open anyhow. In that situation, I don’t think I know anyone who would. Once you’re comparing lenses that have been stopped down 1 or 2 stops, the difference between a 40-year-old lens and a brand new one is going to be negligible.
So, if the lenses produce comparable results to one another, why shoot vintage lenses over newer, more modern lenses? For me, it primarily comes down to price and availability. Trust and believe, if I wanted a lens with a certain focal length where a vintage lens was as much or more expensive than a new lens, I would not be buying an old, vintage lens without a warranty. However, that circumstance happens so rarely, I’ve not yet had to deal with it outside of looking into a Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 Ai-S. The fact of the matter is that vintage lenses tend to be considerably cheaper. Some may argue that they’re considerably cheaper for a good reason, and it’s true: there is a very good reason. First and foremost, they do not generally have any technology in them to drive the prices up. For that very reason, though, they are often capable of outlasting their modern, plastic counterparts.
Where the Biggest Difference Lies
Now that I’ve touched on why I think old school, manual focus lenses are worth giving a shot, I’ll address the one thing that really gets to me and no, it isn’t a lack of autofocus (I actually prefer the manual aspect), loss of lens EXIF data for most lens/camera combinations, or the inability to control aperture from the camera. The most frustrating part for me are the coatings. Almost never are you getting solid coatings with a vintage lens, unless you’re buying a Zeiss lens with the T* coating, which while available in older C/Y bayonet mounts, is still quite pricey and not something I was regularly picking up. Instead, I shot older Minolta and Nikon glass almost exclusively, and some of the older lenses really suffered from flares and could have a lack of contrast in more extreme situations. Note, however, that I said “in more extreme situations” and not in everyday situations. I could count on one hand how many times I really felt an image was ruined by a lack of modern coatings. However, not being ruined and as good as I wish they were are two very different things.
Two other things that came up often enough but pertained more to wide-angle lenses were distortion and being slow. For distortion, however, lens corrections could be done easily enough in PS, which alleviated the distortion issue for the most part. As for being slow, I don’t know that I’ve ever shot a wide angle lens while going for a narrow depth of field, so my gripe dealt more with needing slow shutter speeds that made it difficult to impossible for low-light photography.
The Vintage Lenses I Use the Most
I have only three lenses that I will never give away (I give things away more than I should): my Nikon Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai-S, Tokina AT-X Macro 90mm f/2.5, and Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/2. In fact, if I’m traveling light, there’s a good chance they are the only three lenses in my bag.
The Nikon Nikkor 28mm f2.8 Ai-S is solid as a rock. The lens mentioned below is perhaps the only lens that I’ve ever used that’s sharper, and even then, it’s debatable. The 28mm is really lightweight, compact, and has the exceptional build quality you would expect from a manual focus Nikon. All of the models from Ai-S and newer have much more modern coatings than my other lenses, and the newest copies you can pick up today at B&H have just as amazing modern coatings as you would expect to find on their high-end autofocus lenses. A plus to all of this, at least for me, is that it’s pretty solid for astrophotography, as the vignetting is minimal even wide open, and there is little-to-no coma with my copy.
The Tokina (a.k.a. ‘Bokina’) has pretty terrible coatings, but it makes up for it in terms of sharpness, build quality, and being a pleasure to shoot with. Some of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken are with this lens, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to get a vintage lens > 50mm. While the poor coatings are a drawback, it doesn’t take long with it to realize that it suffers in such limited circumstances that it’s unlikely to affect your work.
The Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/2 is my favorite lens I own and gets the most use if for no other reason than that it’s my favorite focal length. The build quality and the sharpness wide open get the job done pretty well. It is, however, pretty terrible for night photography, as it can get ghosts/flares even when you try and prevent them. It should be noted, however, that I do not own a hood for my copy, but from what I’ve heard, it wouldn’t make much difference anyhow.
Among the other lenses I have experience with and liked a lot, the Minolta 50mm f/2 sticks out more than any of the other 50mm lenses. The Nikon 50mm f/1.4 is a bit useless until stopped down once, but around f/5.6, it is painfully sharp, so it still gets a lot of rotation in my bag. Further, because of the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, I hardly use my Nikkor 28 f/2 outside of specific situations shooting film. I’ve not had any telephoto lenses for full frame photography I would highly recommend. I have a few telephoto lenses on my list of lenses I hope to one day give a go, but none that I have any experience with as of yet.
Vintage lenses tend to be substantially cheaper than modern lenses and for a good reason. However, much of the gains come in the form of convenience, advancements to camera/lens integration, and coatings. The gain in advanced coatings can make a big difference in specific situation, but not necessarily in most situations. As such, when comparing the results of a vintage lens that is 1/10th the price of a modern lens, you will most likely get far more than 1/10th the performance. While they may not be for everyone, they’re worth giving a shot if you haven’t already.