While looking at YouTube videos about photography I came across a video that was touting the purchase of good quality film camera lenses on eBay. The lenses would be used on digital cameras and were claimed, in many cases, to have the workmanship and quality of modern lenses costing 30 to 50 times as much. I became intrigued and had hopes of picking up a good prime lens for my Fuji X-T1for a song and a dance. My interest and enthusiasm kept building until, toward the end of the video, the presenter mentioned a small issue – many of these lenses are radioactive!! From the 1940’s to the 1970’s many manufacturers (including Kodak, Canon, Carl Zeiss. Mamiya/Takumar and others) put Thorium Oxide in their lenses to improve the optical quality. Thorium emits Alpha particles and has a half-life of 14.05 billion years (yes that’s billions of years). This was only a temporary setback, as with a little time spent Googling I found that many good lenses from the 1970’s and later were not radioactive, were being sold on eBay and yes, they were dirt cheap. I bid on and won a Minolta 50mm f/1.7 ROKINNON – X MD lens in clean condition for $34 delivered! A mount adapter is also required. Figure 1 is a photo of the lens on the mount adapter. This one allows the Minolta MD lens to have an FX interface to the Fuji camera. It is really well made and cost on eBay all of $8 delivered. Figure 2 shows the markings on the top of the lens.
WHY I WANTED A FILM CAMERA LENS
I have three Fujinon FX zoom lenses, all of them are great lenses. However they, and the Fujinon prime lenses, are pretty expensive. Conventional wisdom says that prime lenses tend to be sharper than zoom lenses because they are more easily optimized for their single focal length. I thought it would be worthwhile to try a fixed focal length lens and see how I like it without spending a ton of money. Equally, if not more important, I knew that an old film camera lens would need to be mounted on an adapter to match the Fujinon FX interface to the camera. Because the mount does not have electrical contacts, the camera would have to operate in true Manual Mode (including manual focus). As I mostly use Aperture Priority when shooting, I thought this would provide an important learning experience. I set the mode switch on the front of the X-T1 to M (Manual), and the Focus Assist to Focus Peaking. I was then ready to see how I would do.
WHAT I LEARNED
Setting the major parameters including focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO made me think more than usual about what I wanted to capture. These adjustments would be too much for shooting sports photography, but for landscapes and still objects it really puts one in touch with the fundamentals of taking pictures. It took a while to get the hang of manual focusing. I found that it was easier to use focus peaking (“zebra stripes”) at wider apertures than at narrow apertures (high f numbers). This occurs because at narrow apertures the depth of field is much greater, so the difference between slightly in focus or slightly out of focus is not as apparent. Since there is no electrical connection from the lens, the camera does not know that the focusing ring of the lens has been turned. A Fujinon lens would invoke a 10X magnification to help focus, which can’t happen with the film camera lens for the reason stated. Also for the same reason (no electrical contacts), the camera will not know and will not display the aperture setting in the viewfinder, LCD display or EXIF data. I found that I had to keep looking at the aperture ring to set or adjust the aperture. Also, these old lenses did not have image stabilization. When handholding the camera to avoid camera shake use the rule of thumb: shutter speed should be faster than one divided by the focal length. Don’t forget to include the crop factor when figuring this out. In my case with a 50mm lens and a crop factor of 1.5, the shutter speed should be faster than 1/(50 X 1.5) = 1/75 of a second.
There are some positives that I learned as well. The resolution of the lens I bought is quite good. Does it compare to a $1,000 Fuji lens? – no. But for the price it produced very acceptable photos. Figure 3 shows an HDR composite of three handheld photos one exposure value (ev) apart. I was happy with the result. If you spend around $100 on eBay, you can buy some really exceptional film camera lenses.
The longer the focal length and the wider the aperture, the more Bokeh that can be captured with a lens. Even at only 75mm (35mm equivalent including crop factor), this lens when set to f/2.8 or wider captured some very acceptable Bokeh. Figure 4 shows an example of this.
Film camera lenses can be a very practical way to acquire lenses that you otherwise could not afford. Mount adapters are made for almost any lens and camera combination, and are inexpensive on eBay.
The $34 I spent was a worthwhile investment in my photography education. I will use the lens more to practice Manual Mode. I may even try manual focus with my Fujinon zoom lenses. The great thing about photography is that we never stop learning.