Loving older lenses and enjoying the heck out of using them.

55mm Micro Nikkor lens. On two adapters.

I am uncomfortable calling older lenses "legacy lenses." I don't really know what that means but the common usage in photography circles is meant to convey that these are lenses left over from something---usually the film days. They are being re-purposed on cameras for which they were not originally designed. However uncomfortable I am with the nomenclature I am comfortable with the practice of using older lenses on newer cameras. That's one of the (fulfilled) promises of the new wave of mirror less cameras. The lens flange to sensor plane distance is so much shorter than the distance on cameras with mirrors that just about any lens can be easily adapted while maintaining infinity focus. 

As a portrait photographer there are a couple of focal lengths that I find comfortable and "just right." I like the angle of view that matches an 85mm lens on a 24 by 36 mm camera but sometimes I find it too short. That's why I'm hesitating in buying the Nocticron with its 42.5 mm focal length. It's right at the edge of almost too wide for me. I bought the Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens and I think it has very good performance but when I shoot on the 4:3 format I find myself wishing the lens gave me just a slightly narrower angle of view.  But by the time I get to 60 mm's, and especially 75mm, I feel like I'm getting a lens that's just a bit too long. Goldilocks and the Three Bears strikes again. 

So I've been playing around with something in the 50mm to 55mm focal length range. I did a job a while back in which I shot all the portraits with an older, manual 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lens and it was pretty good. A totally different feel that the modern lenses. The colors felt heavier. The images were technically sharp but something was off. 

Last weekend I was out and around and I found a 55mm Micro Nikkor (f2.8) lens, used, at Precision Camera. I remember that lens well because back in the film only days we got a lot of good use out of it. I remembered it as being very sharp. And one of the ideas in choosing lenses for smaller formats is that they need to be both sharp and of high resolution in order to fill the hunger of those little pixels.

I had always remembered the 55mm as being very sharp, even wide open and I was intrigued by the focal length. The price was modest (under $200) and I already had an assortment of adapters back at the studio to test it with. If it passed I might invest in a dedicated Nikon lens to M4:3 adapter just to cut down on the number of parallel surfaces in the mount. 

I am happy to say that the lens does well on the body. I've been using it wide open on a few portraits and by f4 it's pretty amazing (but really, what good, modern lens isn't amazing when it's shot two stops down?). It has a different color rendering and a different tonal character than my more current lenses but I've started thinking that the lens character is something we often confuse with the difference between digital and film---wrongly. It may be that a good part of what makes images from film cameras look different from digital cameras is the way the two different sets of lenses are designed. 

A big problem in early digital imaging is that many of the lenses designed in the film days didn't have the right coatings on the rear element as it faced the sensor. This allowed the light coming through the lens to be bounced off the somewhat reflective sensor and return to the back element as flare or as a hot spot. But there may be other more subtle effects to different lens design that all add up to a different look. Most sensors now are coated with their own anti-reflection coatings and some of the initial problems have vanished. Some lenses have such a weak rear element coating that they still make trouble for sensors when strong light sources are near enough to the lens axis to have light rays touch the front elements. It's still a matter of trial and error. 

Even in digital designs there are differences between manufacturers. It's a known problem to use the Panasonic 7-14mm lens with some Olympus bodies, including the OMDs. The encroachment of any strong light can cause hot spots in the images. This doesn't happen with the Panasonic bodies. I'm sure then coatings tell the story but, of course, all the information is proprietary to each maker so we'll probably never know exactly what the disconnection is. 

So far the Micro Nikkor exceeds my expectations but be warned that I haven't walked around pointing it at the sun (yet). For studio work with soft and gracious lighting it provides exactly the focal length I was looking for along with a little "bite." Next up? Probably my fourth or fifth go around with a 105mm f2.5 Nikkor. They are plentiful and I remember every one I owned as being really nice. Too long for the m4:3 (at least the way I shoot them) but wonderful on a full frame Nikon body---should one catch my eye. 


Paul Lamb said...

Love older lenses on newer cameras. Was just thinking this morning about putting that same Nikon 105 on a Sony a7s.

Anonymous said...

There's a look to older glass that's different and, for portraits, just better to my eye than more modern and antiseptic lens designs.

Dennis Elam said...


How about a plain ole Oly 50 mm F 1.8 from the film days, I have one and it seems to work fine, and the price was under 80 bucks

Nicolas Woollaston said...

Roger at Lensrentals has recently posted some interesting research into why fast wide angle rangefinder lenses often don't perform so well on digital cameras. The issue does not greatly affect SLR lenses or long lenses or small apertures, but there will probably be a very slight effect. Which means that a lens like the nikkor 55, which on film was super sharp across the whole frame, on digital will probably be super sharp in the middle, but slightly less so in the corners if you are using it wide open. And maybe will end up being a better portrait lens for it. Here's hoping :)


Noons said...

Aye for the "digital lens" comments.
It's one of the things I loved from all the "film vs digital" nonsense of a few years ago: the incredibly low price of very high quality "film" - "non-digital"? - lenses in ebay and other places.
During thet period I invested in quite a few of the "sacred cows" from the film days at a price that borders on the ridiculous.
The Nikkor 105/2.5 and the micro-nikkor 55/3.5 were just two of them. And the service they have given me in both film and digital bodies has been invaluable.
Long live "digital lenses" and the marketing fools who started it all!

Mike Rosiak said...

After reading how other people had so much fun with adapted lenses, I tried a few with my GF1. Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Konica, Canon, "fast fifties" all of them. Meh.

I kind of liked the "look" of the Minolta, for close images. The Canon "classic" 50 delivered what I thought was too "clinical" an image, no warmth.

Then ... aha! ... I got out my old AE1, attached the Canon 50, loaded a roll of expired 35mm from the fridge, and made a bunch of images of my daughter and new grandson. Now, (besides subject matter), THAT was a good marriage of lens and camera.

Bill Oriani said...

I love the older lenses on my OM-D's. I tried my old 105mm Nikon but seem to get a glowing in the images that I don't remember when I used it with my old F2 (maybe one too many drops and scratches in its history). I like the 50mm f/1.8 OM lens for its size but my favorite is an old manual Vivitar 135mm f/2.8 made by Komine in Japan. I bought the 135mm for $35 on ebay and it was pristine, solid metal, and smooth operating... but not coated.

Kirk, I'm curious about your multiple adapter setup. Why did you pair the Olympus 4/3 to m4/3 with a second adapter? I have been using inexpensive Fotodiox adapters (ie Minolta to m43 for the Vivitar lens) and of course the Olympus MMF-1 for 4/3 to m4/3.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot. Darn it.

Joseph Kashi said...

You might like the Olympus 50mm/f2 macro on the OM-D. You'll get full auto exposure and auto focus with an Olympus MMF-2 or MMF-3 adapter.

Used with the OM-D and the MMF3 adapter, this is weather-sealed and extremely sharp. The Olympus 50/2 is still available new for about $500.

Anonymous said...

Suppose the term 'legacy' is a PC way to say old and obsolete. When you/we get our first grey in our hair, we start becoming 'legacy' items. :)

Yeah, playing and experimenting with old "legacy" lenses can be fun, and these days, not too expensive at that. Any 50mm or longer lens is likely to work just fine with the crop sensor cameras, but the few issues that occur may be slightly different in different systems.

Whereas a mFT sensor has a thick 4mm layer of glass in front of it, and Fuji has around 2,5mm some cameras like Leica and, say, Ricoh GXR only have less than 1mm or thereabouts, with no AA and only thin IR filters, making them closest to film in that sense. Which is likely to yield slightly different results than a mFT sensor under certain conditions and certain lenses, although the possible internal flare issue still exists.

I've used some Minolta, Pentax and Leica R 'legacy' lenses with my (former) mFT and APS-C sensor cameras, and so far the best results have come with certain APS-C ones. Micro contrast may be somewhat different and bokeh can be funkier than with modern lenses, but overall the colours look pleasing. Quite useable in many occasions. To my pleasant surprise, some of my Minolta lenses had no chromatic aberrations to speak of.

The 135mm Elmarit, for example, was pretty nice with an APS-C sensor camera (I never had the chance to test it with mFT), built quality was excellent and colours were nice, and the only major annoyance was the heavy purple fringing in bright highlights. That is pretty common with the legacy lenses, and the Nikkor 55mm may have similar issues when you take it out in the sun.

But other than that, Yeah, the good old metal and glass lenses may be too cool to be discarded as obsolete. If you like the lens, you can minimise the purple fringing effect in post, anyway.

WilliamJns said...

One of my favorite lenses is a vintage Canon FD 55mm f1.2. Nice lens, but heavy. I paid $150 at a local camera shop. All manual, of course, but one tenth the price of a modern f1.2 lens. The guy said he was giving me a good deal because I’ve bought a lot of stuff there but I think he was just tired of me fondling the lens every time I walked into the store.

Godfrey DiGiorgi said...

I bought the Sony A7 specifically to use with Leica R and Nikkor SLR lenses. I tried them on Micro-FourThirds and the Ricoh GXR where they all performed well, but too much of the lens' individual rendering qualities were lost to my eye. Particularly in the case of the Leica R lenses, I couldn't really see that much difference between using them and using the current excellent Panasonic-Leica and Olympus lenses designed for Micro-FourThirds.

On the Sony A7, these lovely lenses image so similarly to how they image on film with my Nikon F and Leica R bodies that I have nominated the A7 as my "one size fits all digital SLR". It's about the same size as my long-time favorite Nikon FM2n was. The EVF and sensor are excellent, the rest of the camera a little clunky, but eh? It's good enough.

I occasionally still adapt some quirky lenses to the Olympus E-M1 ... Like the neat old Sigma 600 mirror lens I found online for $90, and the Cosmicar 12mm f/1.4 TV C-mount lens that I adapted. Or the telephoto pinhole lens I've constructed ... It's fun.

Kirk Tuck said...

Sorely tempted to buy an A7 just to mount the 80mm Summilux to...

Ron Zack said...

It was interesting coming across this article the same day I was playing with my Minolta MD 50mm f/3.5 macro on my E-P5, using a cheap Fotodiox adapter, which works good enough for my purposes. I've been extremely happy with that old Minolta lens mounted on Olympus digital bodies, so much so, it's kept me away from the wonderful Olympus 4/3 50mm f/2....so far....

Recently on an informal portrait shoot i took along my old Olympus 4/3 14-54 Mk II zoom + Lumix adapter, and my Minolta 50mm f/1.4 + Fotodiox adapter, and used both interchangeably on my E-P5.

The Minolta 50mm is as sharp at f/4 as any Olympus lens I own, but the bokeh is like butter....there is a wonderful glow about the image that none of my "digital" lenses can even come close to. Even though the lens is sharp enough-- when properly focused--to show off every single pore in a person's complexion, it does not come off as being overly sharp.

When I wanted to absolutely make sure I nailed the focus for every shot, I used the 14-54 Mk II with face detection, and it was basically flawless. No matter what aperture or focal length you use, the 14-54 delivers with no fuss, no muss. It's so darn good I have no desire for the newer micro 4/3 12-40 or the Lumix 12-35.

I brought along my faithful Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake, and never even took it out of the bag.

Even though logic dictates that I should probably get the M.Zuiko 45mm for my little E-P5, the lens I'd really want to try out for portraits is a used copy of the Olympus 50mm f/2 macro for 4/3.

It's amazing how the mirrorless revolution has opened the door to so many wonderful lenses that would otherwise be long forgotten.