Want Cheap Glass? Buy a Vintage Lens and an Adapter

If you want a 50mm f/1.4 lens for your DSLR, you’ll need to shell out at least a couple hundred bucks, even if you buy one made by a third-party manufacturer. For those of you who don’t mind losing autofocus, you can get the same focal lengths and apertures for much cheaper by buying some old glass and an adapter. By much cheaper, we mean as low as $10-$20! India-based photographer Brock Whittaker recently did this after seeing an auction on eBay for an old Mamiya camera kit.

Here’s Whittaker explanation of how he managed to snag this new piece of gear on the cheap:

I had just recently traded my Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AI-s with someone else, and was looking for a new, affordable lens in that focal length. I was looking at getting a Contax Zeiss 50mm f/1.4, but they were a bit pricy at $400. I checked out some of the auctions going on at eBay. I noticed that several people were selling ‘Mamiya 1000 DTL Cameras’ that came with lenses. Most of the interest online in purchasing film cameras has died, so most people don’t ever search for these auctions. I noticed that the auction came with the Mamiya 55mm f/1.4 for free! I quickly bid on it, and before I knew it, I had won the auction with a bid of only $9.00!

I was not really expecting much, as the auction listed the camera “as-is”. They said that it was not tested, but I was willing to take that risk for such a small price. I went ahead and ordered an M42 to EOS adapter for my camera. Basically it lets me mount any M42 lens on my Canon 5D. Both came in the mail on the same day. It turns out that not only is the lens in perfect working condition, but so is the camera! It turns out that this lens is probably the sharpest lens I have used, let alone the most fun. The focus ring is smoother than butter, the body made of solid metal. If you cannot handle manual focus, do not get it, but if you are looking for something fun and affordable, this is probably the best option by far.

He also attached the lens to his Sony NEX C3, a camera with an APS-C sensor, and writes that using the lens at f/1.8 does away with the chromatic aberration and spherochromatism seen at f/1.4.

You might be surprised at the quality of the resulting photographs, but you shouldn’t be — old glass is often still great glass (click these samples to see high-res versions):

We took a peek on Amazon, and found that an M42 to EOS adapter costs just $6. You should be able to find converters for many old lens mounts at similar prices.

  • James

    Gotta be careful though, some lenses can damage collide with the mirror and infinity focus is not achievable on others. Here’s a good guide to which lenses are safe and which aren’t. Some can be easily modified to work..

  • tttulio

    what everybody has been doing for the past 10 years.

  • stanimir stoyanov

    Good point. Also note that some old yet fast lenses have thorium coating (which is radioactive). I got a pretty cool 58mm f/2 Heiios Lens from my father’s Zenit camera kit, but I’d rather not look through the viewerfinder with a Takumar lens attached to my DSLR.

  • Samcornwell

    We have several adapters. Our Pentax lenses are utterly delicious mounted onto the 5dm2

  • fuzzywuzzy

    Or … you could just buy a Nikon and use any F-mount lens ever made since about 1975, no adapter necessary.

  • Caffeine Creations

    I just bought a Nikon F adapter for my Canon camera so I can use my dad’s old lenses. Works like a charm and only cost 30 bucks!

  • Sean McCann

    How’s that work for mounting Pentax glass?

  • Dave White

    An old chinon 55mm f/1.7 is my main lens now and has been for a while. Love the old glass

  • Dave White

    Or not. I happen to like my Sony, thanks!

  • James

    Pentax K requires K to EOS adapter. Works great for my pentax M100mm 2.8 on my 5d. Depends on the lens. Proceed with caution!

  • Stuart Brown

    Just be aware that some of the old, fast glass can be mildly radioactive!

  • sierrarobba

    Those lens not for digital!Comapare an old nikon 50mm 1.8 and a new 50mm 1.8 digital version.Same with canon old L lenses.

  • mo

    gettin the mamiya sekor 1.4 for 9 $ is pure luck!! 2.0 is under 20$ but not the 1.4!

  • Felipe Paredes Schulz

    I have a 50mm 1.8 E series in my d3100, no problem with the manual focus, but NO METERING, y got a sunny16 rule in my bag all the time, a pain, but I still use it more than my kit lens.

  • Felipe Paredes Schulz

    so give us the money to get the new ones

  • Robert

    I use two Nikkor MF lenses which I absolutely love on my D7000–28mm f2 and 105mm f2.5. The D7000 is great for this because it allows metering from old MF lenses.

  • Chris L

    James makes a good point, not all lenses are compatible with all cameras. Some adaptors contain an additional lens so that the lens can focus light properly for the new camera mount. It’s important to get a quality adaptor so that the new glass doesn’t introduce aberrations or soften your images.

    Two other points to keep in mind when using old glass are: 1) if your old glass was made for a 35mm film (or a full frame digital sensor) camera, your focal length will increase on an APS-C or other cropped frame camera. I have an adaptor for Minolta MD/MC mount lenses to my Nikon D90 and I love it, but my 50mm Rokkor becomes an 80mm on the cropped frame! New lenses made for full frame sensor bodies also have this increase on cropped frame sensor bodies, so a lot of people are used to this conversion.

    2) Not only do you have to manually focus most old glass, you must use the manual aperture ring as well. Set the camera to full manual mode — or at least aperture priority mode if you still want auto exposure — in order to be able to control your light.

  • fuzzywuzzy

    Yup, I used that same lens on a D40 for years. With practice, shooting with no meter becomes natural and you get pretty good at guestimating explosure with just your eyes.

  • pow

    Using M42 lens on Canon body allows you to use the camera metering. but using M42 lens on Nikon body it’s not the same: you can mount the lens, but the metering doesn’t work, so you are shooting blind, ant that is not acceptable. I did not test other camera brands, if you can test that give a comment.

  • Brock

    Hi, I’m actually the photographer who adapted the lens. I can verify that this is radioactive. I measured it with a geiger counter, and it was determined that it was within the proper safety required, so long as you are at least five inches from it.

  • Brock

    Yep. I’m the photographer he talked about. The lens is very radioactive. That is why you can see it is yellow in the picture. While using it on the NEX though, I don’t think twice about the dangers.

  • Yves Lagache

    Using m4/3, I have a lot of different adapter, and old lenses….Czjena, Jupiter 8, Canon FD, LTM, Minolta Rokkor….and more….results are quite good. Sadly, on Nikon DSLR, it’s difficult to adapt other lenses than old Nikkor…..

  • guet

    Thanks, I was just looking into a few articles on this.

    Anyone know of any non-radioactive lenses?

  • guest

    All the ‘cheap vintage lenses’ of decent quality that I’ve seen are at least around $100, I have yet to see a $10 f/1.4 lens :P. But I’ll keep looking!

  • Ken Akiva Shapero

    I have a Nikon D7000 with a whole bevy of Nikon manual focus lenses, no adapeter and the camera meters and records lens length and exposures. groovy.

  • Felipe Paredes Schulz

    true, I became pretty accurate mettering with my eyes, but that one photo over or under expose is a pain. by the way, I notice that my camera says “subjet too dark” or something like that when the lens cap is on, wich is normal with a new lens, obviously, but with the E series it shouldn’t but it does… so, it means the camera its still metering?. is just nikon crippled on purpose the cheapest models to don’t let us use the old lenses?

    also, I open and take away the diaphragm, and all the electronic and AF on an “broken” 55-200 canon, and now work perfectly fine with Perfect metering on a 350d

  • timo musgrove

    finally someone sais it on a post. but ive been doing this for the past 3 years, i have a canon but om glass

  • Steve

    The nice thing about using Sony Alpha cameras is that you can use vintage Minolta lenses without having to mess with any adapters. Right now my favorite walk-around lens is a Minolta 35-70mm f/4.

  • kashif

    do u know ralle 55m 1.4

  • kashif

    any info abt ralle 55m 1.4

  • RNM

    I have an old C-Mount Angenieux 50mm f/0.95 which I use on my Panasonic GF3. The highest ISO i‘ve ever set my camera to while using that lens was 200, although it is a pretty soft lens, so its better used when taking portraits.

  • mike

    nice post, thanks!