Rise Of The Anti-Zoom – Why I Never Zoom With A Zoom Lens

Zoom lenses were made so you could stand in one place, point in any direction, zoom and capture the perfect composition. Right? 

Well, maybe. But not for me.

Instead I see a zoom lens as a small, highly portable set of prime lenses. Here’s why, and how I use them.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

For the first four years or so of shooting film, I only had one zoom. It happened to come attached to a Pentax ME Super I found cheap, and I gave the lens away almost immediately.

So my history of shooting film (and using the same vintage lenses digitally on my Sony NEX) was almost exclusively with primes. 

This honed my technique of getting used to the particular field of view of a particular lens, as there was simply no way to adjust it. I like this consistency – it’s one less setting to adjust, a great help when I was starting out with film especially, with all the other adjustments you can make.

Then one day I read a review of a reputedly excellent Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro.

The review – and the subsequent photographs I found online – made the lens too good to ignore, despite it being a zoom.

So I bought one.

Essentially, being a bit intimidated by the range of focal lengths (though 35-70mm is modest for a zoom!), I set it to 70mm and started to experiment with the NEX.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

 

Another factor for choosing 70mm was this was the end at which the “macro” focusing was available. I love finding the close up detail and beauty of objects.

The MD Zoom turned out to live up to its reputation, I was very impressed.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

More recently I picked up a Tamron with C/Y adapter, in fact very similar in spec to the Minolta. To give it its full name, it’s the Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 CF Macro BBAR MC.

Whilst not as great as the Minolta, it’s still pretty good, and again I stuck it on 70mm and went off to explore.

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Yashica FX-D, Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 CF Macro BBAR MC lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Again, not being so keen on any lens wider than 50mm, and wanting to explore the closer “macro” focusing of the lens, in effect I treat it as a 70mm prime with close focus.

Very recently I acquired a Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 Macro. You might be noticing a pattern here. 

Turns out that this lens, on my Sony a350, has blown me away. And again I’ve only used it at the 70mm end.

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

I found the MD Zoom very impressive, and I think this Minolta is even better. And the images in this post are straight out of the Sony Alpha, converted from RAW to JPEG, and no other post processing. I’m loving those Minolta colours!

Anyway, back to the point of this post. 

Taking for example the Minolta AF 35-70mm, I see this mostly as a 70mm prime.

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

But I could also use it as a 35mm prime. And a 50mm prime. Or a 40mm prime, 60mm prime, or anything between. But let’s keep this simple for my argument and stick to 35, 5o and 70mm. Also because those are the three numbers marked on the barrel and easiest to set.

What I don’t do, on a photowalk, is this –

Stand in one position, look all around me, spot something interesting to photograph then point my camera and zoom in or out until it fills the frame as I wish, then take the photograph.

Before I begin the walk, I already decide what focal length I’ll use, set the lens to that, and then treat it as a prime.

By doing this I can focus on how the world looks at that focal length, with that lens. I have a consistency, a uniformity to work with.

Also there’s the distortion factor. 

Put simply, the same subject, filling the frame in the same way, will look quite different when photographed at different focal lengths. This post and collage of images is a great visual demonstration.

For me personally, I don’t want a set of images from one photowalk with one lens where they’re all distorted in different ways.

I’d find this confusing and frustrating.

This is mostly down to my inexperience in using a wide range of focal lengths (my default and most used by far is a 50mm lens) but partly my desire to keep things simple and clean with photography.

If I introduce too many options, too many variables, it takes away the escapist and immersive pleasure of photography. 

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

With digital photography lately I’m trying to simplify further too, and so by using a particular lens like the Minolta AF 35-70 always at 70mm, with the same ISO setting on the camera, and keeping all other creative options neutral, it allows me to just focus on composition, and, er, focus.

Rather than for every shot drowning in a myriad of decisions and options before I even press the shutter button.

So it becomes more like the simple and joyful experience I feel when using film cameras.

Next, I’m looking forward to going out and using this Minolta at 50mm. Given its performance at 70mm, I’m hoping it will be pretty formidable at 50mm too, and might even surpass and supplant some of my current 50mm favourites.

But for now I’ll stick with treating it as my favourite 70mm prime.

How do you use zoom lenses? Do you find most shots are at a similar focal length or do you use the full range of the zoom?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

The Fall Of The 50s Philanderer (Or How I Found The Perfect 50mm Lens)

I’ve shot far more photographs with 50mm lenses than any other focal length. But switching 50s more often than underwear can become an exhausting and hollow experience.

Here’s why my 50s philandering days are done, and how I’ve settled on my ideal.

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Pentax MZ-5N, SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

It took me a while to realise, but after something like seven or eight different mounts and over 50 lenses, I realised that in the final image, there’s not a huge amount of difference between one 50mm prime and another.

Some of the lenses I considered humble and expected little of, impressed me greatly.

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Minolta X-300, Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

So when so many 50mm lenses can produce very satisfying results, should we just pick the first decent one we come across and look no further?

If so, why didn’t I do this four years ago?

This wouldn’t be a bad plan at all. But the curious and lustful side of me kept want to try more, to see if they were different.

When the basic optical performance is more than good with even the most mundane sounding lenses (like my three underdogs mentioned above), I started to look further at what separates them.

What makes one lens a forgettable fling, and another destined for a lifelong romance?

Photography for me is very much about how the equipment feels, the whole sensory and tactile experience. The final image is only a fraction of the appeal, for me.

Also, this is as much a reason (probably bigger) as to why I use and love vintage film cameras over digital, in comparison with the end look film photographs have compared with those made via megapixels.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens

So I started looking for two things.

First the luxuriousness of the lens, for want of a better word.

And second, some indescribable aspect of the final image that made a particular lens stand out from the pack.

This led me to the two favourites I have now.

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8, M42 mount

On the luxury front, the Pancolar is ordinary, at best. But in the final image it delivers something special.

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Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 film

For a long time I was sceptical about Zeiss, and thought that any decent lens would give similar results. Which is true. But, somehow, the Pancolar has something more.

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Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 film

Two other Zeiss I have in M42 mount – the Sonnar 135/3.5 and Flektogon 35/2.4 – bear this out too. Neither are the smoothest or best built I’ve used, but both give a secret something to an image not seen in their rivals.

Arguably these three are the only three lenses I ever need.

Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8, M42 mount

The Takumar is in a different league to the Pancolar in terms of feel. It’s just delicious to use, and oozes quality and charm. It’s quite probably the smoothest lens I’ve ever handled and used.

In the final image, it’s one of the best too.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

With the Takumar, it’s not down to drop dead sharpness. The Pancolar in my experience outguns it in that area.

But, similar to the Zeiss, the Takumar images have something special that I don’t see with other lenses.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Conclusions and Recommendations

If you’re relatively new to film photography and/or vintage lenses, what would I suggest, based on my own 50s philandering experience? Would I recommend you rush out and get a Pancolar and Takumar?

Well, not necessarily. What works for me might not for you.

If you’re keen to shoot film and you’re not too fussed about the camera you use, as long as it takes decent, well exposed photographs, then any of the major brands have a body and a standard 50/1.7 or 50/1.8 lens that will give great results.

Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, Konica and Yashica all qualify.

If you’d like a camera that’s small, light, and don’t mind having a later, more plastic body, the Canon EOS are very hard to argue against.

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Canon EOS 300V, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.4 C/Y lens

They’re compact, light, ergonomic to handle, offer reliable metering with a very usable viewfinder, if not as big and bright as some of the 70s SLRs.

The major trump card with the EOS system is their adaptability.

With cheap adapters (around £10) you can use M42, Contax/Yashica or Pentax K lenses, to name just three.

They offer tremendous value, and combined with something like a Super-Takumar 55/1.8, Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 or Fujinon 55/1.8 in M42 or a Pentax-M or Yashica ML 50/1.7 or 50/2 lenses can give you stunning results.

You can read in more depth why I like them and how to get started in film photography for just £27, with a Canon EOS at the heart of the set up.

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Canon EOS 500N, Fujinon 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

If you go with the EOS system, you can then also add a digital option at a later today (early EOS digital bodies are currently £50 upwards) and use exactly the same lens(es) and adapter(s).

I regularly contemplate selling all my SLRs (currently down to six, less than I’ve had in about three years) and keeping just my EOS 300v plus M42 and C/Y adapters and lenses. It’s all I/you really need.

After a while, the endless chase for 50s became tiresome, and the urge waned.

Now I’m down to five manual focus 50mm lenses.

Seven, if you include my 55/1.8 Super-Takumar (which I have), and my Minolta AF (AutoFocus) 50/2.8 Macro.

I don’t need any others, and each of these gives something unique in user experience, the final photographs, or both.

If I had to pick one, for the final image it would probably be the Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8.

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Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferranis Solaris 200 expired film

For the joy of using, the Super-Takumar 55/1.8 is a delight, and up there with the best for the end result too.

My days as a 50s philanderer seem to be coming to an end.

Partly because I’ve realised that virtually every 50mm lens I’ve ever used was capable of more than decent pictures, and partly because those that remain are so enjoyable to use and to make photographs with.

Where are you on your adventures with 50mm? Have you tried one, two, or 2002?

Let us know in the comments below, and feel free to make your own 50mm recommendations.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Triple Underdog – 3 Humble 50mm Lenses That Far Exceeded Expectations

Many vintage lenses have impressive reputations online.

But in my direct experience over the last four years or so, disappointingly often I’ve found them to be expensive and over-hyped.

In contrast, I’ve found a few with very modest (or virtually non-existent) reputations, but still capable of very impressive results.

Here are three of these dark horse performers, and why I like them.

1. Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2, Pentax K Mount

In Pentax K mount the yardstick tends to be Pentax’s own M lenses, not least of all the Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7.

But I’ve had a few 50/2 Rikenons and they’ve given the Pentax lenses a very close run for their money.

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2

The little Rikenon comes in two sizes, one version more compact than the other. I suspect they’re otherwise the same, and I certainly got equally good images from both.

Whereas with some lenses you try to avoid shooting at their maximum aperture, the Rikenons are great from f/2 onwards. The robin shot below is at f/2, and is straight out of camera (NEX) without any processing.

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2

Being more plastic than the Pentax-M 50/1.7, they’re lighter too, especially the compact version.

If I had a Pentax K mount body and just one of these Rikenon 50/2s, I’d be more than confident of capturing excellent images time and time again.

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Pentax ME, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens, Kodak Color Plus 200 expired film

Something like a Pentax MV plus the Rikenon would be a fantastic, compact set up – pretty much as small as a full frame 35mm SLR and lens gets. The cheapest I picked up one of these lenses was something like £5.

2. Cosina Cosinon-S 50mm 1.8, Pentax K Mount

Again in K mount, I got this with a Cosina CS-1 body unbelievably cheaply (less than £10) and was expecting cheap results.

But, despite being a bit crude to use compared to the best in K mount, the Cosinon-S was more than adequate in the final image.

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Sony NEX 3N, Cosina Cosinon-S 50mm f/1.8

I never got to test it on some of my favourite hunting grounds (or with a film camera), but even with fairly mundane lunchtime walks I captured enough to see its potential.

I should not have been surprised then when its Auto Cosinon 135/2.8 sibling in M42 (another bargain at around £15) gave me such memorable results too.

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Sony NEX 3N, Cosina Cosinon-S 50mm f/1.8

I later learned that whilst Cosina didn’t make that many of their own branded cameras and lenses, they’ve made them for virtually everyone else, including Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Konica! And still do – some Voigtlanders, amongst others, are made by Cosina.

3. Centon MC 50mm f/1.7, Pentax K Mount

This brand I’d not even heard of and bought it for around £15 attached to a Ricoh AF SLR, assuming it was a Rikenon 50/1.7, after the pleasing results the 50/2 version mentioned above gave me.

It was instead a Centon, a Chinese manufacturer apparently, and seemed like brand new. The build quality was surprisingly tight, and the focus smooth, both aspects superior than the Rikenon or Cosina above.

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Sony NEX 3N, Centon MC 50mm f/1.7 lens

I sold the Ricoh body for most of what I paid, so this lens ended up costing me literally a couple of pounds.

Again this was in Pentax K mount, which goes do show that you don’t need to buy a lens with Pentax stamped on to get decent results. Or even that you need to stick with Japanese and German optics.

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Sony NEX 3N, Centon MC 50mm f/1.7

In conclusion, in 50mm lenses at least, there are so many capable options out there, you don’t have to pay a fortune or for one of the biggest names, which sometimes don’t live up to their online hype and expectation anyway.

What’s your favourite 50mm lens? Which lenses in your collection have been dark horses and impressed you far more than you anticipated? Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

 

How To Start Film Photography For £27

One of the major reasons people are afraid to explore film photography is the perceived expense.

They’re concerned that to even get set up you need to spend hundreds of pounds on a capable camera and lens, and that’s before you even think about buying and processing film.

This is largely a myth, and this post is to show you how to get set up and started with some super capable kit for less than £30.

First, the camera. 

Whilst I love Pentax and Contax bodies, if I was starting out with film again, based on the knowledge I’ve gained over the last four years and 100+ cameras, I’d buy a Canon EOS.

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Canon EOS 300V, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.4 C/Y lens

No, they’re not the most glamorous or exciting to look at, nor do they have the luxury of the aforementioned Contax, or a huge bright viewfinder like a Minolta X-700.

But here’s a list of reasons why a humble EOS makes more sense than anything else. 

  1. Affordable. My first EOS, a 500, I bought for 99p plus a couple pounds postage. The 300V above, one of the last models made around 2002, was around £15.
  2. Plentiful. I just searched EOS in the film cameras category on eBay UK, from UK sellers, under £20 and found over 300 results. Obviously some models are better spec’d than others. I really like the super cheap 500. There are currently 35 of these for sale under £10.
  3. Small, light, compact. The advantage of a plastic (though pretty robust feeling) build is light weight. The EOS bodies are small too, especially examples like the 300V above. Cleverly though, they don’t feel cramped to hold, with a good sized ergonomically contoured handle.
  4. Adaptable. EOS are the compatibly kings, with simple adapters available for any number of other vintage lenses. These typically cost £5-10 each. This means you can have one EOS body and the pick of lenses from Zeiss, Asahi/Pentax, Minolta, Olympus, Yashica and many more, just by using a different adapter.
  5. Ease of use. The EOS bodies are easy to handle and easy to use, especially if you’re coming from digital cameras. Most have a similar mode dial, and later ones like the 300V have an LCD display on the back to show the major settings. Film loading and ISO setting is all automated. You can pick up an EOS and starting shooting in minutes, yet still have a depth of options you can explore as you become more experienced and adventurous.
  6. Features. The EOS 300v has an ISO range from 6 to 6400, shutter speeds from 30s down to 1/2000s, +/-2 exposure compensation and excellent metering. Pretty much all the options you’ll ever need. If you don’t know or care what most of this means, just note point 5 above – they’re easy to just pick up and use!
  7. Forward compatibility. If you invest in a film EOS, an adapter or two and a handful of lenses, at a later date you can get a digital EOS SLR and all the lenses and adapters will fit straight on. It’s the same mount. So with two EOS bodies – one film, one digital – and a few adapters and lenses, you you can have a tremendous range of shooting options at your disposal. But let’s get back to this 35 film set up.
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Canon EOS 500, Fujinon 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

So we have our bargain body. Next, the lens. 

I would suggest starting with a 50mm lens. On the whole, prime (ie non zoom) lenses tend to give better quality images than zooms. You could go for an AutoFocus (AF) lens in the native Canon EF mount that the EOS cameras use. But I would go for a more vintage option, via one of the aforementioned adapters, which are cheaper, much more satisfying to hold and use, and more fun.

There’s little to choose between the 50mm lenses of the major brands.

And as mentioned above, the EOS bodies are hugely adaptable. Personally I’ve settled on M42 and C/Y (Contax/Yashica) mounts.

In M42 you have a vast range of fantastic quality lenses available, such as the Asahi Takumars, Helios 44 series, Fujinons, Yashicas and Pentacons. Any of these can be had for around £20.

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Pentax MG, Yashica Yashinon-DS 50mm f/2 M42 lens, FujiColor C200 expired film

I paid £7 for my Helios 44-2 and have had excellent Pentacon 50/1.8s for less than £10. Yashicas can be brilliant buys too, again less than £10, like the one I used to shoot the photograph above.

A Takumar 55/2 can be bought for £15 – many turn their nose up at the f/2 version in favour of the f/1.8, but the truth is they are the same lens, just with the max aperture slightly disabled on the f/2. I’ve had both and can’t tell the difference in the final image.

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Pentax MG, Pentacon Auto 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

In C/Y mount the Yashica ML range are a very good buy.

Again most go for the faster lenses, the 50/1.4 (as pictured on the Canon EOS 300V in the first image above), or the 50/1.7. They’re still cheap (I paid about £30 for my 50/1.4, and a shade over £20 for a 50/1.7) but the bargain of the range is again the f/2. Performance is near identical to the other two, and the very common 50/2 can be had for less than £20, even less than £15.

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Contax 167MT, Yashica ML 50mm f/2 lens, Fuji Superia 200 expired film

The Pentax K mount also offer a fantastic range, and the Pentax-M 50/1.7 or 50/2 won’t disappoint. Also very impressive in this mount are the Auto Chinon 50/1.7 and Rikenon 50/2.

Minolta made some very fine lenses in their day too.

If you want a luxurious, weighty feel, go for an older 50, like an MC Rokkor-PF – they’re smoother than virtually all other vintage lenses I’ve used, bar except the Takumars.

If you want comparable performance but in a smaller, lighter package, try one of the cracking later era Minolta MD 50/1.7s. I got one a few months back attached to a Minolta X-300, both fully working, for £15.

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Minolta X-300, Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

So to recap our (lack of) spending so far.

At the cheapest end, a Canon EOS body is available from around £5, and something like an M42 or Minolta or C/Y to EOS adapter start at around £7. If you’re patient, you’ll find an M42 Yashica Yashinon 50/2, C/Y mount Yashica ML 50/2 or Minolta MD 50/1.7 for £15.

This takes your total to £27.

If you want a slightly later body, say a 300V or 300X (though the 500 is stunning value), you might need to spend £15 or £20.

If you want a faster, more sought after lens, like a Pentax-M 50/1.7 or Takumar 55/1.8, you might need to invest £25.

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Pentax MZ-5N, Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200

The choice is yours, depending on your budget and interest.

This post is primarily about getting you set up with some quality, highly usable and enjoyable kit to shoot film with, so I don’t want to go into depth about film and processing.

I would point out though that a cheap and very capable film over here in the UK is AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200, available for £1 a roll from Poundland.

Expired film can also be very cheap, and give fantastic results.

I get my film processed and scanned to CD (no prints) either at Asda for about £3.50 a roll, or at my photo store up the road which is around £4.50-5 a roll. Having three or four rolls processed at the same time and burned to the same CD saves a few pounds.

It’s not as cheap as digital per shot, but with film, as I hope I’ve shown here, getting set up can be very cheap indeed – under £30.

After that, with a modest budget of £20 a month you can shoot a film a week. Or for £10, one a fortnight.

Which, for virtually all of us, is still a very affordable, and infinitely pleasurable hobby indeed.

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Canon EOS 500, Fujinon 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

If you have any questions, or any tips of your own, please join the conversation in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

 

With Eyes Reborn

Whilst my first SLR was 35mm (a Praktica BMS Electronic), I reached a point around three years ago where I discovered that certain 35mm film SLR lenses could be used on certain digital cameras, some directly, others via cheap adapters.

This was a game changer for me, and, perhaps perversely, actually fused and intensified further my love of vintage cameras and lenses.

After an initial disappointing foray with a Pentax K-x DLSR (capable enough but tiny viewfinder and very plasticky, so a huge let down coming from cracking little Pentax SLRs like the ME Super), I discovered the Sony NEX range.

So since the summer of 2014 I’ve been experimenting with different vintage lenses on a used NEX 3N, and very recently with a few lenses on a Sony a350 DSLR.

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Sony NEX 3N, Cosina Auto Cosinon 135/2.8, LightRoom preset

With most lenses, you’d assume that if they’re good on film, they’ll be good with digital cameras too. But some have surprised me.

I don’t want to get too much into the practicalities of actual use of vintage lenses with the NEX and a350 (that’s potentially another post), but instead look at a few lenses that have been only average to good on film, but, to my delight, have excelled digitally.

Of course, you won’t find any scientific evidence here, no shots of brick walls or pinned up newspapers, or 100% detail crops. That’s not my style, or interest, at all.

But what I do hope to share here are three of the gems I have found, then a few of my own speculative theories about why they seem to have performed so well via a digital sensor than a frame of 35mm film.

First, three of the best lenses.

1. Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro

I bought this lens because certain reviews felt it was as sharp as a prime lens. And Minolta prime lenses are indeed very sharp.

Up to this point, 90% of my photography was with 50/55/58mm lenses, so I was interested in experimenting at both the 35mm and 70mm ends of the MD Zoom. If it lived up to its reputation, this plan was cheaper than buying an equally good 35mm and 70mm lens.

Plus the lens focused pretty close (around 0.33m), something I always appreciate and enjoy.

I tried the lens with my Minolta X-700 body.

If you don’t know, the X-700 has one of the greatest, brightest viewfinders ever seen on a 35mm camera. With a Rokkor 50/1.4 or 58/1.4 lens it was breathtaking.

But with the MD Zoom and its maximum aperture of f/3.5, it was still good but obviously not so bright and clear.

The size of the lens, though compact and relatively lightweight for a zoom, seemed bulky and clumsy on the X-700, especially as I’d been used to 50mm primes.

The whole experience was kind of awkward and I wanted it to be over quickly. Like trying to make conversation with the husband of one of your wife’s best friends, at a wedding neither man really wanted to be at.

On the NEX though, the lens was a revelation. 

The size was very appealing. Because of the slimness of the NEX, the entire camera virtually became the lens. Or the other way around. Changing the focal length (ie zooming) and focusing was easy and smooth.

The pictures blew me away – the colours, the sharpness and the deliciously smooth bokeh, none of which seemed to ever be possible with the X-700.

This shot is straight out of the NEX with zero processing except an export from RAW to JPEG.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro

This lens was the last Minolta SR mount lens I eventually sold when I decided to focus on just M42 and Contax/Yashica mounts a while back – outlasting even the glorious and beautiful MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4. Which is testament to how much I loved it using it. But only with the NEX.

2. Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7

Yep, another Minolta, who made a long line of 50 and 55mm lenses, which can seem baffling similar. In short, all you need to know is they’re all pretty fabulous.

I’d already had some of the older version from the late 60s and early 70s, and been impressed by their build, smoothness and performance (on both film and digital). I got this MD attached to an X-300 body I wanted to try as an alternative to the more sophisticated X-700 mentioned above.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD 50/1.7 lens

This MD 50/1.7 is from a later era (mid 80s I think) where the legendary Rokkor name had been dropped, as well as many of the metal parts.

On the downside, the lens felt a bit plasticky compared with something like its MC Rokkor-PF 55/1.7 predecessor – still one of the most luxurious lenses I’ve used in any mount.

On the plus side, the MD is very small, and very light. Which, matched with the NEX, made a whole lot of sense.

This lens wasn’t bad on film, in fact it was very good, and if you put photographs made with the MD 50/1.7 next to those made with something like the aforementioned 55/1.7, I’d struggle to identify which was which.

But because of its size and light weight, and because somehow it seemed to be even better digitally than the others, it stands out as one of the best lenses I’ve used with the NEX.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD 50/1.7 lens

3. Cosina Auto Cosinon 135mm f/2.8

As mentioned before, my default focal length is 50/55/58mm. In an effort to widen my experience, and because they are plentiful and cheap, I decided to explore some 135mm lenses, in M42 mount.

A few weeks later, I ended up with four.

The Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Electric Sonnar 135/3.5 and Jupiter-37A 135/3.5 are both glorious and rightly have lofty reputations. If you want a 135, either will no doubt delight you.

Another I came across was a Reveunon 135/2.8, with beautiful big blue multi-coated glass, which proved to be very decent in performance, but let down by its not very close focus. So that one went.

A little later I found a Cosina Auto Cosinon 135/2.8, which a friend mentioned he had used and been impressed with, plus it was super cheap (something like £12).

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Sony NEX3N, Cosina Auto Cosinon 135/2.8, LightRoom preset

On film, or digital, the Sonnar and Jupiter-37A are wonderful. Trying the Cosinon on film, I was distinctly underwhelmed compared with the other two, despite enjoying using the lens.

Then one warm day last summer I decided to try taking some shots of the kids playing in the garden, and picked the Cosinon.

The results absolutely delighted me, and though I must have taken thousands of photographs of the children in their short lives, these were instantly up there amongst my very favourites.

Again, straight out of the NEX, no post processing.

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Sony NEX 3N, Cosina Auto Cosinon 135/2.8

Since that day I’ve kept the humble Cosinon, and though I’ll probably never bother shooting film with it again, I know its potential with digital will put a smile on my face many times in the future.

So these are three examples of lenses that have highly impressed me with digital photography.

What about the theories as to why?

First, the part of the lens that is being used.

The NEX, like my a350, has an APS-C crop sensor. The surface area of the sensor is only about two thirds that of a frame of 35mm film.

So compared with shooting the same lens on film, with the NEX/Alpha, it’s like taking only the central part of the photo.

Imagine having a large photograph, then putting a frame with a thick border on top. You crop the image from its full size and lose the outer edges, all the way around.

The benefit of this is that for most lenses, when they start to show flaws and failings, its at their outermost edges, at wide apertures.

Pair the same lens on a crop sensor and you instantly remove those outer edges and use only the central part of the lens where it performs at its optimum. Stop it down two or three stops and you can create stunning sharpness, contrast and colours.

Second, the physical handling of the lens.

Whilst this doesn’t directly impact the final image, it goes a long way to how we the photographer are able to get the best from the lens.

Put simply, the lenses you love using most are the ones you’re going to shoot most with, and try hardest to get the best images with.

Any lens that’s frustrating or indifferent in use isn’t going to inspire the photographer to be at their best, or try to find the best compositions.

So lenses like the Minolta MD Zoom, which for me were ungainly, even annoying, on a film body, came into their own with something like the little NEX, where almost all your physical contact is with the lens, and they suddenly become far more comfortable and natural feeling.

Third, the character and construction of the lens.

Some say that there are no bad 50mm lenses, because the relatively simply construction of the elements of the lens is hard to get wrong. You just get different degrees of excellent.

So I wonder if for other lenses, their internal design is somehow better suited for digital sensors. Part of this might be down to theory one, and the optimal part of the glass being used.

And/or it might be that for some lenses, the character – and the unique way they shape and interpret the light that flows through them – is better syncopated with the way a digital sensor (or in my specific experience a Sony APS-C digital sensor) also shapes and interprets the light that hits it.

As I explained at the start, I don’t have the science behind this, it’s just my theories based on my experience and limited knowledge.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro

To get to the point of this whole post.

Even if you shoot loads of film, it’s well worth getting a digital camera that’s easily adaptable to vintage lenses (my own experience would recommend Sony NEX or Alpha).

First you have a cheap (after the initial, modest, outlay) way to experiment with all kinds of lenses with immediate feedback and the ability to get to know a lens in a matter of hours, rather than the weeks it might take with film.

Second, because, like I have, you may well find some absolute gems of lenses that are overlooked on film due to merely adequate performance, but really come alive on digital.

I always try to come back to the core purpose and message of 35hunter – “Hunting for balance and beauty, camera in hand”.

Hunting for beauty sometimes means grabbing your favourite film camera and lens and exploring some of the most amazing places you know.

And sometimes it means picking up an obscure vintage lens or two from eBay or a charity shop and playing with it in your back garden to see what you coax from it.

Either way, that pursuit of beauty – and the enjoyment along the way – always makes the experience worthwhile.

What has been your experience of using vintage lenses on digital bodies?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

The Mindful Merge Of Mood And Mode

In my quest to find the perfect camera and lens, I’ve been overlooking something obvious.

That is, our moods and feelings are not a static flat line free of undulation, but a rather more mountainous territory, with peaks and valleys, whims, rushes and tides.

After close to five years of shooting film, I thought I’d found the ideal set up.

A Contax 139 Quartz SLR paired with my favourite M42 lenses – a Super-Takumar 55/1.8 plus the mighty Zeiss triumvirate of Flektogon 35/2.4, Pancolar 50/1.8 and Sonnar 135/3.5.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50/1.8 lens, Ilford XP2 Super

And indeed it remains a near perfect set up for me.

But only when I want to shoot film.

With an SLR.

Where I manually focus the lens.

And manually stop down the lens before shooting.

Overall, this is my preferred way to make photographs, but I cannot deny there are others.

Hence, the need to cater for, if not an endless kaleidoscope of moods, then at least a modest rainbow.

In writing this I’m hoping to figure out these different modes my brain (/heart /soul) has, and how the combinations and modes of my cameras and lenses fit. Or don’t.

Let’s start with the most manual set up of all, and work up to the most automated.

1. 35mm film, manual focus, manual metering, manual load and wind on, all mechanical.

In my arsenal – Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F, M42 mount.

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Asahi Pentax Spotmatic, Super-Multi-coated Takumar 50/1.4 lens, Fuji Superia X-Tra 400

This is arguably the epitome of film photography, the pure essence.

No batteries, no electronics, no metering. Just metal, glass and your own judgement.

Shooting like this reminds of the raw wonder and sheer sorcery of photography, and gives the most rewarding end result – simply because I know every decision and adjustment was purely down to my own judgement.

Alternatives – Kiev-2A with Jupiter-8 50/2 lens, Voigtlander Vito B with Color-Skopar 50/2.8 lens.

The Kiev takes the experience even further into the past – my example, plus the Jupiter-8 lens, dates from 1956. When I shoot with this I know it’s little different to how its original Ukranian owner shot with it over six decades ago. Which is pretty incredible.

The Voigtlander – also from the late 50s – is a little more compact but not so much you can conveniently pocket it, so it really offers little over the Kiev or Spotmatic, aside from its own character and feel.

2. 35mm film, manual focus, aperture priority (Av) mode, manual load and wind on, manual stop down, semi-electronic camera.

In my arsenal – Contax 139 Quartz, Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount, plus M42 adapter.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Helios 44-2 58/2 M42 lens, FujiFilm Superia 100

The aforementioned Contax 139 is the pinnacle of the some 50+ 35mm SLRs I’ve used.

Everything just feels right, and it oozes class and quality.

I originally came to the 139 in searching for an Av camera to use M42 lenses on, when I didn’t want to use the all manual Spotmatic. After experimenting (extensively!) with Pentax K mount cameras (I’ve owned at least one K2, KX, KM, K1000, ME, ME Super, MV, Super-A, P30, MZ-5N and about a dozen others), I also debated using a Minolta X-300 or X-700, because of their fantastic viewfinders.

But something was missing, and after trying the Contax, it all came together. That indescribable lacking was no more.

With the M42 > C/Y adapter I use Av mode.

This means, in practice, this happens – I open the lens wide to get maximum light in the viewfinder (VF), compose and focus, then stop down the lens until the image looks right in terms of depth of field, quickly check my shutter speed isn’t too slow, then shoot.

The advantage of stopping down manually is you see exactly what the lens sees, and can fine tune the depth of field.

With open aperture metering, you have to press the depth of field preview button/lever (if the camera has one), which can be awkward if you then want to adjust the aperture further.

Some time ago I decided my M42 lenses were my favourite lenses (a major reason in selling my Pentax K cameras and lenses – I was only really ever using M42 lenses on the K mount bodies, and the Contax 139 does a better job of this than any Pentax), so my small collection of these M42s are what I use with the Contax.

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Alternatives – Er, my other Contax 139 Quartz.

3. 35mm film, manual focus, aperture priority (Av) mode, manual load and wind on, auto stop down, semi-electronic camera.

In my arsenal – Contax 139 Quartz, Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Yashica ML 50/1.7 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200

As above, but here using C/Y lenses, which gives the following additional automation.

First, they’re open aperture metering, so the lens is always wide open, whatever aperture it’s set to, meaning maximum light into the VF for focusing.

Added to this, the aperture is displayed in the VF, along with the shutter speed the camera will choose, so you are fully informed before making a shot.

This is less “hands-on” than using the Contax 139 with M42 lenses, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want.

Most of the time I shoot at f/5.6, give or take a stop, so having to keep opening up then stopping down with the M42 lenses (and having to either take my eye away to look down and see what aperture I’m at, or to remember the number of clicks of the aperture ring to get to the required aperture) can sometimes be tiresome.

Plus with this method I can use the excellent C/Y lenses I have like the Yashica ML 50/1.4 and 50/1.7, and the Carl Zeiss Planar 50/1.7.

Alternatives – Again, my other Contax 139 Quartz.

4. 35mm film, manual focus, aperture priority (Av) mode, auto load and wind on, auto stop down, semi-electronic camera.

In my arsenal – Contax 167MT, Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount.

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Contax 167MT, Yashica 50/2, FujiFilm Superia 200

The 167MT is just fierce, there’s no better word. Except maybe brutal.

And yet it’s beautiful and elegant and at least as well made as the 139 Quartz. In fact it’s probably the best built SLR I’ve ever had.

The main difference in using the 167MT over the 139 Quartz is the automation of the film transport. But although this the only real difference in how the cameras operate, the 167 feels far more like a ruthless photographic machine, ravenous for dozens for films a day.

Aside from its eagerness and efficiency, it also offers some very handy features like a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000s, a wide ISO range (ISO6-6400) and exposure bracketing.

Another subtle difference with the 167MT is the VF, as I’ve fitted a pure matte screen with no central prism. Looking through this camera’s VF provides an immersive bliss as yet unrivalled in my photographic experience. Which makes it quite probably my favourite VF in any camera I’ve ever used.

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Contax 167MT, Yashica ML 50/1.4 lens, Northern Film Lab Kodak Vision 3 film

Alternatives – Canon EOS 300V.

The EOS is in some ways a viable alternative to both the Contax 139 Quartz and 167MT. With simple adapters I can use M42 and C/Y lenses, though on the EOS I have to stop down manually with both types.

The 300V offers Aperture Priority and the metering is excellent.

The main advantage over both Contax bodies is the sheer compactness and light weight of the Canon.

Despite its plasticness, you can’t help smiling when it’s in your hands. Everything about it is very easy and intuitive to use. With good reason – the 2002 released 300V was one of the last EOS film bodies Canon made, after dozens of models over the previous 15 years fine tuned their approach to the ultimate 35mm consumer SLR.

The VF isn’t amazing, especially compared with the Contax cameras, but it’s very usable. And the Canon’s plus points overall make it well worth having.

That sums up the film options I have, without getting into film compacts, which is a whole other world.

More similar are digital bodies that can use the same interchangeable vintage lenses, so let’s take a look at those.

5. Digital, manual focus via Live View screen, aperture priority (Av) mode.

In my arsenal – Sony NEX 3N.

The NEX is an incredible camera. As much as I adore film and the tactile luxury of the Contax three (two 139s and the 167), the little Sony is undeniably a remarkable photography device.

The wide range of adapters available, plus the two key features of its tiltable Live View screen and focus peaking, make it formidable.

Not to mention its very capable sensor.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44M 58/2 M42 lens

I’ve had half a dozen adapters for the NEX, and it’s allowed me great freedom to test and explore different lenses and lens mounts before committing precious film to them.

But the Sony has risen above being just an electronic sandbox, to being a genuinely enjoyable photograph making machine in its own right.

(Strangely I still hesitate to call it a camera. Device or machine sounds more apt.)

There are lenses I now preferring shooting on the NEX than on a film camera, just because they seem to make more sense ergonomically, and perform better.

The Sonnar 135/3.5 comes to mind, in fact any 135mm seems a natural fit with tiny NEX, where the lens body becomes almost the entire surface contact area of the camera.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Electric MC Sonnar 135/3.5

Alternatives – Sony α350 DLSR.

The α350 also has a tiltable Live View screen, and is as easily adaptable to M42 lenses.

With its more than adequate optical VF and great handling, it makes the experience of using vintage lenses much closer to that of their original 35mm film bodies than the NEX.

The Alpha is unquestionably in my eyes a “proper” camera.

But the Sony DSLR can only shoot on Manual mode, which is a little more fiddly. And it doesn’t have the focus peaking of the NEX, which on the whole is very accurate and far easier on the eyes than using a VF.

Plus although it is pretty compact, light and ergonomic, it’s vastly larger than the NEX too. Oh and there’s no adapter for C/Y lenses either.

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 50/2.8 Macro lens, LightRoom preset

6. Digital, manual focus via VF or Live View screen, Manual exposure (M) mode.

In my arsenal -Sony α350 DLSR.

I bought the Alpha to try and fill the shortfalls of the NEX, primarily that the latter doesn’t have a viewfinder, and doesn’t really feel like its even a camera, especially compared with my 35mm film favourites.

The 350 is very usable with M42 lenses, via a simple adapter. Plus the sensor is very capable and I like the character of the images it produces.

But where the Sony Alpha has surprised me is with AF lenses, something I never even planned to try.

Which brings us to our final mood/mode.

7. Digital, Auto Focus (VF or Live View screen), Av, Tv, P or Auto modes.

In my arsenal -Sony α350 DLSR.

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

To give some background, Sony took on the photographic arm of Konica Minolta in the mid 2000s, inheriting Minolta AF mount first released in 1985 with pioneering SLR cameras like the original Dynax/Maxxum 7000.

Very wisely, Sony decided to keep Minolta’s AF mount, along with their formidable array of lenses, and build their first SLRs and lenses from them. In some cases not even touching the optics, but simply rebranding the outer casing.

Which means for Sony Alpha owners, aside from the expensive modern Sony lenses (as I said, some of them are simply rebranded Minoltas anyway), there exist some 20 years’ worth of Minolta AF vintage lenses to enjoy.

I’ve picked up two – the Minolta 35-70mm f/4 Macro, affectionately known as the “Baby Beercan”, plus the 50/2.8 Macro which focuses down to 1:1 ratio, closer than any SLR lens I’ve ever had.

Both work with all the modes you could wish for on the Sony, plus the camera can switch between manual and auto focus, allowing precision focusing, especially up close.

Using the Sony Alpha with the Minolta lenses has been a revelation, not least of all in the final photograph.

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 50/2.8 Macro lens, LightRoom preset

Which brings us to the end of this exploration of how mood dictates mode, and vice versa.

Although it seems I enjoy quite a range of shooting styles and equipment, I’ve observed a number of underlying commonalities.

  1. The tactile and sensory pleasure of using these cameras and lenses.

    I have stated a number of times that even if you forget to load film (or your SD/MF card!) the experience of using the camera is exactly the same, and to be enjoyed as much as possible. As much as I value and appreciate the rest of my life, wandering the countryside with these cameras is the most joyous escape for me.

  2. The quest for beauty.

    Like the title and tagline of this site alludes to, I’m searching for beautiful things to capture and share with the world, to remind us all that such breath taking sights still exist. These cameras are simply the ones that allow me to do that most effectively, and hopefully most engagingly for others.

  3. A functional uniqueness.

    On a more logical, functional level, the range of my equipment is now actually pretty limited. All of these cameras support interchangeable lenses, and each body can be used with lenses of at least two different mounts.

    I could reduce my lenses down further to maybe three in M42 mount, and a couple each in C/Y and Minolta/Sony AF mount, based on unique qualities. It’s important to me that’s there very little redundancy or duplication – each lens and body offers something special, and where I do have more than one lens in the same focal length say, it offers something different to its direct rivals.

This adventure is of course ongoing, but I do feel my overall arsenal is more compact and honed than any time since I started film photography nearly five years ago. 

As a result I’m seeking different cameras and lenses less than in years too, and instead trying to better enjoy and master what I already have.

What’s also been interesting in writing this – aside from how I’ve fine tuned my favourites – is how much digital has come to feature in my photography now.

By having that connection with the wonderful vintage lenses (my newest lens I think is the Minolta 50/2.8 Macro, circa 1985, and the oldest probably one of the M42 Takumars from the late 60s) I’ve been able to enjoy and embrace the (mega) pixels far more than if I’d have just picked up a NEX or Alpha with a modern kit zoom lens.

How do your different moods influence which cameras and lenses you like to shoot?

Have you found (or do you think you ever will find) one camera/lens that suits your needs whatever you’re feeling?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.