When I first held my first Minolta – an SR-1s with MC Rokkor-PF 55mm f/1.7 lens – it was as beautiful as any camera I’ve held before or since.
In use too, both lens and camera felt well built, smooth and oozing class.
Its simplicity was as alluring as its handsomeness – no meter, just the pure essentials need to make the photographic experience enjoyable and beautiful from start to finish.
So, as a result, this camera surely remains at the heart of my collection, correct? Er, no.
After the SR-1s whet my appetite for Minolta, I explored a handful of other lenses. The pinnacle of these was quite probably the big brother of the lens on the SR-1s, a Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4.
This gem remains the most gorgeous lens I have ever owned, and quite likely the most beautiful object I’ve ever owned.
Other thoroughly excellent lenses I tried were the very capable and silky smooth MD Rokkor 50/1.4…
As well as a humble later era MD 50/1.7 that despite its diminutive size, weight and plastic feel, optically held its own against any other Minolta SR mount lens I’ve owned.
So again, surely I’ve kept all these gems too? Er, no. Again.
Whilst with Minolta I was indeed halfway to heaven, and thought – and still think – many of their lenses are fantastic (and indeed now have a couple of arguably even better vintage Minolta AF lenses for my Sony a100 DSLR), the bodies just didn’t match up.
Yes, the SR-1s was a lovely camera, and for fully manual and meterless film photography it’s as good as anything I’ve used.
But, for 9 out of rolls of film I shoot with an SLR, if not more, I like to use Aperture Priority mode. So I sought out a Minolta body to accommodate this, and settled on the X-700.
The X-700 had the best viewfinder I’ve seen on an SLR, and was breathtaking to look through.
But otherwise, whilst competent enough, it somehow always felt faceless and unremarkable.
I also tried the X-700’s simpler sibling, the X-300, which I actually liked a lot more.
It took the over complicated and over featured (in my view) X-700, stripped away everything you don’t really need but kept the compact size, big bright viewfinder and of course fantastic range of lenses. It yielded some very pleasing images.
So why didn’t I keep the X-300?
The answer is, which one? The first one that lasted a roll and half then seized? Or the second one that was dead on arrival (despite being sold as fully working)? Or that one’s replacement, which lasted a glorious seven shots before also seizing?
My confidence in the reliability of Minolta electronics, and the lack of personality of their bodies anyway made me wonder if I’d ever get to use my beautiful Rokkors on film again.
In the meantime, the discovery of the divine Contax 139 Quartz which is a whole other world of class to the Minolta equivalents I tried, was the final aperture pin in the coffin.
So I sold my last remaining working Minolta body – that original SR-1s – as it was gathering dust, knowing if I wanted an old school all mechanical experience I had my Asahi Spotmatic F and a wonderful Super-Takumar 55/1.8, amongst other fine M42 lenses.
Ultimately, my Contax story has proved to be almost the opposite of the Minolta one – amazing bodies, the best I’ve used, but somehow disappointing lenses, not so much in the final image, but mostly in feel and pleasure to use.
The epilogue to this tale is that I’ve returned to the best combination of film bodies and lenses I’ve tried – Pentax.
Whether the M42s, like the aforementioned Spotmatic F with a fabulous Takumar 55mm, or K mount, like the later M or A series (my current K body is a Program A) with the excellent, light, smooth and very well built Pentax-M lenses.
The moral of the story?
For me, with my love of the tactile experience of vintage kit, having just one piece of the puzzle – body or lens – was not enough.
A ten out of ten lens with a six out of ten body, or vice versa, is just frustrating, and gets in the way of fully enjoying either.
Whereas eight or nine out of ten for each is a far better balance and experience overall.
Which is your favourite system? Is it because of the lenses, the bodies, or, like Pentax for me, the most satisfying unison of both?
Please let us know in the comments below.
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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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As my photography has evolved, it’s gradually become apparent to me what I value most about it as a pursuit, as well as what I best appreciate in the cameras I use.
Whilst I’m still growing and learning, I’m far more knowledgable now about the “magic formula” I need to enjoy film photography as much as possible.
Three precious things come to mind –
1. A beautiful viewfinder.
For me the essential joy of photography is being able to see a tiny snapshot of the world, in a specific moment, and for that moment it be the entire world.
When I’m focused on a single composition through the viewfinder (VF), as I squeeze the shutter button (and for a second or so after), my entire relationship and connection with the world is simply what’s captured in that little rectangle.
It’s meditative, spiritual and visceral all at once, and one of the greatest experiences of life.
So, it follows that for these vital moments, one has a viewfinder that heightens the experience to the full.
Pretty much all of the SLRs I use have very good viewfinders. The combination that is king of the mountain is my Minolta X-700 paired with my Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens.
The huge front surface of the glass allows a great amount of light into the also huge viewfinder of the X-700 and the result is wonderful, and often literally breathtaking.
Recently I got an AutoFocus (AF) Minolta Dynax 7000i, which has a surprisingly great VF too. Not as vast as the X-700, but not that far off, and the view I get with my latest lens, a Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7, is very enjoyable. I’m become quite attached too, to how the lens snaps into focus, and the VF view changes accordingly.
Presently, I can’t see myself returning to compacts or rangefinders any time soon, because the VF experience of an SLR is just too intoxicatingly joyful.
2. How a camera feels.
This is a far more subjective one, and has a few component parts. It begins when you pick up a camera, before you even raise it to your eye. How your hand moulds around the camera’s body, the texture and temperature of the materials, the width, the weight, the girth.
This has to combine with the lens the camera has attached. Staying with SLRs, the lens you use can make quite a difference to the overall feel and balance and pleasure of a camera.
As one hand is almost constantly around the lens, that tactile experience is very important.
Again for me, Minolta come to mind, with both the aforementioned X-700 and 7000i. The latter especially is very well shaped for my hands and has a reassuring weight. With a zoom lens it can feel a bit too much, but with the little 50/1.7 AF it feels far more compact and balanced.
All of my Pentax cameras feel great, well balanced and bring a smile to my face. Sometimes I prefer the weight and size of the older Spotmatic F or K2, and others the compact lightness of the little MG is just what I’m craving.
Bottom line is if a camera doesn’t feel good in my hands, even if it’s the most capable and expensive lens/body in the world, I’m not going to enjoy it much.
Which brings us to…
3. The photographs.
I have commented in the past that even the few times I’ve shot a roll of film only to find the film hasn’t wound on and I’ve shot 24 or 36 blanks, I’ve not enjoyed the experience any the less. And those 24/36 shots I took, I still captured with my eyes, mind and memory, even if they weren’t recorded on film.
Elements 1 and 2 above are the most crucial, and 3 is the chocolate sauce on top.
I’ve learnt, via a series of revelations, not least of all realising that when you put a len-less SLR on B mode, open the back, press the shutter release button and look through, there’s nothing but fresh air, that cameras are really just boxes.
In other words, and at the moment of exposure, it’s the lens only that dictates the characteristics of how the light lands on the film.
Then there’s film of course. Again via endless experiments, I’ve found the films I enjoy most – the super cheap, readily available and surprisingly capable AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200, the rich and colourful Ferrania Solaris 200 and, my most recent discovery, the fantastic FujiFilm Superia 100, which even ten years expired produces a beautiful balance of sharpness and grain.
Two out of three isn’t bad, and a camera with a wonderful viewfinder and lens will give a rewarding experience out in the field. But combined with poor film it’ll disappoint in the final image.
So to have the optimum experience of the delight that is film photography, I need all three elements – a camera with an excellent viewfinder, and that feels wonderful to hold, plus a lens and film that I know will give pleasing results.
What are the three most precious things for you in the magic formula for rewarding film photography?
Since my first taste of film photography in June 2012 I’ve used maybe 80+ different cameras, and probably 30+ SLRs.
I finally feel like I’ve honed down to my essential SLR collection.
I wouldn’t rule out any slight variations in the future, but these core seven are all firm favourites, for various reasons.
Pentax cameras dominate, as quite simply, they’re the cameras that feel most “right” in my hands.
I’ve tried a number of Olympus, Canon, Konica, Praktica, Zenit and Chinon SLRs, but none feel like a Pentax.
The only other brand to make an appearance in this top seven is Minolta.
The MC and MD Rokkor, and even the later plain and far more plasticky MD lenses are fantastic, and the best of them feel at least as good as the best from Pentax. Because with an SLR, half of what you’re holding in your hands when shooting is the lens, the fact that I enjoy the Minolta lenses so much means maybe the cameras don’t need to be quite so spectacular themselves.
Here are the Seven.
Top Row (l-r)
Asahi Pentax S1a – For me the ultimate all manual meterless camera I’ve owned. Just beautiful to look at to hold, and to use, and surprisingly compact. I came to these (I had a black one too) after I’d already had a Spotmatic F and ES, and was surprised to find the S1a smaller, and significantly lighter. They’re barely any bigger in width or depth than the renowned for being tiny MX, and for me the extra few millimetres in height actually make them more comfortable to handle. I don’t think I’ve used or held a camera that fits better in my hands.
The M42 mount means a huge range of lenses, but most of the time it feels sacrilege to use anything but a Takumar. My example at the very latest was made in 1971, maybe as early as 1962, and for a 45+ year old machine its deliciously smooth to use. Which makes the aforementioned Takumars the obvious lens choice.
The only reason I wouldn’t maybe choose this as my sole SLR is that more often than not I like to shoot aperture priority, or at least with an in built meter. But for the purest, most stripped down yet somehow still luxurious experience, the S1a for me is unrivalled. Just, see below.
Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F – Arguably even smoother than the S1a (though bulkier and heavier), and with a very simple yet very reliable needle meter, for when I don’t want to meter in my head or with my iPhone.
Because of the simplicity of the meter – just a needle, with no numbers or lights – it makes the experience only barely more cluttered than using the S1a. Though such is the beautiful balance of the S1a, the F can’t help but feel a little over sized and weighty in comparison.
Again the mount is M42, and again 95% of the time I shoot with a Super- or Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens attached, with which using the F is a near flawless experience. Although I have other excellent lenses, like a Pentacon 50/1.8, Yashinon DS 50/2 and of course the amazing Helios 44, for some reason I very rarely use them on the F, so my lens decision usually comes to down to a 50/1.4 or 55/2 Takumar.
Middle Row (l-r)
Asahi Pentax KM – Essentially the Spotmatic F in K mount, and equally reassuring to handle and use. This rarely sees any other lens than the fantastic SMC Pentax 55/1.8, itself a K mount version of the classic 55/1.8 Takumar, as it’s the lens that just feels most right on the KM, and always delivers in the final photograph.
It’s not quite as pretty as the Spotmatic F, and the same downsides are relevant here – it can feel a touch bulky and weighty at times.
This isn’t a camera I can ever sit and swoon over, but it is super reliable, functional and works flawlessly.
Pentax MX – Very compact, robust, and with more intricate metering than the KM. Also has the shutter speed and aperture visible in the viewfinder, as well as depth of field preview. There’s nothing this camera lacks, for me.
Except maybe aperture priority mode. Though it’s great to use, and even with its meter, for me it takes more thinking and is less instinctive than the other K mounts I have, and combined with the slightly stiff and awkward to alter shutter dial (especially compared with the S1a, Spotmatic F and KM) this seems to slow me down – and not in the good way that shooting with film cameras slows you down.
In truth I haven’t quite bonded with the MX (yet), and the handling in my view is also compromised by it being a little too short in height. For my (fairly small hands), the S1a is more comfortable to hold, and feels better balanced, as do the ME, ME Super, MV, MG et al.
I think it’s an essential, but somehow my KM is the K mount camera I use far more.
Pentax MZ-6 – Very new to me, and one of the last 35mm film SLRs Pentax made, it’s small, light, brilliant to handle, has excellent metering and everything you could want in an SLR.
Though many will scorn its plasticky look and “champagne” finish, ergonomically and technically, the MZ-6 is a fantastic camera, especially given the range of K mount lenses available.
Though it can support an AF lens, and offers various Auto/ Program modes, I much prefer using my older all manual K mount lenses. A particularly impressive feature is the clever audible focus confirm when focusing with manual lenses that works very well. It also simultaneously lights up an icon in the VF to confirm focus.
The disappointment of the inevitably slightly smaller and lacking viewfinder (compared with all of the older Pentax models above), is tempered greatly by this function. It means in practice I can look through the VF with a far more relaxed eyes and concentrate on the composition (more like as with a compact/ point and shoot camera), rather than trying to squint and concentrate to focus.
Unassuming, brilliant fun, tremendously competent (as well as very small and light), I’ve been amazed at how this camera has impressed me.
Bottom Row (l-r)
Minolta SR-1s – Similar to the S1a in that it’s a beautifully built old school fully manual meterless classic. The Rokkor glass performs wonderfully, and the older two MC Rokkor-PF lenses I have (55/1.7 and 58/1.4) are simply the two most handsome lenses I’ve ever had in any mount.
The VF is surprisingly larger and spacious and with the lack of any needles, lights or anything else, it’s a very pure and immersive experience.
The controls of the SR-1s – of which of course there are few, just the wind on lever, shutter button, shutter speed dial and rewind crank – are beautifully smooth and weighted, especially the wind on lever. The shutter speed dial probably has the best feel and is therefore my favourite of any camera of these seven.
Between this and the Pentax S1a, I lean towards the Pentax really only on brand loyalty. The Minolta is every bit as pleasurable to use, in the same way the best Minolta lenses compare very favourably with the Takumars. It’s just not a Pentax.
Minolta X-700 – A compact semi-automated companion to the SR-1s, for when I want the camera to expose so I can concentrate on just the composition, focus and depth of field. A camera that just gets out of the way and lets you shoot. Again, this choice is as much for the MC/ MD/ Rokkor lenses, which are a delight to use.
The SR-1s was my first Minolta and likely still my favourite. None of the other handful I’ve tried have impressed me much, save for the X-700. Yes it’s all electronic and battery dependent, but features like the huge bright VF (as good as most Pentax cameras are, the X-700’s VF has the edge on them all) and the short eager throw of the wind on lever put a smile on my face with every shot.
Heresy it might be to the ears of a diehard Pentaxian like myself, but if I only shot with this Minolta and two or three Rokkors for the rest of my life, I know I’d be smiling.
As I began with above, despite dabbling with the SLRs of giants like Olympus, Canon and Konica in the past, and getting decent results with all, none have the same appeal as Minolta and certainly not Pentax. They just don’t feel as “right” to me. So I can’t see myself exploring any different lens mount in the future outside of my favoured trilogy of M42, Pentax K and Minolta SR.
In M42 mount somehow it only seems right to use Takumar lenses on the S1a and Spotmatic F. I have a couple of Helios 44s, a Pentacon Auto and a Yashinon which are all fantastic and I’d like to use more on film, so maybe someday I’ll pick up another old Zenit with the selenium meter to play with these lenses on.
In K mount I’ve tried most Pentax bodies now, and am mostly happy with the three pictured above.
Having said that, there’s something about the MX I just haven’t quite connected with, and at this point still prefer using something like an ME, ME Super or MG. Yes I know the MX is fully mechanically manual, has a bigger VF, depth of field preview etc. But the almost too small size and the generally fiddliness to use still stand in the way, for me, of as seamless an experience as I have with the ME etc. So maybe the MX will be replaced with one of its more humble siblings.
Minolta wise, I’ve tried a number of other bodies and not much liked them.
(Another reason I love Pentax is that pretty much every body I’ve tried I’ve liked.)
The X-700 is likely to remain unsurpassed in my Minolta stable as it was the last of the SR mount cameras before the AF lenses with their different mount dominated from the mid 80s onwards. And I have little interest in either AF SLRs, or starting to collect lenses of a different mount.
I may explore one of the predecessors at the high end of the range someday like an XD7 or XE, but with the SR-1s and X-700 really I have no need for anything else…