There are decades of vintage lenses sitting on shelves in thrift shops or stacked in boxes in your uncle’s closet. Adaptors are cheap and easy enough to find for almost any camera mount, so there’s no excuse not to try one (or several). Most people don’t want to mess with a vintage lens because they don’t have the tools to interact with a modern camera to make features like motion stabilization and Autofocus work. However, if you have the patience and want to elevate your images without spending thousands of dollars on new lenses, you may want to consider adding a vintage lens or two to your kit. Here are Steve’s Digicams Top Five Vintage Lenses for DSLRs or Mirrorless cameras.
Helios-40-2 85mm f/1.5
Rumored to be based on Zeiss’ legendary Biotar design, the Helios 40-2 85mm is the king of swirly bokeh. Its pattern is so distinctive and unique that it’s almost impossible to replicate. These lenses were made in Russia from the 1950s all the way up to the 1990s. A new factory re-opened in 2013 and Helios was reborn, making the same beautiful 85mm lenses that it made decades before. The new lenses, however, are expensive and you can pick up a vintage 40-2 for anywhere from $150-500 dollars. This is not a particularly sharp lens, it’s large and heavy and is extremely cumbersome. It’s so fast though at F/1.5 that when you combine it with the curved 85mm optics you get something very special. This can be a great portrait lens if you don’t abuse the bokeh too much. Your camera subject with have a nice softened look that will give your images an ethereal quality from a bygone era. Most of the old lenses were made in Pentax mounts, so, just get the appropriate adaptor and start shooting.
Olympus OM Zuiko Auto-T 100mm f/2
This is a beautiful lens that debuted in 1983 and has ED glass elements. Having extra-low dispersion elements from a vintage lens will get you razor-sharp images at almost any distance. It has 7 elements in 6 groups which delivers a very smooth bokeh. This is a portrait lens that can be used for a variety of shooting needs. It has exceptional color accuracy and at 100mm will crush the background just ever so slightly giving you great subject separation. These lenses are a bit more, but you even if you score one for $500 bucks, it’s a better lens than most 100mm today that cost double.
Asahi Pentax 50mm f/1.4 Super-Takumar
The original version of this lens has a screw in mount and a non-multi-coated lens. Later generations had more modern mounts. But why is this lens on here? They were mass produced and attached to almost every Pentax camera in the late 50s and early 60s. You can probably pick one up for $50 – $75. It’s a Zeiss Planar inspired lens that has 7 elements in 6 groups. If you want to be wide open and get really sharp images and just perfectly subtle bokeh, this is the lens for you. Again, they made so many of them that they’re cheap, but don’t let that dissuade you from picking one up. It will blow your mind at how sharp and fun this lens is and make you made that the 50mm that you bought with your camera doesn’t take pictures that are half as nice.
Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f/2
This lens has its origins way back in the 1930s. Designed by the East German branch of Zeiss, this lens can be found for less than $100 dollars and usually no more than $250. It’s a great lens that has been emulated and copied for decades by other manufacturers for a reason. It’s sharp, and again a nice bokeh. This Zeis lens kind of started the whole art lens genre. It gave a unique perspective on the world and made people look almost angelic in the right light. Before there were photoshop filters, there were lenses like this. It’s mostly available in either in screw mount or Exakta mount at its current price it’s worth picking one up just to mess around with.
Leitz Summaron 35mm f/2.8
This is almost exactly like the much sought after Leitz Sumacrom F/2.8, but $2000 dollars cheaper. This has an all metal 10 blade aperture that makes it almost a perfect circle. It’s a 6 element 4 group lens that for a 35mm will give you excellent bokeh and a look from another era. Lenses aren’t traditionally made like this anymore and you can get one in a canon mount. The 35mm is going to give you a little more freedom and use on trips. Again, you’re going to have to work for it, by forgoing many of the modern conveniences on newer lenses, but the payoff is worth it. This is not an everyday lens. It’s a lens for when you’re tired of seeing the world as it is and, instead, desire a evoquing world as your nostalgic mind remembers it.