5 Tips for Spotting Vintage Lens Bargains!

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Buying your first swappable-lens-system camera is an expensive enough decision without factoring in the cost of a good set of glass. Then come the next head scratchers; primes or zooms? Stills lenses or film lenses? And do you really have to buy them from the same manufacturer as your camera?

One method of building up a relatively cheap set of lenses if you don’t mind sticking with primes (fixed focal length, non zoomable) is to start collecting vintage glass. There are great bargains to be had with older lenses that can be adapted for modern mounts, but you’ll want to know what to look for before you part with your cash. Fear no more; here are our top 5 tips for spotting vintage lens bargains!

Know your keywords

When looking for vintage lenses for your camera certain phrases will become second-nature; “fungus free” for example, or “stuck blades”. Knowing what these phrases mean and which are positives or negatives is essential to not landing yourself with an expensive paperweight. You’ll want to look for a lens described as fungus free, with as few defects as possible if you want to make sure it has a good few years of shooting ahead of it.

Ask for recent sample images

Sample images are the test drive of lens shopping. Older lenses can have unusual characteristics that are very desirable to the budding cinematographer; for example the swirly bokeh created by the Russian Helios lens range, or the light leaks caused by lenses with damaged/worn down coating. Vintage lenses can also, of course, have significant visual defects – fogged up lens elements can create hazy white areas over your images, or if the lens elements have shifted from their original position over time you may see chromatic aberration (coloured silhouettes around sharp edges in your images). Asking for a recent sample image gives you a benchmark to expect and allows you to make sure you’ll be happy with the images you can expect to produce.

Back to back

Getting a vintage lens to fit on a modern camera system almost always means buying a new back or mount for the body itself. One of the first things you’ll need to do is know what mount your camera needs (e.g. Sony E Mount for the A7s) and what mount the lens you intend to buy currently has (e.g. for a Russian Helios 44-2 58mm lens, you’re looking at an M42 mount). With these two bits of data the next step is simple; head to google and type in “[vintage lens mount type] to [your camera lens mount type] adapter” and you should find plenty of affordable options, often from as little as $3-5.

Shop around for lenses

I tend to pick up the majority of my second hand lenses from the usual suspects – eBay or similar second-hand sites like Gumtree – but it does pay to shop around. Plenty of second hand markets or car boot sales will have a vintage camera and lenses stall and you can often negotiate an even better bargain in person. Plus, if you have your camera with you and happen upon a collector with their own mount adapters on hand, you may be able to try out the lenses before you buy, so you can make sure it gives you the images you want and is free from defects.

Accept your limits

The beauty of vintage lens shopping is that you can collect a full set of primes from wide angle to close portrait lenses for a relatively small sum. But it helps to know the limitations of your kit before you commit. Almost all vintage primes pre-date the rollout of electronics, meaning your camera can’t communicate with the lens for things like autofocus or even aperture. This is fine for most cinematographers as you’d expect the same from a top-end set of cinema primes (T stopped lenses, with aperture controlled by twisting the barrel manually as opposed to in-camera), but if you’re shooting a lot of fast paced events and need the flexibility of auto focus and lens tracking you might be better off saving your money for a modern, stabilised zoom. However, if you’re anything like me and are looking for a full set of well-loved primes with their own unique visual characteristics and charm, vintage lenses might well be for you!

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