Vintage Lenses On Digital SLRs?
How To Recycle Old Lenses With Adapters

An Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/3.5 macro mounted on a Canon Digital Rebel.

Like modern-day Rip Van Winkles, those who have been away from photography for a few years have emerged into a changed and exciting new world of digital cameras and autofocus lenses. But as attractive as the latest digital SLR cameras are, what if you still have a bag or two of vintage prime lenses left over from an earlier era? Supposing you don't want, or can't afford, to start all over again from scratch, is there a way to salvage any of your investment in lenses and still participate in the digital revolution? Lens adapters to the rescue!

A lens adapter is simply a precision-cast metal doughnut that has a mount on the back for a host camera, such as a Canon EOS mount, and a different mount of the front for a "foreign" lens. A few rare adapters have an optic in the middle, but most contain no glass. Adapters are designed to provide precisely the correct distance from the adapted lens to the host camera's film or sensor plane.

Two EOS lens adapters: (top) Pentax M42-mount adapter and (bottom) Olympus OM adapter.

Although lens adapters aren't feasible for all camera bodies or all lenses, the Canon EOS mount, being fairly large, can be adapted to host a number of non-EOS-mount lenses. The Canon EOS 10D and EOS Digital Rebel, for instance, can be used successfully with Olympus OM-mount Zuiko, Nikon AI/AF, Contax/Yashica RTS, Pentax-compatible M42 screwmount, and Leica R and Leica Visoflex lenses. Ironically, Canon's own FD lenses are difficult to adapt to EOS bodies, though a few specialty adapters do exist. Sadly, there are no known EOS adapters for Minolta Rokkors or Pentax K-mount lenses.

Some Compromises
For those with qualifying lenses, the availability of these adapters is the good news. The bad news is that lens adapters are a compromise. Adapted lenses only work in manual mode. There is no coupling of the electronics from one brand to another. Metering works, but only in stop-down mode. So why bother?

There are two good reasons. First, using vintage lenses in manual mode with an adapter is considerably cheaper than buying all new glass. Second, some of these vintage lenses perform wonderfully and any inconveniences associated with them may be worth it in terms of lens quality. It's a judgment call.

Autumn oak leaf. (Canon Digital Rebel; Zuiko 50mm f/3.5 macro; 1/30 sec at f/11; ISO 400.)
Photos © 2004, Gene Wilburn, All Rights Reserved

Take my situation as an example. I'd been away from photography for several years, until digital rekindled my interest. I purchased a Canon PowerShot G2 and got hooked on photography all over again. After 18 months with the G2, I longed to get back into SLR photography, but digital this time.

My dilemma was that I already owned a number of Olympus OM-mount Zuiko and Pentax Super-Takumar screwmount primes that I was reluctant to sell. My Zuikos are small, sharp, and perky and my Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4 is one of the all-time great 50mm lenses. I wanted, if possible, to find a way to recycle them into the digital world.

Green leaves against golden autumn background. (Canon Digital Rebel; Zuiko 300mm f/4.5; 1/160 sec at f/8; ISO 800.)

Finding Adapters
Browsing the Olympus OM forum, I learned of an obscure OM-EOS adapter available from Kindai International in Tokyo. This adapter had been field tested by a few Olympians who had migrated to the Canon EOS 10D. Based on their positive reports, I ordered one from Tokyo. Knowing I could use my Olympus Zuikos was what tipped the scales for me to purchase a Canon Digital Rebel. The adapter allowed me to enter the world of digital SLRs with one autofocus lens (the Canon kit lens) and nice collection of older prime lenses.

So, what's it like shooting the Digital Rebel with manual lenses? Quite decent, as long as you're not tracking wildlife, sports, or other fast-moving subjects like children. For more static subjects, which covers a very wide range of photography, the solution works remarkably well.

Indoor informal portrait of my niece. (Canon Digital Rebel; Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4; 1/2 sec at f/5.6; ISO 200.)

Metering Method
You use an adapter by first attaching the lens to the adapter, then attaching the adapter to the camera. On the Digital Rebel and the EOS 10D metering works in two modes: Av (aperture priority) and M (manual). In Av mode, you focus with the manual lens wide-open, then stop down the lens to the desired f/stop while watching the shutter-speed adjustments in the viewfinder. In M mode you set a fixed shutter speed, and the metering shows a plus/minus range of two f/stops, like an old TTL meter. As in Av mode, you focus wide-open, then stop down the aperture until the metering is where you want it.

Obviously this type of shooting is well suited to tripod work. Even so, I find my faster Zuikos practical for available-light photography. I tend to use my manual 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.8, and 100mm f/2.8 wide-open in low light.

I was so pleased with the overall results of the OM-EOS adapter that I tracked down a Pentax M42-to-EOS adapter to use with my ancient Super-Takumars. To my delight, digital images taken with my Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens look as creamy as ever with that lens' legendary bokeh. The bonus is that it becomes an 80mm-equivalent portrait lens on the Digital Rebel.

Morning rowers, Lake Ontario. (Canon Digital Rebel; Vivitar 80-200mm f/4 Series 1; OM mount; 1/1000 sec at f/8; ISO 200.)

Manual Focusing, Too
The drawbacks to using manual lenses are obvious. There's no autofocus and your eyesight has to be good to get a sharp focus on the small and somewhat dim viewfinders of the Digital Rebel and EOS 10D. Unlike vintage 35mm manual SLRs, these cameras do not have built-in focusing aids such as microprism or split-image screens.

The benefits of using manual lenses are also obvious. Recycled lenses from the past are relatively cheap and their optical quality is often noteworthy. Many of these lenses are small and highly portable. But more than anything else, they provide a transition period in which you can evaluate your lenses and your needs, gradually replacing the older lenses with modern autofocus counterparts, if desired. If your eyesight is good, the manual lenses are fun to use, and they're a heck of a conversation starter when another photographer sees you attaching one to your EOS 10D or Digital Rebel!

Empty docks in morning light, Port Credit, Ontario. (Canon Digital Rebel; Vivitar 80-200mm f/4 Series 1; OM mount; 1/200 sec at f/22; ISO 200.)

Gene Wilburn is a writer and photographer based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Resources

Lens adapters are not as widely available as other camera accessories. Some of the larger US camera stores such as Adorama and B&H stock a few adapters. The chief reseller of EOS adapters in the US is CameraQuest (www.cameraquest.com). Prices of the adapters vary from $50 for the Pentax adapter to $175 for most of the others. CameraQuest now stocks the Kindai International OM-EOS adapter so it's no longer necessary to order this previously hard-to-find item directly from Tokyo. The key Internet resource on Canon EOS adapters is photonotes.org/articles/eos-manual-lenses/ maintained by NK Guy. Look there for additional information on which lenses can be adapted successfully to EOS camera systems. My photo website, www.pbase.com/gwilburn/lenses, contains additional examples of Digital Rebel photos taken with vintage Zuiko and Super-Takumar lenses.

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