The 7 Best Affordable Vintage Lenses to Use with Digital Cameras

I’m a film dinosaur—about 40% of the pictures I shoot are made on black-and white film, and my favorite analog cameras range in age from 50-100 years. For the remaining 60%, I shoot digitally, sometimes with a vintage lens attached to help capture a "retro" look.

I use (at last count) three mirrorless cameras, four DSLRs, and a passel of modern lenses. Since I’m a big fan of retro, especially for portraits, I often mount ancient vintage lenses on my modern digital marvels using readily available adapters to render my subjects with a timeless classic look that few contemporary lenses can match.

It’s not that vintage lenses are better than new ones—indeed, some of their charm may be the result of optical “defects” such as lower contrast, resolution falloff in the corners at wide apertures, spherical aberration, vignetting, and even flare. And while some vintage lenses are incredibly sharp, it’s their rounded “natural” rendition of 3-dimensional space and their distinctive bokeh that can help you capture images that evoke an authentic retro sensibility. The downsides: manual focus, and manual or aperture priority metering at working aperture only.

Because so many contemporary photographers have been captivated by the retro craze, the prices for many vintage lenses have skyrocketed over the past few years. Old uncoated lenses with modest specs you could have snagged for under $50 not too long ago are now selling for hundreds of dollars.

A good example: the 100mm f/2.8 Meyer Trioplan in Exakta bayonet or Pentax (M42) screw mount, which typically sold for under 100 bucks 5-6 years ago now often fetches $400-$750. It’s a nice, well-made example of a simple triplet (3-element) design, and it delivers classic rendition and pleasing bokeh. But it has become a cult classic and I’m not the first one to say that it’s overpriced.

The good news: You can still find great vintage “retro look” lenses at relatively modest prices if you know which ones to look for. To that end I’ve selected 7 “great buy” affordable vintage lenses and described each one in detail below.

Since the primary criteria for retro fans are vintage rendition and beautiful bokeh you can often save quite a bit by picking a lens that has minor cosmetic defects such as paint loss on the barrel or a few minor blemishes or cleaning marks on the front element. Avoid lenses afflicted with haze or fungus, stiff or dented focusing or aperture rings, etc. that can be expensive, difficult, or impossible to repair.

Also steer clear of lenses sold as is or with no return privilege. Finally you can often acquire vintage lenses along with the vintage cameras they’re attached at about the same price you’d pay the lens alone. That can be an attractive proposition whether you shoot film now or might in the future.

If you're in the market for some classic glass, you should also check out my story on our 10 favorite vintage lenses you can buy right now. If you're looking for something more afforable though, check out my seven favorite budget vintage lenses below.


1. 85mm f/4.0 Carl Zeiss Triotar

In production for over 30 years starting in 1934 this classic triplet (3-element) lens was made in Germany in both uncoated and coated versions, in silver or black finish. It’s available in Contax bayonet (CRM), Leica screw (LTM) Pentax screw (M42) and Exakta bayonet mount, it has a 13-bladed manual diaphragm to enhance its attractive natural bokeh, it focuses down to 1 meter for frame-filling headshots, and it certainly captures the retro look at its widest apertures. Stop it down to f/8 or smaller apertures and it’s tack sharp without losing its “vintage’ character.

Price: $150-200, higher in Contax and LTM mounts. 

A lower cost alternative with similar imaging characteristics: 135mm f/4 Carl Zeiss Triotar. Price: $50-100



2. 50 mm f/2.8 Meyer Görlitz Domiplan

Made in Germany by the venerable firm of Meyer-Optik, this normal lens from the early ‘60s through the mid ‘80s was produced in Exakta bayonet and Pentax/Praktica (M42) screw mounts as an entry level alternative to the famed 50mm f/2.8 Zeiss Tessar.  A classic Cooke triplet design it’s quite soft wide open, but its “dreamy creamy” rendition at its widest apertures appeals to retro fans. It focuses down to 29-1/2 inches) for compelling close-ups, has a 6-bladed diaphragm, is capable of sharp imaging at f/8 and smaller apertures, and is a fraction of the cost of a comparable Meyer Trioplan.  

Price: $35-75



3. 100mm f/4.5 Isco-Gottingen Westar

This modest moderate telephoto from Germany dates from the 50s and ‘60s and features a single coated triplet design with the 3 separate elements mounted close to the front of the barrel. It was offered only in Pentax/Praktica M42 screw and Exakta bayonet mounts, features a pre-set manual 10-bladed diaphragm, and is very well made mechanically. Optically it’s a decent performer capable of sharp imaging at moderate and small apertures but its chief attraction for retro fans is its gorgeous bokeh and soft rendition at its widest apertures. It focuses down to 4.9 feet, close enough for head-and-shoulders portraits and stops down to f/22.

Price: $40-100



4. 90mm f/4 Leitz Elmar

Can a genuine Leica lens really qualify as an affordable vintage classic? Yes, if it’s a run-of-the-mill rigid mount 90mm f/4 Leitz Elmar in LTM screw mount. In production from 1931-1968 in coated and uncoated versions in both black and chrome finish, this venerable Tessar formula (4 elements in 3 groups) lens is exquisitely made, features a 15-bladed diaphragm that enhances its beautiful bokeh, stops down to f.32, and focuses down to 1 meter, close enough for frame-filling headshots. The 90mm Elmar is a bit soft wide open, especially at the corners and edges, but it’s quite sharp stopped down while retaining its attractive retro rendition.

Price: Around $100



5. 50mm f/3.5 Industar 50-2

The original collapsible version of this Russian lens is a 50mm Elmar clone that was fitted to countless Soviet Fed and Zorki Leica copies, but the later rigid mount Industar-50-2 version featured here is probably a better choice for retro look fans because it focuses down to 0.65 meters (a little over 2 feet) rather than 1 meter. All are competent 4-element, 3-group Tessar designs that generally perform quite well at moderate to small apertures, are sharp in the center and yield a more retro look at wider apertures. But beware of quality variations! The tiny rigid mount version shown has a 7-bladed diaphragm, stops down to f/16, has oodles of character, but shows noticeable vignetting and softness in the corners when used on full-frame cameras, and has a tendency to flare.

Price: $20-40



6. 85mm f/1.9 Canon

This hefty (1 pound, 12 ounce) wide aperture moderate telephoto is a 6-element, 4-group design that debuted as the 85mm f/1.9 Serenar in the early ‘50s and is renowned for its beautiful retro look imaging and gorgeous bokeh at its widest apertures. This Leica/Canon screw mount (LTM) lens stops down to f/16, focuses down to 1 meter for frame-filling headshots, is exquisitely made and beautifully finished, and has 20-bladed diaphragm! It’s a great retro look lens that provides enhanced depth of field control, and is ideal for portraiture and shooting in low light.

Price: $150-250



7. 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor-S.C

This is the original 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor that created a sensation when it debuted on the Nikon S rangefinder camera in the early ‘50s and it was produced until 1962. The “C” designation, denoting “coated,” was dropped in 1957 since all lenses were coated by that time. A 7-element, 3-group design based on the acclaimed 50mm f/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar, it has a 12-bladed diaphragm, focuses down to 3 feet, and was made in Nikon S rangefinder and Leica screw (LTM) mounts, the latter commanding premium prices. Beautifully crafted, this lens captures beautiful images with a soft vintage glow and some vignetting at f/1.4 a=d f/2 and attains peak performance at f/5.6-f/8, delivering crisp, high-contrast images that still retain that vintage look.

Price: $150-200