So you spend a thousand pounds on a Sony A7ii mirrorless camera and then stick a fifty pound piece of glass off Ebay on the front. Can that really make any sense? Is it really possible to use old glass on a modern camera and get stunning results or are you throwing good money after bad? Well being the thrifty sort I set out to find out.
I bought my Sony A7ii earlier this year (2018) Already you can see my leanings towards saving money by not forking out on the already released A7iii. For years before I had an association with Canon apart from a brief fling with Nikon. My attraction to Sony, apart from this being my first full frame camera and the stunning results I was seeing from other photographers came from the whispers I heard that the Sony was really rather good when used with old lenses pre the year 2000. Lenses that where predominately designed for film cameras. Obviously I wanted more proof so started doing my own research. It was obvious fairly early on that it was a mixed picture and as I dug deeper into the forums some clear favourites started to come out.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, after all nothing really changes. Today we have new premium lenses that are soon labelled as awful while others which are at the budget end are suddenly very difficult to get hold of as photographers rush to grab a copy as multiple photographers sing there virtues.
By examining the forums I was able to come up with a few lenses that I thought would work well with my new camera. I had purchased the camera with the very expensive Sony 24-70 but I wanted a lens to use as my zoom tele-landscape lens as well as a couple of primes to keep things interesting.
Initially I was going to go with the Canon 70-200 F4 non IS but this was going to cost £300 and for a lens this price I would want to use it's autofocus so I could add another £100 for an adaptor. This was hardly keeping to my cheap legacy lens formula. So, going back to the drawing board and the forums it looked promising for two lenses. These where the old manual Canon 70-200 or the Minolta AF 70-210 (affectionately known as the "beer can") Well it was the beer can reference that swung it and I managed to pick one up off Ebay for the bargain price of £27 and with the cheap manual adaptor from Beschoi that came to an impressive £37.
To try out a couple of lenses on the prime side I plumped for a Pentax M 135mm F3.5 and a Pentax 50mm F1.7. Both these would use another Beschoi adaptor and the lenses where both under £30.
Right now for the technical stuff! Lens Specifications.
Minolta AF 70-210 F4
Build Quality - Very Good
Optical Configuration - 12 Elements in 9 Groups
Aperture - 7 Blades
Minimum Focus - 1.07m
Filter Size 55mm
Min F Stop - F/32
Weight - 693g
Pentax SMC M 135mm F3.5
Build Quality - Very Good
Optical Configuration - 5 Elements in 5 Groups
Aperture - 8 Blades
Minimum Focus - 1.50m
Filter Size - 49mm
Min F Stop - F/32
Weight - 270g
Pentax SMC M 50mm F1.7
Build Quality - Excellent
Optical Configuration - 6 Elements in 5 Groups
Aperture - 6 Blades
Minimum Focus - 0.45m
Filter Size - 49mm
Min F Stop - F/22
Weight - 185g
That's the only technical information I will cover in this article. This is not an article that will look at image quality in any great detail. I was really much more interested if the lenses for-filled the specific roll I had intended them for.
The first lens I purchased was the Pentax SMC M 135mm. I bought this specifically because I needed a telephoto option for my landscape images. The plus points where it was a prime lens so image quality should be better than a zoom especially as this was a 1980's lens and zooms from this period seem to be universally recognised as less sharp. One of the first images I took with it on my A7ii was from a woodland shoot. The image below of a single orchid amongst a carpet of bluebells came out rather well. It was shot at F3.5 to blur the background as much as possible and off a tripod at 1/15th of a second. I was very happy with this image and had no issues with image quality etc.
The lens would next be used in the Peak District and a shoot from Kinder Scout. I wanted to shoot the sun going down behind Manchester but wanted the layered effect that a telephoto lens pulls together with the landscape from far and near seeming to be pulled closer. I was really happy with this shot which just shows some of the high rise buildings of Manchester in silhouette in the mid ground.
I suppose I had been bittern by the bug a little by this point. I was happy with the performance of the 135mm Pentax and as I already had the adaptor I added the nifty 50mm to the collection so I could interchange the adaptor between them. I just saw the 50mm as a versatile little lens on the Sony A7ii which would allow me to get some nice bokeh with the 1.7 aperture. On reflection my 24-70 obviously covers this range but sometimes it is just a nice little lens to use. Thsi was one of the first images i shot with it, again doing some woodland work and shot from above with the tripod at F2.8 and 1/200 of a second.
Again on another trip to the Peak District, this time wild camping which does start to make you rationalise the amount of kit you are carrying. In reality I probably should have left the 50mm at home on this occasion as the shot could have been taken with the 24-70, but as I had it I decided to use it and again could not complain at the result. This one taken at F/11 1/100sec off the tripod.
The wild camping had really got me thinking about my kit choices. For me, especially in the summer a wild camp was the way forward as it enabled you to get a sunset and sunrise in one shoot. With the sun rising at around 4.30am it really was necessary to be close to your location. Wild camping obviously requires you to carry camera kit as well as tents, sleeping bags food and water. Carrying three or four prime lenses was just not practical. It was then that I started to look at the possibility of a zoom lens to cover the 70-200 range.
I think its important to note here that this lens would be bought to do one job only and that was as a landscape lens. This meant it was going to be used for a very narrow set of requirements. So, it would be used almost exclusively off a tripod, although the Sony A7ii has in-camera stabilisation so hand holding was an option. It would generally be used at F8 and above so softness at F4 was not really a problem. And finally manual focus only was not an issue especially with Sonys Focus Peaking system which allows for precise manual focus. For those that don't know focus peaking is basically a red, yellow or white outline (your choice) that appears in the viewfinder and LCD when you manually focus a lens. This moves back and fourth as you move the focus letting you know exactly which part of the image is in sharp focus.
So, the Minolta 70-210 arrived and I soon had the adaptor attached and it mounted on the camera. The lens looked to be in really good order. Out I went and took some shots, and they where terrible! A couple of issues I noted. Number one was dust, when I got the images back to the PC I had to clear over fifty dust spots from the image it was everywhere. And secondly i had noticed that unusually the lens would focus to infinity and would be in focus. This may sound strange but every lens I had used previously would always go slightly past infinity and you would have to wind back a couple of millimetres to achieve sharp focus. Now the big factor here was the price of the lens, I would in no-way advise you to get your £2000 lens and start taking it to bits to remove the dust, but at £27 I had nothing to lose. As always I hit google and fund it was a fairly easy job top access the front of the lens, three grub screws later I had the front element open and had cleaned inside the front glass and as much of the inside as I could.
The following day I took it out again. Firstly, virtually no dust! In fact there may have been one spot, I could live with that! And the focus now slid the regulation couple of millimetres past infinity and BOOM the images where sharp! Here's a couple of shots recently taken with the lens, I think for £27 that's not a bad return.
I must admit I didn't have to think too hard about this conclusion. For me it became clear early on that there is a place for this old glass with your new digital camera. Certainly from a Sony point of view anyway. The Sony lends itself to this legacy glass with the focus peaking function which makes it so easy to manually focus on your subject.
Can this glass replace your new modern, image stabilised, price of a family car glass? Well yes in some circumstances, and I think this is where you really have to know what job you want the lens to do. As I mentioned earlier, when I bought the 70-210 I knew exactly what I wanted it for, it was for a very narrow set of circumstances. It would be required to shoot telephoto landscape shots at F8 and above. It would be almost exclusively on a tripod. And that was it , and the Minolta does this wonderfully. However, if I also wanted it to shoot sports photography of fast moving mountain bikers in dark woodland, would I have bought it? No, is the simple answer. If you are looking for a multi-purpose lens to cover many different aspects of photography I would suggest that a legacy lens would not be for you. In the instance I have described above I would almost certainly have gone with the Canon 70-200 F4 with an expensive adaptor to get autofocus, if this was not going to focus fast enough I would have probably bittern the bullet and paid for the native Sony 70-200.
As for the Minolta 70-210? Well it works well under a fairly narrow set of circumstances but it does have its issues. For me the biggest is the tiny manual focus ring at the very end of the lens which is very difficult to operate if you have a filter system attached, although those with smaller fingers may not find it so much of an issue. I found my copy a bit soft when wound out fully to 210mm but I suspect this may be the same for many zoom lenses.
I am sure there are many other instances where you can make use of some old glass in other aspects of photography and please let me know in the comments where you have found it to be useful. I also think that there can be something really satisfying about producing a stunning image on an old relatively inexpensive piece of glass that has been long discarded . Hopefully you found this article useful, and please keep your eyes out for my Youtube Vlog coming soon where I use the Minolta 70-210 in the field.
It's interesting to note that the prices of legacy glass seem to be on the rise so we may be onto something here!!