Home James Media

Contents

This is a pretty long article so get yourself a hot drink and prepare to immerse yourself in the world of old glass and new camera’s. For those of you who don’t have the time to read the full article I’ve included a table of contents here:

Why bother using old Manual Focus lenses?

There are a few main reasons for wanting to try using manual focus lenses on your shiny new mirrorless camera but let me take you through my motivations for using this setup for the majority of my photography these days.

Price

You can pick lenses up for a few pounds in charity shops and on local selling pages on facebook and other social networks. Auction sites are also a good place to look but prices of lenses with a cult following are on the rise so be careful (I’ve been stung once but had plenty of bargains). There are many good quality prime lenses available very cheaply with around 80-90% of the image quality of modern lenses costing £1000s.

Build Quality

Many film era lenses are all metal and glass construction and can seriously take a beating. There is a reason they have been around for 30+ years and are still going strong. No plastic fantastic equipment here which for me is a massive plus.

Creative Considerations

I love the look of film era photography. High contrast black and white images with exceptional sharpness hold a special place in my heart. There is also a distinctive look to colour film photography that I enjoy. Most of both of these looks are as a result of the lenses used. Many classic lenses produce a wonderful creamy, swirly bokeh effect which is great for portrait photography. It can also be cost effective to modify some lenses to enhance these creative effects even further.

Look and Feel

I’m a bit of a vintage fanatic. I like old cars, old machinery and old tools. To me the lens designers of the 1960’s, 70s and 80s did a great job producing iconic pieces of design that offer great functioning equipment in fantastic form.

My Journey into Using Manual Focus Lenses on a Sony A7.

Hopefully this won’t make me come across as too much of a cheapskate but when looking to upgrade from a Nikon D90 with a limited megapixel count, I found myself in a position where I could afford a new camera body but not a whole new collection of native lenses in my favourite focal lengths to go with it.

I had played with a friend’s Sony A7 for a few hours and liked it a lot. After careful consideration I decided it was time to leave the Nikon camera system behind.

Here’s why I switched from Nikon DSLR to Sony Mirrorless:

The Sony A7 offers double the megapixel count of my old D90 and gave me the chance to progress from cropped sensor DSLR to a full frame sensor at a much reduced cost to a similar spec Nikon full frame camera. In the used market, a low shutter count Sony A7 can be picked up for around £400 (2019).

Decision made I bought the camera. I soon discovered I’d been a little hasty as there are still limited quality native lens choices for the sony full frame sensors (known as Sony FE mount). Maybe I should have waited until I have saved up for at least 1 lens as well as the body.

After spending hours on auction sites looking for used lenses within my budget.  I stumbled upon many listings for old film era lenses ready-adapted for use on mirrorless cameras. After further research into this setup I discovered that many of the adapters are simple metal tubes that fit between camera body and lens. Their only purpose is to create the mechanical connection between the lens and body whilst making sure the focal point of the lens hits the sensor in the camera.

Web searches and a number of you-tube videos* backed up that adapting old camera gear to use on modern cameras was actually a thing people do.

*links to videos I found useful and informative can be found at the bottom of this page.

This got my me thinking – My Grandad was a photography fanatic from the film era. I had inherited most of his camera equipment when he passed away and in honesty had not looked at it too seriously, keeping it in bags and a few cooler looking pieces in a display cabinet. 

Apart from keeping it for sentimental reasons, I did not realistically think it would be useful to me as a photographer in the digital age.

The decision was made to get all the equipment out and see what I had. Grandad was clearly an Olympus fan – he had given me a couple of old Practika cameras when I was a teenager but his best gear was all Oly OM mount stuff. There was a 50mm f1.8 Olympus Zuiko, a Vivitar 200mm f3.5 and a 28mm macro lens of unknown origin. There were also a bunch of M42 mount lenses in the collection, including a pentacon 50mm f1.8.

Nearly every lens was a prime lens and most in makes I’d actually heard of too, hinting at them being ‘quality’ equipment.

With the right adapter I could use some of my Nikon fit equipment too.

I decided I didn’t have much to lose. There were lenses here in focal lengths I already used a lot. It was time to buy some adapters and see if this actually worked.

Equipment you need to start using manual focus lenses on your Sony A7

Adapters

You can spend a few pounds for a simple adapter or £100s for a more expensive specialist adapter with glass lens elements and features such as auto-focusing built in.

As mentioned above, the purpose of the adapter is to get the focal point of the lens the correct distance away from the camera sensor to allow the lens to focus from its minimum focal distance right up to infinity.

By connecting your camera to a lens via an adapter you lose the ability to set the lens’s aperture and focus automatically or using the controls on the camera body. This is the case for the vast majority of adapters as there is no electronic connection between camera and lens.

Therefore the simple metal tube affairs are perfectly adequate. Although some are better than others for reasons I’ll go into here.

Focus to infinity

Some adapters do not support focussing to infinity. If you are a landscape photographer like me this is an essential feature. Make sure the adapter you buy is able to support focus to infinity.

Light leaks, Image Ghosts and Flaring

Cheaper made adapters can sometimes have shiny or unfinished surfaces inside them. This can have an impact on the resulting images you take regardless of the quality of the lens attached. Paying a few pounds more will get you an adapter that avoids these unsightly image quality zapping problems.

Ability to preset/adjust the aperture

For some older lenses you may not have an aperture ring to stop the lens down. This is also a ‘feature’ of more modern lenses also such as Nikon G mount lenses. As there is no electrical connection between camera and lens, you cannot use the camera’s aperture controls to set the lens’s aperture. In this case some adapters have their own aperture ring built in which interfaces with the mechanical controls of the lens to set the aperture. If you want to mount non-native lenses with no aperture ring onto your Sony A7, you need an adapter with its own dedicated aperture controls.

My recommendations

K&F CONCEPT ADAPTERS

These low to mid priced adapters surprised me. I own the OM fitment and Nikon-G fitment versions of the adapters. The quality of the machining on these is fantastic, especially considering the price. You don’t have to worry about problems like internal reflections and light leaks as these have all been designed out. The Nikon-G fitment one has its own aperture ring. They come in their own little plastic storage case too.

NEEWER ADAPTERS

A close second for me is the M42 mount adapter I own manufactured by Neewer. This brand has cropped up a lot in my journey with photography and has a reputation for quality budget equipment. It’s a name I recognised and was a shade cheaper than K&F Concept in this fitment. As I only own a few M42 fit lenses a cheaper adapter was the way to go for me. Build quality is more than adequate.

Lens Choices

Wide Angle

Olympus Zuiko OM 28mm f3.5

This is a lens I purchased after using it’s stable mate in the 50mm focal length. I fell in love with it’s compact size, one finger controls and beautiful image quality.

The 28mm is essentially the same size and works in the same way with the aperture ring at the front. It’s pin sharp too. I could have gone for the f2.8 version at almost double the cost but I could not justify this for an extra ⅔ of a stop.

Reversed using a reversing ring also works really well for macro photography. The only thing I don’t like is the minimum aperture is f16 but you can get past this by using a low ISO and higher shutter speed if needs be. Colour rendition is pretty good and there are minimal image defects

What I use it for:

Landscape and architectural photography as well as Family and group photos. It’s my most used walkabout lens as it’s nice and short and combined with the Sony A7 it’s a really compact package that I can stuff in a holster case in a daysack full of food, clothes and things for the kids.

Expect to pay:

£30 – £50 on auction sites depending on condition (2019). I bagged mine with it’s original hard case and metal lens hood for £35 delivered.

Standard Lenses

Olympus Zuiko OM 50mm f1.8

This lens came to me inherited from my Grandad, it had been stored in a homemade wooden case for about £20 years and had signs of fungus on the inside of the front element. I was still keen to use the lens given it’s reputation and found online that this was one of the simplest lenses to disassemble and clean if you are brave enough to give it a go.

I’ve always been quite mechanically minded so got stuck in and managed to get the lens apart, clean the front element and put it all back together without problems. I am so glad I did, the lens renders colours beautifully and gives a lovely swirly bokeh. This lens like it’s stable mate is very compact but also has the same limitation of a minimum aperture of f16.

What I use it for:

Photo-stitches of landscape photographs, family portraits and nature/flower photography.

It’s the other lens I carry with me when using the 28mm above. I can stuff the 50mm in a jacket pocket and it’s not obtuse enough to be noticable. It’s also great to be able to switch lenses quickly having just the one adapter.

Expect to pay:

£30-£60 on auction sites depending on condition (2019). If you are willing to attempt cleaning the lens yourself, you could in fact get it for a lot less. The rewards will be worth it.

 

Pentacon Electric M42 50mm f1.8 Auto MC

This is a highly mass produced soviet era lens often bundled with Pentax and Practika cameras from the same period. Given this lens almost has kit lens status, the build quality and image quality is anything but. It’s built like a tank and gives superbly sharp images and creamy bokeh. It’s the first lens I used on my Sony A7 and although it’s taken a back seat since I cleaned the OM 50 above, I’ll still keep it in my collection.

What I use it for:

Mainly portrait work due to it’s creamy bokeh.

Expect to pay:

£20-£50. This lens was produced in such high quantities, quality examples crop up on auction sites and charity shops in abundance. Price here is based on auction site values (2019) but expect to pick up in charity shops, car boots and flea markets for as little as £5.

telephoto Lenses

Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 135mm f3.5 (Zebra version)

I found myself lacking image quality in the short telephoto range with the lenses I had inherited so I researched and purchased the CZJ Sonnar 135mm based on recommendations on the web. This lens optically is fantastic, it renders colours incredibly well and is sharp across the entire aperture range with no vignetting noticeable. It’s quite a piece of engineering, machined entirely out of aluminium and glass and weighs a ton although internally it has a reputation for not being mechanically robust so don’t be deceived that you can throw it around. I chose the first generation of this lens with the zebra finish because it looks suitably vintage but the later model (all black) is optically very similar.

What I use it for:

Landscape photography at a distance (e.g. when I want to foreshorten the image, presenting distant background subjects in a reasonable size behind the foreground).

Expect to pay:

£60-£100. This might sound a lot for a 35 year old lens. However the image quality is amazing. You would expect to pay many hundreds of pounds for a lens with similar image properties. The lens is now building a cult following and used prices reflect that. Do not be tempted to go cheaper than £60 unless you can inspect the lens yourself first. The focus ring should be smooth with gentle resistance. If it is stiff this means the grease applied on assembly has likely hardened over time and the lens needs disassembling, cleaning internally and re-lubricating. My advice is to pay a little more to get a copy that’s been serviced already.

Vivitar 200mm f3.5 Auto MC (OM fitting)

My Grandad used to take a lot of pictures of aeroplanes. For this purpose he used the Vivitar 200mm f3.5. It’s a fast aperture, very sharp and robust telephoto lens. The only negative is it’s quite long and weighs a ton. Hand held on the Sony A7 it works great but it’s not so good on the tripod due to it’s length/weight and lack of tripod ring. The lens also has a built in lens hood.

What I use it for:

Landscape photography at a distance. Animal and wildlife photography (when paired with a 2x teleconverter).

Expect to pay:

This is another mass produced lens. Quality can vary as Vivitar was essentially a reseller of other manufacturers products under their name. As such it’s best to try out a particular lens before purchase. However, if you get a good example you will be very happy with the lens.

How to use Manual focus lenses on a Sony A7.

Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as mount adapter to lens and then mount the whole thing to the camera body and off you go.

By default the Sony A7 will only make exposures when it detects that a lens is connected to it. This of course depends on there being a lens fitted with electronic gubbins inside that will ‘talk’ to the camera. With a plain tube adapter of the type recommended above, there is no electronic connection. Before you start using your manual focus lens setup you need to change one setting on the camera to allow exposures to be made.

Now Try This:

  1. Open the camera’s menu
  2. Goto the custom menu (sprocket icon)
  3. Goto tab 3
  4. Select and change the option ‘Release W/O Lens
Using Manual Focus Lenses on a Sony A7

After completing the above steps you can change lenses as many times as you like without needing to change this setting again.

Manual Focusing

Now onto obtaining focus. I use 2 primary methods to carry out manual focussing when using adapted film era lenses. I cannot recommend one over the other and usually use both when critical focus is necessary.

Focus peaking

This is a wonderful little setting that more often than not makes a great job of helping you to obtain focus. Simply put, the electronic viewfinder highlights everywhere in the image that is in focus for you.

To enable focus peaking:

  1. Open the camera’s menu
  2. Goto the custom menu (sprocket icon)
  3. Goto tab 2
  4. Change the setting ‘peaking level’ as desired (I prefer medium)
  5. Change the setting ‘peaking colour’ to the colour of your preference  (red, yellow, or white).

Now when using a manual focus lens, the area of the photograph in focus will be highlighted. For this example I chose the yellow colour.

Focus magnifier

As alluded to earlier, in situations where critical focus is necessary, focus peaking cannot be 100% relied upon. In this case I use a combination of focus peaking and the focus magnifier.

Essentially this previews a small section of the image at extreme close up so you can manually check and adjust focus.

Activating the focus magnifier mode shows an orange rectangle in the centre of the camera’s viewfinder/lcd. You can move this rectangle around the image to select the area you want to zoom into.

Clicking the centre of the control pad zooms into your chosen area. You can now set focus as desired and then half press the shutter release to exit focus magnifier. Compose how you want the resulting image and depress the shutter release all the way to take your photo.

The only issue with this on the default settings is the focus magnifier is a little bit awkward to get to when shooting photos.

A number of professionals recommend moving access to the focus magnifier to the ‘down’ button as the default button (C1 I believe) is a bit of a stretch. I use this button too as I have quite short thumbs!!

To change the button which activates the focus magnifier:

  1. Open the camera’s menu
  2. Goto the custom menu (sprocket icon)
  3. Goto tab 6
  4. Enter ‘Custom Key Settings’
  5. Goto page 2
  6. Select the setting for ‘Down Button’
  7. Then choose ‘Focus Magnifier’ from the pick list that appears.

Example Photos Taken with Manual Focus Lenses on a Mirrorless Camera (Sony A7)

adult stonefly messingham sands nature reserve

Taken with Sony A7, K&F Concept Nikon F-mount Adapter and 1969 Soligor 28mm f2.8 with 12mm of extension tubes.

Sunset barn manton

Taken with Sony A7, Neewer M42-mount Adapter and CZJ 135mm f3.5 (photo-stitch of 4 images).

pink hyacinths in woodland lincolnshire

Taken with Sony A7, K&F Concept OM-mount Adapter and Olympus Zuiko OM 50mm f1.8

Links & Resources

Camera Settings for Shooting Landscapes - Sony Alpha Tutorial

Tutorial by Mark Galer (Sony Ambassador and Landscape Photographer) on general settings for Sony Alpha series cameras for shooting landscapes.

Using Vintage Lenses on Mirrorless Cameras Like the Sony a7

Tutorial by Gary Explains. One of the advantages of mirrorless cameras, like the Sony a7, is that you can easily use them with vintage film-era full frame lenses like the Helios 44-2 58mm f2.0 or the Canon FD 50mm f1.8.

How to Manual Focus on Sony a6000 a6300 a6400 a6500 a7S II a7R II a7RIII a7III a9

Tutorial by Jason Vong. How to Nail Focus Manually Everytime with Sony Alpha!

Introduction to the sharpest and cheapest manual lenses and how to adapt them to a digital camera

Explanation of some of the best manual focus lenses and how to adapt them to use with Digital Cameras.

Conclusion

Buying film era lenses can create a new spark in your interest in photography – it did for me.

Using Manual Focus Lenses on a Sony A7 needn’t be expensive. Bargains can be had all over the place and it can be very addictive to source a new lens for a specific shot or image you have in mind. You don’t need to spend a lot. If you buy quality adapters you can turn lenses you never would have thought useful into valuable assets in your collection. If you’re willing to try something different, give it a try, trust me it’s worth it.

Leave a Comment