My favorite vintage lenses

In my last post, I talked about vintage lenses, how to find them, and how to use them. Over the years, I’ve collected a few interesting vintage lenses that I’ve used for various things. Some are pretty common, while others are very uncommon or even rare. Here are some of my favorite vintage lenses!

Canon FD 50mm F1.8

Photo by Little Visuals on

The Canon FD 50mm F1.8 lens was a lens I found in a glass case in a Goodwill somewhere in Santa Clara. While this is a common lens, it’s one of the indispensable tools of budding photographers and cinematographers. The lens has an excellent combination of usability, versatility, and price. A precursor to the “Nifty-Fifty” prime lenses, this lens shines in situations where you want a sharp center focus, but a soft background. While at higher apertures, the picture is decently sharp. I tend to shoot at F5.6 when I want a sharp image, but the lens really gets interesting when you step below F2.8. Around that aperture, the background seems to fall away and the edges around the picture become softer, creating a kind of dreamy look. Step down to F1.8, and the picture turns into an impressionist painting, which is pretty useful if you’re filming a dream sequence!

I think I spent $12 for it, but I’ve reached into my camera bag for it more than enough times to realize that this lens is a keeper. The first time I used this lens was during the UBSCC British Motor Vehicle Show in 2017. I was very impressed with its smooth focus, decent bokeh, and sharpness at the center of the image. It’s great for portraits and close-ups!

  • Photo of a Rat Fink Poster

Spiratone Pluracoat 20mm F2.8

This particular lens has the distinction of being the first vintage lens I ever bought! This lens is very interesting because it’s a lens that has some historical value. Spiratone was an American company that produced low-cost lenses and lens accessories from 1941 to 1990. Its heyday was during the ’60s and ’70s when Spiratone had a Manhattan Loft-style store. This particular lens I bought on a whim during a visit to a Goodwill in Scotts Valley, CA. Little did I know how rare this lens actually is!

This is a highly versatile lens, thanks to its smooth focus throw, sharpness at higher apertures, and wide focal length. While the 20mm focal length is limiting, I find it great for landscape photography. I used this lens almost extensively during a family vacation to The Grand Canyon in 2018, and I took some breathtaking panoramas of the canyon as a result! Just like the Canon FD 50mm F1.8, it has decent bokeh and focus at F2.8, with softness around the edges of the photo. It could also produce some dream-like portraits at that aperture. I think I bought this lens for $12 too!

  • An elk drinking from a puddle in the road at the Grand Canyon
  • A Panoramic shot of the Grand Canyon with the Spiratone 20mm F2.8.
  • A shot of part of the Grand Canyon. Shot with the Spiratone 20mm F2.8
  • Sunset at the Grand Canyon. Shot with the Spiratone 20mm F2.8.

Vivitar 75-205mm F3.8 Macro Focusing Lens for Pentax

The Vivitar 70-205mm F3.8 Macro Focusing Lens. Found on
The Vivitar 70-205mm F3.8 Macro Focusing Lens. Found on

This lens is one of my unlikely favorites because it’s actually defective. I found it in another Goodwill, but I can’t recall where exactly. When I bought it, it was around $16. However, when I came home and tested it I found that the aperture iris wasn’t working. As it turned out, the iris is engaged with a small lever on the rear of the lens. When the lens is attached to a Pentax K-mount camera, the lever is pressed down, allowing the iris to open and close. Because I’m using an adapter, the lever is never pressed, so the iris stays open. On the other hand, this ended up becoming one of my favorite portrait lenses because of the permanently-open aperture!

Vivitar made all sorts of rebranded lenses for various cameras, so finding a Vivitar lens is very common. In fact, I would say that the majority of the lenses you could find in thrift stores are either Vivitar or something similar. The lens I got was made for Pentax K-mount cameras, so I needed another adapter. I’m amazed at how well this lens does Macro imaging in addition to shooting portraits at a distance. Thanks to the broken aperture, the background is very “creamy” while the subject is almost tack-sharp! Additionally, the one-touch Focusing/Zoom ring is incredibly easy to use. I first used this lens when I crashed the Concorso Italiano in 2017, and I’ve been using it for “artsy projects” since!

  • BMW 2002 at the Feb 2018 Orinda Cars and Coffee

Still on the hunt

This is just a small selection of some of the lenses I’ve used and still own, but (as of right now) are my favorites. I’m still on the lookout for some really cool vintage lenses whenever I pop into a thrift store, so who knows? I might append this list later!

A Guide to Shooting with Vintage Lenses

Photo by Alex Andrews on

One of my hobbies other than shooting photos at car events and blogging is scouring local thrift shops for vintage camera lenses. Any photographer will tell you that there’s nothing quite like vintage glass. Why bother with an Instagram filter when you can get the look you want straight out of the camera? Using vintage lenses doesn’t just give you the opportunity to be creative with your photos. It can help teach beginners the fundamentals of photography. Plus, you won’t have to break the bank! So, here is my guide to shooting with vintage lenses.

Finding Vintage Lenses

Photo by zohaib khan on

Finding an interesting vintage lens to shoot with is as easy as heading down to your local swap meet or thrift store. The majority of my lenses I’ve either acquired from Goodwill or as a trade at a flea market. You can usually find old cameras and lenses behind the glass cases at Goodwill or The Salvation Amry. You could also find them near the Audio/Video equipment next to vintage camcorders and projectors. In fact, you could even use old 35mm projector lenses as a camera lens, but that’s another story.

If the thrift stores don’t work out, sometimes you can find some interesting vintage lenses or even whole cameras at a flea market. I’ve often found some interesting stuff just laying around for cheap at some of the swap meets I’ve been to. I’ve even made trades for some lenses I had for something at the flea market. This can be a bit of a crap shoot though since more often than not the quality of the lenses depends on several factors.

What to look for in a vintage lens

Photo by Markus Spiske on

When I find a vintage lens I like, I always check for the following:

  • Condition of the body, glass, and mechanics
  • Type of mount
  • (Optional) Novelty

The most important thing to look for is the condition of the lens. I often look closely at the quality of the glass, the body, and the mechanical components. If the glass looks hazy or looks like it has “hair” in it, then the lens is no good. Moisture might have gotten inside the lens and a fungus is now growing on the glass. The body of the lens could have some scratches and even some dings in it while still being usable. But, if the mechanical components are affected by the damage, then the lens is also no good.

Second, I look at the lens mount. This part isn’t quite as important as the condition of the lens since there are aftermarket conversion kits available for adapting a different lens mount to your camera body. For example, I use a Fotodiox Canon FD & FL to Canon EOS (EF, EF-S) adapter with my older Canon lenses. If I’m set on a certain lens, I can quickly check if there are options available to adapt the lens to my camera body. Also, there are resources like that will help you figure out the type of lens you have and what kind of mount it uses.

The last thing I look for in a vintage lens is its novelty. This part is completely optional, but I can’t help but pick up a lens which I think looks cool or has a strange function! One of the coolest lenses I have I bought on a whim because I noticed that the aperture dial was broken, but the glass and lens body were pretty much perfect. The lens ended up becoming one of my favorites for portrait photography thanks to its wide-open aperture, zoom, and ergonomics!

Shooting with a vintage lens

Photo by Dominika Roseclay on

Shooting with a vintage lens can get pretty tricky, but the results are almost always rewarding. I mentioned earlier that sometimes you’d have to find an adapter to adapt an older lens to your newer camera body in order to use it. While this can get tricky, later purchases of vintage lenses could be guided by whatever adapters you already own. I’ve already got several for Canon FD lenses, Minolta MD lenses, and Pentax K Mount lenses!

After mounting your lens, you would have to get used to shooting completely manually without the use of autofocus. While you can get adapters that allow you to use the autofocus controls, it’s not quite as fun as doing it the “old-fashioned way.” Setting up your camera to shoot with a vintage lens could require some experimentation as well. I usually set my camera to its “Aperture Priority Mode” since I would be controlling the aperture, zoom, and focus manually. In addition, I wouldn’t have to worry about shutter speed since the Aperture Priority mode automatically adjusts it. I usually set my ISO and my light balance manually, but you could also leave the ISO on Auto. If you’re just starting out with a vintage lens, I would suggest that you start shooting on Auto so you could get used to adjusting the lens manually.

In Conclusion

Photo by Marcelo Chagas on

Shooting with a vintage lens is rewarding, but it does take a lot of work. Sometimes it could take more than a few tries to get it right with a lens. Even then, sometimes the lens you found might work for you. However, a lot of these lenses are rather affordable, so if a lens doesn’t quite work out, you’re not going to be out a lot of money! Furthermore, a lot of vintage lenses are collectible, so you could trade them at swap meets or flip them on eBay! In the end, using vintage lenses will help you become a better photographer, and you’ll end up with some great photos!

Photo of a Rat Fink Poster
I used my trusty vintage Canon FD 50mm F1.8 “Nifty Fifty” lens for this photo from the 37th All-American Get-Together.