Old Is New
Some of you may remember that I recently started shooting with an Olympus OM2 film SLR. Over the past few weeks I have grown to really enjoy having it around and I hope to write more about the experience eventually here on 50ft. I think it could make for a nice series of posts to cover the old film cameras that I love shooting with so much. Hopefully some of the joy that I find when shooting film will rub off on some of you. Today, however, I wanted to write about something related to, but not exactly about, this great old camera.
When I bought the OM2 I bought it not as much because of the camera itself but because of the lens system that exists around the body. Specifically, an older lens, the 55mm f/1.2. After a lot of research I knew I would be taking a bit of a risk because of its reputation for not being very sharp. I decided that I could have fun with the soft, dreamlike quality of the lens and hopefully take advantage of this characteristic while using it.
Once I decided on the lens I popped over to eBay to have a look and see what was available and ended up getting quite lucky with the price and condition of both the lens and the OM2 body (which also arrived with a 50mmf/1.8). While looking through what was available in the used market within the OM system I was amazed at the price and availability of some really great lenses and cameras.
Among my first thoughts when deciding to try a new camera system was wondering how easy it would be to convert the old manual lenses to mount on my 5D for the added bonus of having some new glass to shoot with on the digital side of things. You can just about stick any lens on any camera within reason. Of course there are limits to converting lenses to different bodies because they are designed with a specific body in mind when they are created but when it came to OM lenses on the Canon EOS mount I seemed to be in luck. As soon as I won the lens and camera on eBay I found a simple, cheap adaptor on amazon that seemed to get fairly consistent reviews and jumped in.
The simple option of being able to swap lenses between the old film SLR in my bag with my digital camera turned out to be even more satisfying and worthwhile than I had imagined. Both the 55mm and the simple, cheap 50mm are highly satisfying to shoot with and I have been getting some great results with both. When placing an old manual lens on your fancy modern digital camera there are a couple of things that will take some adjusting to if you are used to an automated shooting style.
First, you will be forced to forget your camera has automatic exposure settings. This is an exciting prospect, especially for photographers just starting out or novice ones wanting to step up their game. Because these old lenses have nothing automatic about them, there is no way for them to communicate with the camera leaving you to set the aperture physically on the lens and the shutter speed within your camera. While its common advice to shoot only in manual mode if you are studying photography I feel using an old manual lens takes things one step further and leaves you with a connection to your exposures that is often casually ignored otherwise.
Second, and perhaps more obviously, autofocus will be lost. Manual focusing can take a little getting used to but once the process clicks with you it’s hard to deny how helpful it can be to be able to quickly focus in on the exact space you are aiming for without having to rely on what the camera is guessing you would like to be in focus. These old manual lenses were designed for it so focusing is nice and smooth. One suggestion for any serious user of any prime lens with a fast aperture would be to invest in a focusing screen that better suits fast lenses. Unfortunately many modern cameras don’t allow you to change them out, especially Nikon which, unless they have changed in recent years don’t even pretend to have the option outside of a few third party manufacturers and hacks. The benefit of this is that most focusing screens are designed for slower lenses like the kit lens paired with autofocus and therefore is not as accurate when focusing at wider apertures. Just something to keep in mind but its beside my point.
The main reason for writing about using an old manual lens on a digital SLR is because I wanted to share the great experience I have had with it and encourage others to consicer this as an option when thinking of getting a new lens. There are hundreds of amazing old lenses out there and while there are only a handful of those cult classics such as the 55mm I bought there are plenty of others to be explored as well. Don’t forget the added bonus that you could easily buy the original SLR film body that these old lenses were designed for and have a nice film camera as well!
The images I have taken using the old OM lenses have a wonderful warmth to them that I really love and with a watchful eye on my white balance setting I don’t often feel the need to adjust much of anything in post work. As a point of reference, the image below was taken with the 50mmf/1.8 and has no post work at all applied, it’s straight from the cameras sensor.
Another thing to consider is that in many cases these old lenses were made with a higher build quality than many made today and can be found for great prices both locally and online. As of this writing I see a number of great 50mm OM lenses on eBay ranging from $30-100 depending on the model and condition. Heck, some of them you can buy WITH a camera for under $100. I wuoldnt be surprised if you found one at a local thrift store or yard sale for even less. A simple mount adaptor for Nikon or Canon will only run about $20 on Amazon and you are on your way to enjoying a new lens and new possibilities.
This of course is not limited to the Olympus OM series, old Canon, Nikon, or Pentax lenses can be easily converted to other digital SLR’s as well. Then again, if your shooting a Nikon with an F-mount design you can buy most of their old SLR lenses all you want as they never changed their mount when newer technology started to become prevalent in cameras.
To boil this all down, you don’t need to constantly thirst for the latest and greatest in camera/lens technology. There is an enormous amount of gear out there from the past 40+ years that is still alive and well just waiting for you to pick up and experiment with so before you drop a lot of money on a new lens take a couple hours and dig into the past to see what is out there, you might be surprised of what it is capable of.