Transition Lenses: SLR to DSLR
August 6, 2009 9:10 PM   Subscribe

When is an old camera lens good enough to influence which DSLR body to purchase?

I never had an expensive kit, but have one prime lens used on my Yashica FX-3 Super 2000 that I quite like. It's identifying marks include Carl Zeiss Planar T* 1,7/50.

So, I went from really liking photography to moving to digital point and shoots and am now ready to move back to enjoying photography with a DSLR. Is this lens, along with a so-so telephoto, enough to influence what to buy? There's so much confusing information about adapters that I'm not quite sure if this is even possible with the lenses I already have.

By the way, I do understand that this would limit me to manual focus. I'm completely comfortable with this unless you can tell me there are other features other than autofocus I'd be missing out on.

posted by yamel to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I was a pro photographer for 25 years, and taught college photo for 15.
I've had Nikons for most of that time. I bought digital a few years ago and I've found that my D200 has far greater resolution than anything but Kodachrome 25. So I discovered that a lot of my old primes weren't as sharp as I thought.
BUT, I found that the brand new (ungodly expensive) zoom I bought was actually sharper than any prime I had ever owned.
Your lens may be as sharp as you need it to be, but you won't know until you see what 10mp shows you.
Worry more about the quality of the sensor (you can't change it like you could change film) and the ergonomics of the body.
posted by johngumbo at 9:32 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

An excellent lens can be worth it, but IMO never when it would force you to use an adapter, as this will always change the metrics for which the lens was designed (apart from mechanical problems).

Since you will also need a digital camera body good enough to notice the lens' quality, this comes down to Nikon, Canon, and Hasselblad systems where it might be worth it. (Because these offer both lenses and bodies good enough to justify this, while at the same time having compatible lens mount for their older lenses).
posted by uncle harold at 10:23 PM on August 6, 2009

Best answer: I wouldn't let it influence you on the basis of that one lens at all. Practically everything is adaptable to Canon and they have a huge selection of glass on the second hand market, but that doesn't make it the best system for you. In particular, Sony and Pentax do stabilisation in the body, which means that when you attach an ancient prime lens, it will be stabilised. Getting stabilised shooting on your old lenses is not something to be sneezed at, but those systems support a narrower range of 3rd-party glass.

Agree with johngumbo that top of the line new zooms mostly resolve as much as the sensor is capable of but many don't and we're talking $2000 lenses here. While there are plenty of poor quality old primes (there has always been an "entry-level" lens and it has always sucked), there is a lot of mid-late 20th century manual glass available for a song that will resolve as much as any DSLR currently on the market. Stop-down metering etc gets to be a drag though.

If I were you, I would decide which system is the best fit for what you want to do. If that doesn't include support for your old lens (i.e. if you buy Nikon you have little to no chance of attaching old manual non-Nikon lenses), then sell it. If it was any good, you'll get enough for it to replace it with something else that is compatible and of similar quality - the used lens market is pretty liquid and predictable if you're careful.

Very short and over-simplified summary of your options:
- Canon: has masses of lenses available and some of the best telephotos but they can't build a wideangle to save their life. Many (including me) think their user interface sucks. You can adapt nearly any old manual lens (C/Y, Leica, M42, etc) to an EOS body, though some have issues with the mirror hitting some lenses. New prices are pretty low but they're selling a lot of fairly old designs as new lenses. Best autofocus performance for sports/birds to go with the $5000 long teles.
- Nikon: used market in modern lenses is not as big as Canon's but much larger towards the older end. Can't practically adapt old lenses to it. Telephotos are so-so but they have some fantastic ultrawide glass and macros. New prices are quite high. Currently has the best high ISO (D3/D700) and high res (D3x) bodies.
- Sony: in-body stabilisation, which means your commonly-used mid-range and wide primes are stabilised, which is awesome. You probably won't ever see a stabilised 24, 35 or 50 on Canon/Nikon, but on Sony you get stabilisation with all the old Minolta glass, including the very fast stuff. Used market is much smaller, second-hand lens prices are high for the really good stuff. New pricing is high but on a par with Nikon. You won't get AF Zeiss glass on any other mount, and that stuff is fantastic. Best value full frame and high res body (A900 with same sensor core as D3x at 1/3 the price but narrower band Bayer mask for better colour quality at low ISO but slightly poorer at high ISO). Live view on sony is with secondary sensor in the viewfinder so you get full-speed AF but you don't get a pixel-perfect view off the main sensor as implemented by Canon/Nikon.
- Pentax: like Sony but much smaller company. Bodies are better value for money than any other player in terms of features, but they don't have a full-frame option and they look like they're on the way to going bust, which is very sad as they're quite innovative.
- Olympus: 4/3 is IMHO a too-small sensor. Too hard to get shallow DOF effects. Nothing wrong with the lenses except their price and availability.
posted by polyglot at 10:43 PM on August 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

Cheaper DSLRs typically have smaller and dimmer viewfinders than you may be used to. Manual focus can be much more difficult with them.

I'd personally ditch the lens. Everyone who's worth considering makes fantastic fast 50mm primes. Canon & Nikon both have sub-hundred dollar f/1.8 lenses that are extremely sharp, and I imagine, in terms of image quality at least, are pretty comparable to your Zeiss lens (build quality is probably worse, since they're new instead of old). Canon's 50mm f/1.4 is faster and is a great lens ($350) and I am sure Nikon offers something comparable.

I would avoid adapters unless you have some exotic or super expensive lens (e.g., 400mm f/2.8, or some > 1:1 macro thing)

I would definitely recommend Nikon or Canon - I personally use Canon, but they have pretty similar levels of high quality lenses and bodies.
posted by aubilenon at 10:45 PM on August 6, 2009

Polyglot has it. The answer is no.

For any camera other than a full frame camera your 50mm lens is going to be the equivalent of a 85mm lens or longer, aka not that useful. It might not be that great in the digital environment anyway.

All these camera brands have some Achilles heal to deal with. Canon's is there old primes that haven't been updated and kind of suck mostly. I know about that because I use Canon. Sony sounds good but the smaller market share makes it a dodgier proposition.
posted by sully75 at 2:44 AM on August 7, 2009

The only way I'd let a lens I currently owned dictate my entry into DSLR photography would be if that lens were some kind of an exotic optic. Even then it would have to be an exotic optic that was known for performing superbly on a DSLR. As nice as it may be, that 50/1.7 Planar is not an exotic optic.

For the most part, modern lens designs are the best they've ever been.

A lot of near legendary lenses originally designed for film cameras are merely so-so, or worse, on DSLR bodies.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:08 AM on August 7, 2009

One of my main lenses is a 28mm f/2.8 T* Distagon on a C/Y mount. I used it on my 5D all the time and it is an amazing lens, and it cost me $200 with the adapter.

So that's my recommendation, get a used 5D, a manual focus screen (EE-S - $30) and go wild.
posted by jedrek at 3:36 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that all of the lenses made for DSLRs have electronics in them to communicate with the camera. Your old lens won't so no matter how good a lens it is no modern camera will work with it as well as it will with a modern lens. Frustrating when you've invested in good equipment in the past but combined with how much better most modern lenses are and you're better off retiring it.
posted by leslies at 4:48 AM on August 7, 2009

There are, in a historical context, very few lenses made for DSLRs - Canon has 6 of them, for example. All modern lenses (as in, the past 20 years modern) should communicate with their own brand of DSLR bodies without problem.
posted by jedrek at 5:02 AM on August 7, 2009

I'm a rank amateur with an entry level Canon DSLR. I have some old Nikon lenses from my dad, with an adapter to make them work on Canon (metering works, but they are manual focus). After using auto focus with the kit lens and other lenses I bought, manual focusing (especially on any moving subject such as a toddler) is teh suck. I simply don't use the older Nikon lenses any more, as it's too tedious. If you're in a financial position to get a "modern" lens to replace the focal length of the older lens, you may just want to do so. (I.e., Canon makes a 50mm f/1.8 lens that can be had for ~$100 USD; it is not perfect, but is extremely good for the price.)
posted by dave*p at 6:38 AM on August 7, 2009

Response by poster: As always, this community is superb! So thorough and I always get more information than I knew I needed.

I'm convinced. Now I just need to see if I can make myself actually sell off this old kit; I can't imagine anyone in my family wanting it as a handmedown, but it served me so well for 20 years.

Thanks, all.
posted by yamel at 7:39 AM on August 7, 2009

Just to jump in late here with a couple thoughts. First, a Zeiss lens could be great. That company has made some great glass. It may not be super sharp, but it probably has a cool look all its own. Second, that lens was designed for use with film. It will look its best with film, who knows how great on a dslr. So keep your Yashica to use with that lens. Shoot some black and white film with it.
posted by conrad53 at 7:52 PM on August 7, 2009

There are, in a historical context, very few lenses made for DSLRs - Canon has 6 of them, for example. All modern lenses (as in, the past 20 years modern) should communicate with their own brand of DSLR bodies without problem.
posted by jedrek at 5:02 AM on August 7 [+] [!]
posted by GeeEmm at 3:21 AM on August 8, 2009

Ooopps!!! Finger trouble - pushed the post button too soon!

What I meant to add to the above post was - few camera mounts will handle lenses older than a few years with all their original functionality intact. Pentax will, except for the power zoom in a couple of lenses, but that won't help you. I don't know if anyone is currently producing a mount compatible with Yashica, but ask at a good camera store (preferably with the lens in your hand).

Just because it is old, doesn't mean it is no good. If it is good lens, and you can find a DLSR that will accept it (if one exists, it will be one of Oly, Pentax or Sony), that is a good starting point for step 2 ...

If you are going digital, shop around and try all the DRLR manufacturers' products. The herd will go with Canon and Nikon, but Olympus, Sony and Pentax also make good products and should not be discounted just because their marketing budgets don't match those other two.
posted by GeeEmm at 3:38 AM on August 8, 2009

You don't need to sell it, you can use it in parallel with your shiny new DSLR. Go get a daylight development tank, some D-76, rapid fixer and a brick of HP5 or Pan-F. Use it like it was meant to be used!
posted by polyglot at 1:59 AM on August 9, 2009

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