To really go retro, try using an old film camera lens with your digital camera

There are two main options when it comes to choosing retro lenses for your digital camera – using an old manual focus lens, or modern, low- tech glass from Lensbaby, Diana or other specialists. Both solutions mean you’ll sacrifice some of your camera’s auto features – but that’s part of the appeal.

Manual labour

the advantage of using the Lensbaby or Diana lenses is that to some extent you know what you’re going to get, as each lens has been designed with a particular ‘look’ in mind. So if you want the soft focus look of a very basic lens you can choose the Lensbaby Plastic optic, or one of the original models for the tilt/ shift effect. When it comes to using old manual focus lenses the results you get will be slightly more random.– but that’s half the fun! A 50mm f/1.8 is a classic lens that’s ideal when you’re starting out with retro photography. If you’re lucky, you can pick up these high-quality portrait lenses for a song – we found a pristine Olympus Zuiko 50mm lens with an equally clean OM10 SLR body for just £50 in a charity shop. the wide aperture can produce a very shallow depth of field, while the greater focal length on aPS-C (75mm) or Four Thirds cameras (100mm) makes it a great for really striking people shots.

Old kit, new skills

But remember, you’ll lose many automatic features when using an old lens on a digital camera, so you have to focus manually. Because you aren’t able to rely on the camera to set everything for you, it feels much more like shooting with an old-fashioned camera. there’s also something very satisfying about setting the focus using a large manual focus ring compared with the small control on most autofocus lenses, again adding to the authenticity of your retro photography adventure. Getting to grips with manual focus, and figuring out how to expose correctly with an old lens, may seem like hard work, but these skills will come in useful whatever kit you use.

wIll It fIt? Here’s a quick guide to using old film lenses from the big makers with modern digital cameras

Nikon SLRs

Most Nikon-fit manual lenses, known as aI or aI-s lenses, will fit straight onto Nikon digital SLRs, but you will lose some functions. Digital SLRs from the D7000 upwards provide metering and work in both aperture Priority and Manual mode, while on the D90 and below you won’t get any metering.

Canon SLRs

the basic ef lens fitting used on eOS digital models is largely unchanged since the first eOS film cameras of the late 1980s. Although the smaller sensor models use a different ef-S mount you can still use many of the lenses designed for these film cameras on your Canon digital SLR. You’ll need to an adapter for manual focus lenses. these are also available for Nikon, Olympus OM and Pentax lenses

Pentax SLRs

the current Pentax mount is physically the same as the old manual focus Pentax-K mount. this means almost any manual focus K-mount lens will fit your camera, although metering and exposure will be limted with some older lenses.

Olympus or Panasonic

an adapter is needed for any old lenses on four thirds or Micro four thirds models.


You’ll need an adapter to use old lenses on Sony cameras.

How to use a lens aDapter

Because most lens adapters don’t let digital cameras communicate with old lenses, you will need to go through a series of steps to use them successfully. Specific models of camera all work in slightly different ways. Here’s how we added a 1960s-era Pentax screw-mount lens to a Nikon D7000 DSLR.

wHat to look for wHen buyInG olD fIlm lenses

there are countless second- hand lenses on the market, so how do you know what to buy? When it comes to which mount to choose, you’ll find it easier to find adapters for lenses in Olympus OM, Pentax-K and Nikon aI fittings. When looking for used lenses, ensure the optical elements are reasonably clean. to check, hold the lens up to the light and try to spot any haziness or marks on any of the elements. also make sure the focus ring and aperture work smoothly. turn the focus ring throughout its range to check for looseness or too much friction. Many lenses have a small mechanical lever on the back to open and close the aperture, so set the lens to a narrow aperture and move the lever to make sure the aperture opens and closes smoothly. With the aperture closed, look at the aperture blades through the lens to ensure they’re reasonably clean. Visible gunk may mean the lubricants in the lens have started to break down, and could end up on the optics or jamming the aperture. You have a choice when it comes to buying classic film lenses. Some specialist camera shops sell second-hand gear, though it’s not the cheapest option. Prices are lower on eBay, and you can sometimes strike it lucky in second-hand shops.

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