The best lenses are the most expensive lenses, right? Well, yes and no. While the latest technology doesn’t come cheap, there are still bargains to be had.
Photographic stores are the most obvious place to go hunting for interesting new lenses, but don’t forget to check out local camera fairs. There are also charity shops, online stores and auction sites such as eBay, where some very inexpensive lenses can be found. As always when buying online, check the feedback for the seller, and if you aren’t sure about something, email them and ask questions. Inexpensive used lenses are a great way to fill a gap in a collection or to find out whether you want to use a particular focal length.
All the lenses on the following four pages are manual focus, and many have lens mounts that aren’t found on contemporary cameras. However, there are many adapters and converters that will allow these lenses to be used on DSLRs, and especially on compact system cameras. And while this is by no means a comprehensive selection of lenses, it should spark a few ideas. Prices have been taken from a selection of dealers and the eBay internet auction site.
Olympus Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 £60
Designed to be used with the small Olympus OM SLRs, the Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 is compact, using a small 49mm filter thread. Comprising seven elements in six groups, with a minimal focus distance of 30cm, the Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 is a good general-purpose lens.
Paired with a camera with an APS-C sensor, the lens has the equivalent field of view of a 50mm lens, making it a good all-rounder that is particularly suited to street and documentary photography. Used on a micro four thirds camera via the Olympus OM mount adapter, the lens becomes a useful 70mm f/2.8 equivalent, which is great for portraits.
Due to the popularity of the Olympus Zuiko lenses, the 35mm f/2.8 is at the top of our budget, costing around £60. However, for the micro four thirds camera owner it is a small, light lens and, due to the popularity of the OM range, one of the few Olympus lenses that can be found at this highly affordable price.
Industar 50mm f/3.5 £20
There are two versions of this lens pictured here and both are optically identical. The lens came with Soviet Zorki and Zenit cameras and was available in both M39 and M42 threads. This means it could be used on Leica and other screw-mount rangefinder cameras, as well as M42 screw-mount Zenit, Praktica and Pentax SLRs.
The main selling point of this lens today is its size. It is tiny, and smaller even than most enlarger lenses. The M39 and M42 are two of the most popular lens mounts of all time, so it is relatively straightforward to use either version of these lenses on a digital system camera. Using an adapter, the M42 Industar 50mm f/3.5 makes a great pancake lens for a DSLR, and either version makes a neat little portrait lens on a compact system camera.
These lenses are generally sharp, with smooth bokeh in out-of-focus areas. However, the unsophisticated lens coatings mean they can be low contrast and suffer from flare at some apertures. Vignetting can also be an issue when the lens is wide open. If you have the chance, try the lens before you buy it, although at a price of £20 you can’t really go far wrong. The lens can produce some interesting effects that give images a ‘toy camera’ look
Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar
135mm f/3.5 £55
After the Second World War, the two plants belonging to Carl Zeiss were split into two companies. The original optical factory in Jena became part of Communist East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic, where they produced high-quality lenses mainly in the M42 screw-fit thread.
The Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 is one of the best of these lenses. Its multi-coated optics produce images with good colour and contrast, as well as nice out-of-focus bokeh when shooting at f/3.5. On a full-frame DSLR it is a great portrait lens for head-and-shoulders images, while the 200mm equivalent focal length on a compact system camera makes it an interesting choice for wildlife subjects.
These lenses are often well used and unloved, so inexpensive examples can be found for around £30, but expect to pay nearer £60 for an excellent example, like the one pictured here.
Sirius 500mm f/8
Mirror Lens £60
Mirror, or catadioptric, lenses are a very inexpensive way to take telephoto images. Due to their design, these lenses have fixed apertures, usually of f/8. The advantage of the mirror design is that the lens is far smaller and lighter compared to a regular 500mm. However, the comparatively small fixed aperture means that the lens can be difficult to handhold, without increasing the shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. Out-of-focus areas also have a distinctive ‘doughnut-shaped’ bokeh, which is an effect that many people dislike.
However, as an entry-level telephoto lens, particularly for wildlife photography, a mirror lens, such as the Sirius 500mm f/8 (pictured), is a good affordable option. There are numerous proprietary and third-party 500mm lenses available, including Centon, Kenko, Opteka, Rokinon, Rubinar, Samyang, Sigma, Sirius, Tamron, Tokina, Vivitar and Yashica. Some of the lenses are, in fact, virtually identical and are simply rebranded versions of the same lens.
Optomax 500mm f/8 £50
If the doughnut-shaped bokeh of a mirror lens doesn’t appeal to you, the Optomax 500mm f/8 lens may be the answer. Looking more like a small telescope, this lens can usually be found in an M42 fit, although it can be used on other cameras via adapters. I have tried it on a micro four thirds camera where it offers the staggering equivalent field of view of a 1,000mm lens on a 35mm camera.
With a largest aperture of f/8, handholding this lens is difficult, but it does have a tripod mount and results will improve if fitted to a camera with image stabilisation. The lens is best used on a bright sunny day, where at around £50, it becomes a great way for beginners to try their hand at wildlife photography.
Olympus OM Zuiko
35-70mm f/4 £40
This small zoom lens is not much larger than the kit lens you would find today accompanying a DSLR, and was originally released by Olympus in 1973 to cover the 35mm, 50mm and 70mm standard focal lengths in one convenient lens.
As a relatively short zoom, both in terms of focal length magnification and physical size, the 35-70mm is the perfect accompaniment for an Olympus OM camera. The lens is reasonably sharp, with a largely solid metal construction, and if the zoom range is kept to a fairly conservative focal length, image quality doesn’t suffer too much.
This lens works well on an APS-C compact system camera as a portrait zoom lens, offering the equivalent field of view of a 52-105mm. When fitted to a micro four thirds camera using an Olympus-OM-to-micro-four-thirds adapter, this lens becomes a nice portrait zoom with a 70mm-140mm equivalent field of view.
Helios 44M-4 58mm f/2 £10
The Helios 44M-4 58mm f/2 is an M42-thread Russian lens and an all-time classic. Most photographers will have owned or at least used one of these lenses at some point.
First produced in 1955, the lens was in production until 1978 and underwent numerous cosmetic changes when made at different factories. It was the standard lens that came with Zenit 35mm SLRs and is readily available. I own a couple of them, one of which was bought a couple of years ago from the Disabled Photographers’ Society stand at the Focus on Imaging show. I paid the princely sum of £5 for the lens – and the Zenit SLR to which it was attached.
Like the Industar lenses, the Helios 58mm is an ideal portrait lens on cameras with an APS-C-format sensor, and adapter rings to use it on most DSLR and compact system cameras can be found for £5-£20.
Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5-5.6
Macro Zoom £50
The Vivitar 70-210mm f/4-5.6 macro zoom lens can be found in a number of lens mounts, including Minolta MD, Nikon F, Olympus OM and Pentax K. Different versions of this lens are available, with the f/3.5 and f/4.5 maximum apertures thought to produce the best image quality.
The f/4.5-5.6 version of the lens seen here was made for Vivitar by Cosina. The 70-210mm macro zoom lenses were one of the first macro zoom lenses that produced good images. This f/3.5-5.6 version focuses as close as 50cm, making it a good choice for close-up shots of flowers and still-life subjects, although it really needs an additional dioptre lens to make it a true 1:1 macro.
Like many older zooms, this lens uses a push-pull mechanism to zoom in and out. This can tend to blow air and dust into the camera’s mirror box and eventually onto a digital camera’s sensor. This wasn’t a concern when shooting on film, but it should be a consideration now. That said, if you are after a good flexible macro lens, the Vivitar 70-210mm is a good option, especially with the crop factor of an APS-C or four thirds lens giving the effect that you are even closer to the subject.
Sunagor Series 1 135mm f/2.8 £40
This lens can be found branded as Sunagor, Cosinon, Titar and probably a few other third-party names. Curiously, it has two aperture rings – one of which clicks each aperture into position, while the other one smoothly rotates between the maximum aperture and the set aperture. With no automatic connection between the lens and the camera, the second ring is simply to quickly open and close between the set aperture and fully open to make it easier to manual focus.
With a minimum focus distance of 2.2m, this model isn’t known for being the sharpest lens you will ever come across. However, it does have nice out-of-focus areas and a good level of contrast.
Pentax SMC 135mm f/3.5 £40
The Pentax SMC 135mm f/3.5 is an interesting short telephoto, with a very large aperture given the diminutive size of the lens. It also has a built-in lens hood.
Popular among Pentax film and digital camera users, the lens uses the Pentax K mount, so it can still be fitted to Pentax DSLRs where it becomes a 202mm f/3.5 equivalent. This focal length lends itself to a number of subjects, including travel, landscape and documentary photography. The images produced are very sharp, although the seven-bladed aperture doesn’t produce nice bokeh, so if you want a nice bokeh effect shoot fully open at f/3.5. However, be aware that at this aperture the lens isn’t at its sharpest.
Nikon E Series
50mm f/1.8 £50
Produced as a budget version of Nikkor’s standard 50mm f/1.8, the E Series lenses were designed to accompany the smaller Nikon EM and FG SLR cameras. Interestingly, these lenses were named Nikon, not the standard Nikkor lenses.
These lenses are made largely of plastic, although they do have a metal inner barrel and therefore a metal filter thread. The lens mount is also made of metal.
Optically, the 50mm f/1.8 E Series lens is very sharp, and almost matches its more recent AF counterparts for resolution detail, although it isn’t quite as sharp when at f/1.8. However, the best part of the lens is its slim design. When mounted on a DSLR, the 50mm f/1.8 E Series is slim enough to be considered a pancake lens, and even with the necessary adapter for a compact system camera it is still a very small and light combination to use as an f/1.8 portrait lens.