Second hand lens adapterWith a fabulous array of second-hand lenses at low prices, David Clapp uncovers the surprising benefits of adapting older optics for modern DSLRs

In our fast-paced world, digital imaging has moved us forward in huge steps.

Yet with pro-level DSLRs now boasting 24 million pixels, and even some digital compacts offering 15MP, we can easily forget about the role our lens plays in keeping images pin sharp.

We?re often not reminded until we?re on the computer. Raw software lets us swap caps between artist and technician pretty fluently these days, turning our computers into what is essentially a ?digital loupe? that allows us to check an image for edge sharpness and colour rendition. It?s only natural when doing this that you?ll notice areas of unsharpness and lust after a new, expensive optic.

However, before you start saving for that f/2.8 zoom, you might be surprised to learn that many of the old lenses in the bargain bins or on eBay can be adapted to fit your modern cameras, often with superb (and more cost-efficient) results.

Adapting old lenses

Adapting older lenses to fit modern DSLRs is easily misconstrued. It?s not just

about nostalgically rekindling a precious film-based lens investment; it is also about lens quality and saving money.

Take a look at the back pages of Amateur Photographer magazine, and you can get a quick idea of the sheer volume of secondhand film camera lenses still on the market.

For some reason, very few photographers realise that many of these lenses can be used on their DSLR simply by fitting an adapter ring. Sharpness, contrast, image characteristics and working methods are vital when choosing any lens, and you?d be surprised at how often modern optics are outperformed by lenses made long before the first digital cameras even hit the market.

Why adapt your lens?

Apart from cost, though, why should I adapt, you might be thinking?

My own quest began after realising the weakness of my wideangle zoom lens. Quality wideangle lenses are complicated to design; lenses become easier to manufacture as the focal length increases towards 80mm.

The birth of the APS-C sensor and its smaller area (25.1×16.7mm) brought new lenses onto the retail scene. Although some lenses were designed specifically for this sensor size, manufacturers were now cleverly pitching lenses at both crop and full-frame cameras.

The Canon 17-40mm f/4L is the best example of this commercial crossover (a

very usable 27-64mm equivalent on a crop sensor) and although this lens has a firm fan base in both camps, other lenses are simply not up to scratch on full frame. Soft corners and chromatic aberration (the failure to focus all the colours in the same place) are classic problems.

The more I used my modern zooms, the more I found that their ?for digital? reassurance was actually a bit questionable. Back in the days of film, manufacturers optimised their glass for 35mm alone, so it seemed natural to me to reach for my old film kit once more. And when I did, I had to step back in disbelief. The image quality I was getting was impressive. In many cases I found almost edge-to-edge sharpness.

Inspired, I then began looking to the past for all the old unsung optical heroes and resurrecting my favourites. No doubt I?m not the only one, as we see a very healthy second-hand market these days.

Adapting old lenses has, for me, been somewhat liberating. I feel like I?ve

transcended the restrictions of brand loyalty and can explore photographic equipment without prejudice.

Lens Adapters

The cost of adapters is always a topic of controversy. Generally, expect to pay between £20 and £200.

What you really want to look for is that you ensure you have uniform adapter thickness. This is absolutely crucial to the performance of your adapted lens.

My Contax lenses require a 1.42mm thick adapter, whereas Olympus lenses require a 2mm adapter. This information is widely available on the internet or can be found from the manufacturer.

Getting the thickness right ensures that infinity focus is where it is supposed to be and that sharpness is uniform across the frame.

Some lenses with more complicated designs, like a floating rear element, rely on

this precision to eliminate corner softness. It is therefore very important that the adapter is set perfectly and that once set it remains on that lens for good.

For more information on how to adapt older lenses for use with your digital SLR, and which lenses might be best for you, email David Clapp at

For details of second hand lens retailers see our Second hand dealers listing

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Focusing adapted lenses

Focusing adapted lenses

Manually focusing an alternative lens is easier than you think. The adapters

come in two varieties, with or without autofocus confirm. The adapter has a set of pins that communicate with the camera, just like autofocus lenses do.

As the focus ring is adjusted and the shutter button half depressed, the AF lights flash inside the camera viewfinder. This makes convenient use of your in-camera autofocus circuitry, even though the lens is fully manual.

Unfortunately, the accuracy of this, especially with a zoom lens, depends upon the lens being parfocal (staying in focus when the focal length is changed). A non-parfocal zoom is of little help with an AF confirm adapter, so investigate this before you buy.

Incidentally, I find the Contax 28-85mm f/3.4 is extremely accurate with AF confirm adapters, making it an ideal walk-around lens, unlike the Contax 35-70mm f/3.4 that seems to suffer from confirmation inaccuracy.

If your digital SLR has Live View, use it to focus your lens with precision. Its usefulness never ceases to amaze me with either auto or manual focus lenses. Again, this means a slower working pace, but incredible focus accuracy can be achieved.

For details of second hand lens retailers see our Second hand dealers listing

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Best old lenses

Contax Zeiss 28-85mm f/3.3 wideangle zoom

My favourite by far has been the Contax Zeiss 28-85mm f/3.3 wideangle zoom. The benefits were immediate: greater contrast; better edge-to-edge sharpness at wider apertures; minimal chromatic aberration; neutral colour balance (unlike the warmth seen in most modern zooms); and a certain je ne sais quoi look about these images was very pleasing.

My direct comparisons shamed a lens that cost twice the price, and I was firmly

convinced I was on to something. As well as the smooth zoom and focusing ring, the entire working method also appealed to me.

Contax 35-70mm f/3.4

After moving to a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III last year, the 21MP sensor was exaggerating the same lens flaws even further. It became clear that my autofocus wideangle zoom lens was restricting the sensor?s performance significantly.

As I looked for alternatives, an unlikely sidestep to the Contax 35-70mm f/3.4 stopped me in my tracks. After adapting this pocket-sized lens and testing it inside out, it impressed me at every focal length and aperture (see Photo Insight AP 14 March).

Contax 28mm f/2

Next came the Contax 28mm f/2, a razorsharp optic that I use specifically to fill the gap between the only modern adapted lens in my arsenal, the Nikon G 14-24mm f/2.8. With the right adapters, even combinations like this Nikon/Canon fusion are possible.

Olympus 35mm f/2.8 shift

The latest lens I have adapted is the diminutive Olympus 35mm f/2.8 shift, which

I find extremely capable even on 21MP.

With 10mm of horizontal and 12mm of vertical shift, this lens gives me movement

that even its expensive modern counterparts cannot match ? shifting both axes at the same time.

It cost me just £200 and a further £15 for the adapter on eBay.

Best old lenses

Included here is a list of some of my favourite old lenses. All these have given me excellent results, and apart from the Contax 21mm f/2.8, they can be picked up second-hand for a fraction of their original price.

Second hand Contax lenses:

  • 21mm f/2.8 (£1,200- £1,500);
  • 28mm f/2 (£300-£500);
  • 28mm f/2.8 (£150-£300);
  • 35mm f/2.8 PC (£800-£1,000);
  • 28-85mm f/3.4 (£250-£500);
  • 35-70mm f/3.3 (£200-£400)

Second hand Olympus lenses:

  • Zuiko 21mm f/3.5 (£150-£300);
  • 24mm f/3.5 shift (£900-£1,500);
  • Zuiko 24mmf/2.8 (£50-£100);
  • Zuiko 28mm f/3.5 (£30-£50);
  • Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 shift (£200-£400);
  • 90mm f/2 macro (£600-£700)

Second hand Nikon lenses:

  • 18mm f/3.5 AI-S (£200- £400);
  • 15mm f/3.5 (£500);
  • 28mm f2.8 AI-S (£50-£200);
  • 35mm f/1.4 (£150-£300); 50mm
  • f/1.2 AI-S (£300-£400); 85mm
  • f/1.4 AI-S ? (£500-£700)

Second hand Leica lenses:

Premium-priced lenses that are both usable and very collectable. Leica has a range of lenses that can be adapted, with the 19mm, 21mm, 24mm and 28mm being firm favourites.

Many thanks to Mark Welsh at for his help in compiling this information.

For details of second hand lens retailers see our Second hand dealers listing