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How to Use Old Lenses on Digital Camera

This article explains how to use old lenses (m42, m39, Olympus Om, Contax / Yashisa, Leica R, Leica M, Pentacon 6 and others mounts) on modern digital SLR and mirrorless cameras.


1. Why do we need it, or what good are old lenses

2. Features of different systems. Flange Focal Distance

3. Adapters from one mount to another

4. Focus confirmation chip

5. Precise pointing of the manual lens on the focus

6. The best of old lenses


Why do we need it, or what good are old lenses?

At present more and more photographers are beginning to look closely to older lenses. Many of them have already been using them actively for a long time on film equipment, as well as on digital cameras, for obvious reasons:         


Lens bokeh

The image generated by older lenses often has a greater plasticity, volume, a better analysis of tonal transitions and a more harmonious bokeh. These lenses have more pronounced aberrations, but it is they that give such an effect. In other words, old lenses have their own unique character, and an artistic bokeh.

Most of modern lenses in their pursuit of sharpness and resolution, the use of super-multi- radiolucencies, eliminating every conceivable aberration have come to the fact, that the picture became too sharp, hard, harsh, that is suited for far from every photography genre and type. For example: for portraits, it is contraindicated.


The construct of the lens

Most of the older lenses have a robust metal construct and only real glass in the optical system. This provides a great degree of safety. That’s what we see on the secondary market. Many lenses from the years 50-70, despite an active, long-term use, are still in excellent condition. Often, only cosmetic wear indicates the age of the lens.

Modern lenses usually contain, if they’re not an elite series, an unreliable plastic frame, slops, and other mechanical defects. The lifetime of such a lens is rarely above 10 years..

How to use old lenses

Figure. 1. Old lenses. Metal and glass. An example of reliability and durability.


Optical design

Nowadays no one is surprised by an optical design consisting sometimes of up to 30 lenses. Even fixed focal length lenses can now be found equipped with 10 and more lenses.

On the old lenses they tended to minimize the number of lenses and added new ones only when absolutely necessary, if it was indispensable for achieving a given quality characteristic of the lens. After all, every single new lens is another loss at the air-to-glass, glass-to-air border and inside the glass itself. Even the ultra-modern multi antireflection coating does not solve this problem properly.

Most of the best older lenses contained only 3 to 8 elements.


The prices of older lenses

And of course, the most important asset of older lenses is their price. Generally, an old lens is several times cheaper than a modern similar one.

Some lenses, such as the Jupiter-37A or Helios-44 lens, give an excellent picture, and their price is just ridiculous.

Just to be fair, and getting a little ahead please note, that apart from the lens’s price, there is the adapter and the chip’s price, but most of the times you only need one set of adapter and chip, to use on multiple lenses of one system.        


Of course, with all the old lenses’ advantages, they also have some significant drawbacks:


A lack of auto-focus

Say what you like, but nothing can replace the usability of autofocus. Plus, the speed of shooting is always higher with auto-focus. You've got to say, that, for example, wide-angle lenses can be installed at a hyperfocal distance and generally shoot without worrying about focus. The focus will include everything from a rather small distance to infinity.


A lack of automatic aperture control from the camera

This refers to the use on modern digital cameras. It is fair to say that the manual control of the septum is rather easy to handle, after some getting used to, and can even perform special effects, during filming for example.


Trouble with shooting against the light

The older lenses, especially without coating or with a single layer coating, poorly handle side and backlight. Reflections appear and contrast decreases dramatically. And if a lens hood can protect from side light, it hardly ever does from backlight.

Well, now that we’ve sorted out the advantages and disadvantages of older lenses, let’s move ahead.


Features of different systems. Flange Focal Distance.

So, we decided to try the older manual lenses in action. First you need a little more information. Not all older lenses can be easily installed on any modern camera. And it’s all about one of the key characteristics of the lens: the Flange Focal Distance.

We need to make sure that the FFD of the potential lens can be aligned with the FFD of our camera.

You can learn more about FFD, as well as see working area tables in this article at


Adapters from one system to another

Mounts are different on different cameras. In order to use a lens from another system on our camera, we need an adapter.

The idea is simple. The adapter is fixed on one side to the lens’s screw-thread or mount, on the other side to the camera’s necessary thread or mount. In this case, if the working area matches, the lens can be used on full-scale distances to infinity inclusive.

Adapters are produced in series by factories, manufactured, or through a local turner. In the old days, Soviet photo journals often published detailed drawings of different adapters, and even now, if needed, they’re easy to find online.

The most frequently-used adapters can be easily bought online, including auctions.

Jolos Company’s adapter for use with lenses threaded m42 on Canon EOS cameras

Figure 2. The Jolos Company’s adapter for use with a m42  screw mount lenses on Canon EOS cameras


Usually nonnative lenses can only be used in manual mode and aperture priority mode on modern cameras.

Moreover, in its pure form, you can only focus by the glass of the viewfinder or by the display, without any focus confirmation. Looking ahead I’ll say that this problem is successfully solved by a chip.

It is clear that in Exif the camera won’t register any information either about the lens, the focal length, aperture, etc. unless you use an adapter with a chip.


Focus confirmation chip

The modern digital camera is first of all a very sophisticated electronic device. Electronics control exposure metering, focus, and the aperture, as well as many other parameters. Accordingly, modern lenses are also stuffed with electronics, and a lot of links appear between the camera and the lens: focus and the aperture, focus confirmation, data transfer on the focal number and other parameters to the Exif, etc.

Naturally, old lenses have no electronics on them (and if they do, they are most likely incompatible), and this connection is broken. The camera can’t get any information about the lens.

Here a special electronic chip comes to the aid, which installed on the adapter and bypass the camera’s electronics, forcing it to recognize the installed lens as a native one!

For the first time, this chip was designed and created in 2005, by Victor Lushnikov. He named it "Dandelion", which caught on and is now a synonym for this chip.

Practically, the dandelion is a chip with golden contacts, which is attached to the adapter. The contacts’ shape and location match the group of contacts on the original lens. Next, the dandelion connects with the camera’s electronics, receives requests, responds to them, etc. In other words, from the camera’s point of view, the lens starts to act as a native one and is fully operational.

Focus confirmation chip Dandelion.

Figure. 3. Focus confirmation chip "Dandelion." From the

Right now mass production of dandelions is underway in China, that’s why the market has a lot of inexpensive, yet not always quality offers.

Modern dandelions are usually programmable. New programs will be recorded to the Exif file, adjust the lens, set the filming button lock, and set up lots of other useful options.

After installing the non-native lens with dandelion, the sound and visual focus adjustment mode appears (it actually is the same as with a native lens in the manual mode).


Precise pointing of the manual lens on the focus

One of the "tidbits" in the optics of previous years are old portrait lenses. Generally, these lenses, by their characteristics, are used in large focal numbers: from 0.7 to 4. The Depth of field (DOF) is very small and gets a very high percentage of defects from missing the focus.

This problem is encountered, for example, by many users of the popular portrait lens Helios 40-2, especially when shooting with 1.5 aperture
And here, too, the dandelion is not much help, as the photographer can mechanically overturn the focus ring after the focus confirmation signal, or screw it too little. But even this much irrevocably defects a potentially good shot.

Well, you can’t do anything here with high-speed pictures (only clamp the diaphragm or shoot hyper-focal), but with more or less static ones, which include portrait, still life photography, etc. you can try to improve the results.


Solution 1

Use an LCD screen for focus, not an optical viewfinder. By the way, some of the mirrorless digital cameras, such as Sony Nex, have this as a default mode. And the Live View mode is almost universally implemented on today's digital SLR cameras.

The advantage of screen focus is that it can zoom up to 20 times, which is easily enough to set the focus precisely, say, on eyelashes even on ultra high-aperture lenses.

With this type of focus, it is handy to use the camera’s strap to greatly reduce the chance of camera shaking when focusing. The strap is worn around the neck and the camera is pulled forward to the strap’s full length. While maintaining this strain we minimize the camera’s shifts and shakes during shooting. Sometimes you have to shorten the strap for this way of shooting. And, of course, no one has banned tripods :)

By the way, there is another definite advantage of screen focus. The screen shows the full picture as it will be after you press the shooting button. Brightness, hue, pattern zones blur (bokeh), colors - all this can be clearly seen and evaluated on the LCD screen even before the creation of the image. Of all these the handiest is the control of the Bokeh figure.


Solution 2 (only for SLR cameras)

Most of the modern digital SLR cameras support interchangeable focusing screens. The procedure itself of changing the screen takes 5-10 minutes. It is important to use rubber gloves and tweezers to avoid touching the screen with your fingers. Please note as a rule, that after the screen was changed, you need to indicate the new screen’s characteristics in the camera’s settings, so that everything works correctly.

Standard screens installed on modern digital SLR cameras are adapted for autofocus, and are composed of just a plain plate of glass or plastic with a frosted coating.

I recommend you to mount a combined focus screen on your camera, which may conduct focusing in three ways: frosted glass, microraster, Doden’s fillet

Combined focusing screen

Figure. 4. Combined focusing screen. D - Doden’s fillet, R - microraster, M - matted surface

In this case, it is very easy and precise to focus on objects with a clear linear structure by the fillet (probably the best option is the diagonal fillet). Tt is easy to focus with macroraster on objects having a complex structure.

Many of the focusing screens above all have lines of golden section laid on, to help frame a future shot.

Focusing screens are quite inexpensive, and I highly recommend their use to all fans of old manual lenses..


The best of old lenses

In conclusion, I would like to provide some links for a selection of popular old manual lenses from the database.

Lenses for DSLR cameras with m42 screw mount

Lenses for DSLR cameras with m39 screw mount

Contax/Yashiсa (C/Y) lenses

Olympus OM lenses

Lenses for 35mm rangefinder cameras

Lenses for medium-format SLR cameras


I hope that the information provided in this article will help you to easily discover the wonderful world of old photo optics! Good luck with your shots!

(с) 2010 Sergei Borodin

Author: Sergei Borodin 07.12.2010 13:50:51

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