A while ago, I was attracted to the idea of buying cameras and lenses from the last century, especially the period 1960’s to 1990’s, in online auctions. The idea was to start a collection of vintage cameras and glass.
There is something aesthetically appealing about many old SLR cameras and lenses. It’s the chic of the old but also admiration for the build quality and design of these objects. I guess there is a degree of collector nerdiness in eat which hadn’t previously appealed to me, entrenched as I was in the appeal of the new and new-fangled; modern technology and all it can give a photographer. But I think I’m hooked.
I already own a Minolta XGM from 1984. It would be a SRT 303 if Minolta hadn’t lost it when I sent it in for a service prior to my first visit to the United States. But the superb MC Rokkor 50mm f1.7 lens is that original one from that first camera I bought for myself in 1974.
Sadly, in order to raise funds for my modern DSLR about 5 years ago, I stupidly sold my other Minolta lenses: a 200mm F4 MC Rokkor prime lens and a 28mm f3.5 MC Rokkor for next to nothing. This was back in the not-so-distant day before the vogue for mirrorless cameras. In fact, it was the future prospect or drooling covetousness and ambition to own a Sony A7 R II that led me to the idea of collecting ancient glass. I had read much about how modern mirrorless cameras can easily accommodate vintage lenses with the aid of mount adapter.
With electronic viewfinders, as found on the cameras, what you see is what you get when you click that shutter and with in-camera 3-4 stop stabilisation, a simple manual prime lens from and old SLR is a cheap way to build a range of optical options. Good modern lenses cost hundreds of pounds, even thousands, but I can go on eBay and spend £30 to £150 for superb vintage optics. What’s more, as these old lenses don’t have image stabilisation or auto-focus motors they are much lighter – well, usually, but more of that later.
Here is my triumvirate of Minolta glass; at least I have the memories – and the photos.
The idea of making a bid in an online auction and the excitement if winning that bid also appealed. But there are issues. Firstly, let me say that I discounted buying on eBay. There’s no fun in that. I wanted some job-lot with some hidden gems for little money. It is the thrill of the chase and also the uncertainty of what you will end up with.
The issues, then….
Well, hammer prices are not all you pay; you have to reckon on an extra 20-25%, sometimes more, for commission and VAT. Then, what happens if I win a lot hundreds of miles away? I have to pay shipping and that could add £30 or more for a heavy lot.
So, I decided that I’d go for a lot at as local an auction as possible where I could go and collect for the price of the petrol to get there and back. I found just such an auction house and waited. Patience is all.
I signed up to a website called the-saleroom.com which provides online bidding for auction houses all over the UK and beyond. You can listen to and often watch the auction live and bid live, too, or just place a maximum bid. Well, the latter is out because auctions usually take place during the working day, but I could place a commission bid.
And this is what I did. I saw a lot for an Olympus OM-10 circa 1980 with a 50mm Zuiko f1.7, a 25-50mm f4 Tokina and a 70-210mm f3.5 Vivitar Macro Zoom all from the same period. The big attraction at the time, however, was the addition of a Manfrotto 190 tripod with two heads. So, I thought, this looks promising because I could use the tripod as a cheap (hopefully) introduction to Manfrotto and, maybe, at some point put a modern head on its hoary old shoulders. If it camera and lenses were no good, I could sell them and pretty much get my money back or better. At worst, the cost of a little fun and several combined experiences would be well worth it.
The key was price. I looked at previous auction prices for lots selling in this auction house’s weekly general sales and I could see that not a lot went for more than £50. I thought that if everything was in reasonable condition, the lot was worth more than that, so I took a deep breath and placed a commission bid for £90 as that plus commission was what I estimated I could sell for if I wanted to recoup my investment. I couldn’t see how I could fail to at least break even.
I won the lot for £36 and after commission and VAT this came to the princely sum of £43.56. A couple of days later I collected my lot. Now here come the next issues…
I did know and understood that old lenses almost invariably have fungus and this was a risk if I did not inspect the lot first. But I also knew that I was really buying the tripod, so the worst scenario was a vintage Manfrotto tripod for £43.56 and some worthless lenses and camera. I didn’t even know if the camera still worked. As it happens, it didn’t quite – but thereby hangs another tale to be told later.
Here are some images of my lot. The Zuiko lens is gorgeous, the Vivitar telephoto is a beast built like a tank and the Tokina is a bit enigmatic as 30-50mm f4 is a strange spec these days.
Shining my mobile phone torch through these lenses showed up what I had expected: they all had fungus, loads of dust and even some haze. The Vivitar was worst, but then it has huge lenses with lots of glass surface area for fungus to get a hold. Having said that, I have seen much worse. There was now, at the back of my mind, a little project to disassemble and clean – but not yet.
By now I was bitten by the collector’s bug. I wanted to try these lenses to see if the the haze and fungus affected their performance, and how DID they compare to modern lenses? However, all I had was my Canon 7D – an incompatible lens mount – what to do?
At first, and you should probably not try it at home, I tried simply to hold the lenses against my Canon mount. A bit fiddly, of course. It’s doable with a 50mm lens that weighs a few grams, but the 70-210 weighs about 700gm!
Answer. Buy an adapter. It arrived a couple of days ago. It cost a few pounds, it’s a bit tight on the lenses, but it works. It is great fun now that I can use these lenses on my Canon. Of course, everything is manual as there is no coupling between the electronics of the Canon and the old mechanical lens. It’s really strange at first going back to selecting the aperture on the lens, but it’s actually a good learning experience.
I haven’t quite figured out how the 7D’s various functions work without a lens – because it can’t see a lens, it cannot sense it and it records everything as 50mm in the EXIF data. The aperture shows as ’00’.
Flying by the seat of your pants, adjusting exposure in Aperture priority mode (essential), and chimping the results is both frustrating at times but also very satisfying. It’s back to basics like the old days but instead of an external hand-held light meter, I have one built into the camera, and measuring the actual light coming through the lens. However, as it doesn’t know the aperture, you have to tell it, which requires looking at the lens as you turn the aperture control. It’s all a bit hit and miss, trying Manual mode, Aperture priority etc. and looking at the results; also trying Auto ISO can help.
It’s very intoxicating to bring the old tech in literal contact with the new.
So now I can compare with my modern lenses, and what I want to do in this series of blogs is some comparison between images from old and new, take a few general photos, and show you the results. I may even post the RAW files for download. Be aware that I am mounting these lenses on my crop-sensor 7D so focal length need to be multiplied by 1.6 and so do apertures. A better test would be on a full frame camera as the OM-10 is a full frame 5mm SLR, after all. These tests will not be in any way scientific or comprehensive; they are just an exploration and a bit of fun. There may be surprises ahead.
I’ll begin with the 50mm Zuiko, fungus and all…