Using Vintage Lenses on Sony Cameras (Easy!)

Are you a long-time photographer looking for a bit of a shake-up? Perhaps a beginner with a limited budget?

Consider putting down your shiny, fast, modern lenses and picking up one from the past.

In this article, we’ll be talking about vintage lenses! I’ve personally been shooting with vintage glass for years, and I’ve really come to love some of my dusty old lenses.

Keep scrolling and we’ll talk about what a vintage lens is, why you should consider them and, of course, how to use them with your fancy and modern Sony camera.

This advice will apply to both the a6000 series bodies (APS-C) along with a7 series cameras (full frame).

Let’s dive in!

three sony cameras with vintage lenses
My camera, with the Canon FD 50mm F1.8, is on the left. Excuse the terribly grainy cellphone picture!

The Basics

What is a vintage lens?

A vintage lens is essentially any lens from the film era that was built without modern cameras in mind.

This means that these lenses often lack any sort of electronic controls, instead forcing the photographer to rely completely on manual focus (we have a guide for that).

There are literally thousands of options for vintage glass out there.

In fact, believe it or not, there are actually adapters specifically made to adapt even the weirdest of lenses, such as ancient CCTV glass or even fifty year old Soviet lenses.

Why should you use vintage lenses?

So why would you want to use this crusty old manual glass? Many reasons, actually.

Inexpensive

First up, vintage glass just tends to be substantially cheaper than their autofocusing modern counterparts.

Now, there are some exceptions. Some Zeiss lenses, for example, can push into the thousands of dollars.

Generally though, most vintage glass will be relatively cheap. I’ve found mine all over the place, from eBay to garage sales to thrift stores. I found my absolute favorite, the Canon FD 50mm F1.8, at a dusty old thrift shop in Chicago (for $5!).

Learning Opportunity

As mentioned prior, vintage lenses lack the autofocus systems that we’re all-to-familiar with today.

Having to manually focus every shot makes you slow down. You end up spending more time studying the composition and making sure the lighting is correct.

Heck, I went through a phase where I only used manual focus for about a year.

That period was by far the most transformational in my photography learning journey.

By the way, manual focus may seem intimidating, but it’s quite easy when you get the hang of it. Feel free to pop on over to my full manual focus guide for Sony cameras if you want to learn more.

collection of vintage lenses

Character

The next reason is that vintage glass just has character.

Some old lenses are absolutely awful, rendering half the frame blurry, while others can create crazy bokeh.

The Canon lens I mentioned prior renders the most incredible micro-contrast I’ve seen on any lens. It’s hard to explain via text, but check out my sample photos for that lens to see what I mean. The shadows and dark tones are just so rich.

snowy mountains
I took one of my favorite pictures of all time on my $15 thrifted vintage Canon lens.

It’s Just Fun

Finally, it’s simply fun to shoot with an old lens.

Sometimes they have weird quirks, while other times they can be beat up and covered with scratches.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I just think it’s super neat to shoot with a lens that is older than I am.

Like, what kind of photographers used this before I did? How many incredible photographs have been created with this dinosaur of a lens?

So how do I get started using vintage lenses?

Now that I’ve sold you on vintage lenses, how the heck to do you actually use them?

Pick Your Lens

The first step is the hardest, and that’s finding a vintage lens that you’d want to use!

I’ll include a list at the bottom of the post of my personal favorites, but it’s really hard to go wrong.

First up, find the lens you want to buy. eBay is generally my go-to, but it’s worth checking Amazon as well (I’ve found some really good stuff).

Second, you need to find the appropriate adapter. Keep scrolling a bit and I’ll throw out a list of most common mounts and their appropriate adapters.

Finally, when both the lens and adapter arrive, you just attach them together.

Although it’s different on a per-lens basis, generally it’s just as simple as sliding the lens into the adapter “mount” until you hear a click. Trust me, it’s hard to mess up.

Camera Settings

After you’ve got the lens attached, there’s just a few camera settings you’ll have to change.

I go over these in much more detail in my manual focus guide, but I’ll throw a quick summary here.

  1. Enable the “release w/o lens” setting.
  2. Turn on focus peaking settings. I prefer setting it to high, and setting the color to red.
  3. Turn on the focus magnifier setting, and bind it to a custom button.

And with that, you’re ready to start shooting with vintage lenses…

sony camera with vintage lens

Vintage Lens Buying Guide

Common Mounts/Adapters

Here’s a list of many of the popular (throughout history, at least) lens mounts with links to their appropriate E-Mount adapters.

I may miss some, but these are all the ones I’m familiar with.

Those are the adapters for some of the most common lens mounts you’ll come across.

There’s plenty more for the really old obscure brands, but these are the ones you’ll find most often.

a group of vintage camera lenses
So many options to choose from!

Best Vintage Lenses

Now that we’ve gone over the mounts, let’s talk about the best vintage lenses!

By the way: I punched “best vintage lenses” into Google out of curiosity and the top results left a bit to be desired, so use caution if you search around the internet for opinions.

In any case, here’s a shortlist of my personal favorites along with their respective adapters.

Canon FD 50mm F1.8

The FD 50mm F1.8 is my favorite vintage lens of all time.

It’s hard to put into words, but the lens just renders scenes in such a beautiful and clean manner.

It’s also well-built (seriously, it’s HEAVY) and sharp as a tack, even decades later.

Here’s the adapter you’ll need. Feel free to read my review on this gorgeous lens if you need further convincing.

Helios 44-2 (58mm F2)

The next lens on my list is the Helios 44-2 which, despite what the name may imply, is actually a 58mm F2 lens.

I go over the history of the lens in my full review, but I’ll sum it up here real quick.

Essentially, the USSR wanted a Soviet-made lens that could compete in the photography market. An incredible number of these lenses were made (believed to be a Zeiss knockoff) so they’re still plentiful today.

The Helios is known for rendering a very peculiar swirly bokeh effect that is beloved by many, many photographers.

Surprisingly, if you purchase through Amazon, the adapter is included with the lens.

Konica AR 40mm F1.8

Last but certainly not least, we have the Konica AR 40mm F1.8 (here’s the adapter).

I don’t think this lens was ever particularly popular, but it stole a piece of my heart.

I found it in a thrift store for like $10, then proceeded to use it for at least a month straight. It wasn’t even particularly good (flaring and aberrations were insane), but it was small, cute, and had a massive dent on the barrel. The lens was the definition of “character”.

Sadly, I sold that lens before I started this site, so I don’t actually have a review on it. However, I encourage you to check out Andrzej’s review over at theweekendlens.

At some point I’m going to have to buy that thing back so I can write a full review on it!

sony camera with vintage rikenon lens
Pick up a vintage lens for yourself, you won’t regret it!

Other Notes on Vintage Glass

Over the years of going to photo meetups and sharing my pictures online, I’ve gotten a lot of random questions about my vintage glass.

Here is a list of the questions and my answers to them.

What is considered a vintage lens?

So what exactly is considered a “vintage” lens? I’d consider piece of glass made for the film era to be termed as vintage.

So, pretty much any lens that was made pre-2000s that doesn’t have electronic contacts on the bottom. There is a difference between a vintage lens and a modern manual focus lens.

What is the difference between a modern and vintage lens?

There are quite a few major differences between a modern and vintage lens.

First of all, of course, vintage lenses don’t have electronic contacts that allow them to sync with the camera (for autofocus, aperture, etc.).

Second, most modern lenses have various chemical coatings to keep water off the glass, prevent flaring, protect from UV damage, etc. The vast majority of vintage glass didn’t have those sort of features.

What to look for when buying vintage lenses?

When buying vintage glass, there is a good bit that you have to watch out for. After all, we’re talking about lenses that could be upwards of 75 years old at this point.

The major thing to look out for is dust and fungus inside the lens. While stuff like that is possible to clean, it is a massive pain that involves dissasembling (and possibly damaging) a lens.

Besides that, don’t be afraid of cosmetic damage (to the lens barrel). I’ve had a lot of vintage glass with scuffs and minor dents and it really just adds to the character (and reduces the purchase price!).

shopping for vintage lenses on ebay
When shopping (at least on eBay), pay attention to the seller’s rating and also zoom in on all the pictures.

What are the most popular vintage lens mounts?

As for the most popular vintage lens mounts, I’d say the Canon FD lineup is easily on the top. When I go to photo meetups, those are the lenses I see more than anything else.

M42 is another popular one. It was a mount shared with a lot of brands including Mamiya, Yashica, certain Olympus lenses, Pentax and Fujica.

Next, the Nikon F mount is pretty well-known, given that Nikon, even way back in the day, was almost as popular as Canon. There is a lot of good glass here, but I personally haven’t tried any of it.

Finally, the Konica AR mount, besides having a special place in my heart (my first vintage lens was the Konica 40mm F1.8) is also quite popular. Konica made a wealth of epic lenses back in the day and most of them can be had for very cheap now.

canon fd lens
If I had to suggest any mount, however, I’d say start with Canon FD lenses as they are EVERYWHERE.

Conclusion

So yeah, that’s really all there is to vintage lenses.

Whether you like your lenses radioactive (yep, that’s a thing) or just want some more character, shooting with vintage glass opens up a whole new realm of creative opportunities.

Now that you’re getting into manual lenses, you’re going to have to sharpen up on your manual focusing skills. Luckily, I have guides for that (manual focusing on APS-C, MF on full-frame).

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoy your new (old) glass. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Using Vintage Lenses on Sony Cameras (Easy!)”

  1. I have an old but mint Vivitar 200mm f3.5 auto telephoto lens with a screw mount (unknow), No. 28511888 lens that I would like to use on my Sony a6000. How well do you think that will work? What brand adapter do you recommend?

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