5 steps to shooting with vintage lenses on your Canon digital SLR

This is the first article in a series I plan to write about digital photography with vintage lenses, so where better to start than a 5-step guide on how to get started?

Shortly after buying my Canon 450D I was keen to start expanding my lens collection, however my budget didn’t stretch to buying a bag full of prime lenses so I started looking in to the possibility of using older lenses. These older lenses were built way before the advent of auto-focus and apertures so there is a little bit more work involved but once you get the hang of them the quality of the results can be outstanding for the price.

Step 0 - Why would I want to use a vintage lens?

There are a number of reasons why I would recommend looking at vintage lenses, but probably the best I can think of is that you can learn a lot from using a fully manual lens. Vintage lenses are also cheap, at least they are compared to their modern equivalent. My final reason would be that the build and optical quality of vintage lenses is also often very good compared to modern lenses in the same price range, especially when you find quality multi-coated lenses that will give you great colour reproduction in your resulting images.

Step 1 - Connecting vintage lenses to Canon DSLR cameras

The current EOS range of Canon digital SLR cameras uses the Canon EF lens mount, which is a bayonet style mount with electrical contacts for lens functions such as auto-focus, focal length and aperture. Older lenses vary wildly in their fitment and not all vintage mounts are suitable, however for most lens mounts you can usually buy an adapter so that it will fit a Canon EF mount. Be aware however that the price of the adapters can vary, with bayonet style vintage mounts costing significantly more than a screw type mount. Some lens mounts such as the Canon FD mount also require an additional lens element in the adapter to refocus the image, otherwise focusing to infinity will not be possible. 

With Canon EF adapters you should try to seek out an “AF Confirm” version, which includes a small chip that tricks the camera into thinking that an EF lens is connected. With the AF confirm chip it will enable the camera to light up the AF points in the viewfinder and provide the familiar chirp noise to indicate when you have the lens correctly focused. If you cannot get an adapter with the AF confirm chip already included you can buy the chips separately and fit them yourself.

Step 2 - Setting up your camera to use a manual lens

As previously mentioned when using a vintage lens you are going to have to set the aperture and focus the lens yourself. Because your camera no longer has the ability to set the aperture this means you are limited as to which camera modes you can use. If you have a mount adapter with an AF confirm chip your camera will think you have a valid lens attached and so should allow you to use the ‘P’ mode, although when using my lenses I almost always choose ‘Av’ mode for aperture priority. If you are feeling really brave you can also use ‘M’ for Full Manual.

By using Aperture Priority mode your camera will still be able to set the shutter speed, calculating the correct value based on the amount of light being metered through the lens. I like to think of Av mode as “semi-auto”, because all you need to worry about is the lens part of the camera.

Step 3 - Manual focusing

I’m going to make a slight assumption that you would have probably used manual focus before, if not go and get your current lens, turn off the AF and have a go. Most vintage lenses will come with a marked focus ring, with distances printed around it in either feet or metres. By approximating the distance between your camera and your subject you can use these distance markers to get you in the ballpark area for focussing.

If you don’t have an AF confirm chip on your mount adapter the fine tuning can be a little hit and miss, especially when you are using large aperture values as the resulting depth of field will be very shallow. What I have found works well is to rock the focus back and forth so it’s just out of focus on the near and far sides of the subject, then return the focus ring back to a point between the two. In most cases this will get you a fairly well focussed shot.

If you do however have an AF confirm chip the following tip can be a great time saver. First set the camera to single point focus mode, selecting the middle point as the active point. You can then line up your centre focus point on the subject you want in focus and then whilst holding the shutter release half down, gently adjust focus ring until you hear the focus confirm chirp and see the focus point light up. Your subject is now in focus so you can recompose your shot accordingly and take the shot.

When using the focus confirm it’s important to ensure there is enough light hitting the sensor so that the system can work correctly. For this reason I will usually focus a shot with the aperture wide open, then when focussed stop it down to the desired aperture value.

Step 4 - Setting the aperture

A generally accepted theory when you are shooting handheld is that you need 1/”focal length” of shutter speed to help avoid camera shake blurring in your images. With this in mind for a 50mm lens you need 1/50 and for a 135mm lens you need 1/135 or the next faster speed if your camera doesn’t support that (I use 1/150 on my 450D).

For most shots you will probably need the aperture on your vintage lens to be smaller than it’s maximum value so that you can increase the depth of field in your shot. What I do in this situation is to focus my shots with the aperture wide open, recompose, then with the shutter button half pressed (so that the light meter is working) gently stop the lens down until the shutter speed is just fast enough to shoot handheld.

In most cases by following the advice above you will end up with a half decent photo, providing you have enough light to allow you to use an aperture value with enough depth of field. If you find that you don’t have enough depth of field you will need to either use a tripod to slow down the shutter speed and close the aperture further, or increase the ISO and close the aperture if you don’t have a tripod.

Step 5 - Practice!

Shooting with a manual lens takes practice, lots of it. When I first started I found myself taking hundreds of shots and binning 90-95% of them, although when shooting in digital this isn’t so much of a problem when you are trying something new. The more time I spend the more I understand the process and I’m slowly getting use to my “new” lenses.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and learned something from it. The most important thing is to take your time and enjoy yourself. Try not to get wound up when your shots aren’t quite perfect. 

I would love to hear your comments and see your photos, so why not tweet me @johnblackmore or check me out on Flickr.

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