Using old manual lenses on Sony a7
What’s the fuzz about the Sony a7 capabilities of adapting old manual lenses?
What are the pros and cons, and what I learned from that experience.
What the fuzz is about?
It’s pretty simple.
In the last century, film photography was the hype.
Main camera and lens manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta to name a few were creating cameras and lots of lenses.
Most of film cameras back then were designed with a 35mm sensor and lenses to go with it.
Until the late 90s, 35mm film camera was the major type of camera you could see on the street.
Then, digital cameras started to take a bite in the market over saturated by film photography.
Years pass and film photography disappeared from the stores, it wasn’t so cool any more.
Come on man, with a digital camera:
- no need to buy films
- ISO can be changed from the camera, not setup and fixed on the film
- ISO value can be pushed to crazy values (check Sony a7 and other low light performers)
- you have many more exposures to play with
- you can develop pictures directly from your computer.
People started to sell old film cameras and lenses, because cool kids wanted to switch to digital.
You could buy film cameras and lenses for nothing, even better if you went to garage sales.
Then, in 2013, Sony created the first 35mm (digital) mirrorrless camera: Sony a7.
Other 35mm cameras using a digital sensor got a mirror between the sensor and the back of the lens, so old manual lenses could not be mounted on those cameras, because of the distance between sensor and mirror (still, some lenses mounts were adapted to go on a different camera – like Minolta lens directly mounted on Canon body).
Sony did something great by not using a mirror: this allowed the back of the lens to be closer to the sensor, and guess what?
It allowed to use hundreds of old manual lenses on the Sony a7, you only need to buy an adapter, like this one for Minolta to Sony E.
Things started before 2013, because Sony created other types of sensors smaller than that, like apsc.
But mounting old manual lenses on those crop sensors, for my opinion at least, is good – you can obtain great results – but not the same feeling as using a full 35mm sensor.
So, what are the pros and cons?
Pros and cons
Cheap, cheap, cheap
Most of old manual lenses are cheaper than auto-focus lenses made by/for Sony E cameras.
I paid $40 for the Minolta 55 1.7 in great conditions, $39 for the 50 1.4 with body included, $50 for the 28-85, $45 for the 200mm, $40 for the 135mm.
Lots of (very) good performers.
Some old lenses perform very well on 24mp, or even bigger resolution sensors in terms of resolution, colors, contrast.
Coatings were not very good back in time, compared to today’s improvements, but results can be very good.
Learn the right way
If you’re learning photography, a fully manual lens (aperture, manual focus) will be challenging at first but I think that’s how you learn one of the most important thing about being a photographer: you take the shot, not your camera.
Yes, you can use the camera in auto, but stop using that once and for all.
When using it in fully manual mode, you will understand the importance of aperture, shutter speed, ISO.
The old school look
Some old lenses render differently that actual lenses, some say they have character.
Out of rendition zone (bokeh) can look different (search for swirly bokeh), colors can look like pictures from the 70s/80s (colors, contrast, ..).
Giving a second life
Using old manual lenses on my Sony a7 is like giving a second life to an abandoned camera system.
They are not useless any more!
Buy and resale for same (or better) price
Don’t say it’s an investment, but you can find some good deals on lenses on Ebay/garage sales.
If the lens looks good (at least optically: no fungus, minor dust, coating still there, ..) you will be able to enjoy using the lens.
And later or, sell it again and maybe make a profit.
Not every lens is a good performer
Some old lenses don’t behave very well on Sony a7: flare (caused by lens coatings/design and/or internal reflections), loss of contrast at wider apertures, resolution not good enough for you (if you pixel peep), haze, ..
Check out reviews if you can, we have some great source of information on the internet:
- our buddy Phillip Reeve: he and some other dudes review old (but not only) lenses on Sony a7 and they do a great job.
- rokkorfiles.com: for Minolta lenses
- fredmiranda.com: for any type of lenses
Hit or miss
Manual focus on wide apertures can be hit or miss: it’s complicated to focus correctly on a fast lens like 1.4, even with focus-peaking.
Auto-focus lenses are generally better/faster to focus.
Moving subjects can be very difficult to shoot at.
I don’t have the technique yet and I don’t know how people shot back in the 60s/70s when subject was moving.
Prices go up (but still good bang for your buck)
Sony getting more and more famous, 35mm mirrorrless camera like Sony a7 is very cheap nowadays, more and more people are looking for old manual lenses and you can see prices increasing on ebay – garage sales are still the best way to go.
Some people are selling old lenses on Ebay for a lot of money, be aware of a lens value and don’t burn your money on an item that’s overpriced.
Adapter is adding extra weight and length on the lens.
Cheap adapters (and maybe some expensive ones) are reflecting light internally, it can diminish image quality – mine is doing a great job, not sure about reflections but be aware of that.
Check that article, it’s very informative.
You need to check online what are the best old manual lenses (every lens is not a good performer). You have a shitload of lenses to choose from.
Risk of buying everything you can find
You buy a Minolta 50 1.7, then realize you want the 1.4 version because of “reasons” – then what happens? you have more and more lenses that you play with for 5 minutes then sadly finish on a shelf.
It’s not a bad thing to collect lenses but I think it’s not ideal just to buy lots of cheap lenses.
In the end you probably could buy a great used autofocus lens from one of respectable internet websites (article coming soon).
Long lenses need stabilization or tripod
I’ve bought a 200mm lens (Minolta Celtic 200mm f4) and with my Sony a7II it’s okay to take a picture with the in-body stabilization, handled.
When using that same lens on my Sony Nex-5N, it’s almost impossible to shoot handled, because of my movements.
When you don’t have a stabilized body, I advise you to use a tripod.
I know it cannot be very practical.
Limited EXIF data
An old manual lens mounted with a simple adapter (no electronic connection) will limit the information your camera can read.
Lens model and aperture chosen on the lens won’t be saved along with your picture data (but you can use LensTagger in Lightroom to add the info manually).
What I’ve learned from that experience
I’m really happy to use old manual lenses on my Sony cameras.
It’s fun to use (very) old lenses like my Minolta 55 1.7, I’ve paid approximately $50 for lens + adapter + lens hood and results are great.
Recently I thought that this lens why kind of bad, so I decided to buy the Minolta MD 50 1.4.
It wasn’t a bad idea (that lens is sharper, less prone to flare, more aperture stops to choose) but it wasn’t needed at all, for me those two lenses are duplicates and I prefer the 55mm (I’ll do a 50 1.4 vs 55 1.7 review).
So, I advise to thing twice before buying cheap old lenses, otherwise you will be spending more money, putting more stuff on your shelf and spending more time browsing than actually enjoying taking pictures.
It’s more complicated when I’m on the streets and want to shoot moving subjects, having flare/ghosting on pictures, but that’s part of the game, isn’t it?
Nothing is or should be perfect.