With the increasing popularity of using older vintage lenses on modern cameras there is always the question “Which camera is the best for using vintage lenses?“. There are some things to take into consideration. By today’s standards there are hardly any bad cameras. This goes especially for the major brands like Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Fuji and some other A-brands.
There are special groups on Facebook where the main topic is classic (vintage) lenses. Once in a while the question pops up.
“Which camera is the best for using vintage lenses?”
Let’s break down the major criteria when buying a camera
- Does it produce a good quality image
- Can I still use auto focus lenses
- Can I adapt vintage lenses to use it with the camera
- Does the camera feel right in my hands
The first one is quite easy to answer. Almost all cameras produce high quality images. The camera settings and light usually determine if an image is technically OK. Not to forget the lens, which is actually the major player in image quality.
The second one is also easy to answer. When using vintage lenses there is no change made to the camera. So all lenses that are suitable for the camera system will keep working.
The third is where it kicks in. Each manufacturer made it’s own system. Back in the days there was some kind of standard that was adopted by various brands but it is now classified as vintage. The distance from the film plane (on a digital camera it is called the sensor) to the mount is what makes it possible to adapt any lens. This distance is called the Focal Flange Distance (FFD) or register distance. Putting a Nikon lens on a Canon body is possible with the use of a simple adapter ring while the other way around it is not so easy. One could craft a ring to make it match but the focus on infinity can not be reached. The exact specifics of why this is and how it works is largely available on the internet and on Facebook groups.
Old Leica lenses for instance have such a short FFD that they can only be used on mirrorless cameras and hardly on a DSLR. This is the exact reason why most hobby photographers out there buy a mirrorless camera like a Sony Alpha series. The main reason is to have a camera that CAN be used to adapt MOST vintage lenses. So if the question pops up which camera to buy, the Sony is most likely to be recommended.
BUT is it the right choice. I don’t think so. There is another question to be asked. When using vintage lenses is there a specific lens that can not be adapted to the camera of your choice and will you ever buy it. For instance the Leica Summilux-M 50mm 1.4. A truly amazing lens that sells on Ebay between $1000 and $5000. My educated guess is that there will be not that many hobbyists out there that will spend that amount on a single lens. This is a lens that can not be mounted easily to any DSLR. Getting a mirrorless camera is the only way to go for a lens like this.
Which brings me to the final question. When buying a car I want to know how it drives. It might look like the perfect car on paper and can have amazing reviews but how does it drive when I am at the wheel. When I was younger I dreamed of a classic american car. I found the Corvette Stingray for a reasonable price and I wanted it. As soon as I sat behind the wheel I knew that this was not the car for me. The chair was in the lowest position and way back. My head touched the ceiling and my knees where too close to the steering wheel. Bummer. So I did not buy the car. Same with a vintage VW Beetle. The pedals are so close together that when I would step on the gas I would also hit the brake pedal.
In short, when buying a camera for vintage lenses, please do some research into which lenses are appealing to you and will they ever be used by you. Also go to a good camera store and test out every camera that appeals to you. Read about the register distance and do research on which lenses can be adapted and which ones can’t. When you are unsure about it, find someone who has the setup you are looking at and ask if you can try it out. Or if they can provide you with more information.
Personally I chose a Canon over a Sony because of some features that Canon offers. There are lots of features on the Sony cameras that no other brand has but for me they weren’t worth it.
It always annoys me when Sony users are only recommending Sony as being the best camera for vintage lenses. I disagree. There is no ‘Best’. It is possible to adapt more exotic lenses to a Sony. Do I miss them? Not at all. As a Canon user, would I say that Sony is crap? No way. I can not judge on that because I never used one. Some switched over from Canon to Sony for various reasons. For them they are valid reasons but are they valid for you?
I hope this blog post made you think and do so more research. Asking the question in groups and fora will always get you biased answers.