As much as I enjoy shooting film, I still take the majority of my photographs with digital cameras. That said, I prefer to use cameras and lenses which give me as much simplicity and control as my film cameras. Key to me is to have the option to set the aperture and focus manually. This is why I prefer using and adapting old manual lenses on my digital cameras. They tend to be more compact, and certainly cheaper than trying to buy the modern, native lenses available for my cameras of choice. For the camera bodies, I typically shoot on aperture-preferred on both film and digital, so having shutter speed dials is not a requirement.
One of my favorite vintage lenses is the Canon 50mm f/1.8 in Leica thread mount (LTM). It is a very compact lens designed for Canon’s original rangefinder series of cameras, and was based on the post WW2 Serenar lens designs manufactured by the Canon company. I believe the pristine model I purchased was manufactured in the late 50s/early 60s. I have used it primarily with adapters on my APS-C cameras, though I have also used it on a full frame M9.
The lens may not have the f/1.4 maximum aperture that many prefer, but I have to say given the quality of digital sensors these days, the fraction of a stop difference between f/1.4 and F1.8 is not that big a deal for me. The lens is very easy to handle, and aperture detents are pretty solid. The only limitations I have had to adjust to are the pretty long focus throw from minimum distance to infinity, plus the minimum focusing distance of about 3 feet, which is standard for a rangefinder lens. Nevertheless, since the lens has an effective focal length of 75mm on APS-C cameras, I use it primarily as a short telephoto at medium distances anyway, so the minimum focusing distance is not a real issue.
I have used the lens on a Leica CL (the digital version) I owned, as well as a first-gen Leica T with the Visoflex EVF attached. Oddly enough, I bonded with the somewhat quirky but very elegant Leica T design more than I did with the CL, so I sold off the CL after about a year of using it. I find the combination of a vintage lens and a very sleek and minimalist digital body very handsome to look at, and certainly very good in terms of heft and handling.
The Visoflex is not the sharpest EVF I have ever used, and can be laggy in low light, and this can be a bit of a challenge when shooting subjects with some action, such as dance performances and bands in dark pubs. But, all these limitations force me to fall back on the instincts I developed many years ago when shooting film and having to deal with SLR mirror “black out”: pre-focusing where I expect the subject to go, framing the shot in anticipation of upcoming action to compensate for the EVFs slow refresh rate.
For the most part, I strive to mimic a “film look” in Lightroom, and the fact that the T is not the best low-light shooter helps in this regard. The noisier, high ISO files actually make it easier to get the look and feel of “push processed” black and white film. I specifically shift to BW when the color cast and noise are really ugly in color.
Overall, I have really been impressed by the sharpness and color rendition of this lens. I feel very connected to the photographic process when I work harder to nail focus manually, compensate for bad light, and anticipate action to get the framing right. The combination of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 LTM and the Leica T + Visoflex really make me more focused and involved in taking photographs, and the hard work makes the results more satisfying.
Thanks for reading, and I would appreciate any other thoughts on how you deal with shooting vintage lenses on digital. If you would like to see more of my work, you can go to my Instagram feed. @photoedontheweb.
Hamish had similar expereinces with a Leica TL which you can read about here
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