Nostalgic About Old Lenses

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The problem with many of the new cameras at the general consumer and even “pro-sumer” level lies in the lens. The market has reacted to the needs of the consumer and thus virtually every camera being sold out there comes with a standard auto-focus zoom lens. This is by no means something for most people to complain about. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The combination of an easy-to-use zoom lens on a modern camera equipped with auto-focus and auto-exposure features makes photography even easier than it ever has been.

Depth of field control

But greater convenience comes at a price. Additional glass elements in the lens make it "slow." That is, its maximum aperture (widest iris diameter) is smaller than the older lenses from the 70s and early 80s. The advantage of these “faster” lenses, those with larger apertures, is that one can take advantage of much shallower depth of fields. What this means is that the photographer can decide just how many planes of depth should be in focus. Specifically, it becomes possible to leave things in the foreground or background out of focus on purpose so that the main subject sharp.

As a hobbyist photographer, I am aware that fast lenses are still being produced and are available. The point I am making, however, is that these lenses no longer come by default with new cameras. Modern fast lenses (like Canon’s EF line) are noticeably more expensive than the slower ones bundled with cameras. Thus, only the power user or more advanced photographer would feel that something is missing. This is fine. Most folks do not care exactly how much depth of field control they can achieve and standard lenses do the job well.

There is still a workable depth of field range available on today’s basic lenses, yet to do that, one has to get out of the fully automatic mode and go to either semi-manual (sometimes called "P"), or aperture- or exposure-priority modes and then select the desired aperture-exposure combination. If a deep focus image is desired, one could try something like f/22 at 1/30; for a more shallow focus range, less depth of field, the corresponding exposure would be f/4 at 1/1000. Faster lenses (whether of the newer pricey variety or the cheaper, older kind) have wider apertures such as f/1.8 or f/1.4, giving even more control over the final image.

I bet that many are no longer aware of what is happening to the image in full-auto mode nor are they aware of the creative possibilities that are available even with the comparatively crippled depth of field control available with standard modern lenses.

Focus control

The next gripe against modern lenses (again, this is only for entry-level, bundled lenses) is that for the most part, they’re hard to manually focus. I’ll be the first to admit that new cameras have greatly improved in this area and the focusing is excellent in most situations. However, when one wants to go to manual mode for special situations (long exposures, night photography, etc.), things get tricky.

With the older lenses, like the Canon FD series that I am fond of, one had to rotate the focusing ring to make the image sharp. It was not unusual for it to rotate more than one revolution. This gave the photographer very fine focal control. Today’s motor-driven auto-focus lenses have greatly narrowed the rotational range. This is necessary because it makes the motor more efficient. When switching to manual focus mode on an AF lens, one finds that it does not take much movement at all to exercise the entire focal range. That is, with very little rotational movement of the focusing ring, we can go from, say, a few feet all the way to infinity. What this means is that it becomes harder to control: every little twitch of the finger, the slightest camera movement, can throw the focus off.

Disadvantages

But not all is fine and dandy in Lens Memory Lane. Weight was one of the factors that led me to purchase a new SLR (along with a new set of lenses). An old 300mm FD lens hooked to a late 1970s camera such as the AE-1 will, after several hours of hiking, give the amateur some neck issues. Newer cameras and lenses are much lighter and thus, more hiker friendly.

Optics have improved in the last few decades. The resolution power of newer lenses is in most cases quite superior. Though not a factor for the amateur, it’s something that the advanced hobbyist might consider researching and even then, it’s still not a major issue unless you’re into advertising or professional photography requiring detailed work.

Since the lenses I am talking about exist for older mounts, they are limited to film cameras. The film workflow is already obsolete and requires many more steps to be digitized and made web-friendly. Users of digital SLRs are probably better off staying there. Again, it is possible to purchase modern lenses with large apertures. But for those looking for new photographic tools that open up new and exciting possibilities and want to do so cheaply, your local camera store, or eBay is the place to find treasures of the 70s and 80s.

Conclusion

Lightweight materials and better technology have made photography even more accessible than before. The average user is, for the most part, capable of producing an acceptable image due to advances in auto-exposure and auto-focus control. They really do not need to know anything else. Point and shoot. The camera does the rest.

But for those who yearn for the subtleties and a greater photographic bliss — all without breaking the piggy bank — the occasional incursion into the tools of yesteryear should provide many a fun creative high.

Manuel Lora [send him mail] is a freelance TV producer and multimedia specialist in New Orleans.

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