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July 23, 2016: Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
There's always a compromise. Vintage lenses give you what you need at a fraction of the cost vs modern lenses, but image quality may be soft. If you really want super sharp and super contrast, those lenses come with a hefty price tag. You choose.

Hello all! I write this article as an FAQ for potential buyers -- this is especially for those who are buying vintage lenses for the first time.

One of the most common concerns I encounter is that people expect vintage lenses to perform like an expensive Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, which they are NOT.

The reason that vintage lenses are STILL popular today is mainly because of the price point. Most of them come with acceptable image quality with a few compromises, usually for artistic effect. For just a small cost, they can give you exactly what you need without the distractions of electronic chips... wide angle, telephoto, prime, zoom, mirror reflex, you name it. 

Using manual lenses is not the end of the world. It is not a handicap, but rather a factor that adds excitement to photography as hobby, art or profession.


Realistic Expectations For
Buying Legacy Lenses

My point in writing this article is just to share with you the common characteristics of vintage lenses, just to set your expectation before you buy:

1) Definition of 'Vintage Lens'.

When people say 'vintage lens', most of the time they are referring to pre-autofocus lenses dating from early 1980s and backwards. Many people prefer these lenses because they are made of metal and glass, which will last forever.

Manual lenses don't have electronic chips inside. You might drop these lenses by accident, but they may not have any effect since they're well built. Unlike some plastic lenses with electronic chips, when you drop them, some chips/motors inside might break -- rendering the lens useless.

2) Manual Exposure Mode.

With manual lenses, you're limited to using only the Manual Exposure Mode in your camera. You can always rely on the 'Sunny 16 Rule'. This means that to get the proper exposure, you will have to calculate in your head the Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO. With digital, it's easy to learn manual because you can see results in a snap. It only takes a week of practice with manual, then you suddenly just tweak the settings on instinct, as if you're in Auto Mode.

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
Shot with a Nikkor 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5. 

3) OEM vs Third Party Lenses.

OEM refers to Nikkors, Canons, Pentax, Minoltas and other lenses made by the camera manufacturers themselves. Then there are the third party lens makers like Samyang, Tokina, Tamron and Sigma who are still alive and well today. In the old days, third party lens makers proliferated the market. Many of these names were big, but nowadays obscure: Soligor, Vivitar, Sun Optic, Osawa (related to Mamiya), Tefnon (Kobori), Komura, etc.

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses

4) Image quality.

4a) OEM vs Third Party Lenses. OEM lenses are generally (but not always) understood to be sharper and better in image quality versus third party makers. To be fair to the third party lenses, many of them can compete with OEM lenses but you only spend  a fraction of the cost. But again, when you buy third party lenses, one must be reminded that they are not Nikkors. 

4b) Lens Coating. Technology for lens coating was not very advanced until the 1980s. Some of them were single coated, others even uncoated... versus today's multicoated lenses. Lens coating is what gives images sharpness, contrast, how well it handles flare. Vintage lenses are known to be soft, or 'portrait soft' as I call it. But many photographers are still attracted to these because of the unique characteristic that these lenses imbue on the images.

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
Vivitar 28-210mm f/3.5-5.6 (Cosina). No edit.
See how this lens handles highlights and flare?

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 (1967). No edit.
Although this Nikkor prime is already 50 years old,
its primitive single coating does a good job.

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
Nikkor 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5 (1988). No edit.
This newer Nikkor lens handles highlights very well.
But you can still see some flares, which adds a nice touch.

4c) Primes vs Zooms. Prime lenses were preferred in the old days because they were sharper and better in image quality compared to zoom lenses. With today's technology, zoom lenses are just as good as prime lenses nowadays. I've read many reviews praising the Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens to be sharper than the professional Nikkor lenses (they say).

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses

4d) Softness in Zoom Lenses. A common characteristic of vintage zoom lenses is softness and/or loss of contrast when at their widest aperture, or softness at the longest end of the zoom (eg. 200mm, 300mm). Some lenses may have one or both of these characteristics. Users typically move the aperture one stop down, or do not fully zoom in at the longest focal length (eg. for a 70-210mm zoom, they zoom until 180mm) to get sharp and contrasty image. 

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
Tokina RMC 70-210mm f/3.5 at 210mm f/3.5 (No Edit) -- This lens is sharp at 210mm,
but where there's plenty of light, it tends to have a 'portrait soft glow'.

4e) Color Shift. Legacy lenses usually have neutral, cool (bluish) or warm (amber) color shift. Cool color shift is pretty common in my vintage lenses, even the Nikkors. Those made in the 1980s or later look more neutral. The bluish shift was probably to counteract reddishness in film. Color shift is easily corrected with Custom White Balance.

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
We live just around the corner! There is a slight bluish shift on my Tokina RMC 70-210mm f/3.5, which gives the image a vintage atmosphere.

4f) Vibration Reduction, Image Stabilization, Optical Stabilization. In the absence of vibration reduction in old lenses, have you ever wondered how photographers managed? There's the use of tripod/monopod and other creative ways to stabilize their images.

Vibration is most pronounced in telephoto lenses especially from 200mm or longer. In bright sunny days, you can afford faster shutter speed such as 1/125" or higher. I always set my shutter speed to 1/60" whether indoor/outdoor or wide/telephoto lens and have always got crisp results.

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses

5) Fungus, Dirt, Haze, and Condition of Lens.

Vintage lenses usually sell at a low price point, while rare ones or those in mint condition fetch a higher price tag.

Some people would prefer to buy lenses in dirty condition and clean it themselves. These lenses come with fungus, haze, dirt, scratches, damage and other things to look out for. What's important is that image quality is not compromised.

You might also want to factor in the cost of cleaning -- for vintage lenses, they would normally charge around P800 to P1,800 for cleaning. If you are daring enough for a DIY cleaning project (it's easy!), you only need a few tools that can be easily found in the hardware.

To check if the glass inside the lens has fungus or haze, use a flashlight (or the built-in flashlight on your mobile phone) and point it inside the lens. You can see if there are tiny webs on the glass, which is likely fungus. Sometimes these issues are not disclosed, or they would be advertised as merely a speck of dust.

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
Super Komura 90-250mm, before cleaning. They told me it was just a speck of dust... they sold me on this.
Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
After DIY cleaning.

Next, mount the lens to your camera, stop it down to f/22 or the narrowest aperture. Then shoot into a bright light source such as a fluorescent lamp or the sky. The image on your LCD will show if there are tiny specs of dust, or if issues like scratches and cracks will show on the images (loss of contrast, glow, etc).

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
Tamron 400mm. No edit. You can see that dust has entered
while I changed the lens in the middle of heavy traffic.

Then, try normal exposure and shoot at a scene with bright light. You will find out whether the lens can handle flare very well. If not, you will see that highlights tend to glow.

Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses
Vivitar 28-210mm with badly scratched front element. Bought it for experimentation.



I hope that this short article helps you to make realistic expectations and decide whether or not the lens you're going to buy is the right one for you.

Don't let your impulses overcome you, only to end up in disillusionment or returning the item. It is your responsibility to do research when purchasing any item. This will save time and effort for both the seller and the buyer.

The lesson with vintage lenses is that they are like people who need nurture and understanding. If you know their strengths and limitations, then you can always find a way to work with them.

If you have more concerns about buying vintage lenses, please post a comment below so we can address it promptly. Thanks for dropping by!


Buyer Expectation for Legacy Lenses


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