I like the idea of adapting vintage lenses to mirrorless cameras a lot, but lately I’ve been actually starting to second guess the whole adapting thing. Proponents will tell you over and over again how you’ll be able to access thousands of old lenses with very little amount of money and how they’ll render different kind of image compared to the modern ones. I agree of course, for the most parts, because there indeed are so many positive aspects. There has been a lot of hype around mirrorless cameras and adapting old lenses, but maybe those days are starting to be over when mirrorless cameras are not anything new anymore.
At the moment I’m actually not using any native auto-focus lenses for my Fujifilm X-E2 (which is practically my only digital camera at the moment). I’m only adapting my lenses from my film cameras. My original motive was to get closer to a similar kind of shooting experience that a vintage film camera provides. I like manual focusing too way more than auto-focus, so adapting has always seemed like a no-brainer. This combination enables me to get close to an old school shooting workflow, even with digital cameras. I’ve been doing this for a while now and after having having a fair amount of shooting experience with adapted lenses, I though I’d share some thoughts and considerations.
Adapting manual focus lenses to a mirrorless camera is going to be a compromise in focusing
Most mirrorless digital cameras are designed for auto-focus lenses. There isn’t anything to fully support manual focusing and that’s going to be a trade-off when adapting old lenses. Most mirrorless cameras will give you the focus peaking option for manual focusing. It’ll basically highlight the focused areas. It’s a cool technology, but not nearly as good as optical solutions from old cameras. Cameras of yesteryear were designed for manual focusing, because there wasn’t anything else available. A simple split screen image on an old SLR or the focusing patch of a rangefinder camera will of course work perfectly with the lenses of the same era, because they are technologies that went hand in hand.
Mirrorless cameras don’t feature an optical split screen or a rangefinder patch, because they are based on completely different technologies. Their intended use is auto-focus. In addition to focus peaking, some cameras, at least Fujis, have a digital split screen, but that feels very gimmicky and I’d never use that seriously. Focus peaking on the other hand will get the job done much better, but I’ll admit even that causes a lot of frustration and hair pulling. Like I said, it can be done for sure, but if you are a true manual focus shooter and are looking for as reliable and precise manual focusing experience, as with the native manual focus cameras, it’s not going to be the same.
Low light difficulties with focus peaking
For the most parts, when the lighting conditions are suitable, focus peaking is pretty ok. But when the going get though, you’ll notice very quickly that manual focusing paired with focus peaking is far away from a reliable solution. In low light conditions, it may be really hard to detect what the highlighted (in-focus) areas actually are. It’s really distracting and all that squinting takes your attention from the subject. In the shooting situation you certainly shouldn’t be struggling with the camera like that.
Shooting with a large aperture doesn’t make the situation any easier. Because the depth of field is so shallow, there’s only a small amount of stuff being highlighted, so it’ll be harder to detect. In comparison, a good old, optical split screen or a rangefinder patch wouldn’t face any kind of problem in similar conditions.
A good EVF is a must
A good electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a must for focus peaking. My late Canon EOS M cameras didn’t even have a viewfinder, only back screens with live view. That combination didn’t work out at all. If there’s any reflection on a bright day on the back screen, it’s really hard to focus peak.
My Fuji on the other hand has a superb EVF that is joy to use, whenever the lighting conditions happen to favour. I’ve found that the EVF starts to fail pretty hard on a really sunny day. Not as badly as back screens, but still. Optical viewfinders in old cameras don’t suffer from the same problem, but very bright light seem to be a problem for EVF’s — at least the ones that I’ve been using. It’s hard to describe, but again the highlighted areas are considerably hard to read on an EVF when the light gets too bright. Especially if the highlight colour happens to be white and when the sun is hitting your eyes from the gaps between the viewfinder and your face.
I hope I don’t sound too negative. The reason for this article certainly isn’t to put off anyone. I’ll be happy to continue using adapted vintage lenses on my Fuji for fun and games, but for serious shooting, like what I’ve been now attempting, It’s not necessarily going to meet the expectations. For the bottom line, I’ll underline that there are a million reasons to adapt old lenses and it’s fun for sure. There are just things I wish I knew earlier — some things that rarely gets mentioned or recognised in the midst of all this mirrorless-hype, which made me want to acknowledge some of the lesser mentioned shortcomings as well, to save everyone else’s time.