Manual Focus Lenses on A DSLR – The Search for that ‘Magic’ MF Lens

When this series started I was really excited about doing some proper tests on lenses which I’d used on an Olympus 620 and a Canon 60D for several years. Always in search of that ‘magic’ lens which would give images a special touch, this post is a summary of my experience working with these lenses.

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This is a shot from the Vivitar Series One 70-210 – quite close to that ‘magic’ lens

There are a few complete duffers which I didn’t bother to test – but they didn’t cost much so it didn’t matter – and here’s one.

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The unbelievably small Industar 50mm f3.5. It’s so small it’s unusable really, and the results – from this copy – are not that good, so the planned test was cancelled.

To make their use worthwhile, MF lenses must offer either a significant aperture speed advantage over a kit lens, or show some special optical quality which modern AF zooms can’t create at a bargain price which makes them attractive.

Of the lenses tested, running from 17mm through to 300mm, it’s the ones in the 24mm-85mm range which stand out.

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Is that a lenscap? Oh no, it’s an Olympus EPL3! Another one where the test was abandoned – a ‘loaner’ from Pete and Jayne, a 400mm Tokina f5.6. Is MF with an 800mm equivalent possible? Maybe, but it’s just not worth the trouble. Testing the 300mm was bad enough – I’m not doing extreme telephotos again!

Less than 24mm and the max apertures are about the same as a kit zoom, and the performance more or less the same.

At 24mm to 85mm the aperture advantages are significant, as are the corresponding improvements in bokeh.

After 85mm, things start to even out again, the difficulties in focussing MF lenses at smaller telephoto apertures – just when you need critical focussing – start a downward turn which at some point becomes a breaking point. For me it is 135mm at f2.8. After that telephoto lenses become progressively more difficult to use as the max apertures get smaller – autofocus and image stabilisation start to become indispensable.

The ‘stars’ from the tests then –

The Zuiko 24mm f2.8 is a brilliant 35mm equivalent on a 60D. Sharp, contrasty and light.

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Unreservedly recommended – the Zuiko 24mm f2.8. I must get one!

The Zuiko 50mm f1.4 is very good even wide open and a good portrait lens.

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The Zuiko 50mm f1.4 – lovely colours, shallow depth of field and a perfect portrait lens.

For sheer eccentricity the Jupiter/Helios 85mm f2 is the best of them all, producing some unique results – the closest I’ve come to that ‘magic’ lens.

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The Helios 85mm f2 – the soft bokeh and image softness are a unique combination. The closest to my mythical ‘magic’ lens so far.

The Zuiko 85mm f2 is the ‘sensible’ alternative to the Helios. Both produce results at f2 which are very different to a kit lens at 85mm at f5.6.

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The Zuiko 85mm f2 – not as crazy as the Helios but more predictable. Some might prefer it’s cooler more restrained images.

For macro, the Zuiko 50mm f3.5 is also a good general purpose lens, but I’d rather have the zoom range and macro capability of the Vivitar 70-210 f3.5 Macro. However, I’d need to know it was needed before all that weight went into the camera bag.

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The Vivitar 70-210 f3.5 Macro – a legend of a lens and excellent on digital. The macro mode is superb. I just wish it weighed a bit less!

If I’m being brutally honest, the list stops there. When you come to pack the camera bag for a shoot, the Canon EF 70-300 is always going to be preferred to any of the MF lenses past 135mm, and probably 85mm. There just isn’t the compelling case to regularly use these lenses at their max aperture/weight/size/performance – it’s as simple as that.

Any of the four lenses above are a very good complement to a wide/standard and a telephoto AF zoom. With the exception of the Vivitar they could routinely be carried in the camera bag without weighing you down too much. None of them should cost more than around £140.

So – this test series finally finished ! It’s been good fun and worth the effort – even if it’s only to pare down my collection of old lenses to the best ones. The only downside is that now I’m on the hunt for a Zuiko 24mm f2.8….

Links to all the MF lens tests on a DSLR can be found here on the film, camera and lens review index tab.

Hope you find this useful, and it saves you some time and money…

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Manual Focus Lenses on a Canon 60D – A Zuiko 100mm f2.8

This is the tenth of a detailed series of posts for photographers who want to try cheap but fast manual focus lenses on an APS-C DSLR. Moving up the focal lengths, this time it’s the Zuiko 100mm f2.8, a small mid range tele which is a bit of an oddity. Firstly on 35mm its in-between the classic 85mm portrait lens – and the Zuiko f2 is excellent – and the more normal starting telephoto focal length of 135mm. On an APS-C DSLR it’s an eccentric 160mm equivalent, so ‘neither fish nor fowl’ as some might say.

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On a good day with basic ‘auto levels’ processing reveals rich saturated colours and nice bokeh, even if it’s never really razor-sharp at any aperture.

The results are usually lacking contrast, and always need some post processing. It’s worst feature though is how easily flare occurs. This is a multi coated lens so it shouldn’t be a problem – but it is – and quite a bad one. A lens hood is pretty much a necessity.

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On not such a good day and shot into the light – quite the worst tendency to flare I’ve ever seen!

What’s so irritating/annoying, or endearing/quirky depending on your point of view, is how unpredictable the results are. Post processed shots taken of the same subject in the same light can vary from superb to terrible!

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It’s inherently low contrast mean that a wide range of tones are captured, and give lots of options in Photoshop for stretching apparent dynamic range. This is handy on a bright day as the shot below shows.

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Physically the lens is small and light, the minimum focus is an unspectacular 1 metre, apertures run from f2.8 to f22 and the filter thread is – you’ve guessed it – 49mm. Focus is quite easy, the focus turns from infinity to 1 metre is around 180 degrees. It’s balance on the 60D is fine – pretty much the same as the 85mm as they’re about the same size.

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So all in all a definite oddity of a lens, with an unusual focal length and an unpredictable character which some will love and others hate. If you can live with the post processing requirements on nearly every shot, it can produce some really good images, but don’t expect super sharp results. And if you’re thinking of using one, make sure you get a lens hood – unless you like using flare for creative effect in which case you’ll like this lens!

They’re quite rare on the second-hand market and usually sell for around £80 to £120.

Thanks for looking – hope you find this useful.

Update – 22/5/2013. This particular lens has been found to have a mild internal fungal growth by a specialist second hand dealer. This may account for some of it’s tendency to flare.

Manual Focus Lenses on a Canon 60D – A Zuiko 24mm f2.8

This is the ninth of a detailed series of posts for photographers who want to try cheap but fast manual focus lenses on an APS-C DSLR. This time it’s the tiny Zuiko 24mm f2.8, on loan from fellow photographers Pete and Jayne, who’ve also leant me a few quite exotic lenses to play around with. I’ve never used this lens before so this is a complete unknown for me.

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At close to minimal focus distance and quite a stunning start. Sharp, contrasty, nice bokeh with a great colour rendition.

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Closer to infinity and this is superb again. This was shot at f5.6 and it’s pin sharp with no chromatic aberration in the trees to the top right.

On full frame this is nudging into ultra wide territory, but on an APS-C DSLR it’s the equivalent of a 38mm, making it close to the widely (no pun intended) favoured focal length of 35mm. At f2.8 it’s around one stop faster than a kit lens so a useful advantage. The filter size is 49mm (no surprise there), the minimum focus is around 25 cm which is very close, and the aperture range is f2.8 to f16.

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Same again – excellent….

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Another cracking result – sharp, good colour and definition.

Olympus priced their lenses by maximum aperture, maintaining that they all were built to a high minimum standard. There’s a 24mm f2 from the old Zuiko range which is usually very pricey, but the build quality of this 2.8 equivalent lens is top-notch.

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Physically the lens is tiny and very light – so small that the aperture ring is easy to nudge accidentally when focussing. The focus rack is very fast – infinity to 25cm in 1/4 of a turn making focussing easy.

So then – a test and here’s the frame. This was shot on the ‘standard’ colour profile and the colours are just zinging out. There has been no tweaking with the saturation.

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f2.8 – These huge (300 pixel) enlargements from the centre and far left show a slight softness at no CA at the edges so not bad at all – definitely useable. I’m not convinced that the focus point was correct on this one but it looked correct on the LCD.

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f5.6 – As sharp as it’s going to get I’d say.

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f11 – just the same.

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Well – wow! It even makes my favourite Zuiko 28mm f2 look a bit second-rate… As a general purpose 35mm equivalent focal length lens it’s a real gem and a good choice as a ‘walk around’ lens or a supplement to a kit lens – which it should easily outperform at f4 or lower. The close focus distance, though not marketed as a macro mode, is very useful, and the images are saturated (possibly overly so for some), sharp and contrasty with no CA. A bit of a star all round.

At under £100 it’s a great bargain and unreservedly recommended.

Now – I wonder how much Pete and Jayne want for it?

If you’re interested in using other MF lenses on your DSLR have a look at the other reviews on the film, camera and lens review index tab.

To see how this – and virtually every other known Zuiko lens known to man – performs on four thirds and micro four thirds sensors have a look here – an excellent series of tests at biofos.com!

Manual Focus Lenses on a Canon 60D – A lens with a long name beginning with ‘Meyer’

This is the eighth of a detailed series of posts for photographers who are thinking of using relatively cheap old manual focus lenses on an APS-C DSLR. This time the full name of the lens is ‘Meyer Optik Gorlitz Primotar E 50mm f3.5’ which an impressive start!

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Very soft pastel colours and a soft diffuse glow at maximum aperture – nice!

It’s an old East German-made lens in M42 screw fit and usually was sold with Exactas and Praktica cameras as the mid 20th century version of a ‘kit lens’ – i.e. a 50mm. On an APS-C DSLR it’s the equivalent of an 80mm lens. My hope was that with only a few lens elements, no multi coating and a relatively low contrast, it might be good to give a classic 1950’s look to images.

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Closer to infinity, and again a strange ethereal appearance – I’m beginning to like this effect. It’s more noticable at larger image sizes.

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The bokeh is unusual too.

The barrel is solid turned aluminium which is good, but the controls for focus and aperture are very thin making using it uncomfortable to use on a cold day. The min focus is around 50cm, filter size 40.5mm and the aperture range is f3.5 to f16. Oddly, the aperture is hexagonal at max aperture on my copy – which means hexagonal bokeh at all apertures. With the mount adaptor, there’s only stop down metering available.

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The lens from the top and the thin focus and aperture controls. At the top the last ring has black and red dots – operating on the original cameras the red dot aligned with the red arrow keeps the aperture open for focus, moving the ring so the black dot is aligned closed the aperture to that chosen on the aperture ring. Unfortunately on the mount adaptor it makes no difference!

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It’s quite a nice lens on the 60D – despite being small these old lenses are heavy.

So having notched up some nice initial impressions, off to the mill for a quick test.

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The test frame in all it’s glory.

f3.5 – soft in the centre and very soft at the edge, with that odd max aperture sheen seen earlier. On the Zuikos it was a bit unpleasant but on this lens it’s quite nice.

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f8 – very sharp in the centre and not bad at the edge

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f16 – softening again  but the edge is better.

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Viewed as a ‘normal’ lens it’s not bad, except at f8 to f11 where it’s very sharp. However at f3.5 it’s age and flaws give it’s results something of the look of a Lensbaby plastic lens at smaller apertures where the softness is better controlled. The soft rendition, pastel colours and the way light bleeds into shadow when light and dark areas coincide are a nice effect. It certainly lives up to expectations in producing vintage looking images, and would make a very good 8omm equivalent portrait lens.

So if you see one cheap (it’s much cheaper than a Lensbaby) give one a try – even 50 year old lenses can sometime produce a pleasant surprise.

Hope you find this useful – thanks for looking.

If you’re interested in using other MF lenses on your DSLR have a look at the other reviews on the film, camera and lens review index tab.

Manual Focus Lenses on a Canon 60D – Zuiko 50mm f3.5 Macro

This is the seventh of a detailed series of posts for photographers who are thinking of using relatively cheap old manual focus lenses on an APS-C DSLR. This time it’s the Zuiko 50mm f3.5 Macro, a light versatile lens which can focus from infinity to, well very close indeed.  The APS-C crop factor make this a medium telephoto 80mm equivalent, which is quite handy as you’re not too crowded in on your subject.

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As a macro lens, hand held or on a tripod it’s very good, even at max aperture of f3.5

The aperture range runs from f3.5 to f22, the smallest aperture being most useful in macro work where depth of field is a at a premium. The minimum focus is 23cm which works out very close to the front of the lens, and the filter size is the ever reliable Olympus standard of 49mm – Oly have saved me a fortune in filters over the years!

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I’ve used this as my only macro lens for years on film and digital. It’s a great all-rounder. This is a razor blade in its paper wrapper.

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This shot was hand held at max aperture – the control of the bokeh is nice and clean with no odd characteristics.

On the Canon 60D it’s just about right and perfectly in proportion. The very fast focus rack at further distances makes this a very responsive lens to focus in bright light as it races from infinity to 50cm in a quarter of a turn! The focus mechanism is the smoothest on any lens I’ve used – fast and fluid with just the right amount of resistance. The lens mount adaptor is by Fotodiox and is very precise and well made, but others are available.

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So having swiftly established credentials a macro lens, what’s it like as a general purpose 50mm lens used at all distances? Macro lenses are optimised for close-ups but they’re often very useable at longer focus distances too.

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As is common with macro lenses, the front lens element is recessed deep down into the lens barrel. I guess the depth of the barrel is there to provide the length of helicoid screw thread necessary to extend the lens.

So, the now familiar test scene.

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f3.5 – the centre is excellent already but the edge is a bit vague.

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f8 – excellent across the frame. f5.6 is the same.

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f16 – softening a little and the edge is going. f22 was even worse – diffraction setting and quite badly.

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As you can see a decent performance at wider apertures, in its mid aperture range it’s as good as it gets and only falls apart at f16 and smaller focussed at infinity (for macro work the smaller apertures are fine on a tripod).

Wandering around with a macro lens gives you a huge range of options for landscapes, portraits, mild macro and full on macro, and opens up a new world of possibilities. You find yourself looking more closely at all sorts of objects trying to get a shot which would be impossible with a kit or normal standard lens.

If hand holding macro shots keep the shutter speed high – camera shake is much more obvious taking close-ups so the faster the better as this lens has no image stabilisation  – 1/500th of a second of faster. I’d suggest using the LCD with focus magnify for both hand held or on a tripod based macro to get the focus point just right.

Now out of production, they’re available second-hand for around £75, the f2 version being a rare and a very expensive collectors piece. A possible alternative is the larger and heavier Vivitar Series One 70-210 f3.5 which has an amazing macro mode (at 210mm) and a very nice telephoto zoom range for general photography.

In conclusion, a very well-behaved, light and sharp macro lens which can be used successfully as a ‘normal’ lens at most mid range apertures. It’s around as fast as a kit lens at 50mm, but sharper at f5.6/f8 and offers macro too.

Hope you find this useful and thanks for looking!

If you’re interested in using other MF lenses on your DSLR have a look at the other reviews on the film, camera and lens review index tab.

Lensbaby Magic

The Lensbaby is an unpredictable beast – the results you think you’re going don’t often appear.

So with that intro, some shots which were pre-visualised as a particular image but ended up as something better – Lensbaby ‘fairy dust’ if you like, and hypnotically good as you play around in Photoshop and watch the results emerge!

First then – one of ‘those’ shots taken by instinct on a Sweet 35 mounted on an EPL3 in the winter. I could look at the wave patterns for hours…

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Next on the plastic lens and this was vaguely what I had in mind, just better than I’d imagined.

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Finally the best example – I can’t even recognise where this was taken, just sunlight off a road somewhere and, well much more impressively abstract that whatever I’d thought of!

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As always these shots are taken for the book cover market, and all comments, critiques and questions are welcome.

Thanks for looking – hope you like them and they give you some creative ideas for your photography.

Manual Focus Lenses on a Canon 60D – A Vivitar Series One 70-210 f3.5

This is the sixth of a detailed series of posts for photographers who want to try cheap but fast manual focus lenses on an APS-C DSLR. I’ve been digging out some of my favourite 35mm OM mount lenses for reuse, and this one emerged from storage and begged to be resurrected. The Vivitar Series One line was a successful attempt by Vivitar to make their independent lenses as good as those of the premium camera makers, and this one was a bit of a legend with a unique trick up it’s tail!

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f4 at max tele setting – lovely shallow depth of field and very soft tones

Several manufacturers were sub-contracted to make them including Kiron (serial numbers starting 22) and Olympus (serial numbers starting 6) but the later models weren’t that good, so if you’re thinking of getting one after reading this check here for the definitive history. In short, steer clear of anything with apertures f4.5 – f5.6.

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Maximum macro at a few cm – this is like carrying around a compact like a G9 – except it’s anything but compact!

What’s so special? It’s a fast (at least at the tele end) zoom with a fixed f3.5 across the zoom range, cracking performance and the most amazing macro mode which I’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s also very well made – as good as Zuikos and the Helios 85mm tested earlier – all metal and very heavy, the weight acting as a primitive sort of image stabilisation through sheer inertia. The APS-C equivalent range is approximately 112mm to 336mm so pretty much the entire range from mid to the near end of extreme telephoto. The lens adaptor is a Fotodiox, but many are available.

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Macro at medium distance – nice out of focus highlights and very good colour.

The filter size is 67mm, the minimum focus (non-macro) is 2 metres, and infinity to a few cm in macro mode (see later – it makes sense!).

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Macro at 300mm equivalent – included for comparison with the other lenses in the test series, and a cold, neutral colour cast.

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At longer focal lengths, compressed telephoto perspective is evident. Focussing in the viewfinder is easier at the tele end (this was taken around 150mm) but the LCD is needed for fine focussing. A tripod is pretty useful too!

To engage macro mode, the zoom ring is pulled back to 210mm, and a button pressed to allow another ring at the base of the lens to be rotated. The lens is now ‘locked’ at 210mm and zooming in and out allows focus from infinity to a few cm. The zoom ring (in/out) acts as a coarse focussing mechanism, with the focussing motion (rotate) working for fine focus. To disengage macro mode pull the zoom ring to 210mm and reverse the procedure. It’s easier than it sounds and quite brilliant!

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You know you’ve got something heavy attached – be careful who you point this at! It’s surprisingly well-balanced on the 60D, but it was too much for an Olympus 620. On 35mm OM’s it’s a bit too heavy, probably because I’m used to Zuiko primes which are so small and light. The zoom ring slides under gravity when the lens is pointed downwards – not good for tripod work.

So a quick test at 70, 135 and 210 mm.

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f3.5 – A smidge of CA and slightly soft but perfectly acceptable.

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f8 – Sharp as anything else on the 60D. f5.6 is the same

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f16 – unchanged.

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135mm

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f3.5 – a bit vague here – but not bad.

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f8 – same at f5.6 and excellent

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f16 – perfect!

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210mm

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f3.5 – a bit soft but not bad

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f8 – no complaints here.

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f16 – slightly improved if anything.

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Across the zoom range and at all apertures except 3.5 this is superb, and at f3.5 it’s not too bad either. Add to that the amazing macro mode and it’s irresistible, and despite the weight it’s going straight back into the camera bag.

What’s best though is the price – I got this one from Ebay for £10 (yes ten), sold by someone who apparently liked nothing better than a spot of oily engine maintenance followed by some photography. It was truly filthy but cleaned up beautifully in 1/2 hour or so. Several agency shots have sold from this lens so it’s paid for itself tens of times over.

If I’m honest, the reason for purchase was that I always wanted one when they were way out of my price range in the 1980’s (£400 as I remember), and I didn’t expect much – but what a pleasant surprise. Highly recommended at ten times the price (all of £100!). Remember to shoot in RAW though, as with all MF lenses, the exposures can be a bit wayward.

Hope you find this useful and thanks for looking.

If you’re interested in using other MF lenses on your DSLR have a look at the other reviews on the film, camera and lens review index tab.