Thursday, October 23, 2008

Manual fun

Old manual-focus lenses are plentiful on eBay and in the used bins of KEH, Adorama, B&H, and others. Your local camera shop will have them, too — not the mall stores, but your smaller local retailer. With an adapter, you can mount them on your camera body and shoot away.

Pentax screwmount, or M42, was a popular mount for many years, and as an accident of camera design they work great with Canons. You'll have to do some research if you use another brand of camera, but there are so many adapters out there I'd be surprised if there wasn't some sort of old mount you could adapt to your particular body.

For these photos, I used a SMC Super Takumar 55mm f/2, wide open at f/2. The adapter screws on to the bottom of the lens, and then fits in my EOS mount. To control aperture, twist the aperture ring on the lens. I shoot in Av (aperture priority) mode on my 40D. The camera meters perfectly; you just focus manually and shoot away.

Nailing focus isn't easy — digital cameras don't use those handy split-prism focusing screens any more, so you just twist until it looks right. It gets easier with practice. And if your camera can change focusing screens, maybe there's a split-prism screen for it. I just use what I've got.

There are a lot of different adapters. Some have glass elements, while cheaper models are just a metal ring that fits your camera mount. If you shop for adapters, make sure they mention that it allows you to focus to infinity. Mine is of the simple, glass-free, metal ring variety.

So why bother with this? For one, the lenses are cheap. My 55mm f/2 was $25. It's made of solid metal and has a nice, creamy bokeh, and it's fast enough to use indoors. You might fill a hole in your lens lineup, or find something fun you would rarely use, like a fisheye, for a lot less cash than you'd lay out to get a new one. It's a fun way to experiment, hone your manual focus skills, and get pictures with a different look and feel from your other lenses.

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