The best lenses are the most expensive lenses, right? Well, yes and no. While the latest technology doesn’t come cheap, there are still bargains to be had.
Photographic stores are the most obvious place to go hunting for interesting new lenses, but don’t forget to check out local camera fairs. There are also charity shops, online stores and auction sites such as eBay, where some very inexpensive lenses can be found. As always when buying online, check the feedback for the seller, and if you aren’t sure about something, email them and ask questions. Inexpensive used lenses are a great way to fill a gap in a collection or to find out whether you want to use a particular focal length.
All the lenses on the following four pages are manual focus, and many have lens mounts that aren’t found on contemporary cameras. However, there are many adapters and converters that will allow these lenses to be used on DSLRs, and especially on compact system cameras. And while this is by no means a comprehensive selection of lenses, it should spark a few ideas. Prices have been taken from a selection of dealers and the eBay internet auction site.
Olympus Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 £60
Designed to be used with the small Olympus OM SLRs, the Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 is compact, using a small 49mm filter thread. Comprising seven elements in six groups, with a minimal focus distance of 30cm, the Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 is a good general-purpose lens.
Paired with a camera with an APS-C sensor, the lens has the equivalent field of view of a 50mm lens, making it a good all-rounder that is particularly suited to street and documentary photography. Used on a micro four thirds camera via the Olympus OM mount adapter, the lens becomes a useful 70mm f/2.8 equivalent, which is great for portraits.
Due to the popularity of the Olympus Zuiko lenses, the 35mm f/2.8 is at the top of our budget, costing around £60. However, for the micro four thirds camera owner it is a small, light lens and, due to the popularity of the OM range, one of the few Olympus lenses that can be found at this highly affordable price.
Industar 50mm f/3.5 £20
There are two versions of this lens pictured here and both are optically identical. The lens came with Soviet Zorki and Zenit cameras and was available in both M39 and M42 threads. This means it could be used on Leica and other screw-mount rangefinder cameras, as well as M42 screw-mount Zenit, Praktica and Pentax SLRs.
The main selling point of this lens today is its size. It is tiny, and smaller even than most enlarger lenses. The M39 and M42 are two of the most popular lens mounts of all time, so it is relatively straightforward to use either version of these lenses on a digital system camera. Using an adapter, the M42 Industar 50mm f/3.5 makes a great pancake lens for a DSLR, and either version makes a neat little portrait lens on a compact system camera.
These lenses are generally sharp, with smooth bokeh in out-of-focus areas. However, the unsophisticated lens coatings mean they can be low contrast and suffer from flare at some apertures. Vignetting can also be an issue when the lens is wide open. If you have the chance, try the lens before you buy it, although at a price of £20 you can’t really go far wrong. The lens can produce some interesting effects that give images a ‘toy camera’ look
Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar
135mm f/3.5 £55
After the Second World War, the two plants belonging to Carl Zeiss were split into two companies. The original optical factory in Jena became part of Communist East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic, where they produced high-quality lenses mainly in the M42 screw-fit thread.
The Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 is one of the best of these lenses. Its multi-coated optics produce images with good colour and contrast, as well as nice out-of-focus bokeh when shooting at f/3.5. On a full-frame DSLR it is a great portrait lens for head-and-shoulders images, while the 200mm equivalent focal length on a compact system camera makes it an interesting choice for wildlife subjects.
These lenses are often well used and unloved, so inexpensive examples can be found for around £30, but expect to pay nearer £60 for an excellent example, like the one pictured here.
Sirius 500mm f/8
Mirror Lens £60
Mirror, or catadioptric, lenses are a very inexpensive way to take telephoto images. Due to their design, these lenses have fixed apertures, usually of f/8. The advantage of the mirror design is that the lens is far smaller and lighter compared to a regular 500mm. However, the comparatively small fixed aperture means that the lens can be difficult to handhold, without increasing the shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. Out-of-focus areas also have a distinctive ‘doughnut-shaped’ bokeh, which is an effect that many people dislike.
However, as an entry-level telephoto lens, particularly for wildlife photography, a mirror lens, such as the Sirius 500mm f/8 (pictured), is a good affordable option. There are numerous proprietary and third-party 500mm lenses available, including Centon, Kenko, Opteka, Rokinon, Rubinar, Samyang, Sigma, Sirius, Tamron, Tokina, Vivitar and Yashica. Some of the lenses are, in fact, virtually identical and are simply rebranded versions of the same lens.
Optomax 500mm f/8 £50
If the doughnut-shaped bokeh of a mirror lens doesn’t appeal to you, the Optomax 500mm f/8 lens may be the answer. Looking more like a small telescope, this lens can usually be found in an M42 fit, although it can be used on other cameras via adapters. I have tried it on a micro four thirds camera where it offers the staggering equivalent field of view of a 1,000mm lens on a 35mm camera.
With a largest aperture of f/8, handholding this lens is difficult, but it does have a tripod mount and results will improve if fitted to a camera with image stabilisation. The lens is best used on a bright sunny day, where at around £50, it becomes a great way for beginners to try their hand at wildlife photography.