One of the great things about mirrorless cameras is their ability to use virtually every camera lens ever made with simple, cheap adapters (an inherent by-product of their design and the distance between the lens mount and the sensor). This gives you the opportunity to make use of old lenses you may have left over from film cameras or to explore old lenses. There are plenty of lenses out there on the used market – some brilliant, some rubbish – but a lot of this older gear often goes very cheaply and there is always the potential to find a true bargain or hidden gem.
Aside from old lenses, mirrorless cameras also give you the opportunity to use lenses that were originally designed for quite different roles. In earlier posts I wrote about how lenses from photographic enlargers are great for macro and close-up shots. In the early days* of mirrorless cameras, very few native lenses were available and they were mostly basic kit zooms. In particular, there was a lack of prime lenses (single focal length, which are typically sharper than zooms), especially ‘fast’ primes with large maximum apertures for extra light gathering and creative use of depth of focus. There are some lovely fast primes around from old SLRs, but they are still quite valuable and those solidly built metal lenses can be a bit cumbersome on a small camera.
* (early is a relative term – the first mirrorless camera or Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens [EVIL, an acronym that never really caught on for some obscure reason] was released 5 years ago, ancient history in digital technology terms).
An interesting solution some early adopters discovered was using lenses from old 16mm movie cameras or Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras. These lenses share a screw thread ‘C mount’ fitting (generally speaking and there are plenty of exceptions), are mostly tiny sizes, a useful range of focal lengths (including some zooms) and large maximum apertures.
To give an idea of size, here is a 25mm f/1.4 CCTV lens and its adapter alongside an AA battery.
There are really high quality 16mm movie camera lenses that are worth serious money, but you can buy brand new CCTV lenses from sellers in China on a certain well known auction site for almost nothing. You can get 25mm, 35mm and 50mm versions for less than $30 including an adapter and free postage.
The 25mm shown here (and used for most of the photos below) goes for about $23. That’s less than 1% of the cost of a 24mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens. OK, the Nikkor is a pretty stellar lens and it’s hardly a fair comparison. It’s still less than 1/20th the price of a Panasonic 24mm f/1.4 (I know, still chalk and cheese but we are on a budget in this post). You lose niceties like autofocus and exposure metering and gain a funny aperture control without any click stops. On this brand (maybe others) the aperture ring is at the front where you expect the focus ring to be and vice versa, which takes some getting used to.
These little lenses have some unique imaging characteristics. They can produce great colours, plenty of contrast and be nearly as sharp as their vastly more expensive cousins, up to a point..
A very narrow point, in fact. Move away from the very centre of the image and it becomes soft very quickly, especially at wider apertures.
Up close at wide apertures, there is not much depth of field even on a small sensor.
At smaller apertures you can get a close to “normal” look.
Use a wider aperture and you get one of the true defining characteristics of these lenses – the distinctive swirly bokeh.
The swirl is definitely not for every kind of image, but it can be used in interesting creative ways. In any case, it is what comes from using these lenses for something quite different from their original role.
That original role required the lens to form only a very small image circle (hence the tiny diameter). A one inch sensor is a good match; even on a micro 4/3 sensor you have strong vignetting with the 25mm.
I also have a little Cosmicar 8.5mm CCTV lens I scored for a few dollars. It gives major vignetting and doesn’t fit fully into the adapter I have, so can only focus super closely.
While limited, it is fun for macros and with judicious cropping can be quite useful.
So… C mount lens + adapter + mirrorless camera = good, cheap, wholesome fun.