The quality of vintage camera lenses

How to make good images almost for free... if you choose the right model.

Objectifs vintages

Carl Zeiss Jena, Minolta, Kiron, Tokina lenses. On the right Sigma and Zuiko

Vintage lenses cost only a fraction of the prices of modern lenses and often offer a very good image quality. They lack stabilization, but in good light condition, a shorter exposure increases the shutter speed and this makes stabilization superfluous (for static subjects). You can also increase the ISO sensitivity to increase the speed.

Optic test

It remains to be seen what lens offers the quality required to rival a modern lense, in terms of sharpness. The comparative table below will help to evaluate some very popular models ...

Comparative table of visual acuity of lenses

To evaluate the accuracy of the lenses tested here we use the same acuity test composed of letters of the alphabet that opticians use, with a sheet in A4 format and another in A5 format (models that you can download and use yourself).

A photo is taken at a distance of 3 meters. The sharpness is given by the score associated with each row of letters. So we have two values, one taken on the A4 sheet and the other on the smaller sheet. 10 is the maximum score.

Being taken on an APS-C, the crop factor let photos benefit from a 60% magnification for EF and EF-S lenses when adapted to EF-M, or 50% for A lenses adapted to E-Mount.

Examples of vintage lenses 18mm 28mm 50mm 80mm 135mm 200mm 300mm
Tokina 28mm 2.8 - 10-7 - - - - -
Carl Zeiss Jena aluminium 50mm 2.8 - - 10-10 - - - -
Minolta 50mm 1.7 - - 10-9 - - - -
Konica Hexanon 50mm 1.7 - - 10-8 - - - -
Carl Zeiss Jena zebra 135mm 3.5 - - - - 10-10 - -
Zuiko OM 135mm 3.5 - - - - 10-10 - -
Canon silver 28-90mm 4-5.6 - 10-7 10-8 10-8 - - -
Vivitar/Kiron 75-205mm 3.8 constant Macro - - - 10-7 10-8 10-10 -
Tokina SZ-X 80-200mm 4.5-5.6 - - - 10-9 10-10 10-10 -
Sigma silver 28-200mm 3.5-5.6 Aspherical IF - 8-4 9-5 10-6 10-7 10-8 -
Minolta 75-300mm 4.5-5.6 AF Macro - - - 10-9 10-10 10-10 10-10
               
Common modern lenses 18mm 28mm 45-55mm 80mm 135mm 200mm 300mm
Canon 15-45mm IS STM 3.5-6.3 7-5 10-6 10-7 - - - -
Canon EF 50mm STM 1.8 (on APS-C) - - 10-9 - - - -
Sony 16-50mm OSS 3.5-5.6 7-4 9-6 8-5 - - - -
Fujifilm 15-45 XC 3.5-5.6 OIS 8-4 10-6 10-7 - - - -
Fujifilm 18-55 XF 2.8-4 OIS 9-5 10-7 10-8 - - - -
Tamron 18-200mm VC Di II 3.5-6.3 EF-S 8-5 8-6 10-8 10-10 10-10 10-10 -
Tamron 18-400mm VC Di II 3.5-6.3 HLD EF-S 9-6 10-6 10-8 10-9 10-10 10-10 10-10
Sony 18-200mm SEL18200 3.5-6.3 7-4 8-5 9-6 10-7 10-10 10-10 -
Sony 28-60mm 4-5.6 (42MP) - 10-7 10-10 - - - -
Canon 55-250mm IS STM 4-5.6 EF-S - - 10-8 10-10 10-10 10-10 -

Do these tests reflect the quality of the lenses in real-life shooting conditions? After all, they are not made to shot texts but rather objects in three dimensions...
The experience shows that the quality of lenses in actual use is correlated with the quality they show on these test patterns with the exception ... But for Tamrons, the real focal length is not always what is displayed.

Modern lenses

These old Carl Zeiss Jena, Minolta, Konica, Canon FD, Takumar and Tokina have a good optical quality although they only cost less than 50 dollars!

The Sigma silver in this test gives softer images. The 135mm F3.5 Zuiko lacks a bit of contrast and chromatic aberrations are out of control but are removed on a Fujifilm camera (but not on a Canon).

The modern Tamron 18-200 is relatively cheap and although it produces images of good quality with great colors, its sharpness is similar that of the more than 30-year-old Tokina!

The Canon 55-250 with its sharp images at all focal lengths, can replace most of these vintage lenses for everyday use and is more convenient. Its moderate price corresponds to the sum of five of them. But we can get better images with the Minolta, Tokina or primes lenses with patience.
Vintage primes, with their wide aperture are good for indoor photos and videos, and may replace modern manual primes.
This video on Youtube provide a comparison of a cheap vintage and a new expensive 28mm lens.

Minolta MD 50mm F1.7
Photo taken with the manual Minolta MD 50mm F1.7 (no post-processing)

See also...

Download