Note from the editor.
This article first appeared as the 2013-‘14 three-part series on the Japan Camera Hunter website: I, II, III. Republished on Analog.Cafe with the author’s permission. Dan K, the author, is a prominent camera collector and is a keen supporter of photographic traditions. For syndication rights, please contact him via Twitter.
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✪ Note: The prices are in US dollars. Having been noted some time ago, they may not be accurate today but can still be used to estimate relative value.
Chapter I: fixed-lens rangefinders.
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The unsung heroes.
It is easy to come up with a list of “camera legends.” Whether they sold in the millions or were made by the handful, they were so revolutionary, high spec, or culturally significant that they remain widely discussed decades after they ceased production. However, I have always been fascinated by the unsung heroes. These are cameras that don’t make it into the top ten lists but are cherished by those with hands-on experience.
Maybe you had a camera years ago that you bonded with, that you may have lost, gave away, or traded in for an upgrade, but you never found another that made you quite as happy? That’s the sort of camera I’m talking about. Sometimes it’s an irrational sentimental reason, but there really were some great cameras that today’s photographer will still find rewarding.
Although I love to collect cameras, photography has become a lifestyle. I carry a camera on me at all times, as I like to take strangers’ portraits and tell the story of the streets of Hong Kong. Therefore, I usually prefer a small camera, which is lighter to carry, less imposing, and less “professional-looking.” I prefer to focus manually, and I require an easy to focus screen and the highest-magnification finder possible. I dislike the whirring of a motor winder; a discreet lever advance is better. Given the fast snapshots that I take, auto exposure is useful, and I prefer aperture priority.
I find a solid mechanical camera with fully manual exposure to be refreshing. These cameras tend to be older and come from an era where reliability and bright, high magnification finders were of a high priority. This kind of camera takes me back to basics. It makes me slow down and think about exposure and film latitude. Manual exposure remedies the mental slackness that comes from operating a more modern film or digital camera. I would recommend a camera like this if you are rediscovering film and fancy a bit of a challenge. My early photography was done with a camera that didn’t even have a meter. It taught me more than a whole series of seminars. One thing it taught me was that although I can do without one, I do prefer a meter! A simple centre-weighted meter takes the guesswork out, even if it’s not coupled.
Either of these combinations of features is shared by some of the most sought-after cameras ever sold, costing hundreds of dollars. However, let me introduce you to a few prime examples, overlooked by collectors, that will likely set you back below one hundred dollars. The prices I have listed are what I’d expect to pay for a working, undamaged camera or lens in less than mint condition.
When it comes to a photographic genre, a typical blog article or forum thread will recommend the most famous cameras of the era. Consequently, everyone ends up looking for the same ten or so cameras. This drives up prices to the point where once cheap thrills are no longer quite so affordable. Fixed-lens rangefinders and viewfinder cameras originally exemplified the idea of cheap cameras for the masses, and so it makes no sense that they should be so coveted and coddled.
While I own some of these exalted and rare beasts, I delight in buying cameras for just a few dollars that outperform the shelf queens that I dare not carry for the risk of damage or loss. These are often consumer-grade cameras, versions of flagship professional models that have been stripped of unnecessary features, which added disproportionately to the manufacturing cost. These simpler cameras often offer faster operation and less bulk. Sometimes they are lesser-known domestic designations of famous cameras or more or less the same camera sold under a lesser brand. I also like to buy cameras that have features not offered by any other camera.
The historical context of a rangefinder design.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Leitz and Zeiss led the world in designing the gold standard of 35mm rangefinder cameras: the Leica Barnack-style cameras and Contax models. Due to the difficulty in enforcing pre-war German patents, many other camera brands made derivations of the Leicas and Contaxes, with camera bodies and lenses that were intended to be compatible with the ‘standard’ systems.
In 1963-64 Leitz came out with the revolutionary Leica M3, which featured a new patented and trademarked lens mount standard. The patent meant that other brands were then unable to produce cameras and lenses based on the new mount. At the same time, the M3’s beautiful lines, well-thought-out ergonomics and high-quality viewfinder with combined rangefinder patch made the design an instant classic and the top of everyone’s fantasy wish-list.
The arrival of the M3 was a great shock to many of the Japanese camera makers. Nikon responded with the excellent professional-grade Nikon F SLR, but other manufacturers found greater opportunity selling cheaper cameras to the wider consumer market.
Although the plan was to sell cheaper cameras, corners were cut judiciously, and economies of scale meant more could be done with less. Indeed, some cost-saving changes had inherent technical advantages. Pressed steel construction permitted lighter and more compact cameras to be made.
Loss of lens interchangeability saved weight, complexity and cost, but the biggest advantage was that the shutter could be located between the lens elements. Such a shutter has a shorter travel than a focal plane shutter and is less likely to be damaged by inquisitive fingers or burned through by the sun. Many of these cameras have proved more reliable and less in need of lubrication than a horizontal travel focal plane shutter, but you should always check that the electronics are working.
The lens itself was often a fast prime (wide aperture, fixed focal length), and many were of very high optical quality. Lacking the facility to change lenses, they typically had a focal length of between 35mm to 50mm, a practical choice for a single-lens camera. Also, a wide lens has a deeper depth of field than a long lens, making it easier to focus at typical shooting distances. Yet, they were fast enough to be expressively used wide open at portrait distances.
Unlike the professional rangefinder cameras that required add-on meters or metered prisms, selenium or CdS metering was built-in as a standard and advances in transistor technology permitted shutter-priority auto exposure. You will see ‘60s cameras with big selenium meters, first on the body, and later on the front of the lens barrel so that they would take into account the effect of lens filters. Selenium meters don’t require batteries but tend to degrade over time when exposed to light, and many no longer function accurately, if at all. Cadmium Sulphide (CdS) light sensors are much longer lived, but require batteries. Many cameras of the ‘70s used the superior mercury cells, which lasted longer and produced a constant voltage. Unfortunately, mercury cells are banned and very hard to obtain. Their voltage (1.35V) is lower than the initial voltage of modern replacement alkaline cells, and those alkaline cells’ voltage runs down over the life of the camera, so a camera set up for mercury cells may over- or under-meter. There are workarounds involving adaptors or spacers and adjustments to the electronics, but that topic requires an article of its own. As this article focuses on budget cameras that often don’t justify the cost of a full CLA, I would personally avoid using untested selenium cameras or unadjusted CdS cameras that can only work reliably on mercury batteries if I intend to use slide film.
All things considered, this style of camera is an excellent choice for snapshots and creative works, street photography, photographing kids/being photographed by kids, parties, and travel.
This rangefinder genre produced some legendary cameras. These are rightly revered as the cream of the crop and recognized in several articles on the topic. They are now highly prized by collectors, street photographers and film camera enthusiasts.
They include the so-called “Seven Swords”: Canon QL17 GIII, Konica Auto S3, Minolta Hi-Matic 7SII, Olympus 35 RC, Olympus 35 RD, Olympus 35 SP and Petri Color 35 (note: Petri is scale focus). Other noteworthy cameras include the Olympus 35 SPN, Olympus XA4 and the rare Yashica Electro 35 CC and Yashica Electro 35 CCN Wide that were made for the Japanese domestic market.
I was lucky to have accumulated the best cameras of the late ‘60s and ‘70s a few years back when prices were low. Nowadays, these cameras can be hard to find in working order at prices below $100.
Luckily, there are many cameras out there that are a joy to operate and take great pictures with that haven’t made other writers’ top 10 lists. Some of them are simply lesser known domestic model designations of famous export models. Others are typically budget models originally marketed to less sophisticated users that cut expensive features such as full manual exposure control. However, in the heat of the action, the simpler camera often wins out. Lack of manual exposure or aperture priority is not a problem; just adjust the film speed setting for exposure compensation, and instead of aperture priority, select a shutter speed that indicates an appropriate aperture.
Unsung rangefinder heroes.
Below are some of my favourite diamonds in the rough, less known cameras that are a joy to use. Bear in mind the prices are what I’d expect to pay for a camera in reasonable condition in a Hong Kong camera store. You might pick up one of these in a garage sale or thrift store for a song. You are much less likely to find one of the more famous cameras listed above so cheaply, because being better known, sellers are more likely to know that they can get a good price for one.
The most sought-after and expensive camera in the line is the Auto S3, which often fetches $250 these days. If you want the same camera for less money, buy the Konica C35 FD for around $125. This is no different from the Konica Auto S3; it is simply the Japanese domestic market designation. Before a few other enthusiasts and I published articles about it, this camera went for chump change. It still sells for a big discount, and for no good reason. As a daylight or available light shooter, it’s a good but not particularly outstanding shutter-priority camera with a sharp 38mm f/1.8 lens.
However, for people who want to use it with flash, it has no equal among 1970s rangefinders. Its killer feature is alongside the meter needle: there is a flash exposure indicator that pops up when you fit the dedicated Konica X-14 or X-20 flash. The camera adjusts the aperture automatically for perfect flash exposure based on the focused distance, and the user can balance or offset the background illumination with the shutter speed. You can quickly see the difference in flash and ambient exposure from the relative position of the needles. That’s why the Auto S3 ranks in the legendary “Seven Swords” of 1970s rangefinders, but why compete with the collectors when you can buy the relatively unknown Konica FD? Like the Konica C35 (base model) described in the honourable mentions below, the C35 FD takes the discontinued PX675 mercury battery but works with silver oxide replacements.
Ask anyone which rangefinder cameras represent best of the genre: there’s a good chance the Canon Canonet QL 17 GIII will be mentioned. As a result, everyone goes out looking for this specific model, ignoring the fact that the other Canonets are outstandingly good, and the QL and GIII designations represent relatively minor incremental improvements. You don’t need the “QL” quick loading feature. You don’t need a battery tester. I don’t even really need the minor low light advantage of the f/1.7 (Canonet 17) lens over the f/1.9 (Canonet 19) or f/2.8 (Canonet 28).
If you find the black paint edition of the Canonet QL 17 GIII in mint condition, save up and buy it, wrap it in acid-free tissue paper and slide it to the back of your dry box, then buy a cheap generic Canonet to actually use. The only real disadvantage to these cameras is the use of PX675 mercury batteries, but I use mine with alkaline equivalents and have never noticed the difference. If you do, you can get the camera adjusted.
The XA series comprises the XA, XA2, XA1, XA3 and XA4 in that order. Some are rangefinders, and others are scale focus viewfinder cameras, but I will deal with them all here as one series.
I recommend the XA (RF) or XA2/3(scale focus) for budget-minded shooters. The XA has the best lens, a Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 (4 elements in 4 groups). XA3 is the XA2 with added DX and a stop higher max film speed at 1600ASA. I actually prefer the scale focus to the rangefinder. The XA4 is a wonderful 28mm f/3.5 that focuses down to one foot, but it’s super rare and pricey if it comes with the original macro-measuring cord. The remaining model, the fixed-focus XA1, is scorned by every reviewer. However, if you’re buying a camera for a child from 3-12 years old, you can’t buy a better film camera. The original XA is the first camera that my son could shoot because, like its siblings, it has a hair-trigger shutter button. The XA would get knocked off focus when the clamshell is closed, but the XA1 is always acceptably good as long as you aren’t too close. Combined with small size, lightness and cheapness, it’s perfect for kids. The Olympus XA series use common LR44 batteries.
The Minolta Hi-Matic E model was an improved version of the C model with a sharp and fast 40mm f/1.7 lens, rangefinder and Electro Control exposure. Subsequent models were the victim of cost-cutting. The later F model remains a well-loved camera, but with a 38mm f/2.7 lens. Later models had a simpler, cheaper electronic circuit. This camera uses PX640 batteries and tends to over-expose by one stop if used with alkaline batteries. That’s OK because I like to overexpose print film, but if shooting slide film, adjust the ASA setting down by one stop from the film rating. Note that these cameras have fully automatic exposure systems, except for the opportunity to change film rating.
One of the most obvious choices for this list is the Yashica Electro 35 series. Shown here is the late model Yashica Electro 35 GSN 45/1.7 and its black paint version the GTN, but enhancements were evolutionary, and in small increments, so many of the earlier cameras will do.
There are several reasons why the Electro 35 doesn’t make people’s top ten lists, primarily the lack of manual exposure override and, it’s being one of the larger cameras of the era. However, the camera is outstanding where it counts, with a beautiful, fast lens and high-quality viewfinder window.
Tele and Wide conversion lenses are available for the Electro 35 series. However, these add considerable bulk and only achieve 1.3x (58mm) and 0.85x (38mm) focal lengths, respectively. I have them but don’t use them.
As usual, the bad news is that these cameras were designed to take the impossible to find PX32 5.6v mercury batteries, but will accept 6v 28A or 4LR44 replacements. I had no idea this was a problem until I wrote this article, checked and found one CR123 battery and two taped together LR44 button cells in the battery chamber. I wouldn’t recommend mixing batteries, but mine’s worked fine that way. The shutter defaults to 1/500s without batteries.
The Ricoh 500 series is a sleeper amongst better-known brands. All 500s have a sharp 40mm f/2.8 lens (Tessar-based 4 elements in 3 groups). The GX, GX-1 and ME are the top-featured models to look for. The ZF and FM were budget zone focus cameras, and the FM allows auto-exposure only.
My personal favourite is the Ricoh 500ME, a small light rangefinder. I often find these with clockwork SP-Winder and flash selling for around $65-75. The GX and G (first series) models also shown here do not work with the winder. The winder is noisy and sounds like the wind-up toy that it is, but it helps to avoid breaking eye contact.
The 0.5x finder is bright and easy to focus with a diamond-shaped RF patch.
The camera has full manual exposure control but also shutter priority AE. The shutter appears to be mechanical and battery independent, and the meter has ASA settings up to 800ASA. The ME and GX models also have a self-timer, and a simple multiple exposure cocker, making them great creative tools.
The 500 series were made to use PX 675 batteries. Zinc-air hearing aid batteries are recommended, but I have had no problems shooting with LR44 batteries.
Many of the compact leaf-shutter rangefinders of the 1970s are similar in appearance. The Agfa Optima 1535 Sensor breaks the mould with an innovative design and all-plastic construction.
Unlike the other scale-focus cameras in the Agfa Optima series, the 1535 has a rangefinder. I love the easy-load system and the advance lever that doubles as a rewind lever. The electronic shutter is triggered by an electronic contact like the Olympus XA. This electronic shutter is battery dependent, but the shutter can operate at a wide speed range, from 15s to 1/1000s. The camera uses P625U alkaline button cell batteries.
This camera would be my recommendation if you wear glasses, as the camera has Agfa’s characteristic big finder, which has about 2cm of eye relief. However, I should warn you that the 1535 model is comparably rare and expensive compared to other models in Agfa’s Optima product line.
Minolta 7S is the big sister to the 7SII (my favourite camera of the genre). The 7S has a bigger, better finder, with parallax correction and an excellent Rokkor-PF 45mm f/1.8 lens. It was designed for mercury batteries but will work with silver oxide replacements. Auto and manual exposure with shutter speed and aperture are set independently.
In case you’re wondering, the “S” in 7S stands for Synchronization, having a hot shoe, which the model 7 lacks. The exposure system has also improved. This is a top-spec camera, but due to its size and weight, which is similar to a Yashica Electro 35, I take it out less than its little sister.
I have saved the best of the rangefinders for last. You may recall that I mentioned that my favourite camera of the era is the legendary Minolta 7SII. The Vivitar 35ES is almost exactly the same camera under a different brand and also manufactured by Cosina. As far as I can tell, it has the same 40mm f/1.7 lens and coating. The main difference is that the manual aperture manual override has been replaced with a guide-number based flash exposure system, coupled to the focusing mechanism for reliable exposure using manual flashes. The version sold in the European market is called the Revue 400SE, which is the same camera with an added PC terminal.
I use mine primarily in daylight in shutter-priority auto mode. The only catch is the specified PX675 1.35v mercury battery. I am using silver oxide cells without noticeable problems.
Honourable mentions: Yashica Lynx 14E and Konica C35.
There are some classics worth mentioning, but would be less likely to pick, as they are either less well equipped or less easy to handle.
Compared to the others, the Lynx feels like a tank. It’s big, won’t fit in your pocket and has the biggest gun on the battlefield, a 45mm f/1.4 lens. Capable of the shallowest depth of field of all the cameras mentioned here, it also has a quality finder with reasonable rangefinder base length. The metering is manual with electronic indication. This requires power from two PC640A batteries, which are still available if you know where to look.
To be honest, I don’t get on with this camera because it deviates from the quick-shooting pocket cameras that characterize the genre, and I find a Leica does what this camera does, only a lot better. Having said that, there’s no Leica model in this price bracket and hardly any leaf-shutter rangefinders with such a wide aperture.
I couldn’t write this article without mentioning the Konica C35, a wildly popular camera that many credit with starting the trend.
The C35 is pocketable and light. I bought a pristine example for $350. The camera sports a sharp 38/2.8 that is a little let down by a base length of under an inch. I find scale focusing faster and more accurate. Exposure is fully automatic; slow speeds down to 1/30s are coupled with wide apertures and fast speeds to 1/650s with a narrow aperture of up to f/14. There is no manual exposure control.
The best feature is guide number automatic flash exposure, but there is no flash balancing needle as found in the Auto S3 or FD models. The camera takes the discontinued PX675 mercury battery but works with silver oxide replacements.
Scale focus viewfinders.
Considerable optical engineering is required to make a camera with a rangefinder patch, so many brands also brought out simpler viewfinder cameras. While you may be concerned about your ability to focus a camera based on guesswork alone, many cameras have simple symbols to guide you.
There is a limited advantage to having a rangefinder on a small camera of this type. For a start, small cameras tend to have inaccurate rangefinders. Scale focus cameras have relatively wide lenses with smaller maximum apertures, so they have a greater depth of field. Most “advanced” compact cameras from the late ‘80s and ‘90s zone focus, and nobody frets about their focusing. Indeed, I find scale focusing to be faster and more in tune with my way of working than even a premium rangefinder. I often reach for a scale focus viewfinder camera over a rangefinder if I expect to use it in daylight, out of doors.
As you can see from the photo, these cameras are tiny, smaller than the already compact Canonet and on the same scale as the famously small Rollei 35 and Petri Color 35. As such, they make excellent candidates for pocket-carry.
The entire Yashica Electro 35 series is so good and so cheap as to obviate the need for a budget model. Just buy it and don’t overthink the choice of model. However, sometimes, less is more, and that is the case with the Yashica Electro ME. Using a rangefinder, I often miss the shot when focussing, so I ignore when the occasion calls for it, guesstimating the distance, and stop down a little.
The ME displays distance, shutter speed and aperture in the periphery of the finder where it doesn’t get in the way, and there is no reason to take your eye from the finder to adjust settings, something that I can’t say for a Leica. On the top of the lens barrel, it displays pictograms to indicate distance, on the bottom, it shows metres and feet, so you have the best of both worlds.
The original battery was the PX675E mercury battery, but I use the modern LR44 batteries for print film.
Although the ME is smaller than the usual Electro 35 cameras, the tiny gem of the series is the Yashica Electro 35 MC. This is one of the smallest cameras of the era that doesn’t have a collapsing lens or sub-miniature format.
Three pictograms and a parallax correction line is all you get to focus and compose in the finder. The distance and aperture controls are on the barrel. You can call it Spartan, but I like how it concentrates my attention on position, composition and timing.
This camera uses the PX28 mercury battery, but I have had success with LR44s.
Minox GT/GT-E. The Minoxes were famed for their excellent optics in a small package. Reputedly one of the smallest, if not the smallest, 35mm cameras ever made, they are a good choice if pocket-ability is a priority. For the same reason, it’s not really for people with large fingers due to fiddly focus and aperture rings.
The Minox has a unique operating method that I found far easier to adjust to than other funky miniature 35mm cameras like the Rollei 35. Like the Rollei, you have to remove the camera back to load film. Again, both cameras have retracting lenses. However, the Minox has a fold-down lens cover that extends the lens as it opens, which is faster and protects the lens.
Unusually for the genre, it is aperture priority; indicated speed is shown in the finder. The finder is small but also manages to show the distance scale and depth of field if you raise your eye level slightly.
I like the simple but controllable exposure system; the film speed setting ranged from 25 to 1600 ISO/ASA, and there is a one stop backlight compensation switch. The GT-X adds DX coding, but I think it has a shorter maximum shutter duration.
I have also heard that it’s a great camera for long exposures in low light. The only thing I don’t like is that the film advance is double-stroke. The Minox uses PX27 mercury batteries or the alkaline PX27A. Adapters are available for four alkaline LR44 or two lithium CR-1/3N batteries. Mine’s working on 4 LR44s held together with a little masking tape. Alternatively, consider the ML model, which uses V28px Silver-oxide batteries.
My Favourite Scale Focus Camera. It’s hard to pick a favourite; each camera is unique and has its own strengths. The 35-ME (38mm f/2.8) is fast, and confidence-inspiring, the 35 GT (35mm f/2.8) is the smallest and sharpest. However, I feel the 35MC (40mm f/2.8) represents that which is for me the best balance of both. I’m so happy to have rediscovered it in my collection I’m taking it out for a spin today. I love this camera.
Honourable mention: Olympus Trip 35.
Olympus Trip 35 was one of the most popular cameras of all time. Some authorities claim around ten million cameras were produced, a testament to its usability, quality and low price point. Consequently, these cameras are cheap and plentiful in today’s second-hand market.
The lens is a slightly slow but sharp 40mm f/2.8. A selenium meter means no battery is required. In A mode, the meter is coupled to the aperture and shutter speed. Below EV 13 (bright cloudy sunlight with no shadows), 1/40s is used. Above that, 1/40s is selected. The aperture can also be manually selected up to f/22, but the shutter speed is fixed at 1/40s, allowing manual exposure for flash use.
I love the little window in the bottom right of the viewfinder that displays a distance pictogram and aperture setting (you can set the aperture for use with flash, but the shutter speed is fixed), but the most compelling reason to own one is a pure nostalgic charm.
Buy these cameras in person or from a reputable dealer because there are two common faults: the selenium may not meter correctly, or the meter needle may not properly retract to f/22. However, if the camera is working properly, it is capable of taking excellent pictures.
Rangefinder cult classics.
I am adding some cult classics, which I cannot recommend under the criteria of Unsung Heroes. They include the Lomo LC-A/LC-Wide, which is notoriously bug-prone and also the following rare collectibles: Chinon Bellami (quirky), Ricoh FF-1 (Minox-alike) and Minolta AF-C, which is actually an autofocus camera!
Chapter II: manual focus SLR lenses.
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My philosophy is to pick a camera system based around the lenses that I plan to use, rather than choose a camera body and then go look for lenses that fit it. Sure, a great body makes for easy focusing and efficient shooting, but the lens is the soul of the photo. The optics determine how the image is rendered. Usually, a set of lenses will account for the majority of expenditure on a system, so it pays to make the right choice from the outset.
This advice is doubly important for the photographer on a tight budget. Plan out your system acquisitions from the outset, insofar as the system should offer the lenses you need at prices you can afford, but don’t be afraid to take advantage of the bargains you happen across.
An alternate strategy is to pick a universal mount like M42, T-mount, Adaptall 2 or one of the system mounts that are easy to adapt onto other bodies, such as Minolta MC/MD mount. There are some potential disadvantages regarding aperture control, but on the whole, it works well and is sensible if you own bodies of multiple systems and are working with a limited budget.
When buying new gear, we are often told to avoid off-brand lenses and basic kits because they don’t hold their value. The opposite holds true when money’s tight: we want lenses that are cheap and plentiful, with almost no rarity premium. I’m not too worried about reliability either. Most manual lenses of this genre are simple and quite robust.
There’s little to go wrong with a manual focus lens, other than obvious mould, element separation, cleaning marks, external physical damage, scratches, a sticky diaphragm, mechanical linkage, or a stuck focussing helicoids. This sounds a long list, but short compared to a stabilized autofocusing lens with electronic aperture control and nothing that is not readily apparent on physical inspection.
Indeed, you’d have to spend a lot of money to significantly upgrade from a lowly Minolta kit prime, simply because of the economies of scale in manufacturing by the million and their wide availability today. If you’re starting out, I recommend you buy a prime lens with a focal length of approximately 50mm and master that focal length first. These lenses offer better sharpness, less aberration, and better low light performance than wide or tele-focal lenses in the same price range. 50mm to 60mm focal length gives close to a 1:1 magnification on camera bodies of this era and price range. There is also something to be said for mastering the normal lens before learning to shoot lenses that make more of a statement with perspective.
Next, look for a wide lens somewhere in the 28mm to 35mm range and a portrait lens in the 75mm-85mm range. Ultra-wide SLR lenses tend to be expensive and/or optically compromised; super-telephoto lenses put too much distance between the photographer and subject and are expensive and/or slow, possessing a small maximum aperture. You’ll get more use out of a 35mm and a 75mm lens instead.
You should pick focal lengths to achieve a certain kind of shot; you don’t need or want lenses covering every conceivable focal length between wide to tele. Distinct focal lengths are for determining perspective and to make a visual statement, not for saving the effort of moving a little closer or farther away to frame the subject, a mistake many zoom lens-packing novices make.
Speaking of zoom lenses, I feel zooms are underrated. A single zoom lens can replace two or three prime lenses, for example, a 35mm wide lens, a 50mm normal lens and a 70mm short telephoto for portraiture. This is an important consideration if you’re on a tight budget. A zoom also saves time swapping lenses and may be essential for framing fast-moving action from a fixed vantage point, e.g. sports photography.
It’s more challenging to engineer a zoom lens than typical prime lenses, and some of the early attempts, such as the Nikon 43-86mm f/3.5 F, gave zoom lenses a bad name, being ridden with distortion, flare, ghosting and lacking in sharpness. Consequently, it has become pretty standard advice to steer clear of manual-focus zoom lenses and stick to primes. However, some of the better zooms are tack sharp, with minimal distortion and colour aberration and hold their own against comparable prime lenses in their price range.
Fast zoom lenses, e.g. f/2.8, with a constant widest aperture across the entire focal range are better regarded, but it’s not a universal truth; some variable aperture lenses are great, and some constant aperture lenses are not. In general, later models with computer-calculated optics and multi-coatings are likely to outperform earlier, simpler lenses. I have also found that lenses in the range of 80-200mm tend to be sharper and more consistent than ones in the 35-75mm range and that the greater the zoom range and the more extreme the lens is at the wide end, the worse the lens performed overall. Again, these are generalizations, and thus it makes sense to research individual lenses.
Don’t get too hung up on the maximum aperture specification. There’s not such a huge light capture difference between a 50mm f/1.2 and f/1.8 lens as to justify the price, nor does a 70-200mm f/2.8 deliver such narrow depth of field compared to an f/4 that it makes a far superior portrait lens. Other factors, such as the minimum close focus distance, may be more relevant to the usefulness of a lens. There’s nothing worse than not being able to get a tight head and shoulders portrait with a long lens.
Other factors like having a filter thread that maintains orientation at all focus positions, a short-throw vs long-throw focus, or even the direction the focus scale turns set lenses apart, but are more a matter of personal preference. I won’t cover every detail here, because my objective is to list as many lenses here that I own and enjoy as possible. The idea is for me to throw ideas based on my subjective experience and for you to look for more detailed individual reviews before purchasing.
Minolta SR/MC/MD SLR lenses.
Minolta primarily targeted the mass market, and their “professional” gear never had the same cachet as Leica, Contax, Nikon or Canon. Partly for this reason, Minolta’s manual-focus SLR system is my top recommendation for the photographer on a tight budget.
The first SLR system that I owned comprised a Minolta X-700 and a small handful of lenses. The only reason I switched was that I made the mistake of thinking it was too cheap to be any good. It took thousands of dollars of spending before I had assembled a high-end Nikon system that was significantly better in quality and utility. Now that I’ve learned that you can buy better gear, but you can’t buy a better eye, I wonder if it was money well spent. Whatever the answer, I still shoot my X-700 and X-500. I love the big finder and the quickness with which I can get the shot.
Before I get into individual lenses, here’s what you need to know about Minolta manual focus lens mount designations: It was originally called Minolta SR mount and sported auto aperture stop-down as the camera fires. “MC”-designated lenses add aperture-coupled metering for the SR-T, X-1, XE and later bodies. The next generation MD lenses added a tab to report the smallest aperture, enabling shutter-priority mode in the XE-7 and Program mode in the X-700. Seeing as I use manual or aperture priority, I don’t much care whether my lens is MC or MD.
The 50mm kit primes (1.4 and 1.7) are pretty good, especially stopped down at f/4, but still good enough at wide apertures, and they are dead cheap. As it happens, I currently only own two f/1.4 lenses, having given away an f/1.7 recently. In any case, all these lenses perform better than my MC Rokkor-X 1:1.2 f=58mm, which costs many times as much but is soft and produces strange swirly bokeh.
Minolta’s wide lenses cost a lot more than their normal primes, but then so do most wide SLR lenses. I originally bought the excellent but pricey 28mm f/2; a much more affordable option is the W.ROKKOR-SG 1:3.5 f=28mm, which is a bit more flare and distortion prone and necessitates stop-down metering through a small lever on the lens. I’d recommend the later MC version, rather than my SR version to avoid the need for step-down metering.
As for long lenses, I chose zooms over primes, because Minolta’s primes are legendary. Back in the 1970s, Leitz’s lovely M-mount system was losing out to Japanese SLRs, and they didn’t have the specific technology needed to make their own. So Leitz decided to see if they could find a Japanese manufacturer to partner with. Their engineers were particularly impressed with Minolta’s lens performance, and so, in the new tradition of “if you can’t beat them, re-badge them,” they started selling Minolta lenses and bodies as their own with minor modifications. Minolta continued making these lenses under their own brand. Some unverified accounts claim a high rejection rate of Minolta-made lenses and extensive modification, but the fact is, some of the Minolta-badged lens models really do perform to the level of the exalted Leica R system, and are comparable to even some of the better Leica R prime lenses. “Heresy!” cry the Leicaphiles, but professional testing I have heard about shows that they do. Regardless of snootiness, my casual testing confirms that they perform far better than they should for such a cheap lens.
My first pick is the Minolta MD ZOOM 75-200mm 1:4.5. I marginally prefer it to the latter, but optically simpler 70-210mm 1:4, a stellar lens in its own right that also became the Vario-Elmar-R 1:4/70-210mm. This focal range makes an excellent portrait lens, and a minimum focus distance of 1.2m means you can shoot a close up portrait. Note that I wouldn’t recommend any manual focus long-telephoto for children playing, or for sports, as it is not as fast reacting as a modern autofocus lens.
My second pick is the Minolta MD 35-70/3.5 Macro. I believe it was the non-macro version that was rebadged as the posh-sounding Leitz Vario-Elmar-R 1:3.5/35-70mm, but the macro version is at least as sharp and adds useful close focus and macro capabilities for about the same price. The close focus distance is 0.8m, but a further macro extension range allows 1:4 macro magnification. After a bit of comparison testing, I decided that I prefer it to the Minolta MD 28-70/3.5-4.5, which was also rebadged as the Leitz Vario-Elmar-R 1:3.5-4.5/28-70mm. I can live without the wider angle of view.
The only bad news is that both my lenses have rotating front elements, which can be a pain when using graduated filters and polarizers. I don’t use grad filters for anything but landscape photos, so it’s not an issue for me.
Nikon F/AI SLR lenses.
My personal favourite system is Nikon F/AI. If I chose to use just one system, this would be it. I feel it has the best combination of selection, flexibility and quality. I advocate buying a great body and a couple of these cheap lenses, like a pancake and a tele and then take a step up in budget as you develop.
Nikon’s manual focus lenses span a long production history and come at all price levels. Many of the pre-AI era lenses are a good balance of price and image quality, and they render beautifully. They will require conversion if you want to use them on later bodies, and the conversion cost may push them beyond our notional $100 budget, so if you plan to use camera bodies that take AI lenses, either buy AI/AI-S lenses or lenses that have already been converted.
One example that I picked up for about $75 is the venerable NIKKOR QC Auto 1:2.8 f=135mm AI. It’s sharp, with NIC anti-reflective coating, and still takes a beautiful picture. I’d like it to focus a little closer; the minimum distance is 1.5m.
Nikon later made some cheaper lenses that are available for pocket change; these include compact prime lenses with smaller apertures. One such lens is the Nikkor 35mm 1:2.8 AI-S. It’s sharp with a pleasant character and minimal distortion.
Any photographer with financial constraints should consider the Series E lenses. “E” stands for “Economy.” They were even stripped of the prestigious “Nikkor” designation and simply stated “Nikon Lens.” The Series E lenses are generally of plastic external construction, with a metal mount, mechanics and filter thread. The optics were supposedly simpler than Nikkors and built to a tighter budget, but the primes perform far better than I had expected and have a build quality better than many competitors’ lenses. The Series E lenses are all AI or AI-S mount and don’t have the metal fork required to meter with pre-AI bodies.
My favourite is the Nikon Lens Series E 50mm 1:1.8 pancake lens. Intended as a cheap lens for the entry-level Nikon EM, it’s generally treated as a bit of a joke, but testing and experience shows it’s a killer lens. It’s dead sharp and almost distortion-free, with just a little soft vignetting. This lens has a huge image circle; testing showed that it just about covers medium format Hasselblad X-Pan (65mmx24mm) panoramic. It even works better than a $3,000+ NOCT-NIKKOR 58mm 1:1.2 when adapted onto my Sony A7R, without noticeable ugly purple fringing.
Another is the Nikon Series E 100mm 1:2.8, a lovely telephoto portrait lens that outperforms even the 135/2.8. It’s tack sharp, with good contrast and smooth bokeh. This lens focuses down to one meter.
Nikon’s zooms are a mixed bunch. Some are as good as the best of the Minoltas and Leicas, but some, one or two, are even cringeworthy. I wouldn’t describe my Zoom-NIKKOR 35-70mm 1:3.5-4.8 as being especially sharp, or totally distortion-free at the wide end, but overall it’s reasonably good and very light and compact. A useful close focus distance of 0.5m gives the possibility of tight portraits. There is a macro setting down to 0.35m. By comparison, my (then) professional-grade Zoom-Nikkor 35-70mm 1:3.5 AI is twice the size and weight, has twice the minimum focal distance and costs a lot more than twice the price. Compare their sizes in the photo above. The f/3.5-4.8 is the bottom centre-left, and the f/3.5 is to its immediate right. It’s a matter of budget and priorities; I use the cheap lens more. If you get the choice, the earlier Zoom-NIKKOR 35-70mm 1:3.5-4.5 is about the same price as my 1:3.5-4.8 and a better lens.
After my happy experiences with my Series E lenses, it didn’t surprise me to see that my latest purchase, a Nikon Lens Series E 70-210mm 1:4 turned out to be a lovely lens. It’s beautifully put together, without a hint of its “economy” label. Optically, it’s on a par with the Minolta MD ZOOM 75-200mm 1:4.5 and perhaps a little more vibrant.
I think Nikon is a great choice at all budgets, from the entry-level, through intermediate and up to premium price levels. Therefore I would recommend Nikon to low budget photographers with aspirations of progressively trading up later.
Canon FD SLR lenses.
Canon made manual-focus cameras and lenses in their FL mount system from 1964 to 1971 and was then replaced by a similar FD mount, which added diaphragm control permitting shutter priority auto-exposure and program mode. FD mount remained in production till around 1987-1992 when it was itself replaced by the auto-focusing EF mount.
There are some compatibility issues that you need to be aware of. FL and FD lenses employ the same breech-lock and shutter-linkage and, consequently, FD mount bodies can use FL lenses, albeit with stopped-down metering. I prefer the later bodies, and seeing as FL lenses don’t seem to be much cheaper than FD lenses these days, I’ve chosen FD over FL. It’s no great limitation as Canon produced one of the most comprehensive systems of lenses, bodies and accessories, satisfying every need and budget.
Note that FL and FD lenses aren’t adaptable onto modern EOS (EF-Mount) bodies, nor to my knowledge any other SLR mount. Partly for this reason, Canon FD lenses and bodies are generally cheaper than their Nikon equivalent, and so are worthy of consideration for this article. This cheapness certainly doesn’t extend to their professional-grade “L” series lenses, which aren’t much cheaper than the modern EF mount equivalent and consequently, I’ve always balked at buying them.
While I have found a few lenses that are both cheap and meet my image quality requirements, I haven’t come across many, and I would be grateful for your recommendations. The good news is sometimes the very cheapest lenses render more gracefully than more expensive versions of the same focal length.
The Canon FD 50mm 1:1.8 is probably the most affordable of the bunch and often comes bundled for free with a body. I have both silver and black versions. Silver means that the lens has a silver breech-lock ring. The black version is the later lens. They are slightly smaller, but roughly comparable to the likewise common Canon Lens FD 50mm 1:1.4 and its heftier, elder brother, the Canon Lens FD 50mm 1:1.4 S.S.C. All four lenses are technically good and very similar in performance and look; they are sharp and contrasty without distortion and good colour rendition. The bokeh leaves me slightly queazy on fine grain film and digital but is a lot less extreme than the more expensive FD 55mm 1:1.2 SSC (non-aspheric). If you like the FD bodies, these kit 50mm primes are obvious choices.
Finding cheap but high-quality wides is always a challenge, and Canon Lens FD 28mm 1:2.8 was a very popular lens, being compact, sharp and well corrected for spherical aberration. There is only a slight barrel distortion and some tolerable brightness drop-off in the corners.
I have recently been using a Canon Lens FD mm 135mm 1:3.5 S.C. as an alternate portrait lens to my Canon Lens FD 100mm 1:2.8 S.S.C., which at $130 falls a little beyond our arbitrary target budget. I love the hair-splittingly sharp 100mm, and to be honest, I can’t reliably distinguish between photographs taken with the two lenses. The 100mm’s main advantage is its closer minimum focal distance of 1m vs 1.5m.
To sum up, Canon’s manual focus SLR system is frankly not my favourite, despite my long and history of using their EOS system and my passion for collecting their rangefinders. However, most people don’t need much more than an AE-1 Program body, a kit 50mm lens and maybe one specialist lenses, in which case, they’d not regret the purchase. Legions of photography and journalism students cut their teeth on this combination.
Konica AR SLR lenses.
Konica AR lenses are very underrated, but there aren’t many good Konica Autoreflex bodies. In addition, they have a short flange focal distance, so they’re not so popular as it’s hard to adapt them onto other SLR lens mounts. Of course, they work fine on a full-frame mirrorless camera, but if you can afford one of those, you can probably afford better than a Konica lens. Also, note that Konica AR lenses won’t work on earlier Konica F bodies.
I originally bought my HEXANON AR 40mm F1.8 to go with my TC-X camera body. The small pancake form-factor complements the small SLR body, and, as I intended it to be my only lens, the 40mm focal length is a good compromise between a normal lens and a wide. It’s an endearingly soulful lens, which means it’s not terribly sharp wide open and has dark corners, but pleasant rendering. By somewhere between f/2.8 and f/4 the lens sharpens up considerably. I also hear the 50mm is a sharper lens all around.
I added a HEXANON AR 28mm F3.5, which is fairly sharp for a 28mm SLR lens and without too much distortion. However, the corners are pretty dark when shot wide open. I am told the late model is a relabelled Hexar; perhaps the first model is better.
At the long end, I bought a UC ZOOM-HEXANON AR 80-200mm F4, which is a glorious tele zoom lens. I overpaid a little for mine, but they’re worth about $30-40 in prime condition on fleabay. The lens is sharp, contrasty and undistorted. The close focus distance is a very useful 0.7m. The downside is the front element rotates, like many zoom lenses of the era. Also, the lens has a bad reputation for flare, but I can’t seem to replicate it on my specimen. If you have the choice, go for the earlier f/3.5 model.
All these are Hexanon lenses. In later years, Konica made some budget lenses labelled Hexar AR. The Hexanon versions are better optically and mechanically, and given that Hexanon lenses are so cheap, I saw no reason to look for Hexar lenses. If you come across one, I’d love to hear how it compares to the Hexanons. I confess to being a relative newcomer to Konicas and am still looking for lenses to round out the system. Among the Hexanons that I haven’t tried, the 21/4 supposedly beats my beloved NIKKOR 20/3.5 UD, and the 35/2.8 and 35/2 are world-class. The 135/3.2 is another lens that I’m looking out for, being the best of the Konica portrait lenses.
To sum up Konica lenses, I don’t think there’s a cheaper way to put together a good system of several good quality lenses, but for street photography, I’d rather have one or two Series E lenses and a Nikon body than a bag full of Hexanons.
Contax C/Y SLR lenses.
I think Nikon has better SLR bodies, but I adore Leica R and Contax glass. These lenses are well-built, and the image quality is top-notch. I feel they offer good value for money in today’s market, but I wouldn’t call any of them “budget” lenses and won’t be reviewing them in this article.
However, Contax SLRs were made under a joint venture between Zeiss and Kyocera and Kyocera also manufactured and sold bodies and lenses with the same mount under the Yashica brand, and the standard is known as Contax/Yashica (C/Y). Yashica gear was pitched at a lower price point. Opinions on image quality vary. In my personal experience, they range from the mediocre to the reasonably good.
Yashica DSB 50mm 1:1.9. DSB stands for a “bargain basement.” It has plastic construction, single coating and is a bit flare-prone. It’s not as bad as on-line research would leave you to believe. It’s comparable in sharpness to my Contax Tessar 45mm 1:2.8 at f/2.8, even wide open. But then the Contax pancake isn’t the best they made.
Yashica ML 50mm 1:2. The ML lenses are generally metal construction, are multi-coated and fetch a little more. Like the DSB, this lens also has a six-blade diaphragm, and to be honest, I can’t tell the results apart from the DSB.
Yashica ML 135mm 1:2.8. This lens has a deservedly good reputation, being sharp and flattering. It’s not quite a Contax Sonnar, but this would be the one I’d keep out of all those considered here. The minimum focal distance is 1.5m.
I also have a Yashica ML ZOOM 80-200mm 1:4, and honestly, it’s no Vario Sonnar T, but not so far behind some of the other zoom lenses listed here. My early dissatisfaction with this lens is probably due to focus breathing, which is pretty bad on this lens; you’ll need to refocus when you change the focal length. The minimum focal distance is a distant 1.9m.
Contax is expensive. Be skeptical of Yashica SLR lenses and do your research. Unless you already have a Contax body, I’d consider another mount until funds permit.
Pentax K SLR lenses.
Pentax’s bayonet mount is known as “Pentax K,” although that covers several generations of Pentax mount. We’ll be considering the three manual focus generations: K, M and A. The first two types, K and M, cannot have set their apertures automatically and are very competitively priced. The third generation of SMC PENTAX-A lenses are the last and best of the manual focus lenses and have a green A on the aperture scale to show that they can work in shutter priority mode. They are also more expensive, and I don’t need shutter priority, so I stuck to the earlier generations. Incidentally, “SMC” stands for Super Multi-Coating, which is used to reduce lens flare.
SMC PENTAX 1:1.7 50mm. This lens is sharp with good contrast, colour rendition, and gentle, unobtrusive bokeh. There is some vignetting wide-open, but it is progressive and only serves to focus the viewer’s attention on the subject. Alternately, the smaller SMC PENTAX-M 1:2 50mm is a good pairing with the small Pentax SLR bodies and has the reputation of being even sharper than its Pentax-A successor. If you can stretch to $150, you can afford the excellent ASAHI OPT. CO. SMC PENTAX 1:1.4 50mm, but for a 50mm, this is a surprisingly high price. It just goes to illustrate how expensive Pentax lenses can get if you are keen on the more sought-after lenses.
For a while, the only wide that I owned was the SMC PENTAX-M 1:2.8 28mm; wide open, it’s moderately sharp in the centre with gloomy corners. Stopped down a stop or two, and it’s extremely good, as you’d expect. I recently managed to pick up an SMC PENTAX-M 1:3.5 28mm for even less than the f/2.8, and many say that this lens is superior to the faster lens in terms of flare resistance, contrast, colour rendering, and corner sharpness. I haven’t really shot with it enough to know, but it seems to be at least as sharp as its sister.
Back in the day, Pentax zooms were very desirable. The three I have are the SMC PENTAX Zoom 1:4 45-125mm, SMC PENTAX-M Zoom 1:4.5 80-200mm, and SMC PENTAX-M Zoom 1:4 75-150mm. Minimum focal distances are 1.2m for the 75-150mm, 1.5m for the 45-125mm and 1.6m for the 80-200mm. All are sharp and contrasty even wide open, with low distortion or aberration. Optically, my preference is for the 75-150mm over the 80-200mm, and it also complements the 50mm normal lens better than the 45-125mm. All in all, I consider the Minoltas a little better overall, both optically and in handling.
Olympus OM SLR lenses.
Olympus also made fine lenses, if you find the Olympus OM bodies to your liking. These are slightly different, with a dial on the lens mount controlling shutter speed. I find this a bit fiddly, especially with the pancake lens, but some people prefer it this way. As always, the kit primes are cheap and plentiful.
These kit primes are the Olympus OM Zuiko Auto-S 50mm 1.4 and 1.8. The smaller but slower 1.8 is all I need. I find the bokeh of the faster lens a bit “out of control” when shot wide open and close up, even more than a Zeiss Biotar.
I have two 28mm lenses. Of the two, I would not recommend the Olympus OM-SYSTEM ZUIKO 1:2 f=28mm. For a start, it breaks the budget at $380, but the main reason is it adds little over the Olympus OM-SYSTEM ZUIKO 1:3.5 f=28mm. Yes, the cheaper lens is more than a stop slower, but when shot wide open, the faster lens has some fairly serious vignette.
M42 × 1 mm Standard M42 SLR lenses.
I’d be remiss to discuss great value for money lenses without covering the excellent M42x1mm mount. This was pioneered by Contax/Praktica but was used by many brands, becoming a common standard. I have many normal primes in M42. Some of the most sought-after include:
Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 2.8/50. I have both the silver and zebra versions. I prefer the zebra’s shorter 35cm minimum focal distance, stop down system and compactness, but can’t see any optical difference except the silver seems to have a little more vignette. Technically worse, it can aid composition. Conventional wisdom is to look instead for the multi-coated versions.
Helios-44M-4 2/58. This is more or less a direct soviet copy of the Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar. Testing on a Sony A7R yielded very similar results. Both lenses are sharp, even wide open, but consider this a special-effects lens. Sought for its characteristic optical vignetting supposedly giving swirly bokeh, which I have not seen. Instead, I see good centre sharpness, drifting away into peripheral softness and progressive darkening shot wide open, like an extreme version of the Elmar 50/3.5.
Pentacon Auto 1.8/50 multi-coating. Another Zeiss lens, but a more modern build. Sharp and contrasty.
Pentax Super Takumar 1.8/55 and SMC. Both sharp and charming lenses, these offer 45cm close focusing and auto-manual iris control. The SMC version has a little more contrast and warmer colour, but not a big difference.
Chinon 50mm f/2.8. I find this lens to be superb. It’s sharp as the devil, with great contrast and colour and buttery bokeh. If f/2.8 is enough for you, then this would be a killer choice.
Pentax SMC Takumar 1:3.5/135. This is a compact telephoto lens that takes great portraits. Like the Chinon, it’s hard to fault. The minimum focal distance is 1.5m.
Auto Chinon 28mm 2.8. I don’t have many wide lenses in M42. Although it was highly recommended by some of my experienced friends, I would describe it as streets behind the Minolta 28/2 in sharpness, contrast and corner illumination. However, distortion isn’t bad.
There are still a few lenses I’m looking for, including the Takumar 35/3.5 and maybe one of the Takumar 85mm lenses. Both would be excellent candidates for good, cheap lenses.
Tamron T and T2 SLR lenses.
The Tamron T-mount was another 42mm screw mount and is similar to M42, but alas, incompatible. I have a couple of these, but nothing impressive enough to include here. These lenses usually have a dial to open and close the aperture manually, an extra step that slows my shooting.
I prefer the Tamron lenses in the later Adaptall 2 (T2) mount because it interfaces with the camera body’s mechanism to automatically stop down before shooting. The T2 lenses that I chose to include here are:
Tamron SP 17mm 1:3.5. The only ultra-wide lens included here, this lens has a pronounced, strangely non-linear distortion and a heavy progressive vignette, strongly reminiscent of the Russar+ that Lomography is currently touting for $650, but at a fraction of the price and in a far more adaptable T2 mount. While I would not use it for architectural images, it’s great if you want a characterful ultra-wide. It’s also above our budget at around $150, but it’s rare to find a full-frame lens this wide at this price.
Tamron SP 35-80 2.8-3.8 CF Macro. The kind of unassuming lens you might find neglected in a bargain bin, it’s one of the very best manual focus zooms ever made by a generic lens maker. The minimum focal distance is one meter, but between about 60mm to 80mm, it can focus as close as 0.27m. With good macro performance corner to corner, it focuses to 27cm from the film plane. Racked out at 80mm, it’s a beautiful portrait lens; at 35mm, there’s just a little barrel distortion. Fairly flare resistant. Performance is comparable to the Minolta and only just behind the best of the contemporaneous Nikkor zooms. T2 mount means it can be adapted onto most cameras.
Vivitar SLR lenses.
Vivitar is another third-party lens brand, but they took a different approach to Tamron, making their lenses in a variety of mounts: Pentax, Canon, Nikon, Minolta and Olympus, so you will probably find one in your mount of choice. In addition, Vivitar lenses were not made by Vivitar themselves, but manufacturing was subcontracted to one of the 16+ optical specialists, including Olympus, Cosina, and Schneider Optik. If you’re interested, CameraQuest has a table that you can use to look up the maker based on the serial number.
Some think that Vivitar lenses are of low quality. But Vivitar introduced the Series 1 in the 1970s as their premium quality range with computer-designed optics, intended to compete with the best of camera manufacturers’ own lenses, which they often outperformed. At the same time, they undercut both the top camera brands the other top third party manufacturers like Angineux.
Probably the most famous of these lenses is the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm 1:2.8-4.0 VMC MACRO FOCUSING ZOOM. The minimum focal distance is a very tight 0.8m at all focal lengths. Mine in MD mount and has a serial number starting with 28, indicating that it was made by Komine.
My other favourite lens is the Vivitar Series 1 100-500mm 1:5.6-8.0 VMC MACRO FOCUSING ZOOM, manufactured by Cosina. It is surprisingly light for its size. At 100mm, it’s as big as a Pringle’s can; at 500mm, it’s almost twice as long. It’s more of a telescope than a portrait lens, with a minimum focal distance of 3m. It renders beautifully.
I also own a Vivitar Series 1 24-70mm 1:3.8-4.8 VMC MACRO FOCUSING ZOOM. It’s one of the very first manual focus SLR lenses that I ever bought, and I used it together with a 50mm Minolta prime lens; it covered pretty much every need. Today, the Minolta 35-70 fills that role as the 24-70 isn’t quite up to the quality of the other two Vivitar lenses.
Unfortunately, not all Vivitar Series 1 lenses are gems. Vivitar later sold some rubbish glass under the Series 1 label. Avoid the later models and anything with a slow f/4.d-f/5.6 maximum aperture.
Chapter III: SLR bodies.
➜ Download the entire guide as a 50-page PDF.
Olympus OM mount SLRs.
The Olympus OM system earned cult-like popularity for its small cameras and sharp lenses. With their bright, high-magnification, high coverage viewfinders, they are some of the easiest to manually-focus SLRs available to this day. If you ask around for recommendations, you’ll be directed to the more expensive “professional grade” series: OM-1, OM-2/2n, OM-3 and OM-4. Almost everybody tells you to avoid the cheap “consumer-grade” bodies with double-digit model numbers. That’s reasonably smart advice, with the notable exception of the youngest model, the OM-40.
This body mounts all the same lenses and system components but retains the same quality viewfinder and the creative exposure modes: Program and Aperture Priority with exposure compensation, plus fully metered manual exposure. The camera also offers either centre-weighted metering or ESP, “Electro Selective Pattern,” which helps to compensate for back-light situations automatically. This is a feature not even available on the flagship models.
Minolta MC/MD mount SLRs.
I think that Minolta is the system that offers the best combination of good optics and camera bodies with great finders and an appropriate balance of automation and quality on a tight budget.
Minolta’s most famous and most collectible cameras are the professional SRT, XK and XM series. They are lovely, but I find them to be big and heavy for everyday photography. I prefer the well-made but smaller XD and XE, which were co-developed with Leica. Leica launched similar bodies, the R4 and R3 respectively, to mount the Leica R lenses. The XD and XE are far cheaper and mount the more affordable MD/MC lenses. Today, the versatile XD with shutter priority is more sought after, but I prefer the largely ignored but elegant XE. It is heaven to hold, a pleasure to use and light on the wallet.
Minolta went on to cheapen their product line with the XG and further broadened their customer base with the high-tech, light-weight and compact X-700, which offers program mode and shutter priority. The X-700 was one of the bestselling cameras of the 1980s. They went on and on, stripping non-core features with the X-500 and X-300. As is often the case with cameras, stripping features can actually add to the ease of use, making for a better user camera. I feel Minolta hit the sweet spot dead centre with the X-500. The X-500 is one of my all-time favourite user cameras. With a magnification of 0.9x and coverage of 95%, the finder is on-par with OM-2, a camera famous for its ease of focus. Used with a normal lens and both eyes open, the camera almost fades from view, leaving a black frame line around your subject.
Feature-wise, the X-500 lacks program and shutter priority modes, but retains aperture-priority auto exposure with exposure compensation and AE lock and adds a fully metered manual mode that shows both the selected shutter speed and the metered shutter speed. The camera even meters correctly when the DoF preview button is pressed. The flash system is capable of slow sync and can be used at any aperture. The X-500 is part of an extensive system of lenses and accessories; it even takes a 3.5-frames-per-second motor drive. The X-500 is just about as good as it gets, yet sells for junk prices.
My favourite budget mechanical body that uses MC/MD lenses is the SRT-102. It is a formerly professional body with a big bright finder that displays chosen aperture and shutter speed along with exposure in the finder.
Canon FD mount SLRs.
Most Canon FD lenses are fairly good and don’t cost much. However, the only lenses in the FD system that I would consider excellent are the professional-grade L-lenses. Unfortunately, those are far out of reach for anyone on a tight budget. The remaining lenses are serviceable, but I haven’t had any that I would consider inspiring.
AE-1 Program is a great camera that many people learned on in the 1980s. However, the shutter noise drove me to the brink of madness. It makes a “pew-pew” noise like a laser blaster from the Star-Wars movies. The AE-1, non-program, lacks only the Program mode and sounds like a regular SLR. It is shutter priority though, so I’d use it in metered-manual exposure mode.
The EF is another excellent, though relatively unknown Canon camera. Perhaps it doesn’t help that it’s easily confused the Canon’s later (EOS) EF mount. Make no mistake; this is a manual-focus FD mount camera. In fact, it is essentially Canon’s rugged, top of the line F-1 but with a consistent vertical travel electronic shutter. It does lose a couple of important features, which marks it as less than a professional camera, lacking an interchangeable finder and the facility to take a motor winder. Not that I have ever bought an alternate finder or a motor drive for my F-1. My EF has a big bright finder with a split image surrounded by a micro prism ring. If you like the F-1, you as well might consider buying the EF instead and save your money for better glass.
If you prefer a mechanical camera, the FTb is another consumer version of the F-1. It is tough and rugged, but with no exposure information in the display and a circle-and-needle style of the light meter.
Canon EF mount SLRs.
I own the EOS 650, pictured, Canon’s first model in its successful modern EOS line, but the similar EOS 620 was released just two months later and adds some lesser-used features that are worth having, considering they’re both only cost about $20-$30.
Yes, it is a motor-advanced and auto-focus camera, but it is an inexpensive way to add film capability to an existing EOS DSLR system. While the biggest reason why someone might consider an early EOS body is they’ll work perfectly with Canon EF mount autofocus lenses, with a suitable adaptor ring, they will also work with Leica R, Nikon F, Minolta MD, M42, and various MF lenses.
This is one way to have one body but open yourself up to using lenses from many makers in many mounts. If this is your plan, I’ll warn that some lenses, such as Leica M and Canon’s own FD mount lenses, aren’t mountable with a simple adaptor, and most EOS finder screens have neither split image nor micro prisms and their ground glass can’t show the depth of field narrower than f/4, so they aren’t easy to focus manually. Nevertheless, a Canon DSLR user couldn’t ask for an easier camera to transition to. I also have an EOS 1V-HS and once owned an EOS 3, but unless I was planning to photograph sports, I always reach for my EOS 650 because it’s small and light and gets the job done. I’d look for these in bargain bins or at flea markets, only because the postage may cost more than the camera.
Nikon F/AI mount SLRs.
Of all the manual focus lens systems that I own, I’ve invested most in Nikon lenses. They offer a complete system with optics in the same league as Leica R and Contax. There are lenses in this series at all price points.
The EM was marketed as an entry-level camera, and while it looks cheap and plasticky, it is a really robust and capable body with a high magnification finder. The smallest and lightest Nikon F-mount body, it pairs well with the 50mm 1:1.8 Series E plastic pancake, a lens that performs far above its low price point. Together, they slip into my hip pocket but the speed of operation and the images they produce are a match for even my FM3A and 45mm/2.8P. The price difference is an order of magnitude. Nikon stripped the feature set to its bare bones, but if you know a few tricks, there is not much you can’t do.
Nikon EM has a shutter speed range of 1s to 1/1000s, plus Bulb and a battery-independent mechanical back-up speed/ flash X-sync of 1/90 second. With the batteries removed, “Auto” mode fires at a fixed speed of 1/1000s, so without batteries, you still have two manual speeds (one slow, one fast). For what is otherwise a full-time AE, an EV compensation dial would have been helpful, but there are at least three workarounds: (1) a +2 stops backlight-busting button (2) you can alter the film speed setting and (3) use M90 speed and adjust the exposure with the aperture dial. The finder and screen won’t equal the outstanding Nikon F1 or F2, but it’s comparable to the F3, FM and FM3A. You won’t find a smaller, simpler, or cheaper body that mounts AI lenses, but it kept everything that matters on a Nikon camera.
The FG is the EM’s successor, and represents a major upgrade, with program mode and fully metered manual at all speeds from 1s to 1/1000s and +/-2 stops of exposure compensation in half-stops in addition to the EM’s +2stop backlight button. However, at around $70-$100, it’s more than twice the market price of an EM, and you could almost have an FE or even an FM for the money.
Contax-Yashica C/Y mount SLRs.
Contax made some of the most deservedly lauded manual focus lenses in the history of photography. The lenses can be expensive, but you can buy cheaper Yashica lenses and build them around one or two top-rate portrait lenses. Note that of all the camera brands shown here, Contax is the least likely to have a free lens bundled with a body. The lens pictured below cost me $360, and it’s considered one of the cheaper Contax lenses.
C/Y stands for Contax/Yashica, and the two brands are sisters. The Yashica FX-3 Super is a basic SLR with a simple +/O/- meter, but without the Contax brand cachet. It reminds me of a Nikon FM2 in many ways: it has a low vibration, fully mechanical vertical-travel metal shutter and split prism focusing. Of course, it’s all plastic, so it’s not built like an FM. Unusual for a camera of this class, it offers mirror lock-up. Also consider the FX-3 Super, which activates the meter through a half-press of the shutter release, or the FX-3 Super 2000, which extends the maximum shutter speed to 1/2000s. The Super 2000 is most sought after, but the middle model is a good user. I have had some trouble getting a Super 2000 to work with earlier Yashica C/Y mount lenses, so be sure to try out lens and body combinations before buying. I have not experienced this problem with Contax bodies.
Contax 139Q. I’m not a huge fan of Contax bodies, at least the top models. I find them big and heavy and dominated by technology, for example, the RTS III with vacuum ceramic backplate and the incredible AX that autofocuses with manual lenses. My favourite is the mechanical S2/S2b, but that hardly qualifies as a cheap body. The 137MA, 137MD and 167MT are cheap enough but are motor-advanced. My favourite Contax body at any price is the 139Q.
Pentax PK mount SLRs.
Pentax made highly regarded lenses and jewel-like small camera bodies; I own the MX, LX and ME Super, but these are over the budget. However, there are a few models available at modest prices.
By comparison to the smaller Pentax models, K-1000 ($60) is a WWII-era Soviet tank, but like a T-34, it’s loved by most of its users. A mechanical camera with minimal controls and a simple meter, it just does what it is supposed to; nothing more, nothing less.
The K-1000 is popular, but if I am to carry a camera around with me, I’d want something small and lightweight. Pentax MG fits the bill. It’s not too dissimilar to my much more expensive MX or ME Super. However, cost savings were made by severely stripping the camera’s capabilities. Unlike the MX, the MG has an electronic vertical travel shutter. Unlike the ME, the MG’s slowest shutter speed is 1s. The biggest handicap is that the user can only select between aperture-priority auto-exposure, fixed 1/100s manual exposure, and bulb. It’s not a big handicap if you’re a fan of Pentax lenses and an all-metal body, but I personally prefer the cheaper Nikon EM if this is the style of camera operation is what you want.
M42 mount SLRs.
M42 screw-mount lenses are a great choice for someone looking to build up a bag of three or four high-quality prime lenses on a very tight budget. Many manufacturers have made lenses in M42, and while the lenses and cameras tend not to be the most modern, they can certainly take a great picture.
Fujica ST-801. This camera has a fantastic high magnification finder. I’ve never seen brighter. Focus in low light is a breeze. The rest is simple and mechanical. It shows shutter speed and LED meter in the finder, but there is no auto exposure. Fujinon EBC lenses are my favourites, and you don’t even need to do stop-down metering when used in combination with a Fujica body. The ST-801’s top shutter speed is a fast 1/2000s, but the flash sync is slow at 1/60s.
Pentax Spotmatic F. The early model Spotmatic SP that I own has only a ground glass and micro prism spot for focussing and a darkened area to indicate the meter area and no exposure information in the finder, but I find it delightfully easy to use and very solidly built. Like the Fujica, it is a larger camera.
Which SLR to choose?
By now, you’re probably overwhelmed by choices. If I have a personal favourite, it’s probably the Minolta X-500 shown in my self-portrait, but people’s financial circumstances and shooting preferences differ, so I recommend you first choose the lens system (see below) that suits your budget and expansion needs, then decide whether a mechanical camera or an electronic body with auto exposure is best and finally try out the camera before spending your hard-earned money.
If you still cannot decide, just buy anything on this list, and one 50mm or 35mm lens. You can always sell on once you know what attributes you like and what you don’t. It’s better to have any old camera than none at all.
This list, though long, is far from complete. Photographic history abounds with unsung heroes. Treat it as a starting point in your quest.
I hope I’ve managed to convey my great enthusiasm for these wonderful and inexpensive cameras and lenses. I hope you pick one up and find a new passion for simple film photography. As always, I can’t cover all candidates, and my own experience is limited to a score of cameras.
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