LIGHTPAINTING WITH OLD LENSES
The vast majority of newer lenses are optimised for the best possible image quality and packed with electronics, at least the somewhat better and more expensive ones. They have a high resolution, the brightness is approximately the same throughout the image, they are relatively insensitive to backlighting, etc.. What the new high-tech lenses usually lack, however, is character, just as photography in general is increasingly losing its soul. The highest resolution and the most sophisticated post processing count more than the actual image. Many photographers are increasingly losing sight of the essentials and are concentrating their work mainly on some technical parameters and counting pixels. Sometimes, however, there is a ray of hope, like the World Press Photo 2015, which is “technically” a disaster, blurred, noisy, the head of the protagonist cropped, etc. However, despite, or perhaps even because of, the technical shortcomings, this picture immediately takes the viewer into the scene and the subject.
When working with old, “imperfect” manual fixed focal lengths, it is often much easier to concentrate on the essentials. You don’t need 50 megapixels for a good picture. You don’t need a lens with a resolution of 85 lp/mm to take a good picture. You don’t need sophisticated post processing to take a good picture. A good picture needs a good idea and good light… and sometimes a little luck. For 99.99999% of all pictures it doesn’t matter if the lens is sharp in the corners at open aperture and shows no vignette. What is there to see in the corners of most pictures? Exactly, nothing. Blur and vignette draw the viewer’s eye to the actual subject, which is usually more in the centre of the picture.
Why do I need lenses with aperture f1.8 or even larger in 2019? In analogue photography, such lenses had their raison d’être in many areas, such as concert photography. Instead of the very coarse-grained film with ISO 3200, I could then insert the more pleasing film with ISO 800 into the camera. And even on the first digital cameras, very fast lenses were still useful. Most of them stopped at ISO 3200 and the pictures with ISO 3200 were often unusable because of the strong image noise. But nowadays fast lenses are actually unnecessary. With the Nikon D750 I can take very usable pictures with ISO values of 6400 or even higher. Thanks to the high dynamic range of modern sensors, you can also tease out a lot of initially invisible information from the RAW image during post-processing.
Oh yes, there was something else… “Cropping”. Portraits taken with an 85 mm lens at f1.4 are usually only pleasing to the owner of the expensive lens. The normal viewer finds the portrait better if not only the eyelashes of the left eye of the pretty lady are in focus. And, in order to free the lady from the background, aperture f2.8 is easily sufficient at 85 mm focal length. But of course f1.4 sounds as impressive as 500 hp in a passenger car. But in the end, I usually reach my destination with the 190 hp Toyota just as quickly as the Porsche when I drive 300 kilometres through Germany.
Only in astrophotography can I capture one or two more celestial bodies on the sensor with the larger aperture than with f2.8, despite very high ISO values.
In light painting, I don’t need lenses with f1.8 or f1.4 anyway, because the risk of burning out the light trail would be far too great for most pictures. In most of our light painting pictures, the aperture ring is set to values between 5.6 and 16. Sometimes, at the end of the performance, I open the aperture to 2.8 or even 2 to capture weak residual light in a relatively short time.
“ANALOGUE” LENSES ON DIGITAL CAMERAS
If I had received 1 euro every time for saying “You can’t use an old analogue lens on a digital camera”, I would be rich, very rich. It’s one thing for the salesman in the “stupid is cool” shop to spread such untruths; after all, he wants to sell something and usually doesn’t care whether the happy customer comes back next week. However, I find it very worrying when salespeople in specialist photo shops say things like that and the aspiring amateur photographer believes and parrots them.
Even without an A-level physics course, it should be clear to everyone that a lens is always analogue. Light enters at the front and comes out at the back. The path that the light travels is made up entirely of glass, no matter how many other electronic gadgets are built into the lens housing. Almost any lens can be used on almost any digital camera with the ability to change the lens. In some cases this is quite easy, sometimes a little more difficult.
The only thing I have to do without is the autofocus on the very old lenses. I don’t find that particularly difficult. Very few lenses in my photo backpack have autofocus, even new lenses like the Laowa 12/2.8, the 8mm Fisheye or the Samyang 14/2.8 are built completely manually. Even manufacturers of very high quality lenses like Zeiss still build almost all lenses without autofocus. The reason for this is certainly not to save on production costs. In many situations autofocus does not work as reliably as focusing by hand. When I focus manually, I concentrate much more on the work, I change from being a snapshot taker to a photographer.
Besides, my career as a photographer began before the invention of autofocus. And even after this function became widespread in the 1980s, I continued to use the old cameras and lenses. However, those who have worked exclusively with autofocus will certainly need some time to practise focusing quickly and precisely even without automatic focusing.
LENSES WITH SAME MOUNT
The Nikon F bayonet was introduced in 1969 and, apart from the introduction of electronic connections between camera and lens, has not been changed since. So any lens with an F bayonet I can put on the new D750, whether the lens is also new or 50 years old. Due to the missing electrical contacts of the 1972 lens, some things, such as the transmission of data on the set aperture and the distance to the subject, do not work. Also missing is the possibility to control the aperture electronically via the camera. However, this is not important for light painting because the camera is operated in manual mode anyway. I set the appropriate aperture on the lens aperture ring, focus manually with the Live View function and the exposure is set to “bulb” or “time”. Other cameras’ mounts were also introduced many years ago, Canon’s L bayonet in 1984, for example, so there is a wide range of old, used, inexpensive lenses here too. Very many old lenses were made entirely of metal and are of excellent mechanical quality. A Russian lens from the 1970s will mechanically provide another 30 years of service if handled with halfway care.
From top left to bottom right: Soligor 135mm/f2.8 Nikon F – Meyer Optik Görlitz Figmentum 85mm/f2 Nikon F – Meyer Optik Görlitz Figmentum 35mm/f2 Nikon F – Helios 44-2 58mm/f2 M42 – Pentacon 29mm/f2.8 Exa – Mir 1b 37mm/f2.8 M42 – Soligor 25mm/f2.8 Nikon F – Meyer Optik Görlitz Lydith 30mm/f3.5 M42 – Helios 44-2 58mm/f2 (modified) M42
LENSES WITH OTHER MOUNTS
On systems such as the Sony E or the new Nikon Z, it is quite easy to attach foreign lenses with the help of a suitable adapter. With the Nikon F it is somewhat more difficult because of the small dimensions. However, adapting old glass is not impossible here either. To be able to focus to infinity with the foreign lens, you need an adapter with a correction lens. This is not very elegant and has some limitations. Depending on the focal length used, I can focus to infinity, but the close-up limit changes. If it is important to maintain the close-up limit, it is advisable to use an adapter without a corrective lens.
Adapters are available for almost all currently used mounts and many old mounts such as M42 or M39. Purely mechanical adapters cost only a few euros. Adapters with a corrective lens for Nikon F don’t blow a big hole in your wallet either. I recently bought such an adapter for €12.
WHY OLD LENSES?
The reasons for using old manual lenses in light painting, or in photography in general, can be manifold:
– You may still have one or the other lens in your drawer from the days of analogue photography. Or you may have inherited it or received it as a gift.
– Most old lenses feel much better than the newfangled, rickety lenses made of plastic. The housing, as well as the mechanics, are made entirely of metal. Ideally, the aperture ring and focus run as smoothly as butter and sit perfectly on the spot.
– Even if you buy the old lenses today, you usually don’t have to spend a fortune on them.
– Because the lenses all have an aperture ring, it is possible to adjust the aperture even during exposure. Most modern lenses, especially zoom lenses, no longer have aperture rings.
– The imaging performance is often much better than you would expect for the low prices. In any case, they are better than the kit lens with the large zoom range.
– Most of the lenses pictured above conjure up a very beautiful or very special bokeh in the picture. The bokeh of many modern lenses is hard and not very aesthetic. This opens up many new possibilities in light painting. Some of the light painting pictures shown below consist exclusively or to a large extent of bokeh.
WHICH LENSES ARE SUITABLE FOR LIGHT PAINTING?
HELIOS 44-2 – MORE BOKEH ISN’T POSSIBLE
Focal length 58mm, widest aperture f2, angle of view 40°, closest focusing distance 50 cm, M42 mount, launched in 1951 as Helios 44, 8 aperture blades, weight 230g. There are 6 lenses in 4 groups.
Until today, the lens is built with slight modifications by the Russian manufacturer KMZ as a replica of the Zeiss Biotar 58/2. I don’t know how many millions of this lens have been built so far, but there is no shortage. At prices around 50€ you can always find several copies in very good condition on ebay. The differences between the many different versions (I think there are seven) are partly not only of an external nature. There were specimens with 13 or even only 6 blades, which definitely affects the appearance of the bokeh. The two 44-2s shown in the picture above have different sized housings. For this reason I could not turn the front lens of the smaller one. More about that in a moment.
Mechanically, all the specimens I have had in my hands so far are really good. Everything runs smoothly. Obviously, there are also some that are a bit stiff, the quality control during production doesn’t seem to have had the highest priority.
The jellyfish-like bokeh was captured with the modified Helios 44-2. I rotated both the front element and the rear element. This is very easy to do with this lens. Both elements are held from the outside with a ring. There are two small notches in the rings. With a pair of metal compasses or thin, pointed scissors, you turn the ring out, turn the optical element around and then screw the ring back in place. It is advisable to wear lint-free cotton gloves to avoid getting greasy fingers on the lenses. If the lens has already been opened, you can also take the opportunity to blow the dust out of the inside. In tougher cases, you can easily disassemble the rest of the lens and clean everything and make it ready for use. The Helios is very easy to maintain because it is simple to open and close and no electronics are built in.
As already mentioned above, the conversion did not work on one of the two specimens. The differences are quite easy to spot. The version with the serial number on the ring of the front lens worked. On the version with the serial number on the body of the lens, I could not turn the front element. Some colleagues have modified newer versions like Helios 44M or 44M-4 without problems. However, the 44M-4. 44K-4, 44M-5, 44M-6 and 44M-7 versions have only 6 aperture blades and thus produce a less impressive bokeh than the old 44, 44-2 and 44M. The Helios 44-7 has a pre-selector aperture and thus a completely different body. I cannot say whether the front element of this version can be rotated. I look forward to your comment if you own such a model and have successfully modified it.
Мир 1в – ANOTHER RUSSIAN LENS WITH VERY SPECIAL BOKEH
Focal length 37mm, widest aperture f2.8, angle of view 60°, closest focusing distance 70cm, M42 mount, launched 1954, replica of the Zeiss Flektogon, 10 aperture blades, 6 lenses in 5 groups, weight 185g. With this gem, too, I rotated both the front and the rear element. This is just as easy as with the Helios. The bokeh looks different, but the suction effect is similarly strong as with the converted Helios.
Mechanically, at least my copy is beyond reproach. Everything runs as smoothly as butter, nothing has play. However, the Mir 1b is not as readily available as the Helios mentioned above. Most lenses of this type offered on ebay come from Russia or Ukraine. In addition to the price of 70 to 90€, there are 15 to 20€ shipping costs. The buyer will certainly not be spared a visit to the customs office. On top of the total price, 19% import sales tax will be added. With a little luck, you can find a seller in the Baltic States, then you will at least be spared customs and the 19% surcharge.
MEYER OPTIC GÖRLITZ LYDITH 30/3,5
Focal length 30mm, maximum aperture 3.5, closest focusing distance 33cm, M42 mount , 10 aperture blades, 5 lenses, weight 183g, launched in 1964. Meyer Optik Görlitz has been rebuilding this lens for some time. It is available for 599€ on the manufacturer’s website.
However, this is the old version from the GDR. A large number of these are available on ebay at prices starting at €30. Besides Meyer Optik, the Pentacon company also made the same lens. I am not in a position to judge whether there are any differences between the two versions. But I think it is quite unlikely. For the rather slim price you get the beautiful bubble bokeh typical for Meyer Optik and also otherwise a very usable working tool. The part doesn’t make quite as robust an impression as the lenses from the Soviet Union, which are filed from a single piece, but it is definitely well made.
The new Figmentum 35/2, which I also like to use, is optically hardly distinguishable from the old Lydith. For this reason I will refrain from writing a separate section on this lens.
Focal length 25mm, maximum aperture 2.8, weight 225g., closest focusing distance 30cm, 8 aperture blades, Nikon F mount. There is hardly any information about this lens. I don’t know when it was made, probably in the 1970s. And if you don’t find much information, the lens is not available on every street corner. I just looked on ebay; there is exactly one specimen offered at the price of 129€. I had paid 57€ for mine. This price is more than reasonable. The Soligor can easily compete with other lenses like the much more expensive Nikkor 24/2.8 in plastic. Unlike the Nikkor, this lens is also well suited for infrared photography.
The Soligor was also built with an M42 mount, which, like the other lenses above, can be mounted on a modern SLR or system camera using an adapter. In the field of light painting, this is a very interesting focal length and the optical and mechanical quality is very good.
WHAT IS ON MY WHISHLIST?
-So far I have not been able to find a copy of this monster for less than 200€. If I were a classic portrait photographer, I would have bought one for 300€ a long time ago. But for occasional use in light painting I don’t really want to spend more than 100€.
– Meyer Optik Görlitz Oreston 50mm/f1.8. This lens will be one of my next purchases, there are quite a few for sale on ebay at prices starting at 40€.
– Meyer Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm/f2.8. I would like to have one of these, but I am not prepared to spend a sum in the mid three-digit euro range on it. You can hardly use this focal length for light painting, but it is a fine lens.
– Meopta Belar 50mm/f4.5. This lens is not actually intended for use on a camera. It is a lens for enlargers. The part has only 4 aperture blades, at f5.6 this gem produces square bokeh. These lenses are available for a small price, but so far I have not found a reasonable solution for adapting it to the Nikon. The connecting thread is 23.5 mm. Lenses for enlargers have no focusing.
– M42 lens to Nikon F without lens
– Contax lens to Sony E
For Pentacon 6 / Kiev on Sony E I could not find a working adapter so far.
For many photographers, old lenses, especially the modified Helios 44-2, are nothing more than a toy. The effect can be quite quickly overused in classic portraits or macro-flower photos. In light painting, however, the old lenses provide the light painter with new, interesting possibilities, especially in combination with other techniques and changing the lens during exposure, there are hardly any limits to one’s own creativity.
Gunnar Heilmann has written an article about the lenses he uses in light painting: https://gunnarheilmann.com/what-lens-to-use-for-light-painting.
In this sense I wish you a lot of fun with the old glass and always good light.