Portrait lens on a budget

Have you recently ditched your bulky DSLR gear for a mirrorless compact system camera? Are you considering it? Some people go all in right away selling everything, bodies, lenses, the whole farm. Others will hold on to a body and maybe a lens or 2, it’s hard to let go. For those of you who want to keep a few lenses I’m here to tell you that you’re making an excellent decision.

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Most mirrorless cameras use a proprietary lens mount system. In order to simplify this post I’ll be focusing on one system, Fujifilm’s X Series. The basic premise of this post will apply to most mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras systems. You’ll have to figure out your crop factor depending on your sensor. Here’s a handy chart.

Nikon, Canon and Pentax DSLR owners probably have a huge assortment of lenses that they’ve acquired over the years. “Nifty fifty’s” to zooms and everything in between. These lenses are great quality and in a lot of instances are more affordable than their mirrorless system equivalents. If you already own them they’re practically free!

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Those nifty fifty’s, 50mm lenses with an f/2 or larger aperture, make outstanding portrait lenses on apsc sensor and smaller sized cameras. They give an equivalent focal length of 75mm on apsc cameras. Mounting them to your mirrorless camera is a simple as picking up an adapter. Adapters are available for almost every lens mount ever made and they are very affordable. I have 2 in my collection. One for mounting M42 screw mount lenses and for Sony/Minolta AF mount to my Fuji cameras.

One of the drawbacks of shooting with adapters is you lose auto-focus and auto-aperture (auto anything) functionality. Manual focusing with Fuji X cameras is very good though, I use focus peaking set to high with red highlights. The results are always true to what I see in the viewfinder. If you have lenses with manual aperture rings you’re going to get better results. Fuji’s meter very well with manual lenses. Without the aperture ring you have to shoot wide open which is good for portraits but you lose depth of field control.

Another drawback is the loss of data when looking at your files. No lens, focal length, or aperture data is recorded. If you really want to know what you shot a particular picture with use a notebook or a smartphone to keep track.

If you shoot still life or portraits you shouldn’t need to worry much about those minor drawbacks.

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Here’s an example of the price difference between using a 50mm lens from another system versus Fujifilm’s lovely 56mm f1.2. The Fuji lens is $1000 CAD at the moment. It’s on sale and normally costs $1150. It’s a marvelous lens. Gorgeous bokeh, blazing fast f1.2 aperture, and impeccable build quality. The closest setup I have to compete with this lens is a Pentax Super Takumar SMC 50mm f/1.4 on a Photodiox M42 to X mount adapter. The SMC 50mm 1.4 is highly regarded for image quality, sharpness, and colour. I picked mine up a year ago on eBay for $60 CAD. Since then the prices have gone up as people rediscover this little gem. They’re now between $100-$300 depending on quality and timing. The adapter costs anywhere from $12 to $100 but I have yet to see any difference between the cheap ones and the expensive ones. Worst case cost is $400 but you can easily get both pieces for under $200 total if you do some digging. You can go crazy with Leica lenses too if you have a few thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, the possibilities are nearly endless.

There’s something magical about old glass and Fujifilm’s X trans sensor. The fact that you’ve achieved these results on a shoestring budget compared to buying a $1000 lens is the icing on the cake.

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The most unexpectedly great M42 mount lenses in my lineup is a Pentax Talumar 135mm f/3.5 which belonged to my grandfather. It produces gorgeous portraits like the one above even with its full frame equivalent focal length of 200+mm.

Hang on to the lenses that you love when you make the mirrorless switch. You’ll love the results and you’ll have some extra money in your wallet to buy batteries (that’s a post for another day…).

Please share, and follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!

Scott.

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