Okay, everybody is talking about how manual lenses work so well on the Sony a7 but how does it actually work? What can I expect?
Read on if you want to know.
Why should I use manual lenses?
- They can be very cheap, you can get a great 1.4/50 lens for $50. For most applications such a lens will give you 90% of the performance of a $1000 Zeiss 1.8/55 FE. For the price of that Zeiss lens you can buy an excellent set of five lenses from 24 to 300mm.
- You have a huge choice between thousands of lenses ranging from exotic ones with lots of “character” to modern high performance lenses.
- There are 30-year-old primes with better image quality than many modern lenses. Of course there many modern lenses which are better than the best old lenses but even cheap primes are often sharper than very expensive modern zooms.
- Old lenses are usually beautifully built and more reliable than modern lenses which are full of often failing electronics and complex and easily decentered optical designs.
- They also hold their value much better than modern electronic lenses. When I sell a lens I most often get at least what I payed for it, sometimes more.
- Manual focusing can be very enjoyable. This certainly depends on application and personality but I for example enjoy working with fully manual lenses a lot more than with AF lenses.
Why shouldn’t I use manual lenses?
- You have to do everything yourself. You have to think about the aperture and set it manually. You have to focus manually. The need to think about these things has improved my own technique a lot, but if you do not want to spent the time to learn these things manual lenses are probably not for you.
- Manual focus is often slower than AF. After some practice you will find that you can capture almost anything with manual lenses but it isn’t as convenient.
- Camera an lens do not communicate. Because of that you exif information will be incomplete and the camera can’t correct lens defects like distortion or chromatic. There is an app called “Lens Compensation” which you can use to manually correct them. If you shoot raw this is not an issue.
- Image stabilizers are very handy but manual lenses don’t have them. This makes photography a little more inconvenient, you have to carry a tripod more often and achieving focus with longer lenses is a bit harder.The Sony Alpha 7II (affiliate Link) has an integrated image stabilizer which works with any manual lens.
- Older lens coatings are less efficient this means that many lenses have lower contrast when you have a bright light source in your image. But there is a big variation between manufacturers and age.
Are those 30 year old lenses any good?
The short answer: Yes, they are.
The long answer: There are many old lenses which deliver very sharp images. Here are two examples :
Of course not every manual lens will be that good, here are some general observations I made in over a year:
- There are many very affordable lenses which give beautiful 24MP files and some of them will even perform very well on the next generation 50MP sensors.
- Many lenses are very good in the center from f/2 or f/2.8 but sharpness decreases a lot outside of the center, more than many modern lenses do. If you stop them down to f/8 there are many lenses which are very sharp across the frame.
In my eyes this is an unproblematic behavior because at f/2 I very rarely have important details in the corners and for landscapes when corners matter I stop down to f/8 any way.
- Zooms have improved a lot over the last three decades and most of the older ones aren’t very good. But there are a few notable exceptions. My Minolta 3.5/35-70 for example is sharper across the frame than the Zeiss 4/24-70. The Zeiss has higher contrast though.
You can find more full resolution sample images in this flickr album.
Now I think that nice character in a lens is usually more important than sharpness and here the old lenses offer even more, they often have nicer bokeh than modern lenses. And lower contrast and under corrected aberrations create a certain look at wider apertures which I like a lot.
Here are some examples:
For more images visit you can visit my flickr stream. I use nothing but manual lenses at the moment.
Are they as good as the native E-mount lenses by Sony?
The short answer: It depends on the lens and what you are looking for.
The Zeiss 1.8/55 (affiliate link) is a great lens, what is most remarkable about it is that it is sharp in the corners at f/1.8 which no older normal lens is.
But I use faster lenses for portraits and closeups were I care about central sharpness, not the corners. In the the center many cheap 50mm lenses are very sharp from f/2 so the real world difference between the FE55 and my cheap manual lens won’t be that noticeable. What is very noticeable is the mcuh better flare resistance of the modern lens. Here is a comparison of the Minolta MC 1.7/55 and the FE55. At f/8 the difference between a $1000 Zeiss and a $25 Minolta 2/50 is negligible in most aspects.
The Zeiss 2.8/35 (affiliate link) faces even stiffer competition because there are manual 35mm lenses for less than $50 which a re sharp from corner to corner at f/2.8 like the Canon nFD 2.8/35. They are a bit bigger and might be more susceptible to flare but for many applications image quality isn’t any worse.
The Zeiss 4/24-70 (affiliate link) is very sharp in the center (at least in the 24-60mm range) but the corners are bad to okay depending on the focal length and even cheap primes will offer better image quality with less distortion. The only positive thing I can mention about this lens is it’s very high contrast. For my full review click here.
The Sony G 4/70-200 (affiliate link) is an excellent lens from 70 to 135mm and only a few expensive lenses will be able to match it’s performance, at 200mm it is a bit weaker and there are lenses which are probably a little better.
The 3.5-5.6/28-70 is okay for a kit lens but many manual lenses will perform better, especially at the short end.
How does manual focusing work and is it hard to learn?
There are several methods for focusing and each could be the best, depending on what you are shooting.
For landscapes and other non-moving motifs I usually use the Focus Magnifier function . It is absolutely reliable, but it is also a bit slower that other techniques.
It works like this: You press a button and a small orange rectangle appears. You can move this rectangle around wherever you want to focus.
At a second press of the button the selected area is magnified and you turn the focusing ring until the image is sharp:
I can only recommend to assign the focus magnifier function to an easily accessible button. The default position is c1 but I find that button hard to reach. My choice is the AF/MF button.
Go to menu / gear wheel /6 /Custom Key Settings /AF/MF Button and select Focus Magnifier.
Focus peaking is another focusing aid of the a7. It will highlight areas of the image which have a high microcontrast with a color like red, white or yellow.
There is an issue though: Even in it’s least sensitive setting it highlights too much. If you magnify a highlighted area you will often find that it is semi-sharp but it would have been sharper if you had used focus magnification.
I use focus peaking if I shoot quickly moving subjects were the image won’t be super sharp anyway but in general I think focus peaking is quite over hyped, it can be useful but most often it is not.
A third method
If you want to focus fast and precise you can take advantage of a technical shortcoming of the electronic viewfinder (EVF).
When there are very fine structures in the image you see shimmering pixels in the EVF. Just focus your camera on some strcutred fabric and you will see it.
This method is more sensitive than the focus peaking and much less distracting.With this technique I usually get critically sharp images without using the focus magnifier button.
You can increase the effect by increasing the sharpening to +3 (Creative Style/ your picture mode/ Sharpness). This will result in overshapened jpgs but if you are shooting raw this won’t bother you.
Manual Focusing – Conclusion
It is in fact very easy to learn manual focusing. Over time your focusing will become a little bit faster so that you can react faster and focus on people and other objects which are moving slowly. But it won’t take you more than 5 minutes to learn the basics needed to focus on a static object.
I also find that my results are more reliable than when I use AF and it feels better because it is me who is focusing, not the camera guessing were I want to focus.
Of course there are situations were AF is superior, I sometimes have to borrow a friends 5dII with 2.8/24-70 to cover an event and I wouldn’t want to shoot sport with manual lenses. But wherever I can get by with manual lenses I use them because it is more enjoyable for me.
Do I need an adapter?
For most lenses you do. There are some third party manufacturers which offer their lenses with E-mount but they will advertise it. Every lens older than 3 or 4 years needs an adapter.
Which adapter you need depends on the lenses you want to use, every major manufacturer in the 70’s and 80’s had it’s own bayonet and you need one adapter for each bayonet you want to use.
Lets say you want to use a Minolta MC 1.2/58 and a Canon FD 4/300 L, the you need one Canon FD to E-mount adapter (affiliate link) and one Minolta SR to E-mount adapter (affiliate Link).
Now if you clicked on the link above you will see that the is a vast supply of adapters in a very wide price range. To get started the cheap adapters for less than $15 are perfectly fine.
If you plan to use more expensive lenses I would recommend a more expensive adapter like the one from Novoflex (affiliate Link). The Novoflex Adapter (which I have reviewed here) has lower tolerances and is more durable than the cheap Chinese adapters. The difference isn’t huge but if you use your lenses a lot (like I do) you will appreciate the difference.
Which are some good lenses to get started?
I usually recommend Minolta MD/MC or Canon FD lenses to people who want to try a manual lens. Not because these lenses are better than those of other manufacturers, but because they are a bit cheaper. For more information about lenses I have created a list of my Top 15 affordable lenses for the Sony a7 series.
If you want to buy a singe lens I would recommend a 1.4/50. These lenses are very affordable (you should pay less than $75 for one in good condition) and they can show you the whole potential of your sensor. They are also very versatile lenses, if I could keep only one lens it would be a 50mm lens.
Minolta made three optically different 1.4/50 lenses and Canon two but all are very good so I won’t bore you with the details. The Canon lenses are a bit sharper at f/1.4, here is a full review but I like the character of the Minolta lenses a bit better.
- Minolta MC or MD 1.4/50: ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- Canon FD 1.4/50: ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
If you look for a set of lenses I would recommend these:
- Minolta MD 2.8/35: ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- Minolta MC or MD 1.4/50: ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- Minolta MC or MD 2.5/100: ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- A cheap adapter: Amazon.de | Amazon.com (affiliate links)
You could replace the 2.5/100 with a MD 2.8/135 which is more common and cheaper but the 2.5/100 is a better lens. For more information about Minolta lenses check out my Minolta lens ratings list.
- Canon FD 2.8/35: my review | ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- Canon FD 1.4/50 : my review | ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- Canon FD 2.8/100 : ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- A cheap adapter: Amazon.de | Amazon.com (affiliate links)
Other options are the 1.8/85 and 2.8/135. The 85 is probably the best and most expensive one. I can also recommend the Canon new FD 2.8/24.
All those lenses are very good and you could get each set for around $200 / 200€ if you are not in a hurry.
I get most of my lenses at ebay, camera forums are often a very good source for used lenses as well.
If you need some inspiration for other lenses check out our guides:
- User guide to Ultra Wideangle lenses for the Sony Alpha 7 series
- User-Guide to wide-angle lenses for Sony a7 series
- Affordable manual lenses for the Sony a7 series
- The best lenses below $499 for the Sony a7 series
- The Guide to Canon FD lenses in the digital age
- The rated List of Minolta MD/MC Lenses on the Sony a7
Here is a list of affordable lenses which cost less than $100 each and all perform very well: Affordable manual lenses for the Sony Alpha 7 series
Which Sony camera is the best?
For manual lenses I prefer full frame cameras like the Sony Alpha 7 a lot over APS-C cameras like the Sony a6000. The larger sensor is less demanding on the lenses, you can get decent wide angle lenses, more DOF control and the sensor offers better image quality.
There are currently 4 fullframe E-mount cameras. Which is the best? As always it depends. Here is my very brief take on the topic:
The Sony Alpha 7r has the highest resolution (36MP), but it lacks an electronic first shutter curtain which can, under very specific circumstances, cause vibrations which degrade image quality and it is also louder and a bit slower.
I think the a7r is best for photographers who often print really big. For smaller print sizes and web images you won’t see a difference but you have a more expensive and slower camera.
About $1400 used at ebay.com or $2100 new at Amazon.com (affiliate links)
The Sony Alpha 7 is the best deal among the 4 cameras.
It is a very good camera and the 24MP sensor makes a lot of sense, you can print very big from it and many lenses can match it’s resolution. The only downside are sensor reflections which can be annoying for some scenes like nigh time city photography but they are not much of an issue.
The Sony Alpha 7 Mark II is a bit thicker and heavier than the a7 and most users say the handling is a bit better. It’s most important feature is the integrated image stabilizer which works with manual lenses as well as with native lenses and compensates about two stops.
If you are buying new I would think the $400 difference would be a good investment but if you are happy with buying a used camera the premium over the a7 is pretty hefty. For my shooting the image stabilizer wouldn’t make that much of a difference but YMMV.
About $1550 used at ebay.com or $1700 new at Amazon.com (affiliate links)
The Sony Alpha 7s is a great camera if you are interested in video but it’s better noise performance is only noticeable at ISO 6400 and above and it actually has a worse dynamic range at ISO 100 than the a7/a7r. Another nice feature is the fully electronic shutter which is super quiet. I think it can be a very good tool of you are into video or do lots of high ISO work but for most users it will bring more disadvantages than advantages.
About $1900 used at ebay.com or $2500 new at Amazon.com (affiliate links)
Just give it a try.
You might find that you enjoy working with manual lenses a lot. When I got my first Nex and discovered manual lenses, it improved my photography noticeably, I also found more joy in the process and I saved a lot of money. So you could gain a lot.
Or you could find out that you prefer AF lenses. Then you would have lost about two hours and $15 after selling the lens and adapter you bought for less than $100. So you would have lost very little.
If you want to read about some manual lenses in detail, check out my reviews:
- Canon FD 2.8/20
- Minolta MD 3.5/35-70
- Minolta MD 2/50
- Canon FD 1.4/50
- Minolta MC 1.2/58
- Tokina 2.5/90 Macro
- Canon FD 4/300 L.
For more information about working with the Alpha 7 I would recommend this article: HOW I CREATE IMAGES – PART 2: WORKING WITH THE SONY A7
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave a comment!
Minolta MD 2.8/35 @f/8
- 15 lenses for less than $99 which perform great on the Sony a7 series.
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