Give Film Lenses New Digital Life

The DSLR manufacturers all produce some excellent lenses for their cameras. But spend some time in professional photography forums online, and you’ll find pros extolling the virtues of older “elite” lenses many feel are optically superior to modern designs. To some of these individuals, the phrase “designed for modern DSLRs” translates to “costs and corners were cut in design and manufacturing.” Of course, many of today’s professional-level lenses are outstanding, but there are some special models from the film era that continue to hold a place high in the pantheon of photography.
The Sony LA-EA1 permits use of Sony Alpha DSLR lenses on the NEX mirrorless cameras.

Unfortunately, many of these “elite” manual-focus and specialty lenses aren’t available in mounts for modern DSLRs. Fortunately, there’s a simple and inexpensive solution: the lens adapter. Lens adapters let you attach lenses that weren’t made for your camera to your DSLR. They’re available from a number of manufacturers, and permit using a wide range of lenses—classic and the latest—on a wide range of DSLR bodies. Just attach the appropriate adapter to the lens, then attach the adapter/lens combo to your camera.

Besides letting you use older lenses on newer camera bodies, adapters also expand the range of current lenses available for new cameras. For example, the Micro Four Thirds System is fairly new, and relatively few Micro Four Thirds lenses are available. But simple adapters make it possible to supplement those with the full range of standard Four Thirds System lenses (retaining full automation, including autofocusing capability with most of them). Sony’s new NEX-series mirrorless cameras (which, despite their tiny size, contain DSLR-sized APS-C image sensors) expand the initial NEX lens offering via an optional adapter that permits using Sony’s much wider line of Alpha DSLR lenses with them (albeit without autofocusing). Because the mirrorless cameras have relatively short flange back distances, just about any SLR lens for which an adapter is available can be used with them. You’re unlikely to use a Micro Four Thirds camera as a primary body, but they make great compact backups and are useful as dedicated “still- and motion-capture” devices. With an adapter, you can dramatically increase their usefulness.

Adapters With A Twist
Well, a tilt, actually. Adorama’s Flashpoint Tilt Adapter for Nikon Lens to Micro 4/3 not only allows you to mount Nikon lenses on Micro Four Thirds System cameras, it also allows you to tilt the lens 12° in any direction, thanks to 360° rotation capability. The new Lensbaby Micro 4/3rds Composer with Tilt Transformer does a similar trick with Lensbaby or Nikon optics, providing 12.9° of tilt in any direction. As view-camera users know, being able to tilt the lens allows you to control the plane of focus and put depth of field just where you want it.

Flange Back Distance

The “flange back distance” is the distance between the lens mount and the image plane—the image sensor, in a DSLR. If the adapter is too thick, the flange back distance will be too long, and the lens won’t focus out to infinity. If the adapter is too thin, the flange back distance will be too short, and the lens will focus “beyond infinity.”

The first problem (inability to focus out to infinity) is the more serious, as it renders the lens/adapter/camera combination suitable only for close-up work. Careful manual focusing can solve the problem of combos that focus beyond infinity.

Adapters make it possible to use a wide range of treasured older lenses with this Olympus E-PL1 and other Micro Four Thirds System mirrorless cameras.

Be aware of subpar adapters! You’d think that if an adapter were sold to mount a given lens to your DSLR, it would be made with the correct flange back distance to do that. With the better adapters, this is the case. With some “bargain” adapters, however, quality control is such that a specific example actually may be a bit too long or too short. Some adapters contain glass elements to allow infinity focus when the flange back distance of the lens/adapter/camera combo is too long, but these extra elements often reduce image quality, and they cause the adapter to function as a short teleconverter, increasing the effective focal length of the lens—not optimal for wide-angle work. It’s best to get an adapter of the proper thickness for the camera body in question. And, thus, it’s best to buy your adapter(s) from a source that will let you return any that don’t provide proper focusing.

The Sony NEX-5 (above) and Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 (below) are just two of the new mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras that have some useful benefits for pros. The limited number of lenses available from the camera manufacturers is expanded greatly through the use of adapters.

Another consideration is lenses that protrude into the camera body. If the lens you wish to use on your DSLR protrudes into the camera body, it could interfere with the SLR mirror operation. Such lenses shouldn’t be used with DSLRs (they could be used in Live View mode with the mirror locked “up,” but damage could occur if you or the camera lowers the mirror with the lens attached). Definitely always check with the manufacturer of the adapter you intend to use as to whether a specific lens can be used with a specific camera body using that adapter (and sort of “eyeball” it yourself before attaching the lens, just to be safe).

Stopped-Down Metering And Focusing

When you use a DSLR with a lens that was designed for it, everything is automatic. When you select an aperture for a shot, the lens aperture remains wide open for easier composing and focus-monitoring, then stops down to the selected value when you fully depress the shutter button to make the shot.

When you use a lens adapter, the linkage between camera body and lens is broken. The lens will remain at whatever aperture you set. So you’ll have to manually set the widest aperture to get the brightest possible viewfinder image for composing and focusing, then manually set the desired aperture for the shot. This is inconvenient compared to auto-aperture operation, but not a big deal with nonmoving subjects. It’s a bigger deal for action subjects. Back in the day, sports shooters generally worked wide open, in part, to get a fast, action-stopping shutter speed, in part, to have a bright viewfinder image to work with and also to avoid fooling with the aperture ring while shooting. One more thing to keep in mind is that some lenses change focus when stopped down. If your does, you’ll have to focus at the shooting aperture, even though that provides a darker image and greater depth of field, making focusing more difficult.

Adapters And HD Video

Professionals using a DSLR to shoot HD video are likely to be attracted to adapters. Most modern DSLR lenses are the products of the evolution of autofocus and the particular re
quirements of still shooters. Modern AF lenses weren’t designed for smooth and easy manual focusing like the older manual-focus lenses were. Film-era manual-focus lenses, particularly prime lenses, typically have focus rings that are geared in such a way that makes the process of doing precise, manual pull-focusing easy. This makes older lenses ideal for HD video DSLRs. Plus, most DSLRs don’t have all of their advanced automatic functions available in video mode, so the loss of features when using an adapter is negligible.

Adapter Sources

Several companies offer lens adapters under various brand names. Here are some of the major players.

Adorama ( offers a wide range of adapters, including its Flashpoint Tilt Adapter for Nikon Lens to Micro 4/3, which not only allows you to mount Nikon lenses on Micro Four Thirds System cameras, but also allows you to tilt the lens 12° in any direction, thanks to 360° rotation capability.

CameraQuest ( distributes adapters to attach a wide range of lenses to a wide number of SLR and DSLR bodies. The website also includes lots of useful adapter information.

Lensbaby ( just introduced the Micro 4/3rds Composer with Tilt Transformer, which allows you to mount Lensbaby or Nikon optics on Micro Four Thirds System cameras, and provides 12.9° of tilt in any direction.

Novoflex ( offers a wide range of adapters, including some to fit medium-format lenses to SLR and rangefinder cameras, and to fit popular SLR lenses to Samsung’s new NX10 mirrorless camera.

Olympus ( offers adapters to attach Four Thirds System lenses to Micro Four Thirds System cameras, and old manual-focus Olympus Zuiko OM-system lenses to both Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds System cameras. With Four Thirds System lenses that are compatible with contrast-based autofocusing, AF capability is retained.

Panasonic ( offers adapters to mount Four Thirds System and Lecia M- and R-mount lenses on Micro Four Thirds System cameras, while retaining most, if not all, camera features.

Sony ( offers an adapter to mount Sony Alpha-mount DSLR lenses (and legacy Minolta Maxxum lenses) on its new NEX-3 and NEX-5 mirrorless cameras.

Zörk ( offers adapters to mount medium-format lenses on 35mm and digital SLR bodies, as well as adapters that provide shift and tilt capability with enlarger lenses on film and digital SLRs.