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Why manual lenses on the Sony a7 series are a smart choice (by Phillip Reeve)


The following is a guest post from Phillip Reeve

Why manual lenses on the Sony a7 series are a smart choice

Do you think about how to improve your kit to take better pictures? In this article I want to tell you why buying cheap manual lenses is often the smarter choice than spending a huge amount of money on the very expensive native lenses.

Zeiss Distagon 2.8/28 – $250
Canon FD 1.4/50 – $50
Minolta MC 1.4/50 – $60

How a 130€ Sony made my expensive Canon redundant

My own experience with manual lenses on Sony’s mirrorless cameras begins a little more than 5 years ago. At the time I was using a Canon DSLR with a kit-lens and a tele zoom at the time. Occasionally I took some nice pictures but that happened rather inconsistently. Then I heard about the Sony Nex cameras and how easy it was to use manual lenses on them. So I bought a Sony NEX-3 for 130€ and a 25€ adapter for my old Minolta MD lenses which I bought for very little money.  After that my expensive Canon DSLR, quickly gathered dust. I learned that I needed to pay more attention to the process when I used my manual lenses but the effort paid off. I had a  lot more creative freedom and my photographic skills improved a lot faster than ever before.

Today, 5 years later I still use manual lenses most of the time. I own a couple native FE lenses like the FE 2/28 or FE 4/16-35 but only because there is no equivalent manual lens of similar optical quality. Every time I use them I am reminded how much more I enjoy the process when I use manual lenses. So for most of my shooting I still use manual lenses and certainly not because I am ignorant of the qualities of modern lenses.

Manual lenses can help to focus on photography

When you use a manual lens you have to think about the aperture and set it manually. You have to think about were exactly you want to focus and do so manually. Especially in the beginning this will fore you to slow down. But I think that can be a good thing. The need to think about these things has improved my own technique a lot and I find it easier to find mental focus when I use manual lenses. With AF lenses I often feel that the AF stands between me and the image which is an unwanted distraction.

I don’t say that it will be the same for you but it could. To lean about other photographers journeys to manual lenses be sure to check out our series on photographers who use manual lenses.

Focusing manually is much easier than many people think

I had used manual lenses even with my Canon DSLR but focusing trough the EVF wasn’t very precise and focusing with live-view was very slow. When I changed to Sony focusing with manual lenses became much easier and faster. You can learn the basics of manual focus in a few minutes, for example with this guide. With practice you will be able to capture more dynamic scenes as well. For me there are very few scenarios where I actually use AF.

A wedding shot with the Zeiss Makro-Planar 2/100 | f/2

Manual lenses offer much better value

Have a look at this image:

I took it with a $25 Minolta MC 1.7/55. Would it look any better had I used the $1000 Sony FE 1.8/55? I have compared them in-depth and I don’t think so. Without a doubt the FE 1.8/55 is the sharper lens with smoother bokeh but in maybe 90% of my images this doesn’t  really matter. Of course there are images I couldn’t take with the old Minolta but would it be a smart move to pay 40 times as much for the Sony? In my eyes the answer is not but YMMV.

Sony’s and Zeiss’ lenses for the FE system are bloody expensive. With a few exceptions they are also very good and some of them set new standards. So if you have money burning a hole in your pocket go for them, you won’t regret it. But let’s assume your are on a budget of $900 and want to improve your kit to get nicer images. Then you could either spend your money on:

Canon FD 2.8/24 – $70:

Canon FD 2.8/35 -$50:

Canon FD 1.4/50 – $50:

Canon FD 2.8/135 – $30:

Canon FD 4/300 L – $300:

That’s a total of $500 for a set of 5 lenses from 24 to 300 mm. You would habe $400 to spend on a nice trip with or without your significant other.

Or you could buy a Sony FE 1.8/55 ZA for $898. It is a great lens which is sharper than the Canon FD 1.4/50 and it also has smoother bokeh.

Which option would give you more creative freedom? What do you think would be the smarter choice?

When I started with manual lenses I was on a very tight budget but none the less I could afford manual lenses which gave me much more creative freedom than any AF solution I could have afforded. And even today where I have a much bigger budget I still like to use very affordable manual lenses.

To learn more about affordable manual lenses check out this article on $99 or less lenses which perform very well on the Sony a7 series.

It is very cheap to get started so give it a try

I wouldn’t suggest to start buying half a dozen manual lenses for $500. All you need to find out if manual lenses work for you is a Canon FD 1.4/50 for about $50 and an adapter for about $20.

You could find that you prefer AF lenses. Then you would have lost about two hours and $15 after selling the lens and adapter you bought for $70. So there is little to loose.

Or you might find that you enjoy working with manual lenses a lot. When I got my first Nex and discovered manual lenses, I found more joy in the process it improved my photography noticeably. So you could find more enjoyment in the process, your photography could improve and you could save a lot of money.

Canon FD 2.8/300 | This lens cost me 700€ or about 10% of what a modern 2.8/300 would have cost. it is bloody sharp with very good CA correction.
Minolta MD 2/50 – $25
Pentax K 3.5/28 – $100
Tokina Macro 2.5/90 – $250

If you have any questions on manual lenses be sure to check out my extensive beginner’s guide to manual lenses which should answer your questions.

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