Nikon Glass Menagerie

Nikon Glass Menagerie

When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.” Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
I have a new obsession – retrofitting mirrorless digital bodies with vintage glass mostly for my cinematography but also for stills lifestyle projects. Modern mirrorless bodies have made it possible to create many new camera and lens combinations and has meant that many older lenses with a variety of fittings can simply be mounted with what is essentially a simple extension tube. Adapters/extension tubes are quite reasonably priced and have opened up a whole new world of options for image creation for everyone. Let the E-bay-sically-this-is-too-easy-to-spend-money spree begin!

For me, the comparison between modern and vintage glass is like driving an Austin 7 versus a new super-car. The super-car’s luxury and gadgets almost take away from the driving experience whereas the Austin 7 has real character. You have to get to know the gears and where the car is most comfortable, you get a feel for the handling without a computer chip assigning you the ‘optimal driving mode’, and ultimately you experience the drive, not just the ride. Each of my Nikon vintage lenses has a character – I can assign a lens to a particular shot or shots, knowing the unique bokeh that particular lens will bring to the image I’m trying to capture.

It {always} came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. … Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.” Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie.

Vintage Nikon lenses

Each of my Nikon vintage lenses has a unique charm & personality and they are so tactile! Modern lenses are without doubt fantastic for commercial photography, but they are almost too good! They make it all too easy to focus, they’re almost too sharp and it can actually take away from having to really look at the shot you’re trying to capture. Playing with my ’70’s manual lenses and having to manually focus and work with Chroma and flare creatively is enhancing my perspective as a photographer and artist.

As I mentioned earlier, bolting vintage glass to mirrors is fairly straight forward now, thanks to widely available adapters, but what do you use it with? For that you have to become a bit of a tech-head.

Individual lens characteristics were once seen as defects in the industry. Modern lenses have virtually eliminated such ‘defects’, which has its benefits, don’t get me wrong, but since I started using my vintage lenses I find that I don’t need to spend as much time in post to create a look, the lenses have their own look. So what some may see as a defect, I call character or ‘personality’! Who doesn’t love a bit of personality-aye?

So, am I able to choose a favourite among my ‘personalities’ yet? Yes – I have two…no…make that three. The 35mm 1.4 – lovely, milky, buttery bokehs, similar to the 55mm 1.2 absolutely brilliant. And I have to say, I love the 500 Mirrorless. Now, I can hear some of you protesting at this and, I get it – it has some annoying characteristics and yes, it’s a pain to focus but at £150 quid (and mine’s absolutely mint) why isn’t it getting more love?

Collecting and using vintage glass, I only have one rule, and that is:- Buy the best I can find! Rare, Mint or Excellent is the benchmark. The price of vintage lenses are steadily rising to reflect their popularity, however you can still find some deals on some truly exceptional pieces, if you are prepared to do a little digging. It’s not just gaining popularity among cinematographers & photographers either, as more and more art directors are loving the effect and we have been commissioned use them on several motion and lifestyle projects. Putting together my Nikon vintage ‘glass menagerie’ has become a bit of an obsession for me – seems I’m not the only oldie but goodie on the cinematography circuit these days! – Nigel

Vintage Nikon lenses

PS One last thing, only having manual focus available will make you a better photographer. The A setting on your camera DOES NOT stand for Awesome and the P setting does not stand for Professional. M is the way forward – go on give it a try 😉

PPS Next weeks blog ‘Light In The Fast Lane’ – a preview of a talk I will be giving at The Photography Show at the NEC in a couple of weeks on Automotive Lightpainting… see you there!

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