December 12, 2014

We're going to have some fun with cheap lenses. 


Most anyone knows that photographers like good, sharp lenses.

And many photographers will tell you that if you haul cheap gear with you, it incurs a kind of "opportunity cost".  Whatever picture you get, that's the picture you get... so you might as well use a good lens.

It's kind of like when your folks insist on using awful, tiny-sensor digicams from 2005 to take irreplaceable photos of their grandkids.  Indoors.  Without a flash.  (They'd have been better off using 110 film!)

The thing is, when we're talking about art, sometimes the sharpest, best lens is not necessary. 

In fact, maybe it's not even the right tool for the job.

If you're new to photography, the first thing you should do is get yourself a fast, sharp, inexpensive prime lens so you know what sharp photos look like.  Starting out with a Canon DSLR I'd get this lens, or for Nikon I'd get this one or this one.   

From the all-film era, most of the big-name 50mm primes are extremely sharp between f/5.6 and f/11.    (Some are very sharp even at f/2.8, while they tend to soften at the widest aperture.)
You can get a sharp lens for not too much money... but you can also get a cheap lens for not too much money.

Why would anyone do that? 

Let's find out.

A Quick Note

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The Cheap Stuff

It's not difficult to make a 50mm prime lens that is sharp as the proverbial tack.  There are a lot of good 50mm lenses on the market for not much money.

It's a lot tougher to make a zoom or an ultra-wide lens that's very sharp.  The lower-cost varieties of these lenses tend to be mediocre, or worse.  (That doesn't mean "all bad"... keep reading.)

There are millions of cheap lenses on the market.

Many cheap lenses are so cheap and the optics so average that they're almost not worth reviewing individually.   Brands like Focal (Kmart), Quantaray, Sears, Albinar, and Miida are generally low-end lenses.  They were originally designed for hobbyists and vacationers. 

The same goes for the cheaper lenses by Sigma, Vivitar, Soligor, and probably half a dozen other brands.

Even Nikon made a couple of cheap lenses, sort of.  The AF 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, a kit lens from the late 1980's, could be lumped in the "cheap lens" category.  It sells for a lot more than $9 or $10 used, but quality-wise it's only a tad better than most of the third party lenses.  (That, and the focal length range is kind of insufficient for a zoom.)  I've used that 35-70mm lens for years.  

These were consumer lenses, but that doesn't mean they're total junk.  For pictures that emphasize color, composition, and impression (which is what a photo should do anyway!), any of these lenses would suffice. 

The only time I think I'd ever discard one of them is if it had some glaring optical problem like astigmatism or a crooked lens element.  (Astigmatism is blurring near the center of the lens.)

Some of my personal favorite work was shot with a cheap plastic Soviet camera in which I'm pretty sure the factory installed one of the lens elements backward.  Corner sharpness?  Ha!

Focal Lengths

Some focal lengths are almost always expensive.  I've never seen cheap 85mm primes from Quantaray, Focal, Albinar, etc.

Also, lenses wider than 24mm are usually expensive (relatively speaking).  20mm lenses are usually at least $100 or more.   17mm lenses usually go for $150 and up.  (Unfortunately, even the lower-quality ones often sell for that.)

The average Joe Vacationer did not even see a use for these lenses.  He wanted something cheap and versatile.  Also, a 17mm lens is more expensive to make well than a 28mm.

Cheap lenses were made in the most popular focal lengths.   Mass quantities!

What was popular in the 70's is not always popular today (135mm being one of them).  But most of the focal lengths and ranges were the same then, as now.

Cheap Primes: 





Old Hinge

cheap 135mm f/2.8 lens
f/4 or 5.6
Kodak TMax 400

Cheap Zooms:

These are just a few.  I won't try to cover every permutation...







Two Kinds of Cheap

There's "cheap" as in quality, and there's "cheap" as in cost.

Many of these lenses are both.

Even the double-cheap ones are often good if you stay in the middle of their aperture range and the middle of their zoom range (if they zoom).    

High-power zooms are a good example.  To get 300 millimeters of zoom power can be pretty expensive.   Most consumer-grade zooms top out at 200 or 210.    In 300mm, even the prime lenses tend to be rather expensive.

There are some cheap zooms that go to 300mm or more.  

I have an old Vivitar 100-300mm zoom lens that's generally a five-dollar thrift store lens.   Main problems:  chromatic aberration, vignetting, low contrast, not-so-great bokeh.  Oh yeah, and it's not that sharp.

Aside from that... hey, it zooms in to 300mm.  It's better than nothing.

What's amazing is that a couple of my favorite pictures were taken with that lens.   A few of them have pretty severe "toy camera" characteristics, but one or two of the shots will almost fool you into thinking you're not really using a $5 yard sale lens.  Just use f/11 on a tripod, hope your subject sits still, and you're good to go!

Peregrine Falcon

(I think.)

Minolta X-700 with Vivitar 100-300 zoom @ 300mm
I think this was 800 film, but it might have been 400.

Furthermore, if you're just uploading them to the Web as 800 pixel JPG's, any sharpness limitations probably won't even be visible.   You might see the chromatic aberration and the dark corners. 

Sometimes, even that doesn't matter. 

Would a picture always be better without these imperfections?  I'm not even convinced that it would.  In fact I know it wouldn't.  (See Holga.)

Who Made These Lenses?

Some lenses are factory brand: Cosina, Kiron, Sigma, Samyang, Tokina, Tamron, Makinon (Makina) and a few others.   These companies actually made lenses for some of the better-known brand names.  They also sold lenses with their own name sometimes.  Some still do;  I'm sure you've heard of Tamron and Sigma. 

Many cheap lenses are simply re-branded.  Vivitar, Albinar, Focal (K-Mart), Soligor, Sears, JC Penney... unless you can dig through old lens catalogs and match exact construction features, you may never know for sure who made a particular lens with one of these names on it. 

Some of these lenses are still shrouded in mystery.  Who made Miida lenses?  Why didn't we hear more about them?  I have no idea.   They seem to have sold quite a few lenses.  From what I've seen they're not exactly stellar performers;  but then again, they're functional.  They have fairly solid build quality, typical of 1970's lenses from Japan.

One thing about these "mystery" lenses is that the optical quality varies.

Because these companies got their lenses from different factories, you never know if it's going to be a good lens.  Some of them are actually rather bad.  A few of them are excellent.  

Sometimes you just get lucky.

100% crops from the Old Hinge photo

Corners are about as sharp as the center!

How To Enjoy Cheap Lenses

Put away the MTF charts.  Stop enlarging the pictures to 100% on your screen, and stop comparing pixels (you know, like I just did here...).  We all do this, but if you want to enjoy cheap lenses, don't.

Just let yourself enjoy the photographic process.

I know sharp lenses can be part of that, but try something different.  Try looking for shapes, colors, and moods.  Try pictures that can carry themselves even without ultimate detail resolution. 

You'll have some chromatic aberration;  stop worrying about it.

And most of all, stop worrying whether someone is going to deride your cheap lenses.   There's nothing wrong with top-shelf gear, but the cheap stuff can be fun.  Tons of fun! 


Minolta X-700 with Vivitar 100-300mm zoom @300mm

Cheap lens disadvantage:
Looking past the motion blurring (because no tripod),
you can see the color and contrast are not that good.
(This is also a crummy scan.)

Cheap lens advantage:
If you drop your lens while running from the 600-lb beast you didn't notice while composing this photo...
well, nevermind.  You won't be able to outrun it anyway.

I was going to say tape a cheesburger to the lens so you can drop it behind you as you run,
but no, don't do that. 

Aside from that, if you forget your cheap lens in all the excitement, it's not as big a deal.

There's always a place in the market for economy gear.  If that weren't so, then it wouldn't exist.

The only time I really don't like economy gear is if it breaks.  But the thing is, most cheap lenses won't break if you take care of them.  There are some cheap lenses where the aperture mechanism will actually break, but I have not seen that happen too much (and I've used a lot of cheap lenses over the years.)

Don't leave your lens in a hot car, so the oils won't migrate onto the aperture blades.

Film Cameras And Cheap Lenses

I find the best way to enjoy cheap lenses is to shoot film.  It has nothing to do with film having less resolution (because it doesn't).  Actually, it has to do with the limitations of digital.

Digital does something to our whole photographic approach.  We start out thinking in terms of megapixels and detail sharpness. 

Also, the lens you pair with a digital sensor can affect the image in peculiar ways, because of how the light interacts with discrete pixels.  It's complex, people can't agree on the reason, and thinking about it gives me a headache.  I'll use film instead.

Put that cheap lens on a film camera, load it with some black and white or some color negative film, and take some pictures.  This is what it's all about.

The Ultimate Cheap Lens

...is the one you're using at the moment.

OK, maybe you really want to know:  what's the "ultimate" cheap lens?

Well, it could be a cheap zoom that covers a wide range of focal lengths.     A 35-200mm zoom could be the ultimate cheap lens.

Or, maybe it's the cheap, single-element lens that happens to be permanently attached to a toy camera such as a Holga, Diana, La Sardina, or whatever.
Chromatic aberration, vignetting, corner blur... good stuff, sometimes.

The Winter From Twenty-Twelve To Unknown

(Winter 2012-'13)
Holga 120
Ilford HP5+ 400 (120 size)

Why is that the ultimate cheap lens?   It manages to be simple, without the use of automatic settings.   f/8 or f/11 is all you get.  Guess the distance (or not), hope you focused correctly, and take the picture.

Selecting and Buying Cheap Lenses

Since you never know what you're going to get, don't spend weeks and months researching.  The point of a cheap lens is just to get it now and start taking pictures.

One thing, though.  At least make sure you get the right kind to fit your camera.

Sometimes the sellers have no idea, and you'll just have to take a chance.

"MD" is for for Minolta SRT and X-series cameras.   Some Minolta lenses were "MC" series, but be advised that "MC" could mean "Multi Coated", instead.)

"FD" is for the Canon F1, AE1, T70, etc.

"K" or "PK" is for the Pentax KM, K1000, ME, ME Super, MX, etc.

"OM" or "O/OM" is for Olympus OM series.

"M42" is for the Spotmatic by Pentax, Asahi Pentax, and Honeywell Pentax.  Also fits many SLR's by GAF, Chinon, Praktica, Zenit, and a couple others.

Sometimes this information is on the base of the lens. It could be inscribed in the metal flange area, or it could even just be affixed on a sticker.
Some lens mount types are easy to figure out (M42 screw mount is the easiest). 

(Maybe at some future point I'll update this article with photos of lens bases, so you can identify them easier...)

One of the nicest things about cheap lenses is that if you pair them with cheap camera bodies, you could have several different types.  Then you're less likely to get stuck with a lens for which you have no camera!

Here are some quick links to some cheap lenses on the 'bay.  Please help me keep this website going by using these links to buy your lenses, cameras, or anything else.

JC Penney

Montgomery Ward


Super Albinar


various made in Korea


Cheap lenses are fun.  They're not valuable, and they're not being grabbed up by speculators.  They're just cheap lenses that take OK pictures, if you stop 'em down a little bit (or not).   Don't worry about MTF charts and corner sharpness... just take pictures. 

I hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful.  You can really help me out by purchasing any of your stuff through the links on here. 

Thanks for visiting my website!


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