How much should I pay for vintage lenses ? Why do prices vary sometimes ? We’ll highlight some useful insight for you to understand the context in which vintage lenses were produced, what to look for when trying to buy one, and ultimately figure out which is the right price you should pay for a legacy lens.
Vintage is cool…
…and so are vintage lenses. Because they connect the user to an age when lenses were made first to impress and then sell. Plus, they are really good value money wise so they won’t put you out of business, so to speak. Yes, lens manufacturers in the 1960s and 70s were surely interested in selling those lenses, but it was a question of rhythm and philosophy: you were better if you manufactured something that would stand the test of time. Nowadays you’d buy a new one maybe once every three years expecting to improve workflow and provide change. Although that maybe be true for computers, it sure isn’t for photo lenses.
Oldies but Goldies
How did vintage lenses stand the test of time? At first, evolution meant better optics and better coatings. Then, as cameras became more technologically advanced, came auto-focus capabilities and even more aggressive coatings, dust-proof and so on. For many years, almost all manual focusing lenses have been made of metal and glass. There were differences in quality between a premium manufacturer and cheaper third party lenses or between Japanese and European lenses, but overall they were all pretty good, some having an excellent build quality. Starting from the 1980s and 1990s, plastic became the mainstream material because it was cheaper and lighter and so the build quality gradually declined. That is partially the reason why modern lenses have much shorter life span than old lenses.
Singlecoating vs multicoating: Helios 44-2 vs Helios 44M-4 MC :
So what should you consider when searching for a classic lens? First of all, bear in mind that most M42 mount lenses which sell today are around 40-50 years, mainly because it seems that in the 1960s and 1970s build quality was at its peak. There are some Pentacon and Carl Zeiss Jena lenses which were made during the 1980s, but they come in smaller numbers (Pentax K lenses represent a solid alternative to m42, but they are usually harder to find and cost a little more). As such, some were better kept than others and didn’t suffer any accidents, so do expect to pay more for a well kept and fully functioning lens.
Pentax K lenses represent a solid alternative to M42 mount lenses :
Vintage lenses are very, very tough but the conditions in which they were stored, the fungus or accidents will ultimately influence the price and the performance of a lens. As home users do not possess instruments for assessing the state of a photo lens from an optical point of view, you should avoid lenses with fungus or big glass scratches. Fungus can literally eat coating, which will result in an uneven image. Superficial scratches may be tolerated as in most cases they won’t dramatically affect images. When not in use, we recommend to keep the hood on and to store them properly. Some problems, like small mechanical failures can be fixed, while others, like degradation of the glass means that the lens may not perform at its best or reparation costs are simply too high to consider making.
Fungus on a 135mm telephoto lens :
Let’s go digital
The liberalization of good and reasonably priced digital cameras that came through DSLRs and most of all through mirrorless cameras created a need for budget friendly, yet solid lenses. This gap was mainly filled by M42 mount lenses because they were manufactured in large numbers and could be adapted very easily to the new medium. Adapters evolved in the last years and today it is very simple to find an adapter to almost any mount, such as Olympus OM, Pentax K, Minolta MD, Canon FD and others. Taking this into account when buying a vintage lens will help you decide what lineup is closer to your needs or preferences.
The M42 mount became the most popular vintage lens mount in the 1960s, although it hasn’t been adopted by big players such as Canon, Nikon and Minolta / Olympus OM mount lenses can now be adapted as well on almost all mirrorless cameras :
When trying to understand how much you should pay for a vintage lens, you must remember that in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as today, lens manufacturers filled a specific market position and competed with each other. There were third party manufacturers like Vivitar, Soligor or Revuenon which branded or commissioned Japanese lenses, small manufacturers such as Chinon and Makinon and big players like Asahi Pentax, Carl Zeiss, Pentacon. The Japanese sold a lot in the United States and in Western Europe, while Pentacon and Soviet lenses were mainstream in Eastern European countries. So you had entry level lenses, middle range and upmarket lenses. More expensive and difficult to find are those lenses produced in small numbers by manufacturers such as A Schacht Ulm, ISCO Gottingen, Steinheil Munchen or SOM Berthiot, based in Western Germany and France, respectively.
Typical early 1980s photo kit from Eastern Europe: Praktica MTL 3 with 29mm, 50mm, 135mm MC Pentacon lenses :
Along with Praktica, Zenit were the most popular cameras in Eastern Europe :
Knowing this, you’ll be able to narrow down your search and identify your needs, just like when buying anything else from a computer to a smartphone. All in all, expect to pay less for a Chinon than for a Pentax, Olympus or Zeiss lens. Third party lenses are generally the cheapest, with certain exceptions such as 35mm/1.8 and 135mm/2.8 Vivitar (those usually made by Tokina or Komine), 55mm/1.4 Revuenon (which seems to have been made by Chinon). Russian lenses are a bit special, as it depends even more on the lens: a 58mm/2 Helios, which is a very interesting lens, will be rather cheap, whereas a 135mm/2.8 Tair 11A will be much more expensive. The same goes for Jupiter lenses and while the 200mm/4 Jupiter 21M is reasonably priced, a 85mm/2 Jupiter 9 will get more money out of your pocket.
It’s all about money
Another thing that influences price is the focal length, so let us first remember how the market was configured. Nowadays, a typical entry level setup consists of a zoom and maybe a 50mm lens. Back in the days, people got themselves a 50mm, usually included in the package, a 135mm telephoto lens and maybe a wide angle 28mm lens. Other focal lengths, such as the 20mm-85mm-90mm-180mm or low light versions, such as 50mm/1.4 – 1.2 or 28mm-35mm f/2-2.4 were more expensive, not so common and were produced in smaller numbers. Today, they are rare, harder to find and also more expensive because they attract collectors and professionals who are willing to pay more.
Along with the 50mm/1.8 Pentacon, the 50mm/2.8 Carl Zeiss Tessar was another standard photo lens that equipped Praktica 35mm film cameras :
The standard lens that equipped the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic series was the 55mm lens, which had two versions: the fastest f/1.8 and the slightly slower f/2 version. The standard telephoto lens of the Takumar series was the 135mm/3.5 :
On the other hand, focal length reflects on price because it has to do with what people need in terms of lenses. M42 mount lenses come from SLRs “full frame” film cameras, while most people today use crop and half frame 4/3 digital cameras (1.5X for Nikon, Fuji X mount and Sony E mount, 1.6X for Canon, 2X for Olympus 4/3). So there is a need for 20-135mm lenses, because 200-300mm lenses are simply too large and too heavy to be used on regular basis. DSLRs are sturdy and capable of sustaining bigger loads, so you may take your chances with a 200mm/4 Asahi Pentax or 200mm/4 Pentacon, but mirrorless cameras are limited to normal telephoto lenses, such as the 135mm/3.5 Sonnar, the 135mm/3.5 Pentax Takumar or a 135mm/2.8 Chinon telephoto lens. Their “Full Frame” origins and the difficulty to design ultra wide lenses while keeping optical aberrations under control, explain why you won’t find 14-18mm M42 lenses. Even 20mm lenses such as the 20mm Carl Zeiss Flektogon and the 20mm/4.5 Takumar are a rare sight.
DSLR mounts are sturdier and can sustain larger photo lenses than mirrorless cameras: Canon 7D mount with M42 adapter :
Fujifilm X-M1 mirrorless camera with Fuji X to M42 adapter :
The 200mm Jupiter 21M is a heavy lens, but it can be used on a DSLR like the Canon 7D :
The 300mm Tair 3/300A looks apart when mounted on a Fujifilm X-M1 mirrorless camera :
>If you are a budget oriented fellow, it is probably best to choose from a classic Japanese line-up, composed of a 28mm-35mm/2.8, a 50mm/1.8 and a 135mm/2.8 lenses branded by a third party manufacturer such as Soligor, Coslinar, Hanimex, Pentor, Revuenon, Vivitar and others. There’s plenty of lenses to choose from and with few exceptions, they are all decent entry level lenses that will give you a hint about vintage lenses and will help you familiarize with manual focusing.
Standard Soviet lenses such as the 58mm/2 Helios 44 series are always an option, as they are good value and have unique image rendering. Another entry level choice is the Pentacon 50mm/1.8, which has also a very good price and does all the basics as it should. Small Japanese manufacturers, like Makinon, Chinon and Yashica fill in the gap between 3rd party lenses and more upmarket alternatives.
Enthusiasts should consider Pentax Takumar, Carl Zeiss, Meyer Optik, Fujifilm, Tair and Jupiter lenses. The Takumar series probably has the best performance to price ratio in the M42 realm. They are slightly cheaper than Zeiss lenses and show very good overall performance. Remember that certain Takumar lenses, such as the 50mm/1.4 have quite a number of fans, so they do sell rather rapidly. Aficionados and collectors will surely know what’s better for them and we especially liked A Schacht Ulm lenses, the 180mm/4.5 ISCO Gottingen Edixa-Westanar, Fujifilm EBC series and the 100mm/3.5 SOM Berthiot Paris Flor, to name just a few.
Finally, prices also depend on the version of a certain lens. For example, the 85mm/1.8 Auto- Takumar is generally cheaper than the newer Super-Multi-Coated version, so prices range between 300 and 850 euros. The 20mm Carl Zeiss Flektogon goes for 200-600 euros for a M42 mount version, but Exackta and PL mount versions go as far as 700 euros, simply because they are rarer. However, the newer versions of a lens aren’t always cheaper. The 135mm/2.8 Pentacon Zebra costs twice as much as the 135mm/2.8 Pentacon MC. That’s because the Zebra is older, rarer and and has very specific optical qualities. Sometimes market value derives from how fans and collectors feel about a lens and generally emotional investment comes with a higher price. Of course you can get lucky and find the hidden gem at a bargain price, but in most cases the money you’ll spend depends on what kind of lens are you searching for.
The old 135mm/2.8 Pentacon “Zebra” surpasses the newer Multicoated version both in terms of price and prestige :
All in all, remember that whatever you choose has to serve your purposes and be integrated into your workflow. It is more important to have a clear picture of what are you trying to achieve when using a certain lens and analyze the results to see how you can improve them. In the end, equipment is just equipment and will not make your work automatically better, so any lens can be a good lens if used wisely.
published on 01/02/2016