photo nature work legacy lens

A Nature Photowalk In Borneo With Vintage Lenses

With the advent of mirrorless cameras, old manual lenses that previously collected dust on the shelf have been given a new lease of life. A cheap adapter allows you to mount these old lenses onto a new camera… but why would you do this?

Note: all images have been optimised for the web and have been reduced from 6000px wide to 800px, so you will see some pixelation. Some of the original images have been added to our shared Dropbox High-res image folder for our supporters over on FTBMates, and I have included a link below to one of the original images for you to inspect.

nature photo walk and legacy lens
A five second exposure with the Nikkor 85mm f2
What is a legacy lens?

Legacy lenses, as they are often called, are solid bits of kit often constructed out of metal and glass. Although lens technology is always advancing, the basic principle hasn’t changed much so legacy lenses can have a propensity to be as sharp and as clear as modern lenses. Sure, they may suffer from more flare due to the lens coating (lens coating is one area that has improved over the years), or have a bit more distortion or more chromatic aberration compared to today’s lenses, but these can be fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom with a click of a button. It is often said that old lenses have “character”, which is perhaps a way of describing some of these trade-offs you get with an old lens!

nature photo walk and legacy lens
The Zuiko 24mm f2.8 shot at f/16 with no correction applied
What does a legacy lens cost?

Then there’s the price. I picked up my mint 85mm f2 Nikkor for $200 and it will go head-to-head with any modern prime equivalent at five times the cost. It is tack-sharp and renders portraits beautifully. And yes, the look is distinctive.

nature photo walk and legacy lens
Nikkor 85mm f2 shot handheld at f/2.8
How are they to handle?

There’s no denying that handling these old lenses is a delight. Perhaps that’s the main attraction for me, making me feel more connected to my camera and my subject. Having to manually focus, physically turn the rings and record the fstop in a note-book (there are no electronics communicating between the lens and the camera), all add to the experience.

nature photo walk and legacy lens

What camera do I use?

I mount my lenses onto my Sony A7C, a full-frame camera I purchased specifically for my legacy lenses. At the time of writing it is the world’s smallest full-frame mirrorless camera so it’s ideal for travel. Of course it also shoots stunning 4K video (I prefer shooting in HLG and applying a LUT in post-production) but the real benefit is the ability to zoom-focus. The Sony allows you to get right into your subject and with focus-peaking turned on you can really nail the shot. This is especially helpful when shooting wide-open on a fast lens like the Nikkor. At f/2 the depth of field is so narrow any forwards or backwards motion will put the subject out of focus.

nature photo walk and legacy lens
Nikkor shot wide-open at f/2
Which lens to use?

The first day of this nature photo walk I packed two very different lenses: the Olympus Zuiko 24mm f2.8 and the above-mentioned Nikkor. Both offer quite different shooting experiences. I found I was actually using the Nikkor for landscape, which sounds counter-intuitive, but that longer focal length allowed me to grab some decent shots looking across valleys.

nature photo walk and legacy lens
Nikkor at f/11 with dehazing applied

The diminutive Olympus, meanwhile, is fun to play with and at 24mm makes for a decent landscape lens.

Zuiko 24mm. Sharp all the way through the picture (see below for a link to the original version of this photograph)

It suffers from some distortion but that’s normally only evident when shooting horizontal or vertical lines like a building.

nature photo walk and legacy lens
Zuiko 24mm with no distortion correction
nature photo walk and legacy lens
Zuiko 24mm with vertical distortion correction
What other lenses can you use?

Another lens I enjoyed using on this trip was the Pentax 135mm f3.5. Its long focal length allowed me to grab shots of the top of the mountain, again across the valley from the other side.

nature photo walk and legacy lens
Pentax 135mm f3.5 shot at f/11

The other feature the Sony has is the APS-C crop. This is designed to allow the use of APS-C specific lenses. That is, lenses made for a cropped sensor, but when you put a legacy lens on an uncropped full-frame camera and hit the APS-C crop button, the focal length zooms in by a factor of 1.5. This then gives the Takumar 28mm a focal length of 42mm, for example, providing more reach for your lens. It’s like walking around with two lenses mounted to the camera!

nature photo walk and legacy lens
The APS-C crop feature allowed me to get a little closer to these shrooms with the SMC Takumar 28mm f2.8
What are the images like to process?

All of these shots were taken in RAW and therefore require some processing (unlike jpgs, RAW images are ‘incomplete’. They are the equivalent of a film negative). Most of the images were edited using just the auto-buttons in Camera Raw and Photoshop, leaving Adobe to decide the optimum settings for each image. I might apply a slight s-curve to the tones and a bit of sharpening, but these lenses don’t really need much sharpening. I always remove chromatic aberration on my images, whether it’s a modern lens or legacy.

nature photo walk and legacy lens
With a minimum focusing distance of 0.8m, this is as close as I could get with the Nikkor 85mm

I did, however, push a couple of the shots, in particular the valley pictures where I increased dehazing (lighting wasn’t great on our trip). Some landscape photographers stretch the limits of RAW editing with huge helpings of creative license, which I don’t have a problem with. Just look at the master of landscape, Ansel Adams, who spent more time in the darkroom than he did behind the camera. This project, however, was really an experiment in the lenses’ true rendering of images so I kept editing to a minimum except on these couple of images.

nature photo walk and legacy lens
Some dehazing of the sky applied to this shot with the Zuiko 24mm
Final word

That being said, the results prove that you don’t need to spend a small fortune on modern ‘pro’ lenses to get great results, provided you are prepared to intervene in the shooting process. Isn’t that half the fun of photography though?

nature photo walk and legacy lens
Another ‘landscape’ taken with the Nikkor 85mm. On the original you can zoom right in to the workers in the field in the bottom-left corner of the picture!
nature photo walk and legacy lens
Not a black and white photo, just a very over-cast day (Nikkor 85mm with the APS-C crop)

If you click here you can view one of the original images (file is 25MB) taken with the Olympus 24mm. Bear in mind this was a two-second exposure so there may be evidence of movement in the foliage, but if your browser allows, zoom in to the little waterfall in the centre of the image. I’d say that’s pretty acceptable, wouldn’t you?

Join us on our photowalk through the Borneo countryside in our latest episode:

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