I have a love/hate relationship with manual focus lenses on Sony mirrorless cameras*. One the one hand this entire journey started when I mounted a Contax lens on my Sony A7ii. The images were incredible which is why I got hooked on this whole manual focus thing in the first place. As far as image quality goes – I didn’t know what I missing shooting modern glass.
The problem is that using vintage and manual focus lenses on Sony bodies, is a frustrating Frankenstein monster of an experience. Here are the issues that everyone fails to mention when they tell you how great manual focus lenses are on Sony mirrorless bodies.
- The adapters are as big as the lenses themselves: One of the benefits of vintage and manual focus lenses is that they are tiny. This benefit is entirely obviated when you jam an extra inch on the back of the lens for the adapter. Tiny lenses become a Pinocchio style proboscis on a mirrorless camera. Additionally, some of these lenses are built out of metal so they are heavier than they look. This creates a lopsided, front heavy, mess. To be fair, this particularly issue is more of a gripe than a deal-breaker but it is an annoyance nobody talks about.
- Focus peaking doesn’t work: If you try to rely on focus peaking when you shoot stopped down, everything pretty much turns red, or white or whatever color you choose and it is impossible to use the LCD because it becomes a blob of red goo. Conversely, if you try to shoot wide open the focus peaking isn’t good enough to obtain critical focus without first zooming the image anyway. Zooming the image essentially obviates the need for focus peaking which brings us to the real gotcha of this adapted mirrorless mishmash.
- Zooming the image to obtain focus is a time-consuming mess requiring multiple clicks: This probably only applies to Sony cameras but in order to zoom the image you need to press a programmable button. That is an annoying step but a 100% acceptable step. HOWEVER, turning off the zoom so you can compose/recompose the image – that is another issue. You would think you would just push the same button again but not so much. The only way to turn off the zoom so you can get see the full scene in the EVF and compose/recompose your shot is to trigger the shutter and take a picture. If you are taking pictures of garden gnomes or fire hydrants they probably won’t care. On the other hand, if you are taking a picture of a model or (gasp) a stranger and she patiently waits there for you to get focus and then you click the shutter what do you think is going to happen? Correct, they think you took the picture and they relax and move on. The model will go to the next pose and the stranger will think they are done. If you (gasp) are trying to use strobes in this imbroglio, you will find yourself explaining why the flash just went off but you didn’t really take the picture. It is an embarrassment. This whole process is even more frustrating if you are trying to shoot something like street photography. Decisive moments seem to have a way of flittering away when you are clicking, zooming, moving joysticks to select focus spots, and taking phantom images just so you can see the full scene in your EVF. #notideal.
- The EVF turns to mud in the dark. Somehow these new-fangled mirrorless cameras all seem to autofocus just fine in the dark. It really doesn’t even matter if you can 100% see the action in the EVF. If, however, you are trying to manual focus you are in for anything but a treat if you try to do this in the dark. The lag time on the LCD is miserable to the point that there is almost no way to focus reliably at night or in a dark studio.
So, from my vantage point, if you want to use manual focus lenses on your Sony camera AND you will only be shooting during the day AND you will be shooting garden gnomes or buildings AND wont be using strobes AND you are OK with three clicks to zoom and unzoom focus – have at it. You will be delighted with the experience. On the other hand, if you are a real person who needs to shoot under all shooting conditions and, from time to time, you might even have a person standing in front of your camera with a pulse, you are probably like me and you need another tool.
The first alternate tool I tried was the Panasonic S1. It works as expected and remains one of my go-to tools when I want to use some of the old lenses I acquired. The EVF is larger, brighter, and about 274% better than the Sony A7III EVF. Importantly, Panasonic doesn’t have that same multi-click zoom/unzoom issue that Sony has. Unfortunately, that camera is a beast. I swear it is bigger than my old Canon SLR’s and the size of the camera obviates the beauty of these small manual focus and vintage lenses. With the Panasonic, it seemed that I traded a Frankenstein monster for Sasquatch. As much as I love the Panasonic S1 with vintage lenses, I can’t justify taking it on vacation with me. Moreover, trying to get away with bringing that thing during a family gathering or social event…well….you might as well just go ahead and wear one of those shirts that say “everyone is a photographer until manual mode” while you are at it.
And that is pretty much how I came to shoot with a rangefinder. For me, the rangefinder is the perfect blend of portability, usability, and functionality when using manual focus and vintage lenses. Of course there are downsides but I won’t bore you with all of the pros and cons since you can google that on your own.
* NOTE: This discussion does not apply to manual focus lenses like the Loxia line (there are probably others) which were created to be used with Sony bodies. Native E mount lenses trigger the zooming mechanism automatically and don’t need any Frankenstein adapters.