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Lenses: Adapting, Purchasing

To adapt a different brand of lens to your DSLR, you need a lens adapter. Users report widespread praise for those sold by eBay seller kawaphoto, and my experiences have bore this out (adapting both Olympus and Contax-mount lenses to Canon EOS). Considering some lens adapters run $50+, being able to buy a $10 adapter for every lens in your kit and keeping the adapters on them (preventing you from ever having to interchange them in the field) makes it feasible to base an entire lens kit around glass designed for a different camera, further saving you money. For example, Dan Chung has recommended buying Contax/Yashica-mount Zeiss lenses — less expensive than other Zeiss lenses due to their obsolete nature — and adapting them to Canon (advice that I followed, although I recommend reading this thread to learn about potential mirror lock-up issues). Dan was one of the earliest adopters of DSLRs for professional video use, and he points out some specific Zeiss/Contax bargains (I have all of these in my own kit):

Note that availability and pricing of these lenses on eBay varies by the day — to get a good idea of what they’re going for, click on “Completed Listings” in the left column. I can’t say definitively that these lenses are the best deals around, as I need to get my hands on more lenses to A/B them — but I do like the Zeiss aesthetic and their lenses are built like trucks. Plus there is an awesome Contax-to-Canon database for figuring out which Contax lenses will fit which Canon DSLR. Shooters have also reported great results with Leica R series lenses, and there’s a database for that too. In fact, if you’re interested in Leica lenses — many people say their favorite DSLR video lenses are the Leica R series — here are some good focal lengths to look for on eBay:

If you’re wondering what the strange term appended to each Leica lens means, it signifies the speed of the lens: Noctilux are the fastest lenses at f1.2 (sometimes even f0.95!), followed by Summilux at f1.4, Summicron at f2, and Elmarit at f2.8. As you’d expect, the fastest lenses are usually the most expensive (Leica R lens can run a bit more expensive than other brands, so I’ve created custom searches above that focus on Summilux, Summicron, and Elmarit glass). If you put together a kit based on Leica glass, you’ll want to check out Leitax adapters, generally thought of to be the best Leica R-to-Canon adapters.

When adapting any brand (not just Zeiss or Leica) lenses to your DSLR, if you want to use them for still use as well as movie-shooting, there are more expensive adapters that offer an AF-confirm feature. Such adapters contain electronics that allow the camera to confirm (depending on your settings, a red flash in the viewfinder and/or an audible beep) when sharp focus is obtained, even though the lens is of a different brand than the camera. Note that there is often some tweaking necessary with the settings, but if you’re planning on taking stills with your manual lenses, the AF-confirm adapters from eBay seller happypagehk are well-liked (I have several “dumb” adapters and one such “smart” one in my kit). Additionally, if you’re going to be shooting stills with fast primes on a 5D you’re probably going to want to swap out the standard focus screen for the Eg-S Super Precision Matte model, which makes objects “pop” into focus a bit more (at the expense of viewfinder brightness — Canon recommends precision screens for lenses f/2.8 and faster).

As I said earlier, lenses hold their value. If you’ve got the money, buy new lenses that are made for your camera — you will avoid a lot of potential pitfalls. For example, Zeiss makes their ZE series of manual lenses specifically for Canon DSLRs; you may want to get these instead of used lenses if you can afford it (for more on why you might want to get Nikon-mount ZF Zeiss lenses instead, see this section. Here’s why: you can definitely get great results finding bargains and adapting older lenses to newer cameras, but you will probably run into some problems along the way. Nothing is free, and if you’re going to buy a used lens for $300 and slap on a $10 adapter, don’t expect it to be every bit as great as its brand-new $1,200 counterpart.

So — what are some of the potential pitfalls of using adapted lenses? There are two main issues to be aware of: infinity focus and mirror obstruction. I’ve had issues obtaining perfect infinity focus using adapted lenses — this is when your lens can focus “past” infinity, causing distant objects to be blurry when they should be sharp — and my 28mm Zeiss lens causes my 5D’s mirror to sometimes get stuck when focused to infinity (more of an issue for shooting stills than movies, since the mirror is in lock-up position in movie mode). Adapting lenses is not for the faint of heart; we’re talking about mechanical devices where millimeters matter, and in many cases individual lenses behave differently with different adapters. For everything gained, something is lost — in this case, you’re gaining a bunch of leftover dollars in your pocket, and losing some reliability and performance. For many shooters, myself included, it’s not a choice: I had to go with adapted lenses as a matter of budget.