There is a great deal of misinformation circulating on the web regarding adapting vintage lenses to modern mirrorless cameras. In this article I will attempt to dispel some of these myths, give an overview on adapting Canon FD lenses as well as share some brief opinions about the more common FD lenses.
The most common misconception is that ‘X’ lens is sharp for subjects close to the lens, but soft at infinity. This problem is almost always caused by the adapter being slightly too thick, thus preventing the lens from focusing to infinity.
How common is this problem?
I have 5 Canon FD to Sony E-Mount adapters and only one of them focuses to infinity on all of my FD lenses! I can’t even recommend a brand of adapter, as there is so much variance between adapters from the same manufacturer. The one adapter that actually focuses to infinity was also the cheapest, so my advice is to buy a few different cheap adapters on Ebay. Once you have the adapter, set the aperture to wide open (lowest f-stop) and try focusing on a distant subject – if you can go past infinity, then you are in luck. if you are really lucky, then the focus ring will stop at exactly infinity. More likely you will find that those far away objects are still very slightly out-of-focus. I’m not sure why this issue seems to afflict E Mount adapters, as I have never come across this issue with M43 adapters (which usually go way past infinity).
Modern Lenses are Better
On the surface, this argument sounds reasonable, and should be true: computer-aided design, precision manufacturing and all of the other technical advances of the last 30+ years surely mean that modern lenses must be better?
Well, not necessarily. Firstly, a bad lens from 1985 is still a bad lens today. But all else being equal, a great lens from 2019 will benefit from all of those technological advances and beat a great lens from 1985 (subjective qualities aside). However a great lens from 2019 such as the Sony FE 50mm f1.4 ZA Planar costs about €1,300 while a 1980s Canon FD 50mm f1.4 costs about €100 – the Sony Planar lens is better, but is it 13 times better?
The real value proposition is when we compare a modern kit zoom lens (i.e. a not-so-great modern lens) with a vintage prime. In my experience a good vintage prime will often greatly outperform a modern kit lens – and I was initially very surprised to discover this. The Sony 28-70 Kit Lens has very poor sides and corners and many vintage primes will easily outperform this lens in terms of pure image quality. Obviously there is no autofocus – but for many users the focus-by-wire on Sony lenses is just annoying anyway.
Old Zooms are Bad
This does seem to hold true – though a good older zoom might not be too much worse than a modern kit zoom – and there are one or two legendary old zooms that will outperform a modern kit lens. Still you probably won’t see that much improvement, so there’s probably not much point in adapting one.
Old FD Wide Angle Lenses are Soft
There is some truth in this, but then again many modern wide angles are also quite soft – the modern Samyang/Rokinon 14mm is notoriously soft (though I’ve heard some say that the sample variance is huge), and I found it to be no sharper than my very old FD-mount Tokina 17mm f3.5. Neither of those lenses is stellar, but the Tokina is a lot more practical since it does not require a ridiculously massive filter adapter and it’s about half the price.
FD Lenses need to be stopped down
This is often true, Canon FD lenses generally do need to be stopped down more than modern primes before they become sharp – but if you are comparing the 50mm f1.4 prime with a kit lens, then the 50mm prime will be a lot sharper at f5.6 than the kit lens at its maximum aperture of f5.6. When compared with modern primes, the vintage FD lenses often stack up well at f8 or f11, but may be a lot worse wide open.
FD Lenses have more Chromatic Aberration
This may be true – who knows? Obviously some lenses are worse than others, but if you shoot RAW, then most of the time the auto-correct in Lightroom or whatever program you use will take care of this for you anyway. This is harder to correct if you are shooting video, and there may well be some CA correction going on in-camera if you use a native lens (even in RAW files).
FD Lenses suffer from Flaring
This one is cited all the time – in truth, I’ve never really noticed it. I only have the more modern nFD lenses (new FD) which all have Canon’s SSC coatings. Pre-SSC FD lenses may well suffer more. Either way, I’ve never had an issue with glare/flaring etc. The only exception that I’ve noticed is with the FD-mount Tokina 17mm, which definitely needs a hood.
New FD vs. Old
There were three variants of the Canon FD mount, with the final type introduced in 1978. The earlier types have a rotating breech ring (often chrome coloured) at the rear of the lens. The earlier lenses featured either S.C. or S.S.C coatings (S.S.C. is better), though the very earliest lenses are not labelled. Later nFD lenses all included the full SSC coatings. I have always tended to go for the more recent nFD lenses which were manufactured right up until the early 90s. If you want to date your Canon Lens, the following link has a table to help translate Canon’s date code from the back of the lens: Canon Lens Date codes.
Are Canon FD Lenses for you?
This depends on what type of photographer you are. If you take pictures of fast-moving subjects, then manual focus is probably not for you.
If you only shoot landscapes at f8 or f11 on a tripod, then there are several Canon FD prime lenses out there that can give you significant image quality improvements over the kit lens at a very low cost. You may also prefer the precision of real manual focus over the focus by wire of some of the native Sony offerings.
If you shoot video, then you can get nice shallow depth-of-field on a budget, and you probably use manual focus anyway.
So which FD lenses are any good?
These are just my observations about the more common Canon nFD (new FD) lenses – for more in-depth reviews of individual lenses, check out the excellent phillipreeve.net. There are some much more expensive Canon FD lenses out there (Canon’s first ‘L’ lenses used the FD mount), however if you are after one of those, then you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
Canon FD 24mm f2.8
A pretty decent landscape lens, though there is a bit of distortion that is hard to correct. Sharpish for a 24mm, but needs to be stopped down to about f8.
Canon FD 28mm f2.8
I have had several copies of this lens, and I don’t find it very sharp. There are other vintage 28mm lenses that are much better (Pentax K f3.5 and Zeiss Distagon).
Canon FD 35mm f2.8
This is a very sharp lens, but I find the barrel distortion horrible at this focal length and don’t use mine for that reason.
Canon FD 50mm f1.4 and f1.8
The 50mm f1.4 is a fantastic lens – extremely sharp and mine lives on my Sony A7. There’s actually very little difference in image quality between this and an expensive modern 50mm. I have two of these – just in case something happens to one of them! The f1.8 version is okay and extremely cheap, but the f1.4 version is much better.
Canon FD 135mm f2.8 and f3.5 versions
I found very little difference in image quality between the f2.8 and f3.5 versions of the 135mm. The bokeh should be better in the f2.8 – but the f3.5 is much cheaper. In truth I don’t like either of these, and prefer the Pentax-m 135mm f3.5 which is much sharper and has much better contrast.
Canon FD 300mm f5.6
I found the purple fringing to be really bad with this lens, so quickly sold it.
Question? Comments? Disagree with me? Leave a message below.