Don’t discard your old lenses; adapters can enable you to use them on your latest camera, usually with worthwhile results.


Lens adapters come in varying sizes and levels of complexity. Shown here, from left, are a Nikon lens to Canon EF mount adapter, a Nikon lens to M4/3 adapter and a Canon EF to Sony NEX (E-mount) adapter.

Most photographers have a couple of old lenses packed away that they never use, mainly because their mounts are incompatible with their latest cameras. But just being old shouldn’t consign a lens to oblivion; sometimes it’s worth digging them out of the closet and ‘taking them for a run’.

Having a suitable lens adapter will enable you to use your old lenses on new equipment ““ and buying an adapter is usually cheaper than buying a new lens.

There are plenty of options available as a Google search will reveal. Among them you’ll find adapters that will let you use very old lenses with new lens mounts such as Micro Four Thirds (M4/3), Fujifilm’s X-mount and Sony’s E-mount which weren’t around when the lenses were made. Adapters can let you ‘cross-dress’ your camera with lenses made for totally different cameras, and open the doors to a fantastic array of alternative lenses including classical designs with outstanding performance and exotic  optics.  

Although most camera systems are adaptable up to a point, they vary in degree of adaptability. Nikon DSLRs and lenses are among the least adaptable. Most consumer-level bodies only support exposure metering via electronic coupling because many Nikkor lenses (G-type lenses, for example) require the aperture to be controlled electronically. Canon’s EOS DSLRs are among the most adaptable.


When used with a simple adapter on the ‘full frame’ Canon EOS 5D II camera body, the 500mm f/8 Reflex Nikkor lens makes it possible to photograph tiny birds like this Fairy Wren. No donut-shaped highlights appear in the background because it is evenly lit and a long way behind the subject.

Some potentially desirable lenses can’t be used with modern DSLRs because their rear elements project into the mirror box.  Sometimes they can be adjusted, although mostly they can’t. Older Pentax-K lenses have a protruding diaphragm coupling lever that can create problems with some cameras. Canon EF series adapters will work on EF-S bodies, but EF-S adapters can’t be used with full frame bodies without risking damage to the reflex mirror.

Medium format lenses can usually be fitted to most DSLR bodies with a suitable adapter and adapters are available for Hasselblad, Mamiya 645, Pentax 645 and Pentax 67 lenses. But some lenses will require the camera mirror to be locked up while shooting.

Older Leica lenses are among the most sought-after by serious photographers because of their outstanding image quality. Fortunately just about every adapter manufacturer produces adapters for fitting them to current digital cameras, including recent CSCs.

How Adapters Work

Most adapters are simple, machined rings that fit between a lens and a camera. One end is configured to accept a specific brand or type of lens; the other interfaces with the camera’s mounting plate.

The simplest adapters lack electronic contacts so functions like autofocusing and auto aperture control won’t work because there’s no communications bridge  across the adapter. You will need to focus manually and physically stop down the aperture before shooting.

Nor can the lens pass on EXIF data to the camera, so your image files won’t include information on focal length and aperture settings. But you will be able to view the ISO and shutter speed, the date and time the picture was taken, the brand and model of the camera ““ and probably the metering and flash modes ““ since these functions are controlled by the camera.

Some adapters include a focus-confirmation chip that lets the camera signal when a subject is in focus, using an audible beep and/or icon displayed in the viewfinder. But they may not work on all cameras. And modern lenses that use electronic aperture control won’t work on most other manufacturers’ cameras, although you may be able to set the aperture via a control on the adapter ring itself.

Flange Distance

The flange focal distance (FFD) is the distance from the mounting flange (the metal ring on the camera and the rear of the lens) to the  sensor  plane.   This value is different for different camera systems; it determines the system’s depth of focus (distance over which the lens will render an image clearly in focus within all focal lengths).

This distance also affects whether a lens from one system can be mounted with an adaptor to a camera body of another system.  In order to focus to infinity, the FFD must allow room for the adaptor and be greater than the camera body thickness.  

Older ultra-wide-angle lenses with manual controls can have rear elements that protrude into the mirror box in order to be close enough to the film plane (or sensor area in modern cameras). Such lenses are usually unsuitable to use with modern DSLR cameras that have flip-up reflex mirrors and they may also be unusable with the latest compact system cameras.

Mirrorless CSCs have shorter FFDs than DSLRs because no allowance needs to be made for the SLR reflex mirror box. The table below lists the FFDs for the most popular current interchangeable lens camera systems, showing the mirrorless CSC cameras in green and the DSLRs in red.



Pentax Q

9.2 mm

Nikon 1

17 mm

Fujifilm X

17.7 mm

Canon EF-M

18 mm

Sony E

18 mm


19.25 mm

Samsung NX

25.5 mm

Leica M

27.8 mm

Olympus 4/3 system

38.67 mm

Canon EF and EF-S

44 mm

Sony A

44.5  mm

Pentax K

45.46  mm

Nikon F

46.5  mm

Camera systems with large FFDs have lenses that can be widely adapted, while those with small FFDs can take adaptors for many types of lenses. If the difference is small, factors like the diameters of the mounting flanges of both systems can play a role. Lens adapters are generally easier to make for camera bodies with large lens mounts.

The Tamron Adaptall System

Tamron developed its Adaptall system during the 1970s to allow the lenses it made to be used on different cameras by changing the lens mount. All the lenses are fully manual and lock electronic contacts or drive motors. Within a decade, the original Adaptall system had been updated to Adaptall-2 lenses and mounts to keep pace with changes being introduced by the camera manufacturers, some of whom introduced new mounts during that period. Detailed explanations of the system and its use can be found at  and

Using a 500mm f/8 Reflex Nikkor lens on an M4/3 Body

My main motivation for writing this article was an old (vintage around 1974) Reflex Nikkor 500mm f/8 mirror lens that had been purchased for use with Nikon film cameras. I had previously purchased an adaptor and used the lens on various Canon EOS DSLRs, both ‘full frame’ and APS-C models.


The combination  of the Reflex Nikkor 500mm f/8 mirror lens, Voigtlander Nikon-to-M4/3 adapter and Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera body provided a very compact and lightweight way to achieve a focal length equivalent to 1000mm in 35mm format for taking close-ups of sports and wildlife.

Having shifted to the Olympus OM-D system a couple of years ago because it provided smaller and much lighter cameras and lenses, I wondered whether the old Nikkor lens could be used on any of my bodies and how well the camera’s sensor-shift stabilisation systems would work with the 1000mm equivalent focal length. Mainline Photographics, which has an extensive portfolio of lens adaptors, provided me with a Voigtlander adapter for connecting the Nikkor lens to my OM-D E-M1.


An example of a shot using the 500mm f/8 Reflex Nikkor lens and Olympus OM-D E-M1 body used for sports photography. You can see the characteristic donut-shaped highlights of the mirror lens in the highlight areas in this shot.

In the course of my experiments I discovered the following:

1. Sharp images can be captured with the lens on the E-M1 provided it is focused correctly.

2. It’s easier to focus when the camera is on a tripod ““ or resting on a static surface ““ because small shifts in the position of the camera are magnified by the very high magnification the lens provides.

3. The 500mm f/8 mirror lens has always been tricky to focus because a small adjustment of the focusing ring (which has become slightly looser over time) can have a large impact on where the plane of sharpness in a scene is located. Depth of field is very shallow with the fixed f/8 aperture so it takes longer to focus this lens that it would for most other lenses.

4. The E-M1’s focusing aids (magnification and peaking) worked well with the mirror lens, although magnification could be tricky to use with low-contrast subjects.

5. Touch-screen focus and capture was as effective as with shorter telephoto lenses.

6. Although the E-M1’s sensor shift stabilisation is pretty good, it’s not good enough to allow this lens to be used hand-held. Depending on the stability of the tripod, exposures could be as slow as 1/250 second; a minimum of 1/1000 second was required when the camera and lens were hand-held and rested on a static surface.

7. Metering was easy, although with the fixed lens aperture, it was often necessary to adjust the ISO sensitivity to obtain correctly exposed shots of subjects in shade.

8. Bokeh in images was surprisingly smooth for a mirror lens. The lens only produced obvious ‘donut-shaped’ bokeh on bright points in the scene that were very out-of-focus. In subjects that were evenly-lit, donut shapes could sometimes be found but they were small and not particularly obvious.

Focusing and Metering

Many people find accurate focusing difficult when using a standard DSLR viewfinder screen, since most DSLRs lack focusing aids. It’s easier with CSCs because you can compose shots with either the EVF or monitor and take advantage of aids like magnification and focus peaking.

Ideally the camera should be tripod-mounted for stability while focus is fine-tuned. This is particularly true for longer lenses (see box).

To meter exposures, set the camera to either Manual or Aperture Priority mode and be guided by the feedback the camera provides in terms of image brightness. In Aperture Priority mode, the auto-exposure system should measure the incoming light and select an appropriate shutter speed. Shooting in manual mode requires the normal balancing of shutter speed and aperture settings. ISO adjustments can deal with situations where there is too little or too much light for your preferred settings.

By Margaret Brown

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 65

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