A brief look at the history of Canon’s past lenses
Until recently, we hadn’t had any experience with these Canon vintage lenses given that we started in the age of digital photography. However, being old is no reason to discount them. In fact, the discount is what makes them appealing to many people in the first place. Before I go into more vintage lens detail, let’s get one thing straight; I’m not a hipster. I’m a historian. I love thinking about the decades of improvements that have compounded to create the tools of photography today. These older lenses not only offer a history lesson, but due to their antiqued coatings and simpler designs, have a proclivity for artistic flare. Not to mention you can get these older quality lenses for a fraction of what today’s cost.
In 1987 Canon launched the EOS Line, newly added electronic autofocus and EF mount system. This new system essentially deprecated all of these older lenses overnight. Canon created a very suitable adapter system. However they only made it available to those who could prove a large investment in the older style lens. The goal was to migrate users to the new system and in doing so they created a whole new lineup that is EOS. These lenses have recently begun to experience a renaissance thanks to inexpensive adapters and the proliferation of mirrorless cameras. New technologies and at home kits make it simpler than ever to hack these classics to work on modern DSLRs.
Great, so let’s buy the good ones and go shooting! Well it’s not quite that simple, finding detailed information for vintage gear is not like researching contemporary gear. Every lens on the market today has online manuals, reviews and opinion pieces readily available. However, that is not the case for these Canon Classics. Fortunately, Canon runs a Virtual Museum on their website with some of the basics about each lens. During the course of this project I’ve discovered a lot about photography and I’m very grateful to pass along what I’ve learned to you. If you are interested in seeking out classic Canon marvels to help create your photographic vision today, please read on.
Why Classic Lenses?
Why bother? During the course of researching our vintage lens collection, I continued to come across articles dismissing the lenses as too much work and too little function. However, if you are like me and enjoy making old things work again and being a steward to the history of your craft makes you happy, than this might just be for you. If you already have a modern kit and are looking to expand with some classic glass, or try out a new focal length on the cheap. This might be the project for you!
If you are a student and just getting started in photography, and you have access to dad’s FD lenses, this is most certainly for you! Or if you can pull together a budget to build a great vintage starter kit at a great price, then vintage lenses are worth investigating in. These lenses were once the best in their class for their time. You must consider the incredible images created in the past by these classics and consider what they can do for you now.
Occasionally our client’s will request period pieces in which a specific look from an exact period in time is requested. In these situations we will use Lightroom film plugins in conjunction with these older lenses to create something that is very similar to the era that our client loves! In addition to these generational uses, we often will use them for artistic purpose as well. These older lenses lack many of the new coatings and precise computer aided design that benefit lenses of today. This translates to vintage lenses that can flare and create incredible artistic uses.
While modern lenses have these flares much better managed and make more sense for everyday use, occasionally you want more tools in your toolbox. An additional vintage lens is generally compact enough to carry on the photoshoot alongside our modern lenses. In addition, these classics are very affordable for any photographer of any budget. Plus, a plethora of adapter systems and DIY hack mount kits exist to help you adapt your second hand find into an incredible image maker on your modern DSLR that you will be proud to own! We start our journey with the FL series (1964) and will work forward as lenses from this period are the most available and convertible.
Canon FL Lenses 1964 – 1971 (30 primes from 19mm to 1200mm)
In 1964 Canon launched the FL series of lenses to compete with the other major camera companies. Canon released 30 lenses from 19mm to 1200mm in this lineup to much acclaim. Canon’s initial mega-fast f1.2 lens was available in 58mm at the FL launch. It was later superseded by the FL 55mm 1.2 in 1968, both focal distances achieved cult like status. These lenses, alongside the FT Camera, were the dawning of Canon’s SLR era. This propelled Canon into the major markets and would become a competitor in the world’s photography markets.
Canon FD Lenses 1971 – 1976 (61 primes from 7.5mm to 800mm)
In 1971 Canon launched the F-1 camera along with the corresponding FD lens lineup. Consisting of 61 lenses from 7.5mm to 800mm, Canon had built an incredibly robust system with plenty of options aimed directly at professional photographers. Lenses of this period are immediately identifiable by their aluminum ring and breech mounting system. Many firsts came from this line-up. For example, the world’s first ever tilt-shift lens or Canon’s first Aspherical Lens the 55mm 1.2 AL were part of this release.
Canon FDn Lenses 1976 – 1986 (42 primes from 7.5mm to 800mm)
Introduced in 1976 alongside the iconic AE-1 camera came the “New” FD lens lineup. Often referred to as FDn lenses in print or amongst collectors, this mount is reverse compatible with the standard FD mount and for a few years Canon was producing both lines. This lineup is recognizable by plastics in the lens body design and the bayonet mounting system. This new mount added a locking mechanism that professional photographers of the day required to safeguard their lenses from falling off the camera. Read our Review of the 85mm & 135mm from this vintage!
How to Identify Equipment
Canon had developed a rational labeling system early on, which makes identifying the lenses a lot easier. Every lens that leaves the factory is imprinted with a specific code offering a glimpse into its history. For example S407 would equate to S=1978 and 07=July. The second number in the sequence is a Canon internal code.
Lenses can also be identified by a handful of other distinguishing features. Like the original “Breech Style” FD lens is immediately recognizable by its silver aluminum ring. While the “Bayonet Style” FDn is the first to incorporate plastics into the body design. Other cryptic labels such as AL(Aspherical Lens), S.S.C. (Super Spectra Coating), S.C. (Spectra Coating) and other designations help to determine the quality of a lens as well.
Condition, Rarity, & Market Value
It’s time to get out and search! Lots of great places exist to find these jewels, we found lenses in a handful of different locations. Of course eBay is the defacto starting point. However, we’ve added to our collection from goodwill stores, craigslist and online camera stores as well. With all our buying experience we’ve learned that the condition is really in the eye of the beholder. This is very important to remember, an independent camera store operator will have a great deal more knowledge of the equipment than a clerk at your local goodwill store.
There is a grading scale that collectors use to determine the condition of an item. Typically “New” indicates that the item comes with the original packaging, while “Mint” would be in new condition, but perhaps missing part of or all of the original packaging. Rarely are these two options available, and if they are it’s not at a cost that makes sense for everyday use. The EX+, EX and EX- are really the focus of the search. EX is simply an abbreviation for Excellent, and these three types being the general condition. If listed as “fair“, “not working” or “for parts” it’s advised to avoid entirely, unless you are the mechanical type.
Another important factor in determining the overall cost of an item is how many were printed and how many are still available today. If a lens is in short supply or is of historic significance it will be worth a higher value and will fetch top dollar. While on the flip side if the lens was mass produced and many are still available today, the price will undoubtedly be lower. Of course an item is only worth what another person is willing to pay for it. Occasionally if you wait and seek out a specific item you can score incredible deals. We bought our 55mm 1.2 from 1968 on eBay for a mere $120, by setting a top bid week after week until the right one came along.
*Tip – Canon produced a large number of 50mm 1.4, 50mm 1.8 and 28mm 2.8 lenses during the manual focus years and they are generally available at the most reasonable cost today.
Typically if you purchase your used lenses from a second hand camera store or from a major shop like Adorama or B&H Photo you can rest assured that a technician at least tested that it’s working properly. If you go this route you will undoubtedly spend less time working on your old lens and more time out shooting with it. However, if you are interested in taking it apart and cleaning or repairing your classic, it’s fairly safe. At our studio we send out our modern lenses with their micro motors and complex computer chips for service when needed. But, these older lenses can be taken apart and put back together by a human, as it was originally designed to do so and for me this is part of the joy in owning them.
Some older lenses have tested positive for radioactivity. A handful of past lenses used elements in their glass recipes that have some trace of radioactivity. While these recipes worked well enough for their day to help manage aberrations and other anomalies, as time passed, new methods progressed and these materials were discontinued. Kodak was by and far the worst offender and more of their lenses have tested positive for radiation than any other brand, while Canon only had a few that registered. If you are concerned about the possibility of radiation it’s important to further investigate each lens prior to making the purchase. A few great resources exist to help you figure out what’s safe and what may be less safe.
There are lots of reasons to curate. For some collectors it’s about being a steward to the past and maintaining a pristine museum condition collection that sits on a shelf. While for others, using these vintage tools to create an artistic vision is paramount. Whatever the reasoning for seeking out these classics, the rewards can be great. In holding a piece of photographic history you become part of the heritage of photography and it can be very pleasing and strangely addicting. Having access to these antiquated tools can create unique imagery unlike other’s using standard modern equipment only and should certainly be considered to supplement any modern photographers kit.
Tips on Shooting
It’s important to remember these older lenses were not designed to work with modem DSLRs and will [obviously] need to be retrofitted to fit Canon’s modern mount system, we will cover this in more detail for each Canon series page. However, once this hurdle is achieved it comes down to figuring out how to use it. Unlike modem lenses these classics require you to manually select the aperture and focus the lens by hand. If you are shooting in manual mode, utilizing the view finder, and manually focusing the lens, you can achieve fantastic images. However, if you are using Live View, which is our preferred methodology with manual focus lenses, than Aperture Priority is much better suited.
Canon created some great lenses in it’s lineage that are very capable of continuing to make incredible images today. When these lenses first came to market the thought of seeing the actual image in realtime was merely a pipe dream. But, with today’s technologies, we can use these vintage lenses in a way that they were never designed to be used. This enables us to create unique art that will stand out from the crowd and last the test of time. Read our experience with our favorite lenses from each time period on today’s modern Canon 35mm Full Frame sensor.