[tweetmeme]This is a guest post by Rob, from robnunnphoto.com.

If, like me, you’re a photographer on a very tight budget, one of the hardest things to come to terms with is how expensive lenses are for your dSLR. Apart from the “Nifty Fifties”, which for most manufacturers can be had for around $100, new lenses are hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Fear not though – there is another way, where you can buy lenses for a few dollars, rather than a few hundred – M42 Lenses. M42 refers to the type of screw mount these old lenses use, and it was a standard for companies like Zenit, Praktica, and Pentax for many years. There are also lots of other lens manufacturers who produced M42 lenses from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, when Auto-Exposure, and a little later, Auto-Focus, rendered a screw type mount impractical.

To fit these lenses you’ll need an M42 adapter (available on eBay), which is normally just a piece of machined and finished metal, with a bayonet fitting on one side and a screw mount on the other. Having no electrical connection, you then have to focus, change the aperture, and meter manually, but this is a good learning experience and gets easier with practice. If you’re using Canon you can set your command wheel to Aperture Priority, and your camera will adjust the shutter speed automatically as light levels change or you change the lenses aperture.

Some M42 Lens Mount Adapters include an optic, and it’s always best to check compatibility of your camera body with a particular lens. Some old lenses protrude into the body of the camera, and this can cause problems with hitting the mirror.

I get my M42 lenses from car-boot sales, second hand shops, thrift stores and charity shops. There’s a thriving market on eBay, but the most popular and highest quality can demand steep prices. I normally just look for old 35mm Film Cameras that are clean, I make sure the lens works, then pay a couple of quid at a car-boot sale.

Most M42 lenses are fixed-focal length prime lenses – zooms just weren’t made for M42 in great quantities, and their optical qualities weren’t as good. Using a prime teaches you to zoom “with your feet”, a good skill to develop for everyone anyway!

The most common focal length of lenses you’ll find are 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 135mm. Wider lenses are very rare, but you may come across the odd ultra-long telephoto prime – and normally at prices that are unbelievably cheap.

LENS CHECK LIST

Before you hand over the cash for a M42 lens, you want to check a few things:

  1. Is it really an M42 Thread? Make sure you bring your lens-mount adapter (I actually use an extension tube) along to test it is what you think it is. There are other screw-mounts that aren’t compatible.
  2. Is the glass clean? You’re looking for mould, fungus or big scratches. Any lens that looks a bit cloudy or has things growing in it should be passed over. Expect to see surface scratches on most old lenses – don’t worry, it won’t affect your photographs.
  3. Does the focus turn smoothly? We don’t want any grinding or stiffness.
  4. Do the aperture blades work? A real important one this. If a lens has been sitting in an attic for 40 years, chances are any lubricants inside will have dried out, so those blades could be stuck. Look for a pin sticking out of the back of the lens. Press it in, then look through the lens while turning the aperture ring. You should see the aperture blades opeing and closing. Ask yourself if the lens is opening up all the way to its biggest aperture (biggest hole, smallest f number), and closing up to its smallest aperture (smallest hole, biggest f number). You’ll often find lenses where the blades only open up so far. Put the lens down and move on.
  5. Is it a decent piece of glass? A tricky question this – unless you’ve got a really good memory, chances are you won’t be able to remember which are the lenses, brands and models you should be looking for. My rule of thumb is to look at the maximum aperture. Lens manufacturers don’t tend to make poor fast glass. So if the lens is a 50mm, I’m looking for at least an f/1.8 aperture. For 28mm to 135mm I’m looking for f/2.8. With longer glass the bigger the aperture the better, and be aware that Zoom Technology wasn’t at it’s best in the M42 era, so don’t expect great results from non-primes. (Although M42 Zooms, combined with extension tubes, are great for macro work.)

ACCESSORIES

That brings me nicely onto the accessories that you want to be looking for as you’re on your hunt for M42 lenses. First up we want a selection of extension tubes. These are simple hollow tubes of various lengths, that allow you to take incredible macro shots.

Teleconverters look like extension tubes, but have a small glass optic inside. These handy gadgets multipy the focal length of your lens, usually by 1.6 or 2 times. Inspect them for scratches and fungus. Using a teleconverter does cut down the amount of light coming into your camera, and they do degrade the image, but they are fun to play around with.

Filters. With all your new lenses you’ll need filters. Don’t bother with UV protection filters, these lenses are cheap anyway, so why put another piece of cheap glass in the way? Look for CIrcular Polarizers (C-PL) to reduce glare and increase colour saturation. You may find Linear Polarizers. These have the same effect, but could affect the metering of your camera. If you’re shooting fully manual, this doesn’t matter one bit. Look out for special effects filters – soft-focus, star-bursts, grads and neutral density. Coloured filters aren’t that useful if you shoot in colour and convert to b&w in post, but they can add a fun look to your images. Keep an eye out for Cokin Filters, holders, and adapters – a whole world to explore!

Lens Hoods. Very, very, important. The coatings on modern lenses that keep our photographs contrasty and flare-free are probably missing from these old M42 lenses, so the best practice is to always use a lens hood.

MY EXPERIENCES

I particularly like my Pentacon 29mm f/2.8, and my Helios 135mm f/2.8. I use my Soligor 90-230mm with extension tubes for macro work, and I’m currently playing around with a Hanimex 200mm f/3.3. There’s no way I could afford to buy the equivalent Canon EF primes of these focal lengths, and half the fun of using these lenses is paying a couple of pounds for them at car-boot sales, then seeing the wonderful images they produce.

WHAT TO DO NEXT

Go on eBay and buy a lens-mount adapter for your digital body. Just search for “M42 Lens adapter Canon” or whatever model of camera you’ve got. Do a little research on the ‘net as to what lenses you could be looking for, then get out at those garage sales, thrift stores and flea-markets to hunt out those bargains. Have fun and marvel at the prices you’ll pay for lenses that are perfectly good enough for the majority of photographers.

Thanks for reading! Rob.

You can read more about Rob and his photography at robnunnphoto.com.

(All photos in this article were taken with a Canon 350d dSLR and M42 Lenses).

FURTHER READING

M42 Lenses On Wikipedia.

M42 Lens Mount Adapters On Ebay.com.

Compatibility list of M42 and manual lenses on Canon EOS 5D. (And Other Makes)

M42 and dSLR’s Flickr Group.

HAVE YOUR SAY!

Have you used M42 lenses, on a dSLR or perhaps on the original Film Body? What have your experiences been? What are your favourite lenses, and what has been your best buy? Please add your comments below!

16 responses


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Actually, there are some Adapter ring that has more than a metal ring.
there is a small chip in there too “fool” your camera so it will think it is a 50/1.4 or some “known lens”
and then once you focus, it will actually make it beep. (or flash the red dot in the view finder)

on the other hand, M42 were never forgotten.. i still use the FILM camera that mount M42! lol

November 3, 2010 6:56 pm

Excellent idea here. I have recently bought some L series lenses for my Canon, so I probably need to look at some lower priced options for my next purchase. I wouldn’t mind adding a 85mm or 100mm prime to my arsenal.

November 3, 2010 7:23 pm

Oh no… Please don’t upsell the old M42 lenses. I want them all to be mine!

My favourite is a 135mm 2f8 which takes amazing portraits. Not so keen on the 28/50mm range as they tend to be simpler and maybe harder to get a decent quality version.

November 3, 2010 11:47 pm

I still have a Praktica SLR so have a few M42 lenses at hand. I bought an M42-EOS adapter (a cheapy with no electronic help) along with some dirt-cheap extension tubes with no electronics. I’ve used these to take a few reasonably successful macro images. What I would really like to do though is use the 28mm f/3.5 M42 lens I have for street photography but find that the lack of focus assistance is a problem. Do you have any tips for ways of getting around the lack of focus assistance/confirmation?

November 4, 2010 3:47 am

Hi Guys,

Thanks for your comments! @Steve Crane, it is tricky to focus with M42 lenses, but it’s all down to practice and perhaps using a tighter aperture, f8 and be there!

My technique is to open up to the widest aperture, get the subject in focus as best I can roll it out of focus, then back in, then tighten up the aperture to expand the depth of field, then shoot.

Cheers, Rob.

November 4, 2010 4:11 pm

M42 and Contax/Yashica is all I use on my Canon EOS 350D with adapter. Have sold all Af-lenses.

Many of the 50mm are going very cheap. The Asahi Super-Multi-Coated 55mm/1.8 m42 is a nice one to start out with that you can find very cheap, but there are so many good old 50s. Old Yashinon lenses is M42, I’ve got a f1.7 which I really like.

One tip is to check old SLR cameras, since you can get a lens cheaper if you buy camera+lens then if you buy just the lens.

November 5, 2010 11:24 am

Nooo! Although, perhaps now is the time to sell rather than buy now that you’ve pushed the prices up a bit!

In regards to the aperture, if you *only* look for the apertures stated in your post, then you could potentially pass up a pretty sweet deal – the Carl Zeiss Flektagon 50/4 is one such example.

Don’t forget about the later K mount lens as well – they work great on the EOS series.

November 6, 2010 12:21 am

As some other readers, I’m a newcomer in the world of M42, and nowadays best lenses are overpriced. Though, I’ve bought some old Russian lenses (Jupiter-9 85mm, Helios 44M2 58mm) and an old Raynox 135 2.8 for my Pentax K10d. They all work wonderful, and are great on macro with extension tubes.
Now, I’m chasing a 29/28mm or a MIR-1 37mm for Xmas
It’s a great pleasure to learn photography with these oldies, and then you can take better pictures with recent lenses.

November 7, 2010 4:13 am


Hello Rob – thank you for great information about M42-lenses. I use them with my Samsung GX-20 and the little Pentax K-m. My darling of these lenses – tiny, sharp, wonderful colours and bokeh – is the russian Industar 50-2 50 mm/f 3.5. It´s a ” pancake ” bringing a lot of fun and excellent picture quality. It´s a russian clone of the Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar. You will find a lot of information about my little darling on google. On e-bay I bought it at € 44,00 – however in nearly new condition. O.K – now your are invited to look for this lens. I’m sure – it will become your little compagnion and one of your favoured M42′s. Happy Photography ! – melampus – your german friend from Berlin

November 8, 2010 11:52 am

great article, zenit rulez :)

November 30, 2010 12:13 am

I i want these lenses …. :)

December 15, 2010 5:51 am

I recently bought the L series lenses for my Canon, so I probably need to look at some lower priced options for my next order. :)

February 9, 2011 12:33 pm

Grinding = bad…. I can’t reiterate that enough… don’t be a hard head and think ‘it will be fine”

February 22, 2011 6:13 pm

Good article. I’ve been collection and using M42 lenses for a couple of years now on my Pentax K10D and they are truly a revelation in photography for me. I’ve picked up lenses mostly on ebay but Pentaxfourms.com has a marketplace section of their site where people are often selling Asahi Super-Takumars and SMC Takumars in good shape for fair prices.

I always tell people who want to try their hand with M42 lenses to make sure they get a good quality adapter for their DSLR because cheap knock offs can get stuck on your camera or cause the lens to not mount securely to the camera.

My collection is all Takumars of various focal lengths and all do quite well and take good photos. They can be a challenge for me to get the focus right but that is part of the deal. Pick up a few of these jewels and give them a try, you won’t be sorry.

April 3, 2011 10:46 am

Is there a adapter ring to connect cannon film lens to a nikkon.

May 13, 2011 5:52 pm

Comment now!