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Adventures in vintage lensing (part 1)


If you are here for the photos only, you can find them here.

The find
Entering the third thrift store of the day, I immediately spotted the holy grail; a cabinet completely filled with old cameras and lenses. It was only the second time I was visiting this particular, pretty recently opened store; the first time, I didn't even notice the cabinet. Searching through all the cameras, it was very soon obvious that this was a disappointment; lots of 70's vintage zooms, Konica, Petri and Ricoh cameras, and generally no lenses neither good nor interestingly bad. But then I saw an unassuming paper box, looking very old indeed. I opened it up and -- lo and behold... a Eastman Kodak lens marked "Patented jany. 5 1897".
What a beaut! Well. A pretty dirty beaut, actually. Note that here, the shutter is rigged open with a wire; the lens has a central shutter, which can be cocked and released from the lens. I wanted it to be open all the time, and fortunately it was possible without opening up and tinkering with the mechanism.

I knew I had to mount this on a digital camera in some way! It cost me $25.

Coming home, I did my research; the lens was from somewhere after 1897, obviously, but not much newer than that; the patent regards the shutter mechanism, not the actual lens design. The lens elements were made by Bausch & Lomb, a classic four-element "Rapid Rectilinear" design. I haven't been able to identify the camera it was originally mounted on; of all lenses on Kodak folding cameras I have found, it most resembles this one but not quite as it lacks the remote shutter release mechanism and mounting socket. If you know where the lens comes from, please drop me a line!

The conversion
The lens is made for an old medium format Kodak folding camera, so it lacks a focusing mechanism and originally used a bellows to focus by extension. It also has a large distance between lens and film. This fits me well, as I want to use another bellows to focus the lens.
Let's begin. What is needed is basically a way to fit the Kodak lens to the bellows and an actual bellows. I use the Minolta/Sony Alpha system, and bellows for modern mounts are insanely hard to find and also insanely expensive. Fortunately, I have bellows for the old Minolta SR mount; we can use it, but then we also need a way to fit that mount to the Alpha mount. But this isn't hard, so more about this later.

It was at this stage obvious that the hardest part would be to fit the old lens to the bellows. The lens came threaded into a brass plate, obviously used for securing the lens to the board used as front of the original camera bellows. I was looking at destroying the bellows, glueing the plate to the bellows, or something similar when it struck me: why not just convert the Kodak lens to SR mount, simulating the original front board? Nothing then needs to be permanently destroyed.

I thus sacrificed an old Tokina 35/2.8 lens in SR mount I had in my parts cabinet; to the right in the picture above, we have the brass plate from the Kodak lens mounted in the mount part of the Tokina lens. This means the Kodak lens goes into this home-made adapter, it mounts in the SR mount on the bellows the normal way, and the bellows mounts in... what?
This is the SR-to-A mount adapter. This is a standard item sold under different brands, and unfortunately, all of these are completely unusably bad and unsharp at wide apertures. They make little sense for actual conversion of old lenses, so the left one here has had a little modification made to it; the lens element is removed and the resulting hole is widened, for a purely mechanical adapter which can be used with bellows. This loses infinity focus, because the lens element is there to get to infinity (AND BEYOND! ...ehrrm, sorry), but why have infinity focus if the picture is unsharp? Anyway, because I have two adapters, I only had to destroy one.

And here are the results from the Swedish jury. The resulting lens has a 35mm (full frame sensor) focal length equivalent of approximately 160mm, with a maximum aperture of a fast, fast f/8. Note that the lens is marked with old "US" f stops, between 4 and 128, which really is f/8 to f/45. The lens sports an eleven-bladed aperture.

When this contraption is mounted on a 24 megapixel Sony a900 with vertical grip, they take this form. I can tell you that if you want to get some serious attention in New York, you need to get yourself one of these.

The results
I went to New York with this exact setup in spring 2011. The lens travelled in a bag side by side with a Sony/Carl Zeiss 135/1.8, which is one of the sharpest lenses in the world, so sharpness wasn't exactly the reason I brought this old lens -- rather, I was looking for classical shots, and what better to use for my first time in the US than a really classic American lens?

Part II of this article is the results from the effort, and the resulting images have their own separate gallery! Go look!


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