Mirrorless Systems: Turning Orphan Glass into Treasure

I was able to pick up a used Panasonic GF2 Micro 4/3rds camera off eBay some time ago for about $70. This is an older entry in Panasonic’s mirrorless interchangeable lens camera line, sharing the Micro 4/3rds mount with Olympus (and the Kodak name). Getting rid of the reflex mirror allowed for the production of much smaller cameras, and the smaller sensor size (about 1/4 the area of a full-frame 35mm negative) also contributed to that. Other manufacturers have also produced mirrorless interchangeable lens camera systems, resulting in the usual diversity of lens interfaces. What all of the systems have in common, though, is that the lens-mount-to-sensor distance is much, much shorter than any 35mm SLR system had. And that, it turns out, has had an enormous impact on the used lens market.

I’ve been a browser on eBay since early days for that auction site (I was there back before PayPal was invented). One thing that was obvious from prices there was that the lenses for orphan 35mm systems were close to worthless, up until just a couple of years ago. If you, for some reason, wanted to stock up on Miranda lenses, or Konica AR mount lenses, or any of a number of systems whose makers had long since gone out of business or found other ways to make money in photography, you could do so for some token price plus reasonable shipping, and end up paying pennies on the dollar. After all, the only functional way to deploy the things would have been to put them on obsolete and sometimes antique camera equipment that used film.

Now, though, one can find adapters to convert just about any sort of lens mount to Micro 4/3rds (or Sony NEX, Samsung, Nikon 1, or Fujifilm X) cameras. Even some C-mount lenses from 16mm movie cameras could be used. The short lens-mount-to-sensor distance I mentioned before is critical in this. To make an adapter, there needs to be enough distance to incorporate the mount for the camera, some material, and the mount for the foreign lens. In general, it is hard to make a good adpapter without at least a few millimeters to work with. The critical issue is the ability to place the foreign lens at the right distance that it can focus on an object at infinity on the new system. The mirrorless designs make this trivial for any past 35mm film camera’s lens system. There are a number of annoyances that go with adapting lenses. For one, you go back to manual-everything using them (except perhaps exposure automation, which can still happen in an aperture-priority mode). In general, you have manual focus and manual aperture adjustment. But videographers turn this bug into a feature; they generally want those controls to be manual, and the lens offerings from the manufacturers of the cameras often don’t allow good options for those controls. On the plus side, there are often exotic lenses to choose from that aren’t available in your particular mirrorless interchangeable camera’s lens lineup. Also, the 2x field-of-view crop of Micro 4/3rds cameras means that bringing a lens over from a 35mm system yields something that acts like a lens of double its focal length on the new system, making them ever so useful for long lens work.

I’ve been a user of Nikon cameras and lenses since 1978. Nikon has had the same basic lens mount, the F mount, since 1959. However, a major change in the lens interface happened around 1972, with the introduction of the “aperture indexing” (AI) lenses. The lenses from before that point had a thick metal ring that overlapped the lens mount flange. The newer cameras used a rotating collar with a short protrusion to get maximum aperture and current aperture information from the lens, and the older (“pre-AI”) lenses could bend or snap off the follower protrusion. So most current Nikon cameras can accept an AI manual focus lens, but not a pre-AI manual focus lens. And, until recently, the prices on pre-AI lenses showed a substantial reduction in value because of the limits on where they could be used or the cost it would take to convert them to AI. Those values, reflected in eBay prices on used lenses, have also been going up.

And I believe the primary reason for this shift in a specialized market is the increased demand from users of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MI). For MI camera owners, the Nikkor pre-AI lens is just as usable as a more recent Nikkor AI or AF lens. For that matter, a Canon FD mount lens works just fine, something that a Canon digital EOS camera user can’t say. Plus, there’s the whole range of orphaned systems to chose from, too. I mentioned the Konica AR lens mount above, and certainly the value of used Konica AR lenses has shot up over the past couple of years on eBay, something that isn’t explicable on the basis of collectability (virtually none there, anyway). The Konica lens line-up was well-respected back in the day, and now seems to be making a sort of comeback. But the effect seems to be a general rising tide: there appears to be a general demand for good glass, no matter who made it, that is resulting in rising prices on the used market.

That’s not to say that you can’t find good deals. It’s just that the market has gone from virtually no demand and salvage prices to modest demand and commensurate prices.

The spur to writing this all up was that I noticed some Nikon Advanced Photo System gear on eBay, and the prices were higher than I’ve been accustomed to seeing. The APS system was a last-ditch effort by the big film makers, and especially Kodak, to improve the user experience around film cameras. APS established a new film size and a completely different film handling mechanism. To be sure, some of the features were logical and useful. But all-in-all, the cameras designed to use APS film were, all of them, aimed at hobbyist or lower targets. That included Nikon’s “Pronea” line of cameras. Because the APS film size was smaller than 35mm, Nikon made a range of lenses for the Pronea cameras that were also more compact. They still used the famous Nikon F lens mounting flange as the basic interface, allowing use of most of the full range of Nikon lenses on the Pronea. But all the IX-Nikkors, the specially-designed lenses for the Pronea, included a significant protrusion behind the level of the lens flange, making them physically incompatible with any regular Nikon film or digital SLR. This lock-in to not just a discontinued camera system, but a moribund film system, guaranteed that Nikon Pronea gear value was limited to collectability, and that was darn near zero. But it turns out that most mirrorless camera adapters that allow use of regular Nikon G lenses (as Ken Rockwell puts it, G is for “gelded”, as they have no physical aperture control ring on the lens, and rely on the camera to set the aperture) will also allow mounting an IX-Nikkor lens. The adapter bodies are mostly deep enough to accommodate the behind-the-lens-flange protrusion without issue, and the aperture control that works for G is reported to work for IX-Nikkor lenses. And that means that the Nikon glass that wouldn’t play with anything functional in Nikon’s lineup now can be re-purposed to do work on mirrorless camera systems. And that, apparently, is causing the prices of these (misbegotten?) lenses to rise, too. None of the IX-Nikkors look too exciting offhand. The most interesting of the lot would be the 60-180mm f/4-5.6 IX-Nikkor, a lens that would offer a cropped 120-360mm equivalent field-of-view experience on the Micro 4/3rds system. The maximum aperture offered is reasonable if not fast, and the range is pretty good for an entry into wildlife photography. It looks like common prices would get you one of these lenses for somewhere between $40 and $80, with shipping. Add another $15 for an adapter, and one would be off to the races. Of course, twiddling with manual focus and a fidgety aperture-setting system aren’t conducive to any form of photography requiring great speed, but for stealthy shots or shots from a blind of something that isn’t itself moving fast, it would probably work out OK. And that would give someone an idea of whether the extra convenience of a Panasonic 45-175mm f/4-5.6 M43 system lens would be worth the going price of around $370.

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