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Reality Check: How usable are legacy lenses on modern Pentax dSLRs?

Douglas Elick , Oct 28, 2013; 11:37 a.m.

I've been a luddite and have held off buying a dSLR for quite some time. That plus the never ending "feature creep" that kept me wanting the next great thing. The reality is that the style of color shooting I would have used a 35mm camera for is finally dead to me due to the economics/availability of film and processing. I eyeballed the K5II and came *so* close to pulling the trigger, but held off. The K3 however might tip the scale and if its low light / high ISO performance is at least equal to the K5II, it'll be highly compelling.
I know that on paper, with a few exceptions, all the old Pentax lenses will work on their modern bodies, but I wonder how friendly the workflow is when using old "M" lenses though. The lack of AF is inconsequential to me, but if I can't get into a "groove", I won't use the lenses and I'm not ready to give up on my small stable of old Pentax glass. For example, of all my cameras/lenses including Mamiya and Rollei MF, the 50mm SMC Pentax-M f1.4 is my absolute favorite - quite literally I'd move it from my trusty 28 year old K1000 to the K3. Those of you with experience giving new life to your old glass by using it on a modern body, how has it worked out for you? How well does Pentax implement/support stop down mode? An afterthought or well married to the "UI"?


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Patrick S , Oct 28, 2013; 11:58 a.m.

There are numerous considerations for old lenses. Modern AF DSLR cameras do not, typically, have anything but a ground-glass type focusing screen. Some of them have focus assist indicators which let you know when you're in focus. The bigger thing for older glass is the crop factor. Your 50mm is now a 75mm. If using legacy glass is important to you, you may want to wait and buy the Sony a7. With an adapter you'll get full-frame coverage from your older lenses, as well as focus peaking to assist focus.

Michael Elenko , Oct 28, 2013; 12:29 p.m.

Hi Douglas,
Many of the folks who frequent this forum use legacy glass with their Pentax DSLRs and I'm sure they will offer experience-based feedback. In general, old lenses work well, and the bright Pentax viewfinders facilitate accurate focus. In addition, newer DSLRs have LiveView which use the LCD to ensure pinpoint focus accuracy.

Unlike say a forthcoming Sony model priced in the thousands of dollars, you don't need any bulky adapter to use your Pentax "M" lens in any modern Pentax DSLR.

I've used M, A, and M42 lenses on my Pentax DSLRs with generally very good results. I find the M glass to be the most problematic because the camera relies on stop down metering using the Green button. It's easy to do, but I find the results off by a couple of stops and have to do some trial-and-error. M42 and A lenses, however, have more accurate metering and the ease of using the camera wheel to control aperture in AV mode.

Image quality wise, all older Pentax glass produces acceptable results. I have a K-3 coming soon and expect my 30-year old SMC Takumars to render better than ever.

Hope this helps,


Matt Burt , Oct 28, 2013; 02:21 p.m.

I'm willing to use M lenses for thoughtful, non-rushed shooting. I have a M macro (100/4) and for the kind of macro shooting I do it suits my needs. I prefer A lenses for ease of metering or if I'm in a less-relaxed shooting scenario (models, animals, kids, sports, etc) I want all the automation help I can get. But shooting the M lenses definitely has it's place in my repertoire, albeit a small one.

JDM von Weinberg , Oct 28, 2013; 03:21 p.m.

Simple answer: the reason to go with a modern camera involves using modern lens systems that are designed to work well with that system.

Complex answer: Many of us enjoy fussing about and using old lenses on modern digital bodies, but we do this for FUN, not for serious applications for the most part.

Caveat: Never buy any new system based solely on compatibility with any older manual-focus lenses.

David Scott , Oct 28, 2013; 03:25 p.m.


The question is, what kind of "groove" do you enjoy now with your K1000? Do you shoot handheld? Do you rely on capturing the "decisive moment"? Do your subjects include anything unpredictable, like people having their portraits taken?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I can't recommend you use your legacy lenses with a new DSLR. This is my experience having tried to do so over a long history of DSLRs, up to my current K5. The DSLR focusing screens just aren't made for manual focus. They are optimized for "brightness" and don't accurately show focus below say f/4. Which means, when using an f/2.8 or f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens, you are unlikely to ever get the darn thing in focus.

There are two solutions to that -- change the focusing screen for an expensive replacement, designed for manual focus. I did that, but was never comfortable that it was actually as accurate as I wished. The other option is to use Live View, which is a great feature for subjects that stay still. But the fact that the mirror has to flip up, then you focus on the screen, then you press the shutter release, and the mirror has to flip back down, then flip up, then the shutter opens... it's not instantaneous, and it's really tricky to do hand-held.

The only digital Pentax that has been PERFECT with manual focus lenses is the K-01. I find manual focus shooting on the K-01 to be a match made in heaven. The camera has no viewfinder, therefore "Live View" is always on and there is no mirror to flop about. The addition of "focus peaking" gives you a nice visual indication of where exactly the focus snaps in. The shutter fires instantly without having to wait for the mirror, and has a nice solid "snick" sound to it. Best of all, the image quality from the K-01 is even better than the image quality from my K-5. I think that's 1/2 because of the inherent IQ, and 1/2 because I can always get my focus critically sharp with the K-01.

If you want to go for a full DSLR with optical viewfinder, I strongly recommend you use autofocus lenses. The DSLRs are great cameras with auto focus. I just can't recommend them for manual focus. My manual focus lenses are used on my LX with 35mm film, or on my K-01.

Douglas Stemke , Oct 28, 2013; 03:29 p.m.

Hi Douglas.
I used to use any number of screw mount lenses on various bodies. The lenses that I used the most were 40mm f2.8 M pancake, a couple of Russian lenses (85 f2 and a 15mm fisheye) and 500mm f4.5 Takumar. I have subsequently sold the 500mm (I purchased a 600mm A lens) and 85mm, and rarely use the pancake or fisheye. However, I do not find it especially hard to use those lenses.
The switch from film to digital for me is still an on-going process I have to admit. I loved geekdom of the different films and the discipline behind the shutter knowing I had to pay for that shot twice through the film and processing. The transition now is that I take a lot more images. I worry sometimes that it leads one to be sloppy in their photography as you know that 1 out of 100 will be excellent (exaggerated) and that you can tweak images in software. I do very little post processing and I can see that those who do have images regarded much higher than my own. But as far as the experience itself it's still the same. I do appreciate that we generate a lot less harmful toxins than we did in the old days which is obviously a good thing.
I'm rambling, but I'm sure you'll be fine. The K5II is an excellent camera and a steal; I'm sure the K3 will be an equally loved camera. Once you factor in the savings from film and processing the price of the Pentax dSLRs will seem very manageable. And the ability to change an ISO on the fly is a real pleasure when you recall that we had to get through the roll first to change ISOs.
You at least had the discipline to control yourself on bodies. I have two Super Programs, an LX, an MX, and my wife's ZX-5n and K1000 along with a 67. The LX, MS, and K1000 still get some use but it's hard to sell the other cameras for price of a movie ticket.


Douglas Elick , Oct 28, 2013; 05:23 p.m.

Perhaps I should have set the stage a bit better. I do have a Panasonic Lumix as a "carry about" camera and am very pleased with it in that role. It's generally sharp and produces a color palate I find pleasing. However, I detest menu diving and shutter lag annoys me even more. The final straw is I *hate* looking at a display to frame a photo. I do have a "hand me down", 1st generation digital Rebel, but I can never click with that camera - again, I hate having to dig into menus or switch control mode contexts to get to basic settings like aperture and shutter speed. I'm not actually a luddite, I'm a tech worker who just doesn't want to feel like I'm operating a computer while practicing photography - the interface should assist me, not get in the way. I have a brand new GoPro Black Hero 3+; for its designed task, it's a brilliant little bit of gear.

I never upgraded from the modest K-1000 because it did everything I needed. Sure, the center weighted meter could be fooled, but it wasn't hard to eyeball a scene and compensate as needed. Lack of AF was never an issue; I'd guestimate my subject, preset the exposure and prefocus using hyperfocal distance. The only features I missed on the K-1000 was DoFP and possibly MLU, but the deficiency was forgiven since that camera has been a flawless companion for nearly 30 years. Ignoring the Lumix and Rebel, the K-1000 is the only camera I own with a meter of any kind. I seem to do fine with the Rolleicord IV, C330 kit and RB67 kit - they just aren't very portable and their advantage for color photography is slipping. For B&W work, I'll stick with the medium format gear and the K-1000 for fun.

On a basic level, if I were designing a camera, it would be a fully manual, mechanical camera with digital sensor that represents a great value. I do not practice "spray and pray" photography and I've found the fuzzy logic between my ears to be quite sufficient. I have a few photos that one might call, "decisive moment" images, but I got them because I was prepared, not because I had a megabuck camera. My reasons for considering the K3 (or perhaps K5II) are because of their fully expressed manual controls and their sensor and processing capability which for a lack of better terms, represent the equivalent of excellent "film". Yes, a good AF and auto-exposure system will be nice to have, but they will be necessary to get the job done maybe 10% of the time or less. All I really want is great glass and a great sensor in my hands; I'll take care of the rest.

Douglas Elick
P.S. I thought I read the K3 will do focus peaking - something quite handy when using manual glass, I imagine. I take it the K5II cannot?

Michael Elenko , Oct 28, 2013; 05:48 p.m.

The final straw is I *hate* looking at a display to frame a photo.

I pretty much share the spirit of your statement. The Q, because it is so tiny, is as tolerant as I can handle with a non-optical viewfinder--and I've tried the highly praised ones out there. I make an exception for the better LiveView implementations because I only use them in static tripod-mount situations. Brings to mind my 4x5 shooting.

Thanks for sharing more of your requirements. I think the K-3 or K-5II would serve you well.


JDM von Weinberg , Oct 28, 2013; 06:01 p.m.

If you like doing it the old way, why not stick with film?
It's certainly well suited for your way of working, although it is true that some of the later ones are polluted (OPE, POE, etc.) with features like AF and AE. Good scanners are not cheap, but are cheaper than a whole new camera system. Film, especially larger format film, still is in the competition for resolution, although for 35mm-format I think digital is higher resolution/image quality these days.

Why characterize using AF cameras to their fullest as "spray and pray"? You are free to shoot as you please, why the chip on your shoulder?

There are very few AF, AE digital SLR cameras that cannot be used in completely manual mode. If all you want is digital sensor, then just turn off the features you don't use. It wouldn't cost Pentax Ricoh Imaging Company any less to make a camera nowadays without those features.

I still think that modern lenses will in general be improved over the old film-targeted lenses as there are some physical differences in design for digital sensors. The AF can be turned off, as I say, and time has marched on with new and better lens designs, especially in zoom lenses.

BTW, others can answer about the old lenses on Pentax bodies, but there are very inexpensive K>EOS and M42>EOS adapters that will work on any Canon EOS "full-frame" digital body (with the exception of some rear-projecting wide angles) in full metering (stopped down) mode.

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