a7 – A1: A review of the Sony a7 using Canon FD lenses

By Popular Demand, a Republished Article on Canon FD Lenses and Sony’s Mirrorless Full Framer

When Olympus finally put a good sensor in one of their micro four thirds cameras, everything changed. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 proved mirrorless cameras could mix it  with DSLR’s (the lenses were always good enough). Now, all major camera marques have introduced DSLM’s in varying formats. It was only a matter of time before a full-frame mirrorless camera was introduced. I don’t think it came as a surprise to see Sony get there first. The surprise was just how small it was; not much larger than the OM-D E-M5, but with a superior grip and better EVF. The more unpleasant surprise for many was the lens desert – a new system looking for lenses to attach itself to, and also the price of the Carl Zeiss primes.

Marsden Bay
Marsden Bay: Sony a7 and Sigma 24mm Super Wide II. 1/4 sec at ISO 50

Nevertheless, I still bought a Sony a7 in December with the intent from the offset to use it mainly tripod mounted for landscapes with legacy lenses attached via an adapter. I like to experiment, and the possibility of exploring the potential of old manual focus 35mm lenses at their true focal length was an exciting prospect.

My previous forays into using old lenses on digital cameras were not particularly successful (Olympus E-3 with Nikon F, Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Pentax M and Fujifilm XE1 with Canon FD), largely due to the difficulty of focussing, but I knew that with a large, high resolution viewfinder assisted by focus peaking, manual focussing would be much easier. However, I wasn’t prepared for how easy.

Marsden Bay
“We shall fight them on the beaches”, Marsden Bay with Sony a7 and Canon FD 35mm f/2.8

Having used Canon FD lenses previously, and been impressed with their quality, I chose to invest in them again, but this time the later FDn lenses. I found the rotating mounting ring of the older breech lock lenses a pain to change with an adapter. Also the later lenses are lighter and smaller.

To date I have:

  • Canon FDn 50mm f/1.4
  • Canon FDn 35mm f/2.8
  • Canon FDn 100mm f/2.8
  • Sigma Super-Wide II 24mm f/2.8 (FD breech mount)
  • Tokina RMC 17mm f/3.5mm (Minolta MD mount. Currently in the post)

Mounting Canon FD Lenses onto the Sony a7

I bought a couple of good quality Pixco adapters from on-line dealer Jack The Hat. The Canon FD adapter has a locking ring, which you are required to lock to enable control of the lens aperture ring.

This can be awkward in the dark of pre-dawn, and cold hands can make it doubly difficult (don’t forget those gloves!), but it is certainly manageable. The best technique is to leave the adapter permanently attached to the camera body, and just mount and dismount the lenses as and when needed (changing adapters of course presents another challenge which I will tackle when the Tokina 17mm arrives).

Manual Focussing for Just Enough Depth of Field with Focus Peaking

This is a technique using focus peaking to attain just enough depth of field, negating the need for hyperfocal focussing techniques and avoiding lens diffraction.

  • Set camera mode to aperture priority or manual exposure. I prefer aperture priority.
  • Enable ‘Release without Lens’ in the camera menu. (Press Menu > Custom Settings 2 > Release w/o Lens).
  • Enable focus peaking (Menu > Custom Settings 2 > Peaking Level). I prefer peaking level set to High and peaking colour set to Yellow.
  • With your chosen lens mounted and aperture set to f/5.6, set the camera on a tripod, and compose your image frame on the rear LCD screen.
  • Twist the lens focus ring until the foreground is acceptably sharp (indicated by yellow highlights around edges. The background at f/5.6 is unlikely to show any yellow highlights indicating an out-of-focus background.
  • Twist the aperture ring to larger f-stop numbers one click at a time (smaller aperture equals greater depth of field). You will see the yellow highlight extend further into the background of your image. Depending on your composition, maximum depth of field will be reached anywhere between f/8 and f/13 depending on the lens.

What About Portraits?

When my Canon FD 100mm f/2.8 arrived I immediately put Sophie to good use. Thankfully she enjoys having her photograph taken. I have found that when using the lens wide open, focus peaking using the wonderful EVF will highlight the catchlights in her eyes and nowhere else. Perfect. From there I can open up a stop or two if required.

Sophie, Sony a7 and Canon FD 100mm f/2.8 wide open

So How Are The Canon FD Primes On A Full Frame Camera?

They are just fine. More than good enough to my eyes. Great for landscapes. I’m not into lens testing charts, so that’s all you are getting from me on that.  Good technique and learning  a lenses strengths and weaknesses over time will pay dividends. The real star though has been the Sigma Super-Wide 24mm. Just superb. Well, onwards and wider. I can’t wait to try the Tokina when it arrives.


Kingsgate Bridge

This is underneath Kingsgate Bridge, the Grade I listed reinforced concrete structure that spans the River Wear at Durham. Time has tempered it beautifully. The photo is overexposed and the lens is suffering from flare, but I like it.

Kingsgate Bridge, Durham, May 2015
Kingsgate Bridge, Durham, May 2015

An English Wedding

Photographing a Marriage Day With 3 Fujifilm X Cameras

A while ago my brother asked me if I would like to record his wedding day. I asked who the professional photographer was going to be so that we could discuss not getting in each other’s way. He replied that there wasn’t going to be one, and that he preferred a candid approach to recording the day, and that him and Alison agreeed that the gig was mine and mine only. “Great!” I thought to myself, quickly followed by “Oh shit!”.

I have photographed weddings before, back in film days, but putting it mildly, it was a while ago. I needed to get my act together to do the best I could on the day. Questions sprang into my mind. What lenses and cameras to use? What challenges does the venue present? Do I need to fill any gear gaps? In short, planning was required.

The Venues

I knew one of the venues well; my brother’s house. It is spacious, airy and bathed in light most of the day. I knew where the guests at the reception would be hanging out and any potential challenges, most of those being backlighting, and then low light as evening wore on.

The other venue, the Archbishop’s Palace at Maidstone, was totally unknown to me. Unfortunately, it being in Kent, and I being in Hartlepool, popping over to do a ‘recce’ was not possible before the day. Instead, I found out what I could about the specific room the ceremony would take place in, namely the Solar Room. The name was encouraging, and indeed I found out that the room was well lit in one direction only by a huge window. I could live with that.

The Equipment

At the time of being asked to photograph the wedding I owned a black X100s and an X-Pro1 with a Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 lens and the versatile Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens. That was it. I figured that Paul had asked me to record the day because he liked my images, which are commonly made with 35mm and 50mm equivalent lenses. I had those focal lengths covered with the X100s’ wonderful 23mm f/2 lens and the 35mm f/1.4 on the X-Pro1.

Then I mused that something of portrait focal length but faster than the zoom might be useful at the palace for both light gathering power and throwing the background out of focus. My mind immediately turned to the Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2, but even the non-APD version made me choke on the price. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it is hugely expensive for the superb lens that by most reports it is. I was just questioning the purchase of a lens that I would probably make little use of after the wedding, unless I suddenly developed a taste for portraiture.

Fujifilm X-T1 Graphite with Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4
Fujifilm X-T1 Graphite with Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4

So after much forum haunting and article trawling, I purchased a vintage Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4, attached to a Minolta X-GM for a very reasonable amount, plus an adapter to attach it to the X-Pro1. I reckoned stopped down to f/2 or f/2.8 I could avoid the worst of the softness wide open and still keep an advantage over the 18-55mm. That was the idea anyway. Trying to manual focus the lens on the X-Pro1 proved to be rather challenging for me, even with the focus peaking and magnification aids. I had roughly a 50/50 ratio of images correctly and incorrectly focussed. This wasn’t good enough.

Talking Myself Into a Purchase

While I was mucking about with the vintage glass, a couple of photographer friends had picked up on my praise for the X system and had bought X-T1’s. They were raving about the EVF. The moment I picked Tom’s X-T1 up and looked through the viewfinder I understood why; a smooth and detailed finder, perhaps a touch dark, but large. Not Olympus OM-1 large (note, that’s the classic film camera), but full frame large. Large enough. Probably large enough for focussing a manual lens. I switched the camera to manual focus and turned the barrel of the 18-55mm. The plane of focus shimmered red and moved forward and backward as I twisted the focussing ring left then right. Yes, that’ll do nicely.

How I Used the Kit on the Day

My pre-performance nerves settled quickly at the venue. Finally I could get a handle on the place for a few minutes before the start of the wedding. In the Solar Room I mainly used the Rokkor 58mm on the X-T1 and the 35mm on the X-Pro1 for the extra light gathering ability and subject isolation. Outside the venue as guests mingled to chat, offer congratulations and throw confetti, I used the 18-55mm for its versatility in quickly changing circumstances. Back at the house I used the X100s almost exclusively, dangling unassumingly around my neck and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.


For all cameras:

  • Auto ISO to 6400
  • Minimum shutter speed of 1/125th second
  • RAW only
  • Aperture priority

So, how did it go?

It went well for the most part.

The sloth-like but accurate focusing of the X-Pro1 didn’t hamstring me. I nailed focus with the wonderfully smooth manual focussing ring of the Rokkor 58mm on the X-T1 every time, but the Rokkor was average in performance. I accepted that this lovely lens wasn’t going to be anywhere near the sharpness of any of the XF lenses, and for portraits, that was fine by me.

I was somewhat disappointed by its willingness to flare, even with a whopping great rubber lens hood screwed on, but with a huge window bathing light on the couple from the ‘wrong’ angle, I was always up against it. It illustrated just how good even the cheapest modern kit lens is in comparison, both in flare resistance and sharpness. The Rokkor is not short of charm though, being both a ‘looker’ and so well made. It is a case of sussing out its strengths and weaknesses and using it accordingly. As for the X100s, it is just a bloody great little camera. It never let me down the whole day.

As the evening wore on, the remaining guests gathered round the house bar. Inevitably, the Jägerbombs came out. I partook of course, and still managed some non-blurry photos afterwards. Unprofessional? Maybe, but hey, I’m family.



Hart ward councillor Paul Beck outside our lovely polling station.

Bishop Cuthbert, Hartlepool, 7th May 2015