Legacy, Classic and Vintage lenses? What are those?

Pekka Buttler, April 2020


This short article exists as the result of two forces: The terminological confusion existing around terms like ‘vintage lenses’ and ‘classic lenses’ and my professionally derived penchant for trying to define terms and construct typologies and classifications. Nevertheless, I hope some may feel these musings to be of interest.

To business…
There is growing interest in what some would consider a Frankensteinian union: The combining use of state-of-the-art modern digital cameras (both still and video cameras) with old, even very old lenses (in some cases even lenses that were never meant for use on cameras).

Sony Alpha A7s with Leica 50mm f/2 summicron collapsible LTM (shot with Ricoh GR)
Sony a7S with Leica 50 mm f/2 summicron collapsible LTM
Photo by Soe Lin on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

In many ways this seems to be a perverse union: Using fully manual lenses on camera bodies that are equipped with all the latest finesses, like 40Mpix+ resolution, contrast detect AF, 4K video, facial recognition and in-body-image stabilization. Still, for some this union makes total sense, but the discussion is somewhat marred by the confusing and less-than-systematic use of terminology.

This short article sets forth the terminology used throughout this site. Thus, while this short text exists mostly for the benefit of our readers, we would not mind if others would adopt some of the terms outlined below…

What’s wrong with referring to lenses as vintage or classic?

When discussing adapting lenses, we’re actually discussing a very broad field. Furthermore, there is a lot of confusion, that is due to that the terms we’re using are both less than clear in their significance, while also not being well suitable.

One often sees/hears discussions regarding the adapting of “vintage” or “classic” lenses, and I maintain that both these terms are problematic. For instance, “vintage” (outside of lenses) typically means something that is not current, while also not strictly speaking being “antique” – a sort of in-between state, but with the hidden value-judgement that implies that the item in question is not obsolete. Vintage clothing & apparel is a good example: A 1970’s Ralph Lauren bag might be “vintage”, whereas few 1970’s bags from Sears or C&A will ever reach vintage status. In normal use, ‘vintage’ refers to something that is outdated, but still worthwhile, or in the case of wine’s (where the term ‘vintage’ originates) it is important to note that only some wine’s age well whereas others spoil.

With “classic” the same implied value judgment is more obvious. For instance, most would agree the 1969 Ford Mustang is a classic, while few would think the same about the 1979 model (nor expect it ever to reach that exalted status).

Likewise, the Ford Falcon (1959-1970), while certainly not devoid of love, will also never be expected have a similar rank of “classic” as its contemporary Mustangs.

1960 Ford Falcon
1960 Ford Falcon
Photo by Rex Grey on Wikimedia commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Both “vintage” and “classic” are terms mostly dedicated to aged items that (even when current) were a peg above the rest. Thus, referring to all old lenses by these terms differs significantly from the common meanings of those terms, and is not only confusing, but also tends to elevate the status of some old lenses, that even their designers do not hold in high esteem.

Nikon Series E 36–72 mm f/3.5 (1981-1985)
Nikon Series E 36–72 mm f/3.5 (1981-1985)
With most definitions of “vintage lenses” or “classic lenses” this lens meets the criteria.
While decidedly not the worst Nikon lens ever, judging this consumer zoom “vintage” or “classic” rubs me the wrong way.

Suggested terminology:

In contrast, I’m going to differentiate between lenses using the following terms:

New, Current, Legacy, and Outré. Let me briefly describe these categories:

New lenses are those that are in production. As simple as that.

Current are all those lenses that (while not new) are natively mountable and supported on bodies that are in current production.

Legacy are all those photographic lenses that cannot natively be mounted on any new body without the use of an adapter. As such, I’m using the term legacy in a sense related to its use within IT: an outdated part of the system, that either has to be replaced or adapted to.

Finally, outré1 are all those optical lenses that never were designed for use as interchangeable lenses for a camera (still or motion, film or digital), but that today offer enterprising daredevils tempting areas of experimentation2 .

Relatedly, adapting lenses, is hacking3 as you combine a lens to a body using a third-party adapter. Adapting is hacking because it represents a user’s intent to circumvent a designed limitation or incompatibility.

You adapt a lens when you put an adapter between your Canon dSLR body and your Nikon F lens whereas when you mount a Nikon AI-s lens on your Nikon D750 without an adapter, you’re not adapting or hacking, because while AI-s lenses were not designed with digital in mind, your D750 supports all the original features of the AI-s lens… Similarly, I stress ‘third-party adapter’ because I do not feel that putting a Nikon G lens on the Nikon Z mirrorless body using Nikon’s FTZ adapter (often sold bundled with a new Z-class body) is hacking. The same goes for Canon and Sony.

Caveats, addenda:

Using this classification also shows that it is not a question of age. For instance, while a Minolta AF 50/1.4 (1985-2006) is technically still Current (because you can mount it on a New Sony dSLR) that is liable to change as soon as Sony discontinues its dSLR lineup. Similarly, a Leica M-lens from the late 1950’s is also current (because you can mount it on the New Leica M11).

Many forums for “classic/vintage” lenses use the lens’ ability to support autofocus as a demarcation line. This is problematic on two counts. Firstly, as some significant marques never jumped on the AF bandwagon. Secondly, as an increasing number of enthusiast manual focus lenses are now being introduced in the marketplace (while being native to modern mirrorless mounts).

Naturally, as with any classification scheme, there are some situations in which things are less clear. For instance, Nikon (now) produces two levels of dSLR’s:

  • consumer-grade bodies, that (fully) support only lenses with internal autofocus motors (but allow mounting of many older lenses, albeit often with lack of autofocus or even metering);
  • pro-level bodies that support lenses all the way back to 1977;

Nikon also recently produced the Nikon Df, which supports (almost) every lens Nikon has produced since 1959. The question thus is, which part of the Nikon F lens lineup (from 1959 to today) should be classed as current? Classifying Pentax K mount lenses faces a related conundrum.

In sum, we’ll have to contend ourselves with that there is no totally unequivocal way of classifying every lens. And that is a good thing, because it reminds us that simplicity – while innately comfortable – often produces coarse simplifications.


1 Outré: “unusual and typically rather shocking”.
2 For an example, see: Mathieu Stern, Weird Lens museum
3 hacking, as in “using one’s technical knowledge to overcome a problem”, not to be confused with “cracking” or “security hacking”

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