That is what it really comes down to. More than the optical performance, build quality, or outright cost (all of which can vary wildly) of any vintage aftermarket lens, it is your level of expectation that should determine whether you bother with them at all. If you are expecting OEM-grade (Original Equipment Manufacturer) performance and build quality out of something that was originally half-or-less of the cost, you are going to be disappointed. It is as simple as that. However, if you reasonably expect (oh come on, since when does that apply on the Interwebs ;-)) somewhat-lesser-but-still-capable performance from that $10 or $20 flea-market find, you may find yourself completely satisfied with a third-party alternative.
Well now. That took care of that in short order. Cheerio...
Okay...okay...okay. You know I can't leave well-enough alone. Read on if you feel the need for a long-winded, over-analyzed version of the above. Otherwise, just go out and keep snapping away with any cheap old light-sucker you find. After all, ignorance is bliss... ;-)
The allure of getting more (or at least the same) for less never seems to fade. We always are hoping for some magic combination of high performance for pennies and so very rarely find it. And for good reason...high performance costs money, whether you're talking cars, cameras, cosmetics, or, in this case...lenses :-). The reasons are pretty basic:
OEM vs. Third-Party
In the area of manufactured goods, the aftermarket seeks to exploit areas that they perceive are underserviced by the OEMs. Here are three main areas in order of frequency:
When value (bang for the buck) is the point that the third-party manufacturer chooses to target, they will have to make some choices with regard to the three factors cited at the outset:
It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to realize that when companies opt to use inferior materials and quality control procedures (which are the most common choices made, by the way ;-)), the end result will be less expensive...but with a commensurate drop in quality. Labour is more complicated, as you can have low-paid workers that can execute at a high level of precision (the key to offshoring) or not. On the other hand, if an aftermarket manufacturer approaches the situation with the idea of aiming for a balance of performance with economy and executes it cleverly, the final product can be a desirable alternative to the OEM product. When it comes to third-party lenses we find examples of both approaches, often, ironically, within the same brand. And that is where the opportunity to snag a steal of a deal presents itself. The reputation accrued by selling vast quantities of below-average swill sullies the entire brand, in the eyes of the average (READ: non-geekazoid) buyer. Thus all Soligors & Vivitars (to name just a couple of venerable vintage off-brands) must be junk, right?
The Rise of the Aftermarket Lens Manufacturers
Lenses & accessories have always been the most lucrative portion of the interchangeable lens camera (ILC) market. After all, the whole point was to have the versatility offered by multiple lenses. Multiple lenses = multiple purchases = more profit. It is no surprise, therefore, that the aftermarket keyed in on the lens market early in the post-WWII era. Ironically, both Canon and Nikon (today as OEM as they come) came to worldwide notice by offering aftermarket lenses for Leica and Contax interchangeable lens rangefinders. From such humble beginnings... ;-). Now, the key to their success was that they actually were offering as good or better imaging performance for less money. How was that possible? By developing improved optical designs and glass types, using equivalent or near-equivalent materials, lower-cost-but-highly-skilled labour, and improved quality control. This did lower their profit margin compared to the German OEMs, but the Japanese went for higher-volume sales to offset that, and they also took advantage of a very favorable 300 yen to 1 USD exchange rate that remained fixed for nearly three decades after WWII.
As certain Japanese manufacturers (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, and Pentax being the largest among them) rapidly caught up to the Germans during the 1950s, they transitioned to becoming OEMs themselves. This left a vacuum in the aftermarket that the next tier of Japanese optical companies quickly moved to fill in the 1960s. By the time the '70s rolled around, a new crop of third-party manufacturers were pushing hard against the maturing Japanese OEMs, which were also engaged in more strident competition with one another. This inevitably led to cost-cutting by all participants as they fought for market share. The success of the aftermarket lens makers was readily apparent by the efforts of the OEMs to introduce budget lens lines (Minolta Celtic, Nikon Series E, Pentax Takumar Bayonet, etc.), and by simplifying construction of their standard lens lines to stave off such third-party incursions. The aftermarket initially targeted wide-angles and moderate telephotos (not coincidentally, those were the two categories of lenses that buyers first looked to acquire after their original purchase of an SLR or rangefinder with a normal lens), but some soon became innovators in the burgeoning zoom and macro sectors as the '70s wore on. By the '80s the OEMs were really feeling the heat and sometimes actually subcontracted the best of the third-party builders to manufacture some of their lenses or the components thereof (a practice that has only intensified in the past three decades). Brands such as Kiron (Kino Precision), Tamron, Tokina, Sigma, Soligor, and Vivitar came to dominate the low-to-mid-range lens market. We will now take a closer look now at how to separate the pearls from the pigs.
Where to Start?
There were literally dozens of brands of third-party lenses during the height of the SLR boom. That in itself can be enough to make your head spin and puts some people off right there. In reality though, there was a pile of badge-engineering going on, with only a fraction of those brands being true optical manufacturers. Now, just because a brand was not a manufacturer per se, should not be taken to mean that they were automatically junk-peddlers. For example, Vivitar, perhaps the the most prominent third-party lens brand during the '70s and early-'80s (at least in North America :-)), did much of the optical design for their Series 1 lens line and then subcontracted the actual construction of said lenses to companies such as Cosina, Kino, Komine, and Tokina, to name a few. Kino became so successful as a subcontractor (and not just for Vivitar) that they began to market their own lenses under the Kiron brand and were considered among the top aftermarket suppliers of the early-'80s.
The first clue to the possible desirability of a vintage third-party lens will be its original selling price in relation to the OEMs. Just as now, lenses were built to price points back in the day. The price point served as the arbiter of which features, materials, and quality control procedures were used. Older catalogs or magazine adverts are an excellent resource in this case. Back issues of Popular Photography as far back as 1981 can be viewed on Google, and butkus.org has some catalogs from the late-'70s and early-'80s when the SLR boom was at its peak. Now, if an aftermarket lens was less than 2/3s the cost of an OEM, there had to be some substantial cuts made somewhere in the areas mentioned earlier: 1) materials, 2) labor, and/or 3) quality control. Different manufacturers prioritized different qualities, but some general themes emerge:
The Better Third-Party Manufacturers
Ok, but what if you can't find an original price or a modern review for a particular lens? Well, let's cover some of the better third-party manufacturer's lens line-ups and narrow down the field a bit. This is not going to be an exhaustive list by any means, just a general outline:
Alright. So you come across a lens in a thrift-store or online and the price seems ridiculously low. The focus/zoom and aperture rings feel good...the glass & coatings look good...the aperture is clean and snappy...and...you can't find a review or any info online. Should you give it a whirl? Only you can decide. But in the $10 - $30 range you almost can't go wrong. If you find you absolutely detest it, at those prices you can likely get your money out of it by foisting...umm...I mean selling it on to some unsuspecting...uhh I mean someone with a lower tolerance threshold than yourself ;-). At worst you will have (be stuck with) a lens to take into situations where you might not want to risk a more valuable optic, and at best you may be pleasantly surprised because what did you really expect for such a small amount in the first place? And there you go, we've come back around to expectations.
One caveat: beware of accumulating a pile of lenses that do nothing but gather dust because they were so cheap to acquire. I am still a proponent of having just a few lenses that you really enjoy using and getting certain results from rather than a pile of glass that only serves to cause paralysis-by-analysis when you try to decide which one to use. Finally, whether you end up with an OEM or a third-party lens for a given application, make sure it is because it gives you the results you want, not what I or anybody else says about it. :-).
Tamron @ http://adaptall-2.com/
Third-Party Lens Reviews @ https://www.pentaxforums.com/userreviews/
Soligor Lens Compedium @ https://www.apotelyt.com/photo-lens/soligor-catalog
Vivitar Lens Compendium @ https://www.apotelyt.com/photo-lens/vivitar-catalog
Old Photo Catalogs @ https://www.butkus.org/chinon/catalogs_photo.htm
9/25/2020 11:49:53 am
Years ago, I purchased a sigma 400 mm F5.6 lens, in my Newbie Ignorance. I actually used it to shoot concerts, and amazingly I got pictures, in spite of the slow maximum aperture-must’ve been the Tmax 3200 I was using… But as I learned when shooting color film, There was major color fringing and everything would come out really low contrast and flat. Totally put me off Sigma lenses, and I would not buy one today.
9/26/2020 09:24:46 am
Thanks for sharing your experience, Paul. It well illustrates both the capabilities and limitations of most vintage aftermarket glass. The difference between the demands of B&W and colour is a real line in the sand for me when it comes to assessing performance. Older MF and AF Sigmas don’t hold much appeal for me, but they have come a very long way with their modern-era stuff especially in the last ten years. At least there are plenty of alternatives out there if they don’t fit your tastes :-).
10/2/2020 04:50:13 pm
Always a good read and I always look out for your most excellent articles written with expertise and wit.
10/3/2020 08:33:48 am
Thanks, Mel. Glad you enjoyed the article. Tamrons were my first lenses, as they offered an affordable entry point and very good performance at that. And the Adaptall II mount was a big plus when I got my Nikon FA to go with my Minoltas and only had to get the F-mount adapter. Although I did the usual, and moved more into OEM primes for each mount, I still think fondly of Tamron and have a few hanging around. If I was in the market for current glass, I would give their latest stuff a hard look. Their focus on light, compact, and affordable lenses, while many of their competitors got caught up in Zeiss Otus-obeisance, shows that they have stuck to their core values. Kudos to them for that.
11/14/2021 10:31:44 am
I always enjoy your insightful and thoughtful blog posts. For a budget-conscious high school student with a part-time job, the availability of third-party lenses made all the difference if you wanted to pursue photography as a hobby! After forking out the cash for a brand new Pentax SP500 with 55mm f/1.8, there wasn't much left over for accessories. But I saved up, and a few months later I was back to pick up a reasonably priced Computron 135mm f/2.8. The camera store owner said it was manufactured by Soligor. The magazine reviews I read at the time had rated the Soligor 135mm as a very good lens. I even had enough left over to include a Royal Auto Tele Extender 2X. Yeah, 2X extenders were all the rage. I liked using the Computron. It felt nice in my hand, well balanced to hold with the camera. I always had the feeling that it added a warmth to images that wasn't present in those shot with the Super Takumar 55mm. Maybe that was a result of the particular coatings. Amazingly, while going through my mom's estate several years ago, I found a box with all my old cameras and lenses packed neatly inside, including that lovely Computron.
11/15/2021 08:22:44 am
Glad to hear you are enjoying the blog, Darrell. You make some excellent points about the very real value proposition of third-party lenses back in the day for photographers of average means. It's easy to make the mistake of assuming that OEM manual focus glass back in the day was as affordable as it is now (at least in most cases ;-)). I can remember that my Dad had the OEM 50/1.7 with his Minolta, but the 28/2.8 and 70-210 zoom were both aftermarket out of economic necessity. And I think that is the greatest benefit of the aftermarket manufacturers: they give more people the opportunity to experience photography. It's great that you were able to reconnect with your equipment after all those years, too. Best regards.
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Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.