Using third-party lenses on the Sony a7 / a7R
In theory, if you've got a collection of old or obscure lenses for long-defunct 35mm film cameras, the full-frame Sony a7 / a7R may allow you to breathe new life into them. Like the Leica M-mount, Sony's E-mount is supremely adaptable due to the short flange-back distance, meaning that lenses for a great many systems can be attached to the a7 / a7R without huge cost via a range of third-party mount adapters.
Being an unapologetic nerd when it comes to things like this, I was very interested in the a7 / a7R precisely because of their potential as a platform for some of the lenses in my collection which have proven hard or impossible to practically adapt to digital up to now. I say 'practically' because I can't afford a Leica Typ-240 and the crop factors imposed by Micro Four Thirds or previous Sony NEX cameras do make a difference to how useful a lens is to me.
My old Vivitar 17mm for Canon FD, for example, isn't that exciting on a 1.5X or 2X crop camera. But full frame… now that might be interesting. Likewise my KONICA HEXANON AR 57mm F1.2. It's a fun (if unwieldy) 85mm-ish equivalent portrait lens on APS-C but I want to see what it's like as a 57mm!
Armed with a selection of adapters (some of my own and some kindly loaned by Novoflex) I picked out a few lenses that I wanted to experiment with. A manual focus SMC PENTAX 1:2/35 that I found in a local junk shop, my Vivitar 17mm F3.5 MC for Canon FD, the KONICA HEXANON AR 57mm F1.2 (also from a junk shop - possibly the best $30 I've ever spent) and a treasured 1950 Nikon 5cm f1.4 S-C for Leica screw-mount.
The following is basically a list of tips, issues, and things to be aware of if you plan to shoot with old lenses, via adapters, on the a7 / a7R. Full disclosure - it's not completely hassle-free. Some of the frustrations that I experienced are just part and parcel of the experience of using non-optimized old lenses on a new high-resolution digital platform, but some are a consequence of decisions that Sony has made which complicate the process. We've got full reviews of both the a7 and a7R on the way very soon, but in the meantime, if you're interested in using third-party lenses on either camera, I hope you find this article useful.
The first thing you'll need to do, if you want to shoot with a third-party lens on the a7/R via an adapter is to make sure that you've set the camera up to take pictures without a lens attached. That's easy, because it's enabled by default. If you (or a friend, mischievous child or malevolent spirit) have disabled it for whatever reason, you can find the option at the end of page three in the custom setting tab of the menu setting. 'Release w/o Lens: Enable'.
Once this is done, crack out the adapters, get adapting, and you're ready to shoot.
1: Shutter priority is your friend
I can't remember the last time I used shutter priority (I'm an aperture priority kind of guy) but it's pretty much essential if you want to shoot with a third-party lens via an adapter on the a7/a7R. As we will explain fully in our forthcoming review, in aperture priority and program modes the Auto ISO function of these cameras LOVES to select a shutter speed of 1/60 sec. Just LOVES it. This is frustrating enough when using one of Sony's new FE lenses, but it's courting disaster when using a fully manual prime, especially 50mm or longer where it almost guarantees blurry images from camera shake much of the time.
Hopefully this can be fixed via a firmware update (I'd like to see at least an option to bias the recommended shutter speed on a faster - slower scale) but in the meantime, for handheld shooting I've found that shutter priority mode is the way to go. I select an appropriate shutter speed for blur-free shots, and let automatic ISO take care of exposure while I work at my desired aperture.
The adapters I'm using are a mixture of cheap and simple mass-produced units and more complex adapters that incorporate an aperture stop-down / open up control. Whatever type of adapter you use, I'd recommend working primarily at your desired shooting aperture. Contrast will be higher, and you won't need to worry about focus shift when aperture is changed between focus and exposure.
2: Magnified focus is also your friend, until it isn't.
The thing about manual focus with fast lenses especially on 24 or 36MP cameras, is that it's really pretty difficult. For static subjects, with the camera mounted on a tripod it's straightforward but shooting hand-held, especially when it comes to portraiture, accurate manual focus is challenging on any high-resolution platform, and the Sony a7 / a7R are no exception.
Focusing third-party lenses manually on these cameras demands magnified live view. Unless you're talking ultra wide-angle / fisheye work or really small apertures, there's no way you'll be able to reliably hit accurate focus without it. The most convenient way of activating the focus magnifier is to assign this function to either custom button c1 (to the right of the shutter button on the top of the camera) or c2 (to the right of the EVF on the rear). This is simple enough but the way that the focus magnifier works could definitely be improved.
For one thing, pressing the focus magnifier button doesn't magnify anything at first. It just brings up an orange box on the screen, indicating the area to be magnified. which you can move around using the 4-way controller. Pressing the button again initiates magnification. So you might have already gone through at least three actions by the point at which you're looking at a magnified view.
The next issue is that the minimum level of magnification is 7.2X, which is extreme enough that without built-in stabilization, when hand-held the resulting image is likely to be pretty shaky, due to camera-shake. Mild 'jello-effect' at this magnified setting doesn't help either. Certainly, for 50mm lenses or longer, you'll need a steady hand to really be able to get a clear view of what's sharp and what isn't. A lower magnification option would be more user-friendly (and might give focus peaking a better change of working too - see the section on the following page).
Two final frustrations - the little orange rectangle which indicates the area to be magnified gets reset when the camera is powered off. This might sound trivial, but if you're in the habit of turning your camera off between exposures to save the battery (hello, Fujifilm X100S users…) it soon becomes annoying.
Also a little tiresome is the fact that when you're reviewing images, the zoom option in review mode ignores the position of the magnification frame that you used when you took the picture. So if your point of focus was towards the top of the frame, for instance, and that's where you positioned the focus magnifier, that's the area that you really want to check when you're reviewing your shot. But when you zoom in on the image in playback mode the camera will just dumbly zoom to the very center of the image, at which point you need to shuffle around the picture using the 4-way controller to track over to the area that you want to look at.
It's a small thing, but annoying in a high-end camera body and a time-suck if you need to review multiple images for critical focus. Fortunately though, once you've tracked to the desired area, the position of the magnified frame stays the same if you scroll through more images using the rear control wheel.