Can You Use Old Lenses on Digital Cameras

Rajib Mukherjee Avatar
Rajib Mukherjee
18 January, 2023 • Updated 1 year ago
old lenses

Many of us who started photography before digital cameras came about have a few old lenses lying around at home. These legacy lenses were designed to work with older film cameras. They’re no longer usable with the current crop of modern DSLR and mirrorless camera systems – or so many of us tend to believe. 

This is a common question. Can you use old lenses on digital cameras? In other words, do the old legacy lenses still have some life left in them? Can they work with modern DSLR or mirrorless camera systems? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

In this discussion, we break a few myths and figure out ways to make these legacy lenses work with modern cameras, albeit with some limitations.

In this discussion, the examples and anecdotes I will use all refer to Nikon lenses and bodies. Nevertheless, many of the steps and techniques I will discuss are equally applicable to other camera makes and models. All you have to do is figure out the comparable steps.

Let’s dive right in and elaborate on the topic.

How to use old legacy lenses on new digital camera systems

Thankfully there is a way to make those old lens lenses work with modern-day digital cameras. There is a caveat, however – the older lenses will not be able to ‘transmit’ aperture data to the camera. 

So, although we’re about to discuss a way to use older lenses, which I think is significant progress from manual operation, there are still some handicaps to work around.

The steps we’re about to replicate here will tell the camera what focal length the legacy lens has and the maximum aperture possible on the lens. These are essential data for metering.

Related Read: Do All Canon Lenses Fit All Canon Cameras

Use the Non-CPU lens data option

Go to “Set-up Menu” on your Nikon camera and select “Non-CPU lens data” underneath that. This is where the magic will happen. Under “Non-CPU lens data”, you should have three options – “Lens number”, “Focal length (mm)”, and “Maximum aperture”.

“Lens number” allows you to select a lens number you want to assign to a particular legacy lens. This is a simple identifier. There are up to nine lenses that you can set up using the “Non-CPU lens data” option.

Once you have the lens data saved on your camera, you can select the appropriate lens when you mount it to your camera.

The next step is to enter the maximum focal length. Now, the maximum focal length may not always match your camera options. For example, the IX-Nikkor 30-60mm f/4-5.6 has a maximum focal length of 60mm. However, under “Non-CPU lens data”, you won’t find the option to select 60mm. In this situation, you can select the closest focal length greater than the lens’s maximum focal length. So, in the case of our example, you would select 70mm because that’s the closest larger number.

Next, select the maximum aperture information. Please note that non-AI (aperture index) lenses don’t have the chip or couplings to transfer aperture information to the camera. So, even after all these steps, you still have to manually operate the aperture ring to select the correct aperture and the focus ring to adjust the focus.

These steps set the fundamental values for the camera and let the camera meter on its own, which is very important considering that these legacy lenses would normally only work manually.

I did this on my Nikon D850 and have seen my friend use this option with his D610. I am confident this works with most other modern Nikon mid-range and professional camera systems.

Also Read: What Does F 2.8 Mean in Photography

The Nikon DF camera

Though the “Non-CPU lens data” solution is a necessary route for most Nikon cameras, there is one camera that can work with both AI and non-AI lenses with a bit more flexibility. This is the Nikon DF.

You will notice a coupling lever if you look at the front lens mount area of the Nikon DF. This coupling lever can be raised or pushed down. The lever should stay down when attempting to use a non-AI lens. This is because non-AI lenses have a coupling shoe (without holes), but they don’t come with a meter coupling ridge on them. Therefore the coupling lever has nothing to engage with.

On the other hand, there is a meter coupling ridge on AI lenses, as well as AF and AF-D lenses. When you mount these lenses or an AF-S lens on the Nikon DF camera, the coupling lever must be set to its down position. Please note that AF-S lenses, like non-AI lenses, don’t have a meter coupling ridge either.

There is one more thing that you need to do.

Open “Menu”, go to “Set-up menu” and select “Non-CPU lens data” under that.

Having entered the other details mentioned above, there will be a fourth option – “Exposure meter coupling”. Now select the appropriate lens type.

Use an adapter

lens and adapter

Third-party-made adapters are available for every legacy lens and camera body combination. Third-party manufacturers make a living out of these adapter rings, making as many combinations as possible.

If you take a typical lens adapter ring, one side of the adapter will match the camera lens mount, and the other fits the lens.

Using these adapters, you can not only use a legacy lens and a camera body from the same manufacturer, but you can also cross-mount lenses from one brand and design and mount them to a different brand camera. For instance, you can use legacy Nikon lenses on modern Canon camera systems.

Rajib Mukherjee Avatar
Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV!
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