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New Lenses for Old Rope

You want some fancy new lenses for your SLR. Want! WAAAANNNTT!!

But new lenses cost lots of money. Spondoolicks! MOOLAAAAHHH!!

And you don’t have much of that, because of what the SLR cost you in the first place. Boo! Waaahh! SUUUCKS!!

Fortunately, there are lots of other low cost options if you want something fun ‘n’ groovy to stick on your F-mount. They tend to be made of plastic, sometimes in Hong Kong, and they usually look really cheap too. But they are guaranteed to have er…unique and special characteristics.

Warning: If you care about maximum optical quality and tack-sharpness, go back to your usual boring landscape photography website now. Or get over it and enjoy your photography instead.

Most of the suggestions below are based around a modified SLR body cap with some other optical element inserted - hence the low price. Given the advanced level of modern photographic technology required, DIY is always an option and there are plenty of relevant links elsewhere. However, I’ve assumed that, initially at least, you’d rather buy off-the-shelf for instant gratification.

Note that using one of these type of lenses with most recent low-end Nikon SLRs will require manual exposure setting without metering (the camera usually relies on an electrical linkage with the lens to know the aperture setting). On a DSLR, you can use the histogram to review and iteratively refine your exposures; otherwise guess, find a simple chart (such as the one in many film boxes) or buy a cheap lightmeter on eBay.

Pinhole body cap

Simply a pinhole in a thin metal sheet or shim, mounted in a body cap. Pinhole photographs have an effectively infinite depth of field and can, in optimal circumstances, be reasonably sharp. This is somewhat less likely with the SLR body cap version due to the various optical compromises involved; it’s even worse on DSLRs with APS-type sensors. Nevertheless, the “dreamy” effect produced can be quite effective with the right type of image.

Making your own pinhole is easy, but making it accurately is more difficult; suboptimal pinholes usually result in images that merely look blurred all over. In the UK, P&L Solutions will either fit a precise laser-cut pinhole to a body cap supplied by you, or send you the pinhole “lens” to fit yourself; try a 0.3mm hole. Cost: £10-25.

Holga lens

Digital Holga plant There’s something deliciously perverse about using a cheap, plastic, distorted lens on a 21st Century DSLR. Advantages: “digital” Holga effects made easy; more exposure control; some degree of focusing control. Disadvantages: the digital “crop factor” means that the effective focal length won’t be anywhere near as wide as on the Holga (which is a medium format camera, remember), and you will lose most of the appealing vignetting and blurring that occurs at the corners of the image.

Holgamods can supply a Holga lens attached to an appropriate body cap and corrected appropriately for focal plane distance. Cost: approx. £30.


Woo, we’re getting into serious money now. BB actually thinks the Lensbaby is rather a lot of money for what it is, which is basically a piece of plastic tubing with some discs and a simple lens. Still, relative to even a third party SLR lens, or better yet the tilt-and-shift lens it pretends to resemble, it’s dirt cheap. And even more blurred than a Holga.

Several UK retailers are now importing the Lensbaby, which usually costs around £70 for the basic version and £110 for the later, “enhanced” Lensbaby 2.0 (is it really worth the difference?).

Zone plate body cap

Zone plates produce an odd, distinctly soft focus effect with “sharper definition in areas of high contrast”. This earns you more kudos than a pinhole because frankly, everyone’s doing that these days.

Pinhole Resource sell zone plate body caps for most popular digital mounts. Cost: approx. £40 plus shipping. If you want something really fancy, have a look at the Finney combined pinhole/zone plate “Advanced Optical System” body cap (£100!).

Loreo Lens in a Cap

Loreo take the pinhole body cap to its ultimate conclusion by fitting a basic lens and a diaphragm so you can adjust the aperture (at f/64, it becomes a pinhole). This, they claim, turns your SLR into a point-and-shoot (well, apart from the manual exposure setting), which is beyond perversity and into deviance - it’s just so Wrong. A bit more flexible than a plain pinhole then, but perhaps not much higher quality.

Loreo ship the Lens in a Cap from Hong Kong, as well as 3D versions of the same (requires a special viewer). Cost: approx. £15 inc. shipping to most major destinations.

Lens mount adaptor

OK, brand new manufacturers’ autofocus lenses cost a lot of money, but thirty year old manual focus lenses can be snapped up for bargain prices on the secondhand market, and many of them will be in excellent, or at least very usable condition. All you need is an appropriate adaptor, assuming one exists (some brands cannot be adapted due to markedly differing mount dimensions). For example, if you buy an M42 lens adaptor for your Nikon F-mount camera on eBay, you’ll have access to a vast array of entirely competent Pentax M42 screw-mount lenses. There may be limitations, typically a lack of infinity focus, manual exposure or stop-down metering, and some of the older lenses may be single-coated (although a few purists prefer this look for B&W work), but it’s an easy way to try out other prime focal lengths or something more exotic that you couldn’t possibly afford in a native mount.

Cost: £20 for that M42-Nikon adaptor from enjoyyourcamera on eBay, or try SRB for a range of adaptors.