My DSLR to Mirrorless Switch: Affording More Glass with Sony’s Shapeshifting Cameras

Posted By on Feb 10, 2015 | 25 comments

“I’ve jumped ship from Canon to a manufacturer known best for their televisions and game systems, and I haven’t looked back.” In this article, photographer Cody Smith discusses his decision to trade in his Canon DSLR body and lenses for a Sony mirrorless “shapeshifter.” 

At this point in my life, I have owned several DSLRs of an arguably ever-increasing quality and functionality. From the classroom, to the coast, to the middle of the desert and the top of mountains, I have taken them everywhere with blatant disregard for their safety. (They are tools, after all.) For years, one aspect of my photography has remained almost completely unchanged, until now.



Almost without exception the lens you would find attached to my camera was a 50mm prime. No kit zoom, no 35mm — nothing but a 50mm. Admittedly, this is a focal length I love. A capable, fast, and sharp all-around lens suitable in many, if not most, shooting situations. They’re lightweight, on the smaller side, and they provide a blend of DoF and FoV I find very versatile. They’re cheap, too.

After awhile, though, the idea began to dawn on me that my fondness for the 50mm focal length may only be due to some optics-centric version of Stockholm Syndrome. It’s not that I was a stern advocate of only shooting a 50mm like the venerable Henri-Cartier Bresson; it was simply the only decent lens I could afford. And, I felt stuck.

I have been long resigned to the fact that if I want quality glass for my camera then I am going to have to pay for it, and pay heavily. A Canon 24-70 f/2.8? Forget it. This lens costs nearly as much as my camera body. Same with the 85mm f/1.2, the 35mm f/1.4… and don’t even get me started on the Canon 24mm f/3.5 TS-E, my long-time dream lens. These are the lenses Canon shooters lust over; they’re sharp, fast, expensive. L-Series, right? But so few of us can really justify the cost.

So I, along with many others, I’m sure, gave up on the idea of owning more lenses. As a struggling student and even now as a burgeoning professional, these things just cost too damn much for the benefits you are supposedly receiving. I’ve borrowed and rented lenses before, but it has hardly been convenient. I even tried adapting my old, inherited Nikon manual lenses to my Canon, but the results were lackluster. The lack of autofocus is really a killer on the modern DSLR. I was out of practice with my manual focusing and everything was perpetually soft as a result of the lack of electronic focusing aids (like focus peaking) on a DLSR. It seemed my only options were to save up for months on end to buy one overpriced Canon lens at a time or to make a change in my approach to buying photography gear. I obviously chose the latter.


Custom re-housed for cinema, this Zeiss-Contax 135mm f/2.8 looks great on the a7s and its Metabones PL to E-mount adapter.


Moving to Mirrorless

Late last year, everything changed. Enter Sony mirrorless: the a7 series. I won’t waste my time exhaustively extolling the virtues of these cameras, but I will say that there are many and I cannot remember the last time I was so absolutely comfortable with a $2,500+ camera purchase. I’ve jumped ship from Canon to a manufacturer known best for their televisions and game systems, and I haven’t looked back.

I’ve jumped ship from Canon to a manufacturer known best for their televisions and game systems, and I haven’t looked back.

There is one killer feature of the a7 series that I don’t think most people are aware of, which I speculate Canon and Nikon would prefer you know not. These full-frame E-mount cameras are capable of supporting ANY lens I could even dream of using on a digital camera.

The Full Frame Sensor of the Sony a7S

The Full Frame Sensor of the Sony a7S

The day I picked up my a7s, I went from owning one mediocre Canon 50mm to owning six unique lenses, all without spending an extra dime on the new glass. The a7’s short flange focal distance mirrorless design allows for the adaptation of dozens of competing lens designs, effectively eliminating the feeling of being “locked-in” to one camera manufacturer and the lenses they produce. Without a mirror assembly increasing separation between the sensor and the lens mount, companies like Metabones and Fotodiox (among others) found themselves free to design various adapters for the Sony E mount that are essentially surrogates for the mount – mirror – film plane distances that are proprietary between all SLR manufacturers. In this way, Sony’s a7 series is truly a shape-shifter. The old standard was that Canon cameras used Canon glass, Nikons: Nikkor, and Leica… well, you get my point. This is no longer the case. My Sony a7s is no more a Sony “camera” than it is a Canon, Nikon, or Leica. With the right adapter in my kit, I can literally shoot whatever lens I please. This is a truly exciting development for several reasons.

Sony’s a7 series is truly a shape-shifter.


Sony a7s with Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4


Benefits and Quirks of Adapting Lenses


The Benefits

First, let’s talk about cost. As I mentioned before, you’d be hard-pressed to find me buying a $2000 lens (barring some extraordinary good fortune, like a well-timed lottery win). Today, this is doubly true. I bought a Metabones Nikon F to Sony E-mount adapter, which supports all Nikon lenses made since 1959. In the weeks following my a7s purchase, I picked up two new (to me) Nikkor AI lenses for less than $100 each: the Nikkor-S AI 50mm f/1.4 and the Nikkor AI 35mm f/2.8. Less than $100, each. Let that sink in for a moment. I would posit that these old Nikon manual lenses are every bit as sharp as their $1000+ counterparts, albeit without the added benefit of image-stabilization and modern lens coatings. — I, myself, don’t mind the feeling a spontaneous lens-flare can add to an image. But I digress.

I can build an entire kit of lenses for drastically less than the nearly $10,000 it would cost me in L-Series glass.

Adapting lenses, for me, is a game changer. I can build an entire kit of lenses for drastically less than the nearly $10,000 it would cost me in L-Series glass. In fact, I nearly have a full set already.

Cosina Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton on the Sony a7S

Cosina Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton on the Sony a7S

Second, over the last few years, instead of investing slowly and painfully in one expensive and overhyped Canon lens at a time, I have been pouring my excess cash into my Hasselblad kit. As a result, I am the very proud owner of two V-mount lenses, the Hasselblad 80mm T* f/2.8 and 50mm T* f/4. These are beautiful Zeiss lenses designed for professional photographers shooting medium format portraiture, and now I can use them on my a7s as well. By spending $80 on a Fotodiox Hasselblad V-mount to E-mount adapter, I now am able to employ these lenses in my digital photography.

What if, for the price of an adapter, you could get twice the mileage out of the film lenses you already own?

Some of you may be privileged enough to own multiple camera systems and lens sets. What if, for the price of an adapter, you could get twice the mileage out of the film lenses you already own?

There are currently E-mount adapters available for:

Additionally, as an extra benefit for those of us interested in cinematography and the lenses associated more closely with that field, there are also PL-mount adapters available from several manufacturers. The Arri PL mount is a lens mount designed for 16mm and 35mm motion picture cameras. PL (positive-lock) is the standard lens mount found on cinema glass. The reason why this is important to those of us in the business of shooting motion comes down to a few things. First: lens design. Cinema lenses are designed with geared focus, aperture and even zoom rings, which allow for the “native” use of both on-camera follow focuses and wireless FIZ (Focus-Iris-Zoom) controllers. Additionally, when using the a7s as a 4K b-cam or c-cam, it is very convenient to be able to employ the same lenses you are renting for $800/day to use with your Red or Alexa. Lastly, cinema lenses are absolutely the highest quality glass you can or ever will put on a camera. They are built to very high standards, and are priced to match.


Custom re-housed Zeiss-Contax 50mm f/1.4 (PL Mount)


The Quirks

While almost all manual-focus vintage lenses are adaptable to Sony’s E-mount, not all lenses are 100% compatible with a simple adapter. Modern lenses with electronically-controlled aperture will be forced to shoot wide open without an adapter that supports electronic control, and a compatible adapter may not yet exist for some lenses (e.g. Nikon AF-S).

Autofocus is a feature only supported by the more expensive adapters, with the Sony A-mount to E-mount adapter actually adding extra phase-detect autofocus to the a7 series cameras. Metabones also offers their Smart Adapter for Canon EF lenses that fully supports electronic communication between the lens and the camera, allowing automatic aperture control, autofocus and image stabilization.

Metabones Canon EF Lens to Sony NEX Camera Lens Mount Adapter Mark IV

Metabones Canon EF Lens to Sony NEX Camera Lens Mount Adapter Mark IV

This leads me to the drawbacks of adapting older lenses, if you could even call them drawbacks, considering how well the a7 series deals with them.

Manual focus – some love it, some hate it. Most modern still lenses are simply not designed to do it effectively. If you adapt old Nikon glass as I am, you will be manual focusing. Always. But with features like focus peaking and digital zoom, you’ll find that this is actually less of an issue than you might imagine.

Focus peaking is a feature that highlights the “in-focus” pixels of your image with a color of your choosing. Its intensity can be dialed to three different intensities, or simply turned off. It isn’t the most precise option for checking focus, but it is effective, especially in a high contrast scene.

The other, even better feature to aid you in manual focusing is the digital zoom. DSLR video shooters and photographers familiar with live view shooting are used to “punching-in” in order to obtain critical focus. The concept is the same, except now you can do this with your eye to the camera, thanks to the absence of a mirror and  the a7’s excellent digital viewfinder. With a few taps of the C1 button (custom function 1, where I have mine mapped) I am zoomed in 10x on my subject, and I can achieve tack-sharp focus before shooting.

Canon Mount Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 Lens on the Sony a7S

Canon Mount Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 Lens on the Sony a7S

If you are on the fence about ‘jumping ship’ from Canon or Nikon to Sony mirrorless and the (admittedly) sparse E-mount lens selection, you shouldn’t be. With minor investment, your current lens system will adapt. Additionally, if you’re like me and unwilling or unable to spends thousands on a single lens at a time, there is a real opportunity here to finally obtain all of the focal lengths you desire, and to have them for a fraction of the cost. I must say, reviving these classic lenses has breathed immediate, and much-needed life into my digital photography.

Cody William Smith is a self-described adventurer, lover of nature, mountains, sunlight and putting himself into precarious situations. He currently resides in Los Angeles where he works professionally as a freelance photographer and cinematographer. His landscape-centric fine art series A Moment’s Reflection has been featured all across the web and in publications around the world. He received his BFA in Cinema from Columbia College in 2012 and has been working in the film industry ever since. You can follow Cody on his website, tumblr, and instagram.


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