What’s It Like Taking Bird Photos on a 60-Year-Old Lens?

I recently found all my father’s old analog lenses in the attic, including this 1960s 400mm f/6.3 telephoto. So I wanted to see how good it was for bird photography.The lens in question is the Praotor 400mm f/6.3 400mm, which was one of many fixed 400mm lenses from the 1960s. My father purchased it secondhand at the time, so it’s definitely had a lot of use and more than paid for itself over the past 60 years. Now, though, I’m going to do my best to capture some bird shots on my Nikon D750, which is some 50 years its junior. Let’s see how this thing stacks up.Prator 400mm telephoto lensThe Praotor 400mm f/6.3 telephoto lens is around 60-years-old and is seen here flanked by other M42 screw mount analogue cameras from the 60s and 70sThe First ProblemThere were a few hurdles to be overcome if I were to make use of this beautiful retro lens, and the first that popped up was mounting it to the Nikon D750. Now, as you may know, almost every Nikon lens fits on almost everybody due to the popular F mount that’s remained largely unchanged for a long time. However, the 400mm was an M42 screw mount (a universal thread mount that originated from the late 1940s), so I had to adapt it to fit on the body. M42mm-Nikon mount adapterThe Scoptic M42mm-Nikon fit adapter allows M42 mount lenses to be attached to Nikon F-mount bodies, but has no electrical communicationI used a Scoptic M42 to Nikon F mount adapter, which coupled into the body and allowed the thread on the lens to then be screwed into the body. These types of mount adapters vary in complexity, but this basic one will set you back around $5-10 from eBay. Of course, as you can see, there are no electrical connections on the adapter, so that led to my next issue.Manual OverrideThat’s right. I had to go fully manual. And no, I’m not just referring to manual mode. I mean, fully manual. There’s no autofocus, so I had to get a sharp shot by either adjusting the focus ring myself or setting a fixed focus and hoping a bird would land in the right spot. I ended up approaching it much the same as I would do my macro work.Juvenile blackbird taken with the Praotor 400mm lensThe lens is quite soft, and it’s difficult to get good focus using the manual rocking technique due to the lack of autofocus on the lensThe lens has a minimum focusing distance of around two meters, so I dialed that in and simply rocked back and forth, handheld, whenever a bird landed. The plus side of doing it this way was that it meant I could change my composition as the birds flew down and still retain sharpness.The only difficulty was that I couldn’t really tell when things were in focus because I was shooting at f/6.3, and the depth of field was just large enough to make it hard to see exactly where the focus was through the viewfinder. Still, I found this easier than using a tripod, because often, the birds would move around, which meant a fixed position (and a fixed focus point) would’ve only yielded perhaps one sharp photo if any.No StabilizationImage stabilization wasn’t introduced until 1995, 30-odd years after this lens was introduced, so I had to use fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of the birds. I was photographing House Sparrows, which are small birds native to the UK — around 14 cm (5.5 inches) in length — so, pretty small birds, and they’re incredibly quick as well, which made it even tougher. The day was overcast and quite dark for a summer’s day, so I had to bump up the ISO to 2,800 to get a shutter speed of 1/400 sec.House sparrow taken at ISO2800 on Nikon D750The image is quite noisy due to the high ISO of 2,800, which is required to keep a fast shutter speed to freeze the motionAnalyzing the ResultsSo, a few things were stacked against me for this shoot. The day was dark, so that meant my ISO was higher than I’d have liked, the shutter speed wasn’t quite fast enough, and there was no autofocus or image stabilization. But even though I had all those things against me, I still think the Praotor 400mm f/6.3 did a good job considering its age and price bracket. You can pick these lenses up for around $50 now on eBay, and there were a few different manufacturers who produced essentially the same thing, such as Astranar and Sirius.House sparrow final photo with 400mm lensThe highlights on the bird glow a little due to the softness in the lens, but it has minimal color fringingThe lens is quite soft and produces a halo-like glow around the brighter sections of the bird. Take a look at the bright white feathers in the plumage, and you’ll see what I mean here. I think some of this is due to the fact that the focus isn’t absolutely perfect. But there’s certainly still good enough definition around the eye, beak, and wings to keep things interesting for the viewer. Something that shocked me was the lack of chromatic aberration (color fringing). I can’t really spot it anywhere in the photo, despite the softness of the image. Plenty of modern lenses have issues with chromatic aberration, so to see something that’s this old and this cheap deal with a problem like that without issue was a welcome surprise.Okay, it might not be as tack-sharp as modern-day lenses, but for something that’s 60 years old and hasn’t ever been serviced, I’d say it’s absolutely brilliant. I’m sure some cleaning and polishing of the glass would produce an even better photo, too.Should You Use One?For 50 bucks, it’s a great way to try out this focal length and see if you like it or not. There aren’t many other modern 400mm lenses you can pick up for that price — certainly, none that work! Is it good enough for professional bird work? No, of course not. But for those just starting out who enjoy it as a hobby, have a limited budget, or simply want to keep a record of birds visiting the garden, it’s a brilliant choice.

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