Today’s lenses for DSLR and Cinema Cameras have come down in price, making it much easier and more convenient to assemble a uniquely customized lens kit to create a look, aesthetic and style all your own. With the wide array of rings and adapters available, today’s photographer and cinematographer can fit just a much wider variety of lenses to their camera than what may seem to be the a limited pool of options.
Each lens has its own characteristics, and each and every of those lenses has their own unique definition, contrast and parallax. As such, a healthy dedication to trial-and-error experimentation to determine each lens’ specific strengths and aesthetic is always in order. As with any lens — modern or vintage — never go into a situation not knowing the glass in your kit, and what you’re capable — or incapable — of. You’ll find that unfamiliar lenses behave very differently to what you might be used to. This is particularly true in terms of exposure, contrast and focus area, so make sure to do extensive testing before breaking the lens out for a paying gig. Once you cross the resolution threshold, it’s all about the glass… and this golden rule has been true since the advent of photography.
There are a few factors and risks involved when trying to attach older glass and lens mounts to newer camera systems, so ample research on specific lenses, models and adapters should always come first and foremost. Make sure to consult the dealer or seller before finalizing that eBay bid, and check with a professional or camera tech whenever possible before you commit to any new purchase. Likely there’s someone who’s already tried and posted their results online, saving you a bunch of time, energy and money.
Finding a vintage lens that will give you that custom look and style without breaking the bank is the goal.
Once you’ve made sure the lens, adapter and the body will all work together, picking out a lens with functionality and versatility to fit your specific look or needs comes next. Today’s production budgets are falling through the floor, while at the same time clients the world over are demanding a higher quality look and style. Finding a vintage lens that will give you that custom look and style without breaking the bank is the goal. It seems everyone has a camera these days, and the glass you use is a great way to break away from the pack.
A Change of Habits
Remember that all of the automatic features that come in today’s modern lenses — auto-focus, auto-aperture and image stabilization — will be off the table. For anyone feeling a lump in your throat right now, welcome to the world of manual control.
All focus and aperture control will be done manually on the barrel of the lens. This can make the use of a vintage lens frustrating at first if you are highly dependent on those handy auto features. Make sure to test each lens in a variety of setups and situations, and take the opportunity to master your skills with manual control. You’ll find this skillset very useful in documentary, sports and any other live event situation you might confront.
A Case Study
Since first working with the the RED camera system, I had a limited budget and wanted to shoot on something other than the standard RED 35mm F2.8 18-50 zoom. So after doing my research, finding literally hundreds of vintage lenses for sale at prices we could afford, I opted for the Angenieux Paris (16mm mount) 5.5 — 55mm zoom with a fast f1.8 all the way through. The 4K-sensor lenses for the Red One were priced at thousands of dollars, but a vintage Angenieux Paris only set me back $500, offering me an affordable way to shoot at varying focal lengths, while the f1.8 meant I could squeeze through the tight budget with a basic lighting kit.
The Red One sensor is designed for 35mm lenses, so when using 16mm lenses results in major vignette around the entire frame. That meant the camera would be limited to 2K — doubling in on the sensor to push past the crop factor and heavy vignetting — but if Steven Soderbergh could do it with CHE, I figured it could work for me.
The Angenieux Paris 5.5-55mm f1.8 zoom lens at both 4K and 2K with the Red Epic system is perfect for achieving unique, dream-like sequences. The lens created the soft effect I was looking for, while allowing the center focus and distortion to work in my favor, really pulling the viewer’s focus to the center of the screen. Ultra fisheyes, Vignetted corners, light leaks and blemishes can easily be turned into cinematic works of art.
While working in fashion and glamour, I enjoy the vintage glass to soften the models features. Using the excessive crop factor to your advantage can create interesting frames and effects that traditional post-production just can not achieve. Working hard on your craft and really looking at the different effects these lenses have will require lots of bold and brave choices as a Photographer/Videographer. Here are some example test shots showing practical effects and the amount of vignetting that would be caused by the lens.
Remember to always put the client first above your creative choices. Using vintage glass has one major drawback and limitation: What you see is what you get. Always make sure your client realizes that the use of vintage lenses is for a stylized choice and can’t be easily tweaked in post to reflect that standard look they saw on that TV show.
Like rock and roll photographers and videographers of the 60s and 70s, the images you create with vintage glass will have a look and style all their own. So go out there and start testing vintage glass that works for you. Super fisheyes, extra telephotos and snap-zoom effects are easy and economical ways to start customizing your style and there’s likely a vintage lens or two you can afford that will really give you the edge. Most vintage lenses out there range from less than $100, on up to $1200 depending on the quality of the glass, and with so many hovering in the $200-$500 range it’s impossible to list them all here. So what are you waiting for? Add some new lenses to your arsenal and find a new perspective in your photography and videography.
John LaTier has established himself as a well-respected, cutting-edge video artist and photographer. When not filming or creating motion pictures, John focuses on his other passions: painting, drawing and robot building.