The Vintage Lens Craze, Explained
It’s no secret that vintage lenses are in. At the Academy level, five of the ten Best Picture nominees were shot on vintage lenses in some capacity. The festival circuit is no different as it seems like every other DP at Sundance this year shot on vintage glass as well. There are markets for used old glass, markets for new glass that looks like old glass and, if that wasn’t enough, some crazy companies spend exhaustive hours of their precious time comparing vintage glass. So what is this trend about, really?
“Vintage Lens” can Mean a Lot of Things.
“Vintage lens” is vague the way “old car” is vague. How old are we talking? What’s the make and model? How much did it cost? To try and lump vintage lens shooters into one category is as much of a folly as finding one commonality among people with old cars. We have to break it down.
Vintage Still Lenses
Thanks to the DSLR (and now mirrorless) revolution, vintage still lenses are more enticing than ever for video. They’re generally cheaper, sometimes come with interesting “flaws” or quirks, and can be pretty easily adapted to new cameras. Nikon, for instance, hasn’t changed its mount in over forty years and made some pretty kickass lenses back in the day, no adapter required. The Nikon AI-s (as opposed to the newer AF and AF-s) lenses are known for their quality even today. These include everything from the legendary rare and expensive “Holy Grail” 13mm f/5.6 to the sneaky-great, real cheap, 55mm f/2.8 that is a great macro lens, but works beautifully at all distances.
Affordability and availability aren’t the only reasons people go for these lenses. Modern post production flexibility puts dynamic range at a premium. For a sharper appearance, modern lenses will oftentimes have more contrast and punchier colors. Image purists, I interviewed one of them recently, might choose vintage glass simply for more image latitude. Vintage lenses will often times “flatten” the image, theoretically allowing more information in the highlights and shadows for post production.
Finally, there’s an argument to be made that, as sensor technology increases seemingly by the month, paying a premium for the latest sharpness and light performance is simply excessive. Old glass still looks great and, if your camera and editing suite are capable of so much, what benefits are you really getting? As filmmaker Mark LaFleur succinctly sums up in the No Film School interview on our vintage lens test:
“Now, digital makes things so clean that I love that we have this urge to dirty up the frame and to make things look more interesting.”
Weird Vintage Lenses
Some lenses are chosen specifically because they are weird, and oftentimes it has to do with the bokeh. They have swirly bokeh like the Kinoptik 32mm f/1.9 or Petzval lenses, bubbly bokeh like the Helios 44-4m 58mm f/2, or dreamy, flare-y bokeh like the Olympus OM Zuiko 55mm f/1.2. Most of these lenses are better for still photography, as weird bokehs are hard to choreograph movement around. However, filmmakers looking for a soft, dreamy image akin to Roger Deakins’ work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, gives these lenses a shot.
If you’re interested in what weird lenses can do for you, Matthiew Stern’s Weird Lans Challenge blog is the place to be.
Vintage Cinema Lenses
There are two easy and lazy answers for why cinematographers still turn to expensive vintage cinema lenses when they could use expensive modern glass from the same company. The first, we’ll call this the La La Land reason, is that some people still shoot on film, value older looks, and want to recreate them. The other, similar reason, we’ll call this the Hidden Figures reason, is that some films are period pieces meant to evoke the look of a different era. Both of these reasons are real and legitimate as warmth, desaturation, softness, the bokeh, distortion, vignetting, and flares are all elements of imperfection associated with vintage lenses that can help transport an audience to a different era or throwback genre. These reasons alone, though, don’t address the prevalence of vintage cinema lenses today. For that, we have to get more technical.
Some lenses, like any feat of engineering, gain a sort of design reverence that defies age. It’s why filmmakers still obsess over the Cooke look, why we still talk about the NASA-assisted Zeiss glass made famous by Stanley Kubrick, and why we seek out radioactive lenses from the 1900’s through the 1970’s for their image quality. Some things just stay great, and these lenses are no exception, especially for filmmakers in search of a specific look.
Because vintage cinema glass can be chosen for many reasons, let’s hear what filmmakers and DP’s have to say about their decisions to use it.
What the Pros Have to Say
Dana Gonzoles, working to achieve a specifically retro look on “Fargo” Season 2, has this to say about shooting with vintage Cooke lenses:
"'Fargo' being a period piece, I felt I should shoot on period lenses because vintage lenses have different coatings, different glass," Gonzales said. "If you go back to a movie like 'The French Connection,' it looks a certain way partly because of the film stock and also because of the glass in the lenses. That was the next level for me: to shoot 'Fargo' with the same kind of lenses used for films of the ‘60s and ‘70s."
In a fascinating interview, VP of Optical Engineering at Panavision Dan Sasaki discusses how Quentin Tarantino and DP Robert Richardson and chose the right vintage lenses for The Hateful Eight.
“Bob and Quentin wanted to shoot 5-perf 70mm film but the only choices were old System 65s used on Far And Away(1992, DP Mikael Salomon). We tested these for them but they suggested that the image looked round and predictable. Bob challenged me to find a look that hadn't been seen before. Bob always knows what he wants and he knew that if he kept talking my ego would get the better of me. So we looked in the archive for Ultra Panavision lenses which hadn't had light through them since Khartoum (1966, DP Edward Scaife BSC). On most the grease had atrophied so the lens couldn't move or the glass was fogged up, but one lens was in working order. We threw that onto the test projector and before I knew it Bob declared that they will shoot the picture with that style of lens.”
Linus Sandgren, DP on La La Land and Joy, talks the pros and cons of using vintage lenses on American Hustle.
“I consider the lens to be like an artistic helper. Sure, it is easier to work with vintage lenses in the digital arena because you see exactly what happens on the monitor. But if you test them in advance and learn their characteristics, you can use them very effectively with either film or digital. For example, we used the K35s on “American Hustle.” The look is beautiful. They are sharp in the center, and focus falls off toward the edges. But they have a very short focus scale—about ¼ of a turn—so the focus pullers don’t like them so much.”
Finally Nigel Bluck, DP on the second season of “True Detective,” sums up the allure of vintage glass in a predominantly-digital environment.
“The thing I love about the digital medium is it's giving these anamorphic lenses, and older lenses and trickier pieces of glass, another life because of the purity of the image that is generated and what you can extract from it.”
So… Why Vintage Lenses Then?
Exploration. The combination of uniqueness, history, and opportunity offered by experimenting with vintage glass isn’t hard to appreciate. Vintage lenses are an option to filmmakers at every level and, for those they inspire, they’re indispensable to the filmmaking process. That doesn’t make them necessary or mandatory, and using them doesn’t magically guarantee that you’ll make something good. They are tools, after all, and in the immortal words of DP Caleb Deschanel:
“… That's what artists do, they take a technology that somebody brings to them and they explore it and see what they can do with it. And sometimes you succeed remarkably. And sometimes you fail. But that's the process.”
Will vintage lenses enrich your process? There’s only one way to find out. Happy exploring!