HDR: Part 15 - Using Vintage Stills Lenses For Digital Cinematography

In the mid-70s, Canon released the K35 series of primes, based on its then top-of-the-line FD mount stills lenses. It wasn’t the first or last time a set of glass elements designed for stills had been repackaged for movie work, but the K35s won an Academy Award in 1977 and have since amassed a glittering resume including Barry Lyndon, Aliens and American Hustle and many others.

They are also perhaps better known for their resume than their imaging characteristics. They’re variously described as having a slightly low-contrast, retro feel as befits lenses of their vintage, but they’re certainly not as identifiable as the amber flares of Cooke.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s possible even now to buy Canon FD-mount stills lenses which are optically similar, or even identical, to the K35s, and that’s part of a tidal wave of interest in stills lenses for motion picture work during the 2010s. A decade ago, FD-mount lenses were relatively affordable. Now, the 24mm SSC f/1.4 Aspherical FD, basis for the 24mm K35, can sell for upward of $4000 apiece (and then go for a full cinema rehousing). Similar things have even begun to happen to Nikon’s AI-s stills lenses, a popular choice for the budget-conscious indie filmmaker. Even as prices rocket skywards, they’re vastly cheaper than dedicated movie lenses.

The question is why we’re doing this. For the look, or for affordability?

There’s enough interest in all this that Zero Optik felt it worth rehousing the Nikon AI/AI-s series, and the beautifully-engineered results were shown by Pixipixel at the 2020 BSC Show in London. Like any new lens, or any good rehousing, they’re expensive enough to raise questions over just how many sufficiently well-funded single-camera drama productions exist to use them. What’s more, while it’s a matter of opinion, this is probably not being done for the sake of interesting images. Nikkors and FDs, as well as other oft-rehoused things like Leica R, are not usually chosen for being boldly characterful. FDs, as we’ve seen, are mildly retro.

There are options in stills lenses if we’re looking for something a little more noticeable, but there’s a need for caution, too.

Let’s look at an example. Some of the best-known and most spectacular optical jazz comes from the Russian manufacturers of the mid-to-late twentieth century. The Helios 44 58mm f/2 lens needs almost no introduction. Best described as a series of lenses which existed through the latter half of the twentieth century, most extant examples of the Helios 44 (which number in the millions) were built as the kit lens for Zenit stills cameras. It was originally a copy of the Zeiss Biotar, a classic double-Gauss lens design, and inherits the Zeiss’s characteristically distorted soft-focus artefacts. Lenses with similar characteristics, particularly the Mir 1b 37mm f/2.8 and Helios 40 85mm f/2 lenses, have similar characteristics and are sufficient to create a set (the less expensive Jupiter 9 85mm is less well-matched).

Characterful? Certainly, although this is where discretion is key. The famously bulbous bokeh is really only visible when the Helios 44 is wide open, and 1960s lens designs shot wide open tend – to put it mildly – not to offer the absolute peak of sharpness and contrast. Similar issues actually attend a lot of the best known and most loved lens designs, including Panavision’s seminal C and E series anamorphics. Yes, they create bold, colourful horizontal flares, but wide open they are not the sharpest lenses, or even the sharpest anamorphic lenses, that exist. They’re decades-old designs. They wouldn’t be. Close the Helios 44 down two stops, and it starts to look sharper in a way that’s more likely to satisfy modern tastes, but it also starts to look a lot more conventional.

In many ways we’re spoiled. In ages past, it would have been normal to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6, even for studio interiors. Stills people might have been more willing to use strobes. So, users evaluated lenses on the basis that they were very rarely shot wide open, and even now most people are peripherally aware that lenses work a lot better stopped down. It’s also never been easier to shoot smaller apertures. Cameras are at least a stop, commonly even two or three stops faster than comparable film. LED light has four times the efficiency of tungsten halogen. Even so, modern productions are routinely shot under very low light, demanding high sensitivity and low f-stops, but it’s nothing more than a trend. It’s convenient, but it’s also not a very good way of getting the most out of classic lenses at exactly the time they’re rising in popularity.

Whatever exposure choices a production might make, there are ergonomic, operational and mechanical factors to address. Having a lens fully rehoused is often about as expensive as buying a new one, which makes rehousing a tricky proposition in exactly the sort of financial circumstances which push people towards old glass in the first place. As a result, many stills lenses aren’t rehoused, but instead used on adaptors, with accessories to unify front diameter and provide focus and iris gearing.

It’s not always an easy solution. Many stills lenses can’t easily be adapted to movie standards like PL, or at least only under certain circumstances. The M42 mount, for instance, is found on a lot of Helios and Asahi Takumar lenses. It can in some cases be adapted to PL, but doing so is reliant on size and fit considerations around the back of the lens. First-generation Takumars sometimes work, but more recent Super Takumars are too bulky at the back. Worse, M42 is a screw-in mount, so that particularly enthusiastic focus pulling risks actually unthreading the lens from the camera.

There’s no solution at all to put EF or Nikon lenses on PL cameras. Putting PL lenses on EF mounts can be done in a small minority of cases, usually only with lenses specifically designed with that in mind. Some lenses can be rebuilt with different mounts – it’s done now to things like the Fujifilm MK zooms by companies including MTF Services and Duclos – but the feasibility of doing that is dependent entirely on the original design, and sometimes on manufacturer support.

Many modern cameras can be rebuilt with stills photography mounts, so that an Alexa or Ursa Mini can accept EF or PL lenses. Unfortunately, any solution involving a stills mount, whether adapted or not, is less than ideal. Most of them are not intended to maintain the lens-to-sensor distance very repeatably, which may mean focus marks on lenses are not accurate. Stills lenses also tend to have a very short focus rotation of just a few tens of degrees. The instinctive reaction is to fix that with third-party gear accessories and radio remote focus to expand the throw. The downside with doing that is that all the torque is applied to one side of the lens, and many stills mounts can allow the lens to shift slightly when a focus pull changes direction, visibly nudging the image.

The final concern is one of coverage. Yes, classic stills lenses are invariably designed to cover full-frame 35mm stills, meaning they will often cover things like the Alexa LF. On Super-35mm-sized cameras with shallow mounts, reducing optics such as the famous Speed Booster can turn fast stills primes into lightning-speed, sub-f/1.0 monsters. The approach was made famous by Metabones and much-copied since, and is one reason that cameras with shallow mounts are so desirable.

The problem here is the fine line between an area of a sensor that a lens legitimately covers, with an image of high quality, and an area of the sensor into which the lens merely casts some vague light. Using classic stills primes on Super-35mm-sized sensors has the convenient effect of excluding the outer edges of the image where aberration and softness are usually worst, although the full-screen magnification of the centre area can then reveal other shortfalls. The best advice is that stills lenses, regardless of the sensor size in use, should be evaluated not only for vignetting, but also corner sharpness and aberration at various f-stops.

As a final caution, it’s worth mentioning breathing – the effect of zooming in and out slightly as focus changes. Movie lenses are generally designed to minimise it. Stills lenses aren’t, to the point where some stills zooms breathe enough to make a significant creative difference depending on the proximity of the subject.

Despite their popularity it’s hard to recommend stills lenses as an investment, but not because of questions over quality. With the right accessories most of them can be made to work. The concern is that the demand and spiralling prices may not last. Some of it is likely to derive from the rise of owner-operation of cameras with Super-35mm sensors, and that market may be maturing. Claims that digital cameras need characterful lenses to take the edge off their too-perfect images might, in the end, seem rather convenient. Some sellers might be indulging in a more than a little price gouging, using words like “gentle” and “characterful” as euphemisms for softness and aberration.

Still, most of the lenses that exist in the world can be calmed down to a great extent simply by closing the iris a couple of stops, at which point it would be a brave cinematographer who agreed to take part in a blind spot-the-lens challenge. So, it might be worth delving into the hinterland of your favourite internet auction site in search of an unregarded bargain. If you’re going to do that, though, do it quickly. The rush for classic glass has already sent the value of old stalwart Nikkors and Canon FDs, and even the first-generation Asahi Takumars, rocketing upwards, and there are only so many old lenses out there to buy.

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