HDR: Part 31 - Creative Technology - Stills Lens

Still photo lenses find their way into film and TV work via many different routes and for many different reasons. It’s happened so much that the prices on some popular options have risen precipitously in recent years. Are there still good deals to be had?

It’s not a new idea. The VistaVision cameras used for visual effects work on Star Wars had Nikon mounts, although they were used almost exclusively for model work, without the demands of usability required of a main-unit lens. Stills lenses are never ideal from that point of view, but they are affordable and can produce beautiful images. To make that work, we need fully-mechanical prime lenses in appropriate focal lengths with lens mounts that can be adapted to common cameras.

Nikon’s AI-s series is almost ubiquitous. Made from 1977 until the 2000s, AI stands for “aperture indexing”, the forked metal component which interfaced with the metering in compatible cameras. Popularity has pushed up prices, but they are available in a wide variety of focal lengths and the Nikon F mount adapts easily to fit common EF-mount cameras. There’s a spectacular 85mm f/1.4 that fills the gap between 50 and 100mm, something missing in many ranges.

A full set of Nikon Series E stills lenses with simple modifications for motion picture work - 3D printed gears, step rings for consistent front diameters, and mount adaptors.

A full set of Nikon Series E stills lenses with simple modifications for motion picture work - 3D printed gears, step rings for consistent front diameters, and mount adaptors.

Nikon’s economy-oriented Series E lenses are a budget-friendly alternative, though they lack anything between 50 and 100mm. AI-s and Series E lenses are modern enough to be fairly clean and can produce sharp, conventional images. For more distortion and aberration, consider Nikon’s older, pre-AI lenses. Using the same 1959-vintage F mount, they’re identifiable mainly by the black scalloped grips and absent AI fork, producing more flare, glow and veiling.

Carl Zeiss
In a similar vein, we find Carl Zeiss lenses from the Contax era, the 1970s onward. The name descends from the Zeiss Ikon line of the 1930s, though the last Contax cameras were manufactured by Yashica, part of Kyocera, in the mid-2000s. The Contax/Yashica mount, also called C/Y, is adaptable to EF and a wide range of lenses are available. Many are marked with the red T* insignia, referring to a proprietary coating technology.

Some, inevitably, are becoming expensive. The 35mm f/1.4 and 24mm f/2, fast for such wide lenses, regularly exceed £1000. On the upside, the 50mm f/1.7 is common and inexpensive, and the range stays reasonably fast through the 135mm f/2.8. Most of these may have been made in Japan but all are designs from the Oberkochen works and enjoy a solid Zeiss provenance.

Asahi Takumars offer more character. Produced mid-century by the company which would later become Pentax, they exist in three major variants, often in M42 mount, which adapts to EF. Early examples – Original Takumars – are pre-set designs, where aperture is set on one ring and then opened up with another ring for a brighter viewfinder image. That’s convenient for filmmaking because it implies click-free control, but crucially, that layout puts the iris at the front, often leaving the rear end slim enough to fit some PL mount adaptors.

Original Takumars are designs of the 1950s and may have quite pronounced softness and glow. Their vintage makes them rare and expensive, especially the 83mm f/1.9. Other concerns include a lack of fast, wide lenses; the pre-set range has nothing wider than 35mm and the Super-Takumar 28mm achieves f/3.5 at best. Later designs, lacking the pre-set iris, include the Super-Takumar, Super-Multi-Coated Takumar and SMC Takumar ranges, which progressively improve performance.

If improved performance isn’t the goal, look to Russia and the famous Helios 44. A 58mm, f/2 lens in M42 mount, it was reputedly based on the Zeiss Biotar design and was a kit lens for many Eastern European photographers during the latter half of the twentieth century. It is perhaps most famous for what’s often called “swirly bokeh,” which might be better described as a progressive failure of spherical aberration correction in regions of soft focus.

The Helios 44 was made in variants with different close focus limits, iris blade counts, mounts and performance, with the 44M-7 likely sharpest. A set might be limited to three lenses. The MIR 1B 37mm f/2.8 has similar distortion and the Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 is so in demand that it has been returned to production, though the comparable Jupiter 9 85mm f/2 is more affordable. The trademark distortion is most visible at minimum aperture, at which point sharpness and contrast may also be low; compromises are involved.

Let’s round out our list of common stills lens options with Canon’s FD range of the late 70s. The adored K35 cinema primes were built in part around elements from certain specific FDs, offering reduced contrast and sharpness that’s often considered complementary to the precision of digital cameras. Focal length options exist between 14 and 135mm but the K35 connection has made them expensive to an extent that may be hard to justify. The 55mm f/1.2 SSC Aspherical descends from the 55mm f/1.2 AL, the first 35mm SLR lens to incorporate an aspherical element, and sells for £4000 apiece.

The micro four-thirds mount on this JVC GY-LS300 camera allows more or less any lens to be used with a simple tubular adaptor (at right).

The micro four-thirds mount on this JVC GY-LS300 camera allows more or less any lens to be used with a simple tubular adaptor (at right).

Perhaps the biggest issue is the FD lens mount itself, adaptable only to short mounts such as Sony E or Micro Four-Thirds. The “new FD” or “nFD” range may not flare as nicely, but a set including the 24mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 100mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/3.5 can be assembled for under £1000.

Those, then, are the common options, often found crash cams and student shorts, but also now creeping toward higher end shows. For something genuinely different, we need to broaden our search a little.

Konica enjoys a reputation almost rivalling that of Contax. The Hexanon range dates from the 80s and is available in AR mount, with a sluggish 28mm f/3.5, a 35mm f/2, an unusual 40mm f/1.8 and lightning-fast 50mm f/1.4 selling under £100. There’s even an 85mm f/1.8 at under £200 in mint condition, then a 100mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/2.5. Quality, speed and economy – what’s the catch? Well, the Konica AR mount can’t be adapted to EF without quality-sapping optical components, meaning this treasure trove is relevant mainly to owners of shallow-mounted cameras.

For an alternative, Olympus’ OM Zuiko lenses enjoy a comparable reputation and are adaptable to EF. They’re not outrageously more expensive than the Konicas and from 28mm to 100mm they are no slower than f/2.8; even the 85mm is an f/2. The improved Zuiko MC series fetches higher prices in return for greater sharpness.

For another alternative, consider Vivitar, which famously produced possibly the fastest ever 28mm prime, at f/1.9, in the 70s. A bewildering variety of things bear the company insignia, but is perhaps best known for its celebrated Series One lenses. Many are zooms, but there are primes in Olympus OM mount between 28 and 200mm. Even the 135mm is a speedy f/2.8 and there are interesting special options including a 90mm f/2.8 macro and 28mm f/2.8 close-focus.

Everyone’s heard of Fujifilm, but the EBC Fujinons (for “electron beam coating”) are perhaps not its most famous product. Available from 28 to 200mm and often M42 mount, the range misses out on an option between 50 and 100mm (the 85mm is a special-purpose design with a perforated aperture for halo effects). They are perhaps a little slow – the 28 and 135 are both f/3.5. Improved Super EBC lenses also exist, though they’re much more modern and expensive.

Some lens ranges are less useful. This Tokina 17mm lens is a useful wide-angle option, but one of only a few primes in the RMC range.

Some lens ranges are less useful. This Tokina 17mm lens is a useful wide-angle option, but one of only a few primes in the RMC range.

Finally, there’s the SMC Pentax range, suffixed both A and M; the differences concern aperture automation on stills cameras rather than the optics which are similar. As a successor to Takumars, some early Pentax lenses may be similar optical designs. Unusually, there’s a fast wide, the 28mm f/2, though the 28mm f/2.8 is a quarter the price. There’s a 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 105mm f/2.8 and the 100mm f/4 macro option. The Pentax K mount will adapt to EF.

The Vivitar, Konica, Olympus, Fujifilm and Pentax lenses we’ve considered as part of our less-common selection are all reasonably recent designs with multiple coatings which are likely to look fairly middle-of-the-road. If we don’t want that, we may need to reach for a vintage glass. It may be priced for the collector, although there are still affordable options out there.

Probably the most prolific and confusing option is Pentacon, a collective of optical manufacturers which were amalgamated under the East German regime of the 1950s and 1960s; the full history could fill a book. Some Pentacons are clean and free of distortion. Some are considerably more characterful, and identifying them is tricky.

Early examples may be essentially Meyer-Optik designs, and may also be found under that name, particularly with alternating black and silver zebra-striped control rings. Meyer-Optik named its lenses confusingly, with the Orestegon 29mm f/2.8, Oreston 50mm f/1.8, Orestor 100mm f/2.8 and Orestor (again) 135mm f/2.8 forming a usable set. Earlier designs – look for narrower zebra stripes – may look very different. Huge batches were made, though design changes are hard to track and may make matching a chore.

Early Zeiss
Here we return to Zeiss. The company’s pre-war products were often branded “Carl Zeiss Jena,” after the town in which the titular optical engineer founded his company in the 1840s. Pre-war lenses are often identifiable as being marked in centimetres rather than millimetres and may be uncoated, although Zeiss was a pioneer of the technology and even its 1930s efforts may boast early coatings. These vintage lenses are, given their age, rare and expensive, with the 2.8cm f/8, 3.5cm f/2.8, 5cm f/1.5, the 8.5cm f/2 and the 13.5cm f/4 available in an early Contax mount that’s not to be confused with Contax/Yashica.

Simple 3D-printed focus gears mean that radio remote focus gear can be used for more precise control than the short focus throw would normally allow.

Simple 3D-printed focus gears mean that radio remote focus gear can be used for more precise control than the short focus throw would normally allow.

The organisation was unceremoniously split up by the victors of the second world war in their squabble for Zeiss’ advanced optical technology. With Jena finding itself firmly behind the iron curtain, the Carl Zeiss Jena brand became somewhat stigmatised for its mid-to-late century output. Even so, some post-war Jena models used the celebrated Flektogon and Pancolar designs – sometimes in Pentacon-style housings – as well as the Biotar layout which may introduce some Helios-style distortion. It has at least theoretical lineage with Cooke’s famous Opic and extremely famous Speed Panchro designs.

By the 70s, the western Zeiss was collaborating with Yashica to produce the Contax/Yashica mount we discussed earlier. For interesting optical effects, the East German glass is often more characterful, though matching a set might demand a little trial and error.

We can be much more specific about Deckel lenses, sometimes described as DKL mount, which were made for the Kodak Retina cameras in the 1950s. The lenses are often slow and there’s a limited range. The 35mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.9, 85mm f/4 and 135mm f/4 were made by Schneider, but they are an affordable set of early (and therefore potentially interesting) designs that can be adapted to modern cameras.

Be cautious about lenses such as the 80mm Retina-Longar which relies on optical elements kept in place inside certain Retina camera models; as such it can’t easily work on any other camera. Voigtländer and Rodenstock also made DKL lenses for the Retina series. Sticking with Kodak, the Signet range of the 1950s included three lenses: a 35mm f/3.5, a 50mm f/2.8 and a 90mm f/4, with adaptors available to micro four-thirds only, but we’re now approaching some fairly obscure things which may be hard to get.

There will always be more to discuss. We’ve glossed over Minolta’s Rokkor range which suffers the same problem as Konika’s Hexanon, requiring optical parts in the mount adaptor. Leica R is hugely common, in much the same vein as the Contax Zeiss, although slightly harder to get. Steinheil history goes back to the time when lenses were not black, nor even silver, but brass. Vast batches of lenses were made by various manufacturers and branded as Carenar, Elicar, Beroflex, Pallas, Posrt, Prinzflex, Hanimar; some were even marked Sears or JCPenney. Medium-format lenses from the likes of Mamiya can be used with focal reducers.

So yes, there are good deals to be had, although those deals are best exploited quickly. If we’re exacerbating the upward pressure on prices by publicising some of these things, take heart. The enthusiasm for classic glass is so huge that it was probably going to happen anyway, in the end.

The advice of Dom Jaeger, Stuart Brereton, Philip Forrest, Pekka Riikonen and Malcolm Ian Vu was crucial in the preparation of this article; any errors are the author’s.

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