In this day and age of indie filmmaking, the use of vintage photography lenses for filmmaking projects is begging to gain in popularity. But is it even worth the minimal investment in vintage glass, even if it’s only $20?
To put this to the test, let’s take a look at the differences between a $1200 Leica 42.5 lens versus a $20 Pentax 50mm lens. When used with a Leica Full Frame sensor both are equivalent to 85mm in this case.
One thing to note; the Pentax lens, in particular, did require minor modification to the adapter before a Pentax to EF mount adapter was used in conjunction with a speed booster. Now, some of the major differences you will see lie primarily in the overall image quality and the various features you get with both. The vintage Pentax lens will offer a much softer look that is slightly milky.
One way to combat this is to adjust the sharpness and contrast in post, which actually makes it hard to tell this is a vintage lens when video is viewed on a smartphone. It isn’t until the image is blown up to a much larger size that you really see the differences. It is at this point, as well as when you zoom in on the image that you see the image is not just not as sharp as the Leica lens.
When comparing the vintage Pentax and new Leica lens, another consideration filmmakers need to think of is the specific look they are looking for. Do you want a softer look with less contrast? Do you want a glow to the image? Or would you much rather have a very sharp, clear image with great contrast? Some vintage lenses can offer a very distinct and unique look that may suit the project at hand.
But not all lenses are created equal and to do this may require a bit of trial and error. As seen below, the two images show a side by side view of the same shot with both lenses. But which looks better?
Image A on the left offers a beautiful look with great contrast and sharpness. Image B on the right is still crisp but doesn’t quite match the look of image A. But would you believe that image A is the Pentax? That’s because the use of post-production tools to adjust the exposure and contrast enabled a clean, sharp image with great color. Image B, on the other hand, was barely touched in post and only had minor contrast adjustment, though the contrast was adjusted in the opposite direction.
Simply put, vintage lenses are a potentially great tool for any filmmaker who may be looking to change the look of a project, looking to evolve their style or simply want a cheap way to experiment with footage. One of the best sources for finding these hidden gems would be Ebay, though in recent years the popularity of some lenses has increased, driving up the costs. Another great place to look as well is Etsy. Many online stores are selling vintage and obscure lenses that can create unique looks that new lenses and LUTs can’t create.
In reality what it comes down to is a bit of trial and error, some testing and a bit more post-production work when using vintage lenses. Having said that, they are very much a viable option for most films now and do have a lot to offer. Does a $20 lenses match up to a $1200 lens? Not necessarily but each has their time and place.