Can you imagine the following conversation with a modern photographer?

I was talking to several friends of mine who are film makers. Motion guys. All about the "look" guys.
Somehow we got off the subject of beautiful talent and stumbled into a conversation about the current cameras with which they are working. That lasted about thirty seconds but boy oh boy, these guys have opinions about lenses. And their opinions have nothing to do with how sharp a lens is and everything to do about the character of the lens. 

Here are some of their quotes from the conversation:

"I love the way that lens flares. It does these beautiful streaking flares that are just gorgeous." 

"We were shooting tight head shots for a beauty company and the modern lenses showed off every pore and wrinkle. Finally, we found an old lens that had the multicoating stripped off the front and rear elements. It was soft and gentle and perfect...We used that lens for everything."

"The thing I like about anamorphics (anamorphic lenses) is the way they flare and the way they smooth out colors and tones across the frame. It seems more natural. More cinematic."

"Oh sure, I have a set of Zeiss primes that are great when everything has to be crisp and saturated but I've also got an older, Angenieux 10x zoom that's so sweet. It came to me with an old 16mm Bolex. It makes people look human instead of making them look, well, cut out."

"I love a lens that just falls apart on the edges. It needs to have strong character in the center but by the time I get to the edges I want the image to go to hell. It's a nice contrast."

"I shot last week with a Cooke prime. The focal length was perfect but the what the lens rendered was too brutal; it would be mean to use that lens bare on a face. We ended up stretching a black silk stocking over the front to kill some of the sharpness. There is a point at which high sharpness is distracting. It's like someone constantly trying to prove they can jump higher than everyone else."

"I love a lens that's sharp and contrasty but knows how to flare like a mad bastard when I throw some light across the front." 

Today I was filming a project with Ben, over at Zach Theatre. Ben started out using an very well corrected, modern, 85mm and the coverage/framing was just what we needed. Everyone looked at the frame and said, "That's just right." Then we moved and shot another take at a different angle. We used the older, D series, cheap 28mm f2.8 on his camera with the lens nearly wide open --- with at least three light sources inside the frame of the shot. The light sources had "glowy" flare around them and parts of the frame were washed with a bit of veiling flare as well. When people checked that shot on the monitor what they said was, "That looks beautiful." The interplay of light and non-perfect optics brought more depth to the shot.

Perhaps we need to be less interested in how sharp and contrasty our lenses are and instead concentrate on how much character and reality they can deliver.

Thinking about stripping the coatings off one of my duplicate 85's. Just to see how it looks. 


  1. See, this is why that Kodak Super-8 announcement is not as senseless as a lot of people seem to be saying....

  2. Painters don't paint what's there, they paint what they "see." Photographers and videographers do the same. And different people "see" differently.

  3. Currently mounted to my D800: A Sears brand 135mm f2.8 a friend found in the dumpster behind a Goodwill store. Lovely, creamy, glowing bokeh with just a hint of sharpness at the plane of focus.

    Seriously, it would be a most interesting lens to use were the focus not so stiff.

  4. My favorite shot is still a hazy portrait using a glowy radioactive Olympus 50 1.4. Great post.

  5. Oh mannnn...


    Now we're going to have a run on all those previously dirt cheap eastern Bloc/Russian lenses which are optically "Uncorrected"
    lacking that much advertised Nano Acuity

    ; )

  6. How does your friend make use of that 12-120mm zoom originally built for 16mm film cameras? Helluva lens, but assuming it can be adapted to digital cameras it could be very awkward to use without a shoulder brace.

  7. This is what I call a heart-warming post. The freedom to seek beauty in artistic interpretation and creativity, that is something to promote!

  8. Very fond of my 40 year old set of Pentax Super-Multi-Coated Takumars - used on a 5D3 with an adapter. Just have a certain magic.

    If I shot Nikon, I'd have a set of the early Nikkors.

  9. I love the look of a TIffen Pro Mist filter on digital. Filters are way more fun than Photoshop.

  10. Actually, yes.
    One of the things mirrorless cameras did was make it extremely easy both to adapt and accurately focus just about any old lens.
    The film/video guys might have gotten there first, but an increasing number of photographers seem to be getting in to 'legacy' glass.

    My own current favourite, the old Auto Tak 50/2...

  11. Great article.

    I have a 25mm .95 Nokton that's razor sharp at f/2.8 and considered soft wide open. Even shooting landscapes I often get better shots wide open. The dreamy glow of the wide open shot can provide atmosphere, mystery, color.

    The same thing could be said for camera bodies. The myopic focus on specs can be a hindrance to putting something interesting in front of the camera.

    For example I followed the work of a couple of people who did travel style videos using the OMD EM5 II. Their videos had a great sense of intimacy and vitality. Making great use of the Olympus stabilization to use fast primes hand held with subtle camera moves. Getting in close and making the viewer feel part of the scene.

    Then they switched to the big sensor, well spec'd A7x. Their videos became less interesting. More of a sweeping "Ode to Resolution and Dynamic Range." Which got lots of positive comments from camera folks. Then they moved on to the wonders of static shots comparing flat profiles and color grading.

    This made me reconsider my own focus. As a test I shot a scene using both GH4 4k and EM5 II and showed the footage to non-camera people. I could see how much higher the GH4 resolution was. They made no distinction between the footage except what was in front of the camera. If something interesting happened in the shot that was more important than the color or DR to normal people. I still appreciate the resolution of the GH4 but I'm giving more thought to the ergonomic benefits and creative possibilities of the EM5 II.

    I'm sure there can be valid cases for "gold plating" the technical side but often the tail ends up wagging the dog.

  12. Love this post, photography (or film making) is not only a "tech" exercise but has a lot to do with "soul"

  13. Michael, I believe he is using it on a Arriflex BL or something like that. He still shoots a lot of film... Not sure but I imagine you could adapt that lens to an M4:3 mount.

  14. This resonates with me. I have been bitten by the Contax Zeiss myself for video. And, it's not just the look - manual focus feel/throw is wonderful, too.

  15. It has been my understanding for quite some time that videographers and filmmakers often don't use the very sharpest lenses for their work. Zooms designed for video use are sometimes less sharp than equivalent zooms designed for capturing stills. (The two Nikon 1 10-100mm zooms come to mind.)

    Related to lens characteristics are the sensor and sensor settings used. The first camcorder I ever purchased had a tendency to cause aliasing/stairstepping on oblique lines. Camcorder users I consulted with suggested turning down the sharpening setting. I did, and the aliasing disappeared. Detail, however, didn't get reduced - overall the video footage had a more-pleasing, natural look. Again, sharpness was not as important as the overall look of the video footage.

    Good post!

  16. How would you strip off the coating? In one go or gradually, talking test shots as it was stripped off?

  17. I'm always amazed at how an "old" single-coated Leica Chron 50/2 can produce such great b&w film shots and be absolutely horrible for colour, be it film or digital.
    A friend offered an explanation around the notion that while b&w captures colours as shades of single grey, a bad colour rendering is not necessarily bad with "single colour" b&w. I can see his point. But it doesn't cease to surprise me.
    That is why I now insist on trying out any lenses on film and digital (aps-c AND m43!) to see which shine and where. Eg, the much maligned Zeiss Planar ZF 50/1.4 which a lot of folks hate in digital FF, is superb with m4/3 and very, very good with slide film while so-so with b&w! Wouldn't have a clue why, but I try them out and love building a small knowledge base that tells me what to use where and when.
    I guess the old folks had that down pat due to narrower choice, while we have to build it from scratch for film, aps-c, ff and m/3 while filtering out all the "micro-contrast" dross!
    I'm all for a wide choice, but I have to bow out at stripping off the coating! :)

  18. I have gotten so tired of all the super nano sharp images that digital has made the fashion. I understand that in the world of commercial photography there is a need for very high resolution images, but for me it just isn't necessary or even to my taste. I finally figured it out while looking at one of my old prints that has a quality, a glow I hadn't been seeing in my digital prints. The print was made from a 4x5 negative made with a Turner Reich triple convertible lens that was probably made before the First World War. It was reasonably sharp, but certainly was not coated and had a fair amount of flare. But it created this very soft glow that was magical. My problem was that I found my images just looked too clinical, and that wasn't the feel I was after.

    Since that revelation I actually have been adding a bit of blur, sometimes in PS, but more often in Snapseed, and like the look much better for the images I'm after. Underline "for the images I'm after".

  19. How would you strip off the coating...

    Only too easily with some of the older coated lenses; over enthusiastic cleaning will do the trick.
    For example, it's reasonably difficult to find me of the old preset Pentacon 135s with coatings fully intact.

  20. Oh hey, just thought of this. Perhaps 18-20 years ago, my girlfriend took a photo of me standing on a sea-level rock looking out at the ocean while a flock of pelicans sailed by. It was lovely. I mounted a 16x20 print and put it on the wall. It was taken with an $8 Fujicolor throw-away cardboard and plastic camera. Irony of ironies - while she took this lovely picture, I was holding my $5000 Nikon F4 rig taking stupid useless photos of the same pelicans. Yeah, it's the eye behind the lens.

  21. With all the available Hi Tech, new gen, super sharp offerings, you would think that the good old days wouldn't be missed. Nostalgia and old photo short comings are strange bed fellows.
    In my Telecine days, AD Agency Gurus would ask me to place different filters in the film gate, just mad.

    Lee M

  22. I use a NEX-7 and use a few Legacy lenses. I often use the David Hamilton favorite, the Minolta 58mm F1.2. It is the antithesis of dreamy bokeh heavy 70s film look.
    So the bottom line is there is a lens for every effect.

    Lee M.


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