A complaint that’s often leveled at digital cameras is that they’re a little too perfect. And while there are a million ways to undo this “look”—some of which you’ll find in Cullen Kelly’s article on this topic—it can take a lot of work to make these manipulations look organic. Which is a problem because humans are pattern-identifying machines. We’re capable of recognizing even the most minute similarities, so it’s extremely hard to fool our eyes when it comes to digitally-altered images.
In the past, image manipulations didn’t have to pass this kind of uncanny valley test. Film was a physical medium and the techniques used to finesse it were based on chemistry and organic science. Processes like bleach bypassing, cross-processing, or fogging and flashing the film affected the celluloid at a fundamental level. So they looked natural because they lacked the telltale signatures of an algorithm at play. DP Harris Savides was even reputed to have a recipe for cooking his film in his oven. Talk about baking in a look!
These manipulations achieved a predictable outcome that was just random enough to not set off alarm bells in our pattern-identifying brains. This kind of randomness is exactly what image makers are chasing after today. Modern high-end digital cameras simply don’t handle mistakes—or “happy accidents” as DPs call them—with the grace of motion picture film. Imperfections tend to look harsh on digital, not soulful. Also, the process of replicating these filmic looks is usually difficult and time-consuming.
But tampering with the film is only one way to build soul into digital imagery. Another increasingly popular option is through lens optics, and an easy way to manipulate those optics is by shooting on vintage lenses. Which is why Panavision released its PVintage line of lenses in 2013.
Resurrection: Ultra Speed lenses
The PVintage line is a wonder of lens rehousing technology, building the glass elements from Panavision’s Ultra Speed lenses into a contemporary barrel. Each PVintage lens features a new design with a consistent 113mm front diameter and improved opto-mechanical transport. But most importantly, the PVintage lenses retain the characteristically smooth imagery that DPs love about Panavision’s Ultra Speeds.
Ultra Speeds were introduced by Panavison in 1976 and they have been in popular demand ever since, partly because of their contrast fall off and anti-reflective qualities when compared to Panavision’s Primo line. They have minimal color temperature shift between focal lengths, and they sport strong, more dominant lens flares.
As a result, Ultra Speeds and the PVintages built from them are “artistic” and “dreamy” lenses. Their lens flares usually create a desirable multi-point star pattern from a practical light source. Most importantly, these lenses are fast. They have a wide-open aperture of T1-T1.9. PVintage lenses are made of the same Ultra Speed glass that top DPs have chosen for more than thirty-five years, with the enhanced performance and utility that modern filmmaking demands.
But where did the demand for PVintage lenses come from? Why is shooting on vintage glass so important?
How do you solve a problem like digital?
Shooting feature films on digital cameras exploded in popularity around the 2007/08 Writer’s Strike. It was around this time that Slumdog Millionaire was blowing the doors off digital cinematography. Creators around the world were looking for inventive ways to avoid celluloid while still achieving beautiful results.
The problem was—and still is—that digital cameras tend to produce a comparably flat image; one that lacks texture and depth. Pair this flatness with newly-manufactured lenses and you get a sharp, crispy image that lacks character. Modern lenses are cut with lasers and polished with machines. They’re made with the aid of computers to exact standards that allow them to produce an optically-perfect image. But this perfection can lack the something that creatives love.
Digital doesn’t have the inherent randomness of film grain. Those “happy accidents” that DPs love on film tend to look garish in the digital space. Some filmmakers, like Lars Von Trier, embraced the harshness of early digital images, but most sought to avoid it. Instead, they wanted to imbue their images with the expression and soul of the celluloid films they already knew and loved.
Filtration is one solution to cutting that digital sharpness and it’s still an indispensable tool in a DP’s arsenal, but filters have their downsides. “Filtration leaves a signature in the bokeh,” says Guy McVicker, director of technical marketing at Panavision. “Cinematographers like to cover their tracks. They don’t necessarily want you to look at a shot and know that they shot on this lens with a Hollywood Black Magic.”
Adding filtration during post production has its problems too. Not only is it expensive, it also complicates artistic intent. Not every cinematographer is able to be involved in their film’s final coloring sessions. DPs sometimes have no guarantee that their vision will be executed the way they want it to be.
Because of this, cinematographers generally try to author their images in-camera. Doing so ensures that their creative intent survives the post process. Authoring an image in-camera also benefits the colorist. It gives them a more complete image to work with, reducing the amount of time and effort it takes to get that image over the finish line. It’s a win-win all around.
Dusting off the old glass: the rise of vintage lenses
So, what’s the solution to creating beautiful images on digital? The answer seems to have been sitting forgotten on a shelf all along.
Vintage lenses can make a bold, immediate visual impact—note that Panavision defines its “vintage” glass as anything made before the early 1980s. Their Primo series, made in the late 80s, and anything manufactured after are referred to as “legacy optics.”
Vintage lenses bring an undeniable quality to the image. They add texture and character when used on digital sensors due to inherent qualities that, in the past, might have been called unattractive. But today, these lenses are “pleasing.” They have “personality.” Where celluloid filmmakers want the best-performing lenses available, digital image makers look for vintage glass to dull the sharpness of modern sensors. We’ll do anything to take that digital edge off.
It used to be that lenses that flared too hard or didn’t focus predictably were tossed in the closet and forgotten about. Some lenses, like the Canon K35s, weren’t even popular when they were first released. In the 1970s, cinematographers thought K35s had far too many aberrations to be used on serious films. They were labeled as ‘low budget’ lenses. As a result, entire sets of K35s were practically given away. Nowadays, these once-rejected lenses can sell for upwards of $250,000.
One more thing impacts our ability to use vintage lenses: the monitor we view our footage on. In the past, a lens needed to perform perfectly because the final image couldn’t be observed until after the film was developed. Now, particularly with newer OLED monitors, filmmakers can observe and control these “undesirable” lens characteristics while they’re shooting. We can see exactly what we’re getting before we send it off to the post house. We no longer have to question if a shot was in focus or if a hard lens flare was covering an actor’s face.
Vintage lenses: what are we looking for?
Vintage glass has several features that makes it desirable, although you don’t hear them mentioned much outside of a rental house.
Bokeh (from the Japanese word 暈け/ボケ or boke meaning blur or haze) is perhaps the most widely-discussed characteristic when talking about lenses. Bokeh refers to the look of the out-of-focus part of the image. It’s easiest to see bokeh in small background light sources, like holiday twinkle lights or distant street lamps. Those pleasant round or oval balls of light can tell you a lot about how a lens handles its focus. But be careful, these qualities apply to all the lens’s out-of-focus areas, not just the light sources.
How a vintage lens renders the size and shape of these out-of-focus lights can be a deciding factor in whether or not to use it. Bokeh ball size is determined by depth of field. As a lens stops down, the depth of field increases, resulting in smaller bokeh balls. A very fast lens with a wide-open aperture of T1 can have huge, overlapping bokeh balls. A lens that only opens to a T4 will probably have a less impressive bokeh.
The shape of these bokeh balls is determined by how light passes through a lens. A lens’s internal aperture blades can block light rays from reaching the film or digital sensor, resulting in different bokeh shapes. That also means the shape of the bokeh balls can change dramatically even while using the same lens. At T1, a lens may produce perfectly round bokeh balls but at a T4 that same lens might create hard geometric shapes.
Lens design also matters. Vintage lenses were made with all kinds of iris blades that may not be available anymore. Some of these vintage irises produce a very distinctive bokeh effect.
There are other telltale signs to look out for in the bokeh. If a lens produces bokeh balls with color fringing, that is a sign of chromatic aberration, which is a failure of a lens to focus all the image colors to the same point. Changing your focus distance affects chromatic aberration. The aberration can also change from the center of the lens to its edges.
Field illumination is another factor in choosing vintage lenses. It refers to how a lens resolves from the center to the outer edges of the image field. Sometimes, bokeh balls at the edges of the frame can curve inward, resulting in a football or “cat’s eye” shape.
Astigmatism and other spherical aberrations can occur because of imperfections in a lens’s design, resulting in a blurred or fuzzy image. But astigmatism isn’t always a bad thing. DPs can sometimes harness a slight astigmatism to produce a pleasing effect. Lens astigmatism can smooth out the roughness of an actor’s skin without sacrificing focus sharpness.
Keeping this smoothing effect “in-lens” lets you have a filtration effect without adding filters. DPs like to avoid filters for all kinds of reasons. Reflections are one reason. Also, stacking filters in front or behind the lens can lift or muddy the dark areas of your frame, which is bad if you want clean, dark shadows.
Related to astigmatism is field curvature, which is how a lens projects light onto a flat plane. Essentially all lenses have some kind of field curvature due to their structure. It can make the edges and corners of an image appear soft or distorted compared to the sharper central area. Due to their design and natural aging, vintage lenses can produce a very pronounced field curvature that filmmakers use for artistic effect.
Flare is also a huge reason filmmakers choose vintage lenses. Flares can come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They can do a lot to establish a film’s visual language. But some filmmakers don’t like how effective modern lens coatings are at eliminating reflections or ghosting. Instead, they choose to embrace the veiling glare or halation that can come with using vintage glass.
Why not make new lenses?
Vintage lenses provide all kinds of artistic qualities that are not present in modern lenses. But older lenses can sometimes be clunky or difficult to use. Why can’t we just manufacture new lenses that have all these desirable effects instead?
Consistency is one factor. Many companies buy lenses and manipulate them through a process called detuning. However, creating the same look across a new set of lenses is very hard. Lenses like Panavision’s Ultra Speeds were already built for consistency in the first place. Since they already exist as a matching set, it’s far easier to continue maintaining this glass rather than creating a brand new set of lenses from scratch.
Other lens qualities cannot be reproduced because of legal issues. Some vintage lenses used chemicals like lead in their coatings. These coatings add beautiful flare character to the glass but can no longer be manufactured due to the global effort to control lead contamination. Other lenses used radioactive glass that cannot be recreated for the good of public safety.
Being old isn’t always a bad thing either. Lenses can age like fine wine. Radioactive decay sometimes slows down a lens’s expected T-stop and shifts the color temperature of the glass to the warmer end of the spectrum, which some DPs find desirable.
Reverse-engineering a lens is extremely difficult too, and not just because of the science involved. Filmmakers are artists and they communicate in artistic terms. Phrases like “creamy bokeh” and “gentle focus fall-off” do not translate into exact optical parameters that a lens manufacturer can execute.
One person’s “creamy bokeh” could look “soupy” to someone else. One DP’s “fragile beauty” could just seem blurry to another set of eyes. It’s not easy or advisable for a lens technician to tear apart a lens over and over again in the hopes of achieving an artistic dream. It is far more practical to test lenses that already exist and find a look that clicks.
Rehousing: making the old new again
Alright, so why can’t we just slap these original lenses onto a camera and go shoot? Some can, but most vintage lenses need a lot of work before they can be used on a modern camera. Take Panavision’s Ultra Speed lenses, for example.
In the camera world, the Ultra Speed lenses are a bit notorious to work with. They are optically beautiful, but they vary wildly in size and weight between focal lengths. Normally, a lens swap between a 17mm lens and a 50mm would take only a minute or two at the most. However, the size difference present in the Ultra Speeds means the entire camera system needs to be rebalanced between lens swaps.
This time difference becomes bigger when you’re working with a weight-sensitive system like a Steadicam, not to mention gimbals and drones. These modern machines usually have very specific size and weight limits.
Even cameras built in studio or handheld mode can present problems. Ultra Speed lenses require camera assistants to carry around all kinds of adapter rings in order to make them fit on a matte box. Losing or breaking just one of these adapter rings can render a matte box unusable, which is a disaster.
Even a set of vintage lenses that match in size and weight can have a host of problems. Their internal mechanics may have degraded, or their focus or T-stop marks might not be exact enough for the rigor of modern filmmaking. Some vintage lenses may have been designed for still cameras and aren’t optimized for on-set work at all.
Which brings us back to Panavision’s PVintage line. These lenses use the same Ultra Speed glass that DPs want and all the lenses are re-engineered to be about the same size and weight. They also have a matching front size that eliminates all those pesky adapter rings.
Every lens has a wide-open aperture under a T2 and most have a close focus of twenty-four inches. That means that DPs can have the dreamy look that comes from shooting-wide open on vintage glass without all the hassle.
Rehousing is a challenging venture for any company. It has one goal: protect the glass. The glass is what holds that magical quality. It carries the soul that filmmakers are looking for. The improved mechanics of rehoused lenses like the PVintage lines is what makes that glass practical to use on modern sets.
Back in style: what’s new is old again
Panavision’s PVintage line is just one example of the ubiquity of vintage lenses. That field is growing larger by the day. Vintage lenses are taking the narrative, commercial, and music video world by storm. That push is causing more and more lenses to be pulled out of the closet and dusted off.
Nothing seems to be off the table, whether it’s the dreamy soft focus and rainbow lens flares that Zack Snyder used in Army of the Dead or the “pretty messed up look” that Matt Reeves and Greig Fraser created for The Batman.
The PVintage lenses specifically have been used to create the look of Minari, BlackKKKlansman, The Fablemans, and King Richard, just to name a few.
Today’s movies take place in multiverses, warring timelines, and the lush, nostalgic past. Cinematographers are being challenged to create multiple unique aesthetics for even just a single project. More and more, filmmakers are turning to vintage lenses to help them quickly and boldly distinguish the look of all their unique cinematic worlds.