using old lenses

Old lenses exercise an enduring fascination over many photographers. After all, we have over 150 years to choose from, though it's true that the choice after 1900 is very much greater (and usually more affordable) than pre-1900 and that since about 1950 the choice is all but overwhelming.

There are at least five good reasons for using old lenses, which can be summed up as:

1   To re-create the look of the past

2   To achieve effects that cannot as easily be achieved with modern lenses

3   For their unique specifications (try to find a new 150/2.8 for 4x5 inch, for example)

4   To see what they are like

5   Because they are what you can afford (sometimes, if you are lucky, what you are given).

 

Fisherman, St. George's Park

When was this taken? All the evidence suggests some time between the 30s and the 50s. Big grain argues old 35mm, as does severe flare (from overexposure without using a meter, plus an uncoated lens) and comparatively poor definition. The tonality, plus some fading (the print is distinctly yellow-pink) argue in the same direction.

Actually Roger shot it in the late 70s or early 80s, with a 1936 Leica IIIa and 5cm f/3.5 Elmar. The big grain is down to outdated and poorly stored Ilford FP3. The print wasn't well washed, hence the fading. And, of course, the subject matter is timeless -- an important point when you want to re-create the past.

 

 

For most people, what they can afford is likely to be the primary concern. After all, an unaffordable antique lens is no more use than an unaffordable new lens. It makes sense, therefore, to address these five heads in reverse order. Before that, it is worth saying a little about cult lenses; about the importance of lens condition; and about compatibility.

 

 

cult lenses

There are lots of these. Dagors are one of the most famous examples in large format, and command a huge following. So does almost anything from Leitz/Leica. Others have smaller, but equally devoted, groups of fans: the 58/1.4 Nikkor, the first f/1.4 in Nikon F fit, is an example. In both 35mm and medium format, there are the Zeiss Biogons. And so forth.

 

Donjon de Moncontour

The first thing to realize about 'cult' lenses is that they are not 'magic bullets', and that far more depends on your skill (or luck) as a photographer than depends on your choice of lens.

This is a 5x7 inch shot, taken with a Linhof Technika V and a 168/6.8 Dagor. It is very much in the style which we intended, the 19th century 'romantick ruin' shot, right down to the 'empty' sky. In the 19th century, of course, 'ordinary' plates were sensitive to blue and UV only, so clouds were seldom captured in photographs.

Overall, though, we're not satisfied. It's an extremely hard subject to photograph, and just pointing a Dagor at it won't make things any better. Frances actually has a better 35mm shot, taken with a much less exotic current Voigtländer lens.

We have owned a lot of cult lenses, and indeed still own several of them. In our experience, their reputations are not always fully deserved.

Some do indeed deliver highly desirable results that are hard to duplicate with anything else: Zeiss Biogons are one example, and so in our opinion is the 58/1.4 Nikkor. It may be contrast, sharpness, bokeh (the quality of the out of focus image), colour rendition or an indefinable 'magic' that is far easier to recognize than to describe.

 

 

 

Cafe-bar, Pelopponese

 

Roger used his 150/4.5 Apo-Lanthar for this, on an MPP Mk. VII. A modern lens would have been no better (though it would have a larger circle of coverage, allowing more movement) but equally it is hard to see exactly why the Apo-Lanthar should be so highly regarded. The film was Fuji RDP II.

Other cult lenses, in our experience, are not actually as good as modern lenses, no matter how outstanding they may once have been. The original Voigtländer Apo-Lanthars, as used above, are one example: still excellent lenses today, but not in our experience as desirable as good modern lenses.

Some cult lenses, too, offer a cocktail of desirable attributes (usually coverage or sharpness or both) without being particularly remarkable by modern standards -- except in the sense that it is remarkable how a lens made decades ago, perhaps even three-quarters of a century -- can still be used today, and used to create excellent pictures at that. We'd place Dagors in this category.

semi-cult lenses

There are also a few lenses that are moving into cult status, usually because they delivered extremely good performance for a very low price until enough people began to see their merits. Probably the leading example of this is the 203mm (8 inch) f/7.7 Kodak Ektar. A few years ago, these could still be found very cheaply if you were lucky. Nowadays, you will need to be very lucky indeed. And, it has to be said, at today's prices they really don't look as attractive.

 

Lake District

Roger shot this on 4x5 inch Fuji RDP2  with an MPP Mk VII and a (coated) 203/7.7 Kodak Ektar, a minor cult lens. It's OK, but a modern lens would be less blue and have more contrast. The only real advantage of the Ektar was its price. In black and white you can develop for longer and/or use harder paper, but you have nothing like as much control in colour.

 

 

ought-to-be-cult lenses

A very few lenses command enormous respect from those who have used them, but are all but unknown or unregarded. The f/6.3 series of Tessars is a good example. Some people love faster Tessars; we are unimpressed. But Roger wishes he had never sold his 150/6.3 Tessar, and everyone we have met who has ever used the same lens has had the same regard for it, including Sir Kenneth Corfield.

On the other hand, the "I wish I'd never sold my..." lenses are often lent enchantment by distance. Even if we still had it, it is hard to imagine that a 150/6.3 Tessar would find employment in our outfit today. We'd probably do the same as we did with out two 203/7.7 Ektars, which we sold to friends who were starting out in large format.

Horse, Kelvinhall Circus, Glasgow

Roger shot this in about 1972 with a very un-cult lens, a 1930s uncoated 9cm f/4 Elmar on his Leica IIIa. All right, it's not a great shot, but it's not bad, and it shows that an affordable f/4 lens is a lot more use than an unaffordable f/2 lens, even with ISO 50 film (Barfen - honestly!). It was fun but would we swap it for our current 90/3.5 Voigtländer Apo-Lanthar or 90/2 Leitz Summicron? No.

lens condition

A lot of things can go wrong with an old lens. Scratches are the most obvious fault, but you can also have 'cleaning marks', separation, fungus, misting and such mechanical or assembly defects as incorrect separation and decentring. Mechanical faults may date from when the lens was new (rare except with cheap lenses) or can result from damage -- being dropped is favourite -- or from incompetent repairs including re-shuttering.

It's also true that two different examples of the same lens can vary quite widely in performance, whether as a result of manufacturing variation or (more likely with lenses from top-flight manufacturers) damage and incompetent repair in the decades since they were made. Cosmetic condition is not always a clue: both of the 100/2.8 Planars we had for 'baby' Linhofs were cosmetically excellent, but the first performed significantly better than the second.

This last point means that buying old 'classic' lenses is always something of a gamble. If at all possible, do not buy a lens without a chance to try it and return it if it is unsatisfactory, unless of course you can get it so cheaply that you do not really care.

Lhamo (Tibetan opera) 'Hunter'

This was taken with our second 100/2.8 Planar and although it was still very good indeed it lacked the 'magic' of the first (which we sold when we were short of money) so we sold it too... Kodak Ektachrome 64; Linhof Technika 70; Roger

 

 

scratches

These are easiest to see, and reduce the value of a lens by a long way, but paradoxically they need not matter much. A 'clean' scratch will have no detectable effect on image quality if you 'retouch' it with camera blacking paint, Indian ink, or any similar opaque black medium. Unretouched, it can under adverse conditions cause flare.

A big 'smudgy' scratch is much worse news, but even a badly scratched lens can usually deliver far better quality than most people imagine.

cleaning marks

This is a euphemism for a morass of tiny scratches on the surface of the lens, commonly caused by overenthusiastic cleaning. They are usually visible only with a magnifying glass or unusually good eyesight; 'huffing' (breathing) on the glass may make them easier to see: this may also reveal other defects including fungus (see below).

 

 

With a good lens shade, they often make little or no difference to image quality but they can severely degrade contrast under adverse conditions (light striking the front of the lens from the side, or shooting into a light source). In our view cleaning marks should again be grounds for a substantial reduction in the price of the lens as compared with a perfect specimen: not just 10 per cent or so, but 20-30 per cent or more.

Some lenses are much more prone to cleaning marks than others, because of softer coatings or (in the case of uncoated lenses) even soft glass. Old Leica Summars are notorious for 'cleaning marks', and if you can find a pristine Summar (very unusual) it is like a different lens from the ordinary variety.

 

Frances

Big, old lenses for studio use are often surprisingly tough and have relatively few marks, but quite honestly, it doesn't matter very much anyway. In the studio you are in control of the lighting and can ensure that little or no stray light falls onto the front of the lens.

Roger shot this on 5x7 inch Ilford FP4 Plus using a reducing back on our 8x10 inch De Vere, and the 21 inch (533mm) f/7.7 Ross which is probably the best part of 100 years old.

separation

Cemented glasses can and do separate. It takes many forms, but the two most common are thin, dark or yellowish tendrils at the edge of the lens, coming in from the outside, and larger areas of dark or coloured separation: the colours are like an oil slick, and result from the same phenonemon, interference. We have a Schneider Angulon from the early 50s that had really bad separation and then, after sitting in a cupboard for a few years, literally fell apart.

Separation can be repaired by re-cementing but this is (to say the least) tricky to do at home and it is rarely worth the financial outlay to have it done commercially.

fungus

This appears on lenses that have been stored for long periods in warm, humid conditions. It normally appears as a small ring of almost-joined-up black spots, like a tiny version of a 'fairy ring' of mushrooms (which is what it is). When the lens is disassembled, fungus can be wiped off or removed with OptiClean. Unfortunately the fungus etches the glass and it is rarely worth having the affected elements repolished and recoated, so if the damage is severe, the lens is effectively a write-off.

misting

The most usual cause of misting is lubricants from the focusing mount and diaphragm distilling onto the glass, though some swear that lenses belonging to heavy smokers mist up worse. It is sometimes possible to cure this yourself with very simple lenses, especially those where you are not too worried if you get it wrong, but it is also one of the cheapest things to have rectified if you want the lens cleaned, lubricated and overhauled. The difference it makes can be spectacular, with vastly increased microcontrast and (therefore) resolution.

 

Linda Trezise

Roger deliberately chose to use his 50/1.2 Canon for this picture, at full aperture, for its soft, romantic rendering. But before it had been cleaned (by Optical Instruments, Balham, now confusingly based in Croydon) he would have hesitated to use it at all, for anything, at wider than about f/4: contrast was very low indeed, with corresponding reduction in resolution. This was a result of misting of interior glasses as a result of maybe 30 years of wear and tear and distillation of lubricants.

 

 

mechanical defects

Optically, the most usual ones are decentering (elements or cemented groups out of place relative to the optical axis) and incorrect spacing (elements or cemented groups on axis but too close to one another or too far apart). The former is usually the result of a knock, and is a much greater risk with cheaper lenses (especially zooms) than with more expensive ones. The latter is not uncommon with large format lenses that have been reshuttered: there is a free module on reshuttering lenses in the 'How do I...?' strand. We have also had mis-separation happen as a result of vibration: an internal group unscrewed itself slightly on our 200/3 Vivitar Series 1 after about 1000 miles (1600 km) on an Enfield Bullet in India.

If the defects are significant, the lens is likely to be very unsharp, but if they are slight, they will merely take the edge off definition. This is why buying old lenses is always a bit of a gamble.

Also, a lot depends on the design. We once had a 50/2 Jupiter-8 where one of the elements inside actually flopped to and fro with an audible click, but the lens still formed quite a good image.

Defects in the focusing mount, diaphragm and (where fitted) meter coupling are also possible but will usually manifest themselves as either tightness or excessive looseness. Test auto-diaphragms by flicking or twiddling the linkage with your finger, with the lens off the camera.

not a problem

Something that looks alarming, but doesn't matter at all, is white flecks or blotches around the edges of lenses, where the outside of the element is blacked on the rim. The paint separates slightly and it looks as though the lens is a write-off. It isn't.

compatibility

It may sound obvious, but a bargain lens may not be a bargain if you don't have a camera it fits. You can make quite a lot of adapters (or have them made by someone like SRB of Luton) but you'll usually lose diaphragm and other automation.

 

 

Be aware that quite a lot of old ultra-wides (19, 20, 21mm) were designed for 'mirror up' use on reflexes, with separate viewfinders, and that without the correct viewfinder, the prices are often a good deal lower. On the bright side, there are a lot more 21mm finders around today than there were a decade or two ago, so if you are looking for a usable lens, rather than a collectors' item, this need not be a significant drawback. Quite honestly, ultra-wide viewfinders are sufficiently sloppy in their framing that 19, 20 and 21mm are all but interchangeable.

 

Bristol lad

When you first get a new lens (especially a new focal length) there is a temptation to use it for everything -- and that is not necessarily a bad idea. This was when Roger first got a 21mm lens, a 21/4 Nikkor 'mirror up' objective. At that time (in the late 1970s) he was shooting black and white in a much grittier 'mean streets' style, over-developing Ilford HP5 (pre-Plus, in those days) and printing very hard. A red filter added still more to the effect.

The lens was later stolen in India but since then he has generally had at least one 21mm lens to use. But he has lost the freshness of vision it brought him when it was a novelty

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Apparently compatible lenses may fit but not focus properly. The most egregious example is early Zenit SLRs, which have a Leica screw mount (39mm x 26 tpi) but a much larger lens-to-film register in order to accomodate the mirror box. A much subtler one is rangefinder (RF) Nikon and Contax, which interchange freely but have a very slightly different focusing mount so that fast lenses at full aperture will be slightly 'off' at closer distances (they are fine at infinity) if you use lenses of the one marque on the other body.

Be wary, too, of some 'trick' lenses. For example, the Canon 50/0.95 fits on Canon RF cameras, which are Leica screw thread compatible. But it doesn't screw into that thread. Instead it used the same external breech-lock mount as the Canon mirror box...

On the other hand, some lenses are such fun, or so much use, that it may be worth buying a cheap body just to use them. That way, too, when another lens in the same fitting comes along, you can buy that too...

 

Exakta Varex IIa

In the 1950s, Exaktas were probably the most popular reflexes and huge numbers of lenses were made for them. Today, these lenses are often available for a pittance, so it's a good idea to keep an Exakta body handy for trying out silly-cheap lenses just for fun.

 

 

kiev and zorkii/fed

It is often stated that Kiev (Contax-copy) and Zorkii/Fed (Leica derivative) bodies and lenses have a slighty different register from the originals, but as far as we have been able to discover, this is not the case; or at least, not deliberately. Where there are body register issues, it may be a matter of sloppy original assembly (always possible with Soviet equipment) but at least with the Leica-fit bodies it may equally be a matter of shimming: the lens flange was not re-shimmed properly after an amateurish 'repair'. You may find this hard to believe but we have read letters on the internet saying "When I took my Zorki apart it had these shims behind the lens flange. Do they matter?"

 

With lenses, there should be no register problems, but again, with Soviet quality control, anything was possible.

 

Zorkii 4K

Those who have studied the matter reckon that the later Zorkiis and Feds are much closer, on average, to the nominal 28,8mm flange-to-film register than the earlier models. Some of the earliest cameras are apparently so far out that the lenses had to be matched specially to the bodies.

what you can afford

The first thing to say here is closely akin to the argument under 'compatibility'. It is very easy to buy a lens because it is silly-cheap, and then never use it. We have several lenses like this, such as our 135/3.5 Takumar, with its pre-set diaphragm. It was a fiver ($9.50, 7.50 euros), and it's a very good lens. So? We never use it, so it was a waste of money.

 

 

 

Mandi and rose

We bought the 135/3.5 Takumar mentioned above because Roger has a sentimental attachment to old Pentaxes. His first decent camera was a Pentax SV, bought second-hand in Bermuda in about 1967, and he used it until the mid-to-late 1970s when it was written off in a motorcycle accident -- the usual blind motorist "Sorry mate, I didn't see you."

This was taken with his original SV and 55/1.8 Super-Takumar on Ferrania home-process (non-E6) film in 1973 or 1974. Today we have a couple of SVs and half a dozen lenses but to be honest the only ones we use for their own sake are an 85/1.9 Super Takumar and a 135/1.8 Porst, which we suspect to be a re-badged Soligor. Both are superb portrait lenses. All the other lenses are a waste of money because we have lenses for other cameras which will do the same job, better.

On the other hand, the old Pentax screw mount (M42) was so popular that as with Exaktas (above) it is worth having a camera body around to play with whatever comes up at silly-cheap prices.

The big risk with this sort of 'bargain' is that you buy half a dozen cheap lenses, as a result of which you don't have the money to buy something a lot better, quite possibly at less than the price of the half-dozen cheap lenses, when it comes along.

We suggest, therefore, that 'what you can afford' can be divided into three sub-categories: second-hand versions of lenses you would like, but can't afford; older lenses with no modern equivalent; and 'fun' lenses where you can afford to make mistakes.

second-hand but more-or-less modern lenses

Perhaps the most obvious candidates here are Leica lenses. A lot of people who cannot afford new Leica lenses (which includes most of us) buy used Leica lenses, either current models or recent ones. Because even a used Leica lens is likely to be very expensive, we would not do this unless we could test the lens first, or at least return it for a refund.

We feel much the same about most large format (LF) and medium format (MF) lenses, unless they really are a bargain. As a general rule, we prefer to buy such lenses from dealers, with a guarantee or at least return priviliges, even though it means paying more. Alternatively we will buy from friends or acquaintances whom we trust. What we don't do is e-bay.

 

Tengwar

 

This still life of a tengwar (Tibetan rosary) was taken with an old Schneider Symmar convertible 210/5.6. Part of the problem is that Roger chose a really stupid colour combination, and part of it is that Fuji Velvia would have been a better film than the Fuji Astia he used, but even after a bit of Adobe Photoshop post-processing you can see that the picture is a little flatter than it should be.

If the Symmar were sparkling clean on all surfaces (interior as well as exterior) there would be more contrast, but the lens was maybe 30 to 40 years old when this was taken in the mid-to-late 1990s.

We would therefore regard an old Symmar as a borderline replacement for a modern lens: no problem with black and white, and indeed better than many 'cult' lenses, but not such a good idea for colour unless you figure in the price of cleaning by someone like Balham Optical.

 

 

The less expensive the lens was to begin with, the less rugged it is likely to be, and the more care you need to exercise in examining it when you buy. We have several Sigma lenses, for example, and they are excellent; but we had them from new, and we would be hesitant in buying them used.

There can be a good deal of overlap between this category and the other two. For example, our 85/1.9 Super-Takumar for the Pentax is a superb portrait lens. It has plenty of modern equivalents -- fast lenses from 75mm to 90mm are nothing unusual -- but it's a focal length you might not buy unless you could get it cheap. And, it has to be said, we got it cheap: twenty or thirty quid (under $50, maybe 35-40 euros).

older lenses with no modern equivalent

In some cases, it can be hard to distinguish between this and the other two categories. Let's take an old 'standard' lens, for example. There are still plenty of current 50mm lenses around, from f/1 to f/3.5, but they are all coated nowadays; most fast modern lenses offer much better evenness of illumination than older fast lenses; and of course there is anything up to about 80 years of improvement in lens design, with both computers (to speed things up) and wave-front design instead of ray-tracing (for far better optimization). It is also surprising how much difference there can be between a 58mm lens (once a common focal length for fast reflex lenses, because of the need to clear the mirror) and a 50mm lens. Somewhat to our surprise, the 50-55mm jump is rarely significant (55mm used to be popular too) but the 50-58mm jump is, at least in the look of the images.

The real lenses with no equivalent are mostly very cheap (e.g. the Soligor 135/1.8) or very expensive (e.g. Zeiss 150/2.8 Planar) or rather specialized (most soft focus lenses). It's true that you can buy both 90/4 Dreamagon and LensBaby soft focus lenses for 35mm, but they are very different from each other and completely different from the deservedly legendary Leitz 90/2.2 Thambar (below) with its centre-spot stop. When we borrowed one of these, we were prepared to be unimpressed, but we weren't. It's gorgeous. We'd buy one to use if we could afford it.

 

 

 

<  Thambar on Leica IIIa

 

Thambar 'bokeh'  >

 

You can just about detect the rather nasty quality of the bokeh (out-of-focus image) in the grass on the lower right when the centre stop is in place.

 

 

 

Roofs

There's a sort of soft richness to Thambar shots that is hard to describe and indeed is not as well demonstrated here as we'd like; the original slide has a quality we have failed fully to capture in the scan. We're not as keen on the Thambar at full aperture (except for portraits) as we are at smaller apertures, and we find the centre stop to be of very limited usefulness; but as stated above, if we coud find one at a price we could afford, we'd buy it. Roger shot this (in our back garden) with an M-series Leica on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

There's also a huge category of LF lenses where the modern equivalents are very nearly as rare as the older lenses, such as our 21 inch (533mm) f/7.7 Ross. Yes, you can buy a 550mm Schneider XXL, but you could probably find ten Rosses (eventually) from 18 to 24 inch, for the same money, plus a Thornton Pickard shutter to go on the front.

fun lenses

This is perhaps the most entertaining category, but as already noted, it is important to buy lenses that might actually do something you want. For example, if you want a portrait lens for 'large head' portraits, it's all very well to read about the 'glow' of an old 50/2 Summar, but an 85/2 Jupiter or the aforementioned 85/1.9 Super Takumar or 135/1.8 Soligor might be more use, more fun and significantly cheaper.

Our own rule for a 'fun' lens is that it shouldn't cost more than thirty quid ($55-60, 40-45 euros) unless we can get a magazine article out of it, in which case we'll double that. Any more, of course, and the cost of the lens eats up too much of the fee for the article.

seeing what they are like

This applies essentially to 'fun' lenses, but it also applies to higher-end lenses lenses from the more distant past, even Leica and Zeiss glass. Unless you can afford serious money for the high-end stuff, 'seeing what they are like' is best confined, in our view, to lenses you really, really want to try, or to ones that you can borrow for nothing, such as the Pan-Tele-Kilar 300mm we borrowed a few years ago.

 

 

As a rule of thumb, most 'no-name' lenses, and many lenses that are often described as 'best forgotten', are far better than their reputations might lead you to believe. The worst dogs tend to be old, cheap wide-angles; old fast lenses; and zooms. But with medium format, there are all kinds of lenses that are unexpectedly good.

 

Church of St. Martin, Taize

The 85/2.8 standard lens on the KowaSIX is rarely held up as remarkable -- and indeed it isn't. But when an 8x10 inch borderless print is only a 4.5x enlargement, instead of the 7x called for from 35mm, it doesn't need to be.

The big drawback to the Kowa is that if (or maybe when) it breaks, it won't be reparable. But until then, it provides very good quality at a very low price.

 

old wide angles

These tend either to be very soft (for RF) or to suffer from appalling barrel distortion (for SLRs). Actually, the majority of old wide-angles tend to be a good deal less sharp than their modern counterparts, though there are noble exceptions such as the 21/4.5 Zeiss Biogon and 21/4 Nikkor (which we have owned) and the 21mm Super Angulons and 19mm Canon, which we haven't. The only 20mm Russars we have tried (one owned, one borrowed) were however disaster areas.

Even when you go to less ambitious focal lengths than 19 to 21mm, the vast majority of older wide-angles are still significantly inferior to more modern designs. Arguably, indeed, the gap is bigger than it is with the best ulttra-wides: while the Biogon, etc., can still stand comparison with modern lenses, 35mm Leitz Summarons, for example, are in our experience lacking in both contrast and sharpness as compared with the later Summicrons, and at least a stop slower as well.

old fast lenses

The second group, the fast lenses, varied enormously but many were 'stretched' too far. In other words they were perfectly respectable designs, but half a stop to a stop faster than they should have been. A classic example is the Canon 50/1.2 and 50/0.95, which would have been fine at f/1.4 or maybe f/1.7 (the half-stop between f/1.4 and f/2), but which could only be used in desperation at full bore. We've had a couple of 50/1.2 Canons (we still have one), and although we have never owned a 50/0.95, we have seen enough pictures taken by people who have that we are far from impressed. The 50/1.2 is very good at f/2.8 and below, and romantically charming at f/1.2 (and downright soft at f/22) but it's no competition for a modern f/1.5, f/1.4, f/1.2 or f/1.

And Canons are among the better 'stretched' designs: Meyer's 50/1.9 Primoplan was another matter entirely. Go back to pre-war designs and uncoated lenses, and even the Great Names leave a good deal to be desired. At anything faster than f/2, you have a choice of fair-to-good resolution and poor contrast (Leica) or fair-to-good contrast and significantly inferior resolution (Zeiss).

 

Wet stone

When you are testing a new lens, remember that it may be flattered by some subjects and shown in a poor light by others. From this shot you might deduce that the 50/1.5 Leica Xenon is super-sharp and contrasty. It isn't. This was just a very contrasty subject which flattered the lens.

 

 

the 'picture post' argument

It is often suggested, with some justice, that the pre-war Leica and Contax lenses can't have been that bad because Picture Post (and to a lesser extent, Time and Life) managed many superb picture stories taken with them. This is true, but there is a major rider. The reproduction quality in Picture Post was truly lousy, with coarse screens, bad paper and low maximum densities. In other words, the only pictures that reproduced well were those that used strong contrasts of light and shade -- the photographic equivalent of painting with a broad brush. At this point, the lenses didn't need to be all that good. Time and Life stayed with larger formats longer and were able to buy newer, coated lenses sooner, which is why we say 'to a lesser extent' when it comes to them and pre-war, uncoated lenses.

 

 

Bristol Arts Centre Bar

All right, it's some way from Picture Post but then, Roger is no Bert Hardy. It's unsharp; it's grainy; it's hopelessly under-exposed and over-developed (Ilford HP5 rated at EI 1600 in Microphen); but despite its faults, it captures the atmosphere of a bar in the university town in the mid-1970s. It was actually shot with a very good lens, a 58/1.4 Nikkor. Today Roger would probably use his 35/1.4 Summilux -- but would he get a better picture?

zooms

Zooms were rarely even acceptable until the 1970s, and there were plenty of bad ones after that. Indeed there are some pretty bad ones still being made today at the very bottom end of the market. Before multi-coating, contrast was commonly abysmal -- at least that has improved today -- and resolution was pretty abysmal too.

Even this does not mean that the lenses were useless. Indeed, we sometimes wish that we still had Roger's first zoom, a 90-190/5.8 Yashinon bought second-hand in about 1967. It was hopelessly soft, but it would probably be a lovely portrait lens today.

 

 

medium format lenses

As noted in the caption to the picture of the Church of St. Martin, above, medium format lenses do not have to be anything like as good as those for 35mm, simply because the negatives do not need to be enlarged as much.

Pentacon 6

Like the Kowa, the Pentacon 6 is lamentably hard to fix but a wide range of excellent lenses is available, including (as here) the 80/2.8 Biometer. The small round thing under the mirror box is a Q-Top tripod quick release plate.

One thing to beware of, though, is roll-film folders with front-cell focusing. In our experience, these are pretty much uniformly poor. The ones with unit focusing (the whole lens moves to and fro) are another matter, but front-cell is usually indifferent at its optimum distance (which can be almost anywhere from its closest focusing distance to infinity) and worse everywhere else.

unique specifications

We have already touched upon this, and it is surprising how many lenses meet this criterion. The most obvious is fast lenses for large format. Today, f/5.6 is pretty much the standard, but among older lenses you can gain half a stop or better (e.g. f/4.7 Schneider Xenar), two thirds of a stop (e.g. f/4.5 Voigtländer Apo Lanthar), a stop and a third (e.g. f/3.5 Zeiss Tessar) or two whole stops (f/2.8 Zeiss Planar and Schneider Xenotar). You can even, if you are willing to go down to smaller formats, find such things as an f/1.8 Ernostar.

 

 

What is more, many old lenses are uncoated, and the flare factor of the faster ones often means that you can get away with half a stop or even a stop less exposure than you would need with a modern coated lens. Add to this the extra development you need in black and white to restore contrast and these lenses can indeed perform as if they were at least as fast as, and sometimes faster than, their marked f/stop, despite the inevitable light losses that result from the lack of coating. The tonality in such cases will of course be completely different from that of a contrastier modern lens, but no-one can tell you whether you will love it or hate it.

 

Arnolfini bar, c. 1975

Fast lenses were a lot more common in the past, chiefly because the fastest films were a lot slower. In the 1960s, when the 58/1.4 Nikkor used for this shot was made, the fastest black and white films were ASA 400, pushable at best a couple of stops, while in colour, High Speed Ektachrome was a mere 160 ASA. Old, fast lenses are therefore comparatively common and affordable, at least next to new, fast lenses.

The 58mm focal length is all but impossible to find new, too, and it really does have a look that is surprisingly different from the look of a 50mm lens.

Even after coating became universal, some of the old, fast designs such as the 58/2 Zeiss Biotar (and its Soviet equivalent on the Zenith E and B) and the 85/2 Sonnar (again most common as the Jupiter-9) had a 'look' that was not attainable with other lenses.

Going in the other direction, many older lenses were much smaller than those of the present day. The 35/1.4 Summilux has already been mentioned, and there are plenty of older lenses for LF such as the f/6.3 Kodak Commercial Ektars or indeed the f/6.3 Zeiss Tessars that are wonderfully small for their focal length.

One more thought about unique specifications is that in the past, many more lenses were designed with central performance in mind: sharpness, contrast and illumination might all suffer as you approached the corners of the image. This often allowed them to be physically small, light and (relatively) inexpensive, and the drawbacks may not be as great as you might imagine. For example, for wildlife and sports, squeeze-focus Novoflex long-focus lenses can still be very good to this day, and are a lot smaller, lighter and cheaper than some of the 'glamour bottles' from the modern big names.

focusing and shooting apertures

An important point to remember with older LF lenses, especially wide-angles, was that in many cases the maximum aperture was not actually intended for shooting but only for focusing. One of the big differences between a Schneider Angulon and a Schneider Super Angulon is that the f/6.8 aperture of the Angulon was never intended as a shooting aperture: f/16 was widely regarded as the starting point for taking actual pictures. When the f/8 Super Angulons came out, the lower maximum aperture may have seemed like a retrograde step but they covered a much wider field at f/22 and could also be used at full aperture for shooting.

 

Roman monument, near Arles

For years, our standard wide-angle lens on our 4x5 inch Toho FX45A and later FC45X was a 120/6.8 Schneider Angulon, which we normally used at f/22. It has less coverage than a modern lens, and we don't really care for it for colour, but it is perfectly matched to the Polaroid Sepia used here.

 

 

A few very old lenses exhibit a focus shift on stopping down, so you need to re-check focusing at the shooting aperture. Few if any lenses designed since World War Two will exhibit this. With still older lenses, there was often a distinction betweem 'visual focus' and 'chemical focus'. The latter was in effect the focus for ultra-violet light and the lens had to be racked back a little from the point of sharpest visual focus in order to get the sharpest possible pictures on old, non-colour-sensitive materials.

special effects

This is perhaps the least predictable advantage of older lenses. Every lens has its own 'look', and the way this will interact with a particular film, a particular subject matter and a particular photographer's vision is substantially upredictable. Reputedly, for example, one advertising photographer in London in the 1970s made his name with a soft, romantic look that was achieved with a second-hand Hasselblad lens which looked as if the front element had been cleaned with steel wool.

 

 

To make matters worse, such a magical and distinctive 'look' may be achievable only with a single example of a single lens, so if you borrow something from a friend and fall in love with it, you may have to persuade your friend to part with it unless the 'look' is indeed characteristic of all lenses of that type.

 

The Buddhist Monk Tenzing Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Losar (Tibetan New Year)

 

Roger shot this with a Nikon F fitted with a 135/1.8 Soligor; film was Ferrania 1000D, the fastest available at the time. A while later we sold the lens because we didn't use it for much; it wasn't very sharp; and besides we were using mostly Leica rangefinder lenses, including a 135/2.8. We also bought a Vivitar Series 1 135/2.3, only half a stop slower than the Soligor and a lot sharper.

We still have very mixed feelings about having sold it, though. Yes, it does have a charming effect, but the big question is, how far do you want to carry a lens like this for the (very) few times you are likely to want it? What we normally do nowadays is put our older, cheaper, less-used lenses in checked baggage, and not worry too much about leaving them in the hotel room -- but we'd still be faced with the choice of three 135mm lenses...

the look of the past

When you are looking to recreate the photography of the past -- the sharpness, the contrast, the grain, the tonality, the colour or anything else -- the lens is only one of the factors involved, and its importance varies considerably.

In some cases, such as Hollywood portraiture on 8x10 inch, the lens shares top billing with the format. It really is comparatively easy to re-create the 1930s Hollywood look with an 8x10 inch camera and an uncoated lens of something between 16 and 24 inch (400 to 600mm) focal length. Modern films are a lot faster than their 1930s equivalents, but equally, few of us have access to the giant Kliegs and the like that were commonly used for lights, so under today's weaker lighting, aperture and shutter speeds remain comparable. Grain and sharpness are not too significant in an 8x10 inch contact print, so actual film choice is less important.

Girl, Weston-super-Mare

Perhaps the most telling point about old lenses -- and the most encouraging for those who want to use what they can afford, rather than something fancy -- is that when we look back at old pictures, we often can't remember what we used. This was probably a Leica IIIa with a 50/3.5 Elmar, but it might have been one of a number of other screw Leicas (Roger had several in the 1970s) or even a fixed-lens Leica A. And it might have been a different 50mm lens, too: Summar, Xenon, Summitar or Summarit. If it wasn't a Leica it was probably a Pentax SV with 55/1.8 Super-Takumar or it could conceivably have been a Nikon F with 58/1.4 Nikkor but we don't think so... The subject, the composition, the tonality: all are more important.

 

 

In other cases, such as Picture Post-style reportage with 35mm, the film assumes much greater importance. You want vintage-looking grain and tonality, and this is hard to attain with today's 35mm. Your best bet is an Eastern European film such as Forte, preferably developed in something that delivers fairly large grain such as Rodinal -- or even a 'universal' film/paper developer. Outdated filmstock, or a scannner with grain aliasing, can help recreate the lower quality of the past, too.

Examples can be multiplied. Ultra-large-format landscapes in the 19th century style often work best if the clouds are not too obvious. This is because 'ordinary' films (sensitive only to blue and ultra-violet) commonly rendered skies as blank white: it was impossible to achieve the dramatic clouds that became the norm in the 1930s with a yellow filter and ortho or (more rarely) pan film.

 

 

You also need to suit the camera to the intended period, as far as possible. For a Victorian ambiance, large (or at least medium) format, and the camera on a tripod, will be more effective. For US-style reportage from the 1930s to the 1950s, a hand-held 4x5 inch press camera may be best; for a more European style, 35mm or an old Rolleiflex.

 

Long Range Desert Group

This wasn't taken with an old lens -- but it was 35mm, and this is important because it means that the image is the right shape. During the Second World War most of the better British war photographers used either Leicas or Super Ikontas, rather than the 4x5 inch (or sometimes quarter-plate) cameras favoured by the Americans.

Given the superior quality of modern lenses and films, this could actually pass for a 120 shot. The film was Fomapan 200, at that time also available as Paterson Acupan 200, rated at EI 100, to give a more vintage tonality: generous exposure was the norm in the 1940s.

If Roger had fitted his camera (either a Leica M4-P or Voigtländer Bessa-R2) with his 50/3.5 Elmar, or indeed with a bargain-priced 50/2 Jupiter-8 or 85/2 Jupiter-9, the picture might look even more 'period'; but few people other than photo-historians are going to notice anything other than the subject matter and the composition, thereby proving that it's possible to worry too much about technical matters

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The important thing in all cases is to analyze what it is about a particular picture that sets it in its time, and very often, the most important thing is the subject. If the subject is 'vintage', most people will forgive a lot in the way of sharpness (or lack of it), grain (or lack of it), etc. Image colour is usually important, but most people will forgive a generic sepia unless they have an unusually firm grasp of photographic history.

Many pictures from the past owe their interest to factors other than photographic. In our own lives, there are people we knew; outside our own lives, there are always 'those funny old cars' or children playing in the street (a sight increasingly rare today in the rich world) or other reminders of times past.

To be brutal, too, a lot of interesting old pictures are technically shaky, especially of they were taken by amateurs. Wonky composition; poor tonality; possibly some fading; all these problems (and others) can add to the immediacy or apparent 'authenticity' of a picture. Content and composition are what matter...

 

Dail

The photographer who took this wasn't very good. He was barely 18 years old and had taken up photography some 18 months previously, with the help of 800 feet of grievously outdated Ilford FP3. The camera was one of the best of its day, a Pentax SV with a 55/1.8 Super Takumar, but the camera was a lot more capable than its user. This is a picture of his first fiancee. The expression and pose are excellent: pity he couldn't aim the camera better, pity he didn't use a longer lens, and pity he didn't pay more attention to the background. You have probably guessed who he was by now: Roger.

 

 

Finally, an important point about the look of the past is that you don't want to print too big. Maybe you don't want to go as small as the old 6 x 9 cm/2¼ x 3¼ inch contact prints from 8-on-120, but you may do well to stay as small as 'postcard' (approximately 3½ x 5½ inches or 9 x 13 cm) and it is rarely a good idea to go much above whole-plate (6½ x 8½ inches, 16,8 x 21,6 cm) because such sizes were simply not common -- except of course for 'banquet' group shots, panoramic views (the origin of the term 'view camera') and 8x10 inch Hollywood contact prints of stars.

the bottom line

Old lenses can be fun, and they can save you a lot of money. Some will deliver results that are indistinguishable from modern lenses; others, if you are lucky, can create a unique 'look' that becomes a hallmark of some or all of your photography.

On the other hand, they are not a panacaea, and the worst of them can turn out very nasty indeed. They can also be a tremendous waste of money, and some, at least, of the 'cult' lenses do not really deserve the reputation that they have: there are better lenses available today, some of them newer but still 'old lenses' at prices that make them well worth considering against the 'cult' lenses.

 

 

For example, the Goertz Dagor is all but worshipped, while a 1950s convertible Schneider Symmar (a better lens in many ways) is regarded by many with some suspicion. The only argument can be that a later Symmar is usually sharper and contrastier, and is therefore a better lens than the earlier one, but people don't actually compare the Dagor against very much. Likewise a 58/2 Biotar on an Exakta Varex is probably a more useful portrait lens than a good 50/2 Summar on a Leica, and you should be able to buy both the Varex and the Biogon for less than a Summar.

 

Mah-jongg players, Lijiang

Keep any lens long enough, of course, and it becomes an 'old lens'. There have been two generations of aspheric 35/1.4 Summilux since Roger's last-generation pre-aspheric, used on a Leica MP or M4-P for this picture. Yes, the newer lenses deliver better technical quality wth less flare (look at the hair of the man on the right) and better sharpness. On the other hand, it would probably cost over a thousand pounds (maybe 1400 euros, $2000) to upgrade to a new 35/1.4; it's a lot bulkier; and most important of all, it wouldn't make him a better photographer. Frances printed the picture on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Staying with 35mm there is a ridiculous amount of hyperbole about some very modest lenses such as those from the former Soviet Union in Leica screw mount and Contax fit. Yes, the best of them (especially the 50/2, 85/2 and 135/4) are quite good lenses, but to compare any of them with its post-war Leica equivalent is hardly realistic.

 

Playa del Ingles, Gran Canaria

 

Not the most exciting picture on earth, but you can't really fault the technical quality, and it was taken with one of the cheapest modern second-hand lenses that you can get for a Leica, the unloved 135/2.8 Tele-Elmarit, with the 'spectacles' to magnify the rangefinder base. You can often find these for under £300, call it 400-500 euros or $500-600. Not a cheap lens, it's true, but for recent Leica glass, not an expensive one either.

 

 

The final point to make here is that if you can tell a vintage lens from its more modern counterpart, its charm rarely lies in its definition or contrast. Rather, it may lie in the precise nature of its flare, upon the bokeh (see above) and on other unquantifiable characteristics -- or for that matter on easily quantifiable characteristics such as its size. But even Zeiss lens designers admit that you can't predict or describe everything about a lens when you design it. If it produces pictures that look good -- in other words, if you like them -- then the lens is good. If not, not.

Ultimately, all you can do with older lenses is to try them. But when you do, at least try them with (as it were) your eyes open. Accept that you are likely to get pleasant surprises as well as unpleasant ones, and do not be unduly influenced by the opinions of others. Above all, have fun.

 

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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks