Ever since digital cinematography became the norm, DPs have sought to counter the format’s perfection with characterful vintage lenses. Having just completed a feature film shoot, Hamlet, on Cooke Panchros and a Cooke 10:1 Varotal, I’m over the moon with the beautiful, creamy, organic look they brought to the production. However, I can’t deny that they have some disadvantages over modern glass which you should take into consideration before choosing the vintage approach.
Vintage lenses simply aren’t as sharp as their modern counterparts, particularly at the edges of frame and particularly when the iris is wide open. On Hamlet I deliberately shot with the Panchros wide open to soften the image, rather than adding a diffusion filter like I’ve often done in the past, but that look is not for everyone, and it does make things a little harder for your focus puller. Be sure to test the sharpness and view the results on a large screen before committing.
Breathe is the phenomenon whereby a lens appears to zoom slightly in or out when the focus is pulled. The Cooke Varotal is especially prone to this. As a result, my focus puller Aristide Russo had to be very gentle with his pulls otherwise the breathing was distracting.
Many DPs love lens flares, and beautiful, natural flares were one of the reasons I picked the vintage Cooke glass. But look out for veiling flare – a milkiness and lift in the shadows affecting the whole frame. I noticed this a lot when shooting under the practical fluorescents in Hamlet‘s stage set, especially with handheld shots where the veiling would appear and disappear depending on the camera’s angle to the lights. I decided to embrace it and make it part of the film’s look, but if maintaining high contrast at all times is important to you, lenses without modern coatings may not be the right choice.
Check for dark patches in the corners of your image. The Varotal I used vignetted at certain parts of the zoom range and not at others, so the dark corners would appear and disappear during a zoom. Although not ideal, it isn’t noticeable most of the time. Besides, I figured that most colourists add vignettes to most shots anyway, so I was simply saving them a little time!
Older lenses are, quite naturally, less reliable. Even if they have been rehoused, like our Cooke “Century” Panchros had been in 2000, you may find that the iris and/or focus sticks sometimes. Our 25mm started to play up halfway through our shoot, forcing Aris to use the rosettes to support the matte box, otherwise the motor wasn’t powerful enough to turn the focus ring. This possibility was flagged for me during testing when we had a similar issue with the 50mm. Even if all your lenses seem to be fine during prep, know that a vintage lens could start misbehaving at any time, and your rental house may not have another on the shelf to replace it with.
Don’t expect a set of vintage primes to all have the same maximum aperture or the same external configuration. The iris ring might be buried in the matte box, the matte box might not fit on at all, or it may be impossible to engage both iris and focus motors at the same time.
All this sounds quite negative, but the flares, softness, breathing and vignettes can be absolutely beautiful. Be aware of the downsides of using vintage glass, absolutely, but if they suit your story then embrace the flaws and get ready to be blown away by your dailies.
In case you missed them the first time, I’ll leave you with some highlights from my Hamlet lens tests.