Vintage Lenses are Filmmaking Time Travelers

Vintage Lenses are Filmmaking Time Travelers

There are so many beautiful lenses these days, with amazing clarity, contrast, and focus, but when you’re looking to recreate an older look, nothing quite beats an old vintage lens.

In his Visual Storytelling 2 course on MZed, Alex Buono makes the case for using vintage lenses during a live demonstration of a music performance.

Still from “Documentary Now!” – Image source: Alex Buono

“When I’m shooting an episode of Documentary Now! and I’m trying to create the look of a 1973 Cinema Verite film, or, a 1920s Eskimo film, I’m definitely not going to use a modern, sharp, beautiful contrast, high-clarity lens. And that’s when I look to older lenses, used lenses, things that have been around for a long time, things that are gonna give you some of those aberrations, some of those crazy flares, and those soft spots, and all of those mistakes that have been engineered out of all these beautiful, new lenses.”

“Most of the time, I want a beautiful lens without all of those mistakes, but sometimes I want those mistakes. That’s what makes it feel real. That’s what feels really good.”

Still from “Documentary Now!” – Image source: Alex Buono

When to choose vintage lenses

Choosing to use vintage lenses doesn’t just apply when you’re shooting a scene that takes place in the past. Sometimes you want a unique look, even when you’re shooting a present-day narrative film, or, a documentary, or a music video.

Alex describes the current landscape of network television looks as a little too familiar. “You’ve got a whole lot of people shooting a variety of different materials with the same exact camera, the same image sensor, the same color cocktail, the same lens, the same lens coating, the same glass… and guess what. Everything’s kinda starting to feel the same. You watch network television and a lot of it is like, yeah, it looks like an ALEXA with an Optimo.”

Still from “Documentary Now!” – Image source: Alex Buono

So there’s one good reason to explore vintage lenses. But when shooting for something retro, an old lens is a natural choice. “If I’m shooting something that’s supposed to feel like 1973, 16mm, I’ll use an old zoom from the 60s. It gives me that natural softeners, and these incredible flares, and aberrations that you can’t get from a modern lens, and that you’re not gonna get in post.” 

Comparison between a vintage and modern cinema zoom lens

In the demonstration part of the lesson, Alex sets up a music video scene that is meant to look like it’s from the mid-1970s. For the lens, he chooses an Angenieux 25-250mm that he used in an episode of the IFC “Documentary Now!” series. It’s also a lens that was used in the film “Easy Rider.” For comparison, he shows what the scene would look like shot with a modern Canon 30-105mm cinema lens

Canon 30-105mm cinema zoom lens – Image source: Alex Buono / MZed
Angenieux 25-150mm vintage zoom lens – Image source: Alex Buono / MZed

For added effect, Alex adds a DF-50 hazer to the scene, along with some colored lighting. He says he talked to some directors who shot the old Eagles concerts, and they primarily used red or yellow gels, so that will help sell the scene a little more, in addition to the vintage lens.

Image source: Alex Buono / MZed

Should you Buy or Rent Vintage Lenses?

So if you want to try out a vintage lens for your next shoot, where do you acquire one? You could try to buy a used lens, and there are certainly deals to be had. But Alex recommends renting the lens. “Usually a rental house will have a little room with some beat-up lenses that nobody wants. And you go into that room and you say, oh my god, let me use that one.” The rental house he uses is called TCS in New York, which he says specializes in buying up and renting out old lenses and then taking care of them. 

But if you prefer to buy an old lens, Alex says you can find them fairly cheap on eBay, and then bring them to Duclos or a lens refurbisher who can clean it up and put your preferred lens mount on it. The difference in your costs can be very dramatic. For example, he says he knows people who have bought a whole set of Canon K35 cinema prime lenses from the 1970s for under $5k, plus the cost of getting them cleaned and rehoused. That’s pretty incredible, although the availability may be different today than when Alex recorded his course, as the popularity of vintage lenses has increased. 

But no matter how much you save, the real benefit is the unique look you’ll get from vintage lenses. Alex concludes with, “You’re gonna have a really beautiful, old set of lenses that are gonna give you a real specific character that you’re not gonna get out of a brand new lens.”

Image source: Alex Buono / MZed

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What are some of your favorite vintage lenses? Share your thoughts in the comment section down below!

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