Vintage celluloid lenses on modern digital cameras

Lets get this straight from the outset – when I say vintage lenses, I mean vintage. The ‘newest’ and most ‘modern’ ones I own are from the 1970’s & 80’s – these are not the ones I’m talking about in this post. Here I am dealing with optics from a period further back in time when the development of lens technology was constantly leaping forwards by the year. To put a time period on these lenses, I’m going to say from 1890 to 1930 – so in the year 2013, they are now reaching approximately 80-120 years of age!

Now these were not the first ever lenses to be produced for cameras as we know it; they were created earlier on in the 1800’s, and faster lenses were being pioneered for the purposes of portraiture in the middle of that century. For a much more comprehensive history of lenses, visit this Wikipedia page. Then we arrive in the late 1800’s, specifically 1891, which is the oldest date etched on some of mine.

Back then, the camera was very much a glorified light box with one of these lenses attached. A major reason why these lenses were very important is because they also had shutters built into them! That’s right, most of the adjustments could be made on a lens level (like shutter speed, exposure and focus). For this reason they were not only valuable because of the quality of glass within but for the shutter mechanisms themselves, which like our cameras of today, varied in speeds – the better ones having a wider range. When it comes to the lens makers, there are a few familiar faces and a few more obscure ones. I have a range of which I use frequently which includes Zeiss, Schneider, Bausch & Lomb and Meyer.

Now a totally valid question could be asked here… why on earth would one go to the trouble to adapt vintage lenses onto digital cameras? For me, it all comes down to the aesthetics of the final image, be it motion or still. Modern digital cameras have great, super duper sensors which are cable of capturing plenty of pixels and a ridiculous number of resolution lines. These are then put to work to create the sharpest and cleanest images possible – and this is terrific because it’s what everyone’s wanted from the digital camera revolution – perfection. But this perfection has now led us to hear people say that some images appear too ‘digital’ or ‘video’ like. Why do we say that? Isn’t perfection, well… perfect? Not exactly, because we have been accustomed, over 100+ years, to the appearance of celluloid film and its imperfections! To get around this, photographers and videographers alike are colour grading their images to have a more ‘filmic’ look. Ironic, isn’t it?

As you can see from the picture above of my Contessa Nettel, there is no standard lens mount, so forget about connecting them straight onto your Nikon! However for those ‘vintage’ lenses of the 1960’s, 70’s & 80’s, there are thousands of adapters which can be found relatively cheaply online in order to connect them with DSLR’s. One of these include the universal screw mount, M42, which can be found on eBay from $5. This is an inexpensive way of turning your M42 lens into a EF or even PL mount without spending several hundreds of dollars to permanently change the mount of a lens (which is not reversible, unless you pay for another mount surgery!). So, with that idea in mind I did some DIY, converting all my vintage lenses into the standard M42 mount. This gives me the freedom to chuck a cheap M42-to-ANYTHING mount adapter on for various camera systems, effectively giving me multi-mount lenses!

The last two hurdles were figuring out how to focus and how far the lens needed to be held from the sensor, as digital sensors are obviously different from these camera’s film planes (which ranged from 35mm to large format film and all sizes in between). Thankfully, the answer is easier than I first thought! In order to hold the lens at the require distance, simple M42 extension tubes are a perfect and inexpensive solution. Then these old camera’s used soft bellows to move the lens backwards/forward to focus, but a simple M42 focusing helicoid does the same thing (which is basically a lens housing without the glass). The picture below is one setup I have made which works with Canon EOS DSLR’s. From top to bottom: M42 focusing helicoid, M42 extension tube and a M42-EF adapter.

Film has many characteristics that modern cameras and new lenses struggle to recreate until in post production – and even then it is sometimes unattainable. Some major traits (which affect the ‘look’) include a wide dynamic range, the grain/texture and a general ‘softness’.

The dynamic range of film is superior and whilst digital is catching up, film also has a unique trait of retaining more information in the highlights, as well as having a much more gradual roll off effect. This can be somewhat cheated with these ultra-low contrast lenses… say for instance you’re shooting somewhere where the lighting situation creates too much dynamic range for your camera to handle and you would have to either crush blacks or overexpose. In this situation if you were to use a new multi-coated/high contrast lens it would only exasperate the camera’s problems, effectively increasing the dynamic range of the scene (causing more over/under exposure than one would like). On the other hand, a vintage ultra-low contrast lens will compress this dynamic range via less contrast into what could be a more manageable level of latitude for your camera’s capabilities. In addition to managing DR, I find that the tones have a much more gradual and subtle transition, whilst retaining information in the extremities (shadows & highlights).

In relation to the low contrast trait, new lens ideology is geared towards the sharpest image possible – whereas old lenses have limitations in this area. Many online forums and real world opinions will have the point of view that this is a trait which they cite when describing it’s negative characteristics and therefore won’t even give the lens a chance because of it. The reason I have written softness in inverted commas and say they appear to have less sharpness is just that – perceived softness. Something that appears soft from a vintage lens may very well be in focus, but the edges aren’t so defined with contrast. Film itself is also more random with its chemical process in comparison to the uniformity of digital sensors, so this perceived softness from the vintage glass is another trait which can help in the procedure of emulating film softness.

Grain is a difficult one for digital technology to create on its own, because today’s products are geared towards the perfect, cleanest images possible (that and the fact it’s not a chemical process!). These vintage lenses however are not technically perfect, and on a quality digital sensor, these imperfections tend to show up. Furthermore, but without scientific evidence, these imperfections seem to give a ‘grain-like’ texture to the image. I have a hunch that it has something to do with the way light bounces around the lens barrel less efficiently and effectively, but I have no evidence to substantiate that (and it’s probably a lot more complex too). Whilst it’s obviously not film grain, add this texture to the other things like less coatings, sprinkle a bit of dust between the lenses, and you have an imperfect image!

The image above has not been colour corrected or graded in any way.
It was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II, using a Schneider Xenar 16.5cm f5.5 lens.

I’m not a pixel peeper; I judge the ‘quality’ by looking at the images as they were intended to be viewed, be it printed on canvas or projected onto the silver screen. Maybe if I was to do more intense testing, I would find things that wouldn’t impress lens scientists – but that doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I have used the word imperfect when describing film and vintage lenses (the latter not doing so well in controlling flare and aberrations compared to modern optics), but a much more appropriate word would be character. This enchanting character which appears on these fabulous digital sensors (via vintage glass) does a decent job at mimicking film. I say mimicking because, for me, film is still king and the only time that will change is when digital produces the same images as film on command without post processing.

As a bookend, I’ve added a couple shots I recently took for a wedding using my 5DMK2 with a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar 12cm f4.5 lens, whilst the Land Rover Defender was shot with a Zeiss Triotar 12cm f6.3.