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New Camera, Old Canon K35 Lenses: Some Thoughts on Buying Old Optics (Instead of New)

05.22.12 @ 9:45AM Tags : , , ,

A little while ago I posted a RED SCARLET torture test (so-called because of subzero temperatures and other limitations of the shoot) that I shot on some 35 year-old Canon K35 prime lenses. A couple of commenters asked why I would choose to buy lenses that have been on this earth longer than I have, instead of getting new Canon glass (for which RED has an inexpensive mount) or something else currently on the market. For one, I like the idea of older lenses combined with the new ultra-sharp imagers, which are sometimes too sharp for my tastes. The K35s won an Academy Award in 1977 and have been used on several features over the years (Aliens being the best example I could find on IMDb), but I doubt they hold up to modern CAD lenses like the Cooke Panchros in the sharpness department. I don’t recommend this approach for most people, and this remains an in-progress experiment, but if you’re interested in the thought process, feel free to read on.

First of all, here’s the lineup: 18mm T1.5, 24mm T1.6, 35mm T1.4, 55mm T1.4, 85mm T1.4. Cinema lenses of this speed have actually come down in price since I bought the K35s, thanks to Zeiss announcing new Super Speed CP.2s for $4500 — before that, still lenses were really your only bet if you want anything faster than F2 on a budget (for recommended DSLR still lenses, see here). PL cinema lenses start at roughly $4k a lens, the Cooke Panchros that we shot Pull Back on are about double that, and as an owner/operator I was looking for something significantly cheaper. The K35s fit the bill, and they’re extremely fast. They don’t hold up to the latest, greatest cinema lenses, but neither would my wallet. Basically what I wanted was something that would be good enough for commercials, music videos, shorts… though I don’t plan on using them on the A-camera of my feature. That’s when you rent the best glass you can get your hands on, instead of shooting on what you happen to own. The truth is, if you’re doing a proper production with a proper crew/budget/DP, you can frequently come by a deal on camera package and lenses, and should not shoot with whatever it is you happen to have in your closet. Unless what you have in your closet is as good as what you can get your hands on!

Another reason I got them: size. Here’s a picture of the 24mm lens mounted on the SCARLET:

It’s tiny! Compare it to the RED 18-85mm zoom lens, which is a gargantuan beast:

There are number of other reasons, broken down below. Note that these lenses are pretty rare (I will only be using them for my own projects, as you can’t rent out something whose replacement cost may be much higher than the price you paid), so if you find these reasons convincing, you may not be able to run out and get a set.

  1. The RED is not as good in low light as the Canon C300 or F3, but compared to most cinema primes that open to a maximum aperture of T/2 or even T/2.8, a RED with T/1.4 primes should fair well by comparison in terms of light sensitivity (being able to pull focus is another matter). It can’t hurt to have the extra stop or two, for flexibility’s sake.
  2. As you can see above, they’re sized like still lenses and weight about two pounds each, which is about 1/3 that of a Red Pro Prime. When you’re shooting with a small and light camera, lenses that follow suit make a lot of sense, especially if you’re going to be filming a sports movie (as I am) where you really want to be able to get in the middle of the action.
  3. Being proper cinema primes, they have stopless aperture rings and geared focus rings with distance markings. They do NOT have an extremely long focus throw — somewhere between still lenses and the 270-degree throw of a Zeiss CP.2 prime — which I prefer for hand-racking without a follow-focus.
  4. Their flares and halation characteristics are unique, which I happen to like. For times when it’s too much… time to break out a matte box. Strangely, however, on a couple of the lenses the iris ring is at the very front of the lens — like, literally at the front, where the lens meets the matte box — so I haven’t yet found a good matte box solution. Any ideas?
  5. They have 14 aperture blades which makes for perfectly round, pleasing bokeh highlights. One blade in the 35mm lens is stuck, so I’ll need to have it serviced.
  6. As I mentioned, they won a technical Academy Award in 1977 and have been used on films like Aliens, Rocky 2, and a few shots of Barry Lyndon. As well as that masterpiece of cinematography, Gremlins 2: The New Batch. They even came in a very nice case with the old Universal Studios (“the Entertainment Center of the World”) logo on them.
  7. They cover full frame for 5K applications (and supposedly even 6K, though until the Dragon sensor comes out, there’s no way of knowing — not to mention the fact that the SCARLET will likely not shoot 6K except at low frame rates… unless they offer a SCARLET-to-EPIC upgrade path with the Dragon paid upgrade).
  8. I got a good deal on them. Not through any special connection, but simply by knowing that I wanted a set and by watching eBay closely. For example, one of them just sold on eBay for $4500 (I paid less by buying them as a set). They’re pretty rare lenses, however — normally searching for Canon K35 lens on eBay won’t you get many results, if any.

All of that said, I don’t expect the K35s to hold up to resolution and chromatic aberration tests in the way that a modern CAD lens would. 35 years is a long time and surely modern techniques yield scientifically better optics. But they are excellent lenses full of character.

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Finally, these lenses are BNCR mount, not PL — BNCR was a precursor to PL and is functionally very similar. However, because the mount is no longer in active production, BNCR lenses tend to be cheaper (thus getting an excellent deal on them). This is one way in which having a camera that has interchangeable lens mounts comes in handy — whereas the Canon C300 and C500 make you pick PL or EF mounts, the RED DMSC system is adaptable to just about anything with a mount change that takes a minute or two (it’s just a matter of removing some Torx T20 screws). Visual Products makes a RED BNCR mount, which I’m using (you can have BNCR lenses converted to PL but it’s apparently pretty complicated and expensive). While the K35s proved worthy in the brief test I put them through, I still want to put them side-by-side with some other PL glass and shoot some charts to see how they do.

Speed, size, weight, sharpness, mechanics, bokeh rendition, price, rentability, sensor size coverage, coloration, focal lengths… there are a lot of considerations to keep in mind and these fit the bill for me. Hopefully talking about the thought process behind buying these lenses was helpful to anyone considering new versus used optics!

[Canon K35 image from]


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Description image 36 COMMENTS

  • Awesome post. I happen to love the qualities of older lenses as well, as extreme sharpness is not always tantamount in the types of stories I end up shooting (and I find flares lovely most of the time). Though I find that they’re not terribly good for wide shots, their rendering of tone gradation is (in my experience) shockingly filmic and smooth.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post. More about lenses less about cameras! ;)

  • I totally hear you on the old glass + new tech aesthetic. I would buy a set of these in an heartbeat. There’s so much character in those old “flawed” or less than optically perfect lenses. People pay so much and spend so much time recreating the look of vintage glass only to have a close approximation when the real deal is much nicer in the end.

    I can see the argument that a razor sharp lens, clean flat image, and all that, leaves more latitude and flexibility to make whatever look you want, but that also assumes a certain level of budget to facilitate that work, which isn’t always available. Plus every example of something like flare characteristics always looks better if it’s the real lens versus digital (short of a massive budget and being born JJ Abrams).

    • While I definitely understand the value of a flat, supersharp image on the post end, I still think a cinematographer should know what he’s setting out to accomplish with a look before he goes into shooting. Determining this look later on only takes power away from the DP and gives it to whoever is at the reigns later, be that the producer, director, or even the colorist.

      • Yeah that’s actually a really good point; and something I hadn’t considered until recently. From what I understand it’s pretty common that DP’s, if they’re even given the opportunity, don’t get paid to sit with the colorist and make sure the final look is in line with their original vision. They’re basically doing it at their own expense to make sure there isn’t a disconnect between the final and the original vision.

      • I agree. That’s why I have a normal profile and a flat one. I paint with the normal profile then record with the flat.

  • I shot a feature in 1988 as focus puller with a set of K35:
    The 35mm has an extremely short focus throw – a nightmare!
    The lenses are even less flare resistant than the old Zeiss B-Speeds and will produce a lot of ghosting with direct light sources like car lights.
    Wide open they are soft but from a T stop above 2.0-2.8 they are crisp and contrasty.
    For $ 4’500 you can find used Zeiss MKII standard speeds with iris gears and PL mounts. They are usable wide open (T2.1) and have a longer focus throw.

    • Thanks for the comment, Claudio. They definitely have their quirks!

      • MadMonkFish on 05.25.12 @ 11:28AM

        Koo – just an FYI on prices. The Ebay seller you linked to has very inflated prices…

        For example, they’re selling a Lomo 20-120 zoom for over $10K… it’s market value is about $1.5-$3K depending in condition (and PL mounting vs original OCT-19). Even with the rare anamorphic rear back for this Ana, the price should be between $4K-$5K – so they’re double in price.

        I don’t have any problems with the free market and people making a profit… it’s just that (as I mentioned in my other post), a single piece of info can drive the price in crazy directions (as with Anamorphic stuff a year ago)… the interweb is a mad place – LOL :)

        • Yeah, I wasn’t trying to drive prices up or anything — those were literally the ONLY K35s on eBay at the time I was writing this. And compared to what they usually sell for the price was not that inflated (as evidenced by the fact that they sold for the buy it now price).

  • It’s really interesting to see that you have lenses that were used in, what I consider, a hayday of modern cinema. Perhaps it’s because that is when I was a kid and I grew up (repeatedly) watching movies like Aliens. I have felt that the movies back then had a preferable “lively” feel to them. Everything wasn’t so “perfect” and antiseptic.
    I can’t wait to go to a place when i can see your tests.
    As far as your matte box concern with the focus rings in front, i’m sure that the front element doesn’t budge an inch when focusing so you can bring the matte box right up to the lens. perhaps a rubber baffel or something can extend to the lens, just a long as it’s smaller then the gears and wider then the FOV i’m sure it’ll work. This is all specualtion as I have yet to see the actual clearances of the lenses.
    Can’t wait to see how it works out for Man-Child.

  • It’s purely in the realm of taste and opinion, of course, but the combination of modern super-sharp lenses and digital sensors has got to be among the most disheartening, imagination-killing developments in cinema.

    One reason people who still read tend to “get into” novels far more than movies could be that the mind has to do some of the work; the imagination is engaged in a way passive entertainment discourages. When images are literal to the point of distress — super-sharp unfiltered closeups of faces, for example — there’s nothing left for the mind to do but recoil. It’s dead, dead dead.

    Granted, there will always be contemporary subjects for which super-sharpness might be desirable. But as a trend — you have to wonder if anyone bothered to consider the consequences. Since when is fidelity to reality an asset in fiction?

    • “Since when is fidelity to reality an asset in fiction?”

    • old post I know, but watch The Girl WTDT, that’s got all the detail in the faces and then some, shot on master primes. There’s no death in that picture (metaphorically speaking). The art doesn’t stop at the front element.

  • john jeffreys on 05.22.12 @ 11:37AM

    i like your dining table koo

  • MadMonkFish on 05.22.12 @ 11:38AM

    Well – the K-35′s will be the new Lomo’s for a while… as with Eoshd’s experiments on anamorphic that helped rocket the price of Foton-A diopters and OCT-18 (cheaper Russian cine glass) a while ago, Koo’s post will have the young-guns scrambling for this type of glass.

    Vintage/antique cinema glass (Cooke, Angie, Lomo etc) has a nice feel and does give a look that decreases the sharp digital feel. Combine this with more filtration (antique suede or tobacco etc) and you get a very filmic (in terms of old er looking) and dreamy image.

  • forgive me if you mentioned in the article, but what might i ask did you pay for the set?

  • I agree 100% that older lenses are the way to go for quality glass at a cheap price.

    I would go far enough to say that some old glass are like classic cars and outperform modern lenses in certain ways.

    The canon K35 looks decent but still out of my current price range- I’ve had great success with my Leica R set and put them on a RED epic for superb images-

  • It all depends on what you like. Some people like clinical over-sharp images and some like a more natural look. Also it depends upon the story, a SciFi film should have a different look from a bodice-ripper.

    Since the beginning, many cinematographers have fought _over-sharpness_ with nets and various filters. Even today DPs are stretching nets behind the lens.

    I like the look of Cooke lenses better than I do Zeiss lenses. Cooke lenses are sharp, but don’t have the clinical look. Cooke has also brought back the Panchro line of lenses

    Other popular lenses of the past:
    1. Angenieux . Known mainly for their zoom lenses. Seems like every TV commercial shot in the 1970s used an Angenieux 25-250mm lens. Their 12-120 was popular with 16mm documentary film-makers.

    2. The Bosch & Lomb Optics BALTAR lenses were used for many Classic Hollywood movies. Rent a set from Duclos Lens

    3. Kinoptik. Their 9.8mm Tegea t/1.8 was the widest Super35 lens for a long time. Used for many “new wave” and “spaghetti westerns”. Most of them I’ve seen were in the original ARRI mount. They were also made in Eclair CA-1 mount.

  • Hi,

    as I recall the Canon K35 are not used as A-Camera lenses in Aliens – only as “Stunt” and “B camera” lens. They are not many relevant shoots in Aliens from the K35. Its like in Star Wars Phantom Menace where a company claims “Our Powerscope lenses (old russian lens designs refreshed) were used in Phantom Menace”…..well they only used this lenses in 2-3 underwater shoots (the first scenes at the lake where Obiwan dives into water) and thats because…..the german Hawk Anamorphic lenses where “too expensive & precious” to be used underwater and the Powerscopes where much cheaper in rental.

    So…..sentences like “was used in…” doesnt count for nothing.

    If I look at your movie above than I have to say (and please take this as constructive critique) for that “look” and that “lack of sharpness, balanced exposure & composition” you really dont need a RED + K35 Lenses. You could easily get the same results with cheaper gear.

    Go over to vimeo and watch the trailer for the ultra low budget feature of “musgo” from a spanish filmmaker with a GH2 + Nikkor lenses and very little gear he shoot a very interesting “independant movie”.


    He managed to get a look which works. Not the gear counts – your abilities are much more relevant.



  • At the much, much cheaper end of town, I found $8 adapters on eBay to make my ancient (1960s or 70s) Super-Takumar M42 Pentax lenses work on my Canon DSLR. A 270° focus throw on a couple of them helps a lot, too.

  • Anybody know which lenses are more prone to flaring? And then, those that flare but, don’t ghost too much?
    I’ve seen images with beautiful flares but, the image is still contrasty, without the ‘milkyness’ that often accompanies it. I have a set of Nikkors that will flare a bit but, they tend to ghost a little more than I like.

  • This is a very god comment on these lenses !
    I have an original set for sale: in PL mount: 24/35/50/85 all are T1.3
    They have been serviced and calibrated ann are clean, they have been my personal lenses for many years.
    Reason for selling: I more and more have to work with gear supplied by the production company
    Contact mdb (at)


    mark de blok nsc soa

  • Rev. Benjamin on 05.24.12 @ 12:07AM

    All that make-sense stuff aside… it’s probably just plain fun to put a set of those old lenses on your new cam, right? : )

  • Stefano Ceccon on 05.24.12 @ 4:22PM

    K35 beautiful lens I used for years with great satisfaction.
    I have the only zoom, the 25-120 T2.8 PL mount Macro.
    Colors are very beautiful and also contrasts.
    Now I have decided to sell it, too heavy (6,5KG). 70% of the videos, which I produce, have Documentary. A lot to shoulder.

  • Not sure if it is the k35 glass or the RED but I LOVE the look of that video. Does anyone know of some good affordable lenses (>1000 dollars), either old lenses or new, that could be adapted onto a dlsr?

  • OK, it is a year later and I am a year wiser. My experience with lenses has been this: With 3 cameras – The Sony Z5 (tiny 1/3″ sensor), the Canon 5D (monster full frame sensor) and the Sony FS100 (Super 35mm sensor), and making use of 8 Zeiss Contax / Zeiss primes and zooms, I find that the f1.4 waaaaaaay too much shallow depth of field on both the Canon and Sony.f100 This shallow depth of field issue / craze has gone overboard. I simply don’t like it on a 50mm and 85mm at f1.4 at close range (under 5-10′). These translate of course to 75mm and 120mm, lenses on the Sony F100, that are for the most part a bit too much telephoto and when wide open, produces a rather useless picture when coming in close. The dof up real close (2-3′) is about 1/2″ and the out of focus is sooo muchthat the picture becomes mush and certainly loses it’s brilliance – looking like a cheap throw away lens from 1900. For those lenses up real close, I have to stop down to f2 to get a better result, maybe f 2.8. Which defeats the purpose of f1.4. On a night shot and NOT up close, they are fine, but getting tight head shots and facial expressions which is core to good movies – f1.4 just does not work.

    But put on my 28 f2.8 (37 on the Sony), at f2.8, the picture is rather nice. The out of focus part is just about right – OK, f 2 would be a tad better, but this works nicely. When I study great movie after great movie, (Ben Hur, ET, Private Ryan, etc.), I see little to no evidence of the use of these super shallow dof lenses. In fact, I am wondering how do they get the crisp night shots without it. Wonderful clarity! It is interesting to note that the Oscar winner, “The King’s Speech” was shot with all wide angle lenses – some as wide as 10-15mm I think – for face shots!!

    I can see why Zeiss keeps things to f2.0 now.

    And another thing. Who gives a rats ass whether it is f2 of T2.1? In the end, few measures light anymore with digital cameras since you see the picture on live view. With, film, yes you need it – but what was the last film shot on film? You dial in what you want on the final image. I no longer care or rarely look at the actual f stop setting, except to get the precise amount of dof that I want for that picture and the proper exposure. I adjust gain, add ND’s or filters, adjust the lights or with careful reservation, the shutter speed to achieve the results desired. F stop, T stop, whatever, is a control to getting that perfect shot – whatever it just happens to come to.

    It is time to stop being a pixel peeper, gear junkie, lens nut, a camera 4, 8, 100k! junkie, optician, and simply find the best optics, and shoot like hell and make a good story with brilliant cinematography. These seem to be lost arts and that is where the focus and aperture should be. An awesome lens lens will not guarantee you good profits, awards or even an Oscar. But Blair Witch using a junkie camera made $3M. Waterworld with all of the highest of the high techs lost 100M. In fact I heard somewhere that Hollywood loses money on 9 out of 10 films and depends on blockbusters to make up the shortfall. Get good stuff and shoot brilliant movies. Enough of this lens stuff already.

  • altavistalives on 05.26.12 @ 9:26AM

    It’s nice to see the explosion in film making has degenerated into equipment testing.
    Might I suggest a script and an old Super 8 or VHS camera would sort the men from the boys.
    Is it any wonder the studios know they can get away with releasing tat like Battleship.

  • Late but I guess they were used to shoot ‘American Hustle’. Haven’t seen it yet but its got Sources at Super16, Super8 and Techniscope! Excited to see…should look very 70s.