Vintage Cinema Lens Library is the Most Exhaustive Lens Test We've Ever Seen
Behold: the most comprehensive library of vintage cinema lens imagery possible.
There is a lot of bad advice about lenses floating around in the world of filmmakers. You can say, "Brand X is really sharp and clinical," or "Brand Y is really flattering to skin tones," but without a solid test, you never really know precisely the effects of a lens. Sure, maybe it’s flattering to skin tones—but, then again, maybe that actor just has great skin. Needless to say, unless you have a real side-by-side lens shoot comparing the exact same scene with the exact same lighting and cast, it’s hard to discern between lenses.
Many of us have done lens comparisons of one or two sets of lenses to make a final decision for a project, but a group of LA filmmakers—Mark LaFleur, Brent Barbano, and Kyle Stryker—decided they wanted to compare all of the cinema lenses available.
"I wanted to create the lens test that I've always been wishing for when I've been doing my own research."
By teaming up with the ShareGrid community (where Barbano is a co-founder), Duclos Lenses, and Old Fast Glass, they created Vintage Cinema Lens Library. While they didn’t quite manage to shoot every single set of cinema glass ever made, these filmmakers have done the single most exhaustive lens test we've ever seen. No Film School sat down with LaFleur, Barbano, and Stryker to discuss the process of creating the library and what they learned.
No Film School: Who was doing what on the test?
Brent Barbano: Mark was the director. I was a producer and Kyle, who is an incredibly talented DP, shot it.
NFS: What drove the original decision?
Barbano: We had been planning to do a smaller test with Duclos Lenses for some time. The lenses I wanted to use, Mark actually owned, so we asked him, "Hey do you think we can borrow your lenses, and do you want to help out on this?" Mark said, "That's funny, because I'm actually getting ready to do this on my own." I thought, well, Mark is doing this, and he's probably going to make it look better than I was ever going to, so we might as well join forces and make it for both of us.
"We wanted to build a library where people can learn and research in one place when it comes to cinema glass."
Mark LaFleur: To show people what these lenses look like, it's a lot easier to show a video than [to try] to describe them—it ends up becoming like two people are speaking two different languages. Or it's just too difficult to describe. I really wanted to do something that I knew other than cinematographers like us would find really useful. [I hoped] they'd watch them and say, "That's exactly what I want to see when I'm trying to decide what lens I want to use or what lens I want to buy." I feel a lot of it came out of my own frustration that there wasn't already a really good resource like this. I wanted to create the lens test that I've always been wishing for when I've been doing my own research trying to figure out what each one looks like.
Barbano: The whole reason we at ShareGrid wanted to do this was to educate. We're trying to educate our filmmakers and our community. And lenses are obviously all the rage right now—everyone wants vintage lenses because of the advent of digital cinematography. We wanted to build a library where people can learn and research in one place when it comes to cinema glass. I hope we're able to add to it; we want to do more lenses in the future. Given the current climate of what's going on in the industry with technology, it was a no-brainer to do this.
NFS: What camera did you use?
Kyle Stryker: RED Epic Dragon. We shot 6K, sort of slightly outside of the Super-35mm field of view. I like open gate, and on the large sensor stuff, people are starting to look into the unseen area of the lenses, too. We ended up using that because there is a certain clinical purpose: sometimes with that camera, it looks like ultra resolution. We wanted to see what the lens was doing compared to internal beautification generated from other cameras. We wanted some of them to be almost unforgiving.
NFS: It’s nice, because if there is a lens that really doesn't cover the bigger image circle, you're going to see a little bit of vignetting at the edges that you wouldn't see otherwise if you just shot 5K Super-35mm. If you're an Epic weapon owner or you shoot on the 5D, you're going to be curious about what the coverage is like for the full aperture. I think 6K full frame was really a smart move. Was there an overall budget for this test?
Barbano: Yes [laughs] it was very low. We—Mark and I—split it, and I don't even remember what it was.
LaFleur: We kind of had two budgets. We did one where we factored in what the rental rate would have been for every lens set. Which I think was a good thing to do, because I think everybody wants to see a test like this, but I don't think they realize that it is actually not the easiest thing in the world or the cheapest thing in the world to put together…especially with this many lenses. Every lens set we had was donated. A lot of the equipment was donated, but we wanted to make sure we paid everybody involved, so the crew, the model, everybody got paid at least an indie film rate. Our wonderful location got donated.
"I was really scratching my head early on seeing how different [the lenses] were set to set. I didn't think it would be that dramatic right off the bat."
Barbano: To give you an example of how awesome this community is, just two days before our shoot, we lost our Super Baltars to a paid rental and a few other lens sets. But Mark knew someone that owned Leicas, and I found a set of Kowas on ShareGrid and asked the owner if he’d be down for the cause, he said, "I would love to come by and hang out and help out with the test," and he just let us use his lenses for free. I think that speaks to the community that we have.
NFS: You found the Master Primes on Facebook?
Barbano: Yes. I posted in a filmmaker community: "Hey, I'm doing this really crazy lens test. What is something that you would want to see on a test that isn't usually in it?" People were like, "What are you testing?" and then someone commented, "Alright, you need Master Primes?" People are just excited about doing something like this because it's something you do one-by-one. Usually, it's with your camera assistant with overhead florescent lighting, and it's not really a good controlled environment. Our background—we got so lucky—was the perfect bokeh machine for the lenses.
NFS: Are there any big surprises that you felt like you learned from the lenses?
Stryker: Originally, we started with a Master Prime, and whenever we went to our next set I was a little bit confused. When we went to that first vintage set I thought I did something incorrect on the camera, because the difference in the vignette and the coverage—it was just so much muddier. I was scratching my head and thought, "Oh, am I doing these lighting ratios wrong?" I talked with Mark and Brent. I was like, "Okay, either we can move forward and keep the settings actually the same, or we can try and adjust the shutter and camera to try and keep the key light exposure so it's right as far as the waveform and IREs go. Or do we want to just present the lenses as is?" We made the adjustment to change the shutter and modify our exposure a little bit more than we typically would just so you get a clearer representation of what the lenses are.
"There are no winners or losers. Every lens just has its own character, and they really stand out."
If you are going through a set of lenses and then one set is suddenly about half a stop darker, I feel like anyone watching the test is going to get a misrepresentation of that lens. Because if you really liked that set, you would compensate for that on the shoot. We wanted it to be purely aesthetic and make sure that each lens got its fair game. But I was really scratching my head early on there seeing how different they were set to set. I didn't think it would be that dramatic right off the bat.
LaFleur: I own a lot of these lenses, and I knew they had unique character, but my small fear was that—especially stopped down to 2.8—a lot of them would start to look the same. It was almost like, "Oh no, are we pulling some curtains back and the big secret is that all lenses look the same?" [Laughs] If you watch this test from Lens A, and somebody went out in his backyard with his girlfriend and shot something for five minutes, then you watch another test with another completely different set of lenses that somebody did in their living room, it's really hard to see the specifics between the two lenses, especially if they're shot on a similar camera at a similar F stop. It can be like, "Alright, well the background fell off,” but how much can you tell?
Just like Kyle said, when we were in testing and we started to go through a few sets of lenses, I remember somebody was like, "Hey, this is working." Like, "Oh my god, these differences are extreme." Not even just the nerdy DPs like us; anybody seeing it would be really impressed. It was so striking, and that's what makes me really happy about these tests, the fact that we put as much effort as we could into keeping things so consistent throughout the tests. The only variable that changed at all was the lens itself—that's making it so obvious how different these all are, how unique they are. There are no winners or losers. Every lens just has its own character, and they really stand out.
Barbano: The color shift is just so shockingly different. Even within the family of lenses, it shifts. I think that was a nice little surprise as I was going through the edit process. To see certain lenses more desaturated, and other lenses warmer, and other ones are cool, and other ones are green. Sometimes your brain adjusts quickly so that you don't notice it as much.
NFS: Will there also be a BTS video showing the lighting setup information?
Stryker: Yes. We have an Excel spreadsheet with all of our findings. Our first and second AC were very meticulous which was essential for something like this. Since we have it all written down, we can actually create an overhead to give people an idea of what the actual setup is, like what types of gels and how hot the key was, this was the fill, etc.
Barbano: Yes, and there is going to be a BTS video, which will give you a better understanding of the entire shoot.
NFS: Are there any plans for big-screen viewing?
Barbano: Right now, it's entirely for the web. We wanted to upload these as 4K, but given the fact that YouTube and their compression isn't the best, plus time constraints, we stuck to 1080.
LaFleur: We did want to give people access. We also talked about letting them download R3D files. We shot RED and we shot Dragon Color 2 and Red Gamma 4. We wanted to use those presets because if somebody takes an .R3D and they plug it into REDCINE, not only are they going to see full resolution, but they're also going to see exactly what the standards are that RED has created. It's almost like a Rec 709. They are able to see those on their computer, and then they can toggle through it. They can look at the raw file, they can lift the shadows way up so they can see deeper into the shadows to see what that vignette really looks like if you were to color correct it a little bit.
"We want to present this in a scientific way, but also a very unbiased way, so it's a genuine apple-to-apple comparison."
We want to present this in a scientific way, but also a very unbiased way, so it's a genuine kind of apple-to-apple comparison where there's no favoritism towards a lens. We're not trying to make anything look better or worse; we're just presenting it exactly as it is. No color correction has been done, no sharpening's has been done. You're really getting to see exactly what these things look like.
NFS: Web is actually the perfect format because 90% of new videos and commercials live on the web. If you're doing vintage lenses for a theatrical feature, you'd probably pay to test those lenses for that feature. Honestly, I bet if you put R3Ds up, maybe only 10 people would download them. One of them would probably be me [laughter]. I'm glad you're willing to put the R3Ds up so that we can play with them and use them to compare, and I think not touching anything is the right move. If you were going to do the test again, what would you do differently?
LaFleur: It comes down to time. Obviously, we wanted to get as many lenses as we could, and if we did it again—and we're planning on doing it again—I want to get more lenses or do an entire anamorphic test and a zoom test. Then the other thing is, "How do we have a test that is efficient as possible?" Because we were doing every focal length, which to me is really important. When you do that—and we did the test wide open and stopped down for a couple of these lenses—every time you do a new aperture, you double just the length of your tests and of your shoot days.
I'm sure we're going to have people out there that are going to say, "Hey, how come you didn't shoot that at 5.6? How come you didn't shoot that an at 8?" I wish that we could shoot at every aperture and give people even more. It just came down to time.
NFS: Was there a common theme era to era? Were the brands more continuous over time, or were lenses more similar to other lenses made at the same time?
Stryker : I think it was really kind of interesting to see the patterns from the 1940s through the 1960s. It's almost like they were built for that 1:3:3 aspect ratio. They’re kind of built to draw you, the viewer, into the center of the images, the way that people used to frame things. Like the lens was made for the format, where it's just kind of pulling you into the image. Then jumping to the 21st century with the master prime, and seeing just how different the housing and everything is. And then you have the Super Speeds and you see how the mechanics are so similar to what we have now.
The Super Speeds were the Master Primes of their day. That's the reason why they were the workhorses, and to see how well they hold up in terms of sharpness, especially once you stop down a little bit, was pretty interesting.
I think one of the most effective things that we got is the side-to-side coverage. That way we aren't just looking straight into a locked-off shot; we pan across and see what that vignette and everything looks like.
"We wanted to make it aesthetic. It's more about being able to sit back and take in the lens."
NFS: What would you say was the “reference” lens? Maybe Canon or Master Primes?
Barbano: Zeiss Master Prime. And I think Canon is kind of in that same range. They're not trying to show too much personality—the lenses are trying to take a step back, just focusing on the images, the contrast, the sharpness. Some of the other lenses definitely take more creative liberties.
LaFleur: I think one of the biggest advantages DPs have now is this amazing access to the internet and forums. I've gotten all kinds of information from RED user. But there's a lot of bad information and a lot of people not really being objective, giving opinions. I've read information online that I know is wrong, and this can correct that bad info. They can come see for themselves.
Like, you read, "Oh, this lens is not sharp. This lens doesn't cover 5K.” You know, someone just saying something and who knows if they got a bad lens, or if they were just out of focus, when they shot, or if that lens needed service. Some of these lenses are so old. If you don't service them regularly, you can't get a shot in focus. I remember the last time I got my super-speed serviced, I actually thought that my 25mm was just a little bit of a soft lens. Got it serviced, all of a sudden, it was like, "Oh, no. This is the sharpest lens in the set."
You can go to a resource where no one is trying to push a lens on you, or talk it up, or talk it down. You can just go there and see, "Oh, okay. This is what this lens looks like." There's no BS. There's no bias.
Stryker: Yes. Though we did shoot a chip chart, we didn't have a bunch of technical stuff within the frame, because we wanted to make it aesthetic. It's more about just kind of being able to sit back and take in the lens. I think one of the interesting things is going to be to see how the Nikon rehoused lenses hold up to some of these lenses that are almost, like, ancient and they just don't make them anymore, like the Panchros, and to see how they compare.
LaFleur: It was nice to have a $500 85mm Nikon up against a $20,000, 75mm Master Prime. You have to decide if you're making a project, where do you want to save your money? If a lens can give you an aesthetic that you are really happy with, and it's going to save you a ton of money and you don't mind making those sacrifices, that right there is super valuable.
Barbano: ShareGrid is so powerful because we're kind of unlocking that indie market, the independently-owned gear. And as co-founder, I can say that I'm shocked by how much amazing gear is out there. I just can't believe how many people own so many different sets of vintage glass. Some of it's original housing, some of it's, like, you said, rehoused for cinema, and these are so highly sought-after right now. I'm excited to be a part of it and to unlock our community for everyone.
LaFleur: The best way to make your project stand out is with vintage lenses. I'm getting more and more into vintage anamorphic lenses lately. Because there are a lot of spherical lenses that side-by-side, especially if you stop down, you can kind of get a very similar look with. If you want to go that extra step, anamorphic is pretty crazy. I don't think it's going to be a fad. I think this is just a natural progression of the fact that people can buy really affordable cameras these days. I think people are starting to realize that, "Oh my God! There are so many lenses out there." If you were using Cooke Panchros and you stayed in film business long enough and the Cooke S4's came out, you were probably just so grateful that you had a lens that was a step up like that. Now, digital makes things so clean that I love that we have this urge to dirty up the frame and to make things look more interesting.
"Since the advent of digital cinematography, there's this renaissance of vintage glass in both the professional/high budget world as well as the small indie world."
But it's like anything. It's supply and demand. IBC just announced 10 new super cheap great lenses, but they're all going to have a very modern, very clean look. I think there's still going to be a demand for vintage glass. Kowas.... there's only so many of those things out there. That's going to affect their price. If you have a project coming up and you keep reading on all these forums that K-35's are the cool lens to shoot on, and you go try to find a set for your shoot, they might not even be out there. There's only so many. I don't know how many times I've read that after 4-by-3—after the RED came out and the Alexa with a 4-by-3 sensor—all the Panavision anamorphic lenses, they're booked up for a year out. Big time DPs shooting blockbuster movies, they're not able to get Panavision anamorphic, so they go and they shoot Hawk. That's how crazy this trend is getting right now. I hope it's going to level off. I don't think anyone's going to pay a million dollars for a set of Baltars.
LaFleur: There might be some inflation in price. To a certain extent, I think some of it is actually legitimate because they are rare and they are special. A lot of these lenses you can't reproduce. They're made out of things like radioactive pieces of glass. They're made with lead. Their coatings are made with mercury. No joke. Matt Duclos [Editor's Note: From Duclos Lenses and the amazing blog TheCineLens] was telling us a story about a lens that he knew was pretty radioactive. And he had to tell a client, "I'm sorry. We can't take that lens from you."
Stryker: Sometimes, producers get stuck on what's the popular gear at the time. I feel like a lot of people just kind of default to Cooke S4s. Okay, that's an in-between, where I'm getting the aesthetic that I want and also modern mechanics. You don't necessarily get the most aesthetically pleasing image. At that point, you're kind of just looking at information. You're just getting sharpness, color resolution. It might not exactly be what's right for your project.
Barbano: We have seen a dramatic shift in the indie world of filmmaking. Since the advent of digital cinematography, there is this renaissance of vintage glass in both the professional/high budget world as well as the small indie world. It’s really exciting. A lot of digital cameras can be considered too clean or sharp and consequently, filmmakers and cinematographers are looking for ways to give their projects a “look" and to add some character. So rental houses, collectors, and the like are dusting off what used to be forgotten lenses, and filmmakers are renting and buying them like never before.
We’ve been editing and building this library for over a month. Close to 100 videos have been edited, and I couldn’t have done it without our team. It was fun and exciting throughout the entire process. What shocks me the most is the varying degrees of differences you see—not only brand to brand, but even within each brand. Color temp, contrast, sharpness, vignetting...it all changes for each lens, and unless you have a resource like this to truly compare these many scenarios, you can never really grasp the range of differences.
Take a look at the ShareGrid Vintage Cinema Lens test, which went live today.