New Camera, Old Canon K35 Lenses: Some Thoughts on Buying Old Optics (Instead of New)
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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 Redrents.com]