View Full Version : Vintage lenses

14-Feb-2004, 20:02
Some time ago, a guy at Lens and Repro told me that older lenses are the principal reason why photographs in the 30s, 40s and 50s look different from modern photographs. I have two questions. First, do people think that the lenses, as distinct from other factors from emulsions to lighting styles, are really the principal reason for the difference in look? Secondly, if you were asked to recommend a vintage lens, what would it be, why would you choose it and what would you use it for?

Bob Fowler
14-Feb-2004, 20:35
Some rather random thoughts...

The big difference in modern vs vintage lenses is the coatings. The modern multi-coated lenses exhibit more contrast as they are less prone to flare. There are a lot of 4 elements in 3 group tessar type lenses being made today that are superior in contrast to those made 70 years ago, but that doesn't make them better lenses, it's all a matter of application. You don't always need (nor want) the sharpest knife in the drawer...

Old vs new films is yet another story. Older film types didn't have a lot of the anti-halation properties that more modern films have. Single, thick layer emulsions look much different than some of the modern multi-layer films.

Portraiture, especially during the 20's through the 40's, used to be shot with hot lights - with various size fresnel spots being very popular. The use of umbrellas and soft-boxes with strobes has made a big difference in the "look" of portraiture. Unfortunately, there isn't too much of a variety of spotlight strobe heads available, and those that ARE available are very expensive.

As for a vintage lens, the answer is the usual "it depends"... What are you going to use it for? What format are you shooting?

Some favorites (no particular order): Kodak 10" or 12" Commercial Ektar, Ross 8 1/2" f/5.6 Homocentric, Graflex 90mm f/6.8 Optar, Goerz 6" Dagor, the list goes on and on...

John Kasaian
14-Feb-2004, 20:36

Vintage lenses are a great fun. For B+W contacts I feel they are the best deal for the money. Even for enlargements, many are superb performers and many of the later models were well corrected for color. The real beauty is that you can afford to buy one, try it out, sell it if you don't like it then buy and try out another with losing $$. If there is dark cloud under the silver lining, it is that most are uncoated, or at best single coated, and are likely to live in shutters that may or may not be 'junk.' The remedy is to use a lens shade of some sort(hat, darkslide, etc...) when bright light is a problem(a good idea with even brand spankin' new lenses, too) and stick with shutters known to respond well to a cla(compur, ilex acme and universal, copal, wollensaks, compound) or develop your technique for using barrel lenses and a lenscap, a packard, or a focal plane shutter (if your camera is equipped with one.)

As far as the "look" goes, old glass like meniscus and petzvals certainly have a distinct look as do the soft portrait lenses(when shot at wide apertures---most are quite sharp when stopped down, as do the rapid rectillinears.)

There is also a certain unmeasureable "feeling" that goes with using a classic like a dagor, commercial ektar, or old wollensak, knowing you're looking through the same dearly paid for glass some other like-minded photographer did 50 or even 100 years ago. Some may say this is BS, but I think not.

Good luck!

David A. Goldfarb
14-Feb-2004, 21:22
Lenses are part of it. It's also the case that a lot more professional photographers were shooting 8x10" and 11x14" in the studio in those days. I love my classic lenses in those formats (mostly Dagors, a Wide-Field Ektar, a Heliar, a Verito soft-focus lens, an Apo-Artar, Berthiot Perigraphe ultrawide, and probably a couple of others I've left out), but I'll admit that they don't stand up to enlargement as well as more modern lenses. In part they weren't really designed to, so I usually use post-1960 lenses in 4x5", but I usually prefer the look of an 8x10" contact print with a Dagor or Heliar, say, to an 8x10" enlargement from 4x5" made with a modern lens.

John Kasaian
14-Feb-2004, 23:01

Ultimately, its your decision which lens you use, but the reputation of a given lens does say something for it. If a lot of folks are getting the 'warm fuzzys' over dagors, heliars, veritos or ektars there is a reason behind it, and its not just sentimentality---I'm not aware of too many old timers lugging around deardorffs these days, spreading the word about how great the lens they used to shoot the '06 quake was;-) Many lenses that have achieved lasting fame were the commercial state of the art standard at one point in the not too distant past(dagors, commercial ektars, and symmars come to mind.) or were legends in the graphic arts industry(artars, r-clarons and such) Considering that all these lenses would be old enough to vote(and no doubt collect social security, too!) and are still sought after 'workers' is a testament of sorts. None of these lenses will make your photos look good if you don't do your part, but then none of these lenses are going to make your photos look any worse because they aren't the newest offerings from germany or japan, either. If you are pro, the equipment you use is almost dictated by the nature of the end process (such as digital reproduction in print or on-line)---its what is expected and what you'll (hopefully) be paid for. For the rest of us, there is a great deal more artistic as well as economic freedom in selecting our weapons. There is also the cold hard fact that if Weston could wow the world with a turner reich, Weegee could capture the soul of New York City with an ektar, Adams could shoot enormous murals with a dagor, and Hurrell could turn actresses into sex godesses with a verito(this list can go on for awhile) then I certainly can't complain about being handicapped by my vintage glass!

Steve Hamley
15-Feb-2004, 07:55

Others have posted several good reasons to use or not use vintage lenses. I'll add a couple more, both to use and not use.

If you're looking for a cost savings, the best bet is a slightly used modern lens. Popular good quality vintage lenses in really good condition, like Dagors and Artars can easily cost as much as their contemporary counterparts, or a significant fraction therof (like 90%). Late coated Heliars are getting more rare and costly, as are the longer Dagors. Most do not use modern standard filter sizes, which means custom filter adapters if you want to use them with modern filters. And most will require glass and shutter CLA or remounting because the shutter is old and worn and the lens elements have some internal haze from age - and if you get a barrel lens, add $450 - $550 to the cost to get it put in a modern shutter.

So why use one? There are several good reasons, lower contrast and other optical qualities, coverage, and weight. For example, a 8-1/4" Dagor is tiny and will cover 8x10 stopped down (just barely). A 210 mm Super Symmar XL is obviously superior, but weighs 4-1/2 pounds and takes the same screw-in filter as the Hubble telescope.

For 4x5 there are no coverage reasons to use a vintage lens, but as the format gets larger, the coverage reasons become more compelling. Most modern lenses aren't made to cover 8x10 anymore, at least in manageable sizes, whereas many vintage lenses were. One reason Dagors are so popular is that many will cover 8x10 in the shorter to normal lengths, in a time when 8x10 use seems to be growing rapidly. If you're talking larger than 8x10 formats, the choice of currently manufactured lenses is near zero in the normal and moderately wide lengths.

Others use vintage lenses for the lower contrast or other optical characteristics. As David Goldfarb pointed out, a picture taken with a Heliar has a certain "smoothness", likely because it has some uncorrected abberations that would never be permitted in a modern lens. Steve Simmon's book has a low-contrast landscape taken by Morley Baer with a 19" Artar which is implied by Simmons, chosen for its smooth rendering. Older lenses generally (but not always) produce better out of focus rendering (bokeh), and poor bokeh is something that bothers some and is totally unnoticed by others.

So there are several reasons to buy and use vintage lenses, but cost is not usually one of them IMO.



John Kasaian
15-Feb-2004, 09:51
I agree with Steve, and that presents a dilemma---for example an excellent 10" WF Ektar is nearly always considerably more expensive than a 240 G-Claron, so if I was looking to add that focal length to my kit I'd realistically go for the G-Claron. OTOH, if I wanted to use the same glass Ansel used, I'd opt for the WF and would have to be prepared to pay for the honor. The same could be said for heliars and dagors in excellent condition, but lets not turn a blind eye to outstanding bargains like the Wollensak Velostigmats and triple convertibles, late model Ilex Paragons(copies of the commercial ektars), Turner Reichs, and numerous others. Keep in mind though, that there were some pretty badly designed and/or manufactured lenses in olden times, and they aren't likely to have improved with age. I think thats where this forum really provides a service by permitting you to hear what others have to say about the various lenses they've used.