This is how some of Hollywood’s legendary historic lenses look on a modern cinema camera
I’m a sucker for old glass. Whether for stills or video, I’ve always been a big believer that the lens plays a massive part in getting “the film look”. It’s why I often shoot video and stills with old M42 and Nikon Ai-S lenses. Older glass just has character that modern lenses do not. Modern lenses are too perfect, too clinical.
In this video, DP Jody Eldred visits filmmaker Todd Fisher (brother of Carrie) to test out some of cinema’s most famous lenses. Or at least, lenses that shot some of its most famous movies, including The Godfather, The Shining and Casablanca. He tests each of them with a Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K, to see just how much of an effect each lens has on the image.
It really is fascinating to see the different looks they provide. Even before colour grading, you can spot some of the characteristics from the movies shot with those lenses. Characteristics which are virtually impossible to quantify with words. But when you see them, they’re unmistakable. Even before adding a colour grade inspired by the movies these lenses were used to create, they just have that something about them.
As a baseline, the camera shoots a scene with a Zeiss CP 50mm lens. This is a commonly used lens these days, so it’s a good example to illustrate the state of modern cinema lenses. The first real test, though, is the Godfather lens. A Super Baltar 50mm lens from Bausch & Lomb.
Despite both lenses being of the same focal length, you can immediately see the difference between the two. The Bausch & Lomb lens has a little less contrast with better highlight control. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there. It’s noticeable. It’s difficult to really put into words.
Once they add a quick Godfatheresque grade to the whole thing, you can see it starting to come together. Although, personally I think it needs the highlights pulling out a little more to really get that look..
The next lens tested is a Cook 50mm of the type used for movies such as Casablanca, as well as many other film noir movies. Before grading, this too seems to have a lower level of contrast, with warmer, richer tones. While the final grade doesn’t quite match black & white film, you can spot the unique characteristics.
The final lens tested is a custom 9.8mm ultrawide lens, designed for Stanley Kubrick, and used for The Shining. This is a ridiculously wide lens, but the perspective distortion, or lack thereof, is pretty amazing, even by today’s standards. You can’t break the laws of physics, but this lens looks like it comes awfully close.
The Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K has a Super 35mm sensor. That’s basically APS-C, or a 1.5x crop compared to full frame 35mm. I know that if I put a 10mm lens on my Nikon crop bodies, I’m going to get a lot of weirdness as we get away from the centre. Far more than shown here.
I never really thought about it before, but I never would’ve guessed that the famous shot of Jack Nicholson poking his head through the ruined door was shot on a 9.8mm lens. I wouldn’t have even come close to guessing that focal length.
Even when used really close, with the subject off to one side, the perspective distortion is extremely well controlled.
I don’t think I could get anywhere close to that with my 10mm lens on a 1.5x crop. But now that I’ve seen this, I’m sure going to give it a try on my next shoot, just to see what happens.
Again, too, this lens seems to have a reduced contrast compared to the more modern Zeiss CP lens. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about a lot of my older M42 lenses, too. For me, though, I think that’s a great thing. Sure, we all love a bit of contrast, but it’s a lot easier to add it after the fact than it is to take it away.
One thing this test does do for me, is reaffirm my belief in older lenses, and how much they really contribute to getting that look. The “film look”, that we typically perceive to be 100% down to the film, and something we can replicate in post.
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.