Color matching vintage lenses

on December 17, 2015

I’ve made no secret that I’m a huge fan of vintage lenses.
These old lenses are solid, quality-constructed pieces, with some stellar glass.  Optically, these lenses offer so much to the image, especially for video.
What you end up giving up is the electronics, which for still photographers, meaning autofocus and auto-aperture adjustment.
For the cinematographer, there’s little love lost there.
You can get gorgeous, fast, prime lenses for a fraction of the cost of a modern lens, and soon you will have a set that will give you boundless pleasure.

That is, until you shoot a project with too many different lenses and realize that each one has a slightly different color cast. This is especially true of some vintage lenses that have radioactive Thorium coatings, which will yellow over time, such as the Pentax Super Takumar 50mm 1.4.

There is a trio of Russian lenses i picked up for a song: a Mir1B 37mm, a Helios 44-2 55mm, and a Jupiter-9 85mm.  All of these lenses are gorgeous, and from my mental imaging all had that vintage look to them, so I figured they would cut together well.

I was wrong.

In fact, very few photo lenses are meant to match up with their brethren at different focal lengths, which is one of the reasons why Cine lenses are so expensive.

Cine-lenses also typically have “declicked” apertures, meaning you could split between a f4 and f5.6 without the telltale “clicking” at each stop, making an iris-pull possible.  Cine lenses also have very long throw on their focus, allowing focus pullers a better chance at nailing that rack-focus.
A lot of these vintage lenses have “dual aperture” rings, allowing you to grab focus wide-open, then close down the shutter right before the shutter closes.  Thas acts as a de-facto “clickless” aperture.  If your lens doens’t have this feature, it’s not that difficult to do yourself, or even send out for.  Duclos is a great company that will do it for a very modest fee, around $60 per lens.

As far as focus and gears, putting cine-gears on your lens will set you back about $10 on ebay.

Now you have a set of lenses that look pretty good, right?
Not quite yet.

They still need to be color matched.
One of the reasons Nikon vintage lenses are so highly regarded is becaiuse they are really good at matching their images from one lens to the next.  A set of vintage AIS Nikon lenses is a GREAT way to start out, if you have yet to make the jump to cine lenses.

Rokinon has a very inexpensive set of Cine lenses, with exceptionally good picture quality, and only modest body construction.  These lenses will hold you over for a few years, but don’t expect to be pasisng these down to your children.

Canon “L” series glass is pretty good as well, but you can expect to spend a good amount of cash on these, as they are also highly-prized by still photographers as well.

So where is the diamond in dthe rough?  Lets go back to those vintage Russian lenses.  The picture quality on all these lenses is great and very similar, but what you notice is that some lenses have a slightly different color cast, and this can vary depending on the year of your lenses, or even the quality control of one model to the next.

So what do you do?

That’s where Magic Lantern is instantly going to add dollars back into your pocketbook.

In the EXPOSURE tab, there is an auto adjust in the WHITE BALANCE setting.  This will make an automated adjustment of your White Balance(Yellow & Blue) AND also adjust your Green and Magenta.  Do this adjustment on the same Gray Card as you adjust your lenses, and you will now notice that your lenses are “color balanced” in camera!

You still have to keep an eye out for things such as flaring beahvior and contrast, which can still vary from lens to lens, but you take the time to dial in your lenses and white balance, you will save a few thousand in your pocketbook and your Colorist will thank you.