How do we decide the value of a lens?

 A popular topic of discussion these days is whether or not certain lenses are worth their huge price tags. Moreover is there a justified correlation between a lens’ price and how “good” it is. It’s an apt time to continue this conversation since there are more lenses to choose from than ever. Also, there are some seriously high-performing cine lenses at price points that are within reach of so many filmmakers. The number of “affordable,” full frame, super speed, cinema lenses alone is incredible (Canon CN-E, Sigma Cine, Tokina Vista, Zeiss CP.2, Rokinon XEEN). It’s an exciting time to be a DP. It can also be an overwhelming time to be a DP especially if you are an aspiring cinematographer who is just scratching the surface of all the lens options out there.

For every lens you find, there are thousands of opinions floating around on Reduser, Facebook, blogs and forums and the opinions you find tend to be strong ones. It can be difficult to sift through the B.S. and find good, trustworthy information about this stuff. The problem is that there is so much misinformation out there and a lot of the good material you can find is so subjective and biased. One reason why I wanted to start doing massive lens tests is because of the subjective information surrounding lenses. When you test lenses you find that some of what you read in the blogs is true, and some is just flat out false. But when you take the bias and the opinions out of it and just look at lenses in a controlled testing environment, the differences between them are actually quite substantial. When we get out of the testing environment and just shoot some shots of our dogs, or our children, or our friends, or the least helpful test I keep seeing: the trees in our backyards, it’s easy to see what we want to see. We can shoot around a lens’ flaws, or play up on its strengths. Then we can write a blog about it, someone reads it, and that reader now considers what he or she read to be true.

We can be just as misinformed if we base our opinions of a lens on edited, completed, color-corrected projects. I think the average audience member can’t necessarily tell you why they liked the look of the film they just saw, but they definitely know whether or not they did. Often the differences between one lens and another are so subtle, most audience members can’t detect them. I tend to think that all those extremely subtle details that differentiate one lens from another, the ones that are so much more obvious in a testing environment, all add up to something bigger that really does have an impact on the finished product.

Let’s get back to the point of this article: are some of the price tags that we are seeing on certain lenses justified? Are some lenses “special” in some way, and therefore should be priced accordingly. I think there are a few reasons why you can argue that these high prices are justified. As far as expensive lenses go there are 3 main categories for me. There are the ultra-high-performance lenses like Arri Zeiss Master Primes, Leica Summilux-C, Cooke (S4i, S5i or anamorphic), Fujinon Premier zooms and Angenieux Optimo zooms. These lenses are made to achieve the absolute highest standards for sharpness, contrast, color matching and tend to have zero breathing and hardly any chromatic aberrations. They also have superior, reliable, unfathomably well-engineered mechanics. A set of those Leica primes can cost over $250,000 and one Fujinon Premier zoom is $100,000. Are they worth it? Yes. Yes they are. They are the culmination of millions of dollars of R and D, they are made of the most expensive materials available, and the do their jobs perfectly and reliably.

The second group includes unique, limited production lenses that are full of character but are also exceptional engineering achievements. I’m talking about lenses like Hawk anamorphics and pretty much any Panavison lens ever made. Vantage doesn’t make that many Hawk anamorphic lenses and the ones they make get scooped up by rental houses who are able to charge a lot to rent them, and yes, they are worth the money. The look is amazing and the mechanics are much better than their vintage cousins. I included Panavison in this group because their lenses are technically priceless since they don’t sell them to anyone. They make them to incredibly high standards and they keep the few lenses they make in their various rental facilities around the world, and rent them to some very lucky people. And yes, they are worth whatever Panavision asks for them. They are that good.

The third category includes the lenses that are the focus of this article: vintage cinema lenses. I’m talking about lenses like Zeiss Super Speeds, vintage Cooke Speed Panchros, Bauch and Lomb Super Baltars, Canon K-35s, Todd AO anamorphic, Cineovision anamorphic, Cooke and Canon X-Tal Express anamorphic, Kowa (spherical or anamorphic), Lomo anamorphic (sorry Duclos), etc. I am watching these lenses selling for higher and higher prices. 10 years ago you could get Zeiss Super Speeds for under $10,000 for a set. I just saw a set of 5 sell for $85,000. Who knows, by the time you read this they might be in the six-figure range.

So why are they so expensive? More importantly are they worth it?

The “why” is easier to answer. The biggest reason is a very old concept: supply and demand. Just like land in Manhattan, they aren’t making more.  Some of the lenses I mentioned are more rare than others of course, but they are all fairly difficult to find these days. They pop up here and there when a DP decides he or she would rather have a down payment for a house than a set of Kowas, but they don’t sit on the market long, and there always seems to be someone willing to pay to get into that exclusive club. With all the up-and-coming DPs and affordable cameras out there, many want to buy that set of lenses that will give them a signature look that separate them from the look of modern optics. So with that many people vying for vintage glass, sellers are able to ask for huge amounts of cash even though many of these lenses have outdated designs and often have poor mechanics (short focus throws, varying OD on the lens fronts, tromboning focus mechanisms), all things that drive camera assistants crazy. Despite the frustrations of many ACs, DPs are willing to make sacrifices for the look these lenses produce.

If the look is so great, then why don’t lens makers try and duplicate the look in modern lens designs? Well at least one company finally is. Cooke just announced they will produce new versions of their super popular vintage Cooke Speed Panchros called “Panchro/i Classics.” They will be hand-made and apparently use a similar manufacturing process as the original lenses. I am curious to compare these lenses to their ‘grandfathers’ because I assume there will be subtle differences. I have a feeling not all vintage lens making practices are allowed these days.

Many lenses over the years from Cooke, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax and others used radioactive lens elements made with thorium oxide. I have also heard of a few lens-makers using mercury in some of those magic old lens coatings, which give us those amazing lens flares everyone loves. And then there are the stories of Zeiss using “rare earth elements” to make many of their lenses including Zeiss Super Speeds. Since these manufacturing practices are no longer allowed, you simply cannot reproduce certain lenses. Logic suggests that if you have to use different materials, the resulting lens will create different images. Things like fluorite have allowed lens makers to make lighter, sharper lenses, with less chromatic aberrations, and one could argue that these lenses are “better” in some regards because of the use of this material. You can just as easily argue that the organic, subtle, forgiving look of some of the lenses that use old manufacturing materials and techniques create a look that is beautiful and impossible to duplicate. Is it better? That’s for the individual to decide. Can you duplicate it? Not quite.

You can use diffusion filters to soften a lens, but using filters adds gear to your kit, adds cost, takes time, adds weight, and you are always fighting glare when you are shooting into windows and light sources. Also, diffusion filters always show up as little dots or lines in your bokeh. If filters aren’t your thing, you can do more and more in post these days. On some productions that approach will work. I personally don’t like to rely on it and I feel like it’s always better to be able to get it in-camera when you can. But if for some reason you can’t there are certainly a lot of tools to get a vintage look after the fact. However there are still some things that are impossible or at least really difficult to duplicate in post: the way a lens’ focus rolls off, the way it handles highlights and shadows, its bokeh, its distortion, its palette.

One of the things that inspired this article was an excellent and well-informed discussion I stumbled across about Rokinon Xeen primes versus Canon K-35 primes and whether the K-35’s high price tag was warranted. People are so passionate when it comes to brand loyalty. They also want to feel good about the decisions they make, both creative and financial ones, especially when we are talking about something that costs $50,000 or more to purchase. Could anyone in a theater audience see the difference between a K-35 and a Rokinon? Nope. Can most DPs? I hope so, but maybe some can’t. On a focus chart or a projector there are probably a lot of similarities as far as how many line pairs they resolve, and corner sharpness. Pointing them at a human face might even get you similar results between the two lenses. But there is something to be said for adding up all the subtle differences and imperfections that give lenses like K35s, Super Speeds, Panchros or Super Baltars their unique looks. The things that might make them “better” in some people’s eyes are subtle, but the differences are there.

I remember being on a shoot where we couldn’t get two sets of K-35s, so we had one set of them and one set of Canon L-series still photo primes. Both cameras were on 85mm lenses stopped down to T2.8. According to Canon lens lore, some focal lengths of L-series primes are derived from older K-35 and FD lens designs, so logically there must be a lot of similarities, right? Well, everyone on set could see the difference between the two: the lower contrast, the creaminess to the skin tones, the warmth, the slightly more pastel look to colors and the unique bokeh. The way backgrounds just melt away and the circular bokeh of the K-35 15-blade iris even stopped down was so much prettier to our eyes than the 8-sided stop sign shape of the L-series. Bottom line, the shot looked “better” with the K-35, at least to everyone looking at the monitor that day. In certain shots it was harder to define what it was, but the K-35 was just a more flattering lens. I have heard stories about hand-ground aspherical elements compared to modern molded ones, and older coatings, and the slight warming of some of these lenses over time. There is something to all those factors that make a vintage lens like a K-35 look “better” to a lot of people. Is it worth the price tag? For some, no it’s not. For me, yes they are worth it. I will say this: if the prices were equal I would take K-35s over Rokinons every single time. So maybe it is worth paying extra to rent K-35s for that slight edge. Maybe it’s worth going into debt to own a set of lenses that create a look that is hard to duplicate with modern optics. For me, owning a set of vintage cinema lenses is owning a piece of film history. Imagine the projects that have been shot on these lenses over the years. Imagine the DPs who may have looked through them before you. That heritage won’t make your shots any better, but I think there is a price you can put on it. Then again, maybe that’s just the biased opinion of a self-diagnosed lens addict.

I have a lot of love for some of the affordable lens options out there. One of my favorite sets of lenses is also the first set I put together: my cine-modified Nikon AI-S primes. They are extremely affordable, many focal lengths being in the $250-$500 range. When I put my set together Rokinon Xeens didn’t exist yet, and I felt that the Nikon’s were one of the best low-budget options available. I love the look of these lenses so much and there are situations where I will choose them over more expensive lenses. I think some people want to justify why they spent a lot of money on a lens and some want to feel like their affordable lenses are just as good as the expensive ones. I just think we are all trying to rationalize our choices especially when they are expensive ones.

We had a big crowd for the last big lens test I was part of, and it was so nice to have a $20,000 50mm Zeiss Master Prime and a $700 50mm Nikon AI-S still photo lens in the same test. Many people thought the Nikon looked really good even compared to the Master Prime. In some ways you could argue it was a more interesting image. One could argue it was more beautiful in some ways. Does that mean the Nikon is better than the Master Prime? No way. If the cheap little Nikon makes such a great image, is the Master Prime worth $20,000? Yes. No question it’s worth it. Is the Nikon one of the best deals you can find? Absolutely. Which one would I want on my next shoot? Whichever one was best for the job. Sometimes that means having the most well engineered, ruthlessly sharp, zero-breathing monster of a lens with a monster price tag to go with it. Sometimes it’s a tiny, cheap still photo lens with a dated lens design that just so happens to produce images that ooze character (especially when shot wide-open).

As these debates and discussions continue I think it’s important for all of us to keep these things in mind. It’s all relative. It’s like they say, the best camera is the one you have with you. And any lens, no matter the price, is only as good as the person using it. A high price tag does not always mean a “better” lens and there is nothing wrong with using cheap lenses to shoot your project. I have shot some of my favorite images on a $300 lens and I’ve made some not-so-great images on the most expensive cameras and lenses available. It’s not about the gear, it’s about lighting, framing, capturing the moment and making smart decisions.

All that being said, when it comes down to worth, the market will always decide what these tools are worth. And for quite a few reasons the market thinks that these old, quirky, sometimes radioactive lenses are worth a lot of money. I tend to agree with the market on this one.

Published by

Mark La Fleur

Mark is a Los Angeles based cinematographer and owner of OLD FAST GLASS, a small cinema lens rental house. You can find more of Mark's work on his website: www.mjlcinema.com

2 thoughts on “How do we decide the value of a lens?”

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