Retro lenses – the cheap alternative to digital prime lenses

We’re making a feature on a tight budget, a very tight budget. Well, we’re actually developing two feature projects (be interesting to see which gets the most support). The trouble is, we’re refusing to compromise on picture quality and we’ll want to shoot most of it with a DSLR camera. The reason behind this is simple, a DSLR camera is lighter, smaller, less obtrusive than an equivalent dedicated full HD camera, and we’ve come to love them.

Now the 18-55mm kit lens that came with our Rebel T2i/550D has impressed us with what it’s captured so far, but it’s nowhere near the quality of a good prime lens. Besides, one of the benefits of a DSLR camera is the ability to use interchangeable lenses – to truly be able to use the camera to tell the story you want to. This is where the problem comes in. Good quality prime lenses are expensive. Did we mention we’re working on a very tight budget here?
We spent hours trawling through websites such as Ebay looking for good deals on top quality lenses. They were still expensive, still a strain on the budget. Then we heard about some DSLR shooters who were using 20 or 30 year old camera lenses (known as FD lenses) on their brand new digital cameras, using special adapters to fix the lens on to the body of the camera. We saw some of their footage. We liked what we saw. We saw the price of these lenses on Ebay. We were converted.
We purchased two prime lenses – a Canon 50mm and a Sigma 24mm lens, and the special adapter for about £150 – a fraction of what it would cost for just one of these as digital lenses and shot some test footage.
Canon 50mm lens with adapter.
Attaching the lens to the adapter.
Old meets new.
These film camera “retro lenses” do have a unique look, the images are a little softer than the modern digital equivalents, but we like this look, it’s more “film like” as in less video like.  The aperture is controlled by a ring on the barrel of the lens as opposed to setting it in the camera itself as you do with the kit lens that came with our camera –we much preferred using the ring on the barrel, it was far more tactile and we could play with the ISO settings at the same time as the aperture settings.  
Getting the camera to recognise the aperture control was a bit of a game at first though.  We eventually worked it out – the trick was to fit the adapter to the body first (not to the lens as we were instructed to do by the guy we bought the adapter off) but not lock it in place, then fit the lens to the adapter, LOCK that in place (you’re hear a lovely clicking sound) THEN turn the adapter ring to lock that in place. When we booted up the camera it recognised the different aperture settings.
The other thing we noticed was that, set to the highest F-STOP everything seemed too soft, setting the aperture to the next stop down and we had a dramatic change in the sharpness of the image. So you basically loose a stop with these lenses. Considering the price you can pick these lenses up at, we think it’s well worth it.
The two lenses certainly impressed with the quality of images they produced. The video below shows our test footage taken with them and we really liked the slightly retro filmy feel they give an image. 
As you’ll see below, FD lenses also hold up well to colour grading (we shot all footage with a flat picture style and graded it using Adobe After Effects – see blog entries  11/4/2011 and 6/4/211).
On the strength of these two new additions to our kits, FD lenses will be our go to lenses when the budget is ultra-tight.

Just thought we’d add this picture of a  35mm Cinema camera lens attached to a DSLR. If the budget was there, who knows…

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2 thoughts on “Retro lenses – the cheap alternative to digital prime lenses

  1. If you buy an adapter with the AF Confirm chip, then the camera recognises there is a lens, and once you've focussed manually you'll get the confirmation 'beep' and led lights if it's correctly focussed! Not quite the same as having a split screen prism (which can be fitted if you so desire)

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