Recently one of VLFV readers, Phil Abatecola got in touch to share his experience using (mostly) Russian vintage lenses to shoot his feature length web series. There were loads of things Phil had to take into consideration when building up his “Kremlin Kit” for the series and I felt that it will definitely be a good read for anyone building up their set of vintage lenses for video use. This is not the first post about Russian lenses on VLFV but it’s unique in its own right as Phil not only shares the reasons for choosing certain lenses but also the ways he has modified them fit his needs. Over to Phil!
Sometime during the summer of 2013, I became obsessed with shooting a webisode series. After having completed hundreds of reality television episodes as either a multi-cam director or producer for networks like Fox, CBS or the Travel Channel, I was hungry to make something for myself that was narrative and totally my own. It had been a couple of years since I had completed a personal project and I was feeling eager to challenge myself with not just a narrative but also a comedy.
Thus, Milkshake was born. In this series, two unlikely friends scour the city of Los Angeles to find a shake they had while completely hammered. They remember it being the greatest concoction of milk and ice cream they’ve ever had, but can’t remember where.
The problem, as always, was that the quality I usually aim for would be out of the question financially unless I made some unorthodox, creative and logistic decisions. Most of my work is often highly stylized, at night and subjective. The character’s feelings and state of mind often inform how I will build out the scenes, and require that the camera itself is an active participant in the story. Films that “watch” or “observe” have never been my favorite, because for me films are the physical manifestations of dreams in reality so that you can dream while awake. I live out fantasies, dreams as well as nightmares, through narrative films, and I want the camera to reflect the subtlety and the insanity of dreaming.
Having said all that, I knew that I needed to choose my lenses carefully. We would be shooting at night with few lights, in or near a car (a rule I gave all the webisodes) and treat light in characteristic ways that were the opposite of modern lenses. I realized that modern lenses feel sterile, even if they represent reality more perfectly. By choosing vintage glass, I could give the image characteristics that were difficult to place, creating subtle feelings in my audience as they watched the webisodes. They would feel cinematic and intentional.
They needed the following characteristics:
The lenses that convinced me of the need to pick lenses that were interesting were the Helios 44-2 58mm F2 and 40-2 85mm F1.5. They were sharp all the way open and also happened to create a swirling, mesmerizeing bokeh at the same time. I knew that I had to shoot on them. With the swirly and rapidly decreasing sharpness from the center to the lenses edges, they both felt the most dreamy. The flare on both, especially the 40-2, is difficult to control, but it’s what I wanted.
2: Fast apertures, but also sharp at the widest setting
I was shooting almost exclusively at night with only 3 LED light pads and the rest of the light would come from the city itself, so I needed fast lenses. I could have gone with the Rokinons, which are easily faster than all of my lenses, but at their widest aperture, they lose sharpness in a way that feels ugly, and accidental, not cinematic or intentional. So I chose to lose some light in exchange for superior, if older, technology. The only exception was the 28mm Mir-10A. It is a f3.5, hence why it was only used in one night scene and during the day, which is not in the video. I didn’t want to rely on boosting the 5D III too far, too often, so I usually avoided that lens.
3: Light and small
Older lenses that are fully manual don’t have all the gears and accouterments that make modern lenses so huge. I was going to be shooting inside of cars, and I needed the cameras to be as weildy as possible. I was also going to be shooting without permission on city streets, so I needed to look a little less conspicuous, despite my shoulder rig. In a way, it makes the whole thing look more amature and cheaper. I can’t say whether or not it helped, but there were many, many times when local police looked at us shooting and chose to move on. So, who knows? What I do know is I saved my shoulder and back a lot of grief.
4: Interesting flares and bokeh
I don’t have a fetish for old things because they’re old. I love technology, however I will say that there are a few things I love that are old because some were created with different philosophies and noticeable, individual personalities behind the creations. That said, you should always choose the right tool for the job, and because of their imperfections, vintage lenses have interesting flares and bokeh’s I find more cinematic than modern DSLR lenses. Also, I wanted some spontaneity to fill the project, and this was just one more gear in that idea. If you look closely at the bottom right corner of the frame when Drake and Lance are getting into the vehicle, there are lens flares streaking across the screen that are completely insane. I love’m. People have asked me if I added those flares in post. NOPE!
Since I was personally funding Milkshake, I couldn’t spend a lot of money on it’s production, but I also knew it was more cost effective to buy the lenses over the long run. They ran from $60, in the case of the Helios 44-2 to $670 in the case of the 40-2. I spent a bit above market on the 40-2 because of it’s collectibility and because I bought it before the newer ones were released which dropped the price down to about $400. All in all, I think the kit cost about $1,400, not including the case and the gears I applied afterwards.
6: Fully manual
I needed to know where focus ended and began, which modern, automated lenses, don’t let you know. They just spin! How F@#*^NG annoying! I also needed to attach focus rings on the lenses that were semi-permanent. I didn’t want to put on and take off the gears every time I wanted to use the lenses and vintage, soviet focus rings were created in such a way that the strap on rings just wouldn’t work. Below is the video tutorial I used to create my gears! They work pretty perfectly if you’re careful and take your time to make them.
Many thanks, Shaun Stander!
Most of what I’ve had to say has been quite positive of these lenses, so let’s go over what sucks about them.
There is no way to get a color matched lens set and sometimes the color shifting is dramatic. The Helios 44-2 has a noticeable, green shift, while the MIR-24m 35mm F2 is cooler, yet the colors are sharper overall. This is something professional, cinema lenses will always have over DSLR lenses. This makes color correction a much bigger headache in post, so it’s often best to choose a couple of lenses and stick to them.
I had to buy these lenses from halfway across the world, so if one broke, I could forget getting one if I needed it ASAP. Sometimes, the lenses showed up being in less than excellent condition, despite the promises of the seller and it would have been such a hassle to send the lens back, that I never bothered.
Let’s face it, the Soviet lenses are beautiful because many of them are based on the Zeiss optical designs that Soviets got their hands on during the post WW2 German occupation. However, the quality control was simply abysmal. If you bought 10 Helios lenses, from the same year, same factory and same inspector, they’d all look entirely different. I’m not exaggerating. Mechanically, they may be built like tanks, but they’re built Soviet tanks, so they aren’t always well made to begin with and there aren’t a lot of parts for them in case you decide to have one repaired. Not only that, but I’ve had lens repair shops outright refuse to repair my lenses! They hated the way they were built and could never get parts.
- APERTURE RING:
The Helios 44-2 and 40-2 follow the preset aperture system and it’s a real pain the butt to change the aperture when you have step up rings or when you’ve got everything on a handheld rig.
Focusing was different for each lens. The throw was different and in case of Nikon mount MIR-47N & MIR-24N even the direction was inverted. That made switching lenses confusing and caused me to perform an extra take or two because I’d blow the focus. I would sometimes solve this problem by leaving the focus alone and letting subjects walk into focus or walk the camera into the focus range. Believe it or not, this creates a very cool look that is in line with the dreaminess I was going for, so… yay hurdles.
- FAVORITE LENS:
I think almost everyone says the Helios 44-2, but I’m going to have to go with the MIR-24m. It’s incredibly sharp, goes well on both full frame and super 35mm cameras, has an excellent bokeh and smooth focus. Good flare control, but not too much. Love it!
- LEAST FAVORITE LENS:
Hands down the 28mm MIR-10A. I still really like the lens, but it’s so, so slow which made it almost useless for the 30 days I’ve been shooting Milkshake.
- JAPANESE LENSES:
You can’t go wrong with either of the macro lenses and that Duclos modified Nikon 80-200mm F2.8 is a stellar lens. Sharp all the way open and great bokeh and flare control. The focus throw was extremely fast, but the professional gear job was perfect. Almost all of the driving shots were done exclusively on that lens, which was essential with all of those headlights! Other Japanese lenses used were the Vivitar 55mm F2.8 1:1 Macro & Vivitar Series-1 105mm F2.5 1:25 Macro.
- SIDE NOTE:
You’ll notice some very odd looking flares during the night scene where Lance is Jumping up and down. That is a Helios 44-2 lens I modified by inverting the front element. The great thing about these lenses is that they are so good and so cheap, that I felt comfortable experimenting with the elements themselves without feeling too afraid I’d lose my shirt if I ruined it. More examples of lenses with inverted elements below:
PERSONAL SITE: http://www.philabatecola.com/
COMPANY SITE: http://thesignalisstrong.com/
Thanks to Phil for sharing his experience. Make sure to check out his web series (links above).
As a bit of a of a Russian lens “fanboy” myself, I’m rarely critical of them, so it’s nice to see a slightly different perspective and add another point of view to the subject. I’ve also never heard of anyone inverting elements on these lenses, so that is something that I learned from Phil as well. There has been a lot of discussion about adding follow focus gears to Russian lenses on the our Facebook group (make sure to join if you have’t already), so it’s very nice to be reminded of the Shaun Stander’s method. It’s something that I might do with my own lenses too!
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