Your First Camera, Part 3: Vintage Lenses and Your Budget

Why Vintage Lenses?

It all started with the Indie Film Hustle podcast.  Almost as if by fate, in the middle of my search for affordable lens solutions for the GH4, I found the episode “Vintage Lenses for Indie Filmmakers” where the show’s host, Alex Ferrari, talks about his recent fixation with vintage glass and interviews a man who would eventually become integral to my lens search, Alan Besdin.  I suggest you go listen to the show, but the important thing I took away was that I could find lenses for $50 or less.  When I pulled into my driveway as the podcast and my commute were ending, I was eager to get on ebay and see what I could find.  To give you some idea of how eager, I hadn’t even actually purchased my camera yet….  But this is not exactly a chronologically-aligned post.

My Minolta MD 50mm F1.7 Lens

Now, it’s important to note that I made this blog because my own researching process was very haphazard.  Buying a lens before a camera?  Yeah.  I was getting ahead of myself.  But, by this point, I had heard that 50mm lenses were known as the “nifty fifty,” that they were a good starting point for a lens purchase as it could provide a wide enough shot but still be used for close-ups.  The ebay search produced a Minolta MD mount 50mm F1.7 lens for 35 bucks all told, including shipping and handling.  The catch?  There was a scratch in the interior lens, though the vendor said it didn’t affect image quality.  What the hell, why not?  If he said it didn’t affect the quality, I figured I could contest it and get a refund if it clearly did.  Minolta was a name I recognized from the podcast, so I scooped it up as well as the MD to Micro Four-Thirds adapter for about $9 from another seller.

First mistake?

Not filtering out international sellers from the list – my lens would arrive a full two weeks before the mount adapter, coming from CHINA, would.  I was in such a rush, I only noticed that it was a Chinese vendor AFTER I purchased it.   Although technically the first lens I purchased, it would be the second lens I got to try.  Check it out!

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Taken with my Google Pixel in the native camera app. Unedited.
IMG_20170804_093414
The scratch is RIGHT in the center of the glass!
IMG_20170804_093414-01
A close-up of the offender.

While waiting for the products to arrive, I dove deeper into Alan Besdin’s blog at VintageLensesforVideo.com and discovered the Canon FD mount lenses (I promise they’re not paying anything for the plugs – this was a great resource!).  Although I thought I recalled Besdin discussing them on the Indie Film Hustle podcast, his Canon FD Buyer’s Guide was really amazing and clued me in to a lot of little bits of information I didn’t realize.  It was here that I first discovered that I would have a bit of a harder time trying to get a wide angle shot with my GH4 – what I thought was a “nifty fifty” was in fact a 100mm equivalent focal length lens (come to think of it, maybe THIS was my first mistake!).  To top it all off, I’d found a private seller through www.fredmiranda.com (a tip from my coworker guru friend!) that would give me their FD-MFT adapter along with the GH4 for $710 – that was an absolute steal.  With this huge boon for my budget, I set about to find the widest lens I could for around $50.

My Vivitar 28mm F2.8 FD Mount Lens

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At 56mm equivalent focal length, the Vivitar 28mm F2.8 lens was as close as I could get to that 50mm field of view.  Armed with the knowledge that my camera was coming with the adapter, I confidently purchased this lens from a seller actually in this country.  The Minolta lens was sitting in my nightstand drawer, the first piece of equipment I owned and I couldn’t even use it.  But this lens was set to arrive at the same time as my camera, so I allowed myself to get excited.  When the day arrived, I got home from work and tore open my package, pleased that, aside from what appears to be some label residue on the lens cap, everything looked great.  After greedily unpacking the GH4, I set up to take my first videos.  Here’s my first ever video compilation and grade test:

Pretty embarassing, right?  And even at the time, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the results, honestly. In a lot of the stuff I was shooting, I saw noise and had to clean it up in post, which I never like to do. The famed low-light issues of the GH4 showed up clearly, but I also felt it might be a bit worse than I had heard.  Here’s a later attempt which included some slow-motion.

As I would come to find out later, it was my in-camera settings that were the culprit.  Once I got the settings tweaked, though, it was time to consider how these lenses differed from my previous experience on the 7D Mark II from work.

Cropped Up

So if you recall from Part 2, the crop factor was effectively doubling these lenses focal length, resulting in a much smaller, more cropped field of view than the work cameras.  What I didn’t mention then, but began discussing in another post was that this doubling affect also applies to the f-stop, and more specifically, it only applies to the f-stop insofar as depth of field is concerned.  If you haven’t read that post, Filming in the Fair, I’ll be going over some its contents again so feel free to keep reading – all the necessary material is here.  If you have read it, though, apologies for covering some of the same ground again!

Your f-stop value is a measure of how open your aperture is.  When you have a low f-stop, your aperture is open wider than with a higher f-stop.  Each full integer decrease in the f-stop results in double the light coming into the lens.  This also changes the shallowness of your depth of field – the wider your aperture, the smaller your f-stop,  the deeper your depth of field, which means more things will be in focus.  Shallow depth of field shots have this nice blurred, bokeh background quality that really pulls the subject away from their surroundings, so generally speaking when focusing on something I prefer to have a fairly shallow depth of field.  Not great for every shot, but definitely something I try to shoot for often.

Now, remember the Micro Four-Thirds Sensor?  With the 2x crop factor applying to the depth of field, that means that my lenses are producing shots with much deeper depth of field than if they weren’t.  Let’s compare how my lenses might look if fit onto the 7DmkII work cameras with their APS-C (1.6x crop factor) sensors.

28mm F2.8 Lens, 1.6x crop factor (7DmkII)

  • Effective Focal Length: 44.8mm
  • Effective lowest f-stop: f-4.48

28mm F2.8 Lens, 2x crop factor (GH4)

  • Effective Focal Length: 56mm
  • Effective lowest f-stop: f-5.6

50mm F1.7 Lens, 1.6x crop factor (7DmkII)

  • Effective Focal Length: 80mm
  • Effective lowest f-stop: f-2.72

50mm F1.7 Lens, 2x crop factor (GH4)

  • Effective Focal Length: 100mm
  • Effective lowest f-stop: f-3.4

Unfortunately, I don’t have any picture examples to show this off.  However, this article on thespruce.com by Liz Masoner does a decent job of explaining how depth of field works in relation to aperture.  It’s important to note that where crop sensors are concerned, this effect is not happening because the aperture is actually changing, and therefore the effective lowest f-stop does NOT represent actual stops of light.

What I DO have pictures of, however, is a lens depth-of-field comparison shot from my “Filming at the Fair” blog.  If you take a look below you’ll notice that when I shrink down the Minolta 50mm image and map it over the 28mm image, the depth of field is MUCH shallower.  The weight text becomes indecipherable and the table edge loses almost all definition. I’m not sure why there was distortion at the left and top of the 50mm’s image – it’s something I hope to figure out as time goes on.

28mmVS50mm-SameShot-Cutaway

By this point in my first few hours of owning a camera, I realized that my images would have to be a bit more staged than what I could work with through the 7DmkII.  Simply put, the crop factor really messes with a lot of the aspects of composing a shot that I took for granted at work.

Playing Favorites

At the end of this rather reckless spree, I had two cheap lens, costing in total less than $100. After I tweaked my camera settings, I started to get results I was happy with. My only regret here is that, when purchasing, I didn’t really understand how drastically the crop factor would affect the field of view and depth of field. As a result, the “wide” 28mm lens I’ve got produces what I feel are fairly plain shots with a depth of field that just doesn’t ever quite feel satisfying to me. My 50mm, despite the scratch, has become my favorite of the two – as you can see from the pictures below, it can produce some really quality images.

Don’t get me wrong – getting as wide as I can with the 28mm is definitely handy. I’ve filmed a few random tests with both and even a regular sized room can feel cramped due to how far back I have to stand even with it as wide as it is. The 50mm, however, just feels better, scratch and all! Fortunately for me, even the expensive lenses on the list from VintageLensesforVideo.com are comparatively cheap even though their relative scarcity drives their price up to the $200 ranges. Since I’m acquiring gear in a piecemeal fashion, there’ll be room in my budget later for that lens – but for now, the 28mm and 50mm have served me fairly well. Despite my complaints about the deep depth of field on the 28mm, I am very very glad to have come across these lenses and am glad to have started off my video work with them.  What do you think – what could I have done better?

In Part 4 of this series, “Sink into the Settings”, I’ll go into my camera settings and talk about how and why I’ve adjusted the camera so that when you’re buying your own, you’ll know what sort of in-camera tweaks you’ll want it to be able to perform.  Although the GH4 has its own particular set of controls, I’ll also cover flat color profiles, output types, and ways to begin playing with your footage in post that I feel have helped me make my images a little bit nicer.

-frank-

About the Title Photo:  This was one of the very first pictures I took with my GH4.  I had just gotten the Vivitar 28mm lens, but as it was after work the sun started to set.  I was on my porch trying to capture video when I realized it was too dark – I set my sights on taking long exposure photographs.  I thought it was a good idea until I realized… I kind of need a tripod.

Stumbling in the Dark
In which I struggle to take a handheld 1 second exposure picture.
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