The early 20s, the 2020s, has been a tumultuous time for creatives, especially photographers. First, there was the Covid outbreak — which caused restrictions that created many financial struggles for photographers. To compound the struggles photographers have faced over the pandemic, the shift in platforms such as Instagram, pushing video content over photography, has fundamentally changed the landscape in which photographers operate and grow their business using social media.
This surge in creatives creating more video content has also spiked the interest in bringing the look and feel of vintage lenses for video production. Vintage lenses help create more serene and dream-like footage that can massively help in the storytelling of video content. Of course when used appropriately!
So what vintage lens is good for that cinematic look?
To cover this topic, I pulled together a list of the best vintage lenses you can use for video and filmmaking alike! We will cover two types of lenses in this list, as these vintage lenses are not made equal.
- Vintage camera lenses
- Vintage cinema lenses
We will also cover some other important topics about vintage lenses for video, such as, what is the best focal length for video, where to buy vintage lenses, where to rent vintage cinema lenses for video, vintage lens modding and rehousing your vintage lenses.
What is the best focal length for video?
Without a doubt, the best focal length for most video production is 50mm on a full-frame sensor, around 35mm for an APS-C or Super-35 sensor and around 25mm for a micro-four-thirds sensor. These lenses are very close to capturing a perspective that is very close to how we see the natural world as humans. They are versatile enough to accommodate multiple people in a scene, mid-shots and closeups.
How to choose the best vintage lens or lenses for video?
As some general advice before we get too far into this article, I want to make one thing clear. Whether you choose to buy or explore any of the lenses listed in this article, one piece of buying advice I would give anyone is to buy a set of vintage lenses.
What do I mean by a set?
Simply put, a set is a collection of lenses that work well together, often from the same manufacturer and time area. Their obvious advantage as a set is that their similar optics, lens coatings and build will help your video creation in more ways than one. Not only will you have a consistent look across focal lengths, but also a similar tactile feel when focusing, so that you can pay more attention to your framing and storytelling vs making sure you hit focus.
Best vintage camera lenses for video
Deciding what is the best vintage camera lens for video ultimately comes down to preference and the look and feel you require for the story you are telling. Do you need something that can showcase a warm, playful or intimate story, you might want to use a soft vintage lens that has great flaring. While on the flipside if you’re telling a story with a more serious tone, you might need a lens with sharper qualities with more controlled flaring.
1. Canon FD S.S.C. 55mm f/1.2 Lens
Canon FD lenses are not only affordable but praised for their close similarity in look, feel and performance to their cinema big brothers, the Canon K35 cine lenses. With this knowledge, it would be hard to pass up on one of the old faithful from this line of lenses, the Canon FD S.S.C. 55mm f/1.2. The Canon FD lenses were some of the first lenses that initially drew me toward my interest in vintage lenses.
2. Canon nFD 85mm f/1.2 L Lens
The Canon nFD 85mm f/1.2 L is the cheaper more affordable version of the legendary Canon FD S.S.C. 85mm f/1.2 Aspherical lens. Its soft and expressive bokeh makes it a great portrait lens for closeup shots that is forgiving to the skin. This was something that both the Canon FD and Canon K35 were made famous for.
Stopping down the lens from f/1.2 improves sharpness and contrast considerably and the look and feel of the footage are completely different with a more modern look.The versatility offered by this lens by simply stopping down the aperture creates looks that range from dreamy to modern and serious.
3. Minolta 135mm f/2 MD Lens
Before I sound completely biased towards Canon lenses, the next on the list had to add some diversity, and that’s with the Minolta 135mm f/2 MD. This lens has been widely regarded as a top telephoto for decades and it’s no surprise that the Minolta 135mm makes for a great vintage lens for video.
Having an image circle large enough to cover an Alexa 65 sensor makes it more versatile than many lenses that are restricted to that full-frame 35mm coverage. It also surprisingly boasts 15 iris blades that produce very nice and circular bokeh, if that’s your sort of thing…
All of the lenses in the Minolta MD lineup use the same coating, so building a set of vintage lenses for videos from this brand is advantageous because the look and colors will be very consistent across the different focal ranges.
Best vintage cinema lenses for video
Going down the path to investing in a vintage cinema lens for video is not for the faint of heart or budget-conscious creators. While cheap vintage cinema lenses might not exist the way you would want them to, there are other budget-friendly ways to use them on your projects such as renting them and incorporating the cost of the rental in your quote.
4. Canon K-35 24mm T/1.5
The Canon K-35 24mm T/1.5 can be described in the same way that any other lens in its lineup is described. Their look and feel were kept very consistent across their line to provide consistency in shooting regardless of focal length. What makes the Canon K-35 24mm T/1.5 remarkable is that 24mm is my next most-used focal length right after 50mm.
It is about as wide as you can go on a full-frame sensor without your image looking too distorted and having an “effects” feeling to it. Its close focus distance allows you to show great details in a larger context, making it a great solution for certain types of storytelling. The Canon K35 24mm much like the other K35s has the perfect combination of amazing performance and unique character, making them one of the best vintage lenses for filmmaking.
They have low contrast, a gentle focus fall-off, and produce great skin tones. An obvious advantage is that the K35s cover a full-frame sensor as they were developed based on the FD camera lenses which were developed for 35mm film. Their high speeds and 15-blade iris help create some of the most smooth circular and beautiful bokeh you’ve seen.
Canon K35s were the first Super Speed lenses that used aspherical elements in all of their focal length. Having aspherical elements in the lens helped these lenses perform better over regular spherical lenses in key areas:
- Lighter due to fewer elements required in optical assembly
- Performance improvements over spherical aberration, distortion, and marginal astigmatism
- Sharper focusing
- Larger aperture size
- Improved light focusing and collection efficiency
5. Zeiss Super Speed 50mm T/1.3 MKII
We can’t talk about vintage cinema lenses without mentioning the legendary Zeiss brand. The Zeiss Super Speeds are arguably some of the most versatile and beautiful vintage cinema lenses available.
Their T1.3 maximum aperture is an obvious advantage over other cinema lenses in this category but comes with its own disadvantages. For starters, The Zeiss Super Speeds do not cover a full-frame sensor and they best work with S35 sensors. Secondly, their 8 blades iris will not give you the same smooth circular bokeh you might come to expect from the aforementioned K35 lenses, but these lenses are nothing to scoff about.
Whether you’re shooting wide open or stopped down, the end product is nothing short of magic. The Zeiss Super Speeds like many vintage lenses used certain rare earth metals to coat the lenses which just made people look good. Not to mention the lenses also produce a mesmerizing blue and magenta lens flare for added dramatic effect.
Rehousing your vintage camera lenses for video
One of the best ways to get the most value out of your vintage camera lenses is to transform them into “modern vintage cinema lenses” through a process called lens rehousing. The process of lens rehousing takes the vintage glass from an old camera lens and mounts them into a custom-made modern cinema body which is built with all the bells and whistle you would expect:
- Longer focus throws
- Smooth and de-clicked aperture rings
- Better ergonomics
- Standardized lens mounts
- Standardized filter thread sizes
- Compatibility with modern lens accessories
The process of rehousing vintage lenses is far more affordable than outright buying a cinema lens. Depending on the lens and the shop you work with, rehoused lenses will typically cost around $2,000 on average, with costs ranging anywhere between $500 to about $4,000. Whereas a modern cinema lens could cost a minimum of $8,000 all the way up to $50,000.
Vintage lens modding for video
Similar to the process of rehousing a vintage lens for video, lens modding is a cheaper and more DIY alternative. Popular shops such as Simmodlens offer both DIY kits and services to mod your own lenses.
The mods you can do range from
- Camera mount conversions
- Follow focus gears
- Setup rings for filter threads
- Cinema adapters for cinema cameras
- Custom lens caps
- Grease for regreasing internal mechanisms
- Tools for de-clicking aperture
Going down this route will cost you about a quarter of the price of rehousing your lens, with almost the same benefits as long as you are comfortable with using a little elbow grease to get the job done.
Where to buy vintage lenses for video
If you’re looking for vintage cinema lenses for sale, you can find to buy them in many places. There are online marketplaces such as eBay, Etsy, and Amazon to local specialty camera stores in your city which might be your first choice when looking to buy a vintage camera lens. But there are less common examples of great places to go searching for these lenses.
- Speciality Facebook groups
- Cine Modders
- Thrift Shops & Flee Markets
- Garage Sales
If you’re looking for more details on where to shop for your next vintage lens, check out this more in-depth post here.
Where to rent vintage lenses for video
Lens rental houses are a great budget-friendly alternative to using a vintage lens or any other lens for that matter. If you only need them for a short period of time for a paid project, it might make more sense to rent the lens and work the cost of that rental into your quote for the client.
While there are great examples of local camera shops that offer rentals for modern lenses, finding a service that rents vintage camera or cinema lenses might require a bit more research. So you are in luck as I’ve compiled a quick list here that can get you started on your journey.
- Adorama Rentals: The popular camera store Adorama has a business unit that specifically deals with film cameras and lens rentals. Luckily, they have some brilliant vintage cinema lenses such as the Canon K35s. The downside is that this option is only realistic for people who live in the NYC area, as the lenses must be picked up and returned at one of their two NYC locations.
- Old Fast Glass: With one of the most impressive collections of vintage cinema lenses, Old Fast Glass is the perfect solution for anyone working in the Los Angeles area. It does not appear that you can get these lenses shipped to another location and require pickup onsite.
- Bokeh Rentals: Similarly to Old Fast Glass, Bokeh Rentals is situated in the Los Angeles area, but with coverage across the entire United States, and also has shipping options making this more accessible to more people.
- Stray Angel Films: Yet another LA-based rental house boasting a great selection of vintage cinema lenses for rent, but also a great deal of filmmaking equipment in general. Their rentals are also available locally and for shipping nationwide at an additional fee.