Shooting on Uncoated Lenses
by Duncan Telford
DoP Duncan Telford recently shot a Weetabix commercial with uncoated Cooke Mini S4s and describes in this new article what it is like to shoot with uncoated lenses and how this look varies between different types of lenses
Lovers of nostalgia may remember the days when choices of film stock, print stock and for the more adventurous, developing techniques were the first steps towards creating a look for any project. The driving forces behind film manufacturing were detail, low grain, colour reproduction, shadow depth and speed. And conventional wisdom said that the sharper the potential of the neg, the more it would benefit from a sharper lens. Better and better TK machines with ever more responsive desks cleaned our images and made colours pop.
Fast forward to thousand upon thousand of identical Alexa sensors, Epic sensors, take your pick. All with the ability to capture ultra sharp images, and with that the potential homogenisation of how we express what we see has led to a much welcomed revival of vintage glass. Lenses that had been considered a bit too old, soft, lacking in contrast and accurate colour reproduction have become a major part of how we dial back the punch of that system that is digital cinema. Older coated lenses such as the Super Baltars, K35s, Cooke Panchros, Lomos and Kowas have less efficient coatings, which when combined with modern camera sensors make a beautiful colour palette to work with.
Early Times Fire Eater - Uncoated 50mm Arri Master Prime at T2.8
Uncoated lenses are particularly in demand. Lenses began their anti-reflective coated life with the spread of colour film in the late forties and were often called “colour corrected” by their manufacturers. And along with their distinctive flares, the pastel colours that uncoated lenses create have become a thing of beauty.
There are maths and physics involved when it comes to explaining the “why” of the uncoated look from lens set to lens set. In short, lens coatings increase the transmission of light through a lens (an uncoated lens may be one third of a stop less efficient than it’s otherwise identical coated version), and the combination of the number of lens elements, the number of groups of elements, and the number of uncoated elements will determine the amount of light scatter within an uncoated lens, making it flare, lowering the contrast and making colours appear more desaturated.
Regular coated Arri Master Primes are as close to perfection as I have seen. However, if you can get hold of a set of uncoated Masters I challenge any camera or lens geek to find a moment of more exquisite beauty than when they ping from an off camera source. The colours are truly remarkable and there is a cosmic multidimensionality to the flares if the camera is moving. So it doesn’t mean that vintage glass is the only type worth looking for when it comes to the uncoated variety, although there is a set of uncoated K35s in town that everyone should try to date.
The uncoated Cooke Mini S4 are not as spectacular as the Masters, but have a bite to them which far from making them lukewarm makes them a great choice for a little je ne sais quois, and their focus gear pitch is the same as the S4 which makes them a delight for 1st ACs everywhere. I felt a little disappointed with myself for choosing Arri Shift & Tilt over uncoated Superspeeds a short while ago, and I realise that this love affair is on the edge of getting out of hand, but if anyone has an uncoated set of Leitz Macros I would probably do anything they asked.
Fuzzy Logic Baby - Uncoated Zeiss ZF 50mm @ T2 with Drum & Bass filters 2 & 3
Latest onto the camera for me are VMI’s newly uncoated set of Zeiss ZF primes. They’re lightweight, small and fast, and the 21mm has a beautiful combination of sharp ping and soft inverse vignette when it finds a lamp. It’s lovely and you really do need to use it.
There are those who would say that fashion is just a fashion, and before too long there will be a move towards sharp punchy images and the unceremonious ditching of low contrast pastel. I say a look’s a look. And however subjectively, it all comes from the script, that’s where it always begins. And whether contemporary or vintage, coated or uncoated, by themselves or in combination, our choices are led by the story and how we interpret it.
And for those lovers of nostalgia the saving grace of film’s decline has been the widespread resurrection of old glass, and the prevalent application of lens making techniques once used when coatings were deemed unnecessary for black and white, to add for our pleasure another dimension to the most perfect and precise of modern engineering.