Shooting Vintage Lenses - Featuring a Dallmeyer Cine Lens
Here’s a bonus post for this week. You thought it was going to be the critique I was working on, based on the last roll of Kodachrome shot by Steve McCurry. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to present that, since the content doesn’t conform to what I normally post on this blog. So, that is going to have to wait. In the meantime, I have borrowed a lens from a Leica reseller here in Hong Kong, and he’s nudging me to post this sooner than later.
The borrowed item in question is the Dallmeyer Kinematography 2” 50mm f/1.9 Cine lens. Since I am publishing this post in haste, I haven’t done any research into this lens’s history. Safe to say, it is an old cine lens that covers a full frame sensor or 35mm film plane. Beyond that, I can’t say any more. Other than that, the copy I was loaned had already been converted to Leica M-mount. That made the user experience much less cumbersome.
So why am I reviewing a third party lens? I don’t normally do that, much less vintage ones. Thing is, I’ve been looking for a compact M-mount vintage lens for quite some time, and the Dallmeyer fits the description. Frankly, I am hoping to find an everyday lens that would offer me more than just the ubiquitous cookie cutter look that is typical of contemporary optics. I mean, there is more to photography than increased resolved details in subject definition.
Strictly speaking, I am not doing a review of this lens. The fact I am using this lens is incidental. It could’ve been any other M-mount vintage third party lens - just as long as it’s compact. Instead, what I intend to do is write about is my experience with using a vintage lens. Contrary to popular believe, the user experience of shooting a vintage lens isn’t quite like shooting a contemporary native lens. There are differences that may not be immediately obvious to most.
Namely, vintage lenses were made at a time before the arrival of computer-assisted precision. In its day, camera optics were designed with the standards typical of slide rulers, and crafted with the accuracy of manual tooling. Strict adherence to meet accepted production tolerance were not as rigorous back then. It wasn’t possible. As a result, vintage lenses tend to lag in user experience when compared to contemporary versions of itself.
Vintage lenses feel different. They smell different too, with the unmistakable mustiness of days gone by. They look mismatched when sutured to modern day cameras, and odder still when adapted to different camera systems. However, all these issues are only cosmetic. What is really different about vintage lenses are their optical performance. They neither perform nor render like the lenses we’re accustomed to using today.
Generally with vintage lenses at higher to maximum aperture, their edge and corner performance are strained beyond their slide rule design and manually tooled workmanship. So quite expected, focus is soft - very soft. Consequently, focusing these lenses can be challenging outside of center - whether you’re acquiring focus first, and then reframing for composition, or focusing directly on live view or an electronic viewfinder with focusing aids.
This was what I experienced with the Dallmeyer. If one were to shoot this lens conventionally, and then reframe the composition after acquiring focus, the repositioned focus point of the image will not be sharp, given how soft the lens is outside of center. Or if one were to focus this lens through electronic viewing by moving the focusing point, acquiring perceived focus outside of center will not be possible, because reduced sharpness will blur one’s ability to eyeball critical focus.
Given the reality of using a vintage lens like the Dallmeyer, the scope of what I could photograph at maximum aperture was greatly compromised by the limitations of the lens. Most noticeably, I couldn’t capture full length head-to-toe shots of the subject standing top to bottom in-frame. As a result, I couldn’t frame my subject’s face outside of center - thereby limiting what I can capture effectively to subjects whose face are shot closer-up and at the center of the frame.
Typically, this is the case for most vintage lenses at maximum aperture. So in low light situations, it’s easy to see how they can be regarded as the proverbial one-trick-pony. I mean, you can’t take environmental portraits with them, you can’t take candids either, and you can’t take group shots too. Pretty much, the only task a vintage lens can do at maximum aperture is take portraits. The Dallmeyer is no exception, being that one-trick-pony.
But as a portrait lens, the Dallmeyer shines. Only then can one fully appreciate how its limitations in versatility can be appreciated as an advantage in specialization. That is to say, when this lens is shot wide open in low light situations, the softness of this lens outside of center, in addition to the thin depth of field, isolates the subject by blurring away distracting background details. That said, it’s not the softness of this lens that gives the Dallmeyer its signature look.
Being a lens designed before the arrival of computer assisted precision, the Dallmeyer is imbued with certain unintended optical characteristics consistent of imperfectly ground glass. It’s from these imperfections that variance in light refraction becomes possible, which in turn enables this lens to render its coveted swirls at maximum aperture. For a portrait lens, this imperfection adds an extra layer of uniqueness not found in more sterile contemporary lenses.
With that being said, shooting portraits is really the only task a vintage lens can do, at maximum aperture. And with a quota of thirty published photos per blog post, I was facing down the very real prospect of publishing thirty portraits of the same person for this blog post. Personally, that was something I couldn’t do, being the obsessive compulsive I am. As such, I started to focus on documenting other subject details for the sake of breaking up the monotony.
Even so, a vintage lens can never replace an everyday lens. That’s what I learned from shooting this lens. It’s much too narrow in scope to be useful for most recreational situations encountered by enthusiast. But if you happen to be a professional who specializes in portrait photography, vintage lenses like this Dallmeyer is something worth considering. It might just be the edge you need to set yourself apart from the rest of the field.
Personally, I do enjoy vintage lenses when given the opportunity. In the case of this Dallmeyer cine lens, I was pleasantly surprised by the way it rendered at maximum aperture. Despite high praises, I opted not to get this lens. I’m not a portrait photographer. Above all, as a photographer who focuses on environmental candids, versatility in what a lens can do is my primary concern. I guess I’m just not the vintage lens kind of photographer, after all.
All images optimized on Adobe Lightroom. Most images have not been cropped. If an image has been cropped, it was superficial at most. Optimization of images include tweaks in color balance, exposure, black and white values, shadow and highlights only.
If you’re interested in this lens, you can get it here at this link. I’m not getting any incentive out of this public service announcement. I just think this lens would make a fine addition for any portrait photographer’s bag of tools.
Last, I enjoyed shooting this lens so much, here’s an additional six images on top of my requisite thirty images per post.
*** UPDATE ***
Originally, this was posted on October 25th, 2018. However, I’ve changed the posting order to the following week, because Judit had her hair cut, and the following post after this one was actually shot prior to this post. You can tell, because Judit’s hair is longer. So, being the OCD person that I am, I couldn’t take this blight in chronology anymore - because of her hair on the title image. As such, I pushed the posting date to November 3rd, 2018 - for cosmetic reasons.