I recently purchased myself a vintage Nikon EL2 35mm film camera — I totally love it — and it came with a Nikkor AI 50mm f/2.0 lens. I decided to revive my lens collecting hobby and finally complete my Nikkor prime set — which I want to cine-mod. A few years ago, I picked up a BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which came with a few Nikkor primes and a MetaBones BMPCC to Nikon SpeedBooster, and I fell in love with these Nikkor primes. They are absolute tanks, solid metal construction, engraved markings, amazing optical quality and relatively cheap to pick up these days.
Even in Australia, there is a pretty good market for vintage Nikkors, and we are close enough to Japan that I have access to that huge secondhand market for relatively okay shipping. I will have another post going into detail about what lenses from the Nikkor AI/AI-S series you should pick up to put together into a prime set, but for now I want to write about how to construct a set of prime lenses. Starting from a basic 3 lens set to a massive 11+ lens set and specials that cover a wide range focal lengths.
What is a cine prime set?
When someone says the phase “cine prime set”, many filmmakers will immediately think of lenses like the Zeiss Super (Standard) Speeds, or Arri-Zeiss Master Primes, Cooke S4 Primes or maybe Leitz Summilux-C Primes. But what exactly is a cine prime set?
Basically, it’s a set of 3 or more lenses of a fixed focal length (neé prime) that are designed specifically for cinema use. Usually, this means de-clicked and geared aperture rings, geared manual focus, marked T-stops, and usually an absolutely massive price tag. The most notable aspect cine primes or any primes used for cinema, is that they are prime lenses. Which means to get wide and telephoto shots you will need dedicated wide and tele lenses, and if you’re looking for anything in-between you will need a new lens for each focal length you wish to shoot.
Why not just use a zoom?
Zoom lenses have much more complex optical designs than primes, which means they require more optical glass elements — that will typically degrade image quality, reduce light transmission, increase weight, and introduce more optical artefacts. Therefore, traditionally cinema has relied on prime lenses for their superior image quality, simpler design, increased light transmission, and lower weight compared to their zoom counterparts. Zoom lenses of course are still utilised in cinema, but prime lenses are the real workhorses. And unlike in photography, filmmakers are often afforded the time to change a lens to get a different focal length, whereas a photographer may be better equipped with a zoom lens to cover a larger range of focal lengths for wildlife, sports, or street photography.
Creating a set
To cover a wide range of focal lengths and field of views, we need to put together a set of prime lenses, but what lenses to choose? Well it depends on your budget, your field of view requirements, the story requirements, and what focal lengths are available in the lenses that you want.
For example, if we take a look at the Arri-Zeiss Master Primes, there are 15 lenses ranging from focal lengths of 12mm to 150mm. The brand new Arri Signature Primes come in 16 focal lengths from 12mm to 280mm. The Cooke S4/i lenses come in 18 focal lengths from 12mm to 300mm. The Zeiss Super Speeds MK I was a 5 lens set from 18mm to 85mm, similarly the Zeiss Standard Speeds started with 6 lenses from 8mm to 85mm, and later added another 9 lenses from 10mm to 300mm for a full set of 15 lenses, 8mm to 300mm.
We can see here that a fully featured professional set of primes should cover somewhere between 10mm to 280mm. Obviously, a smaller set might not be able to cover these extremes — there’s probably not a lot of need for an 8mm, 10mm, 280mm or 300mm lens.
How many lenses?
How many lenses should you add to your set? Well, each of the Arri Signature Primes are about $25,000 with some of the exotic focal lengths reaching $40,000, resulting in the price for a full 16 lens set will setting you back a cool $462,000. So we really have to ask ourselves: how many focal lengths do I need? Or rather, how many focal lengths can I afford?
If you’re looking at putting together a vintage prime set, with Nikkors, Contax Zeiss, Leica R, Canon FD, Asahi Takumar, Minolta Rokkor, or “Soviet” vintage lenses, your price-per-lens is probably less than $1000 (sometimes much less than this, sometimes a little higher) and you can maybe put together a bigger set. But what is the minimum number of lenses you should have in your prime set?
The absolute minimum prime set
Any prime set starts with 3 lenses — you will need a “Normal” lens, a “Wide” lens, and a “Telephoto” or “Tele” lens. What exactly these focal lengths are, will depend on series of lenses you’re building from but will also depend on your tastes.
Do you gravitate towards really wide lenses? Or are you more prone to tele lenses with lots of background-foreground separation? And importantly, what formats do you want your lenses compatible with? Are you shooting full-frame? Super 35? Super 16? APS-C crop? Micro Four Thirds? Large format 65mm? All of these sensor formats will change your effective focal length depending on the size of the lens’ projection circle.
Are crop-factors useless in cinema?
For the purposes of this post, we will focus on vintage lenses, which are basically all designed for full-frame 35mm film cameras. So if we’re using these lenses on anything smaller than a full-frame sensor we are going to have to deal with crop-factors. Simply put, a crop-factor is a number unique to different sized sensors that we multiply the focal length by, to give us an effective focal length or field of view of a full-frame lens as captured by the crop-sensor. Check out this ShareGrid post for a deep dive into crop-sensors and lens formats.
I will provide Super 35 effective focal lengths denoted S35 and Super 16 effective focal lengths denoted S16 (I love Super 16 and my BMPCC, and it’s also crazy to see how much smaller a Super 16 sensor is) and my BMPCC with a MetaBones 0.58x focal reducer will be denoted BMPCC.
35mm full-frame versus 35mm motion picture film
When we talk about crop-factors we are using the 35mm film size as the baseline comparison sensor size. This is the 35mm film gauge for still photography, also called 135 film. 135 film has a sensor size of 36x24 mm or a diagonal length, D_135 = D_FF = 43.27 mm.
35mm motion picture film, which we will call “Academy” film, has a smaller sensor size of 22x16 mm or a diagonal length, D_Academy = 27.2mm.
This is a subtle different that is often overlooked in conversations around crop-factors. While both still photography and motion picture photography used the 35mm film gauge they have always had different exposure areas or sensor-sizes. Even with Widescreen, CinemaScope, Super 35, or Techniscope — the motion picture sensor was always smaller or “cropped-in” from full-frame 135 film. The exception is VistaVision which is essential 135 film used for motion picture use, and larger film formats such as 65mm, 70mm, and IMAX film.
To understand this different, you need to simply look at how the film was fed into the camera. For 135 still photography the perforations were along the longer side of the frame, and the film was fed horizontally across the exposure area. While in 35mm motion picture film, the perforations were along the shorter side of the frame, and the film was fed vertically across the exposure area. You see this illustrated in the image below, from WikiMedia Commons.
Using the 135 full-frame sensor size as a base-line for cinema focal lengths is a bit of a misnomer. Most cinema lenses were designed to cover 35mm motion picture film, not 135 full-frame.
For example, the legendary Zeiss Super Speeds do not cover full-frame, neither do Arri-Zeiss Master Primes, Cooke S4s or nearly any of the pre-digital cinema primes. The newer cinema primes such as Zeiss Compact Primes, Zeiss Supreme Primes, and Arri Signature Primes are designed to cover full-frame digital sensors with a wider image circle.
What does this all mean?
All of this kind of means that you shouldn’t spend too much worry about crop-factors, especially when looking at cinema use. You’re probably better off converting full-frame focal lengths back to a Super 35 equivalent focal length to match your mental model for cinema prime focal lengths.
For our purposes, where we are looking at using vintage 35mm still photography lenses, the full-frame crop factor translation is useful, as all of these lenses were designed to cover full-frame.
In the risk of confusing things more, I will also convert the 135 focal lengths to equivalent “Academy” 35mm motion picture film focal lengths, so you can compare the focal lengths directly to cinema lenses such as, Arri-Zeiss Master Primes and Zeiss Super Speeds.
Base 135 full-frame
To find the crop-factor, CF, of a crop-sensor we use the following formula, where D denotes the diagonal length of the sensor:
CF_sensor = D_full-frane / D_sensor = 43.27 / D_sensor.
For example, Super 35 has a diagonal length of 31.10mm, that is, D_S35 = 31.10. And so the crop-factor,
CF_S35 = S_FF / D_S35 = 43.27 / 31.10 = 1.39.
So, we can find the effective focal length of a full-frame lens on a Super 35 sensor by multiplying the focal length by 1.39.
For example, a 50mm lens designed for full-frame, such as the Nikkor AI 50mm f/1.2, when put on a Super 35 sensor, effectively has a 70mm focal length in full-frame terms.
f_S35 = f_FF x CF_S35 = 50mm x 1.39 = 69.5mm ~= 70mm.
There is of course is more caveats here, the depth of field is not the same as a 70mm full-frame lens, and SpeedBoosters can complicate this and the ShareGrid article goes into more detail, but for our purposes this simplification will do.
You can think of it like this, a Nikkor AI 50mm f/1.2 on a Super 35 camera, has the same field of view as a 70mm lens on a full-frame camera (if you can find a 70mm prime).
The crop-factor for Super 16, CF_S16, is 3.02.
The crop-factor for 35mm motion picture “Academy” film, CF_Academy, is 1.59.
The crop-factor for my BMPCC with a 0.58x focal reducer, CF_BMPCC, is 1.75.
Base Super 35
To find the equivalent Super 35 focal length of a full-frame lens on a full-frame sensor we basically invert the crop-factor for Super 35 film, that is we multiply by:
1 / C_S35 = 1 / 1.39 = 0.719.
For example, a 50mm lens designed for full-frame, such as the Nikkor AI 50mm f/1.2, when put on a full-frame sensor, is equivalent to 36mm lens that is designed for Super 35.
Equivalent focal length = 50mm x 0.719 = 36mm.
That is, a 50mm full-frame lens on a full-frame sensor, gives the same field of view, as a 36mm Super 35 lens on a Super 35 sensor.
Specifically, the Zeiss Super Speed 35mm T/1.3 on a Super 35 camera has the same field of view as Nikkor AI 50mm f/1.2 on a full-frame camera.
Converting to Base Super 35 allows you to compare how your vintage length focal lengths compare to the “traditional” cinema primes, that is, cinema primes not designed for full-frame digital sensors.
Florian Milz has created an amazing tool to see how various lenses cover different sized sensors. I recommend you check it out and play around with it with different sensor sizes and different lenses to get an intuitive understanding of crop-factors, sensor-sizes, and lens coverage. Check out his Lens Coverage Tool.
Hint: Compare the camera “FILM Super 35mm (4-perf)” with “FILM Vista Vision” on various lenses.
I will write lens specifications in the following format:
(focal-length) (sensor coverage) (lens group)
50mm FF normal
Means a 50mm focal length designed for a full-frame (135 film) sensor and is what we will call a “normal” lens.
We will use the following lens groups, these are my personal definitions for these lens groups. What I call an ultra-wide might be a super-wide or wide for you, I just find this mental model useful for lens set construction. There are no rules or definitions that everyone will agree on, however, during this article we will stick to this nomenclature.
|Lens Group||Focal-Length Range (in full-frame terms)|
|Fish-eye||1mm - 20mm|
|Special-Wide||1mm - 15mm|
|Super-Wide||10mm - 24mm|
|Ultra-Wide||20mm - 35mm|
|Wide||24mm - 35mm|
|Mid-Wide||35mm - 50mm|
|Normal||35mm - 60mm|
|Mid-Tele||55mm - 85mm|
|Tele||85mm - 100mm|
|Ultra-Tele||100mm - 135mm|
|Super-Tele||120mm - 185mm|
You can see that the focal-length range is not exclusive to each group, and that you can have lenses that sit in multiple groups, these are simply a guide not absolute rules.
N.B. the super prefix is more extreme than ultra.
A 3 Lens Set
Our basic 3 lens set comprises of a Wide, a Normal, and a Tele. The choice of focal lengths depend on your choice of normal.
Choose your Normal
Traditionally, a 50mm lens is considered “normal”, however, some people prefer a wider 35mm lens as their normal, and some will choose a 40mm lens. Where you set your centre lens is really a personal choice, and also depends on the look of the project you’re shooting.
We will choose a 50mm lens for our normal, for a few reasons. Number 1, it’s generally considered to be the focal length of the human eye, and that means shots from a 50mm should look pretty natural. The second reason, is a practical reason. Many cameras from the 70s and 80s came with a 50mm kit lens, which means for us, there is an abundance of vintage 50mm lenses. There are millions of them out there, and due to the sheer number of them, it is super easy for find a vintage 50mm lens in good condition for a good price. It is also easier to find faster 50mm lenses for the same reason.
So we have.
Add your Wide and Tele
Next, we need to complete our set, by giving us options for our wide shots and our telephoto shots. Again, how wide you want to go is again a very personal choice, but most 3 lens prime sets will go for a 35mm for wide or a 85mm for telephoto.
Some may argue that 35mm is not wide enough and that you should go for a 28mm or 24mm or even a 20mm wide-angle. It is really up to you — we are going to go for a 35mm wide. In vintage lens sets, there is not usually many lenses between 50mm and 85mm. You may get a 58mm or a 60mm, but rarely anything else. For cinema use, a large range of telephotos are not generally needed and cinematographers will generally prefer more granularity in the wider-end of the spectrum. So we will stick with a 85mm.
You can see here how the different crop-factors affect the focal length of the set. For example, the 35mm FF wide becomes a 49mm S35 normal, essentially a 50mm normal — which is super nice. And on the BMPCC the 50mm FF becomes a 88mm BMPCC tele, essentially a 85mm tele.
A 5 Lens Set
A 3 lens set is a perfect way to start, and if you’re collecting a vintage set of lenses, it is the perfect skeleton to hang the rest of your set on. It allows you to build up a set overtime as the required lenses become available, and also teaches you a lot about focal-length and knowing when to reach for what lens.
Going from a 3 to 5 lens set allows to push the set wider and longer or if you’re happy with the breadth of your set you can use the 2 extra lenses to fill the focal-length gaps.
Going Extreme (Set A)
With the addition of a 20mm FF super-wide lens we get a very nice 28mm S35 ultra-wide, a respectable 60mm S16 normal and a 35mm BMPCC wide/mid-wide. The 135mm FF super-tele becomes a useful 188mm S35 special-tele — close to a 180mm special-tele. On the S16 and BMPCC it becomes a little unwieldy.
Filling the gaps (Set B)
In this instance, we are happy with our 85mm FF tele and decide to add a 20mm FF super-wide and a 28mm FF wide/ultra-wide.
Again, the 28mm FF ultra-wide is a really nice lens for our sensor sizes, the 28mm FF ultra-wide becomes a nice ~50mm BMPCC normal, and 85mm S16 tele, and a very useful ~40mm S35 mid-wide.
A 7 Lens Set
With a 7 lens set we can really start to fill out that focal length range, we will build upon our two 5 lens sets as a base. At 7 lenses you end up with a really well rounded set, and depending how happy you are with your 5 lens set you can start to add special lenses, such as fish-eye lenses, special-wides or special-teles — that go really really wide or long, or perhaps macro lenses if that suits your project.
We wont be touching fish-eyes or macro lenses in these standard sets, however, I would only start to add these exotic lenses once you have a solid 5 lens set. That is, we will also assume the the wide (special, super, ultra, mid) lenses we choose here are rectilinear and telephotos are non-macro.
For Set A, we are going to have a fill the gaps approach, by adding an ultra-wide and an ultra-tele.
Again, here the additional 24mm FF ultra-wide is super nice, becoming a ~35mm S35 wide and a nice 40mm BMPCC mid-wide. The 100mm FF ultra-tele is gives a ~135mm S35 tele, a ~300mm S16 special-tele and a ~185mm BMPCC super-tele.
Set B is our wider focused set, a set designed to cater to smaller sensor sizes — anything smaller than full-frame will benefit from a wider weighted set.
You can see we’ve shifted our the naming of our wide lenses here, we’ve shifted everything along to fit in a 15mm FF special-wide and a 24mm FF ultra-wide shifting the 28mm FF to a wide and 35mm FF to mid-wide.
The special-wide I chose here is 15mm FF because there are rectilinear 15mm lenses in the Nikkor AI/AI-S series, the Contax Zeiss series, Leica R series and Asahi Takumar series. In some cases you may only have a 16mm or 18mm. The Canon FD series has a 14mm rectilinear, the Minolta Rokkor series has a 17mm rectilinear as the widest available.
These sub-20mm FF special-wide lenses are often the most expensive in the series, and are often the widest available lenses in the series. You will need to judge for yourself how wide you can afford to go, and how wide you can go while keeping an acceptable aperture. The Nikkor 13mm AI/AI-S lenses have minimum aperture of f/5.6 and the Nikkor 15mm AI/AI-S has f/5.6 and f/3.5 options. Similarly, the Distagon 15mm and Distagon 16mm from the Contax Zeiss series have f/3.5 and f/4.0 minimum apertures respectively.
9 Lens Set
The 9 lens set is basically combining Set A and B.
11+ Lens Set
The 11 lens set is about as large a set you can manage with vintage lenses, you can keep adding more and more tele lenses (Contax Zeiss goes all the way to a Mirotar 1000mm f/8.0 special-tele), and depending on your series you might have one or two more wider lenses to add or maybe a few more gaps for more-wide and more-tele gaps. However, we will end our journey at 11 lenses, with a special-tele and a mid-tele.
Depending on your series, your 60mm FF mid-tele might be a 58mm like the Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 AI/AI-S; Asahi Takumar 58mm f/2.0 (and f/2.4); and the MC Rokkor 58mm f/1.2 (and f/1.4). Or a 55mm like the the Canon FD 55mm f/1.2. Or a macro lens like the Contax Zeiss Makro-Planar 60mm f/2.8 and the Leica Macro-Elmarit-R 60mm f/2.8.
Similarly, a 180mm FF special-tele is probably as long as you need to go in cinema, but you can really go wild here and go as long as you want.
Finally, we will add a fish-eye for a 12 lens set. Most vintage lens series have a 16mm FF fish-eye, but your individual results may vary.
That’s it, that’s how we construct a cine prime set. To summarise:
- Find your normal. Find a focal length to be the centre of our set.
- Add a wide and a tele. Go as wide or as long as your project or aesthetics require.
- Fill the gaps or go extreme. Add wider and longer extremes to push the breadth of your set, or fill up the gaps within your set to give yourself more normal-ish options.
- Repeat step 3, until you run out of lenses.
- Add a fish-eye and/or macro lenses.
- Get a sweet pelican case for your lenses.
At the moment, I am starting to fill out my vintage Nikkor AI (not AI-S) vintage prime set, and I have my eyes on creating a nice 5 lens set of Contax Zeiss lenses.
I hope this guide has been useful in your vintage cine prime set construction, in the coming weeks I will be using this guide to construct vintage cine prime sets for Nikkor AI/AI-S, Contax Zeiss, Canon FD, Leica R, Minolta Rokkor, Asahi Takumar, and “Soviets”. I will link back here when they are up.