Film for uncoated lenses – Andrej G


by Bellamy /

7 min read

Film for uncoated lenses – Andrej G A bit of a niche guest article for you. Shooting film on uncoated lenses. An interesting read on how old technology can still get great results. Check it out. Anyone who messes around with old cameras is certainly familiar with the tendency of manufacturers in the 1950s and 60s to stick the word “color” in front of just about anything, but most notably the names of their lenses. The post-war rise of color film for consumer use meant that this was a marketing opportunity not to be missed. Convince the average amateur photographer that their old lenses were useless with color film and they’d have no choice but to buy new equipment. But it wasn’t all about marketing. The early color films were slide films, and to be fair they were quite particular about exposure and color correction (How many of you have countless old warming and cooling filters lying around? When is the last time you used them?). In order to improve the chances of getting decent photos from these films, and utilizing relatively new techniques, lens makers started coating their lenses to improve light transmission and reduce flare. It was these coatings that prompted the flurry of renaming. Today coatings are ubiquitous. Pretty much every lens made today has multiple layers of different coatings, and these are more effective and more durable than anything from the early days of color. Manufacturers have achieved levels of transmission efficiency and correction that would have elicited gasps of disbelief half a century ago. But what about all those old uncoated lenses? Are they, as post-war marketing departments everywhere contended, now so obsolete that we should consign them to drawers or display cases? Will color film exposed through an uncoated lens look like an acid flashback? Will it spontaneously combust? Think of the children! Well, I’m here to tell you that the combination of uncoated lenses is not going to make your camera explode. In fact, if you choose your film wisely and pay attention to what you’re doing, you might just end up producing some pretty special photos. I’m going to concentrate on the most common color films available today: color negative, or print, films. First off, let’s think about the real differences between coated and uncoated lenses. An uncoated lens will have slightly less efficient light transmission between glass-air surfaces. It may flare a bit more in some conditions. And it may be more likely to produce a wider variance of color rendition across the spectrum; in other words, a particular lens might create deep, saturated reds but lighter, more pastel greens, for example. DSC00342 Uncoated lenses are all at least sixty or seventy years old at this point, so next we have to consider how this may affect photos. Generally, we can expect lower contrast, and particularly micro-contrast. Optical characteristics will obviously depend on the design of the lens, but most from this era are fairly simple triplets or the ubiquitous four-element/three-group Tessar. What sharpness we get is likely to be concentrated in the center and highly dependent upon the chosen aperture. Finally, remember that manufacturing standards for consistency have risen a lot since these lenses were built, and that computer-aided design has led to far greater possibilities of resolution and uniformity than were possible so many decades ago. Put simply, expect more performance variability across manufacturers and models than you would today. Further, each uncoated lens is a little bit unique, and the passage of so much time means that condition will vary a lot as well. So what does all this mean for film selection? Well, we’ve got a lens that’s a bit less efficient, which in practice means that for a given exposure setting, fractionally less light will be getting to the emulsion. With modern color negative film, which one reads of frequently as being rather intolerant of underexposure, this would seem to suggest a problem. It’s not. A little bit of underexposure (we’re talking about a very small amount here, far less than a stop) helps boost saturation. Combine this with the lack of color correction and we arrive at our first conclusion: uncoated lenses can produce very saturated colors. This should influence our film selection. If you want to take this increased saturation and run with it, you should be thinking about a film like Kodak Ektar. If you prefer to counteract the effect a bit, Portra 160 might be a better choice. While we’re on the subject of color, consider the tendencies of the film choices in question. Kodak’s color print films tend to have lots of red saturation, while Fuji’s are more known for vibrant greens. Personally, I like the look of Kodak films, as particularly Ektar, with uncoated lenses, but everyone has their own preferences. Knowing what to expect in your subjects is a bit more important with uncoated lenses, as you don’t have the lens helping to correct these imbalances. Of course, there aren’t as many film choices out there as there used to be, which makes it a bit more difficult. While I’m not going to get into the details of color correction filters here, suffice it to say that they have a more pronounced effect with uncoated lenses. Next, think about contrast. High contrast has become the norm in modern photography, and frankly I find it a bit tiresome at this point. Contrast is overrated – there, I said it. Razor-sharp high-contrast photos are everywhere, and they’re often boring. Lower the contrast and photos take on a softer, more painterly feel; if you have a hybrid workflow, you can always boost it later if necessary – adding contrast is much easier than reducing it. Your choice of film, at least color negative film, is not going to have as obvious an effect here. With black-and-white, development materials and technique can fine-tune contrast in a way not readily accessible in color film development. _DSF2232 Knowing your equipment and using what are normally considered flaws to your advantage, you can further tweak your results. Want to dial back the saturation and lower the contrast even further? Shoot into the light; uncoated lenses will usually produce veiling flare much more readily than coated lenses. Open up the aperture as wide as you can and contrast will likely drop even further. On the flipside, want more contrast and even higher saturation? Put on a lens hood and make sure the light is behind you. Get down to the optimal aperture settings for sharpness and contrast – usually f/5.6 or f/8 – and with a film like Ektar your photos will almost pop off the film. So what film to choose? Well, obviously, it’s not as simple as that. As is so often the case, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. In this instance that means going out and experimenting with different emulsions until you find what you like. This is, however, a bit easier with uncoated lenses, as film characteristics and variances in technique tend to show up more readily than with highly corrected modern glass. It’s a double-edged sword: you have more ability to adjust the look of your photos by varying your methods, but you have to be more conscious of what you’re doing to get consistent results. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, uncoated lenses can produce some truly exceptional results with modern color negative films. Photo captions NOTE: I’ve paired the photos to highlight differences. Each pair was shot on the same film in the same camera on the same day. Pair #1 – Rolleiflex Old Standard, Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 75/3.8, Kodak Ektar 100 1-Above the falls_720 Above the falls: With the sun behind the lens, contrast is high and colors – particularly the reds – are highly saturated. The color produced by Ektar comes close to rivaling slide film for vibrancy here. 1-Below the falls_720 Below the falls: The same bedrock formation as in “Above the falls,” but shot toward the sun. Note the dramatic reduction in contrast and loss of saturation. Pair #2 – Voigtländer Vito, Skopar 50/3.5, Kodak Gold 200 2-Brick column_720 Brick column: Areas of both direct sun and shadow are handled well by the naturally lower contrast of the uncoated lens. 2-Marble column_720 Marble column: Lacking the clinical sharpness and micro-contrast of modern lenses, the sharp edges of the scalloping are softened a bit, giving a more naturally textured feel. Pair #3 – Rolleiflex Old Standard, Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 75/3.8, Kodak Portra 160 3-Covered bridge_720 Covered bridge: The muted palette of Portra 160 combined with shooting into the light makes for a very low saturation image here. This type of soft veiling flare is typical behavior for uncoated lenses shot this way. 3-Double falls_720 Double falls: With the sun about 90 degrees to the lens axis, contrast goes up, and saturation takes on a more natural appearance. Andrej G prefers to keep a bit of anonymity online. But you can see some of his work on his site: I am always looking for interesting articles such as this one. Do you think you have something that can bee seen on JCH? If you would like to make a contribution to drop me a line and tell me what you can bring to JCH. Cheers Bellamy

4 comments on “Film for uncoated lenses – Andrej G”

    Rui Esteves March 29, 2015 at 6:19 pm / Reply

    Nice article.

    I’ve been having trouble with contrast and color representation with my Rolleiflex (same model used in the article I believe). Even using a lens hood, most exposures came out with washed out colors and very low contrast, while shooting color negatives.

    Thanks for the insight.

    Dan Castelli March 30, 2015 at 10:34 am / Reply

    Excellent article.

    The author makes a passing reference to B&W films when used in combination with these lenses. For the B&W shooters who process their own film, you may be interested in the Sprint System of Photography (Rhode Island, USA) line of chemistry, and more importantly, their data guide for film development. For their film developer (Sprint Standard), they recommend a specific adjustment for ‘uncoated lenses.’ Great minds think alike.

    I’ve used the product line for years, as both a photography teacher and for my own work. I am not in their employ :-))

    Dan August 14, 2016 at 2:52 am / Reply

    I’ve got some really nice photos on old cameras with yncoated lenes. Particularly a Ziess ikon nettar

    Harry February 4, 2018 at 6:23 pm / Reply

    Very interesting article and well presented. It would be good to know more about the scanning as this can also introduce qualities of its own.

    The wonderful English photographer James Ravilious was well known for shooting with uncoated lenses, even having coatings removed I’m told, mostly in black & white though and he made his own custom lens hoods.

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