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Wolfgang Collects Unique and Hard to Find Vintage Lenses


“With vintage lenses being made decades before the internet, it’s hard to verify the information you find online,” says bokehsommelier aka Wolfgang. A researcher, collector, and expert on classic lenses, he’s in the process of setting up what he hopes will become Europe’s first dedicated vintage lens rental store. By verifying the origins of each lens, he’s aiming to make his store one of the more authentic ones around. It’s a brave attempt, but given the rarity of some of the lenses he’s planning on procuring, it could just be a runaway success.

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Lens rental stores aren’t uncommon these days. With more people moving to careers in the visual industries of the world, the demand for good glass is ever increasing. Even here in Dubai, I’ve seen several new photographers and short filmmakers look for unique, older lenses that possess characteristics that they don’t find in digital era lenses. I’ve previously wondered why they don’t just introduce vintage looks in post-processing. But as the years went by and I interacted with more and more DoPs, I realized that almost all of them prefer to get the look they want in-camera. And that’s never a bad thing; it’s just that it often takes longer to source such lenses. Wolfgang sees an opportunity to be a pioneer in this segment in Europe. What started as a keen interest in learning vintage glass’s intimate features has now blossomed into a potentially successful venture to rent unique lenses.

The Essential Photo Gear Used By Wolfgang

Wolfgang told us:

I read a post on a Japanese photography blog years ago that had a picture of some datasheets in it saying, “Political views: Nikon, Religious Views: Leica”. I think this particular statement sums it up quite well for me.

The Phoblographer: Hi Wolfgang. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Wolfgang: I was born in southern Germany and went to school in England. My passion for photography developed early. There are pictures of me loading my father’s Nikon F3 at 6 or 7 years old. I got my first camera at age 9- a simple Canon rangefinder. For a Christmas gift in my freshman year of high school, I was given my first DSLR camera. I went on to become the school photographer of my boarding school, taking the yearbook headshots and documenting events around the school. Around this time, I started getting into vintage lenses. My first one was a 1970 Nikon 35mm f/1.4. Being used to modern glass, the intense character of this lens made me fall in love with vintage lenses in a heartbeat. I wanted to know what gave them their characteristics and started doing research into optical design and history. I made extensive comparisons and lists and analyzed what I could. Later on, in Uni, I worked part-time as an event photographer. Folks realized my photos had a somewhat “different” look, which they liked. I’m still doing this but on more rare occasions. I just feel at home behind the viewfinder. It’s meditation for me.

Taken on Nikon FF with a 1970 Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 at f2.8
A lens loaded with character and especially Chromatic aberration. It was cold and raining outside this ancient monument, so my lens caught some condensation. I think it plates nicely with the bright chandeliers illuminating this sacred building.

The Phoblographer: What camera gear do you use for your work?

Wolfgang: If I need a quick, highly responsive camera, i.e., for an event, I use the top-of-the-line Nikon DSLRs or the F5 for film. For my personal photography and slower-paced shoots, I use a Leica M10. The native Leica M-lenses are among my favorites. They combine character and performance in a unique way. In addition, I use a myriad of vintage lenses for both Nikon and Leica. I’m still very fond of optical viewfinders.

The Phoblographer: More commonly used for wine connoisseurs; tell us how you came up with the moniker ‘bokehsommelier’.

Wolfgang: That was the classic shower thought. It was my birthday, and I enjoyed a great bottle of Bordeaux with friends in a restaurant. The next morning, it hit me. I was lucky there: I really like Schneider-Kreuznach, so the runner-up to Bokehsommelier was literally “Schneiderguy”!

I was lucky to have the time and resources to study lenses way more thoroughly than most people, especially with regards to other online publications and Instagram. People told me I’m relentless when it comes to research. I’d say the same about procurement of Lenses – finding rare glass for a striking deal, sometimes in the most unlikely places is half the fun about collecting. I managed to procure some extremely rare or even unique optics like the Canon 15-120mm f/1.3 Zoom, which TLS modified for me. The expertise and knowledge I’ve gained and cultivated over the years have been very well received in the industry. Collectors, rentals, and even manufacturers regularly contact me for opinions, data, or actual advice.

The Phoblographer: Collecting lenses, especially rare ones is highly addictive. At what point did you decide to turn this fascination into something that could bring you returns? Where did it all start?

Wolfgang: It definitely is. By now, I have absolutely no clue how many I have; it’s countless at this point. Wanting to commercialize my lenses started with me buying Cine-Lenses- especially with heavy zooms. I bought them just to try them out, or just because they were a good deal as an investment. I’m just a collector, not a DoP.

I’ve been actively collecting lenses for over a decade now. It all started with an old Nikon 35mm f/1.4. I was fascinated by its character. It was unlike any of the modern lenses I was used to, so I decided to dig deeper. Isn’t it crazy how some molten sand and minerals open an entire new world of creativity and wonder? A fascination became a hobby, became a passion, became a job.

The Phoblographer: There’s tons of vintage lens experts today; many of whom have decades of experience using old glass. Tell us how you plan on setting yourself apart from them.

Wolfgang: The number of “experts” is indeed exploding. I luckily don’t exclusively collect lenses. I also collect old books, brochures, and documents. This is where I see the biggest difference in the quality of one’s expertise. With vintage lenses being made decades before the internet, it’s hard to verify the information you find online. Having the primary sources is vital here. You have to apply some sort of peer-reviewed system of research yourself. Therefore it’s vital to be in constant exchange with other collectors to share info and documents. I also thoroughly test and take apart most lenses I get.

The Phoblographer: What sort of lenses do you plan on adding to your lens rental catalogue? Who would your target audience be?

Wolfgang: I was extremely lucky to be introduced to Phillip Kaminiak. He’s a D.P. from Berlin I befriended. We shared a vision here and decided to team up. We will offer anything from well-known classics like the Cooke-Speed Panchros to Canon F.D.’s, to more exotic sets like Astro Berlin Pan-Tachars, or re-housed Kowa F.F. We’ll constantly be adding new sets. I have to give big thanks to my friend Clint from Ancient Opticsin Los Angeles. His re-housing projects seek very carefully-picked sets of vintage still or cine-optics, which are re-housed only by top-tier manufacturers like True Lens services in Leicester or Zero Optik in L.A. We are incredibly lucky to be the sole contractor for his lenses in Germany. 

We will offer modern or semi-modern lenses as well, but our focus is definitely on vintage, or rather our rendition: Timeless Optics.

Our target audiences are prolific cinematographers and studios in Central Europe since we only offer top-shelf equipment. We plan to offer a broader selection in terms of the budget at some point in the future.

The Phoblographer: That’s a very niche audience wouldn’t you say? How do you plan on getting the word around ?

Wolfgang: In a way, it is, especially in Germany. Many established cinematographers here don’t like to take chances with their equipment and prefer a clean, almost clinical look for their work. This is quite the opposite with the younger generation, who are much more likely to be adventurous, and constantly searching for new, exciting looks. Globally, the hype is in full swing. Looking at the “gear list” for the Oscars, there’s more and more vintage gear represented every year. As I’ve indicated, the trend is forming here as well; just a bit slower. That’s why we’re here- to facilitate growth and empower cinematographers with unique tools for their creativity.

The Phoblographer: Which do you think would be the top 3 lenses from here that people would want to rent? What makes them so special?

Wolfgang: Of course, the well-known ones like Cooke or Canon F.D. will rent well, but I think people will be excited for more unusual sets like Astro Berlin. My top three are Canon FD, Zeiss HS and the Astro Pan Tachars. All come from different eras and deliver unique characteristics. With the Super16 Format on the rise again, I’m sure DoPs will go crazy for the Canon 15-120mm f/1.3 Zoom as well. There are already new projects on the way. What I can say, for now, is that there are more excellent vintage Japanese sets out there.

The one which comes next will surprise many cinematographers in a positive way. We will be the only rental in Germany offering one.

The Phoblographer: Why do you feel someone would go through the trouble of getting a vintage lens with a characteristic that can probably be easily reproduced in software these days?

Wolfgang: It’s impressive how much can be done digitally these days. However, replicating the look of a vintage lens has many more layers than just adding flares and reducing contrast. Think, for example, of factors like sharpness-transition, micro-contrast, and bokeh- those characteristics are almost impossible to replicate with modern optics and digital manipulation. Although many manufacturers take an approach at replicating vintage optics, this becomes increasingly harder to do. Elements such as thorium and arsenic are banned from being used in glass today. Also, modern manufacturing processes are devoid of the “flaws” we value so much in old glass.

Taken on a Leica M10 with a Fujinon 35mm f/1.9. likely my new favorite 35mm
Sharp but not clinical, bloomy bokeh, and warm color flares. Its eight-element design is really unique.

The Phoblographer: What are some of the characteristics that you look for when researching for lenses to add to your inventory? Since you’ll be sourcing them from around the world, what’s the best way to verify their authenticity and quality?

Wolfgang: For my own photography and collection, I will add a bunch of vintage wides soon. I find the distortion-free super-angulons and biogons super interesting. 

“For the rental, I am searching for an unconventional anamorphic set with distinctive flares, breathing, and oval bokeh. Another point on the list is a very fast set for Super16.To determine the condition of a lens online, you need good photos of the item itself. Of course, there still are major flaws that would be hard to hide. I try to buy from people I know or sellers I have bought from before. It’s great to have friends around the world who can help but sometimes buying vintage lenses is just a gamble.

The Phoblographer: How far away is the venture from completion. When do you think vintage lens fans like myself can expect it to go live?

Wolfgang: We have sadly seen a lot of delay because of the pandemic and the nightmare that is paperwork in Germany. At the moment, we’re still waiting for lenses to come back from re-housing and modification. We’re also visiting final places for a home for our company in Berlin. There are two or three possible locations, and we’re in contact with them. 

I estimate that we should be fully operational for the summer of this year. There’s much to come in the future! A bigger internet presence with a database, multiple new rehousing projects of almost forgotten but awesome lenses, and hopefully connecting collectors to cinematographers even better in the future.

All images supplied by Wolfgang. Used with permission. Please visit his Instagram page to see more of his work.

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