Reviving a Vintage Lens to Add a Haunting Feel to Your Halloween Photos

Reviving a Vintage Lens to Add a Haunting Feel to Your Halloween Photos

International candy day is upon us which means that there are going to be opportunities galore to capture some cool shots of the living dead. One way to make your photos feel a bit more horror inspired is to make them look like they were taken decades ago.

The best way to create a vintage look is with vintage tools. Modern lenses have a sharp perfection to them that is a dead giveaway that a photographer is trying to fake the vintage feel. Nothing quite reproduces the ancient look quite like the organic softness of a lens made decades in the past. In this case, about 35 years ago in former Soviet Russia.

The Lens

For this shoot I pulled out my Zenit Helios 44-4 58mm f/2.0 lens. The Helios is the perfect horror of an awful lens. It was made a bit famous because of its uniquely characteristic swirly bokeh so has collected itself a bit of a cult following. But, for this shoot I wasn’t really looking to use the swirly bokeh given that I was shooting against a black background.

Other than the bokeh this lens could easily be described as a photographer’s nightmare. It is somewhat sharp in the center but is hideously soft at the edges. It has a focus throw so long that it feels more like I’m trying to take the lens apart than focus it, which is only made worse by a stiffness that makes focusing critically unpleasant. Furthermore, the Helios hates flare and is notorious for ruining images completely with even the most minor flare in the frame. Finally, the thing is an M42 lens which means that when adapted to my Nikon camera it is limited to about 4 feet or so of focus as the lens isn’t even able to focus to infinity. The good news is that you can get one super cheap. Like $30 cheap. I wonder why?

So why would I unearth this zombie of a lens, ever? Because it has a soft, mystical quality to it that makes it awful in almost all situations but amazing in this one. I love the way it organically falls out of focus unlike more modern lenses and the softening of the frame away from the center works great if you remember to always frame with the subject in the middle and just crop in post to create a desired frame.

Here are a few other lenses that can work quite well to bring in a similar vintage feel: Jupiter 9 85mm f/2, Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5, Zeiss Biotar 75mm f/1.5, and Petzval 85mm f/2.2.

The Shooting

Using the Helios feels more like organic artistry than actual technical skill. It’s one of those lenses where you might as well shoot it open since all the benefit really comes from the bokeh. Sharpness does fall off pretty crazy though at f/2.0 so I usually stick the thing at f/2.4 and leave it like that for the entire shoot.

I also find that it doesn’t handle flash very well, so I actually shot these just using the modeling lamps on my strobes. I wasn’t really concerned with the color temperature of the crappy bulbs because I was shooting for black and white. The dull modeling lamps also meant shooting at a fairly high ISO which also adds to the ancient feel of the shoot.

In order to focus I often find myself setting the focus ring “close” then just moving my body forward or back to achieve critical focus. That darned focus ring is just so frustrating to use. There is certainly a degree of trial and error. Expect to have quite a few out of focus duds.

The Editing

To round the shoot out the post-processing is actually pretty trivial. A simple black and white conversion, followed by a nice hefty contrast bump, and a level adjustment is really all that was done during the raw conversion. In Photoshop, a few minutes of cloning to get rid of blemishes followed by some light dodging and burning.

The Eyes

The biggest challenge with these photos actually was the eyes. The model wore white-out lenses which made it a bit easier but you could very easily tell they were fake right out of camera due to the lenses reflecting light more brightly than the model’s normal eye white and thus creating bright white circles in the middle of duller white eyes. I couldn’t just paint white over them as I normally would for a similar look as I wanted to preserve both the noise profile of the high ISO and the slight softness of the lens.

In order to solve this problem, I instead cloned near-white details from other parts of the image then dodge and burned them so they matched up and creating a smooth, white eye.

The Styling

As you probably have guessed, this shoot wasn’t just a typical Halloween costume. That doesn’t mean you can’t create great images from normal costumes, but I just wanted to give a shoutout to Sarah Mysynuk and Hayley CB who did an amazing job with makeup and hair, respectively, as well as our gorgeous model Genevieve Buechner.

Them Crushed Blacks

I’m sure a few readers are already chomping at the bit to slide down to the comments section and skewer me for crushing the black so heavily. This usually isn’t something you want to do, no doubt. But for these sorts of shots I adore it. Why? I feel like the interest of the photo lies in the highlights and that by smushing the blacks to such an extreme level a sense that the darkness is swallowing the subject is created.

Your Turn

So now it’s your turn. Get your rear out from in front of the computer and go shoot some haunting Halloween images. You don’t even need a vintage lens to create a similar look, just with a more modern sharpness. I’d love to see what you make!

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Paulo Macedo's picture

I've got the Helios M42 f/2 lens with some sort of bluish tint, looks like an instagram lens, might give it a try this halloween :)

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ya, I've heard rumours some of them have had that happen, must be something to do with the coating and how it ages in certain conditions. Some also are notorious for going a bit yellow, mine has that issue. I'm usually only shooting it B/W though so it isn't a big deal to me.

Paulo Macedo's picture

I love to use them in colors. It's like instagram ready lens! I need to shoot more with that lens. Well...i need to shoot more...

Ryan Cooper's picture

Yup for sure! :) I'm just a sucker for vintage looking B/W hahaha! :)

Michael Comeau's picture

Tiffen Black Pro-Mist filters work really well for this kind of thing. Plus you can use them on all your lenses and of course retain autofocus.

And f*ck shadow detail. Seriously. It's way overrated...

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ya, they can, I actually have one, though I almost never use it just because I'm not a huge fan of the halo effect they cause around highlights. Though in some situations the filter is great for creating a super dreamy feel.

Joshua Mattox's picture

Great concept and execution. I think the images look way cool!

Paul Monaghan's picture

If you want the lens to be ever more crazy, try it on the Sigma SD1.. the bokeh gets split into different colours at times :D

Joshua Boldt's picture

My 50-year-old Nikon 55mm f/1.2 also does a creamy ghost-like effect when wide open.

And I'm glad to hear someone else just sets the focus ring to one spot and leans in and out to focus with their body instead of trying to turn the ring too. :)