Ancient Optics Kowa-R Vintage FF Primes - Rehoused by TLS

It was 8 P.M. in Istanbul when Clint Lealos, L.A. based DP and creator of the Kowa Ancients, joined our Zoom call. He was fresh off a twelve hour shoot day with a 5 a.m. call time. Despite having every reason to be exhausted, Mr. Lealos was eager to share his story.

It all began in 2016. Lealos had been experimenting with Kowa medium format lenses. “I really fell in love with those, but the look wasn’t quite right,” he said.
His search for a slightly different Kowa look continued. He stumbled upon the 50mm and 135mm full frame Kowa-R lenses from a late 1960s line. The lenses were designed for a specific camera model, the Kowa SET-R2, with the iris ring attached to the camera. Many of these lenses were sold with the camera included, but there was no adapter to throw it on a DSLR. Still, knowing they would work perfectly with a full frame camera like the Alexa LF was a key difference he wanted to investigate further.

After letting the lenses collect dust on his shelf for a few weeks, he took matters into his own hands. He was able to devise his own adapter using an EF adapter, and spare Kowa camera parts. With his adapter he was able to put the lens on a digital camera for the first time.

“My first thoughts were ‘These are fantastic,’ and ‘This is exactly what I’m going for,’” Lealos shared.


The breakthrough inspired him to collect more lenses. His research revealed a full set had been made in the Kowa R line, but they weren’t particularly fast. Regardless, whenever he could find a Kowa, he would buy it. When he finally collected the entirety of one set, he put his makeshift adapter to work and tested them. The results were compelling.

“I knew that this was a look cinematographers were going to want, not just me,” he said, referring to the first time he saw the set. “This is a unique look (...), it’s got the Kowa magic.”

He went on to describe the set as “well rounded” - just the right amount of barrel distortion, just the right amount of spherical aberration. The Kowa spell is cast with low contrast, sharp falloff in the corners, and incomparable purple and gold lens flares.

“Kowa flares, I don’t know how to explain them but they’re not the same as the prominars,” Lealos described. “They’re not the same as the anamorphics, but they’re just so pleasant.”

With the quality of the optics confirmed, Lealos had a new goal in site: rehousing them for modern cameras.


The original set ranged 28mm - 200mm. As a working DP, Lealos recognized the need for a cinema set to have a wider option below the 28mm. He searched for a Kowa lens that would match. The 19mm Kowa lens he ultimately chose was made in 1974 for a fixed lens 35mm film camera, the Kowa UW190. The lens and camera came attached together every time. The kit was designed for construction and architecture companies to take interior photos with little distortion. Unlike the other lenses in the set, the 19mm was more expensive, and in worse condition from years spent on construction sites.

Lealos initially bought three 19mm lenses. All three were damaged. In the center of the lens, there was a piece of extremely soft glass, the doublet, about the size of a pencil eraser. In all three lenses, the doublet was fractured. He purchased more - sixteen total - and all sixteen had the same problem: a doublet cracked or eaten beyond recognition.

Without the doublet, the lens couldn’t be tested, let alone rehoused. Lealos found the least impaired doublet, had it polished and recoated, and was able to test the lens’ optics. He confirmed the look was good, and compatible with the rest of the set. The bigger problem was now finding a way to manufacture this doublet.

“So I took that doublet, my one good doublet, and I sent it to an optical company that manufactures optics. Paid thousands for them to basically cut it in half, so I’m never getting that one back,” Lealos said, “to measure and analyze what type of glass, what the curvature... all the details.”

The company was able to reverse engineer the doublet after months of work and thousands of dollars. It was a nerve-racking time that hinged on the smallest optic in the widest lens. Without the doublet, the 19mm wouldn’t work. Without the 19mm, would the set sell?

“It was a lot of money to get those [doublets] ordered and when I ordered the first one I had to order a batch, not just one. I had to order 15 of them,” Lealos said. “So it was a big gamble and I was holding my breath but it worked out.”


With the 19mm secured, Lealos began sourcing as many of the lenses as he could to build up a supply for several sets. This particular line was in production from Kowa for about six
years. Even with the camera attached, they were selling for $20 - $30 on eBay. And, as he himself put it, “Nobody else in the world was looking for these lenses.” His collection grew from a handful of hopeful experiments to 200 lenses with attached cameras.

After collecting enough for potentially ten sets, he contacted TLS Optics. The UK-based optical workshop quickly signed on, and the project began. They were able to make fifteen sets. While the rehouse updated the mechanics, some of the aesthetics were designed to mimic the original lenses’ chrome colors. The rehouse has a distinctive silver mount, nose, and band.

“Making it look like the original was important to me because I wanted to honor the original lenses,” Lealos said.


Once the first set was complete, Lealos had no fear over whether the lenses would sell. He was confident people would fall in love with the “Kowa magic” as he saw it. Though, he was initially worried the 19mm and the 200mm might be considered too slow...

“I was scared as hell [the lenses weren’t fast enough],” he admitted. “And to be perfectly honest, I kind of felt that way at first.”

This concern was alleviated the more he experimented with the set. Modern cameras are more equipped than ever before to work with a slower lens. “Sensors are getting better,” he pointed out. “I’ve shot on the Alexa LF many times, using 1600 ISO with no hesitation.”

“I’m trying to coin this term: ‘Slow is the new fast,’” he joked, before continuing, “Sure, they’re slow, but they don’t ever do anything terrible. Even wide open, you don’t get some of the artifacts or aberrations that you get in the really fast lenses.”


It’s hard to think there could be another lens project that could match the passion and dedication Clint Lealos tackled the Kowa rehouse with, but the L.A. based DP promised us there would be more from him in the future.

“[My upcoming projects] have to remain a surprise,” he said. “They’re all similar stories. They’re all brands you know and love, with lenses you didn’t realize they made, that are better than you can imagine.“