A Mysterious F1.4 Lens Gave the CIA Gear Lust and a Surprise

Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography.

I think most people reading this have never heard of a brand called Wild, but they made lenses that particularly caught the eye of the CIA. If you’ve been following the Declassified series, you’ll know the CIA’s issues with low light photography. High-speed film helped a bit, but there were more complications involving color vs. black and white. However, the 1960s saw significant optical progress for the Central Intelligence Agency. And one specific lens really made their jaws drop. Called the Falconar Lens by Wild in the document, it boasted an f1.4 aperture and a 4″ focal length. The CIA got wind of it from NATO, which convinced them to use it as well. In all my years in the photo industry, I’ve never heard of them before.

Today, we’re focusing on one specific document. On May 1st, 1961, the CIA specifically sent a memo about a single lens. Typically, directives like this would request designs, purchases, etc. They’re pretty rare and otherwise detail things like resolution chart tests. But the Wild Falconar 4″ f1.4 lens blew someone away. This lens would be used for low altitude recon missions. And of course, the film was more massive than 35mm. If you translate the focal length from 4″, you get around 100mm. On medium format cameras, 100mm is not too far off from a standard 50mm focal length. For a rough translation into the 6×9 format, 90mm is around 35mm in full-frame 35mm formats. From that moment on, this memo specifically calls it a wide-angle lens. At f1.4, a lens like this could capture vast scenes in focus. With an f1.4 aperture, it could also let in a lot of light. For most of us today, this is an obvious purchase. But if you know anything about medium and large format cameras, you’ll know that this is a rarity.

So what was the Wild company? Well, according to the Wikipedia entry, “Wild Heerbrugg merged with Ernst Leitz in 1987, was renamed Wild Leitz AG in 1989, and became part of the Leica holding company in 1990. Today it is incorporated in Leica Geosystems, still based in Heerbrugg, but now separate from Leica Camera AG, and owned by the Swedish Hexagon group.” Leica doesn’t really participate much in the medium format space today. The exception is the S system cameras they have. While they’re excellent, they’re not often discussed as much as Hasselblad, Fujifilm, or Phase One.

We did some research on this lens. Amazingly, there isn’t a lot of information on the Falconar Lens. Part of this could be the spelling variations. The closest we got was a 98mm lens, which isn’t too far off. This eBay listing shines a bit of light on the piece of glass. The seller states that he used it with IMAX film, which means it has a lot of coverage. A while ago, we made a comparison showing how large IMAX film is. It’s a lot larger than a 35mm full-frame sensor.

Back in the day, it was sold for around $15,000. Since then, the price has gone down considerably.

We did further research and found the Angénieux & Co Facebook community. The lens we found there was adapted to Leica M mount. The Facebook listing references the same eBay listing and the order. More images can be seen by Bertrand Costuas on Flickr. The photos are gorgeous, with very vibrant colors. The output looks almost like that from a Zeiss lens. If you recall, Zeiss optics were very popular with the CIA during this time.

After looking at the photos, a modern photographer would admire the character they exude. But over 40 years ago, the CIA preferred these lenses for serious missions. Coupled with the high resolution black and white photography at the time, we’re sure they did the job just fine.