AS VIDEO PRODUCTION becomes ever more of an important revenue stream for some photographers it’s perhaps time to start thinking about whether an investment in dedicated cinema optics might be something worth considering. While the choice of high performing hybrid cameras continues to expand, very often these end up being paired with lenses that are designed primarily for use on still projects, and there will clearly be compromises involved. However, are these serious enough to warrant the not inconsiderable amount of cash that would need to be spent should a move across to specialist lenses be considered?
To take a closer look at this whole area and to get a better feel for what exactly the benefits of working with dedicated optics might be we caught up with CVP’s Technical Marketing Manager Jake Ratcliffe, who is in the position of regularly advising professionals on the right course of action to take. As a proudly equipment agnostic retailer CVP will make sure never to suggest to photographers that they should be spending money on gear they don’t actually need, but there is a point where cinema lenses will genuinely make life so much easier for the regular filmmaker that they could be the right way to go.
“If you’re coming from stills lenses, there are some important things to think about when buying or renting your first set of cinema optics,” explains Jake. “For a start you need to take a look at the physical differences there will be between them. The intended use and application of a lens will shape the way its mechanics are designed and it’s probably the area where you’ll find the biggest differences between stills and cinema lenses lie.
“Unlike the multi-use nature of a stills lens, cinema versions are designed specifically for the moving image and can involve a completely different workflow and shooting style that often includes working with dedicated crews and operators. Things like size, build quality and surrounding accessories will also be considered differently, which is why using stills lenses when undertaking cinema and video productions can end up being so full of compromises.
“Cinema lenses are designed with control in mind, and one area where this really comes across is in consistency of size and specifications right across an entire family of optics. This makes lens swapping easier when using support and motion control equipment, while consistent gearing placement means less time moving motors around. It also makes balancing your rig or stabilisation equipment much faster to undertake.”
If you’re looking to produce a top quality video production it makes sense to be working with lenses designed for the job.
This consistency will apply to such things as the maximum aperture that’s offered, and on cinema lenses this will be measured in highly accurate T-Stops, rather than the F-Stops that stills photographers will be more used to. This is to help the filmmaker to match exposure precisely when swapping lenses over to different camera bodies.
It would also enable a switch to a different focal length at the same T stop value while shooting a scene, with the exposure remaining exactly the same. This is more likely to happen if you’re working with lenses that have been supplied by the same manufacturer, which is one of the key reasons why you might look at acquiring a complete set of matched optics so that everything from colour matching through to aperture values remains entirely consistent throughout the whole range.
“Another thing to consider is that when you’re changing your aperture on a stills lens adjustments will be made in full steps,” says Jake, “which means that you’re limited in terms of how precise you can be and changes will be more noticeable. The manual control of the cinema lens, however, allows for continuous adjustments of the Iris without any hard steps, and this enables exposure changes to be made smoothly while recording. You can also have a manual aperture controlled wirelessly by using a motor and some kind of wireless lens control solution.”
STAYING IN FOCUS
Stills photographers at all levels have become used to working with autofocus systems that are sophisticated and highly accurate, and for those new to filmmaking the temptation will be to imagine that you can work in exactly the same way when shooting video. Indeed, many high-end hybrid cameras these days will suggest that their AF systems will cater for both disciplines but, although undoubtedly AF systems are way better than once was the case, it’s still a fact that most serious filmmakers prefer to work manually with their lenses and, in this instance, cinema optics have a clear advantage.
“The manual mechanical focus of a cinema lens is designed for precise human operation,” says Jake, “and they will also offer a far longer focus throw, which is the measurement of the focus ring’s rotation from close focus to infinity in degrees. A longer throw enables smoother and more precise adjustments, with extra room on the focus ring for better spacing of markings, and this is particularly important to someone who could be using these marks to pull focus. The focus ring on a cinema lens will also usually feature a hard stop at either end of the focal range, whereas most stills lenses will continue to rotate beyond close focus or infinity.”
For those brought up on AF the idea of manual focus can sound daunting, but because the throw is longer and the gearing of the lens is set up to allow smooth and precise operation, with experience it’s actually not that difficult to perfect. And the use of a follow focus accessory, which attaches around the barrel of the lens to enable a better grip, can make life even easier, with a variety of options available at a range of price points.
“At the lower end of follow focuses you have two main segments,” says Jake, “namely wireless and mechanical. The mechanical versions are the more affordable and are great if you’re working on a set where you want an assistant pulling focus on your camera while it’s static or if you’re looking to run and gun on a shoulder rig and pull focus yourself. It’s also great to get your hands off your lens, as pulling focus this way instead of using a follow focus can introduce extra shake.
“Wireless electronic follow focus systems might be more expensive but they have really dropped in price, and Tilta is a leader in this market with its fantastic Nucleus-Nano Wireless Control System (CVP price £296.99), which is insanely good. However, you will need to think more about how these systems will fit into your workflow on set, as you might need extra kit and crew to get the most out of them. For advice on which system will be right for you, get in touch with us.”
The term ‘lens breathing’ is also something that many of those shooting video will be familiar with. This is a term used to describe a slight focal length change that can happen when moving through the focus range of a lens. It’s a characteristic that’s common with stills lenses but not usually an issue since its effects won’t be noticed if you’re capturing a single frame. With a video sequence, however, it’s distracting and can ruin a take, so most cinema lenses will be optically designed to compensate, which will add to its cost.
Cinema zooms can also be parfocal, which means that focus will be maintained while focal length is being changed, which again is something that is crucial for motion sequences. Many stills zooms will be varifocal, which is a more flexible design and explains their lower price, but if you’re serious about filmmaking then you might need to be spending the extra.
“Engineering a parfocal zoom is challenging,” agrees Jake, “but there are a few options available at the lower end of the cinema zoom market that can achieve this without costing a fortune. For example, DZOFILM’s Pictor 50-125mm and 20-55mm T2.8 and Catta 35-80mm and 70-135mm T2.9 zooms perform well for their cost (CVP price £4356 and £5428.86 respectively), while Fujifilm’s MK 18-55mm and 50-135mm T2.9 pair (CVP price £3594 and £3840 respectively) and Tokina’s cinema zooms also represent excellent value.”
One thing to note is that having your cinema lenses properly calibrated is more important than with stills lenses, since if this isn’t done correctly it could result in issues such as focus and scales being out, or zooms not being parfocal. CVP’s in-house pro repairs team has a specialised lens department that can carry out a service, making sure lenses are within manufacturer specifications and are fully accurate.
BUYING INTO CINE
As mentioned, making the decision to move across to dedicated cinema lenses will carry a cost, although the relatively recent introduction of high-quality zooms does mean that you might only need to invest in a pair of optics to be fully covered.
Many filmmakers still prefer to work with primes, of course, and if this is the way you are looking to go yourself then it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re probably going to be looking for a set, which could consist of four to five separate optics that are all perfectly matched to each other.
At the entry level this still might not be as expensive as once would have been the case – Samyang, for example, produces a six-lens VDSLR kit consisting of a 14mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm, all carried in a purpose-made case, for just £2634, while the same company’s higher end XEEN Cinema Lens Kit, featuring a 14mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm, is £7168.32.
“There are now some excellent options on the more affordable side of the cinema lens market,” says Jake, “and it’s nothing like as expensive to move into this area as was once the case. The DZOFILM Pictor zooms have been incredibly popular because of their feature set, image quality and insane price point, while Sigma’s cine zooms are a great choice if you love their stills counterparts as well.
“When it comes to primes there are plenty of options to choose from, no matter what your price point happens to be. The VDSLRs from Samyang have paved the way and are still some of the lowest priced cinema orientated primes around, while a brand that’s killing it right now at the affordable end of the market is Meike.
“Currently Meike is offering three lines: a set for MFT, one for Super 35 and another for full frame cameras. Each of these is fantastic given their price point, the only downside being they could match a little better, but their price point is incredible given image and build quality. Otherwise, you have great options from all of the regular players such as Sigma, Tokina, Canon, Irix, Samyang and Schneider.
“Recommending lenses without talking to the individual concerned is incredibly hard, however, because it’s such a personal choice. If you’re thinking about investing in a set of cinema primes I would definitely suggest booking a demo with one of our technical consultants so that you can compare and test out the lenses for yourself. We also regularly review lots of lenses on our YouTube channel, so that’s worth checking out as well!”
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