CAMERAS HAVE EVOLVED to an incredible degree over the past few years to the point where most models now have excellent hybrid attributes and are perfectly capable of fulfilling a role across the board for the modern professional. However, the story doesn’t just end with the ability to capture high quality footage, of course. You need lenses to partner your all singing and dancing body and this is an area that, once again, has been moving with the times and where the amount of choice on offer has been growing exponentially.
Back in what almost seems like the pre-history days, where the Canon 5D Mark II had ripped up the rulebook and photographers everywhere were experimenting with full frame footage, the default position was to use the lenses that you would also be using to shoot stills, and this was enough to allow plenty of experimentation. Now that more and more photographers are looking to add video to their professional repertoire, however, is that approach still good enough, and what are the alternatives?
Jake Ratcliffe, one of CVP’s resident team of technical experts, understands the situation more than most, having graduated from stills photography into filmmaking and being in the happy position where he’s positively surrounded by lenses of all descriptions on a daily basis. It puts him in an ideal position to deliver an overview on what the photographer looking to make a move into the world of video might actually need to get started and, true to CVP’s philosophy, there’s a guarantee that no-one dipping a toe in the water for the first time and looking for advice will be sold something that they don’t need.
“It’s still the situation that if all you have are stills lenses and you want to dive into video work you should be absolutely fine to do so,” Jake confirms. “It’s just worth being aware of the mechanics of your lenses so that you can get the best results out of them. Canon’s L series lenses, for example, have been some of the most widely used optics across video productions for years now and they’re what I used when I first started filmmaking as well, so I can vouch for them! The Sigma 18-35mm and 50-100mm Art series zooms are also popular lenses for video work because of their fast f/1.8 apertures, great range and superb optical performance. They are also pretty affordable in the scheme of things, especially given what they are able to offer.”
Another really good option suggested by Jake is to scour second hand stores and online auction sites for exotic vintage lenses that can often bring something extra to the party. Search around and you should be able to find optics featuring a nice smooth focusing mechanism and manual iris mechanics, at a price that won’t break the bank. There are adaptors that will enable virtually any lenses to be attached to any camera body, and even if the optic you acquire comes with a few aberrations these can all add charm to the overall look you’re achieving. Jake’s number one recommendation? “That’s easy: the Helios 58mm f/2, which is a legendary piece of glass that you can pick up on Ebay for around £30.”
Dedicated cinema optics
As you become more familiar with filmmaking techniques and start to look at stepping things up a little, there are options aplenty to increase your investment. One area to look at could be dedicated cinema lenses, which are becoming way more popular and affordable these days. Cinema optics have been designed with the view to them fitting in with a team, rather than being used by an individual, and they come with a set of specifications that makes them ideally suited to the production of motion.
While the price differential between dedicated stills and cinema lenses has lessened in recent years, the latter will still cost you a premium and so it’s important to consider whether you really need to go down the specialist route. One solution would be to hire out cinema optics for a particular shoot to see how you get on with them, so that you will be sure this is the way you would definitely like to go and, once again, CVP will be happy to offer impartial and honest advice if you’re about to dive in.
“There are a few reasons why cine lenses tend to be more expensive than those designed for stills,” says Jake. “Mainly it comes down to the design and manufacturing process. A cinema lens involves more development time and takes longer to build, and these two things are big factors in terms of the cost of cine glass.
“With regard to performance there is also quite a lot of difference, both physical and optical. For a start there’s build quality. There are, of course, well-built stills lenses, but cine lenses are usually one step above them, and will be made of solid
metal with ultra-smooth mechanics. This is because, with cine lenses, everything tends to be controlled manually. Stills lenses will be designed for a solo operator and are built for speed, due to their use with autofocus systems, while cine lenses are more about precision and this is reflected in their focus ring rotation distance, which is usually much longer than stills lenses. Cine lenses also feature very precise and accurate focus scales, so that focus pullers can make sure they hit their marks and guarantee what needs to be in focus will be.”
Interestingly, however, autofocus is now gaining more widespread acceptance in the world of motion, something that previously was very much frowned upon by those who were masters of the craft of manual focusing. Quite simply, even the tiniest amount of ‘popping’ as a lens searches for focus would utterly ruin a take, a risk motion professionals aren’t prepared to take, but the increasing accuracy and speed of the latest AF systems is now causing some to have a change of heart.
“Attitudes have started to change in recent times with Sony and Canon continuing to refine their autofocus systems so that we’ve reached the amazing point where we are now,” says Jake. “I think this latest generation of autofocus is so good that it’s going to start convincing people that this is now a tool that’s fully usable for filmmakers, which is a huge step forward.
“Alongside there are some really great manual focus assist tools that use autofocus tech, such as Canon’s Focus Guide system, which allows you to get focus confirmation while also tracking subjects, with the option to hit your focus manually. Meanwhile fully manual focus will still rule for now for things such as focus movements where you have great control of the environment you are pulling in, such as studio-based advertising commissions, for example.”
If pulling the focus manually you’ll benefit from the fact that cine lenses will usually feature standard gears on their focus, zoom and iris control rings for use with follow focus systems, which allows the operator to be more precise with their focus, or for remote focusing to be carried out by a specialist focus puller. A lot of cine prime sets will also be configured to keep weight, sizing and front diameter as consistent as possible across a set of lenses.
“This way, if you want to switch focal lengths you don’t have to worry about changing the configuration of your accessories, like a mattebox or motors for focus, iris or zoom,” says Jake. “It also means that you don’t have to completely rebalance your rig on setups that require it, such as on a tripod, on your shoulder or even a gimbal. To put it simply, lens manufacturers are trying to save the enduser as much time as possible while on set, because time is money.”
Moving on from the physical attributes of cinema lenses, there are also certain things that a lens designed for motion needs to be able to do that simply aren’t an issue for a lens used exclusively for stills. Breathing, for example, is the effect where a lens will zoom slightly while focusing, which is fine if this is happening between each still image being taken, but hugely distracting if this is occurring while you’re filming a motion sequence. High end cinema lenses, such as the Arri Signature Primes, are optically designed to counter this.
When you think about the optical performance of a lens you’ll inevitably be considering such things as how much a lens might resolve, how it handles chromatic aberrations, how much distortion it features and so on. And it’s worth noting that there are some fantastic options in the stills market in this respect, sometimes better than some cine lenses. However, at the highend, lenses such as the Leitz Summilux-C and Primes as well as Arri’s Master primes and Signature Primes strive for optical performance and do a fantastic job, but this will be reflected in their very high price tag. “In the stills world flare is often something people want as little of as possible,” observes Jake, “but in cinema applications it’s a characteristic that people will look at when testing lenses. This is a pretty subjective and you have a huge spectrum of different looking flares from lenses such as the Sigma Cines, with very low amounts of flare, all the way through to the rainbow flares from the Tribe7 Blackwing7 series.
“Lastly, you have the overall look of the lens and the consistency offered across a set of lenses. Whether you warm to a particular ‘look’ can again be pretty subjective, and you have a huge spectrum to consider, from lenses that are striving for perfection, through to vintage-inspired lenses, such as the offerings from Cooke. Overall, it’s hugely important to keep the look consistent across the entire set of lenses, which means making sure that colours don’t shift and bokeh rendering is similar, so the results you achieve will be identical and there will be less to do in post.”
There is one further group of lenses to consider and these are the hybrids, the modern lenses that have been designed with a view that they will work equally well across both stills and motion productions. They might have both AF and a really responsive manual focus system, an aperture that can be de-clicked and they have been designed to work ultra-quietly so that they should be no issues if audio is being recorded.
“These lenses have become really popular over the past few years,” says Jake. “Fujifilm, for example, has produced optics where you can click the focus barrel back and change to a nice smooth manual focus experience with focus marks and hard stops. Canon has also done this with their RF lenses but slightly differently, since these optics feature focus by wire but allow you to change the focus rotation distance and behaviour, and you can also control your aperture precisely using the control ring on the lens.
“Sigma has just done a very similar thing with the release of its new E and L mount 85mm f/1.4 Art lens, which has aperture control on the barrel but still keeps its autofocus ability. These lenses may be a solid option if you’re a photographer still wanting autofocus but are also looking for something a bit nicer to shoot video with.
“From our perspective recommending lenses can be tough because the look each will produce is really subjective and just because I find something appealing doesn’t mean that someone else will. However, there are some lens sets available that I think are particularly good for hybrid shooters. Zeiss, for example, make some of my favourite lenses on the market, the Milvus/Otus series. These lenses have a great image, are built like tanks and have long smooth focus rotations plus a de-clicked manual iris. “We have a huge range of lenses available in our showroom stock for testing so, if you’re looking to invest in some new glass, reach out to us and book some time to come in, talk to one of our technical experts and try the lenses out for yourself.”
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