Digression on lenses, lighting and cameras



Lighting, lenses and camera. They all affect how your footage is going to look like and how you will perform as a director of photography or a cinematographer. Well, that is beside the real personal skills you have. They matter and they come indeed into the game. That is to say you can be a master in your job but if you relate badly to people you work with it’s all going down the pan in the end. I guess this is true for any job you do but let’s remember that film-making is a collaborative job for starters and you have to relate well with your fellows.

In which order I would put lighting, lenses and camera. Probably I would put them in this exact order. A Sony F65 or an Arri Alexa will look not as good if the lighting would be either casual or badly executed, in despite of their incredible 14/15 stops worth of dynamic range. Yes, those stops will be truly appreciated when for example you are shooting an interior of car and the sun is blasting outside but in the vast majority of cases if you know limits of your camera you can still work around them.

As far as lighting is concerned that is an absolute art on its own and if you love pictures you have to be able to understand the basic principles behind it.
With lighting you can paint. Being dramatic, amusing or just natural looking, at the end of the day it’s how you have lit the scene that is determining the mood you want your audience to connect with. And knowing your camera limitations you have to light so.

Lenses. Well, I believe I have tested loads and here is a very general overview about them. I have divided a lens brand on a few images styles:

Japanese- maximum sharpness and maximum color and contrast.
Germany – maximum reality of image,  real sharpness and vibrant color
UK – little more sharpness and contrast than German lenses, little less than Japanese
Russian – middle place between Germany and Japanese.

A cinema lens has to be realistic? I asked myself this question many times and to date I cannot give myself a straight answer. It’s mostly a yes and no answer to me.
Thing is that at the end of the day you are always ending up color correcting your original footage. That is unavoidable when you are shooting RAW or with a super flat picture profile else you footage will be looking just non sense; I guess it would be less required if you are outputting from a HDV, AVCHD, H624 codec as the image you get out of them is quite baked in.. mostly because they are consumer codecs.
Even so we DSLR film-makers tend to shoot as flat as we can tweaking the in-camera picture profiles (Magic Lantern on a 5dMkII, -2 all across the board on a GH2) and that is because we would like to have the opportunity to further tweak the footage in post and get the most dynamic range out of the camera.

That is the way I go and by no mean recommended or strongly suggested. For the type of guy I am, I like to have choices and not have to go like ” that is the way it is, nothing you can do about it “. It sucks. Sometimes I would like the opportunity to re-frame a shot just because in the editing suite I realize It looks better that way. Storyboard is compelling but it’s not the result. Sometimes on field you make decisions that go different routes than the storyboard, that is a visual aid and guides you into the logic of the edited footage. On field things might get a little hot sometimes and there is little time to spin stuff around when it’s all set, think of lighting to boot with.

Speaking of lenses, the biggest names out there are simply Canon, Nikon, Zeiss and Leica. In no particular order. Zeiss and Leica are both German and both produce cinema lenses.
You might directlybe thinking of the Zeiss Standard Speed, MasterPrimes, CP cinema lenses but you might not know that Leica produces the glass in the Panavision lenses, not sure about the mechanics but I strongly suspect it’s all theirs.
Canon produced some cinema lenses, the K35, right now they are dead rare and expensive. Some say they are cinema housed FDs but the general consensus is they are not as Canon have designed these lenses from scratch.
Nikon produced some cinema glass apparently but info on that are quite scattered and patchy so I am unsure what lenses I would have to name.

Cinema lenses differ from still lenses, they have a longer focus throw and generally are made to higher standards, both optically and mechanically. And they are consistent across the range in terms of color rendition and background blur (matched set).


Nikon AIS, Nikon preAI, NIKON AF

Indeed the Canon L lines and the new Nikons ED are appealing but if you do not want to splash put you can look for old FDs and AIS. These are the biggest contenders among the Japanese ones.
I know there is much debate between which lenses to go for when it comes to Canon or Nikon, all I can say without going into much details is that the glass they produced from the 70’s-80’s is pretty much comparable, they were and are huge companies with huge resources in R&D and so on, major competitors and market share holders so in the end their lines are pretty comparable in terms of quality.

On Ebay their used prices are pretty similar these days and indeed they have gone up when compared to few years back in time. It would be pricy to get any f1.4 or f1.2 lens, be ready to fork out $300-350 if you desperately want it. Wider lenses are generally more expensive, a Canon FD f4 would easily sell for $250-$300 and I believe there are no Nikon counterparts. That might make you decide in favor of Canon FDs because you can get a complete lens set ranging from 14mm to 200mm for instance. Both companies have some gems in they line, generally speaking the faster the lens the better performances throughout as they were the cream of the crop back then.
As far as color rendition is concerned you might find yourself leaning a bit towards the Nikons as the Canons started to have their magenta disease from their early days and have no healed since then. Nikons puncher in colour since the Canons are middle-soft contrast. Nikon slightly sharper as well around the corner of the image circle when tested at different apertures; thus be aware that focus the other way round.. awkward I know!
Last consideration: Nikons might be a better investment for your money as they work on Canon recent bodies, older Canons like the FD/FL do not, you’ve gotta buy their expensive L line.

zeiss ZE/F, contax yashica, rollei


Zeiss. Instead of going for the more expensive CP ot ZE/ZF, you can look for the old-but-good Contax/Yashica or Rollei mounts. They are dead good stuff, optically amazing, sharp from corner to corner and commendable even for architectural work. I had a set in the C/Y mount, the thing with them on digital is that I found out they tended to make footage look like video and because of their micro-contrasts (inky blacks) trademark I had little room to play with color in post. I had to protect highlights a lot when shooting as well. I guess Zeiss would be an excellent choice for film but I am not too sure they are the right fit for digital. That is only my opinion though.. personal taste!
I like stuff with a creamier look and less harsh tones. The Carl Zeiss Jena are definitely in this direction (go for the Pentacon Zebra ones) but they struggle a bit with sharpness, they breathe and being really old stuff you might have some unpleasant nasty surprises. Buy with care.

rank taylor hobson


Uk lenses. Probably the king of all lenses is the Taylor Hobson cooke. Cinema lenses from the very start, reliable suppliers of the Hollywood movie industry since the early days. The Bausch and Lomb SuperBaltars appeared to be their main competitor back then (and the Kowa Prominars, exact copies of this true American beauties), but as you certainly might know B&L are no longer in the cinema or still lenses industry. They made more money on Ray Bans. Oddly enough RED founder and CEO, Jim Jannard, did the other way round, when he moved away from successful Oakley to set up RED cinema cameras.
Anyway, Taylor and Hobson are now COOKE and they develop marvelous cinema lenses to date. They are not as warm as the old Speed Panchros but they still deliver. Apparently these lenses had since the early days a sort of warming filter in them so they are very gentle and flattering on faces.. in my experience (Cooke Kinetal) I have to saty that is indeed true, I found them amazing.

Russian lenses. I believe I have covered them extensively in my older posts. To be brief, LOMOS are the cinema lenses to go for, Mir, Industar etc are the still lenses that you can indeed use for film work but you might find yourself short of choices.. in terms of wide angles, zooms, macros etc.
Generally speaking the Russian never had a lens design of their own and copied it from Zeiss when they invaded Germany. Mechanically their lenses are not a-la-par with the German and the Japanese stuff, things are looser, screws tend to break more easily if removed, grease can get dried out etc. Also you will indeed find more discrepancies among their stuff than from other makers, so you have to be patient and adventurous to get along with their quirky stuff. In the end that might be rewarded with some real bargains in terms of cinema lenses.

Probably I would head for Leica stuff if digging the market for worthy vintage stuff. Consistent, reliable and beautiful. And if the Summilux are not in your price range go for the Summicrons, even the Canadian ones are as good as the Germans. Leica apparently had no ability in zooms and wides, so their ones are Minoltas, but do not be tempted to save money buying the Rokkors. Leica made a super choice of the Minolta’s Made-For-Leica stuff as they found a lot of items not to be satisfactory and sent them back to the factory.

And in regards to the original question, has a lens to make the image look realistic, well it depends if you’re shooting for broadcast or (possibly) for documentaries work.
Cinema is a morph of reality and by definition framing a shot is a portray of reality itself much like a paint is. Besides lenses except the 50mm focal length do not see like the human eye sees, perhaps, we’re far off. With DoF we are even further away from the original question. Although what you’re shooting has to look realistic, you have to sell the shots, you have to make your audience believe it’s all happening under their noses there and then…

4 Responses to Digression on lenses, lighting and cameras

  1. MattMcCormak MattMcCormak says:

    been hunting those Summiluxs for ages but man they are expensive..

  2. Banana-shot Banana-shot says:

    that is why Nikons are so popluar among DSLR filmakers

  3. BranDon BranDon says:

    been looking around for best lenses on my GH2, thanks for this insight!!

  4. 444-Films 444-Films says:

    you’re most welcome BranDon

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