Back in 2009 we began shipping our Tokina 11-16mm cine conversion. We honestly had no idea it would be so successful. About a week after we initially started shipping our 11-16mm lens, customers began asking what our next project was. You see… We don’t just convert any lens. We look for something different – something unique. At the time we released our 11-16mm lens, there really wasn’t anything else in the same category. There were a few high-end options that were 6x – 8x the price of our lens or some vintage lenses that simply didn’t perform very well when compared to the 11-16mm. These days you can find the 11-16mm with cinema features from any number of companies including lens shops in Germany, China, and even from Tokina themselves. I can confidently say that our cinema conversion is still the best option out there by a large margin. So – the next project… We began working on a very elaborate conversion of the Nikkor 70-200mm VRII which provided excellent optics. We completed the mechanical design and even built a fully operational prototype. The lens featured a full aluminum body, expanded 300° focus throw, interchangeable mount, 35mm full frame coverage, etc. To our dismay, several weeks before we were set to begin production, we caught wind of a project that Zeiss was working on. You guessed it… A 70-200mm zoom with 300° focus rotation, interchangeable mount, full frame coverage, etc. We were set to release a lens with specs identical to that of a German manufacturer with over 100 years of experience. We scrapped the project.
It was a harsh lesson we learned the hard way – but we have a well founded respect for Zeiss and a somewhat foolhardy moral business practice which led us to look elsewhere for our next project. We considered a few mid-range zoom lenses but ultimately decided that we weren’t going to undertake any rehousing projects that we felt didn’t add something to the motion picture industry. We get requests every day to convert lenses like Canon’s L Series 16-35mm or the 24-105mm. Both excellent lenses optically but nothing special. Angenieux offers their 16-40mm Optimo Style at a very reasonable price. Canon offers a 30-105mm cinema zoom at an equally affordable price. I realize that some shooters aren’t looking to drop $20k on a single zoom lens when a similar focal length can be had in still photo form for a few thousand dollars instead. If you want a cheap cinema lens, buy Chinese… If you want a proper lens that will last a lifetime, buy a true cinema lens. My point is, rehousing a lens simply to offer a cheaper option for cinematographers doesn’t help anyone in the long run. We spent a few years testing lenses and considering options. Among the prospects was the Leica 70-180mm. I hunted down a dead stock unit for testing – brand new, in the box, never used. Despite passing our tests with flying colors we ended up rejected it as a candidate simply because it was too similar in focal length to the Zeiss 70-200mm and our canned Nikkor 70-200mm heartbreak. The lens sat on my bench for a few weeks until I decided to convert it to Nikon F mount and take it with me on some travels. After a week of shooting with it, I absolutely fell in love. The results were simply beautiful. The subtle illumination falloff in the field; the aptness for delicate pigment representation; the satisfying, faintly muted shadows; the bokeh that left focused subjects defined and adjacent environment cooperatively delightful. The 70-180mm just grabbed me – not an easy task considering the breadth of exotic optics at my disposal any given day.
I brought the Leica back to the project table at which time we decided that what the 70-180mm lacked in differing specs it made up for with sheer character, style, and personality. Our engineer began working on designing the new components which included an all new aluminum alloy housing; zoom, focus, and iris gears; stainless steel mount flanges, Arri PL and Canon EF; and other features we deemed necessary for a proper cinema lens. The only design feature we decided to cut out was the “constant volume”. The base Leica lens has a telescoping effect when you rack focus. From infinity to minimum focus, the front barrel extends approximately one inch. To eliminate this would require adding a front shroud and potentially even a front optical flat to seal the unit. This would not only add a lot to the material cost, but also dramatically increase the size and weight of the new lens housing – all aspects we were trying to avoid. So we left the expanding front housing as part of the lens design.
We made progress over the next several months and assembled a pre-production prototype which I took with me to Las Vegas during NAB. I shot a few stills and motion clips using a Sony A7s – quite the complimentary match. The results were just as pleasing as they were the first time around with the 70-180mm. The field testing phase is something that we deem necessary for such projects as it provides data and experience that is invaluable. There were a few teaks required that we put into effect immediately for the next pre-production model. That brings us to our current configuration. We’ll begin accepting pre-orders for the complete lens as well as the conversion for current owners of the Leica 70-180mm during Cine Gear Expo where you can stop by and check out the pre-production model that we’ll have on display. You can read the official press release below: