ZERØ OPTIK began as the passion project of cinematographer/engineer Alex Nelson who wanted to build the world’s most well engineered 35mm Pinhole lens. He succeeded. But that wasn’t enough for Alex. The next project he’d tackle was going to be far more complex and far more rewarding. And that’s where we begin this post… The original Bausch & Lomb Baltars. We sat down with Alex to get an inside look at where ZERØ OPTIK comes from and where it’s going.
Alex grew up in New Jersey with his parents who are both architects which effortlessly explains why he adopted CAD as a teenager. Inspired by foreign films and enthused by the balance of art and engineering, he studied cinematography in film school. After graduating film school, Alex took a position at New York equipment rental house TCS. Pursuing his passion of cinematography, Alex wanted to shoot more architectural footage around NYC. He knew that something as primitive as a pinhole lens would allow him to focus on the essentials; light, shadow, shape, and forget about the details. It was this time that digital cinema cameras were becoming efficient enough to shoot at high ISO using normal frame rates. Alex began to design the ultimate pinhole lens.
Alex continued to refine his pinhole lens design while simultaneously beginning the next chapter of ZERØ OPTIK; an ambitious project rehousing the original Bausch & Lomb Baltars. With no moving parts and zero optics (get it?) the pinhole lens was simply an opening act for Alex. Given the scale of his next project, Alex bartered with local lens technicians exchanging his knowledge of CAD design for tips in the filed of opto-mechanical design. It’s around this time that Alex moved to Los Angeles and took a full-time position at Duclos Lenses where he would continue to develop his Baltar Project.
His goal was to take the early Baltar primes which were offered in a 25, 30, 35, 40, 50, 75, and 100mm focal length. Originally, Alex had wanted to offer a rehousing for the Cooke Speed Panchro primes. But with so many other companies already offering this service, the prices of the Cooke Speed Panchro primes began to skyrocket. The Baltars would require some particularly clever engineering to rehouse with any degree of success, making them less attractive to competition. It’s also worth mentioning that, in my opinion, the Baltars are an absolutely gorgeous collection of vintage cinema glass that’s nearly impossible to replicate in modern optics.
Over the course of a few years, Alex’s refined the design of his Baltar housing. He found areas for reducing lost-motion, improving axial alignment, and reduced the size and weight of the new housing. The focus movement of his new housing is cam based, non-linear which provides consistent, evenly spaced focus marks and a 300 degree rotation on all focal lengths. The core optics receive a brand new sleeve that is then mated to a much larger, more robust chassis that accommodates the entire focus movement. Many industry-standard features were incorporated such as a full alloy jacket, stainless steel PL mount, 95mm front barrel, etc. One of the downsides to the original Baltar optics is that the wide focal lengths cannot be used on reflex cameras.
ZERØ OPTIK began taking pre-orders for the Baltar rehousing earlier this year. With the success of his projects, Alex decided to take ZERØ OPTIK to the next level full-time. The entire first batch has already been sold out. So if you’re reading this and you think you may want ZERØ OPTIK to breathe some life into a set of vintage Baltars for you, you’d better start shopping now since you need to provide the lenses for the rehousing. The 40mm and up will cover a Vista Vision sensor. All the lenses will cover S35. All of the lenses have a matched T2.5 speed. Alex also plans on offering the 152mm Super Baltar as part of the set. (post correction! The 152mm was indeed part of the original Baltar set or primes) As of posting this article, prices of original Baltars are still relatively low. Find the complete line of rehoused lenses on the ZERØ OPTIK website.
On a personal note, I don’t think I need to wish Alex any luck on his new venture. With as much talent and passion as Alex has, he’ll succeed effortlessly on his own devices.
Here’s a quick gallery of images shot on original Bausch & Lomb Baltars: