Given my profession of servicing lenses and the nature of such a precise vocation, I’ve become somewhat compulsive over the past decade. Some might even argue that I’m just downright anal about details. I wouldn’t disagree with that at all. I can’t stand imperfections or flaws. I feel compelled to perfect every minor detail that is within my capacity and even sometimes beyond my capacity, either succeeding or failing, but always learning. This became something of a curse when I started collecting cameras and lenses a while back. I would buy cheap “junk” off of eBay that looked pretty good in the auction photos, but upon arrival, the items were almost always worse than they appeared in the photos, which I came to expect. I couldn’t spend a ton of money on mint condition collectors items as my fiancé would be rather upset if $1000 was used to purchase a 25 year old film camera or lens. So I did my best to find good deals and restore them. It has become quite a painstaking hobby. I consider these dirty, beat-up old cameras and lenses a challenge. I wish I had taken more photos of the equipment I’ve restored prior to their make-over but I really didn’t think much of it at the time. I just wanted my collection to be clean and tidy. The tools and techniques I use on a daily basis have proven to be most valuable to such restorations, allowing me to cleanse, machine, anodize, and essentially re-engineer parts that were otherwise ugly and useless. Continue reading “Vintage Lens Restoration”
A quick snap-shot while bench testing a 17-80mm for periodic maintenance. The modern breed of exotic zooms are both work-horses and delicate instruments of perfection at the same time. They require the highest level of calibration to perform at their maximum potential. The 17-80mm was the second lens to join Angenieux’s Optimo team back in the mid 2000’s and is still one of the best 35mm zoom lenses on the market. After regular use on a television series, this particular Optimo only needed minor back-focus calibration and exterior cleaning. It’s no wonder Angenieux is having trouble keeping up with demand for their zooms.
Photography offers a moment of interest. Cinema demands sustained attention
I get a lot of emails and calls from customers asking what kind of lens package they should get for their shiny new Sony F3 or their tiny new RED Epic. The simple answer is, there is no simple answer. Let’s face it, for most of us who aren’t shooting the next Iron Man feature film, budget is the primary factor when it comes to choosing a lens package. A lot of folks who would be looking for a new lens kit are coming over from the still photo world. As you all know, the RED/DSLR revolution has changed the industry drastically over the past few years and allowed a lot of people to squeak by with existing gear or pre-owned gear that got the job done. Maybe now it’s time to step-up your game and get a set of true cinema lenses. Or maybe it’s time to snatch up some glass/metal tubes from Russia that Ivan tried to pass of as a cinema lens… Either way, what’s the difference between a 18-55mm Nikon kit lens ($90) and an exotic Angenieux 24-290mm Optimo ($70,000)?
Basically, everything boils down to two categories; usability and image quality. Obviously there are other factors involved such as production quantity, but that is usually tied into image quality. Again, the question is, why is a cinema lens so much more expensive than a still photo lens? Cinema lens prices increase exponentially as the quality increases. For this demonstration, the top of the price spectrum will be represented by the Angenieux 24-290mm Optimo, and the bottom will be represented by the Nikon 18-55mm kit lens. Some would expect a few test shots with some text overlaid on them similar to that of most online lens reviews (mine included), but this really doesn’t show much beyond very basic image quality. To be honest, with todays manufacturing processes and techniques, the overall image quality in the center portion of each example lens, would probably be fairly similar. That doesn’t mean that the next big feature film is going to go out and shoot on a Nikon 18-55mm, but it also doesn’t mean that an 18-55mm Nikon isn’t going to produce good results. This is where the usability of each lens comes into play. For example, the entire core, focus, zoom, lock rings, and housing of the 24-290mm Optimo are machined from billet aluminum. The only part of the Optimo that isn’t made of high quality aluminum is the mount… Because that is made of stainless steel. Comparatively, the Nikon 18-55mm does in fact have an aluminum core, but everything else is plastic and brass, which can be good. It keeps weight and production cost down to a minimum, but is devastating to mechanical accuracy and precision. It doesn’t mean that the Optimo is the better lens for every situation. I wouldn’t want to lug a 25 lb. lens around Disneyland to snap pics of the family with Mickey Mouse. This leads me to the fine details such as stability and accuracy. Cinema lenses are not auto focus and traditionally require a trained focus puller to nail focus in any given shot. This isn’t done by peering through the viewfinder or pressing a button. It’s accomplished by taping out the distance to the subject and then dialing in the measured distance on the lens’ focus scale, which means those marks better be accurate or someone is losing their job. Focus mark accuracy isn’t really a concern on still photo lenses since 99% of users simply depress the shutter button half way and let the cameras auto focus do the work. The other 1% of users who focus manually for still photography, usually look through the viewfinder, pick a subject and adjust the focus ring until it looks sharp, still no need for focus mark accuracy. Nobody sets up their SLR, tapes out the distance, adjusts the lens to that distance and snaps away. It’s just to realistic.
Speaking of focus, image shift and breathing are two more features that are critical in motion picture lenses, but not so much in still photo lenses. Let’s take our 18-55mm Nikon lens, put it on a camera, look through the monitor and rack focus or zoom. The whole image jumps around and loses focus because the components used inside the lens are very light-duty and left very loose to allow the tiny little drive motors to auto focus the lens for you. Comparatively, our 24-290mm Optimo is built with solid aluminum components that are precisely fitted and adjusted to keep everything as tight as possible. This keeps everything extremely smooth and accurate. If you adjust focus or zoom, the image should stay dead center and solid. This kind of performance requires extremely tight tolerances during machining and a very high level of care during assembly. Focusing with just about any still photo zoom lens will create a “breathing” effect that is simply an optical design characteristic. There is no adjustment for this flaw within the lens. It’s part of the optical-mechanical design and is taken into consideration during the development of a lens. Breathing is a bad thing in cinema because it really pulls the audience out of the scene. It changes the field of view of the lens and appears as though the lens is zooming in and out during even a small focus pull. This is why cinema lenses are designed not to breath and add substantially to the cost in order to do so. Tracking is somewhat related to breathing as it can really ruin ascot if not calibrate. Tracking is the movement of the image relative the the sensor/film, while zooming. Ideally, zoomed all the way in, an object in the very center of the image should stay in the exact same position on the sensor/film throughout the entire zoom range. Most cinema lenses include internal adjustment to calibrate tracking while still photo lenses aren’t concerned since you can simply re-compose before each shot.
Another common characteristic of still photo zooms is their speed, or maximum aperture. Take our 18-55mm Nikon for example, again… The maximum aperture is f/3.5 which isn’t too bad. But as soon as you start to zoom, it looses light and stops all the way down to an f/5.6. Modern SLR cameras can easily compensate for this with automatic adjustments to exposure with the shutter speed or ISO. The 24-290mm is comparatively very fast at T2.8 and maintains its maximum aperture throughout it’s entire zoom range. Mostly because it’s an annoyance to think about adjusting setting from shot to shot and trying to match everything, but also because it would look horrible if the aperture started to close down in the middle of a shot, ruining the lighting, look and feel of a scene. Okay, there are plenty of still photo lenses that maintain a constant aperture. In fact, most of the major pro lenses will do this easily. But these are usually a fairly short zoom range. Do the numbers… Take the 14-24mm Nikkor, a great lens with a constant f/2.8 aperture, the zoom range is only 1.7x. The 24-70mm, a 2.9x. And the 70-200mm, a 2.8x zoom. Those three lenses are Nikons current crop of pro zoom lenses. The Angenieux 24-290mm maintains the same constant T2.8 aperture throughout it’s 12x zoom range. That’s almost unheard of in still photo lenses. These couple of characteristics can be lumped into the optical quality of the lens but also effect the usability. Another usability concern for motion picture lenses is their durability. Granted, if a cinema lens is dropped, it’s almost certain that it’s thrown completely out of whack and would require re-calibration, they are built like tanks. The same can not be said for our little 18-55mm Nikon friend. However, there are a lot of modern still photo lenses that are built to endure relentless usage and can really take a beating. All of these details are very minor on paper. It’s when you really get into the nitty gritty and use the lenses on a daily basis that you realize the differences can be substantial. Kind of like looking at two different cameras on paper. Each camera has a 3″ LCD screen, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO adjustments, an SD card slot, compact and portable, and includes a strap! One is a Leica, the other is a Kodak. Both are great cameras, but they are clearly meant for different purposes and clearly have a cost difference. The same logic applies to still photo lenses and cinema lenses. I like to think of it this way: Still photography offers a moment of interest. Cinema demands sustained attention.
Angenieux has long been the standard for cinema zoom lenses and certainly isn’t stopping anytime soon. NAB brings out the best in new lens manufacturers (and sometimes the worst) so Angenieux took the opportunity to announce their new addition to the Optimo series of lenses. This time it’s a 45-120mm. A little on the longer end of an all-purpose zoom, this will share a lot of the same features as the other light weight zooms like the 15-40mm and the 28-76mm Optimo. It will cover a full Super 35mm sensor/film utilizing a 31.4mm image circle and will feature an interchangeable mount with options for PL, Panavision, Nikon F, and Canon Eos.
The focus scale has 320° of rotation which is about as much as anyone could every want and offers separate interchangeable metric and imperial scales. It will weigh in at 4.3 lbs. making it perfect for lightweight, steadicam, and 3d rigs. It’s a constant T2.8 which isn’t the fastest zoom in the world, but it’s certainly not the slowest and matches well with other pro cine zooms. I’m sure we can expect the same accuracy and quality as the rest of the Optimo lenses. It’s focal range, 45-120mm is a little long even at the wide end giving it a horizontal angle of view of 27.4°-10.5°. A 45mm in a S35 frame is fairly tight and 120mm on the long end gives it a nice versatile throw. It’s 2.7x zoom ratio drops it in the same boat as the other short zooms. I’ll be looking forward to getting my hands on this little bad boy from Angenieux and putting it through the paces. I have no doubt I won’t be let down.
The Cooke 20-100mm is a workhorse of a zoom lens. It’s solid build quality combined with classic “Cooke Look” glass make it a very desirable lens in the current HD market. The other option is to drop a pretty penny on a stellar new Angenieux 24-290mm. The current champion of motion picture zoom lenses. These two cinema zoom lenses are decades apart and even farther apart in cost. An average Cooke 20-100mm costs a mere $7,000 compared to the going rate for a new Angenieux 24-290mm at around $63,000. A little background on these still samples. These were shot with a 35mm full frame 5D which means the vignetting is severe and expected. The settings were the same for each lens, 100mm at T4, ISO 100, 5100K color temp etc. Here are the samples.
Before you get too excited, a “universal mount” in the motion picture industry is not universal. The universal mount is what is used on lenses such as the Cooke 20-100mm or 25-250mm, and more recently on the Angenieux 24-290mm. It’s simply a sub-mount with a threaded rear that allows several different mounts to be attached, most commonly a PL or Panavision mount. These were fairly common on professional zoom lenses in the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Now, wouldn’t it be awesome if you could put a classic Cooke 25-250mm on a Canon 7D? Yes. Yes it would be awesome. Please observe the awesomeness: