Part One: Lens Internal Characteristics
I wanted to thank all of you who took the time to fill out the HurlBlog survey this month.
Surveys are so important in guiding me to write about what interests you. We had a huge response with lighting and lenses at the top of your list, so this will be part one of a four part series.
“The camera is a tool, but the glass serves as your eyes into the story.”
The lens’ traits can help tell your story. The look and feel of lenses, their characteristics of color and contrast rendition, are all relevant factors. For example, some lenses are cold, some have warmth, and many are yellow. My choice of lenses was paramount when I was slated to shoot The Greatest Game Ever Played. It was a period piece that took place between 1888 and 1912. Bill Paxton, the director, and I were both fans of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) photos featuring photographers Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans. They were mainly black and white images. There had just been some 1600 Kodachrome prints that were discovered in a trunk in someone’s attic, and they were reprinted in a book called Bound for Glory.
We chose this style to be the look of the movie. We worked to test every lens to try and recapture this imagery. We tried Panavision Primos, Cooke S4s, old Baltars, and Cooke Pancros. Ultimately, Bill Paxton and I settled on the Panavision Zeiss Ultra Speed Primes. They had a nice yellow feel. They had a lower contrast, no up-to-date lens coating that flared nicely. When you took them down to an f-stop of a 2.0, the lens started to fall apart. This was magic; it was the Kodachrome feel of 1939, which is what we were going for. I shot most of the film at this f-stop — not the best thing for my focus pullers, but they soon strapped on their focus pants and were ready to play! The glass took the viewer into this era, into Francis Quimet’s amazing story and his incredible victory.
I cannot stress enough to try to do this with your creations. I know that your kit might only include one set of lenses and the story might fit those lens characteristics perfectly, but testing and finding your way and stretching your visual landscapes are what will make you a better cinematographer and filmmaker.
“How to Choose Glass”
This is all subjective and what is beautiful about filmmaking. Everyone has a different viewpoint, the reason films strike a chord with one person and not with another. But as a cinematographer, working with the director, production designer, editor, and costume designer, the visual lens choice will become very apparent.
I am going to go through the lenses that you will most likely have at your disposal. I could go on forever with this topic if I took in every type of glass, especially if I covered Cinema glass.
Is your story, gritty, raw and visceral? Then I would suggest a lens that has higher contrast, with cooler tones. Snap!!! This lens would be a Zeiss ZE or ZF or a CP2. These lenses have a very nice contrast and tend to be much cooler in tone, which helps tell your gritty story. They flare nicely, and the ZE and ZF have nine blades, the CP2 fourteen blades, for great out of focus Bokeh. Their focal range is limited, so I find myself using their wide range for many of my projects. For Act of Valor, I used the Zeiss ZFs so that I could pull f-stops and be lightweight and compact. The 18mm was perfect for the SEAL’s POV cam, as well as the 21, 28, and 35mm lenses in all of our crash boxes.
Is your story cosmopolitan, more colorful, vibrant, happy, maybe a comedy, a love story, one that loves rich skin tones and is not afraid of the color red? If so, then Canon would be your choice. It delivers all of these in spades. One little thing that I have found is that Canon has been creating C-mos sensors for itself for a very long time. They have had the R & D to design their lenses to bring out the best in their sensor. At 1080, I was not a huge fan of these L series still lenses, but at 4K, they are kicking some serious butt. They are perfect for all of you who do not have the money to rent or buy a set of Cookes, Panavision Primos or Master Primes, etc. These lenses, off the shelf, rock 4K capture. Their lens arsenal is huge.
Here is one other tidbit of information about the Canon Cinema Prime lenses. I have been using these a lot on Need for Speed and their quality is incredible. We have found that an f-stop of 2.0 on a Canon Cinema Prime is about a 1/2 stop faster than the Cooke S4 primes at the same stop. I don’t know if it is the lens or the fact that the Canon lenses were being paired with their sensor, but I loved it whatever it was. It was awesome at night to have that extra half stop.
You have heard me talk very highly of this glass in past posts. If you are looking to do a period piece, love story, or just want more wiggle room in post, use these lenses. The lens characteristics are lower contrast, sharp but creamy, because of that lower contrast. This is what makes this glass amazing – creamy but sharp – two adjectives that never go together. It has a yellow tone, which I love for skin. I hate magenta and I would much prefer a golden skin tone than a pink one. They also have an amazing focal range, everything from a 15mm to an 800mm. They can be very pricey to buy, but not bad to rent.
Buy Leica R Mount Lenses:
“One More Factor To Consider”
I talk about using more than one camera to tell your story and using the best aspect of each camera, what they do best. I recommend that you do the same for lenses. On Need for Speed, I am using the Alexa for day exterior work because of its increased latitude. I used the Canon C500 for all night exterior and interior work because of the sensor’s sensitivity. To tell your story, one lens manufacturer might not make all the focal lengths that are required. The case in point on this film was our Helmet Cam. A Cooke S4 would not work on the EOS mount. It would have ripped the poor driver’s head off with its weight. We needed a lightweight lens to strap on our 1DC Helmet Cam. The 18mm Zeiss that we had used on Act of Valor was not wide enough with the Canon 1DC’s sensor size, compared to the 5D, so we had to go wider. The Canon 14mm L series was too wide. It did not suck the action through the windshield close enough and was not as flat of a field as we wanted. We were at an impasse. That is when I turned to the king of great wide-angle capture. The Zeiss ZE 15mm was brought in to capture all of our helmet cam. It was the perfect focal length for our 2:35 extraction and I think it will put the viewer inside the driver’s vision. I will leave you with this and much more to come.
Part 2 of “Lenses to best tell your story” will go into why you use specific focal lengths.