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How Lenses Assist in Storytelling

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.
 

Bound for Glory - America in Color 1939-1943

Bound for Glory – America in Color 1939-1943

 
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.
 

Lenses Director Bill Paxton and DP Shane Hurlbut, ASC tested for the film

Lenses Director Bill Paxton and DP Shane Hurlbut, ASC tested for the film

Panavision Ultra Speeds – selected for “The Greatest Game Ever Played”

Panavision Ultra Speeds – selected for “The Greatest Game Ever Played”

From “The Greatest Game Ever Played”

From “The Greatest Game Ever Played”

The Greatest Game Ever Played


 

“Challenge Yourself”

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.
 

STILL GLASS

Some of our popular lens choices

Some of our popular lens choices


 

ZEISS:

Zeiss ZE

Zeiss ZE

Zeiss  ZF.2

Zeiss ZF.2

Zeiss CP.2

Zeiss CP.2

 
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.

Buy Zeiss ZEs:
B&Hamazon.comeBayAdorama

Buy Zeiss ZF.2s:
B&Hamazon.comeBayAdorama

Buy Zeiss CP.2s:
B&Hamazon.comeBayAdorama

 

Zeiss Lens Choice for “Act Of Valor”

Zeiss Lens Choice for “Act Of Valor”


 

CANON:

Canon L-series

Canon L-series

Canon EF-series

Canon EF-series

 
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.

Buy Canon L Series:
B&Hamazon.comeBayAdorama

Buy Canon EF Series:
B&Hamazon.comeBayAdorama
 

Canon Cinema Primes

Canon Cinema Primes

 
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.

Buy the Canon Cinema Primes:
B&HAdorama
 

LEICA:

Leica R Mount Lenses

Leica R Mount Lenses

 
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:
eBay
 

“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.
 
1D 5D Sensors
 

Zeiss 15mm

Zeiss 15mm

 
Part 2 of “Lenses to best tell your story” will go into why you use specific focal lengths.
 

Helmet Cam

 
Read part two.
Read part three.

Author: Shane

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59 Comments

  1. Once again another great read! Thank you Shane!

    Post a Reply
    • Bill Hamell, thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it, more to come

      Post a Reply
  2. Great post Shane. Thank you for taking the time do do these kind of posts. Very much looking forward to the rest of the series!

    Post a Reply
    • Matthew Rgan, you are welcome and thank you for you kind words

      Post a Reply
  3. wow, I have to thank cmaeraman Peyton Skelton for sharing…not since reading Masters of Light have I read something that describes how technology is an artist’s tool…as told by an artist. Mahalo!

    Post a Reply
  4. Great post!. Lenses are life.

    Post a Reply
  5. This is probably the biggest gray area for me, and this was a great first article. I’ll surely reference this when I get a chance to do some practical learning this summer.

    Thank you as always for sharing your knowledge and expertise.

    -j

    Post a Reply
    • Jeff Woods, you are very welcome and thank you for you kind words and support

      Post a Reply
  6. This was a really fascinating post. I really had no idea that lenses could have such different aspects to them. In particular that they have such differing colour tones. Great stuff.

    Post a Reply
    • Kelly Hunt, Thank you for these wonderful words. Glad we could help

      Post a Reply
  7. Hi Shane and all the team at Hurlbut Visuals.

    Thanks again for a marvelous explanation of Lens and their characteristics as well as story telling. I am still learning even as a professional and lens’s are one part of the kit I started to rent in last year as long as I could afford it. I will be thinking even longer and harder now about my lens choices and how it will affect my story.

    Gavin

    Post a Reply
    • Gavin Bearfield-Boyd, you are very welcome, glad all of us at the HurlBlog could lend a hand. We appreciate your support

      Post a Reply
  8. Fantastic post.
    I’d love if in the future Shane tells us his view on the best use for the Cooke and, not mentioned, for the Angenioux lenses. Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Jules, thanks for your kind words. I will think about that one. Thanks

      Post a Reply
  9. Why use a 28 and a 35? Aren’t they very close in focal length?

    Post a Reply
    • Parker Foster, not when you are up against a wall, in a car, etc. Restricted space is the reason I use so many focal lengths, it is what you cannot change as a cinematographer. My lens kit on Need for Speed is: 14,18,21,25,27,32,40,50,65,75,85,100,135,180, 300, 500, 800mm.

      Post a Reply
  10. I highly enjoyed this one. Glass is my favorite topic. I’ve gotten to a point where glass is what I want to invest in before cameras. If I could drop money for a C300 for most of my doc work and run and gun stuff I would, but for now just putting the $$$ in glass. I even named my company with glass in mind.
    Cheers,

    Eduardo

    Vidrios Imaging and Sound
    Washington, DC

    Post a Reply
  11. Shane, if you were to write a book filled with images on the topic of glass and what you used for each shoot and why and characteristics of lenses, I would buy it in a heart beat.

    Post a Reply
    • Eduardo Gonzalez, holy smokes, that would be a hell of a book. You got me thinking, thanks.

      Post a Reply
  12. Curious how you think some of the manual Nikon AIS glass compares to the above lenses?

    Post a Reply
    • As well as the AI glass, you’ve mentioned it before on the blog

      Post a Reply
    • Iain Trimble, thanks for those kind words. you are very welcome

      Post a Reply
  13. What a fantastic post Shane. You guys are providing such useful content. It’s wonderful to see examples of what you talked about on our show.

    Post a Reply
    • Paul Antico, thank you man, your podcast are great and I look forward to coming on again in the future. So many new stories to tell.

      Post a Reply
  14. Love your work Shane, great post. I wonder, do you have an opinion on the Magic Lantern RAW hack for the 5D?

    Cheers,

    Leon

    Post a Reply
  15. Great article Shane! Can’t wait to see you lens choice in action on Need for Speed!

    Post a Reply
    • Marcus Guider, thanks for the kind words. Feb. 2014

      Post a Reply
  16. Dear Shane :

    Every piece of information you provide I find useful in every production. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and passion for filmmaking !! Regards, Cesar O.Perez-Beato

    Post a Reply
    • Cesar O Perez, you are very welcome and thank you for your kind words and support

      Post a Reply
  17. Hi Shane, thanks for running this excellent website. Stupid question here: is that special look of a lens series REALLY something that you couldn’t simulate equally in post? Thanks, Doug

    Post a Reply
    • Doug Laurent, You are very welcome, on the day, in the moment. I want my glass to see it the way the director and I had envisioned it, not something that is post created. My preference.

      Post a Reply
  18. What do you think of Nikon primes (Ai/Ais) and how they hold up?

    Post a Reply
    • Great post Shane! Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge! I’m also interested to know your thoughts on the Nikkor AIS primes (the fast ones like the 20mm f2.8, 35mm f1.4, 50mm f1.2, 85mm f1.4 and 135mm f2)! Do you think a set of Nikkor AIS lenses could be an affordable solution if you are on a budget or maybe it’d be better to wait a little and go for a Zeiss or Leica set? Cheers

      Post a Reply
  19. This was such an awesome read. Thanks for posting this Shane!

    Post a Reply
  20. Shane, I think your characterization of the 1DC as being ASP-H needs some clarification.

    In the last iteration canon did away with the APS-H sensor for the 1DX and its hardware identical 1DC. At 1080, the sensor is full frame. However, to do 4K on the 1DC Canon has only been able to use the APS-H area of the frame. So I assume you were shooting 4K.

    Anyway, love your site.

    Jonathan

    Post a Reply
  21. Thanks for this post, Shane!

    By the way for the DoPs that interested in: we have done resolution tests, comparing ZE, ZF.2 and CP.2 on C300 with Henning Bruemmer (BVK)… and they nearly have the same resolution and vignette.
    Sometimes DoPs worry about it if they read that the ZE/ZF.2 are designed for photo.

    Cheers,
    Tom

    Post a Reply
    • Tom, You are very welcome. Yes we performed the same test, no difference

      Post a Reply
  22. Hi Shane and Team, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!
    I would be very interested in the interplay of Lens and Camera/Sensor. That is, how the color rendition of e.g. an Epic Senor or a Canon 5D and the color characteristics of a Lens work together. I guess that the choice of Lens depends very much on the choice of Camera?
    Regards, Andreas

    Post a Reply
    • Andreas Urra, Thank you for your kind words. Yes it does, they go hand in hand.

      Post a Reply
  23. Did you ever tried old canon fd lenses? They also have a fast 85 mm L version.

    Post a Reply
  24. Nice article. I would like to know if and where did you use the 14mm L or Canon 14mm cinema prime in the C500.

    Post a Reply
    • Sabyasachi Patra, I use it with some crash cam work. I have used it the helicopter sequence on Need for Speed. I have used them many times on commercials

      Post a Reply
  25. There is a lot to learn here and I thank you for your sharing. Has me a litle more focused on on the glass selection for the GH3 for my couple story. The idea of color from a lens is something I forgot to consider so thank you once again.

    Post a Reply
    • Warren Elliott, yes many people forget this and it is a big deal to me. I am glad you are enjoying the blog.

      Post a Reply
  26. Great article ! We talk a lot about sharpness and F-stops, and almost never about the aesthetic of lenses. But I think that’s very important, too !
    I haven’t had my hands on many different lenses (mainly Canon and Sigma), so I would like to know how you would define Sigma aesthetic, in comparison with Zeiss, Canon and Leica.

    Thanks for this post !

    Post a Reply
    • Alix, thank you for your kind words and support. That is a good idea. Let me think about that.

      Post a Reply
  27. Waiting for the part two……

    Post a Reply
  28. This is very timely and educative info for me that will be put to good use!
    Thanks Hurlbut

    Post a Reply

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