As soon as the RED ONE was announced, the market for PL mount lenses capable of covering a Super35mm-sized image started heating up. Aspiring R1 owner/operators hunted down almost every decent used lens available, and caused the lead times on new PL mount glass to skyrocket. At NAB ’09 several vendors stepped forward to fill the demand, mostly at bargain prices (at least by traditional cine lens standards).
This new generation of lenses reflects several trends:
- New designs following the form and function of traditional cine lenses, but with lowered costs.
- Reworking or “rebarreling” of still-camera lenses to meet the needs of cinematography.
- Designs that optimize price/performance ratios at the expense of traditional cine lens virtues.
- Digital-specific lenses that extend rearward into the space normally occupied by optical viewfinder hardware like mirror shutters or beamsplitters.
“Traditional” cine primes and zooms aim for certain specific physical characteristics that set them apart from their still-camera and video counterparts.
Both primes and zooms aim for low gearing / long throws (amount of travel) on all their controls; they typically require as much as 270 degrees of rotation or more to traverse the focus scale, and their iris and zoom controls similarly require more turning to go from end to end than on still or video lenses. Long throws allow for smoother and more precise operation, very important when every hiccup is magnified on a big screen. Still and video lenses, by contrast, optimize speed of operation with short throws / high gearing.
Cine lenses require consistent feels and forces throughout their operating ranges, again to optimize the smoothness and consistency of manual zooms, focus pulls, and iris changes. Still and video lenses benefit from this sort of smoothness, too, but it’s not as critical, especially on still zooms: if the last 20% of a zoom range is a bit stiffer and geared a bit differently than the first 80%, it’s not that big a deal, because the still shooter isn’t trying to run consistently through the zoom range while shooting.
Sets of cine primes are often matched in maximum T-stop, length, front diameter, weight, center of gravity, and placements of controls, and they often use internal focus designs. All of these factors allow lenses to be interchanged without affecting balance (important whether handheld, tripod-mounted, or on Steadicam), lighting (consistent T-stops), or the adjustment of lens accessories like matte boxes or follow-focus controls. Internal focus designs allow running through the focal range without varying the lens barrel’s position, so that the front of the lens stays neatly ensconced in the matte box’s “doughnut”, keeping stray light out and maintaining a fixed spacing between the front of the lens and any filters.
f-stops are calculated aperture openings; the “f” refers to a fraction of the focal length: f/2 means the aperture diameter is 1/2 the focal length. F-stops are used on still and video lenses, and are the basis for depth-of-field calculations.
T-stops are f-stops adjusted for lens losses; they are measured settings giving the same exposure as a “perfect” lens would at the calculated f-stop. Prime lenses normally have f-stops and T-stops that are nearly identical, but complex, long zooms may have T-stops that are as much as a full stop slower than their f-stops, due to internal reflections and absorptions.
T-stops are normally used by cinematographers, who have traditionally not had through-the-lens metering to compensate for any lens-induced light losses. T-stops allow swapping between widely differing lenses while keeping the exposure constant, without having to calibrate one’s light meter for each and every lens separately.
Cine zooms also need to hold their maximum aperture throughout the zoom range, without “ramping”. Many popular still zooms ramp from f3.5 to f5.6 as they zoom; it’s no big deal for the camera to vary shutter speed or gain as needed. Many video zooms hold a consistent aperture for much of their range but will lose half a stop to a full stop at full telephoto. Again, in typical ENG work, the camera compensates with a shutter or gain change, or the image just goes a bit darker at full tele and no one worries too much about it. In film-style work, consistency is key—but having a long zoom with a wide maximum aperture results in large front diameters, complex designs to cope with aberrations, and size and weight gains to match.
Lenses designed for film cameras also need to ensure sufficient space between their rearmost elements and the film plane to make room for an optical viewfinder’s intrusion into the light path, whether a mirrored shutter or a beamsplitter mirror or prism. Keeping that space clear, especially on wider primes and zooms, complicates the design considerably.
All of these desirable characteristics add expense, of course, which is why a typical T2 prime lens costs about US$12,000-$20,000, and a T2 3x zoom often runs around $50,000.
New lenses at NAB 2009
To make cine lenses more affordable requires making compromises of one sort or another, and different vendors have taken different approaches. Note that I’m not going to say anything definitive about optical quality in what follows (other than what I find in Zeiss literature, comparing different Zeiss lenses with each other); NAB isn’t the place to evaluate and compare lens performance. I’m simply going to look at mechanical properties of the lenses, and leave optical evaluations for future tests under controlled conditions.
Zeiss Compact Primes at BandPro’s booth, one mounted on a Red One.
- T3.6 18mm Distagon T*
- T2.9 21mm Distagon T*
- T2.9 25mm Distagon T*
- T2.1 28mm Distagon T*
- T2.1 35mm Distagon T*
- T1.5 50mm Planar T*
- T1.5 85mm Planar T*
These lenses are based on the Zeiss ZF line of still camera lenses, but these haven’t simply been rebarreled with PL mounts; the mechanics are very much cine lens housing with the same long throws and silky-smooth, consistent mechanisms as Zeiss Ultra Primes and Master Primes.
Compared to the T1.9 series of Ultra Primes, Compact Primes are much the same size, weight, and “feel”: they’re very slightly lighter, a bit more tapered towards the rear, and somewhat shorter and fatter. Ultra Primes run around $13,000 each; these are less than half the price. How?
The most obvious difference is the variance of the maximum aperture. While T1.5 on the tele end is rather nice, T3.6 on the wide end can be a bit of a limitation. If you look at the FAQ on the Zeiss page, you’ll see that the Compact Primes aren’t as highly rated as Ultra Primes (or the even more expensive Master Primes) in terms of performance across the f-stop range and at close focus distances; evenness of illumination (vignetting); and precise color matching. Additionally, the iris scale is not linear; as the lens stops down, the stops get closer together on the iris ring.
For less than half the cost of an Ultra Prime, I could probably suffer through these limitations, grin. And if I were throwing a RED on my shoulder or on a Steadicam, the Compact Primes might be my first choice just based on weight alone: they run 0.9-1.0 kg, or about 2.2 pounds.
BandPro carries ’em in the USA.
RED Pro Primes.
The RED Pro Prime Set consists of five lenses for US$19,000:
- T1.8 25mm
- T1.8 35mm
- T1.8 50mm
- T1.8 85mm
- T1.8 100mm
(One can add the T2.9 300mm for $4000 if bought at the same time!)
These are big, solid cine lenses, with smooth zoom and iris rings (if the prototypes RED displayed are any indication). But you’ll observe that the 25mm and 35mm are longer than the others; you’ll have to move your matte box when you change between the normals and the teles, even though the focus and iris rings are consistently located so your focus and iris controls can stay put, and all the fronts are 110mm across.
The lenses are heavy, too; the short guys are about twice the weight of Compact Primes or Ultra Primes at around 4 pounds, while the long ones are three times the weight: 6 pounds. This doesn’t matter much on a tripod (though the step change between the 35mm and the 50mm will require rebalancing) but for handheld and Steadicam every extra ounce is begrudged.
These lenses also depart from current practice in having designs favoring aggro sleekness over readability: iris and focus scales are only visible through cutouts in the barrels, and the focal length marking is embossed in the housing but not filled with a contrasting color. While these are minor quibbles, they make it a bit harder to see what lens you’ve got and how it’s set, especially in low light. When you look at a Master Prime or RED’s own 18-50mm or 50-150mm zooms, with their fluorescent scales and labeling, RED’s choices are puzzling.
uniQoptics “Signature Series” PL mount lens set.
uniQoptics announced the “Signature Series” primes at NAB; a set of five will set you back US$24,000:
- T1.9 25mm
- T1.9 35mm
- T1.9 50mm
- T1.9 85mm
- T1.9 100mm
It’s similar to the RED Prime Set in many ways: same focal lengths and nearly the same maximum aperture. Like the REDs, the 25mm and 35mm are longer and heavier than the others; they’re 5.75 pounds while the shorter 50, 85, and 100mm lenses are 4 pounds. And they’re big, too.
Once school of thought I heard bandied about at the show was that the lower-cost lenses from RED and uniQoptics eschewed costly low dispersion glass for thicker but cheaper elements, thus gaining weight and bulk as the tradeoff for lower price. uniQoptics says specifically they use extra-low and super-low dispersion glass, so I’d have to say that there must be something else at work.
Like the REDs, these lenses use recessed focus and iris scales, though the markings are perhaps a bit more visible. At least the focal lengths are visibly marked on the side of the lenses.
UniqOptics 85mm T1.9 PL mount prime. Note hand-marked prototype to the right.
These lenses are made in the USA (I didn’t even know that was even allowed any more!) by a company that specializes in customized and high-G lenses for commercial and military clients.
The design is claimed to be optimized for digital sensors. It’s unclear if either these or the RED lenses can be used on a camera with an optical finder, or if the rear elements would protrude into the space occupied by a mirror or beamsplitter.
Next: Rebel, IB/E, ISCO, Century, Focus Optics, Angenieux, and Fujinon…
Rebel and IB/E Optics PL mount lenses at Abel Cine.
- T1.9 25mm
- T1.9 50mm
- T1.9 95mm
Add a 35mm and a 75mm, and the five lens set will be €13,500 (US$17,900). Lenses are supposed to ship in June.
At around $3000/lens, they’re the most affordable primes I saw at the show, but bear in mind these are prices from the website; prices at the booth were different, and all pricing is subject to change in these uncertain times.
These German lenses are in the “think different” category. They aren’t internal focus; the entire body forward of the mount moves out as the focus is pulled closer. Note how wide the drive gears are; that’s necessary to engage a follow-focus and/or motor drives as the focus changes. The direction the focus ring turns is opposite the usual cine convention, and the total throw is small. The lenses make no pretense of being physically interchangeable without repositioning accessories.
The lenses are highly telecentric—the rays of light exiting the rear element are mostly parallel—which improves edge-to-edge image quality on CMOS sensors (all photosites get mostly perpendicular light, instead of the edges seeing light rays entering on a slant) and reportedly reduce breathing (change in magnification as the focus is changed).
The iris has 18 blades for a smooth and pleasing bokeh.
My gut feel is that these may be based on IB/E Optics industrial machine-vision lenses, though I could easily be wrong. That’s not a slur on their performance, just an observation that they weren’t designed first and foremost with a cine workflow in mind. The short-throw, opposite-direction focus will confound the instincts of any experienced 1st AC, while their differing lengths and the front-to-back motion of the lens front when focusing make fitting conventional matte boxes and filters challenging.
If you’re doing animation or moco work in controlled lighting with servo drives on the rings, of course, none of that matters. And if you’re looking for affordable lenses, especially as an indie working outside the system (and its experienced ACs), the nonstandard configuration of the Rebels may not matter to you nearly as much as the cost savings they promise.
They’re pretty dense, heavy lenses, but I don’t have actual weights for them.
The Rebel folks say they tested their lenses on the projector in the RED booth at the RedUser party, and that they performed very well optically. The lenses will see some unspecified mechanical reworking prior to release. It’ll be interesting to see how they perform in the real world.
The IB/E Optics T1.8 14mm is a purpose-built cine lens, due out in July, to be followed by a T1.8 10mm, a T1.8 18mm, and a T2 12-28mm zoom. Its linear iris scale, long-throw focus ring traveling in the conventional direction, brightly-filled scales show that IB/E can design a lens that ACs will like. The 14mm at least should be able to work on a film camera, Arri D-21, or optical VF-equipped SI-2K without interfering with the mirror or beamsplitter.
I don’t have a price or a weight for the 14mm, but it felt like it was in the Compact Prime / Ultra Prime range, roughly around 1 kg or 2 pounds. Mitch Gross at Abel tells me that none of the IB/E and Rebel lenses have firm prices yet; “Klaus the lens designer is currently vacationing across America and will arrive in our NY office in a couple weeks, at which point we’ll get some real answers”!
IB/E Optics “RED Null” back-focus setting lens.
IB/E Optics had another surprise, the RED Null lens. It’s simply a fixed-focus, wide-angle element (thus, very shallow depth of focus). Stick it on a RED ONE, aim at a bright light more than 10 meters away (or use a Chrosziel collimator), and adjust the back-focus ring until the image is sharp. The RED Null lens is supposed to get your back focus calibrated to within 5 microns, which should be more than good enough.
Note that since the RED Null sticks way back into the sensor cavity, it’s only suitable for a camera without a mirror shutter: don’t try this on your D-21!
Abel should have them starting in May for around $2000, more or less.
A Century Optics 17-35mm T3 (rebarreled Canon) zoom and an ISCO 95mm f1.8 prime.
Over at the Schneider Optics booth I found this odd couple. Century Optics has long been known for taking good still camera lenses and rebarreling them for cine use, and this 17-35mm T3 zoom is a “prime” example (if you can’t stand the puns, lock up my keyboard). Its focus throw is a mere 110 degrees and the iris ring turns in the reverse direction of what a 1st AC expects; the lens has simply been rebarreled, not completely re-engineered. Even so it’s a very workable lens and the US$15,000 price makes it enticing. This particular one is a customer return from a cancelled shoot; it’s unused, but selling for $12,500; if you’re interested, contact Ryan Avery: ravery at schneideroptics dot com.
The other lens is an ISCO f1.8 95mm prime, an industrial lens that just happens to be available in PL mount. Like the Rebels, it’s not internal focus, and the mechanism is more suited to set-it-and-forget-it machine vision work than cine work. However, ISCO makes anamorphic attachments and projection lenses, and is planning a series of broadcast and 4K cine lenses; you may be seeing more ISCO lenses in the months to come.
I don’t have a price or weight on the HSF 95, but I’m sure the Schneider folks will help you out if you’re interested.
Focus Optics Ruby Series 14-24mm T2.8 (rebarreled Nikon) PL mount zoom.
Focus Optics repairs and rebuilds film and video lenses, and converts Nikkor 200mm and 400mm primes for cine work. Now they’ve taken the Nikkor f2.8 14-24mm FX-format (full-frame) still zoom and rebarreled it as the Ruby series 14-24mm wide short zoom. It suffers from the usual rebarreling issues—short throws, reversed direction on the iris ring—but at US$10,500 the price is very attractive, and the core Nikkor lens is superbly sharp. Besides, it weighs only 3 pounds; this could be a great handheld/Steadicam lens. Place an order now for $2,000 and take delivery in August; Focus Optics is already building up a backlog.
Angenieux Optimo DP T2.8 16-42mm PL mount digital zoom.
Last year Angeneiux demoed the Optimo DP (“Digital Production”) T2.8 30-80mm zoom for RED; this year they have the Optimo DP T2.8 16-42mm to complement it. It’s tiny for a cine zoom, partially due to the short zoom ratio and partially due to the relatively small T2.8 maximum aperture. The fact that’s it’s designed for RED and other mirrorless cameras means that the rear elements can stick out into the sensor cavity; this simplifies the design considerably, leading to less cost and bulk.
Why it’s “digital”: rear elements protrude where a film cam’s mirror or beamsplitter normally resides.
The result is 2.6x zoom covering wide-to-normal focal lengths that weighs a mere 1.9 kg / 4.2 pounds (the same as a midrange RED or uniQoptics prime) and costs only US$21,000; comparable zooms (the Optimo T2.6 15-40mm and Cooke T2 15-40mm) normally sell for $48,000 or so. I have no idea how long the back-order list is, but I expect it’s not small; this looks like it’s going to be hugely popular.
Arri under glass: 535 film cam wearing a prototype Fujinon 14.5-45mm T2 PL mount zoom.
Finally, for those of you who scoff at any cine lens marketed as “compact” or “affordable” or compromised in any way, Fujinon is entering the fray with full-sized, no-nonsense PL mount zooms for 35mm film and digital cinema cameras.
Videofax’s Sony F35 sporting a Fujinon 18-85mm T2 PL mount zoom.
The T2 18-85mm, shipping in May, weighs a whopping 5.5 kg / 12.1 pounds (not hugely bigger than the RED T2.9 18-85mm, which is 4.5 kg / 9.9 pounds), and has big, long-throw focus / iris / zoom rings to gladden the heart of any 1st AC.
It’s only the first of four zooms, all with comparable weights, gear placements, lengths, and front diameters, so if you’re lucky enough to have the whole set (and a 2nd AC sufficiently manly to schlep them all around for you), you can swap between them with only minor faffing about with follow-focus, motors, and matte boxes:
- T2.0 14.5-40mm
- T2.0 18-85mm
- T2.6 24-180mm
- T2.6-4.0 75-400mm
Get that? A matched set of zooms spanning the range from 14.5mm to 400mm. The mind boggles; the back strains; the wallet empties.
Lenses other than the 18-85mm are supposed to ship in December. Prices? Between the long lead times, the global recession, and the whipsawing exchange rates, prices are hard to come by. They won’t be cheap.
Now how much would you pay? But wait, there’s more… there’s always more. Mitch Gross mentions a few I didn’t see, and undoubtedly more will be coming as more manufacturers rush to fill the vacuum created by digital cinema cameras like the RED ONE, the SI-2K, and the D-21.
I think Cine Gear Expo is going to be more interesting this year, eh?