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Day-to-Day

Day-to-Day

What if who I hoped to be…

February 1, 2019

A lot happened in my life last year and some things really started to change during the second semester.

It had been a year since I came out of school – hopefully for the last time in a while – and I had been working consistently. Maybe too consistently, too intensely, being paid too little and taking on too much. I was too “out there”, not being true to my feelings and ideals, dead set on the things I was told were important. And money.

I noticed a cycle. Having too much gear yet never the right gear, having too many projects yet never the right projects. I decided to try, on life, what I had been doing for my work: pull focus.

To pull focus onto something is to ignore the rest; dissolve it in a blur, pleasing in the background and never able to draw attention from what’s important.

We’re always in pursuit of the shiny and new things, pretending to be someone we don’t fit inside the skin, shouting to the void our accomplishments and expecting recognition from the crowd.

More likes, more shares, more views, more subscribers. For what? I had no answer.

I decided I was gonna be ok with less money. Less visibility. I decided to quit social media. I decided to cut back on the YouTube videos. I decided to sell a lot of gear and buy nothing to replace it. I started to pick the people I wanted to work with, and the reasons each project was important, passing the non-important ones.

I made a film of my own with the most amazing team. I suddenly had time to study and write on my own, I had time to spend with my friends without being in a work setting, I bought a new bike and I go at it as if anytime I could take off into the sky. I had a jolt of a realization about Ariana’s importance in my life and all the things I could learn from her.

Then, on the flight back home after New Year with Ari’s family, “Stupid Deep” clicked. The lyrics summarized my thoughts and feelings. I scribbled a bunch of animation notes and ideas on my little notebook. Some of my best thoughts come while up in the air.

During the next few weeks I dusted off my After Effects animation skills (of which I’m quite proud, one of the things I taught myself) that hadn’t been used in years and started animating one verse at a time.

That’s how I want to end this post, with these lyrics. If you got this far, listen to them, think about their meaning, simplify. Life feels better when focused.

“What if who I hoped to be… was always me?”

Anamorphic Day-to-Day

Enough!

December 26, 2018

Hi, my name is Tito Ferradans, and today I’m here to say I’m done.

I don’t mean to sound rude, but I am really done. I thank all of you who engaged with me in this journey of teaching and learning, it’s been a blast, but it’s time for me to move on.

If you don’t want to bother with the rest of this post but still want to ask me questions: fill the form and make a donation. I still have answers, but they aren’t for free. I already put enough knowledge out there for free.

I’ve been talking about anamorphics for a while. The channel is almost four years old, the Portuguese version of Anamorphic on a Budget is six years old and the English translation is five. When I started this there were no SLR Magic anamorphics, there were no single focus solutions, there was only the EOSHD forum and a lot of hunting for information. When I became an admin of the Anamorphic Shooters facebook group it had little over a thousand members.

Look at where we are now. Atlas lenses are out there for a fraction of the price of other cine anamorphics, most adapters tripled or even quadrupled in price on eBay, anything can be turned single focus, the facebook group has more than ten thousand people in it and my channel is about to reach ten thousand subscribers. I get dozens of messages asking about lenses every month and I reply to all of them. Lately I’ve been encouraging people to make financial contributions, but I never held back information in exchange for payment.

I’m a strong believer that education is key for building a better world and sharing knowledge definitely fits in that category. On the other hand – I mentioned this before – making a living out of this has always been a hell of a challenge. For the previous three years, I wasn’t allowed to work in Canada – permits and such – so I took this project as my way to make ends meet.

The situation changed in October of 2017 when I finally became a Permanent Resident. This allowed me to work full time without worrying about being kicked out of the country. I didn’t go to film school three times to work on anything other than film, so that’s what I did. That’s what I’ve been doing. One could say I’m familiar with a camera.

If you’re into film, this is no surprise: film eats away all of your time. You’re either coming up with your own projects or toiling away, 12+ hours a day, on someone else’s film. I think I mentioned this before, shooting tests for the channel got me feeling stuck in a loop. It was like I was filming the same thing over and over again. It got to a point where I know what to expect from a scope by just looking at it. There was no surprise, no excitement. No more “wow”.

On that feeling I managed to add a few more mods to the facebook group and organize the wrapping process for the channel, Patreon and so on. You’ll be seeing a lot less of me in the near future. I’m quitting facebook altogether and switching gears on my career plans. I’m gonna put to use everything I learned making these videos and focus on shooting anamorphic projects – but not so much on teaching all there is to know about these lenses.

There’s also a “tiredness” factor. It’s four years of answering the same questions. “How wide can you go?”, “Which lens should I buy?”, “What lens works with my setup?”, “What is a good price for this lens?”. And I answered them all. All the times they came up. For free. But not anymore. If you’re a part of the Anamorphic Shooters group, you might’ve noticed my answers have been a bit harsher. I’m tired of all the gear-obsessing, camera-buying, pixel-peeping and hand-holding-while-I-break-it-to-you.

I don’t think I’m in a place of contributing to the community as positively as I used to. I want to talk about complicated things that beginners won’t understand – and not always have the ultimate answer. I want friends from whom I can learn new tricks. Not one-message strangers but friends I talk about things other than gear. I’m tired of feeling like the dad of the anamorphic community.

I’m Tito Ferradans and I won’t be back next week. See you around, and thanks for hanging out. It was a blast. Let’s make something awesome. I’ll still be writing and making occasional videos (there’s a few left pending I’d love to finish), so I’m not 100% gone, but simply saying “I want to shoot anamorphic on a budget” doesn’t summon me anymore. Thank you.

Day-to-Day

VIFF 2018

October 6, 2018

Since I moved from Brazil to Vancouver in 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival has been my most anticipated event every year. I always attend and watch all sorts of films. I work in film, so watching stories from places other than Hollywood, in languages other than English, on the theatres with lots of people is something I treasure immensely.

Two days ago I went to watch “Baikonur, Earth” with Ariana. It’s a film about a little town in Kazakhstan from where all Russian spaceships and satellites are launched. It’s a visual documentary so I didn’t see much of a “story” to it. Ariana didn’t like the film and I enjoyed lots of it – I like pretty visuals. Andrea Sorini, the director of the film was among the audience, so there was a little Q&A. Things got really interesting when one of the questions was something like:

“I’m from there, Baikonur. I grew up in that place and I came here tonight to relive a little bit of it. I was hoping you’d make me cry, but… You didn’t. You chose a very cold approach to the place and its culture. Having lived there, I can tell it’s one of the few places in the world I feel we, humans, exist as a species, as a civilization. People are happy and they celebrate lots of things, but your film doesn’t show that. What you chose to show is actually very different from the place actually is”.

An academic debate did not follow. The director focused that he was showing his perspective of the place and reinforcing that they had been there for only fifteen days to shoot the film and they didn’t quite have time to check out other things than the ones they were specifically looking for.

After we left the theatre, Ari and I argued for the longest time about which side was right: the filmmaker with a vision, trying to convey a feeling with images and sounds, or the guy who lived there most of his life. I went down the path that any film, by choosing to show something, automatically chooses to NOT show something else. There is no film that covers all perspectives. Not even the news do that these days.

The next day we went to watch “Amateurs” (Amatörer).

//SPOILERS AHEAD.

“Amateurs” is a Swedish film about the small town of Lafors which is candidate to receive a big foreign investment. In order to secure they’re going to be picked, they decide to make a film showcasing what makes Lafors special. They have no budget though, so they go to the local school and encourage the students to make films showing why their town is great and deserving of the big investment.

Obviously the student films don’t cut it as what the city council is expecting, so they bring in an experienced filmmaker to make the video. The movie is then intercut between the pro – and the city council – making the showcase of what they value in Lafors, and these two students that won’t give up on making their own film about the town.

As this has to tie with the beginning of this post somehow, at the end of “Amateurs” we get to the same discussion we witnessed the previous day. One of the films looks great, everyone enjoys, is short and pretty, and it shows an idealized version of the city. The other one is five hours long, but it shows everyone’s perspectives. It succeeds, to some extent, but most of the audience gives up and leaves before the end.

One member of the city council is the only person – besides the girls – that stays in the theatre until the end, and he is very touched by their work.

//SPOILERS END.

Throughout the film there are discussions about being foreign, discrimination, class differences, what is the truth, and how much of cinema is far removed from reality, as well as how boring and bland reality is. “Amateurs” also addresses the frequent question of “who are we trying to reach with this film?”, whenever we’re making something new. All of these themes are a big deal for me.

“Amateurs” made me cry hard at the end and it provided me food for thought for months to come – much of it because I had watched “Baikonur, Earth” the night before and engaged in a giant argument about it.

Films influence how I see the world. They offer me different perspectives and make me change how I make my own films. One day I’ll get one of mine up there and I can only hope to inspire others the way they inspire me.

I love that I have the chance to experience this every year thanks to VIFF

Day-to-Day

Fake it until…

July 27, 2018

When I was a kid I suddenly wanted to go to school wearing a red cape. “People don’t go to school wearing a cape, Tito…” I didn’t care.

Getting a haircut was always a stressful process (I still haven’t figured out why), so when I was ten I decided I would let my hair grow – and for the next two years I didn’t get it cut. On multiple occasions I was mistaken for a girl. Then I got tired of the long hair but I didn’t wanna lose it all, so I left a little wisp at the back of my head at full length and cut the rest of it short. That was a call for jokes from all sides. I still didn’t care.

My mom constantly complained about how under-dressed I was, or how old my clothes were/looked. This was a recurring comment until I moved out. I never really took it as criticism, but as an observation.

All these examples involve engagement from my parents and I’m grateful they didn’t force me into anything – even the things they didn’t agree, like dressing nicely. Thank you! This intro is running a bit long, so let’s get to the point. There is a common thread between all these stories and the title of this post.

I have a serious issue with keeping up appearances, or, the way it’s popular among artists, “Fake it until you make it”. This implies that to get anywhere you have to play pretend, dress a certain way, avoid this or that subject, go to all the parties (“the parties are where all the business happens, man!”), always be ready to speak about how great you are and how your art is gonna change the world. Writing this already got me wound up.

All these “suggestions” and “guidelines” of “how to succeed” (notice the great number of irony quotation marks here) make me laugh and think “how the heck did I end up in this art thing?”, then I remember it was because I care about my work and not my looks. I grew up hearing “if you love what you do, work will come your way” from my parents and, honestly, that is one of the truest things in life. Not “if you pretend to care, people will care”.

Summarize a party for me, would you kindly? “Loud music, small space, lots of people, alcohol”. Does that sound like a recipe to success for you? If yes, I’m betting you’re an extrovert. This is the second part of why I hate so much faking. I’m an introvert – and I know I’m not the only one in this industry. If the gold standard of success is the number of people you know, I’m failing hard. The less extra noise I have in life, the better I feel. So I’m not about getting someone’s card, saying “I love your work” even though I have no clue what their work is, and “I’ll be in touch!”. I’m happy with five good friends. I like getting to know people. I like long talks about deep subjects. I like working with someone before I commit to them. These things don’t happen at parties. Plus I don’t drink, so after half an hour of being immersed in a sea of “look at me! look AT ME! LOOK AT ME!!!!!!” I’m ready to go to bed.

I feel as a group we’re too concerned with form and very little into function. It’s easy to prove that point just by bringing up a graph for explosions vs box office for Michael Bay’s movies. Before you ask: yes, more explosions equal higher profits. We live in a time in which one explosion isn’t enough to solve a problem. It’s all about being brighter and louder. I don’t see that as healthy and I will not play by these rules. That comes as big challenge but I’m used to not having things easy, so I know I’ll be ok.

What bothers me the most is these things are taught in school. I took this class twice – once at VFS, then again at Langara – so I know it wasn’t a one-off weird aspect of a specific program. Guess what happens when you try to tell a bunch of people to fake their feelings and act like something else? It’ll stick for a little bit, then it wears off with the wonderful “what am I doing with my life?”, quickly leading into a career change. Out of both my VFS and Langara classes, I’m pushing it if I say half of them are still into making films. Why do you think that happens? We also have a lot of depressed people. Does it sound random?

Lastly, an analogy with 2008’s economic crisis. In short, people bought and sold their stocks based on assumed value and claims that everything is perfect. But they lied and the whole world got screwed. So let’s assume we’re making this film and I’m faking that everything is going well on my department. When the other heads of department see that I’m doing fine, they don’t want to cause trouble so they say everything is great on their end too, and this keeps on going. The film is going flawless. Then one big problem lands front and center. Everyone is so full of problems they refuse to admit that no one can tackle that extra problem. “It’s not my department”, “So and so said they had this under control”, or the classic “We’re waiting for the funds to come through”. That causes everything to crumble to pieces and the project is put on hold forever.

It’s not healthy and it’s hard to break through. I’m happier with my small victories than doing things I don’t agree with in the hopes of being picked up to fame and fortune. I couldn’t care less about fame.

Day-to-Day

WARM.

July 17, 2018

There’s a thing of beauty about sunny and hot days. Back home – in Brazil – those used to be my default, but in Vancouver temperatures only rise above 25°C a handful of times through the year (usually packed in a few weeks in July).

We’re on the third in a row of these days today. I spent all three of them wandering outside. Not “doing things outside”, just moving from place to place either on foot or biking. After every couple of hours I’d settle on a patch of grass, or a beach, or a park bench and simply exist there.

That’s usually a challenging task for me. My mind is constantly racing with the things I need to get done, or bubbling up with new ideas, questions and reflections. In these sunny days it all quiets down and, just like my cat, all I need is to move somewhere without a roof over my head and lay there.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but my mood is directly related to how sunny each day is. There’s not much that could be better today.

Day-to-Day

“Fortune but Finally.”

July 8, 2018

When I went to Japan earlier this year, Ari and I went to a temple to get our fortunes. The one I got is the title of this post. At first I was confused on what that could mean, but as I read through it, my fortune couldn’t be more right – and it sucked. Here are the exact words:

“You will be suffering from disease and get depreciated by other people. You are always attacked by danger, so you can’t get through everything. When spring comes, you may meet a happiness. You should make a perfect and good plan and wait for a good chance, with patience.”

“*Your request will not be granted. *The patience will get well in a little while. *Lost article will not be found. *The person you wait for arrives late. *Building a new house and removal are both well. *Now is a good time to start a trip. *Both any kind of marriage, and new employment are medium fortune.”

“But Tito, if you’ll get what you want in the end, why does it suck so much? At least it’s not a bad fortune!”

You know what? Maybe a bad fortune would’ve been better. I’d at least know that NOTHING would work out and just let go of all worry and stress. The fact that things eventually get sorted is what sucks, because they don’t get sorted out by themselves: I have to do it all myself. It’s not like this is something new that I just read or thought about. Ask my parents, my sister, ask my therapist, or my girlfriend! For as long as I can remember I’ve always got to where I wanted, but the costs to succeeding have always been way higher than expected or planned for. Not like $50 or $500 kind of higher but “Tito-you’re-dying-and-you-should-get-some-sleep-or-look-for-a-doctor” higher.

This led me to become a very negative person for almost everything in life. This is what I’ve experienced so far: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. If something is surefire to work out, luck will find a way to mess it up and it will go wrong. I’ve never had anything work out in the first try. Hell, most times I get to the tenth try and things are still broken. But I can’t relax and accept things weren’t meant to be because in the end they will work out as I die trying.

Do you want some examples? Here’s a couple.

1 – I’ve been making videos on YouTube for three years every week. In the beginning of each video I say my name. The channel has my name and last name in writing. To this day, it’s hard to come by someone either saying or writing my name right – and not just online. In my graduation ceremony they said my name wrong as I walked across the stage – they had a phonetic spelling! Remember how luck always finds a way to mess up surefire solutions? Anyway, English’s doesn’t have the right phonemes for people to say my name properly without trying hard, so I got used to people calling me anything that vaguely resembles my name. This week a big photo/video portal published a review that pointed to my channel. Needless to say they misspelled my name. Is there even a point in trying to get it right?

2 – Last week I bought some lights from China. They shipped through the fastest option provided by DHL. The package was supposed to arrive on Tuesday evening. I’ve grown used to my packages being delayed or disappearing for long stretches of time for no reason – all companies that tried have failed (UPS, CanadaPost, FedEx) – so to give DHL a better shot at success I stayed home all day. All they had to do was show up. I even signed a form that allowed them to deliver without getting a signature so if they tried the classic move of knocking too lightly, they’d still have to drop off the box at the door. At 7pm I checked tracking for it and it was marked as delivered. I walked out the door to get it but the box wasn’t there. So I went to the front door – as some delivery folks are too lazy to go through the back – and it wasn’t there either. I checked with our landlord and she had nothing for me.

Of course it was already too late to call their customer service, so I sent a message on their website. At 9am I get a response saying they’ll call me with updates in two hours. You guessed it right. The call never came. So I gave them a few more hours just to make sure and then I called in. No updates, they guaranteed they’d have something for me the next day by 2pm. You also know where this is going, right? Next day, no package, no call. I called, they said the driver informed he delivered the package to the landlord, some guy named “R. Scott”. Then I go “well, there’s no R. Scott in the house I live”. “Are you sure?”. Dammit, phone person, I’ve lived here for more than a year. You think I wouldn’t know? “Yes, I’m sure. I just asked my landlord once more and she said there were no packages delivered”. “Oh, okay. On Monday we’re telling the driver to go back and pick up the package wherever he dropped it”.

And down the drain went my hopes of using these lights on the project I’m about to shoot, starting on Monday. Plus, how would I manage the issue from set? I just resigned to accepting failure.

Then, Saturday evening comes around and I get a text from my landlord saying that a gentleman two blocks down received the box by accident and brought it back to us. I can’t believe my luck. After one week of trying hard, I finally succeeded – and not thanks to DHL. Fifteen minutes later I realize my wallet has jumped out of my pocket. Two hours looking for it yield no result. I am now without any documents, bank cards and money. I can’t get a new card because I need ID, I can’t get new ID because I can’t go anywhere this week since I’m on set. It’s gonna be a fun week. I figured the best way to save money is to have no access to it at all. Let’s see how that goes.

I just want a break. You know, for things to go well, or to go as planned, or even to go in a “phew-that-wasn’t-impossible” way.

DISCLAIMER: I know there’s tons more of people who are in a much harder situation and don’t have the privilege I have to be where I am – but I still have the need to vent. This is a blog, and this is one of the most personal entries in a while. :)

Day-to-Day Specials

Contax Zeiss Cine Tune-Up Guide!

February 1, 2018

This is an endeavor I’ve been working on and off for the last two years and now I can see the finish line.

It all started when I stumbled upon a post on Craigslist from a guy selling his Contax Zeiss set. It had five lenses: 28/2.8, 35/2.8, 50/1.4, 85/1.4 and 135/2.8. The price was pretty good and I’m the type of person that can buy something just because the price is good. Speaking of good prices, many links in this post will take you directly to eBay searches of each specific lens!

So far, I had no previous love for Contax and a little bit of prejudice against Zeiss for making lenses too clean. As a reference, my main set of lenses at this time was a Soviet kit that I put together because of their imperfections and organic look. Also because Soviet glass was super cheap.

Original Contax Zeiss set on the left, Soviet set on the right. Easy to see which one I loved the most back in 2015

After I got the five Contax I went to look for more info and found Nick Morrison’s Contax Zeiss Survival Guide at REDUser. That’s where my obsession started. These lenses thread the fine line between organic and sharp, a line as thin as depth of field on an 85/1.2 wide open, only second to Leica. The main difference being that a normal human can afford Contax Zeiss but not Leicas.

If you wanna follow this path, there’s no way to dodge reading the Survival Guide. It’s been there for quite a while and I have checked up on it countless times to help me make decisions. Here are some things I got from it:

Contax Zeiss lenses were designed for 35mm full frame, which means they’ll cover all the way up to Vistavision sensors on modern cameras and anything smaller. As they were designed for photography, they have clicked stops, which has to be dealt with, but they all feature non-rotating front elements, which is a very valuable feature these days with vari NDs.

The lenses were made in two generations. The first one is AE and the second one is MM. It’s agreed that MM lenses perform better and have cleaner results than AE lenses, they’re also less prone to flaring. AE lenses also show ninja-star bokeh when stopped down, which is a major turnoff for some folks. You can tell them apart because MM have their last aperture number painted green, and they have a small tab on the mount that doesn’t exist on AE’s.


The tab and the last stop in green that mark MM lenses

One last note on their generations, MM’s were mostly made in Japan, so they’re called MMJ’s, while AE’s were made in Germany and named AEG’s. But Zeiss was so precious about these lenses that some of them were only made in Japan and others in Germany. This means that not all MM lenses are made in Japan. There are MMG lenses out there – I was weary of that for quite a while, since it’s not mentioned clearly anywhere. You can also tell their place of manufacture based on what’s written on the lens! On my set some were MMJ, others AEG. It was not a problem as a starter set.

Back to the story. I started using these lenses casually. It was a time when I didn’t shoot much, but I went on long bike rides. I always took the 135 with me and some of my favorite photos come from that time.

Canon 5D3 + Contax Zeiss 135mm f/2.8

Slowly I fell in love with them. Whenever I started thinking the Soviet lenses were sharp, I’d pop one of the Contax on the camera and stare in awe.

Momentum picked up and I saw myself getting ready to DP a webseries pilot. The Soviets were good enough for my own projects, but I needed something more reliable on this one. So far I had been using adapters on them, and they sucked. That’s when I learned of Leitax and their mount replacements.

Leitax mount on the left, original Contax/Yashica mount on the right

They are made in Spain, cost about 60 euros each and you install them on the back of the lenses using the provided screws. This turns the original C/Y mount into a solid EF mount that won’t budge for nothing.

I’m a fan of DIY, so I decided to install the mounts by myself. That was probably one of the most stressful experiences of my life with lenses. The screws on the back of the lenses are tiny, and if you strip them, you can’t get the new mount into place. Luckily for me, out of the five lenses I only messed up really bad on one (the 85mm, which was also the first one I tried). So I kept using an adapter on that one (the best adapter I had).

Horribly stripped screw on the 85/1.4

Still on the DIY train, a friend and I had just bought a 3d-printer, so I started making my own focus gears. I didn’t think too much about them when designing, they just needed to fit around the ring, and our printer was painfully slow (M3D, I’m looking at you). The process turned out alright and the gears worked great, but later on I learned some useful tricks.

When designing your focus gears, keep the number of teeth constant for all the lenses. This will ensure a constant outside diameter, which means you don’t have to adjust your follow focus every time you change lenses.

To fit the barrel of the lens, use a caliper and be precise about it. I like to add 0.3mm to the measurement to give me a little wiggle room after printing. In my experience, the gears never fit on the first try. So I sand the inside down a bit and try again. Another trick is to heat them up with a blow dryer or even your house heater. They dilate quite a bit and fit much more easily.

Plus, fitting these is never a “one-slip move”. You have to keep wiggling them slowly, side by side, until they are in place. The rubber grip on the focus ring of the lenses is awesome because it prevents the gears from sliding, but it’s also a pain because it makes the fitting a lot harder. Be patient, use heat and sandpaper, and you’ll get there.

Last point on the focus gears: the same way you always want to have a constant outside diameter, you want to place them on the lenses at the same distance from the mount. See the photo below! This is another trick to make lens swaps faster, since you won’t need to adjust your follow focus back and forth on the rig. You know, like a cine lens!

Leveled and equal diameter focus gears

If you don’t have a 3d-printer, I’m selling all the gears I made for my set on eBay! If you do have a printer, I made a tutorial on how to make focus gears!

The last thing I did was add step rings to normalize all their fronts at 58mm, to make my life easier when swapping ND’s and other filters – or anamorphic adapters in my case.

For a little over a year, this was enough. But then work started picking up and I saw that as the perfect opportunity to upgrade. I returned to the guide and started eBay hunting. I went for the fastest lenses and snuffed out the AEG’s I had, in favor of the prettier bokeh of the MMJ’s. Lucky for me my 50 and 85/1.4 were already MMJ.

I started with the 28mm. The f/2.8 never really impressed me, even though it’s regarded as one of the best budget 28mm out there. Every time I had to pick a lens I went for the 35mm f/2.8 instead. After I read stellar reviews about the 28mm f/2.0 “Hollywood”, I went looking for one. These are way more common in AE, but I was lucky enough to find a MM coming straight from Japan. This was a game changer. The Hollywood is indeed a star and the image that comes out of it is much more appealing than the 28/2.8. It’s also a big change in size and weight, almost doubling its predecessor.

28mm comparison: 28/2.8 on the left, 28/2.0 “Hollywood” on the right

Next up was the 35mm, two stops faster at f/1.4. Standard lens, can’t really make a set without a 35mm in it, right? I’m gonna stop saying these lenses are sharp, because at this point it’s just standard! Impressive performance and also the fastest 35mm I ever owned. Also almost twice as big and heavy as the previous one.

The 135mm f/2.8 was a great lens. It’s the one I always took with me and it gave me gorgeous shots. There’s a lot of discussion whether the 135mm f/2.0 has a clear advantage over the f/2.8, especially when you take into account the price difference. I needed the one extra stop of light though, for consistent f/2 or faster through the main set. My favorite lens switched to the 85/1.4 after that, though. Not saying the 135/2 isn’t worth it the investment, it’s just much heavier and harder to carry as a walk-around lens.

I then redesigned and printed new focus gears for these and ordered more Leitax mounts and that was good for another five months. It’s a gradual process, guys.

Then, near the end of last year I decided to round out the set and make it suitable for renting. That meant getting a few more lenses and upgrading various aspects I had neglected so far.

The 21/2.8 was a must. It’s regarded as one of the best 21mm ever made, and to this day they still use the same formula for the 21mm f/2.8 ZF/ZE primes. This one was only made in Japan and it doesn’t exist in AE, just MM. It was the most expensive lens in the set and it shares a lot of the beautiful look of the 28/2 “Hollywood”.

Next came the 60mm f/2.8 Macro. I almost went for the wrong one with my MM obsession, but I was warned by my followers on Instagram about the edge the AE had over the MM. The 60/2.8 AE can do 1:1 magnification, while the MM can only reach 1:2. The downside of such magnification is that the focus ring travels a lot, pretty much doubling the physical length of the lens. For that reason I had to make a super tall focus gear that would not slip off when travelling from infinity to minimum focus.

Contax Zeiss 60mm f/2.8 Macro AEG: Infinity focus on the left, minimum focus on the right

I know I stopped mentioning how sharp these lenses are, but the 60mm is worth highlighting. Yes, it’s one step slower than the its siblings, but it definitely crushes them with razor sharp focus and a beautiful transition into bokeh.

The last decision I had to make was between the 18mm f/4 and the 15mm f/3.5. I took this question to Instagram again and got really good arguments for both sides. The 18mm is almost one fourth of the price and half the weight of the 15mm, plus it fits along with the other MMJ’s in the set. At this point the price argument was adding a lot of weight. These babies were bleeding me dry.

The 15/3.5 took the cake though. 18mm is way too close to 21mm, plus lots of reviews mention its not-impressive performance. The 15mm is a gorgeous rectilinear super wide angle, it shares the same optical formula as the Leica Super-Elmar 15mm f/3.5, with different coatings. It’s also quite similar to the modern 15/2.8 ZF/ZE offered by Zeiss, just a 2/3 stops slower. It also has built-in color filters which I freaked out when I realized how to turn them. I still don’t know when to use them, though!

This wraps the first step in building a set of lenses: getting the glass. Now I’m gonna move into streamlining it for shooting and making it the best possible lenses to handle on set.

I already talked about the mount replacements and focus gears, so I’m left with standard fronts and de-clicking.

Conveniently – for me – as I was finishing the set, SIMMOD Lens came into the picture, with very competitive prices, impressive customer service and super high-quality products. I got all my standard 80mm fronts from him, as well as slip-on lens caps. For a while I didn’t understand the need for 80mm fronts, so I’ll share what I learned so others won’t live too long unknowing like me!

80mm diameter Cine rings by SIMMOD Lens and 77mm filter threads

80mm is the outside diameter of the rings, and that number is so specific because it’s a standard size for clip-on matteboxes. Since the filter threads across the set are wildly different (from 55 to 72mm), standardizing the filter threads to 77mm allows you to own one single set of filters which can quickly switch lenses without the need for tons of step rings. So all you do is get a Cine Ring with the rear thread of your lens and that’s gonna make it standard!

It looked neat, but from my experiences as 2nd Assistant Camera, I was constantly being asked how fast so-and-so lens was, or what’s its minimum focus. That information was usually written in the lens case, and the focal length was on a sticker attached to the lens cap. I was not impressed, so I decided to make my own.

My custom made front caps with focal length, f-stop and minimum focus distance

First I measured the slip-on caps I got from SIMMOD and created a Photoshop template with that size. I plugged in the focal length in white so they’re easy to read in dark sets. I also added the f-stop for each lens and its minimum focus in meters and feet. Then I sent that to be printed at StickerYou in vinyl stickers. Each page with eight stickers costed me about $10. You have to admit they look sexy.

The issue that came up from was the stickers were having a hard time sticking to the material of the lens caps and were peeling off on their own. To fix that I took the stickers off, added a thin layer of glue, put the stickers back in place and let it all dry overnight.

If you’re not a DIY spirited person – or you don’t like getting things from a million different places -, I worked with Ron at SIMMOD so he can provide caps with stickers already on them.

I repeated the technique for the rear caps, this time with only the focal length written on them. These I ordered from MOO, because they offered me more variety at a much lower price.

Focal length marked on the rear caps as well

For declicking, I read a lot of posts from people saying it’s a super easy process on Contax Zeiss lenses, but I didn’t have the guts for it. I shipped all of them to SIMMOD for declicking and a quick checkup. Ron also offers the full mod service for great prices, including focus gears and lens mounts. I was just ahead of the game, so it wasn’t necessary on my case. You can use the code CINE at check out for a nifty discount!

After aperture was made smooth and clickless I still had my 3d printer hanging around, so I printed aperture gears as well. I haven’t tested these much yet, and I ended up not doing standard outside diameters. If I have a motor on the iris, it’ll have to be adjusted every time the lens is swapped.

Iris gear on the 35/1.4

This gave me a great set of lenses ready for action, all I missed was a way of getting them to said action. All I ever had so far was a Canon backpack and that is not a safe way to transport this grade of gear everywhere. I needed a proper case!

I reached out to David at Hardcases.ca and got both a Nanuk 918 with padded dividers and a Nanuk 904 with foam to fit these babies. On the 918 I keep the main six lenses of the set plus variable NDs and other filters. The two “specialty” lenses – the 15/3.5 super wide and 60/2.8 macro – go on the smaller 904 case. This makes life easier when grabbing gear to go out and renting it as well. If I know I’m not gonna need either the 15 and the 60, I just don’t take their case with me. Having them separate also gives me versatility on pricing, since the main set can still go out without them for a more accessible price.


The 6-lens set in a Nanuk 918 Case and the two specialty lenses

Building this set was a great experience throughout. I met amazing businesses with folks that really know how to deal with their customers, I did try out mindblowing glass and I was humbled by all the feedback I got when asking questions about what would be my best options in the middle of the process and posting updates of what I was working on.

The only thing I could maybe do later is update the markings on each lens with fluorescent paint like what you see here, by Moritz Schierenbeck on VLFV’s facebook group. I’m still weighing if I need it or not. To check if I did it, just follow me on Instagram as I post all my lens experiments there!

Fluorescent paint to make markings easier to spot in the dark, by Moritz Schierenbeck

TL;DR

Contax Zeiss lenses are the gems for sharp yet vintage glass. They’re fully manual – focus and aperture -, have solid metal construction, long focus throw, and a great feel overall. They’re much cheaper than modern lenses, yet share similar designs and performance. They cover full frame, are super easy to adapt to many other mounts and never lose their value. You have a wide range of lenses to pick from and equally different price tags. You can either build a $1500 set or a $10000 set and you’ll always impress with the results.

They’re killer tools for video, but in order to achieve maximum performance, there’s a number of steps and procedures to tackle. This is a guide for people that love handling gear and tweaking little things here and there. If you want something ready to use from the get-go, I’d say this is not for you.

Lastly, just for curiosity’s sake, Carl Zeiss has a specific nomenclature for his lens designs – and you can see some of them written on the ID ring of these Contax Zeiss lenses. Distagon, Planar, Sonnar, Tessar, Biogon and Hologon. Here’s a very interesting article by Edward T. that summarizes tech papers published on these designs and their differences, pros and cons.