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Atlas Lens Co. – Orion 40mm T/2 Anamorphic Review

May 12, 2019

Before I start the actual review, I must say that I’m a big fan of Atlas Lens Co.. Their Lenses are a huge step towards making anamorphics accessible, and accessibility is what my work is all about. I’m not saying they are CHEAP, but they certainly are cheapER than all other cine anamorphics – and that is fantastic.

OVERVIEW

I got the Orion 40mm back in December of 2018 when I went to Connecticut to spend the holidays with my girlfriend’s family. My flight came through New York and Nick Kova – who I met through the channel – offered to lend me his recently delivered Orion 40mm for the two weeks I was there. I am super thankful to Nick for trusting me with his lens – and so should you, otherwise this review wouldn’t exist.

I am unable to lie: I had a blast shooting with the Orion 40mm. This was actually my first time using a proper cine anamorphic lens and it changed many things on how I perceive anamorphic shooting. First of all, 40mm with 2x scope is incredibly wide. I am used to shoot with both eyes open – one eye in the viewfinder for focusing and the other eye on my surroundings for moving around. This was the first time I felt a lens was just as wide as my natural field of view.

One might think a wide angle is good for establishing shots but the close focus capabilities of this lens allowed me to make some of my most interesting close up shots, showing a fair amount of background along with my subject.

I shot all the footage using both the Sony A7s2 and Panasonic GH5, and while the GH5 has its own anamorphic mode, the Sony offered no support, making an external monitor key to framing. Due to gear incompatibility and form factor (I wanted to stay as small and light as possible) I ended up shooting everything handheld. Handheld as in camera + lens + (sometimes) monitor on the hot shoe mount.

This made for some really shaky shots every once in a while, a huge arm workout, wobbliness in some of the footage (see below), and the ability of stuff the camera in my backpack when I was not shooting. Not to mention every rack focus shot was a finger workout.

Even though the lens can go to T2, I found my sweet spot to be between T2.8 and T4 for best out-of-focus areas and decent sharpness that I could boost in post-production without hurting the footage. You can see this in more detail at the Sharpness &Resolution section.

If I had the money right now, I would not bat an eye investing in one of these. Even among the whole Orion lineup I feel the 40mm is the most versatile and interesting focal length. I shot for full two weeks with it and never felt I needed a longer or wider lens.

The price tag is still prohibitive if you are comparing this to adapters, but the reliability of it makes up for a big chunk of that cost difference. A cine lens will not let you down or have you struggling with clamps, focus, diopters and whatnot. That is where I am headed in terms of investing: getting out of the adapters game and moving into cinema anamorphics.

What are the downsides of the Orion 40mm then? Some people claim it is a really soft lens, but that was not my experience. Sure, at T2 things get a bit mushy, but no lens is super sharp wide open. I was doing great at T2.8 and I feel the lens loses its magic past T5.6 because the background starts to blend with your subject in terms of sharpness. Bokeh feels strange at times (more on that later) and flares are quite saturated. Those two aspects do not bother me, but they might be red flags for other shooters.

TECH SPECS

The first thing I noticed when I picked up the case with the lens is that this baby is HEAVY. It is a solid cup of metal filled with thick slabs of glass. At 2.2kg (5lbs), the Orion 40mm made both the Sony A7s2 and Panasonic GH5 feel like little toys.

Not only heavy, the lens is also pretty big: 18.9cm (7.4″) in length with a 114mm (4.5″) front, a standard value for cinema lenses, making it compatible with countless filters and matteboxes. The gigantic front made me work extra hard to find perfect lighting, unable to rely on a variable ND. I had packed the Fotodiox ND Throttle adapter, which has a built-in variable ND, which made things easier for shooting with the A7s2.

Orions’ data chart from Atlas Lens Co.’s website. 40mm highlighted for this review.

Speaking of adapters and lens mounts, the Orions come in PL mount by default, with an optional EF mount at extra cost ($XYZ). The one I used was already fitted with an EF mount. If you are swapping mounts you will end up using a handful of shims (provided by Atlas Lens Co.) to adjust your flange distance properly. I have heard from a few different sources (including a rental house) this is a time consuming challenge, especially because it is hard to spot critical focus when the lens is wide open and tell if you have the perfect distance between the lens mount and the camera sensor.

Still on the subject of weight and size, all my adapters sucked. There was a noticeable amount of play either between the lens and the adapters or between the adapter and the camera body because of how heavy the lens is. The adapters I was using for the Sony were the Fotodiox Pro Fusion ND Throttle and the Metabones Mk IV. The Panasonic had the Mitakon Zhongyi Lens Turbo V2 for focal reducing capabilities. I have been using these adapters for years without ever having this issue before.

A couple ways to solve this play would be to use adapters that have a foot for support and connect the foot to the rig’s rails or the camera cage. This addresses body/adapter play. The Metabones and Fotodiox had a foot, but I was shooting without a rig, silly me. The second part is to use cine-type adapters that have a twist lock onto the lens, like a cine camera does. These are on my list for future upgrades.

I only noticed the play was visible on the footage many weeks later when I edited this video and threw out too many shots due to the footage looking extra wobbly. This was not the Orion’s fault in any way: it was mostly my loose adapters, lack of a proper rig, IBIS going crazy with anamorphic and rolling shutter plus slow motion on the A7s2 – known Sony issues.

Focus goes from infinity down to 0.56m (2ft) at minimum focus, with 300 degrees of throw and markings in both feet and meters. Iris ranges between T2 and T16, featuring 14 aperture blades for smooth bokeh. As one would expect from a cine lens, both rings are geared for motors/follow focus. The lens does not change size while focusing since all the movement is internal, that also means the front does not rotate, which is great (#iscoramaFlaws).

There is a fair amount of focus breathing, widening your field of view by about 5% when focused at infinity compared to minimum focus. It is not a big deal on most shots, but if you have a big rack focus you will definitely feel it. 5% at 40mm 2x Anamorphic is a pretty big deal as you can see in the shot below.

Rack focus from infinity to minimum focus at T16, rescaled to keep objects’ sizes constant and show vignetting to demonstrate focus breathing.

PRICE AND AVAILABILITY

In terms of price, each Orion lens costs $7,999 – a $4,999 deposit with the remaining $3,000 to be paid before delivery. Talking to Dan Kanes and Forrest Schultz at NAB this year I learned that the average waiting time between putting down an order and receiving the lens is about six months in 2019.

There are two 3-lens sets of Orions and the 40mm is the wide-angle of the original set, or the A set, matched by 65mm and 100mm lenses. Buying a set is not cheaper than buying individual lenses ($23,995 for the set), split into a $7,995 deposit and 16,000 payment before delivery). The deposits are all refundable and you can easily upgrade from a single lens deposit to a full set deposit.

SHARPNESS & RESOLUTION

My space for shooting these charts was limited, so the focusing range is short. Still, many things can be seen from these samples. Taken with the Panasonic GH5, these images have a higher pixel count than the usual ones I use, from the A7s2, allowing for closer inspection on how the lens performs.

At T2 the Orion is quite soft but you can still tell critical focus and read small text even 3m away. There is lots of blooming on all highlights in the center, intensified by purple fringing on high contrast edges. The blooming and fringing dials down towards the edges, where we see the usual loss of sharpness and considerable light falloff – about a half stop. The text is still pretty readable though.

As we stop down to T2.8 – which is my favorite stop for this lens – the blooming goes away and the purple tinge is put under control. The image is not as sharp as T5.6 or 11, but calling this lens soft at this point seems like ignorance. The corners are still quite unsharp, not much improvement over T2, and just a bit darker – less than a quarter stop. The subtle light falloff and softness in the corners at this point contribute to creating mood in the shots, narrowing attention to the subject and not to over-detailed corners.

Speaking of detail, the lens is sharp from T5.6 onwards. Corners improve noticeably with just tiny smudges at the very edges and very little light falloff. Not much changes as you stop down from there, as we can see from T11. Sharpness still goes up a touch, making it sharp edge to edge and light distribution across the frame is the biggest difference at this point, with much more uniform values from center to corner. The one odd thing is, at minimum focus (0.6m) we start to see yellow/blue fringing on high contrast edges at the corners of the frame which were not there at faster stops and are not quite visible when the lens is placed further away.

You can download the full resolution images used to make these charts here to inspect them on your own if you want to find answers to specific questions I did not cover.

DISTORTION

With a horizontal field of view equivalent of a 20mm lens, it is expected that the Orion 40mm shows some warping on straight lines. Anamorphic distortion is a big deal and it greatly contributes to making shots more immersive, creating an extra layer of depth onto a two-dimensional image. Below is an animated grid going from rectilinear to the the Orion’s distortion profile. Notice how the vertical lines have very little movement compared to the horizontal ones.

FLARES & BOKEH

The Orion’s streak flares are a rich, saturated blue which, honestly, is a stone’s throw from SLR Magic’s flares. I like it because this blue is such a specific hue it can easily be picked in post-production and adjusted to my liking – including color changes to some extent. You can also see some teal elements reflected in there as well as a short vertical streak that adds more dimension to the overall anamorphic flare.

Panasonic GH5 4:3 Open Gate + LensTurbo V2 + Orion 40mm – T2, ISO 400, WB 3200K, 180° shutter

The blue gives good sci-fi vibes – since sci-fi and blue flares are in a tight knit connection since Alien (1979). We also see some rainbows when the light source is up close to the lens and, all in all, blooming is pretty controlled for having a light source pointed directly at the lens.

On such wide angle, the flare becomes smaller and smaller as I walk away from the camera, meaning that if you want bigger flares from far away you should work on getting some big and strong light sources (did anyone say M18?).

If you want to see more flare samples, PremiumBeat has a free pack of Orion 40mm flares that you can take a look.

Iris pull from T2 to T16 on the Panasonic GH5 + Lens Turbo V2. ISO 1600, WB 3200K, 180° shutter. Lens focused at 0.6m (2ft). Distance to subject: 3m (10ft)

When I was testing for bokeh looking at a Christmas tree, everything looked great. But I noticed it can have a strange shape at times – I like to call it snowman bokeh, although it looks more like a bell-shape – and you can see it in the video at the top of this post between 0:35 and 0:55. I do not know what causes it. In other scenarios, as bokeh approaches the edges of the frame it starts to get cut off into triangle and bean shapes.

From my empirical observations, this has to do with the placement of the highlights and the focused distance. On close-ups these strange shapes almost never show up, but as soon as I started to get further from my subject, bokeh would get messy.

All of this to say that you can get amazing bokeh with the Orion 40mm – but you can also end up with some less-than-perfect ovals. Speaking of ovals, I noticed the stretched bokeh is not quite oval. Here is a quick comparison between the lens’ actual bokeh versus what an oval would be. If anything, the Orion has even more streched out-of-focus highlights, contributing for extra waterfall effect and subject separation.

Left: Orion bokeh. Right: Computer generated perfect oval bokeh.

SENSOR COVERAGE

According to the data sheet on Atlas’ website – also shown at the beginning of this post – the Orions cover a 31mm image circle. What does that mean? In quick terms, it means you are fine shooting with any S35 sensor (24.89 x 18.6mm), ARRI Alexa, all the way up to the 4:3 3.4K Open Gate mode (23.76 x 17.82mm) and RED Gemini (30.72 x 18mm), 5K 6:5 Full Height (21.6 x 18mm), the best RED camera for anamorphic shooting.

In my situation, the GH5 was absolutely fine with the 4:3 Anamorphic Open Gate mode even with the focal reducer attached. The interesting bit was to realize I could shoot fine on the Sony A7s2 if I was outputting a 2.40:1 crop using the center of the frame.

Sony A7s2 shooting full frame 16:9 4K + Atlas Orion 40mm T2 2x Anamorphic with aspect ratio cropmarks

On the first day however, I did not bother testing the sensor coverage on the Sony and shot some slow-motion footage using the A7s2’s S35 crop mode. This yields full coverage from the Orion and delivers the wild 3.56:1 aspect ratio of 2x scopes and 16:9 sensors. I particularly like this width and believe one can make very interesting projects with it, although I admit it is not the friendliest of aspect ratios.

CONCLUSION

When I started writing this review, I had not gone through all the tests and the data. All I had were my notes and my thoughts about the experience of shooting with the Orion 40mm. After a few days of looking at clips, creating distortion maps, analyzing flares and bokeh, drawing diagrams and interpreting charts, I like this 40mm better than when I had only my thoughts.

I can now notice and point out hard evidence of features I love about this lens and also be on the watch for its limitations. I am pleased by its distortion and focal length – 40mm is unattainable with 2x adapters. It allows for very strong compositions. Bokeh could be cleaner when we look at the snowman and triangular shapes and, if I am to be very nitpicky, flares could be less vivid for a “straight out of camera delivery” type of situation.

It is unfair to compare a cine anamorphic lens to adapters but I will do it anyway! The amount of time and stress I saved by having a single piece of gear to connect to the camera and head out to shoot made a huge impact on the images I produced. You can look at my previous videos and the tests on this post to compare. I had time to get perfect exposure, I was able to plan a shoot for magic hour and actually get it, I shot some pretty spontaneous stuff too which would have been impossible had I spent ten minutes fiddling with an adapter rig.

I know I am not the only one that struggles with adapters, especially at the beginning of any shoot and this is where cinema gear makes a difference and justifies its price tag. Skip alignment checks, clamp quirks, diopters and skip triple testing that every piece of the optical chain is in focus (check infinity on taking lens, check infinity on anamorphic, check focus on variable strength diopter). All of these things are already built into the Orion – or any cine lens for that matter.

If one chooses to focus on the negative side of things without any base in reality, one could argue that the lens is too big and heavy when compared to, let’s say, an Iscorama 36 or a Kowa B&H, but once the adapter rig is fully built, single focus and bulletproof, it will be just shy of the Orion’s weight and size. In some cases the adapter rig will be bigger and heavier!

The price tag is steep compared to adapters and even being the absolute cheapest anamorphic lens in the cinema league $7,999 is no pocket change. The issue here is that it is accessible enough compared to Zeiss’ or Cooke’s anamorphics at $30k+, creating a feeling of “just out of reach” that upsets the prosumer market. I made up my mind and, if I have the chance, I will get one of these for myself. I want to put it on a proper rig and shoot content other than tests with it.

In all honesty I am done stressing with adapters for my career and this is a perfect segue into better gear to match my skills while not giving up the budget aspect I value so much.

If you made this far into the article, I would love to hear what you think of the tests and results as well as your opinion on the price of the Orion lenses and what they deliver! Leave a comment!

Anamorphic Specials

What is “Cinematic” these days?

September 12, 2018

We can all agree the word “cinematic” is thrown around a lot. Working as a cinematographer in many indie projects, more than once I had directors come up with a shot and ask “what can we do to make this more cinematic?”. The first few times I heard that question I’m sure they saw my mind rebooting behind my eyes, puzzled and racing with “what does that even mean?”. After a few hours of shooting I had a solid enough grasp on their style to understand what they wanted when asking for something “more cinematic”. Spoiler alert: it was always a different thing for each director.

Being the camera nerd I am, I was inspired to write this short study. At its core, “cinematic” means something that is MORE like cinema – which implies something LESS like real life, less banal, less mundane. Through one hundred years of spectacle we have grown used to the sense that films are larger than life and one of the pitfalls of shooting on a budget is that your project can look like a home movie (the absolute opposite of cinema). Just to prove my point: when you read “home movie” in the sentence above, a series of images popped into your mind and you knew exactly what I was talking about, even though I haven’t shown any reference of what I’m calling “cinema” or “home movie”.

VHS is the epitome of home movie. Kicking off from there, digital camera manufacturers had a tremendous uphill battle to fight so that their cameras were as far removed from the VHS look as they could. One of the first advances in that direction was to be able to shoot 24 frames per second. The initial 30fps looked too much like something out of a TV screen and not worthy of a theater screen. At that time, a camera that could shoot 24fps was defined as cinematic (the good old DVX-100b days).

Look at this camera! Look at this depth-of-field adapter! All of that aiming for the best possible looking image!

After frame rate came the aspect ratio, from 4:3 to 16:9, then HD resolution, then depth of field adapters that allowed you to use 35mm SLR lenses on the tiny sensor of your handycam (this was a DIY revolution and strongly supported by Jag35, Letus35 and RedRockMicro), always chasing Hollywood looks.

After video was introduced to DSLRs and Canon changed the world with the 5D MkII things started to get dicey. We had a couple of years of “shallow-depth-of-field-above-anything-else”, with everything out of focus because of full frame sensors and wide-open apertures. I see this as a kickback from all those years of struggling to get anything out of focus.

Screengrab from “Shoot FLAT PROFILE Video on ANY Canon DSLR

The struggle now was with color and latitude. RAW formats. We saw the birth of the Technicolor Cinestyle profile for Canon, the rise of MagicLantern, the popularization of 3D LUTs (or even the term LUT) and, stronger than all those things, the rise of Sony and mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless allowed us to use any glass we desired. Sony still has a much-to-be-desired color science but they did a much better job than Canon in keeping up with what the market wanted: 4K, slow motion, adjustable crops, more latitude, insane ISO/noise ratio, all of that in a package that’s just under $2000.

Panasonic users, I know Panny has been listening to us and doing excellent work, but Sony still leads the market by a lot so I’m using Sony for the sake of an example.

We got to a point that we can stack footage from an Arri Alexa (over $80k) and a Panasonic GH5 (under $2K) side by side and have a hard time telling them apart, so the difference between making a home movie and something cinematic is not limited by the gear as it was twenty years ago. Now it comes to framing, lighting, blocking, movement. Those are all creative decisions.

Making something “more cinematic” encompasses a wide gamut of possibilities and none of them have objective reaons. You could make the light more contrasting, push for a longer – or wider! – lens, add some out-of-focus foreground element, throw in a lens flare or some anamorphic bokeh, crop the top and bottom of your frame, rearrange your actors on the set and so on, forever.

After a lot of of trial and error I was able to decipher “how do we make this shot more cinematic?” into “how can we boost production value in this shot?”, and luckily for most of us, production value does not always have to do with actual money. There are different ways to shoot things that will make it look more expensive – and more expensive means more Hollywood.

Still a challenging question but now I feel we have a better idea of how to handle it. On a recent discussion about the meaning of “cinematic” a friend  said that you are doing it right when “you can insert your footage into a reel of movie highlights and not stand out“. It’s a pretty tough statement, but ultimately I believe he’s right. If your budget-limited shots can blend with unlimited-budget footage, you are doing it right.

Screengrab from “Up & Away“, by yours truly.

The recipe for it is to keep trying – over and over. I still shoot a lot of things that I am looking through the viewfinder and thinking “this could be better” but I don’t quite know how I could improve it. Sometimes I will fix it between takes (refine a light placement, find a better framing), other times I just move on and try to finesse the next shot. We still have to make it to the end of the day, right? A limited budget also means that you can’t spend too much time in each shot.

It is by working fast and working a lot, with a lot of people, that our library of tricks expands. From that experience we can source solutions to make things more and more cinematic even though the budget is biting our ankles. The tips below aim to improve your time and the look of the footage. After all, the more time you save in frivolous tasks, it’s more time you’ll have to refine those tricky shots.

Pick the time of the day you’re shooting each exterior. Go to the location ahead of the shooting days and check if the Sun is behaving as expected and if there’s no new buildings coming to block your beautiful magic hour. Stop down your lens, even if that costs you a bit of noise. It’s easier to get a little extra noise out than to get a shot focused in post. Exercise, be flexible. I do a lot of handheld (it’s my favorite style) and if I’m not comfortable in weird positions, I’ll be dead before the end of the day. Set up all of your camera gear the day before the shoot and have the rig as ready to go as possible. Getting camera up and running first thing in the day helps the director immensely. There’s nothing more frustrating for the entire team than waiting on a camera glitch of missing piece.

When the director tells you “that lighting really saved this scene.” – from DOP Life

Now go and be “cinematic”. Increase your production value. Add more to the film than what you’re charging as your rate and people will always come back to you.

Lastly, just to mix things up a bit: remember when we agreed “home movie” was to be avoided at all costs? Well, that is not entirely true. I wrote an article on diegetic cinematography that talks exactly about big budget films trying to simulate a spontaneous and careless style of shooting. Oddly enough, they are still pretty cinematic.

Specials

“Great photos! You must have a great camera!”

June 16, 2018

If you take your craft seriously, the odds of having heard these words are quite high. Audiences associate good images with great cameras, and for the longest time this (almost) accusation has bothered photographers who felt their skills were downplayed. The interesting bit is that we’re walking towards making the “great cameras = great photos” equation true! And they fit in your pocket.

Speaking of great cameras, here’s an Arri Alexa with a cinema prime!

Before I started for real with photography and cinematography – more than ten years ago – I used to play with a Sony compact camera. Back then I believed that great photos could only be achieved with great cameras. Mine lacked everything I associated with great photos: shallow depth of field, wide dynamic range and beautiful color science (I did not know these terms back then).

When I got my first DSLR in 2008, a Canon Rebel XTi, I started to learn that a good camera indeed makes things better, but it won’t prevent you from taking plenty of crappy photos – as most of mine were. I’ve had this thing where I look at the total number of images shot on a given project and the number of images I process and export out of Lightroom. Back then, this used to be a 25:1 ratio. These days I’m at 3:1.

Over the last ten years I’ve improved my photography skills considerably while also improving my gear – from the XTi I went to a 7D, then to a 5D MkIII and lastly to a Sony A7sII. Every time I switched cameras I remember being blown away by the new capabilities and improvements on the image – color reproduction, full frame sensor and low light sensitivity. Each one of my cameras was stronger than the ones preceding it. That was never enough guarantee some photos wouldn’t turn out bad anyway – out of focus, poorly lit, too contrasty, too shallow depth of field, too much depth of field, and so on.

During this trajectory I took more than a few photos I’m proud of, and many times I heard the bothersome “Woah! This is such a great photo! Your camera must be amazing!”, as well as its reverse when people saw me working: “With a camera like that I bet all your photos turn out flawless”. Many of these people were close enough friends that I was able to explain the camera is just a tool and without someone behind it to push the right buttons the quality of the photos is not guaranteed.

During my learning process I also watched the rise of smartphones. I used to write a column for a photography magazine back in Brazil (2012-13) and I saw several big photographers arguing about the validity of an image taken with a phone by an untrained photographer. This was a particularly hot topic in the journalism community. Regular folks (non-photographers) would be closer to a story when it broke, snapping photos on their phones and recording precious developments in real time – way before a photographer got to the scene.

The pros would get up in arms about the media outlets using low-quality, phone-shot images. “These are not good photos!” they’d say, “Then you should’ve been there faster”, magazines, newspapers and TV channels would reply. Phone cameras and lower entry-prices for digital cameras represented the democratization of photography, an extreme boom in popularity. Everyone was now a photographer – but not everyone was able to make a living out of it, sometimes not even the established photographers from before the boom.

Until recently it was easy to tell when a photo was taken using a phone or an actual camera. In its latest iterations though, through the use of dual-lenses and/or machine learning and automated processes, smartphones experienced an unparalleled upgrade in the images coming out of their cameras. This is where optical photography lines start to blur as we introduce the powers of computational photography.

Wikipedia has the perfect definition: “Computational photography … refers to digital image capture and processing techniques that use digital computation instead of optical processes. Computational photography can improve the capabilities of a camera, or introduce features that were not possible at all with film based photography, or reduce the cost or size of camera elements”. Smartphones are taking advantage of their strong processors to bring in serious upgrades over their optically limited cameras.

The latest iPhones (7 Plus, 8 Plus, X) use two lenses – a wide-angle and a telephoto – in order to create a depth map of the scene in front of its lenses. With said map it’s easy to realistically simulate out-of-focus areas like a full-sized camera would. The difference is the depth map gives you freedom to manipulate that data in ways your camera wouldn’t. You can change the lighting of the scene to some extent, you can create impossibly shallow – yet accurate – depth of field, as well as you can change your focus point after pressing the shutter. None of this is particularly new = the Lytro camera kicked around with a similar concept ages ago – but it has never been so accessible and easy to play with. Apps like Focos and Anamorphic allow cost under $5 and allow you to fiddle the results of your dual-camera shots.

Hover over the image to see the difference between the original photo and the one using the depth map in the Focos app

Apple’s approach can be seen as conservative when compared to the solutions implemented in Google’s Pixel 2, which relies in a single lens camera and the full force of its artificial intelligence. The Pixel 2 stacks and aligns up to nine photos taken on a burst in order to achieve maximum dynamic range as well as to create its own depth map based on the camera movement and the parallax in the scene. Not only that, its AI has been taught what a person looks like and as soon as they find something that fits the bill, they’ll make sure that part of the shot is in focus. This leads to amazing photos coming out of a fairly inexpensive, light and multi-functional device when compared to a full-size camera. Plus, the photographer doesn’t need to make any decisions. Photos taken by my 7-year old niece and taken by me can look just as good with the press of a single button.

If you want to read more about the technical wonders coming out of smartphones, Rishi Sanyal’s article “Why smartphone cameras are blowing our minds” on DPReview has been a great source of inspiration for my own article.

This makes now a time when someone can say “Great photos! You must have a great camera!” attributing the quality of the images solely to the equipment used and not be wrong! At the same time computational photography levels the playing field of day-to-day photography, it makes other skills stand out – for example framing and lighting are things machines are not good at just yet, among other subtleties we pick up while honing our craft. It goes to say if you’re only able to take good photos because you have a good camera, things are about to get tough! Just to paint a clearer picture, all the photos in this post were taken with an iPhone 8 Plus and a Google Pixel 2.

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.

Anamorphic Day-to-Day Specials

Anamorphic Cookbook – hFOV Calculator v2.8

December 4, 2016

You can support this project on Patreon. Make your contribution and help the Anamorphic Cookbook!

Tito Ferradans here to tell you that I’ve updated the anamorphic calculator (or the HFOV Calculator if you wanna be precise).

What is this calculator again? This is a webapp that allows you to input various settings from your camera setup in order to figure out if you’ll get vignetting when using an anamorphic adapter.

You can pick your focal length, camera crop, focal reducer, anamorphic adapter, single focus solution and sensor aspect ratio. These are all the values that I need to tell if you’ll experience vignetting.

This time I coded it all from scratch and the new version is much more like what I originally envisioned for it. It works more fluidly and it’s much easier to update. I did some fixes to the overall math and added many features.

I added a checkbox for pancake lenses, which are more tolerant with vignetting, added another checkbox for Baby Anamorphics and custom rules for their behavior. I also added single focus solutions which influence vignetting and – in some cases – can change your field of view according to the focused distance. Lastly, I included a field that allows you to check if you’re limiting your maximum aperture based on your anamorphic’s rear element size.

The calculator only has two functions. HFOV will tell you what’s the Resulting Field of View and Resulting Aspect Ratio based on your setup. I WANT A TAKING LENS will also take into account your setup but do the math in reverse, using the Resulting Field of View and Resulting Aspect Ratio to tell you which taking Lens will give you that result, and what sensor crop is required. Both buttons will always tell you if you’ll get vignetting or not.

In the last minute I added a second calculator for diopters. You can input your maximum focus and that will give you a diopter strength, or you can input a diopter strength, and that will work out the focus math. If you put your lens’ minimum focus value in, it’ll give you the new minimum focus as well. For expert diopter hunters, this will help you figuring out diopters that aren’t so clear from manufacturers (like the ones that give you what’s the new minimum focus of a given lens, instead of the optical power).

In terms of functionality, every time you input something wrong (mostly characters that aren’t numbers), that field will be red and you can’t do the math until all red fields have been fixed. I also included a donate button at the bottom, because getting the data to build this took me months, and coding it wasn’t easy task either. So, if the calculators are useful for you, you can show it by sending me a little something. Now go break it, and I’ll see you next week.

If you want to include this tool on your website, just copy the code below into your HTML!

To report a bug, miscalculation or send suggestions, please use the form below!

Anamorphic Specials

Anamorphic on a Budget – 1.33x Shootout: “Intruder”

May 22, 2016

A brief explanation of the motivation to shoot “Intruder”, a 1.33x anamorphic head to head shootout. A short intro about using a new camera and my first experiences with 4k.

USEFUL LINKS:

All the RED links on this post are part of eBay’s Partner Network, so if you purchase anything through them, you’re helping me to keep this project going.

You can support this project on Patreon. Make your contribution and help the Anamorphic Cookbook!

Ever since I reviewed the Isco 16:9 Video Attachment I, the only 1.33x anamorphic I was missing in the reviews was SLR Magic’s. Now that I have it here, I wrote a very simple and straightforward script then got a ton of help (and patience!) from my friends while shooting this side project mixing all the 1.33x attachments in unmarked shots to see if we can actually spot the difference between them. Thank you very much Nicko and Ariana, you are the best.

Shooting this was all kinds of crazy since I was constantly swapping taking lenses, anamorphics and diopters (every single shot!) and keeping track of which shot had which combination was a complex task but not more challenging than shooting it all in a single Saturday afternoon. It was a fun project and also my first time shooting with Rob’s Kinemini, so I took advantage of the S35 sensor + SpeedBooster to match full frame and shot it all in 4K Cinema DNGs without having to worry about crop factors and math (the resulting crop factor was 1.066x, which for me can be considered 1x).

Telling which shot used which lens, without looking at my notes ended up being much more difficult than I expected. A few of them are easy to spot thanks to more visible features – SLR Magic’s super blue flares, the Panasonic’s super wideness and poor edges, the Isco’s oval bokeh – but when these features are not so visible in the shot, it’s blind luck trying to tell which lens was used. Check the list below for full specs. How many did you get right and which ones are your favorite shots?

Before I end this video, I would like to point out the amazing score composed by my friend João Gabriel Rodrigues, he was my classmate back at Film School, and he did an outstanding job coming up with the music from the most bizarre set of notes I ever wrote about what I wanted for the mood in this project. If you’re looking for good music, he’s a freelancer and works super fast, so you should definitely get in touch!

What did you think of this alternate method for reviewing lenses and putting them against each other? Leave a comment below, subscribe to the channel and drop by the blog for the extra anamorphic content! Ferradans out.

Also, here are the reviews for all the lenses used in this test
Century Optics 16:9 Ratio Converteron EBAY
Century Optics WS-13on EBAY
Panasonic LA7200on EBAY
Isco-Optic 16:9 Video Attachment Ion EBAY
SLR Magic Anamorphot 1.33x-50on EBAY

(more…)

Specials

No Escuro.

August 20, 2015

O mundo acabou à meia noite de Sábado para domingo.

Ok, isso ficou um pouco sensacionalista. O “Mundo” não “acabou”. As leis da física que dizem respeito à eletricidade é que resolveram tirar férias. Nada mais produzia corrente. Nem turbinas, nem painéis solares, hélices, nem aquelas lanterninhas mecânicas que fazem um barulho desgraçado produziam qualquer ampére, volt, watt, nem um mísero joule.

Pilhas e baterias não perderam suas cargas num passe de mágica, mas era impossível recarregá-las. Geradores viraram pesos de papel exageradamente grandes. A única eletricidade que ainda existia eram os raios, mas ainda vamos chegar nesse ponto.

A gente sempre acha que tá preparado pras coisas, quando na verdade a gente tá “mais ou menos” preparado praquilo que podemos imaginar, prever. Te digo que não tve um cientista prevendo data de validade pras teorias dos titios Faraday, Tesla, Franklin e por aí vai. A “Fé na ciência”, haha, prevejo um grande aumento na religiosidade ao redor do mundo depois dessa pegadinha científica que praticamente sustentava a sociedade.

Aquela primeira frase foi tão exagerada que vale a pena colocar mais um aviso: esse não é um conto megalomaníaco. Não tem guerra, zumbis, aliens, nem esses clichês de fim de mundo – Mad Max, Eu Sou A Lenda, Guerra Mundial Z, Walking Dead, The Last Of Us – ou sociedades totalitárias – 1984, Admirável Mundo Novo, Equilibrium. Se você está ok com essas informações, vamos adiante.

Por motivos de exaustão e tédio, Pedro deitou para dormir às 20h30. Desde que chegara em sua cidade natal, três semanas atrás, não tinha conseguido acordar depois das 4 da manhã nem sequer uma vez. Suas olheiras eram profundas. “Melhor dormir cedo pra tentar descansar um pouco mais”. Ele sabia que iria acordar às quatro e estava determinado a continuar dormindo. Essa decisão lhe custou a primeira chance de entender o que estaria acontecendo.

Dito e feito, como máquina, seus olhos se abriram às 4h15. O quarto estava claro, iluminado pela tela do notebook. “Alguma coisa deve ter desativado o descansador de tela”. Ao fundo os apitos do nobreak da casa perdendo carga preenchia o silêncio. Levantou-se, foi até o computador e abaixou a tela. Aí é que percebeu como o mundo estava escuro lá fora, sem os postes para iluminar as ruas do condomínio. “Falta de luz de madrugada? Essa é nova…”

Depois de sucessivas tentativas fracassadas de desligar o nobreak para fazê-lo calar a boca, resolveu que fechar a porta do quarto teria que bastar. Voltou e deitou-se para continuar seu sono. Se tivesse aproveitado aqueles últimos minutos de bateria tanto do notebook como do nobreak, poderia ter descoberto na internet que não era uma mera falta de luz. Pela manhã ambos os aparelhos já estariam sem carga e sua chance escorregou por pouco. Bom, ele teria que descobrir as coisas no caminho. Que história chata seria, se o herói já soubesse tudo de partida, não é mesmo?