Anamorphic

Anamorphic on a Budget – LOMO Foton-A 37-140mm f/3.5

March 15, 2020

This is my first time talking about actual cinema anamorphics. I decided to start with LOMOs because Russian glass has a special place in my heart, and the Foton-A is one of the rare lenses I’m never letting go.

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Tito Ferradans here for some rare glass. It’s time to tell you all about one of my most precious possessions: the LOMO Foton-A. This is a cinema lens made in the Soviet Union. It’s a long-range zoom, going from 37mm to 140mm, which allows you to shoot an entire show with just one lens. It’s got a ton of character and texture, awesome blue flares (anamorphic zoom flares are something special). I’ve used it in such way more than once – to get the clips you’re seeing right now.

LOMOs are the top tier when it comes to Soviet lenses, and LOMO anamorphics are in a category of their own, with several different generations and price tags. I would say this is probably the cheapest anamorphic zoom in existence, and in terms of performance, it’s more comparable to the first generation LOMO Squarefronts rather than the superior Roundfronts that came afterwards. As expected of a cinema lens, stretch is 2x, delivering stretched bokeh.

The first of the Foton-A’s many downsides is its speed. With a slow aperture of f/3.5 (T/4.4), all the way down to f/16. You really can’t do low-light or crazy shallow depth of field. It also features just eight aperture blades, which won’t smooth bokeh when stopping down. This lens won’t give you smooth ovals at any f-stop, just wide open. The second downside is its weight. This thing weighs 6kg or 13 pounds, which means it isn’t a handheld friendly rig, requiring lots of support and even a sturdy tripod. It’s true you can shoot an entire project with it, but moving it around is an intense process! The third downside is that the anamorphic and spherical blocks are not permanently connected – focus syncs through matching a pin on both pieces -, and that makes lens swaps super awkward. On the bright side, the whole setup doesn’t extend while focusing or zooming and you don’t need to realign it, ever.

The Foton originally comes in OCT-18 mount, which is a mount “inspired” by Arri Standard mount. Usually, OCT-18 lenses are a pain to convert and adapt, but the Foton features a mount-locking ring that allows you to easily swap mounts if you so desire. RAF Camera makes a few different ones and, in my case, I have both the EF and PL versions for it. Swapping them is a relatively simple process – especially when compared to usual mount changes that cost hundreds of dollars.

Focus comes down to 1.6m or 5ft. It’s not really a great minimum focus distance. The only way you can get closer is with diopters. I don’t have the original diopters, so I managed to find a 4×4 +0.8 Tiffen diopter that I rig to the front of the lens. Minimum focus performance isn’t crippled as other anamorphics, though. I believe mine could be improved with servicing, but I didn’t have enough time – or budget – to do so yet.

I’ve had two copies of the Foton-A since I got into anamorphics. I was lucky to get crazy good deals on both of them, but other than those two times, it’s hard to see it going for under $8-10k. One recently popped up on eBay for $4k and got me tempted. The spherical block is relatively common and sells between $800 to $1000, but the anamorphic block is hard to come across and I never saw it being sold separately. This lens also has its own diopters, made to fit perfectly around the front element (+1 and +0.8). Their regular market price these days is $500 each – if you can track one down. You can also do several upgrades for it, like de-clicking, installing focus gears for zoom, aperture and focus, or opting for levers instead of gears.

If you’re looking for resolution, this is not the lens for you. It’s not really sharp wide open, and even when stopped down, things can still be mushy – especially at longer focal lengths. This unit hasn’t been serviced, but the lack of sharpness is a shared aspect with my previous copy too. It’s up to you to decide if this is sharp enough for your purposes. If I thought it was unusable, I wouldn’t keep the lens. Here are different charts at different focal lengths.

The flares are outstanding, though. Thick, blocky, deep blue, they show up rather easily, even from light coming from the sides of the lens – as in “the source doesn’t have to be in the frame”. They’re very sci-fi-ish, and that’s one of my favorite aspects of this lens.

Vignetting is not really an issue. Designed for S35 film, you won’t get full frame coverage – at 37mm you see the inside of the anamorphic block, at 140mm there’s massive black edges. When switching to APS-C crop, all vignetting issues are gone.

I’m a big fan of the Foton-A. Maybe I’m just attached – the first copy I got had me jumping international hoops all the way from Brazil – or maybe it really adds layers of meaning to the cinematography of certain projects. I’m a fan of its low-contrast, low-sharpness look, I like how its distortion affects straight lines on the frame and the grittiness that all of its artifacts bring to the footage. It’s much easier to use and mechanically reliable than most adapter setups, it doesn’t require clamps, special support or a million step rings. It’s a very convenient zoom, but still affected by a slow aperture, super heavy construction and poor minimum focus. When it comes down to practical use, I’d choose this lens over most adapters too, simply because it’s practicality on set. No need to triple check focus, sync taking lens and anamorphic, or realign for every focal length change.

What do you think of this lens? Would you pick this one over an adapter? What did you think of its performance? This episode is another part of my LOMO month and if you liked it and want more info on these awesome anamorphics, you should subscribe now. Leave a comment below if you have any questions or suggestions and I’ll get back to you soon! Lastly, if you wanna help me out with all the research and costs related to keeping this channel alive, you can check my Patreon page for awesome rewards and a more direct contact line with me. See you next week, Tito Ferradans, out.