We’re on the ground in Las Vegas this week, bringing you extensive coverage of the National Association of Broadcasters Expo. Here’s how to stay ahead of it all…
* Watch here at FreshDV as we post videos individually, or track our playlist here.
* Watch in our channel on Vimeo, www.vimeo.com/channels/nab13
* Watch at our partner nofilmschool, where they will be posting our videos along with their excellent content.
All next week, the FreshDV crew will be bringing you daily video coverage from NAB 2013. We’ve got multiple crews working the show, and our coverage will be hosted by post-production guru Scott Simmons, audio pro Jameson Herndon, director Kendal Miller, and myself DP Matt Jeppsen.
There’s a lot of news from the National Association of Broadcasters Expo, and we are going to cut through the noise to find the information in each field that matters. FreshDV will be bringing you not only the news, but more importantly how it affects you.
Our coverage would not be possible without the support of Kessler Crane, Zeiss, and RØDE. We use their tools every day in our regular production work, and we’re proud to be associated with these quality brands.
In my Part I article, I discussed cost and feasability considerations in regards to these lenses, and offered a few tips on how to shop for a set of your own Zeiss Contax lenses. In this Part II article, I’ll discuss resolution charts and my notes on how the lenses perform at various apertures. I’ll also discuss about the handling and aesthetic reasons why I chose to build my lens set around Contax.
My forthcoming Part III article will delve a little more into the look of a Zeiss/Contax lens, the aesthetic it lends to the image. I will include a few examples of bokeh and flare characteristics at certain apertures. Onward…
Here is a ZIP file of full-quality PNG framegrabs of a DSC Labs resolution chart, that show the performance of these Zeiss/Contax lenses on a Canon C300 camera. For comparison, I have included resolution frames of the Canon 85/1.8 and 50/1.4.
Some observations on resolution performance:
* Wide open at f/2.8, the 21mm is nearly as sharp in the corners as it is in the center. It carries this peformance all the way up through f/5.6. It’s clear why this 21mm lens has a good reputation for sharpness…sharp wide lenses are hard to find. For comparison, look at how the 28mm corners are obviously more soft than the center of the chart, at f/2.8. On the 28mm this improves as you stop down the lens to f/4.0, and looks significantly better by the time you reach f/5.6. This is typical behavior for any lens…wide open tends to be least sharp, and the middle of the aperture range tends to offer the best performance. And the 28mm is no exception.
* The 50mm looks quite sharp edge to edge, even at f/2.0 and surprisingly quite good when wide open at f/1.4. At 2.0 it’s nearly as sharp as f/2.8, but you can see the contrast drop a bit (don’t forget that contrast contributes to how sharp an image appears). F/2.8 is more contrasty. f/1.4 seems to drop contrast a bit more across the entire image, but it nearly holds the same sharpness as f/2.0.
* Wide open at f/1.4, the 85mm shows sharpness falloff in the corners, and edge to edge has lowered contrast. It doesn’t appear to be as sharp wide open as the 50mm. Corner sharpness gradually improves as you would expect as you stop the lens down to f/5.6, but even at that stop the corners are not as crisp as the center of the image.
* The 135mm at f/5.6 appears almost as sharp at the edges as it does in the center. Corner sharpness fades a bit, but doesn’t really drop off as the aperture is opened, until around f/2.8. Not at all surprisingly, contrast at f/2.8 is lowered, vs f/5.6.
* I have just recently purchased the Zeiss/Contax 100mm f/2.0, as well as the 35mm f/1.4. I do not yet have those lenses converted, so I unfortunately don’t have data for this writeup. However, from what I hear, both should perform very well. In fact, the 100/2.0 may be one of the best optical performers in the Contax line. I’m very keen to put them both in to use as soon as possible.
Physical Performance & Considerations
I have modified my Contax lenses with the Duclos Cine-Mod, but I’ve shot with them bone stock and Cine-modded. So I’ll be talking about both versions in this section.
Contax lenses are really well-built, with all metal construction, and a weighty, solid feel. They have a textured exterior that is very easy to grip. The iris is fully manual, and has click-stops at every full aperture stop. The focus is also fully manual, and rotates roughly 180-degrees on most of the lenses. This long focus rotation is really helpful for focus pullers, because you can actually make marks that aren’t millimeters away from each other. On a Canon stills lens, for instance, the distance between close focus and infinity might only be an inch on the lens barrel. That makes focus marks very difficult to mark and hit…being off just a hair on the lens barrel might mean that you are a foot or more off in terms of depth of field. Even stock Contax lenses solve this issue by providing a nice long focus pull. It’s not as long of a focus pull as your average cine lens…one thing that you’ll often see on a cine lens is that the first few feet of focus movement are a very long distance apart on the lens barrel. Contax lenses don’t offer that much travel, but they are a good compromise for an affordable stills lens.
If you simply want to add a basic focus gear to a stock Contax lens, I recommend the Wide Open Camera lens gears…they are cheap, and the universal multi-size works very well on these lenses. Just make sure that you position the zip tie bump on the opposite side of the lens from where you’d normally mount your follow focus. There are other models out there that don’t have a bump and can be used 360-degrees…Cinevate is one manufacturer that offers a 360-degree usable gear. I chose to have my Contax lenses cine-modded to add a (semi) permanent lens gear. This is a solid hard plastic gear that is locked tightly to the lens and gives you a standard cine pitch (.08) gear for your follow focus. It also is nice to grab when running lightweight without a follow focus.
Most of these lenses have very limited or no forward travel when you are racking focus. The 21mm and 28mm have no travel. The 50mm has very limited forward travel. I’d recommend using the lenses with a mattebox that either clips/threads right onto the lens itself, or has a rubber donut or mount that can give a few millimeters in either direction. In my experience, the lenses that have some forward travel are not a concern with your average mattebox, so long as there is a little play in the mattebox. And of course it’s not a concern at all for clip-on matteboxes. If I just need ND filters and the occasional grad, something like the Formatt Hitech filter tray is a nice pairing.
Another thing to be aware of when building your camera, is the difference in length for the various lenses. You’ll want to make sure that there is enough rods in front to accomodate the longer lenses (and your mattebox, if you are using one), as well as make sure that your follow focus can be positioned to accomodate each lens. Something that I’ve found helpful with the short lenses like the 50mm and the 28mm, is a follow focus with a gear that can be placed on either side of the gearbox. If the base of your camera protrudes forward (like the C300), or your baseplate is forward of the lens mount, you might need to position the follow focus gear on the rear side of the gearbox, so that it can reach over that protrusion to the lens gear. One follow focus that I shot with recently was the Genus Bravo system, and it allows you to swap the gear to either side of the gearbox in seconds, and without tools. It’s a lovely low-profile follow focus option for lenses like these.
Declicking the aperture is highly recommended for cine purposes…being able to smoothly ramp up and down the scale is hugely useful when setting exposure. Also, the ability to set half stops and smaller increments simplifies things. On a stock Contax lens, you can carefully set the aperture between two stops to get a half-stop, but it’s not going to stay there if you bump it. For personal shoots, it’s an option. I wouldn’t recommend depending on that for a client shoot. One evening I was feeling adventurous, and opened up my 50mm to took out the ball-bearing to de-click it. This made the iris click-less, but the aperture was loose and had no friction at all. I wouldn’t recommend doing the de-click yourself, unless you know how to add the right kind of lens grease to provide that “stiction” feel. I had Duclos de-click my lenses, and love the feel of the iris now. It’s smooth, it has friction, and I have unlimited control over the exposure range now. Highly recommend you do the de-click.
With the stock Contax mount, you can use a simple adapter to get them onto your camera system. Cameras like the FS100, FS700, and NEX-5/7 have good options…there are a number of Contax-to-NEX mount adapters that mount to the Sony e-mount, and then you simply put the Contax lenses on that. Easy. For Canon DSLRs, the C300, or RED Canon mount, you can put adapter rings on the lenses, if you aren’t interested in modding them like I did for the Canon mount. The adapter rings that I’ve used mount onto the Contax mount, and then the lens (with attached adapter) can be used directly on a Canon mount camera. This is fine for small, low key shoots where you aren’t using a follow focus. But I’d strongly recommend against using them on a camera setup where you’ll be using a follow focus…there is a risk that when you torque the lens, it could pop off the clip, or rotate. This is an annoyance, and potentially risky for the lens. It’s not good for a professional application, in my opinion. So, after shooting with the stock lenses and adapters for a short while, I decided that I really wanted a permanent Canon mount on the lenses. Leitax offers a mount replacement, which I’m told can be installed by a careful user. I chose to have my Leitax mount swaps done by Duclos while they were also getting cine-modded. Now that they have a permanent Canon mount, they go directly onto any mechanical Canon mount, no fuss and no adapters.
As part of my cine-mod, I had common front elements put on my lenses. So they all now have a standard 80mm exterior (which goes directly into many matteboxes), and 77mm interior filter threads (which is a very common thread size). This makes it very easy to change lenses when shooting with a mattebox, and avoids using step rings. If you want to do a DIY version of this, you can buy the appropriate step rings for each lens and build them up to the size you want. There is also a company called Cordvision that makes common step ring kits for Contax lenses, these are relatively cheap and a good way to accomplish this if you aren’t interested in doing the Duclos Cine-mod. In any case, I would recommend a common front element, it greatly simplifies things when shooting in the field. Simple is better…it means that you don’t have to reconfigure your rig every time you change a lens.
Filter Thread Table
The size of the front element/filter threads of Contax lenses vary based on the lens. Here’s a list of filter thread sizes that fit these prime lenses. Some Contax lenses are not listed because I don’t have that info or I’m not certain of the filter spec:
18/4.0 – 67mm
21/2.8 – 82mm
25/2.8 – 55mm
28/2.0 – 55mm
28/2.8 – 55mm
35/1.4 – 67mm
35/2.8 – 55mm
45/2.8 – 55mm
50/1.4 – 55mm
50/1.7 – 55mm
85/1.4 – 67mm
85/2.8 – 55mm
100/2.0 – 67mm
100/2.8 – 67mm
135/2.8 – 55mm
135/2.0 – 72mm
180/2.8 – 72mm
300/4.0 – 82mm
Next up, in Part III of this review I’ll discuss the flare characteristics and image aesthetic of these lenses. Stay tuned.
There are a number of tools that I bring in my gear kit for almost every shoot. One of these is the Formatt Hitech Modular Holder. This is a screw-on filter tray for 4×4 filters, and I use it most often with Formatt’s lightweight resin filters.
This is a great combo for lightweight cameras that lack built-in Neutral Density filters…cameras like DSLRs and the Sony FS100 come to mind. It allows me to clip on a filter tray and resin ND that weigh just a few ounces. And with several stages in the tray, I can stack NDs, or add grad filters to hold a bright skyline. I like the resin filters, as they weigh less than glass filters, as well as being thinner and less fragile when dropped. In my opinion, Formatt offers the perfect filter solution for shooters on the go. Here’s a Gear in 60 Seconds video that shows the system…watch the video and check out pictures below.
A few notes that I didn’t cover in the short video above…
* I show it with a 77mm adapter; with the right ring it will work with any lens front thread from 49-100mm.
* The filter tray is available in an aluminum version (I’d probably still choose the plastic model…very sturdy).
* This tray can work with 4×4 glass filters as well as the lightweight resin variety I show it with.
* The tray can also accept 4×5.65 and 4×6 filters in their vertical orientation.
* Stage extensions can be added with longer screws from Formatt.
Below are a few pictures I’ve taken in the field of the system in use on various cameras. One of my favorite documentary shooting setups is this Formatt tray on the end of a Canon 24-105mm lens mounted on a DSLR. With an LCD loupe, you can easily run-n-gun both photos and short video clips, without the need for even a monopod…the loupe provides stability, and the IS lens soaks up any remaining small vibrations. You can see this setup in the middle image on the first row below. Another quick note…on the picture below of the C300, it’s being used with an ND grad for a sunset shot (the C300 has built-in NDs).
I have flown and traveled with it on every domestic and international work trip taken since then. I take it on local overnight trips. I use it to carry a small stills kit for photo assignment day trips. It’s been everywhere with me since last summer…I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve traveled with this bag. And I love it.
15″ Macbook Pro, power cable
(2) USB bus-powered hard drives
CF/SD card reader
Canon 5D Mark III
(4) Canon batteries, charger
Media wallet, (4) CF cards, (4) SD cards
Contax 21mm, 135mm lenses
Canon 50mm, 85mm, 24-105mm lenses
Rode Stereo VideoMic
Formatt Hi-Tech filter tray, (3) resin filters
Spare quick-release plate, spare screws
Misc audio cables
Chapstick, ibuprofen, eye drops
(2) LED Flashlights
(6) AA batteries
Pen, Sharpie, stylus
External iPhone battery
Tenba rain cover
The backpack is not overloaded, and fits fully and comfortably under the seat in front of me. This fact is critical…it means that it qualifies as a “personal item” and doesn’t count towards my carryon allowance. I have another carryon in the overhead compartment, containing a second camera package and accessories. This is how I flew internationally today, and was able to carry on two complete camera packages. Additionally, there are still a few inches of cubic space in the top compartment of the backpack, as well as a free side elastic pocket. I could easily carry an additional DSLR body or zoom lens.
Is this the perfect backpack? I can’t say if it’s perfect for you…but right now, it suits me. Have I mentioned that I love this thing?
The following article on the basics of how to begin color grading 12-bit RAW Blackmagic Cinema Camera footage with DaVinci Resolve, is a guest post contributed by Denver Riddle of Color Grading Central
We are living in extraordinary times! First came the surprise announcement in 2010 that DaVinci Resolve, a color grading system (once costing as much as my house) would be ported to the Mac operating system and reduced to a revolutionary sub $1K price point!
If that wasn’t enough, then came the shocking news at this year’s NAB that Blackmagic Design had entered the digital acquisition market, and would be producing the Blackmagic Digital Cinema Camera capable of capturing RAW 12-bit images with 13 stops of latitude!
With a camera capable of capturing RAW cinemaDNG files and a color grading system capable of processing and editing RAW cinemaDNG files, Blackmagic Design has created the ultimate pairing! This is also compounded by the fact that when you purchase the camera you get the full license of DaVinci Resolve and Ultrascope ALL under a $3,000 pricepoint!!! Revolutionary? Indeed!
Grading RAW cinemaDNG files
So let’s take a closer look at color grading RAW images from this camera with DaVinci Resolve. On Blackmagic’s new forum you can go and download five RAW cinemaDNG files from John Brawley’s latest project “Afterglow” with the BMC.
- Launch DaVinci Resolve
- In the Media page locate and import the cinemaDNG files into the Media Pool
- Then go to the Color Page
That’s it! We’re ready to begin grading RAW.
The beauty of RAW is the fact that we can access the native uncorrected data coming off the sensor. To access these RAW settings we’ll click the Camera RAW Editor button (looks like a camera) and from here we have a variety of options on how the data is decoded.
We can decode using the CinemaDNG Default, the Camera Metadata (how it looked when it was shot), by Project (global setting set in project settings) or by Clip.
When selecting “Clip” we can make changes (options greyed out it other modes) and interpret the RAW data in a variety of different ways. So let’s do that!
We can specify the White Balance using a variety of presets from daylight to tungsten or set it manually on custom.
We can specify the Color Space to work in and/or deliver to. If the project will be delivered to HD broadcast or web then we’ll pick Rec.709. If the project will be screened (projected) then we’ll choose P3 for the Digital Cinema Initiative.
And under Gamma we can pick the appropriate gamma curve, Rec709 for HD delivery, 2.6 for digital cinema projection, etc.
Over on the right we have the Clip Decoder Settings where we can make adjustments in Clip mode.
If custom has been selected under white balance we can precisely dial in the Color Temp in Kelvins.
For convenience and as a reference we can readily see the Project, Camera and Default settings in the columns on the right.
The Tint control allows us to fine tune the color temperature by giving us a green and magenta adjustment. Moving it to the left adjusts the color temperature towards green and moving it the right adjusts it towards magenta.
The Exposure control is the genesis to achieving 13 stops of latitude with this camera. Pulling down on the exposure can bring back detail that appears to be blown out or clipped in the highlights. Vice versa if we have an underexposed image we can rescue details in the shadows by pulling up on the exposure.
Once RAW editing is complete now it’s time to let imagination and creativity run wild now that we have film like image to work from.
In this example I’ve added contrast and a subtle a bleach bypass look. I’ve also used Power Windows to add focus to the face and eyes.
If you’d like to learn more about DaVinci and the Blackmagic Camera you can view my tutorials on my DaVinci Resolve tutorials page. Here is also a demo of the new DaVinci Resolve:
Happy RAW grading,
Color Grading Central
This is a guest post by Evan Luzi, a camera assistant and editor of The Black and Blue.
Filmmaking has always been an art uniquely tied to the technology that enables it.
This operates on several levels: innovations expand possibilities like sound or color, camera advancements make them more affordable and democratize the process, and — on the most basic level — without a camera, we cannot make films.
But lately I’ve felt this balance between art and technology is lopsided towards new gear.
Maybe it’s the massive influx of new cameras recently. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been spending too much time in the blogosphere echo chamber. Or maybe it’s just an evolution of filmmaking culture.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear there are some filmmakers who suffer from Spec Obsessive Disorder.
So, what is Spec Obsessive Disorder (SOD)?
It’s a term coined by David Pogue, a tech writer for the New York Times, who wrote a column about the nature of smartphone buyers to burden themselves by thinking too much about specs. And though he was referring to smartphones, his points stand pretty well within the context of digital cinema cameras:
I’ll keep reporting the most important specs in my reviews, because techies care about such things. But to me, the questions should not be, “How much memory is in this tablet? How many nits of brightness does that phone’s screen put out? What graphics processor is in that laptop? How much milliamp-hours does that phone’s battery pack?”
Instead, the questions should be, “How fast is it? How good does it look? Can you read it in sunlight? Does the battery last? How long does the battery last?”
And even those are secondary questions. The bigger ones are, “Is it a good value? Is the design excellent? Should you buy it?”
Imagine if the spec-obsessed adopted this line of questioning. Instead of “How much resolution does it have?” they would ask “Is it enough resolution?”
(A small, but notable alternative with a completely different answer.)
Diving further, as Pogue suggests, they might ask “Do I enjoy watching it? How does the image make me feel? Did it make me feel warm? Cold? Estranged? Fuzzy?”
Then they could apply those emotions to the context of their project.
Then weight the importance of those images to their project against the cost of the camera to obtain them.
For cinematographers and directors, skills that enable you to light, to compose, and to translate the ethos of a story into the visual medium of film are far more useful than the ability to dive into the minutae of sensor size. For producers, your ability to go beyond specs and learn more about the tone of the project, the budget of a project, and the practicality of a camera in the reality of a production is paramount.
Pro Lost’s Stu Maschwitz hit on this point precisely in a post about camera tests when he said, “Are camera tests useless? Not at all. I’m grateful that so many people want to do them. It frees me up to grab a camera that I think is going to be pretty much right for the job, and get busy.”
One of the worst symptoms of Spec Obsessive Disorder is always looking at small differences between cameras while ignoring the large differences. In the case of Stu, the small differences might be resolution, sensor size, and compression algorithms, but the most important difference — and the one he acted on — is what camera is available, right now?
Is there a perfect camera for a job? Sometimes, but rarely. It’s much more likely that several cameras will be more than great for your project.
And though specs will serve their purpose in helping you choose out of that lineup, it’s also important to remember filmmaking is still an art. When you ask “What’s the sensor size?” be sure to consider how that does or doesn’t matter to your film.
Because the number one sign of someone suffering from Spec Obsessive Disorder is they care only about the technology of a camera; thinking that somehow all that power will translate into artistic potency.
Spec Obsessive Disorder may not be fatal to you, but it certainly can be for your films.
Evan Luzi is a camera assistant and the editor of The Black and Blue, a site full of practical filmmaking tips for below-the-line crew. Evan recently asked Why Are We So Obsessed with Camera Specs? and found the best medicine for spec obsessive disorder is to become a fan of movies, not cameras. You can also follow Evan on Twitter (@evanluzi).
Last April at NAB, we got a look at the Induro Hi-Hat (technically called the Induro LFB100S DR), and I was really intrigued. It’s more like a tripod/hi-hat combo, and that looked really useful to me. A couple months ago, Induro sent me a unit to play with, and I’ve been using it heavily ever since. I absolutely love it. Here’s a short Gear in 60 Seconds video that will give you a good overview of the Induro Hi-hat system.
Because the Induro LFB100S is not just a high-hat, I am finding it very useful. It’s just low enough to get that on-the-ground level shot, but can extend up to almost baby-sticks level. It’s incredibly strong, rated to 220lb payload, and surprisingly light at just 4.6 lbs. It feels very well-built, and is modular…with a 100mm bowl and a 3/8″ flat-head adapter, you can use it with pretty much any tripod head you already own. Or if the shot is a lock-off, simply add a tiny plate and put the camera right onto the flat-mount. It travels with me often, because I can stuff it into a carryon. I’ve used it with DSLRs and RED cameras, for timelapse and live-action, you name it. If it’s not already clear to you by now, let me state it more clearly; I really like this thing.
The bowl is a standard size, intended for standard 100mm tripod heads. There is a leveling bubble on the tripod, and another bubble level on the half-ball flat-mount adapter that goes into the 100mm bowl. The flat-mount adapter has a standard 3/8″ screw for tripod heads. The legs of the Induro are lightweight aluminum, and the twist-lock for raising and lowering them is solid and quick. It will adjust in height from 3.9 inches off the deck to 11.4 inches high. Everything feels really nice, fit and finish is lovely. The feet of the Induro articulate to stay level on the ground as you raise and lower it. They are rubbery, and have holes for tie-downs or to simply screw it down to a platform if you needed a little more security on a driving shot, for instance.
The Induro Hi-hat retails at most photo/video stores for around $280 US. At that price, I think it’s an excellent value, and it’s a welcome addition to my toolkit.
I had the opportunity to work with DP Brian Weed during our Cine Gear 2012 coverage. Brian operated the FS100 that we shot all our interviews with, and he did a great job. Recently, Brian shared some excellent CP picture profiles for the Canon C300. He’s taken the stock Canon CINE, LOG, and EOS STD picture settings, and tweaked them to better retain color.
The result are image settings for the C300 that accomplish much of what the stock picture profiles do (very good things like low contrast and good highlight retention in the case of the CINE and LOG profiles), but with an improved color palette that requires less massaging in the color grading process. Brian has dubbed these TRUvid2, TRUcine, and TRUlog. He posted a couple examples in a gallery here, and he’s given us permission to host an archive of the three profiles in a zip archive here. If you wish to give them a try, here’s how you load them onto a C300:
* Download and extract the .CPF files.
* Copy to a SD card that has been freshly formatted in the C300. CPF files go into the C_PICT folder, which is under the master private folder. (You’ll see this directory structure after you format the SD card in the C300 and plug it into your computer…if you don’t see it, you can manually create the folder structure).
* Insert the SD card into the camera, and either use the CP’s directly from the SD card, or copy them onto your camera under the OTHERS menu.
I recently shot a spot with director Jesse Rosten on location in Mexico. It was a doco-style commercial shot on the C300, and after some testing we decided on using Brian’s TRUlog CP for everything. It worked great. I really like the look of it, and I’ll likely use that profile again in the future. After we wrapped the shoot, I took a few minutes to shoot some quick & dirty comparison frames with a color chart, so you can quickly see how the different settings affect the image on the C300. I’m embedding a short video clip of those frames below. Since this is hosted on Vimeo and has been compressed, please consider it only a rough comparison of how the colors differ for each setting. You can also download the original source files (531MB), if you wish to view them at original quality and push and pull on them a bit in your grading tool of choice.
These DSC Labs Chroma Du Monde 28 color chart frames were all shot on the same lens (a Contax 50/1.4) at the C300′s baseline 850 ISO setting and 180-degree shutter. The chart was lit with a daylight-balanced fluorescent soft light, the camera was set to the Daylight white balance preset, and the light level on the chart remained constant throughout the test. The stop on the lens varied from f/4 to a f/5.6-f/8 split, as each color profile significantly affects how the camera responds to light. I exposed “to the right” in all cases, pushing the highlights up to their max level, just below clipping on a 100% zebra. This is not necessarily the only way to test these profiles, but works reasonably well for my purposes assuming a somewhat uncontrolled shooting environment. For more reading, Adam Wilt has some standard gamma comparisons done a little differently here. I have also included quick-n-dirty snapshots of the C300′s waveform display for each chart frame, to show roughly where each CP sits on the scale. The original source files linked above are XF files straight off the C300 CF card. The Vimeo video was output by Compressor, and originated from ProRes 422 files created via FCP7 Log & Transfer of the original source files.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been building a set of lenses for my work as a DoP. For a number of reasons, I arrived on the classic Zeiss/Contax still lenses as my prime set of choice. I rent them out here (at quite a reasonable rate), and use them often for my film & video production work in Northwest Arkansas. A good example would be this piece for CIY, shot on the Sony FS100 with my Contax primes.
I want to spend a few minutes exploring why I chose these particular type of lenses, all the considerations that went into it. Obviously cost is a major factor in any gear decision, but performance certainly has to be a part of that discussion. This will be a short series of blog posts, and in this Part I article, I’ll talk about cost and feasability considerations, and will offer some tips on how to shop for a set of your own Zeiss Contax lenses, if you are so inclined. In my Part II article we’ll discuss resolution charts and my notes on how they perform at given apertures. I’ll also talk about the handling and aesthetic reasons why I chose to build my lens set around Contax. Part III will be a discussion on the look of the lens, the aesthetic it lends to the image, including practical examples of bokeh and flare characteristics at common apertures. So read on, and enjoy…
For the last few years, my client projects and budgets tend to call for DSLRs like the Canon 7D, the 5D Mark II (and now 5D Mark III), or small cameras like the FS100 (and now FS700). Sometimes it’s uncontrolled docu-style coverage requiring a zoom lens, but oftentimes these shoots are cine-style in the sense that things are produced and scripted, and we have crew and time to move carefully and with intent. And of course I’m always shooting talking heads and sit-down interview type footage to provide a narrative backbone for promos and such. For docu-style shoots, we generally work with Canon L-Series zoom lenses on the DSLRs, lenses like the f/2.8 16-35mm, the f/2.8 24-70mm, f/2.8 70-200mm IS, or the f/4 24-105 IS (a great walk-around lens). Budget and the need for portability generally determines if we get to use any cine zooms like the Angenieux DP Rouge series (which can be Canon-mounted, or used on the Sony e-mount with adapters). Rarely do we use PL-mount zooms on these small cameras, due to weight and rental cost. We’ve also rented Zeiss ZF2′s, and the Zeiss CP.2s for projects that required cine-housed primes at an affordable budget.
Somewhere along this evolution of my career as a cinematographer, I saw a real need to own a basic set of prime lenses that offered the following criteria:
Requirement #1. Relatively affordable with good optics.
Generally speaking, the projects that would use these lenses are tight budgets. The lenses would need to be affordable to own, so that I can rent them affordably (and therefore be able to pay them off in a reasonable time period). They needed to be at least on par with the performance of Canon still lenses, as that quality-level of optics was was acceptable for most of my projects.
Requirement #2. Common lens mount
I wanted to invest in a set of lenses that would be broadly useful across a wide range of camera systems. For larger cameras, PL mount would be that choice. In this smaller camera world of DSLRs and their large-sensor camcorder siblings, it’s been a bit wild and wooly for a few years. You’ve got Micro 4/3, Nikon, Canon, and Sony e-mount to name a few. I needed lenses in a mount that would be able to serve a variety of camera systems; it turns out that the Canon mount is a pretty good universal choice. You can use Canon-mount lenses directly on Canon DSLRs, RED Epic and Scarlet (with RED’s Canon mount), and the Canon C300. And with adapters you can use Canon-mount lenses on Sony e-mount and Micro 4/3 mount cameras. That’s a pretty broad range of camera systems, so I settled on Canon mount being a requirement for my lens set.
Requirement #3. Fully manual, solid metal construction.
Canon has some great low-cost primes with solid optics, but their construction and mechanics is simply not built for cinema use. You can put lens gears on them, you can add common fronts, etc, but in the end you’re always still dealing with a very short focus throw and (in many cases) a plastic lens body. It’s usable, but not ideal. In addition to good optics, I wanted a set of lenses with a long focus throw, and metal construction. Making matters worse, until recently, there were not many options for using Canon electronic lenses on the FS100 Sony e-mount. Now that Metabones is beginning to ship in quantity, we do have a viable option for that. I also was thinking forward, knowing that a set of fully-manual lenses offers less potential problems on set with a variety of camera systems. Manual Just Works. There is value in that, and particularly when you’re a DP like me who doesn’t know what camera he’ll be shooting on next week. These things change on a dime these days based on the project and current cameras, and if I was going to invest in glass, I wanted something that would not be unusable in a few years. Manual adapters can be found for almost every mount system, electronic adapters are more expensive and tend to be specialized for a given camera system. Manual was a must.
Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink:
So whither do I go from here? There are some great old Nikon lenses that have a decent focus throw, but they all focus backwards from standard cine focus rotation. That can be really confusing as an operator or for your AC, and particularly when you’re hopping between different types of lenses. For that reason alone, Nikon wasn’t a great choice for me. That means that I couldn’t go for the relatively affordable Zeiss ZF2 lenses, which are fully manual Nikon mount lenses with respected optics, a long focus throw, and solid metal construction. Canon has some nice old still lenses as well, with a decent amount of focus throw, and these focus the proper direction. So that was an option. A better option would be the Zeiss ZE lenses (which are the Canon-mount versions of the ZF series), they have a long focus throw, metal construction, and are relatively affordable. However, they are not fully manual…the aperture is controlled electronically, which is a major bummer. An even better option would be the Zeiss CP.2 lenses…with interchangeable mounts and a PL option, these are gorgeous lenses and the mount swap option makes them future-proof. They are also nearly $20,000 for a complete set. Leica R is another option…a line of classic stills lenses with highly-respected optics and performance. Leica’s aren’t always easy to find in good condition, however, and the good ones tend to be rather pricey. Another option? Contax C/Y.
Why Contax is the best-kept secret in affordable lenses:
I started researching Zeiss/Contax lenses a few years ago. These are older classic still lenses that Carl Zeiss built with T* (T-Star) anti-reflective coatings and a Contax mount. They are essentially earlier versions of the Zeiss ZF, ZE, and CP.2 lenses. That is not to say they are the same lens, but the optics share a lot of similarities. Zeiss/Contax are fully manual lenses, both iris and focus, and the focus pull is quite long for a still lens…around 180-degrees on some of the lenses. Best of all, the Contax mount is short enough that they can be adapted to just about every other camera mount. For instance, you can purchase a $30 adapter ring from Fotodiox that clicks onto the lens mount, and allows you to use it directly on a Canon mount. This is a usable solution, but it’s not 100% solid, and occasionally these cheap little adapter rings don’t mount properly. I also worried that this would affect the backfocus and sharpness of the lens as the adapters wear over time. But it is certainly a viable budget option. The best solution…a company called Leitax sells a replacement mount kit for Contax lenses, which allows you to adapt them directly to a permanent Canon mount. This was my answer.
Contax lens optics are well-respected, and there are a number of lenses in the Contax line that are virtually unmatched in terms of sharpness performance (21/2.8 is legendary, as is the 35/1.4, and the 100/2.0). Best of all, if you’re careful with your shopping, you can build a complete set of stock Zeiss Contax lenses for around $5,000. This was right at the price point that I could justify, and with that, I decided that Contax lenses were the right choice for me.
Where to buy:
Contax lenses are not made any more, so the used market is your only option. The first place I’d recommend looking is KEH. They sell used cameras and lenses, and they have an EXTENSIVE inventory. At any given time, you can find a pretty good selection of Contax lenses in the KEH catalog. The best part about KEH is that lenses are rated on condition…the rating scale is specific, accurate, and pricing is adjusted for the condition of the lenses. So if you’re ok with an optically good, but cosmetically beat up lenses, you can pick them up cheaper. KEH tends to carry the more common Contax lenses…the 28/2.8, 50/1.4, 85/1.4, and 135/2.8 are all pretty common. Occasionally you can also find the 25/2.8, and the 100/2.0 and 100/2.8 Makro. I purchased two of my lenses at KEH, the 28mm and the 85mm. I also picked up a Contax 2x Mutar extender at KEH.
Another good place to look for quality Contax lenses is the B&H Used Dept. They don’t carry a very big selection of Contax lenses, but if you watch the Contax used catalog for a few weeks, you can generally see them come through. B&H also has a solid rating system that lets you know what you’re getting. I purchased my 50/1.4 and my 135/2.8 from B&H at a very fair price.
The third place I’ve found Contax lenses was on eBay. Let me be clear, I think that eBay absolutely sucks these days, and their feedback and protection policies are skewed against sellers badly. However, if you are careful about who you purchase from, and use safe forms of payment, it’s still a viable option. I purchased two lenses from eBay, the amazingly sharp and quite rare 21/2.8, and the 100/2.8 Makro. The 21mm was the most expensive lens in the set, and it was somewhat difficult to find at a good price. I paid a little more than $2,100 for my 21mm, that was the best deal I could find after looking for weeks. I often see that lens going for upwards of $2600.
Please note that I am NOT talking about “Contax G” lenses. You don’t want those, you want “regular” Contax lenses. The lenses I’m talking about are black in color, not silver like the G-series.
I purchased my Contax lenses over the course of about six weeks, shopping the deals and doing my best to keep the cost down. I ended up with a set that consisted of the 21/2.8, 28/2.8, 50/1.4, 85/1.4, 100/2.8 macro, 135/2.8, and the 2x Mutar extender. I picked up Fotodiox Canon adapters for each of the lenses, and mounted on some WOC zip-tie lens gears. Boom, budget lens set complete. Total cost with el-cheapo Fotodiox Contax-to-Canon mount adapters, zip-tie lens gears, and a Pelican 1510 hard case was around $5,500. You could probably build a similar set slightly cheaper if you purchased cosmetically beat up lenses, or just happened to find better deals. And of course, if time is a more important consideration to you, I’m sure that shooters (like myself) are also willing to part with full Contax lens sets of lenses at a premium price point.
Duclos Cine-Mod and Leitax Canon Mounts:
If you’re so inclined, Duclos Lenses offers an affordable Cine-mod for Contax that de-clicks the iris, adds common 80mm fronts and caps, and mounts a seamless industry standard focus gear on the lens. The aperture is smooth and dampened, and the focus gear is a significant upgrade from DIY lens gears. For those (like myself) who are a little afraid to crack open their glass, Duclos can install those Leitax Canon mounts for you. They’ll also cine-mod the Leica R lenses I mentioned above, as well as ZF.2 lenses. I knew that I would want to cine-mod my Contax set. There are other shops that can do similar lens service, but in the end I chose Duclos based on recommendations from friends.
Leitax is a small company that makes obscure adapter mounts for a wide variety of lenses. One of those offered is Canon mounts for the Contax line of lenses. The product is a high-quality machined mount that completely replaces your stock Contax mount. The mount preserves proper lens backfocus and is a permanent, 100% solid way to make your Contax lenses work directly on Canon mounts.
With a little care, you can install them yourself. I chose to have them installed professionally by Duclos, at the same time that they were getting Cine-modded. Duclos doesn’t stock the Leitax mounts, because there are three different types of mount, to accomodate the differences in Contax lenses. You’ll need to read the Leitax instructions that identify the type of lenses you have, and then order the appropriate mount for each. They take about 10-12 days to ship overseas, so plan accordingly.
Another consideration is that not all Contax lenses can be modded with Leitax mounts. For instance, the 100mm f/2.8 Makro cannot take a Leitax mount. I learned this after the fact, and have since sold that lens. I believe the 100mm f/2.0 (non-macro) can be Leitaxed. I also believe that some variations of the 85mm and 50mm lenses are also not Leitax-compatible, but I know that my f/1.4 models are are fine. Again, you’ll want to consult the Leitax website for lens compatibility notes. One of the Leitax-compatible lenses that’s on my list to buy is the legendary 35mm f/1.4, it is incredibly sharp, and that’s a nice medium focal length I’d like to have in a fast lens. That one commonly goes for upwards of $2,000.
My Contax lens set is complete at this point. It consists of the 21mm f/2.8, 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4, and the 135mm f/2.8. Every lens has a permanent Canon mount, de-clicked aperture ring, cine lens gear, and common 80mm front (with a 77mm internal filter thread). They’ll go right onto any Canon-mount or EOS camera system, and the set includes a solid MTF Equipment Canon-to-Sony NEX adapter for use on the FS100/FS700. I’m very happy with the set, my only additions in the future may include the 35/1.5, the 60/Makro, and perhaps the 180/2.8 or the 300/4.0.
After using my Zeiss Contax lenses for quite a while on a wide variety of shoots, I’ve been really pleased with them. They are not perfect, but for the price point and features, they’re an amazing value in my opinion. They’re quite sharp, which I’ll show with resolution charts in Part II, and they appear to have a nice slightly lowered-contrast look to them that “feels” nice, arguably slightly more organic than the look of some modern Canon glass. This low-contrast look is enhanced beautifully when they flare from the sun or back-light, which I’ll show with some real-world examples in Part III of this series.
Contax C/Y and Leica R were two of the only lens options that met my personal criteria for a glass investment, and I’m delighted that I was able to build a fully cinemized set of Contax lenses for around $6800 total investment. I can use these lenses on a wide variety of camera systems, and most importantly, I can AFFORD to own them. If you’re looking for a set of lenses and have similar requirements, I encourage you to look into these two lens options. Perhaps they’ll be right for you as well. Happy shopping!
Update: Part II posted here.
- trey t on NAB 2013 – Schneider Full Frame Lenses
- Wilson Laidlaw on Zeiss Contax Lenses – Part II: Resolution and Physical Characteristics
- Wilson Laidlaw on Zeiss Contax Lenses – Part II: Resolution and Physical Characteristics
- alan on Zeiss Contax Lenses – Part II: Resolution and Physical Characteristics
- alan on Zeiss Contax Lenses – Part II: Resolution and Physical Characteristics