Like an actor searching for promising scripts and roles to play, Cinematographer Eric Steelberg, ASC, looks for movie projects that motivate and inspire him to push creative boundaries. As a movie lover, he describes his camera as playing a role in the drama, either by getting actively involved in the storytelling and aggressively following the action or taking an unobtrusive, observational perspective.
His filmography illustrates how selective he is about his film projects, including: Juno (2007), 500 Days of Summer (2009), Up in the Air (2009), Young Adult (2011), and Labor Day (planned 2013 release). To capture the essence of any motion picture, Steelberg considers it vital to match the camera and lenses to the mood, style, look and feelings the film strives to convey. He also believes that today’s big screen digital cinema experience requires acquisition equipment that doesn’t compromise picture quality or shortchange the moviegoer.
“I try to start every new project with fresh eyes. I want to have a reason for choosing the cameras and lenses I’m using. A great deal of thought goes into the best way to photograph a movie,” said Steelberg, a Los Angeles-based director of photography for motion pictures and commercials. He conducts extensive tests to determine the combination of cameras and lenses that will produce the look that he and his director feel is best for a particular project.
While Steelberg regularly rents digital cinematography and 35mm film cameras and lenses, he recently purchased his own zoom lens: FUJINON’s Premier PL 4K+ 18-85mm, (model HK4.7x18), with a T2.0 and 4.7x zoom ratio.
Because the 18 to 85mm range covers the lion’s share of focal lengths he typically uses and demand for this new lens often outweighs the supply, he opted for ownership of this particular zoom. Now he intends to use the lens for all of his movie and commercial projects.
Once he took delivery of the new lens from Band Pro Film & Digital, based in Burbank, he put it to use on the upcoming feature Labor Day, which he shot with a RED EPIC digital camera. The film is currently in postproduction. Directed by Jason Reitman, this movie features performances by Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Tobey Maguire. Steelberg also collaborated with Reitman on Up in the Air, Juno, and Young Adult.
“Ever since I first used Fujinon’s 18-85mm, I’ve never gone back to any other zoom lens,” said Steelberg. “It’s the only zoom lens that gives you consistently superior optical quality from its widest setting to its longest setting, with no tradeoffs in between. It’s a very fast lens with unparalleled image quality.”
“I’ve tested this lens alongside prime lenses known to be the sharpest in the industry, and I’ve even interspersed imagery shot using this zoom and prime lenses. I found that this Premier zoom lens delivers a very sharp picture that was virtually indistinguishable from pictures captured using a high-quality prime, even at their widest settings. This is a level of quality I’ve never seen before in a zoom lens for digital cinematography and 35mm film,” Steelberg said.
This quality translates into numerous practical benefits during production. First, he can keep the camera rolling, and simply change to different focal lengths on the Premier PL mount zoom. This allows the director to try different things and repeat takes without interrupting the momentum of the performances. Steelberg has confidence that every focal length on the Premier PL Mount is as good as the next and that there are no weak or soft spots anywhere in the zoom-range.
Another practical advantage is that he no longer has to light to his weakest lens—which is typically his zoom lens—because this Premier PL 4K+ zoom can hold its own against best in class primes like Zeiss Ultra and Zeiss Master primes. “If you want to shoot a scene at a T2.0 light level, but your fastest zoom lens is a T2.8 or 3.1, you would have to light to that zoom lens, which in this case would be your slowest lens. Otherwise you would have to stop and relight your scene when changing over from a T2.0 prime to a slower T2.8 or 3.1 zoom lens,” Steelberg explained.
“Now with this 18-85, you’ve got a zoom lens that opens up to a bona fide T2.0, and suddenly having to light to your slowest lens might be your prime and not the zoom lens anymore. With this lens, you don’t have to make the kind of quality compromises that many zoom lenses force you to make,” Steelberg said. He added that instead of focusing on image quality at a particular focal length like primes do, zoom lenses often trade image quality for the convenience of having multiple focal lengths in a single lens.
“For a consistent look, the lenses you use have to match in terms of color and contrast. So if the zoom can’t keep up with the primes, it impacts everything,” Steelberg said. “You may need to spend more time lighting and relighting the scene or guarding against imagery that can’t hold up to scrutiny on the big screen.”
Depending on the location and the production schedule, lighting and relighting the set may be difficult or impractical. For example, Up in the Air required shooting in public places such as major airports and bustling office buildings where the production team had limited access to the location. For this reason, Steelberg couldn’t leave lighting rigs or fixtures in place around the clock. He had to set-up and strike the lighting every time there was an opportunity to shoot at the location.
Since the Premier PL Mount 18-85mm is a relatively new lens, it wasn’t available when Steelberg was shooting Up in the Air or other movies he worked on prior to 2012. If it had been, Steelberg is certain he would’ve used it often in place of changing between variable prime lenses. Today it’s always packed in his gear bag whether he’s shooting movies or the 25-30 commercials he shoots annually.
He’s used the Premier PL 4K+ 18-85mm zoom lens in all kinds of weather conditions, including the “cold of the mid-Western winter and the heat of the Los Angeles summer,” Steelberg said. “The operation always stays smooth and consistent, and the lens hasn’t needed any maintenance or repair since I got it a year ago.”
“The biggest impact that the Premier PL 18-85mm zoom lens has had on the industry is to raise the bar on optical excellence,” Steelberg said. “And in my cinematography, it’s given me a very versatile, capable tool to realize the director’s vision and the creative goals of the production.”