The “best” lens or lens system is really a matter of choice as it answers the question: what is the best tool to tell a particular story? A good conversation about lenses always begins with the topic of quality, and the products currently available have never been better. Manufacturers are spending a great deal in research and development to address the industry’s movement to digital. Companies like Angénieux, Canon, Fujinon, Cooke Optics, Panavision and Zeiss are all striving toward unparalleled quality.
“Take anyone of these lenses from any manufacturer, off any shelf in any rental house in the world, and I guarantee it will deliver an amazing image,” says Cinematographer Richard Crudo, ASC (“Justified”). “But, what does that tell us? Is it the right feel? Is it the right texture? Is it the right thing for what you are trying to do? And, that you only know when you have a script in hand and a director to talk about it with.” That chat with a director will also cover the subject of resolution. “We’re already at 4K resolution, which is more than the human eye can handle,” explains Crudo. “The only thing that really changes is apparent contrast at that point. [Manufacturers] should be worrying more and putting all their R&D into bit depth and color space [and] black level. That is where we really need to work, capturing highlights [and] the high-end of the spectrum.”
So is there a secret to finding the right lens for a particular project? Crudo says yes. “You’ve got to do test and you’ve got to follow it all the way through to the post process or whatever the final delivery is going to be,” he explains. “You’ve got to go all the way with it and get your workflow strengthened out.” This process involves testing different lenses from different manufacturers to get a feel for what each can do under the same conditions. “[It becomes] a matter of taste that the cinematographer and director can agree on, that will best tell their story,” Crudo notes. And Cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC is in agreement. For Franck Khalfoun’s horror film Amityville, Poster chose Canon Cinema EOS lenses and compact zooms, which were tested extensively on a short film about tap dancing. "I particularly like the compact zooms because we were moving very quickly, and we were in very small locations and they had a range,” says Poster. “[Canon has] wonderful glass, very matched all the way through. The glass has a beautiful personality.”
DP Jon Nelson shoots marketing and commercial projects on location with a Sony F55. As he moved into 4K, he chose the Fujinon Cabrio lenses that first hit the market in 2012, particularly the Fujinon PL 19–90 Cabrio/T2.9. Nelson chose the Cabrio for its small, portable and affordable cine lenses with a PL mount, which are great while on location with a minimal crew. He also likes the Cabrio’s focusing capabilities. “Doing critical focusing in 4K in low-light situations can be extremely frustrating with a zoom lens [and] a focus ring that doesn’t rotate much in the critical 8- to 15-foot range,” Nelson clarifies. “The Cabrio is an exception because the focus-ring rotation gives you ample ability to focus the lens for critical 4K focusing, and the barrel markings are extremely accurate. The features on this lens just make my life a lot easier.” Fujinon recently introduced a fourth lens to the Cabrio line.
While new lenses will always grab the attention of shooters, older glass may a better fit, depending on the project — and both Crudo and Poster have a long history of shooting with Panavision lenses. “I spent so many years shooting with the Primos from Panavision that you get to know them,” Poster enthuses. “They’re like old friends.” Some years ago, Crudo actually went through about 300 lenses to find 8 Panavision lenses that would work for him. “Up until 10 years ago I had a fantastic set of ultra-speed lenses from Panavision,” he says. “That was my set. It was about eight lenses and they were the best from the early ’70s.”
Panavision knows quality and lens personality, and has a long history of providing premium glass to the TV and movie industry. Now the company has reinvented itself by refurbishing and modernized glass for the digital technology that’s taking the industry by storm. Panavision developed the PVintage Prime series of lenses for 35mm digital and film cinematography, and Primo V lenses for digital only. With actual glass from the ’70s-era lenses, the idea was to preserve the look of Primos that consumers love and have it be compatible with the digital sensor, optimizing them for digital use.
Cinematographers and filmmakers currently in the process of determining esthetics for a project are finding that both new and refurbished lenses can deliver a wide variety of looks and textures, ranging from the surreal to stark realism. Recent advancements have created a host of choices for shooters to tell stories in more ways than ever before — and it all begins with the right lens.