Camera Lenses Overview – By Nick Daw
This short article provides an overview of the lens choices for a large format camera such as the Red Epic Dragon, Sony F65 or Arri Alexa. It explains why the lens you use matters and takes look at the Cooke S4 Lenses.
RED cameras have three mount options PL (positive lock) Canon and Nikon.
The last two are mainly still photographic lenses that are used. They are used as a cheap way of putting reasonably good glass in front of a high-resolution camera, but they are far from perfect, the performance is way off a dedicated cine lens.
Why is this? Well, if you take a lens that was made to work on a still camera; with auto focus, electronic control of the iris, and the ability to zoom – you are asking it to do a quite different job to a cine lens whose job is to record 25 pictures a second and follow focus.
The big problem starts when you have a subject that moves towards the camera and you want to follow the subject to keep in focus. With a still camera lens you often find the lens breath (the focal length) changes as you focus. This is not a worry in a still picture but its not so good in a movie. Marking up focus is a also a problem with a stills lens as most are auto focus and have a slip ring for focus, again no good for a movie.
So the option is a cine lenses, there are a number about, Leica, Zeiss and Cooke to mention a few.
When I first used a RED ONE shooting 4K, the maximum resolution at that time, I was using a set of high speed Zeiss lenses. The picture was extremely high in contrast and it reminded me of video 20 years ago when detail correction was wound up to make the pictures look punchy. This wasn’t the look I was after. I was shooting in an Australian vineyard ¾ back lit, the sun was setting and there was dust in the air – this should have looked very beautiful, but instead it looked hard. To soften the image I had to put a net at the back of the lens and angled the camera so that I got an element of flare in the lens to reduce the contrast – but I had to really work hard to make an acceptable image.
Cooke Mini S4/i Lenses – Overview
I wasn’t convinced that these top end cinema lenses were that useful on a digital cinema camera because these lenses were designed to give film a leg up, which digital just doesn’t need. Back in England I tried many other lenses and after a lot of discussions with a good mate of mine, John de Borman BSC, (the Full Monty, an Education, Made in Dagenham) decided to give the Cooke lenses and their so called ‘Cooke look’ a go.
Cooke lenses do have a ‘look’, which isn’t just a result of the way that John lit or graded his films, but there is a certain feel to these pictures that was more along the line of what I wanted to achieve – they are beautiful pictures. I was also in luck, Cooke had just bought out a set of lenses that were much smaller and lighter, albeit one T-stop slower; but that didn’t matter because digital cameras are at least one stop faster than basic film stock. So I got a set.
With Cooke lenses, the images are beautiful- they are ultra sharp, but when you’re telling a story and want to put the hero of the shot into focus, the drop-off from sharp to out of focus with these lenses is spectacularly gentle. As Directors of Photography, we spend a lot of time lighting people and it is our job very often to try to make our subject look lovely, or to portray a very specific look for our subject. These lenses almost have an understanding with how people should look.
From my assistant’s point of view, she is always able to focus these lenses accurately. They don’t breathe, the focus markers are on both sides, as are the aperture marks, my lens set is in imperial measurements (useful because between the subject matter and the camera there are many more feet than meters, so it is easier to focus more accurately). The Cooke lenses are also very robust, built into precision aluminium mounts, and if you have to rent another lens (a faster or longer lens or multi-camera work), then Cooke lenses all match each other, which helps when grading and means you can at least know that your lenses all have the same influence over the picture.
I was going to write up a technical overview of the Cooke Lenses but fortunately I found this article: Cooke’s Panchro lenses. A cinematographic evaluation. It’s very good.
Here is a comparison with the Leica Summilux C that you will also find helpful.
For more information about the Hire of our Red Dragon 6K with Cooke Lenses call us on
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