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An Examination of: Sigma Cine Prime Lenses.

 

Photo Credit: Matthew Duclos

Welcome back to Tstops.

It’s been a long time since my last entry as its been a busy year shooting. This means one thing however. Something special has captured my attention. In 2016, I stopped by the Sigma booth at Photo Expo in New York. The usual plethora of still lenses behind glass on display. In a far corner at the end of the booth, were two cine cameras with something that looked a bit different attached. Two compact twin cine style zooms based on the now legendary Sigma 18-35 and 50-100 stills lenses. I could tell just by looking at them, this was something out of the ordinary. The housings were properly built, marked and even had some really unique features that some of the top end cine lenses lacked. For example, they had all kinds of technical data printed on the lens barrel itself, filter thread size, outside diameter, and the copies they had on display even had close focus information. I was intrigued. I introduced myself to Brian Linhoff, the gentleman standing by them proudly and hit him with a rapid fire barrage of questions relating to the optics and mechanics. Were they par-focal? What kind of focus mechanism was under the hood? Sensor coverage? Coatings? MTF? Before he answered anything he asked me who I was and what did I do? It seems for Sigmas first foray into cinema lenses, these were questions that they hadn’t heard from the photographers that stopped by the table, and being primarily a photo company, they had limited exposure with motion. I explained I was a cinematographer, and I was just curious how they came up with so many clever design elements. He said, it just made sense and I agreed. The 18-35 and 50-100 were both members of Sigmas top shelf “Art” series of lenses. The line at the time was made up of just a few lenses, the two zooms, and an 85mm F1.4 prime, which was shockingly beautiful and even out scored the bar raising Zeiss Otus 85mm according to DXO. My next question naturally was.. do you have PL primes? The answer was “soon”. How much is asked? “Affordable” was the answer. The full 7 lens set is priced at around $24,799 at reseller Duclos Lenses. Thats a decent chunk of cash. However, as I came to realize, this set is a steal.

Flash forward several months and I got a call from Sigma asking if I would have any interest in testing their newly developed full prime set. I mean, when you ask a lens addicted DP if he wants to test brand new lenses the answer is always YES! A few months later, the set arrived, and I was ready to give them a whirl. I received the 14mm T2.0, 20mm T1.5, 24mm T1.5, 35mm T1.3, 50mm T1.5, 85mm T1.5 and the 135mm T1.5.

 

I have been shooting a very wide range of projects, fashion, commercial, tabletop, stills and even shot a film of my own.

1st AC Glen Chin calibrating the wireless focus.

 

On the set of my fashion film “Skull”

 

Using the ultra wide 14mm in a studio situation.

 

Here’s what I think.

Build:

The prime set, is a fully rehoused version of the full ART series of primes. Now, this is not just a set of still lenses with gears glued on. The build quality is similar to the top offerings available today. The physical size, look and feel is similar to ARRI Ultra Primes. Dense, but compact. Where as Zeiss CP2/3 are airy, light and feel hollow (not in a negative way), and the Cooke S4 and MiniS4’s are dense and feel like there is no air space inside, I’d say the Sigmas Cines fall somewhere in the middle, closer to the S4’s. They feel confidently built. Focus mechanism and Iris move like silk. The Focus scales are longer than the still versions, but still not quite the 300 degree rotation you would find on a S4 or the UltraPrime. Given the price I can understand there had to be some compromises. It uses what was described to me as a hybrid of cam & rail and helicoil focus mechanism. I’m not sure what that means exactly, as it seems to be a bit of a secret within Sigma. The result is a fantastic, smooth and jitter free focus pull. Low resistance, but just enough dampening to make hand turned focus pulls have smooth starts and stops. The bodies are all aluminum, with steel mounts. As of now, the lenses are available in an electronic EF mount and dumb PL mount. No iData protocol is on the PL versions. The EF version, however transmits focus and t-Stop information to the camera. They are fully manual, so no autofocus functionality. The EF version (I also tested the EF version) benefit greatly from a locking mechanism EF mount. The native Canon mount on a Canon DSLR, Arri, RED and Metabones EF adapters have zero play. Cheaper EF adapters, did have some play (commlite adapter on A7R2).

85mm on a Red EpicW. The lenses are quite compact given the speed and build quality.

The markings are good, and reasonably spaced even on the longer lenses. Still rehoused lenses often suffer from having a majority of its focus range compressed into a 1/8th of a turn. While not as well spaced as the Angeniuex 24-290, the longer  Sigmas at least give you a 150′ mark. Many budget lenses mark somewhere around 90′ then you basically have to guess till you hit infinity. All of the Sigmas rotate well beyond infinity to make up for any mis calibrated mounts. I do wish they had a hard stop at infinity, but that means that every camera you ever put them on has to be 110% perfectly back focused. (this should be the case at all times!) The real world often has other plans. Rented cameras, lens adapters, and lower cost cameras often are not back focused perfectly. This buffer gives you a shot in hell of hitting infinity focus even on a very mis-calibrated mount. So, while some ACs  find it somewhat annoying to have 3/4″ of travel past infinity, if  production rented a camera that was very far off, the 1st AC would not be screwed. Not being screwed is far better than being slightly annoyed.

All in all, beautifully built, and made to last a long long time.

Optics:

This is the part where I was floored. I knew the Art series was great. I had tried out the 85mm ART stills lens on an A7R2 and was blown away by the look. Absolutely razor sharp at all stops. No compromise on sharpness wide open. The bokeh on the 85 was truly something special. Smooth, with perfect flat specular discs, but not quite gaussian, that is to say it doesn’t look like perfect airbrush blurry. It has texture and form. Bokeh quality is obviously subjective in its beauty. I find it gorgeous. Bokeh is a function of lens design. To achieve certain optical goals, it affects different parts of the image. Sharpness, flare, chromatic aberration, distortion etc. When you eliminate one, another usually suffers, so lots of meticulous design planning goes into building a lens to get good overall performance. In the case of the 85mm Art it’s nearly a perfect lens. Now, an 85mm is actually one of the simpler optical designs, and making all the corrections to achieve a perfect image is within the realm of possibility. The Rokinon 85mm for example is definitely the jewel of the set, and only $300. Sharp, low CA, low distortion etc.. The trouble is matching the rest of the set to that standard. The Rokinons (and Xeen) show how hard that is when given a low price point.

Still photo. 24mm T1.5

 

Still from a commercial. 85mm T1.5

 

Still from a commercial project. 50mm T2.0

The crazy part of the Sigma Art, and by extension the Sigma Cine set is that they just don’t break. The optical perfection of the 85 carries all the way through the entire set. In fact, the 14mm T2.0, is one of the fastest ultra wide lenses available. The Cooke 14mm S4 T2, Master prime 14mm T1.3 and Ultra Prime 14mm T1.9 and Leica Summilux C 16mm are all fast wides.. and they all cost as much as a car. However, the Sigma set has another ace up the sleeve. Not only are they fast and optically incredible, they ALL cover full frame. None of the aforementioned high end cine primes can touch a full frame. Forget Vista Vision which is even bigger. The 14mm Sigma at an incredible T2.0 (F1.8) covers the RED Monstro vistavision sensor. Even wide open, the 14mm is TACK sharp in the corners.  It’s a nature and astro cinematographer’s dream lens.  Every lens in the set is a dream lens.

The 14mm @ T2.0. Notice how sharp the corners are. Shot on A7R2 FullFrame

 

14mm Full frame on A7R2. The combination of A7R2 image stabilisation and the fast apeture let me shoot this handheld at 1/5th of a second exposure time. A tea candle in a paper baloon and cell phone screen are what is lighting this scene.

Just to be fair, the weakest lens in the set is the 20mm. Now by weak, I mean it is maybe 5% less sharp wide open than every other lens in the set @T1.5.  By T2.0, you would never know it had a flaw. I am gushing over these lenses because they deserve it. On a S35 frame, I think these lenses would hold their own against Master primes, Summilux C’s and Cooke 5i’s. (I will shoot a blind test soon to see if my impressions hold water). That is what they feel like on the monitor, tippy top shelf glass. Now, mechanically the shorter scale of focus and I’m sure some build quality differences will be apparent, but when you take into consideration the average price of a sigma is about $3499 per lens, vs $25,000 per lens for the Arri/Leica/Cooke, I think the value is clear.

50mm Sigma Cine Still. T1.5

 

100% Crop. The resolution is a great match for the A7R2 and 4K – 8K cameras.

But let me not get ahead of myself.  Just take a look.  Here are a few moving examples.  I made these clips to put the Sigmas through their paces in real world scenarios.  A mix of natural light, available light, “No light”,  lit interior/exterior and tightly lit tabletop.

This first video is a fashion film. It’s intended finish is monochrome. I included a second color version for those of you who want to see it all in color. The third video is an assortment of shots from different cameras and very different circumstances. Tabletop, timelapse and documentary. Pay close attention to the small things. Notice how despite the incredible resolution, it has a gentle focus roll off. It looks to me like a hybrid of: the sharpness of a master prime, the focus roll off of a cooke, the subtle color tone of a Leica and its very own flavor of bokeh. Lenses this clean usually are boring to look at. With these lenses, the cleanliness is not sterile. It is the source of its look.

 

The look they give is sophisticated but still has some character. With the exception of the two widest lenses, the set has almost no distortion, and none of them have significant chromatic aberration. Even wide open. The 14mm does however have a very strange distortion when you get to close focus. It’s almost like a donut shaped area that distorts differently. When on S35 frame its less pronounced. This only happens when focusing under 18″. When the focus throw is further out, its nearly perfect, lines are dead straight and you get no curvature of horizontal lines as you tilt the camera. I think the internal elements just get too close (or far from) the big glass ball that makes up the front element. The 20mm has a tiny tiny bit of  barrel distortion, but nothing jarring to the eye. It would only show up if you were shooting a grid, and you were close to it physically. At distance the distortion cleans up to the eye.

Using the Sigmas for high speed motion control.

 

The small size and light weigh of the Phantom VEO/Sigma means the arm can move faster, without sacrificing any image quality.

 

The Negatives:

So maybe they aren’t 100% perfect but I only found a few issues.

One: The primes do exhibit some slight breathing. It only becomes apparent when you near the close focus end of the lenses. It’s subdued but more noticeable on the wider end. That said, even the worst offender still breathes a lot less than most of the S4’s. If you have shot on S4’s recently, you will know that while present, their breathing is totally acceptable and hasn’t stopped them from becoming the most popular set of lenses of the last 25 years.  I think the Sigmas are absolutely acceptable. Would it be better to have none? Of course. Will it kill a shot? No. Remember the price tag. It seems this is where the compromise happened.

Two: The close focus on some of the lenses is not the best, specifically the 85mm. The CF on the wider end is excellent, and although the 135mm is 35″ close focus, it’s so tight that it feels almost like a macro.

14mm: 11″ CF

20mm: 11″ CF

24mm: 10″ CF

35mm: 12″ CF

50mm: 16″ CF

85mm: 34″ CF

135mm:  35″ CF

The 85mm, kinda is the odd man out. As its adapted from a still lens, I suppose this is another compromise. Jumping from 16″ CF of the 50mm to 2’10” of the 85mm is a pretty big jump. The 85 is not tight enough a focal length to get really close to an object at that distance. You can fill the screen with a face, but you may not get an eye to fill the frame. If your set is the 5 lens set, you may have to go through some hoops to get a ECU, diopters etc.. I found the 135mm very useful for table top and product. With some post cropping, we got some very close up shots. You saw the water droplets hitting the ice in the examples above. The resolution allowed us to crop in a bit without the shot standing out in a bad way.

Three: The lenses vary in overall length. Not huge amounts, but going from 20mm to 135mm means you are going to have to move the matte box around a little when swapping lenses. The gear positions however are static. Follow focus and Iris motor doesn’t move the whole day regardless of lens. ACs find it mildly annoying.

One other little thing. Over the time I have spent with the Sigmas, the pelican case they came in only held 5 lenses, so the 14mm and 135mm had to travel in another case which is slightly inconvenient. This is not the lenses fault, but it did make me question whether to carry the 14 and 135 around on every shoot. If you do go for the whole set, it is probably a good idea to have a custom case built to hold them all. I believe Duclos Lenses is working on a special case that holds all 7.

 

In Conclusion:

Despite a few small drawbacks, I think this set is the best deal in professional level lenses money can buy. They are fast, amazingly sharp,  great new look, has beautiful bokeh and the kind of build quality that will last you decades with proper maintenance. Not to mention being rather affordable considering the level of lenses it seems to be competing with in terms of performance.

 

Thank you for reading. Till the next examination!

-Timur

 

Follow me on Instagram @Timurcivan for more of my work and life on set.

 

 

An A7R2 Love story… How the A7R2 can be Surprisingly Affordable and an Slog2 Workflow for Stills

Welcome back!

Last fall, my trusty Canon 5D mkI ( yes the Mk 1) finally called it quits after a decade of use.   I was on a job in the salt flats of Bonneville, Utah shooting a land speed record for the Triumph Race team.   I figured I’d get some beautiful photos while I was out there.  Sadly, the 5D sputtered, locked up, and I got every error message the camera could come up with.  I loved this camera.  It had a certain “Mojo” that is difficult to replicate:

 

What to do?  I had a couple Canon lenses, so naturally I was excited for the MKIV, and the 5DSr.  As a perpetual user of RED, Alexa and Phantom, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a SLR/mirrorless camera had video as a main attraction.   I decided to go after pure still photo power.   After testing both Canon cameras I felt the technology of the MKIV was impressive, but sitting at 31MP it didn’t seem to be catching up with the D810’s 43MP.   I loved the resolution of the 5DSr, albeit its performance in image quality didint seem like a quantum leap forward.  Having only in my eyes, acceptable dynamic range, moderate noise performance, I felt a bit perplexed.  I wanted the technologically advanced 5DmkIV, to have the resolution of the 5DSr.

My friend mentioned to me, “Have you considered the A99II?”.  I scoffed at first.  I wanted a tried and true optical finder, and at the time I was convinced that the only functional autofocus system that’s useable came from a true optical mirror setup with phase detection.  However a challenge had been posed, and I looked into it.  After all, we all have to do our due diligence.  The A99ii started looking more and more interesting, 399 AF points with a trans mirror… Hey this thing may actually be able to do it!   But then the realization that none of my canon lenses would work on the system, so it basically put the system out of the running.   After all it would mean reinvesting in top end Sony G glass as well as a new $3400 body.  However my interest was piqued by Sony.  What else did they have?  I checked DXO to see what cameras were at or near the top of their sensor score list, and there it was. The A7R2 with a 98 overall score, 13.9 stops of D/R, and an E mount that let me at least temporarily continue to use my canon glass.  Hmmm…  I shoot mainly portraits and landscapes so even with a Metabones adapter, I would have the ability to get useable AF for a still subject, keep my lenses, get 42+ Megapixels, 13.9 stops of D/R, no OLPF, and use the uncompressed RAW.    The perks on top of that were that it shot 4K video, maintained the D/R with SLog2 and because of the E-Mount, I could put any lens on earth on this camera.   As you all know I LOVE vintage lenses.

Upon looking into the system further, I was still bugged by the lack of an optical finder.  That is till I realized other than the 5DmkI, I haven’t looked through an optical finder since I shot with an Alexa Studio four years ago, then an ARRICAM LT 8 years ago.   I was hanging onto something that honestly wasn’t really an issue anymore.

Ok, so it seemed I was leaning a bit towards an A7R2…   But what else does the Emount do?  After many late nights reading up on the E-mount system, I learned that Sony makes an A-mount to E-mount adapter, The LA-EA4.  What is special about this? Well, Sony bought Minolta some years ago, and took their lens technology with them.  Minolta, though not hugely popular back in the day, had one of the earliest autofocus systems available. I’m talking nearly 35 years old, however, they all still worked on the A mount.  Especially with the LA-EA4 adapter as it has the screw drive mechanism to activate the older autofocus system built in!  This let me put a whole catalog of vintage Minolta Maxxum ( their equivalent of “L series”), Vivitar Series 1 and Tokina lenses on a modern camera with native autofocus functionality.  I searched online, and new old stock Maxxum lenses are often less than $100.  Some as low as $50.   So I picked up a used A7R2, a used LAEa4 adapter, and a Vivtar 19-35 F3.5, Tokina 28-70 F2.8, Minolta Maxxum 50mm F1.4, Tokina 90mm F2.5 Macro ( that is similar to my Vivitar Series 1 90mm; but with autofocus!) and a Minolta Maxxum 70-210 F4 “Beercan” all in immaculate shape.  Total cost? $2997.  That’s the A7R2 Body, LA-EA4 Adapter, and ALL of the lenses for $200 less than the cost of a New A7R2 body.   The lenses are for the most part great and have vintage feel with nearly modern AF performance.  The only hitch, though interesting, ( is it even a bad thing?) is the La-EA4 adapter has its own built in trans-mirror 9 point diamond pattern phase detection AF system. It bypasses the 399 AF points in the R2.   This did not bother me as I only use the center point anyhow.  Think about that for a minute.  For the photographer stepping up from an entry level camera, for less than the price of a flagship body you get everything.  I’d dare to say that it almost makes the A7R2 an entry level camera, with incredible room to grow over time.  Imagine being fully outfitted optically from 19mm to 210mm,  good AF, with the elusive vintage lens look, for less than $3000, taxed and shipped.  Oh and another thing…  The LA-EA4 and lenses will work on ANY E-Mount camera.  A5000, A7, A6500 etc. Really makes stepping up easier no?

To round out the system I got a Tilta Cage, Metabones PL adapter, and figured out a trade of some old gear for a Odyysey 7Q+ to record 4K.   I mean when the 4K looks so good why not use it right? ( I will go over the video capabilities in another post)

Now, back to the photos. I went wild shooting and enjoyed every last second.  These are from a few things, My wife riding a horse, some astro work and some shooting from a helicopter on Election night.

 

I was having a ball.   I found however that there was one small issue with the Sony system.   It is what has plagued every sony camera since the Vx1000 DV camera.  Skin color.   At least in camera skin tone rendition.   There is just something about the way the Sony cameras render skintone. It isn’t “Wrong”… It’s actually too accurate.   Cameras like the Canons (video and photo) seem to enhance the skin tone ranges, Nikons, The ARRI Alexa DEFINITELY enhances the skin tones, and the RED system has made vast improvements in this department.   Sony looks like it uses the same color science since 1994 … Ok maybe thats a bit harsh, but you get the idea.   The color quality is recoverable in post, but it requires work to dial it in.

Stock A7R2 in camera skin tones: See how the skin just kind of seems like a flat wash of color? I liken it to taking a tack sharp black and white photo, then colorizing it.

I discovered something curious in stills mode however, the Picture Profiles, the camera’s gamma and Color matrix settings, included Slog2.  This is primarily intended for when you shoot video, you can preserve all the dynamic range of the camera.   However, you can take stills with Slog2 Gamma engaged.   Hmmmm…  I was curious.  Slog2 is Slog2. It’s a reliable standard.   I bet, the LUTS we use for films that are Slog2 based luts would grade the stills.  I looked on line for some Slog2 luts that had promise, but many were over powering and just made the image look unnatural.  I then found a company called Omeneo Primer, they had the kind of stuff I was looking for.  I bought their pack called Omeneo Primer for A7R2.   Their LUT pack is specifically designed to “deSony” the image in terms of color quality.   It adds some contrast to the LOG image to make it look nicer, but it renders the image with a much softer toe and shoulder, preserving detail.  They state on their website that the primers are intended to give you a good starting place from which to grade further.   I found it really just brings the Slog2 Image to life in an amazing way.

I just did a very simple test, I shot in XtraFine Jpeg mode to preserve as much information as possible.  Slog2 Gamma won’t apply to RAW images.  You have to shoot Jpeg in some fashion.

I took my wife and her friend outside, shot the frame according to normal exposure according to the internal light meter with “still” gamma and “still” color matrix.    Really, the other matrices are essentially the same color feel, with either a lot of saturation, or not so much. None of them seem to exude warmth or a particular style. 709Matrix is far too saturated, and what it does wind up saturating just doesn’t look great.  The “Still” color matrix is saturated, but not absurd.

The two photos were shot, within a couple seconds of each other.  One in stock “still” gamma at normal exposure according to the meter, and the second shot is just switched to SLOG2, same exact exposure, ISO, shutter speed everything.  Then, the third image is the Slog2 gamma shot with the Omeneo LUT applied in photoshop.  No other adjustments other than applying the LUT.

1: Still Gamma:

2: SLog2 / S-Gamut Color

3: SLog2 S-Gamut color : Omeneo LUT.  Notice the skin. IT just has a rosy, warm feel, without warming the whole image. In fact the whole image globally has more vibrant, realistic color.  They mapped the sony sensors specifically to draw out the colors in a more pleasing way.

 

 

Another Example, My mom on mother’s day last week:

Slog2 / S-Gamut:

SLog2 / S-Gamut: With Omeneo LUT: No other adjustments.

 

You can see, the difference in skin tone rendering in the first example.  It’s far richer, overall has warmth, depth and just enough saturation to look pleasing, but not unnatural.   The steely grey undertone of Sony images are pretty much eliminated.  Colors that under normal circumstances you would never see suddenly come to life.   However, that’s not all…

 

I posted my findings online, and started a thread about the technique.  In a discussion I had with Geoffrey C Bassett: I brought up this technique and he wanted to try it out.   He noticed something quite remarkable.  It seems that when the camera is in SLOG2 mode, some interesting image processing happens.  It seems that shooting stills in SLog2 seems to eliminate a majority of chromatic aberration.   Under the same test images, he also noted that SLog2 images were a bit grainier.   What I think happens, is that the camera does zero processing in noise reduction, and doubles up Chromatic Aberration Compensation, or just does an extremely good debayer.   Whatever the case is, I would gladly take a slightly grainer image in exchange for beautiful color and less C/A.

Geoff C Basset’s Test: ( feel free to click his name to check out his work)

Standard Jpeg:

RAW Processed in Capture one:

SLOG:

SLOG – OMENEO LUT:

 

 

100% crops:

1:  The out of Camera “Still Gamma” Jpeg: Notice the high light handling, the purple fringing on the silver gears and the bolts in the pedal gear.

 

2: RAW Processed with Capture one:  Notice although the highlights are better handled, but the purple fringing is still there!

 

SLOG2: unprocessed

 

3: SLOG2 – OMENEO LUT: Look how clean the edges of the white highlights are on the spokes.   The image seems sharper because somehow the ghosting that comes from the purple fringing is removed.  I think perhaps the debayer algorithm in SLOG2 mode is better.  It seems to process the image for more accuracy, albeit a bit noisier.  Also the highlight handling as a result is far better then even his RAW example.  I’m not too worried about the grain however.  This is a 100% crop from a 8K image.  That noise gets eliminated when scaled down, or even when it’s printed.  Obviously, some noise reduction would also solve it, if you don’t like any noise in your image. Personally I like the grain.

 

TEST 2: Direct sunlight.

1 Standard Jpeg: Notice how the chipped paint section on the boat looks almost purple from all the C/A.  Also the paint on the boat reads white, and the water reads nearly grey.

SLOG:

SLOG – OMENEO LUT: Here the boat looks blue, and the water takes on the sky’s reflection that was just not there in the JPEG version.

100% Crops:

JPEG standard – The Chromatic aberration is clearly visible on the hull of the boat and edges of the deck chair.  Also note the White tag on the orange life vest.

 

SLOG2 – OMENEO LUT :  For the most part, the color of the boat without all the purple fringing can actually show through, from a combination of a better utilization of Dynamic range in the highlights, and a lack of C/A.  In the Jpeg image the boat appears white.  In the Slog2 with LUT version, the boat reads as a light blue.  Also notice the lack of blotchiness  in the orange life vest.  The color subtleties are FAR better.

SLOG2 – Ungraded

 

While this doesn’t replace a RAW workflow, it’s a great alternative.  I think a properly exposed image using this method that benefits you with all the clarity of color, for me, is now my prefered way of taking pictures.  Alternatively, you can start using the A7R2 camera as a director’s viewfinder on set, it can be set to S35 mode, and you will get the field of view that closely matches nearly all cinema cameras, even the RED (at 5K ANSI s35 frame size).  Then after shooting a Jpeg in SLOG2, you can apply the LUT you want to use for the project directly to the Jpeg and get a sense of how things may look.  I think the trick is to expose perfectly, treat it like any LOG cinema camera.  Often LUTs come in different varieties based on different sensors, so they should track pretty well between the A7R2 and whatever you happen to be using.

I would likely shoot Jpeg + RAW to use this technique, but have the RAW as a backup incase it needs major adjustments. I would really like to figure out a way of making photoshop or lightroom export an Slog2 + S-gamut TIFF from the RAW files, so you can make the exposure adjustments necessary then use the luts to bring out the colors hiding in there, but from an uncompressed, 12bit space.  I think if you are careful, you can get away with shooting SLOG2 to Xfine Jpeg, and forgo RAW altogether so long as you expose properly.  You can adjust exposure a bit in photoshop before you apply the lut for small correction. It still looks pretty good up to a stop of push or pull.

I think this is a cool way of working, I hope you find it useful.

Thanks for reading!

-Timur

You can follow my Instagram or Twitter for more photos and life on set.

 

Cinematographer tools: Building a Director’s Finder.

Welcome back to Tstops.

A few weeks ago, half way through Nigel Stanford’s Follow up to the Cymatics Music video, I had a problem.   The shoot involved nearly continuous motion control setups on a Gazelle MoCo rig.   We were shooting nearly blind because of it.  Let me give a bit more background on the problem.  The Gazelle, pictured below, is a large motor controlled robotic dolly with a motor boom arm and three axis motor head attached.   It is capable of amazing things, but framing a shot is not the easiest thing in the world.  The Gazelle is tethered to an archaic floppy disk driven PC running DOS, and it’s position and movements are essentially a series of  coordinates fed into the machine.  Our Operator, as patient as a saint, would have to manually move the camera attached to the Gazelle around with what looks like an industrial control remote.  Think, WWII radio phone with several buttons and a thick cable tethering to the Gazelle.  In order to find a frame we had to painstakingly move the dolly, then the boom, then the head, decide on the lens, then find the exact frame.  It was slow, agonizing and considering our tight schedule, meant precious time was being wasted.

IMAG2016
The Gazelle being moved into position.
IMAG2020
The Rigged Phantom 4K Flex.


We needed to find the frame faster.  The best solution is the director’s finder.   I can quickly take a lens, throw it on, and frame up the shot exactly where I want it.  The best part is that you can do it with the lens in question; then see the DOF, geometry and necessary camera height immediately.   All without moving a camera or distracting the operator and AC’s from prepping the rig for the next shot.  Often times a director’s finder are rare on set, especally with the shrinking budgets these days, it’s a tough fight to get one for a week, if the rental house even carries one at all… When it does, it’s often huge, heavy and PL only.  Often film equipment is built to survive a war, and it shows when you see how immensely they are built.   To complicate the matter further, not every shoot is on PL lenses these days.  ( This one was, but just for arguments sake)  HV2-Dir-Finder_1DenzViseurdeChamps02-H021-PLV1
It is a piece of kit that I deem mandatory from now on.  They save incredible amounts of time, energy and in turn, save money for the production and helps keep intact the backs of your crew.  I looked into purchasing one, but not shockingly the prices of even used PL finders are astronomical, anywhere between $3,000 and $7,000 dollars.   There had to be some solution that had all the abilities of bigger finder without the size or costs involved.   So… I set out to build my own.  With the plethora of S35 (APSC) cameras out there these days a solution had to be at hand.  I priortized affordability because lets face it, no one will rent a home made viewfinder no matter how necessary, or liked it is when it actually on set.   So it needs to be as good as possible, but also as affordable as possible.   It had to be flexible in what lenses were useable.  Meaning interchangeable mounts.  This eliminated Canon DSLRs immediately, no PL ability.    I really wanted a tiny tiny device.   Something I would actually carry to work with me.    I did a bit of research and this is what I came up with.

IMAG2022
My Directors Finder with an ARRI Ultra Prime attached. Small, Check. Light, Check. Flexible, Check. Cheap(ish), Check.

Homemade, but damn good.  There is a surprising benefit to using an all digital director’s finder, I can set the shutter speed and ISO to match my main camera so not only can I see the shot, but I can get a rough idea on how the light will look, plus snapping stills or a quick video clip means I can reference the shot later when fine tuning the position of the A camera.   I will list the parts below if you should choose to make one yourself.  Its a Sony a5000 Emount advanced point and shoot photo camera, a PL to Emount adapter by Metabones and a simple pistol grip.  I also got a smart EF to Emount adapter should I need to go with Rokinons, Canon CNE’s or Zeiss CP2 lenses in EF mount.   The a5000 was the best choice for me, as I was able to find a good condition used one on Ebay.

The parts:

The Camera: Sony a5000 (I got a used one ~$160)

I went with the older model, as they are easier to find used on Ebay, there is a newer A6000 available.  This camera is APS-C sensor, and damn close to S35 frame size.  It matches most high end and middle level Cine cameras with relative accuracy.  It offers 16:9 frame and is manually controllable for Iris, ISO and shutter speed.  It also has an articulating screen so you can frame low to the ground, and tilt the screen up flat.   I recommend a few spare batteries.  In live view, it goes through them relatively quickly.  Two batteries last about a day of framing between takes.  The camera also takes SD cards of which I had 20 lying around. I’m sure you do too.

The mounts:

PL: Metabones PL to E Mount  ~$370 – Since there would be potentially $30,000 lenses hanging of this thing, I wanted to opt for the best PL adapter I could get. No use if the lens falls off…..

EF: Commlite Autofocus/IS EF to E mount Smart Adapter ~$79.00 – While the Commlite is not a mainstream brand the quality is quite good, it locks in tight and has fully functional, IS, AF and Iris all work perfectly with EF lenses.

The pistol Grip:  Barska ACCU-Grip, ~$15.00 – Surprisingly inexpensive, but not too bad.   That said, i’d always two hand the system when a costly lens is mounted.  Very light.  That said, I just found this: $15 also, but made of aluminum Opteka Aluminum Hand grip

All in, it ran about $700 with shipping/Tax.  Not exactly cheap, but it does have a few perks to help justify it.  I now own a PL to Emount adapter ( helllllllo A7s!!!!!), I now own a good EF to Emount adapter ( helllllo A7RII!!!!) and I also now have a small, feather light point and shoot sized camera that can take great glass, and has nearly DSLR quality.  I took the following photo with it at a family function couple weeks ago… its image quality is rather stunning for such a small camera.

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Kodachrome Lut in DXO Filmpack
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Kodachrome 64 LUT in DXO filmpack

 

All in all, its not an interchangeable ground glass $7,000 ARRI viewfinder that shows EXACTLY the frame your gate is set to…  It’s just meant to get you close, and fast.   With the speed we shoot nowadays its critical.  It saved me on the MoCo shoot, as I could just set a frame, show the operator the exact shot, and get to where we need to be in one quarter the time.   This goes for any shoot you will ever do on Steadicam, MOVI, Dolley, even a heavy camera on sticks.  Remember, just for finding a frame,  using a Canon Zoom that covers your primes focal ranges counts.  A mm is a mm is a mm.  For the projects where the budget allows, yes a ground glass viewfinder with true frame guides is best, but to have the same ability to move fast can be very useful for any production big or small.

 

Thank you for reading!

Follow me on Instagram , or Twitter for more images and stories from set!

-Timur

The Kung Fu of operating camera.

Welcome back to Tstops.

Its been a while, but for good reasons.   I recently spent a considerable amount of time in Singapore DPing a TV series for the national broadcast station MediaCorp.  At the time we started this project, an unfamiliar camera to me, the ARRI Amira was the tool of choice for the production, they wanted an all handheld look, and the Amira is the best there is for that function.  I will go much further into detail on this project in another Work Log post, but carrying a 30lb piece of Aluminium, glass and magnesium on your shoulder for a month you come to realize a few things.  First, I LOVE operating a camera handheld.  The shot clock as I came to call it, the timecode in the view finder would tick by and minutes would pass by in what felt like seconds.  Entire one take action scenes, with the camera going from ground level, to my shoulder level while sprinting after actors and stunt people fighting, jumping over grip equipment and ducking under steel beams all with my eye glued to the viewfinder would just somehow… happen.  I would hear cut, and sort of “wake up”, sometimes 100 feet from where I started with what looked like an obstacle course between end point and start.   I am not the most athletic guy on earth, but with my eye in a viewfinder, somehow my mind goes blank, my focus goes into overdrive and a sort of dance ensues and my body just made it happen.  When operating handheld, your position in relation to the actors is ever changing and you become in a part of the performance, and in a way a part of the shot more than if the camera were on dolly, jib or tripod.   The camera is no longer just a window into a world, but an actual observer in the scene.  It may seem obvious, that yes, the camera is the audiences view of the story, but as a camera operator, its your personal point of view.   You are a spectator onset, with your own marks, timing, energy and physicality.   My wife, a professional dancer, often said when dancing she doesn’t think of what to do, it just happens.  Her body knows the choreography and she can simply channel the emotions through that.  This is exactly how I felt on this production.  I had never done so much handheld at once, or for so long.   2-8 minute takes, one after another for nearly a month.   Most of the shots contained a choreography between actor and camera.   You stop thinking and start feeling the shot and pace.  Jedi training stuff.

As an experiment, if you have a camera with a viewfinder, I recommend spending a significant amount of time only looking through the view finder for a day.  Once you become so comfortable with the practice of seeing the world through a small window, it becomes your second nature, then something interesting happens.   You stop thinking about the framing.  Your inner aesthetic takes over, and the frames start to find them selves.   This is where the Kung Fu comes in, not in the popular definition of a fighting style, ( a more recent definition)  but the other meaning, that is repetition and patience lead to good results.  Well, I suppose I could just say practice makes perfect… but this is a bit different.   This is letting go, and feeling the scene though the lens and letting your eye, and body make it happen without too much conscious effort.   It boils down the shot to its essence.   From there, you can make your conscious decisions to make it better.

Right now, my main goal is to apply what I learned to all aspects of my work.  Taking the elements of a shot down to their barest forms of story telling.   The lessons I learned from this experience, I think can apply to all aspects of the shot.  Light, frame, color, movement and time.  Light being the most fleeting and difficult to make a broad stroke of emotion.   Lets see where this goes.  Should be interesting.

 

Until next time.  Thank you for reading.

-Timur

 

Camera work 101: Camera Height

Welcome back to Tstops.  In this instalment I want to bring about a new section theme: Camera Work 101.  I think sometimes we take it for granted that a person learning (myself included) just “knows” a very simple basic thing.   Sometimes I wish someone had just told me about certain aspects of cinematography when I was starting out.   Often a lot of talk is thrown around for Lighting, Composition, Lens choice, Exposure, and color… But one thing thats far more subtle, but contributes a lot to a shots look, is camera height.

Camera height does a couple things, it controls lens distortion and it controls foreground and background composition.

For example, on a long lens, where facial distortion is at a minimum, you can afford to use camera height to select where the horizon falls in the background. Now this may seem a trivial element, but it can have big implications if used thoughtfully.

Another example, On a wider lens, using pan and tilt to center the lens on the background, you accomplish your proper head room in the frame using the camera height.  When you do this, you don’t somehow feel the width of the lens, simply that something is “special”.   This is a Technique Roger Deakins uses on a regular basis. He tends to shoot with slightly wide angle lenses for some medium closeup shots, but his use of composition, and camera height, corrects for the distortion and the lens.

A good example of the use of camera height and its effect on framing (inspired by a blocking study done by filmmaker John Hudson)  is the hunting scene from No Country for Old Men, where the main character Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon $2,000,000 of apparent drug money in a briefcase. The first shot, where he is unaware of the impeding danger, Deakins uses the large sky, a relatively wide lens, and creates a feeling of expansiveness and solitude, ie safety.

 

LowHorizonNCFOM
A wider angle lens, centered does not distort so much. Giving you a great perspective on the background, while looking natural.

 

As the scene progresses, the camera work shifts a bit, as the lenses start to get longer, the horizon begins to shift higher into the frame, showing more and more of the terrain. Grounding the character in reality, and making the desert seem smaller, or rather… more mysterious.

MediumHorionNCFOM

 

Once Llewelyn realized the amount of danger he is in, the horizon is nearly invisible, giving the sense that he can’t “see” the bad guys coming any longer.  Remember, on screen, the audience only sees what you show them. If you obscure the background, it adds a sense of mystery, because the audience is denied the special ability in film to see the bad guys before the character does.

HighHorizonNCFOM
The tree itself in the frame above actually obscures most of the frame adding to the mystery effect. This indicates the camera is at least as high as the lower hanging tree branches, well above Llewelyn’s eyeline.

 

 

 

In general, for classic hollywood coverage, the camera height, by center of lens for a portrait shot should be somewhere around the actors lip level.  For women, its not a bad idea to be level with the eyes or even slightly above.  In combination with with a longer lens, somewhere in the 50-100mm range (65 being my favorite), its very flattering to faces.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.08.03 AM
Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.06.31 AM His shot is Level with the Lips. Hers is level with the eyes.

Much like in the Roger Deakins example i just showed, the camera height can have quite an effect on the psychology of the shot.  However, when you start to reach  levels outside the normal range of heigh, be mindful of eyelines.  The only time you can somewhat forgo an eyeline is with very extreme cases of low angle, or high angle shots.

Most filmmakers know what the visual language the extreme high angle and low angle shot say, but I will briefly discuss them.  The high angle shot is often used to make a character seem small, powerless and weak.

highangleGirl

 

SHiningDannyHighAngle

 

The opposite is true, when you need to assert a sense of power to a character. I mean, quite frankly, if you have a hero…. You shoot him low angle, hence “Hero Shot”.

 

spiderman spiderman2_de5LOWNAGLE ReseviorDogsLOWangle LowangleFury LowAngleBAtman LOWANGLE ArnoldLowangle low_angleBANE LOWANGLE

I think the point has been made.  Its a simple technique that works.  Its part of the basic language of cinema that audiences are accustomed to, and they know what it means when they see it.

Now, at any point once the basics have been mastered, you have room to experiment and be creative with how you use the language to tell the story.  Not all high angle shots indicate weakness.  Sometimes its to help show elements of the environment. For example, this is from a film I worked on called “Pepper and Paul“.  The high angle shots are there to give a sense of the two characters contrasting lives, not necessarily that either is in a position of weakness.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.14.54 AM

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.14.00 AM

 

Learning how and when to break the basic rules is the fun part of the job of a cinematographer.   Hopefully this brief overview gave you some new ideas. Thank you for reading!

-Timur

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Coming up: Exposure and why we are all doing it so wrong… but so right……