Joshua Csehak,
Cinematographer

Learning

Lens Shootout

I’ve been shooting with the Rokinon Cine Primes as my base set for a year or so now. I like them a lot — just as nice as Canons, but with a cine form factor — all manual, and gears on the focus and de-clicked iris rings. But I’ve been hearing a lot about how amazing the new Zeiss Otus’s are, and I’ve also been meaning to try out the Leica R’s. In addition to that, I’ve been hearing a lot about the Sigma Art series, which I’ve summarily brushed off. But I was on a shoot with a Director who brought his own lenses, two of which were a Canon 24-70 L and a Sigma Art 18-35. We set up the shot on the Sigma and it looked awesome. Then we swapped the Canon in, for shits and giggles. Both at 2.8. Wow. The Canon looked clinical, flat, and just less interesting. These Sigmas are something to pay attention to. So I thought it was about time for a shootout.

This test is not scientific. I didn’t shoot any charts. I just walked around NY shooting random stuff. It’s a real-world test.

What this test does not show: breathing, flaring, or performance stopped down. All shots are wide open. Flare quality isn’t a factor for me when I’m testing, and I kind of forgot to test the breathing. But the fact that I forgot bodes well — if I didn’t notice it, it’s not a problem. So they’re all at least pretty good there.* Also, these lenses have important mechanical differences. The Sigma is the only one with Auto-focus. It’s also the only one without a manual iris (the Zeiss Nikon mount has one, the Canon mount doesn’t). The Rokinon has gears built into the focus and iris rings (love it). The others, you have to “cinemize” yourself.

You can hover over each picture to see which lens took it, and click on them for a super-big version. All pics taken with my 60D on full manual mode.

From the left: Zeiss Otus 55/1.4 ($4000), Sigma Art 50/1.4 ($950), Rokinon 50/1.5 ($550), Leica Summilux-R 50/1.4 (around $1000 used)

Let’s start with beer!

The Sigma Art shot (second one) is a touch out of focus. Even considering that, I think the Zeiss looks best here. Next, some portraits:

It’s hard to tell the difference in this set. One thing to notice is how tack-sharp the Zeiss and Sigmas are, with the Leica and Roki less so.

Except for the Zeiss, these are all out of focus. But that’s no big deal b/c I’m really looking for character here. The color/tone differences between the lenses are pretty noticeable here. The Sigma tends a bit towards green, and the Leica is a bit blueish. What’s really interesting is with the Sigma, the shadows seem to be lifted a bit while keeping the overall look very contrasty and painterly.

I’m not noticing a huge difference between the lenses in this set.

Here you can see another example of how the Sigma is greener and “sees” more into the shadows.

This was kind of a fun comparison. I didn’t expect the blooming of the overhead lights in the Leica. Very cool look.

Here the Zeiss and Sigma completely dominate. The Leica’s bokeh is unattractive to my eye, and the Roki’s is not too bad, but not great (though it gets better stopping down to 2/2.8).

For this next set, I focused on the building, and then the leaves near the building. The second shot of each set should show how bad the chromatic aberration is. The building will have a green fringe, and the power lines will have a magenta fringe. The more important color to be aware of is green, b/c you’ll more often have things out-of-focus in the background than in the foreground.




With the Zeiss, it’s almost nonexistent. With the Sigma, you can see a faint green fringe in the building, but the magenta fringe in the power lines is very noticeable. The Leica is really nice here. Not quite as clean as the Zeiss, but still impressive. The Roki is as bad as the Sigma, probably even a bit worse.

And here are some more chromatic aberration tests, this time with specular highlights.

All in all, pretty interesting findings. The Zeiss matched or outperformed all the others in every way. But at at least 4x the price, it damn well better. That said, I think I’d be hard-pressed to differentiate that and a Master Prime, which is $20k. A $16k savings? You can’t afford not to buy it! The Sigma — wow. It really impressed me with its character and sharpness. Its green cast is unfortunate, but that’s not hard to compensate for. Its chromatic aberration, OTOH, is a bigger problem. You can adjust for it by softening your highlights with a touch of diffusion — which I like to do nearly all the time anyways — but it’s nice to not have to. Still, I love how it brings up the shadows. It’s a very cool look. If I used auto-focus, these would be my go-to lenses. The 18-35, 50, and the upcoming 85 make for a perfect auto-focus set. The Leica was great — I loved how it kind of “shimmered,” and it really had chromatic aberration under control, but I didn’t love the bokeh. But I’m still open to being a Leica believer. (Don’t get me started on how beautiful the Leica cine primes are.) And Rokinon still gives you the best bang for your buck. Amazing value, those lenses.

*I will note that I remember at least one of the Rokinon Cine Primes breathing a good amount (maybe the 35?), and the Sigma Art 50-100 breathes like a mofo — so bad it’s a deal-breaker.

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Dynamic Range vs. Latitude

I’d like to talk about a couple terms that often get used interchangeably, but they’re really pretty different, “dynamic range” and “latitude.”

Dynamic Range (DR) is a measure of how much light a sensor or film stock can handle. If you have a scene where the shadows are just on the edge of being completely black, and the highlights are just on the edge of being completely white, and you measure the difference between the light coming into the camera from the shadows vs. the light coming into the camera from the highlights, that measurement is the camera’s (well technically, the film stock’s or sensor’s) DR. It’s measured in terms of “stops,” a difference of a stop being a doubling of light. (It doesn’t matter how much light is there, two candles are one stop brighter than one, and two photons are one stop brighter than one.) DSLRs like the 5D or the gh4 generally have about 10-11 stops of DR, while more expensive cameras like the C300 have 12, and top-of-the-line cameras like the Alexa and Red Dragon have 14 and 16 respectively. That means the Alexa can process four times as much light as the C300, and the Red Dragon can handle four times as much light as that.

How is this useful to us? If you’re shooting a foggy ocean on an overcast day, it isn’t. The dynamic range of the scene is maybe 2 or 3 stops, so any camera can capture everything. But let’s say you’re shooting a scene with a noonday sun. You might have a good 16 stops difference between the darkest dark in the scene and the lightest light. The Red Dragon will capture the whole scene, and it’ll look pretty close to how it looks in real life. The Alexa will clip more of the highlights — a cloud might be all flat white, for instance, rather than lightly modeled. And the C300 will clip even more. The clouds might start to look “video-y.” With a DSLR, you might even start clipping the sky. When a blue sky in real life is white on screen, that’s not good. Now, you can of course bring down the exposure in camera so the sky and clouds aren’t clipping, but now your shadows are much darker. And if you’ve got an actor with a hat on, you really need those shadows to not be too dark.

There are other factors that make up overall image quality, like resolution and color science, but to me, DR is one of the most important.

*NB: DR measurement is not an exact science. It’s not important that the Alexa has 14 or 14.5 or whatever stops of DR. Just think, for instance, it’s got a stop or two more than the C300, so it’ll outperform the C300 in that respect by that much.

Latitude, on the other hand, is much different. Latitude is basically how much you can mess up exposing a shot and still have it look good. Latitude on digital cameras is pretty much non-existent. Rotating the iris on the lens has a pretty linear effect on the image on your monitor. Not so with film. Look at this: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gaffatejp/2887892359

The +1 overexposed, correct exposure, and -1 underexposed shots all look pretty much correctly exposed to me. the +/- 2 shots even look pretty good. He’s shooting Porta 160, a negative film. I’d say that Porta 160 has a latitude of about 3 or 4 stops. Its DR, however, is much, much higher.

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Mic Check!

2014 was a busy year! I’m sure 2015 will be as well, but I’ve resolved to update this thing more frequently, so here’s to that. This blizzard (we got 2 feet of snow!) gave me a chance to shoot a microphone test. Jeremiah of Clyde Media Productions loaned me an Oktava MK-012, and I’ve been curious to compare it against my trusty Josephson C42.

I took this opportunity to toss in my Rode NTG-3 and lavs, partly to prove a point — that shotguns belong outside, and lavs just don’t sound as good a booms. When used properly, the NTG-3 sounds awesome, and I really like both lavs for what they are. And of course, I’m not a sound guy. A real sound guy would probably be able to make all of them sound great, especially if he has a mixer.

I also took this chance to shoot with available light on Ilsa (my Red Dragon). I shot at ISO 3200 (bumped up to 5000 later in the video) and it looks pretty great. It’s definitely noisier in the raw clip, but the mp4 compression kind of smoothes out the noise. Still, 3200 is pushing it, and I think it’s probably best not go over 1600 if you can help it. Grain can always be added in post, through Red Cine-X or by overlaying a loop of real film grain.

Take a look and let me know what you think!

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