Stirring & Stylish: Distinctively Dark Imagery

Sony F3 / Cinedeck Extreme / Zeiss Compact Primes Review: Part 2 of 3

In Equipment and Technique on August 4, 2011 at 10:00 am

In my previous post I discussed the Sony F3.  In this post I will be looking at the Zeiss Compact Primes from an operational and fiscal point of view.The Zeiss sells the Compact Primes either individually or as a complete set.  The following focal lengths/max apertures are available:

  • 18mm/T3.6
  • 21mm/T2.9
  • 25mm/T2.9
  • 28mm/T2.1
  • 35mm/T2.1
  • 50mm/T2.1
  • 85mm/T2.1
  • 100mm/T2.1
  • 50mm/T2.1 Macro.

Angle of view comparison.

Each of these lenses is designed to cover a full frame 35mm film frame (24mm x 36mm) with the exception of the 18mm, which will cover only S35 frame.  This means that the 18mm won’t cover a full frame sensor such as the one on the Canon 5D Mark II, but will be acceptable on the Canon 7D, which has the smaller sensor chip.

Generally I enjoyed working with these lenses.  Are they up to the Master Prime quality level.  No, but then neither is the price.  Are they usable on a professional quality camera and a working set.  Absolutely.  The image quality and sharpness of these lenses is very good.  We use a 1/2 classic soft to reduce the sharpness because they were too darn sharp!  They seem to be contrasty, and don’t flare easily.  The build quality is high, which is what one would expect from Zeiss, and the focus and aperture movement is smooth and consistent.

One of the most exciting features of this set of lenses is the ability to change the lens mount.  You can choose between any of 5 mounts (PL, EF, F, E and MFT mount), so switching between a DSLR, Red camera, F3, or film camera is made easier/possible with these lenses.  Each mount is sold separately, and ships with a set of shims.

2 of the 5 interchangeable lens mounts

A lens technician will need to determine which shims to use to achieve proper back focus with a particular lens.  After that, anyone should be able to swap the mount and install it with the correct shims.  Therefore, each mount should be dedicated to a particular lens, and used only with that lens and with the appropriate shims as determined by the lens technician.

These lenses aren’t perfect; however, the drawbacks may be minor enough to live with.  Firstly, these lenses seem to be re-barreled still camera lenses, and as such where likely never designed for use in a motion picture environment.  As a result they do ‘breath’ (the image size changes as one rolls through the focus).  For the most part this isn’t a problem, but is apparent on large focus pulls, such as when you’re focused on an actor in the foreground, and pull quickly to another actor coming through a doorway in the background, etc.

Second, because of the compact size of the lenses, which is great most of the time, it is sometimes difficult to read the scribed focus and iris markings on the lens barrel.  This is especially true when the 1st AC uses a whip and standing back from the lens or the set is dark.  I’ve found a LED pen light with a flexible neck velcroed to the camera is a great little lens light in a pinch.

Zeiss Compact Prime 50mm T2.1

Thirdly, it can be difficult figure out which way is ‘up’ on the lenses when mounting them to the camera.  Knowing which way is ‘up’ is important because if the lens isn’t mounted correctly the focus and iris witness marks will be in the wrong position, and the lens will need to be removed and remounted.  There are small Zeiss emblems on either side of the lenses which help in this regard, but the best solution seems to be a bright spot of camera tape placed on the side of the barrel of each lens to indicate the proper position.  This is an easy and quick fix.

Fourthly, my final quibble is that the set of lenses doesn’t have a matched max. aperture.  Why is this important?  Imagine you are shooting a scene and the Director asks to shoot several tighter shots.  With the Compact Primes you have a consistent T2.1 with all of the longer lenses, so let’s say you light everything to expose properly at T2.8.  Great.  You can shoot with the 28mm through the 100mm no problem.  Now the Director says, “I’d like to shoot a super wide, the widest we’ve got.”  So, now you throw on the 18mm, but your max aperture is T3.6.  You can’t shoot at T2.8, even wide open.  So, you can either re-light, which costs you time and makes you look foolish, or you can crank up the gain/ISO on the camera, or change film stocks, which may be a compromise in quality and may not match the other footage you’ve already shot for the scene.  Luckily, the F3 is very sensitive, and we were able to keep a consistent aperture using ND filters, but this may not be possible in certain circumstances, especially a night exterior or when using available light.  There is no perfect way around this problem, though it may be one that many readers have grown accustomed to using DSLRs and still lenses over the past few years.  As camera’s sensitivity improve this will become less of a problem, but be aware that this may become an issue during a shoot and plan accordingly.

I find the Zeiss Compact Primes to be a decent value despite these drawbacks.  The price tag of approx. $25,000 is reasonable, and they will compete nicely with the Red Primes, Schneider Cine-Xenar primes, and other similarly priced lens sets.  They have the advantage of  interchangeable lens mounts (I’m sure they will be a favorite of rental houses because of this feature), but the drawback of mismatched max. apertures and breathing.  Though they are a decent value I would prefer to rent the lenses as needed rather than purchase a set for myself because I find the mismatched apertures too problematic to handle whatever unknown shoots and unknown conditions may crop up in the future.  Only if I knew the locations, had confidence in the shot list, and knew there would be plenty of light would I choose these lenses.

Next week:  The Cinedeck Extreme.

Compact Primes – the whole family.
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