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Lenses: Renting, Converting

Is all this glass getting too expensive? Well, there’s another thing to keep in mind: you can rent lenses. There’s no better way to try different lenses than by… trying different lenses. If there’s a local camera shop that has a well-stocked lens rental program, great. But if not, has a very wide selection of lenses (and other equipment, like audio accessories, memory cards, and underwater housings, not to mention DSLRs) available for rent by mail (you can rent for a period of 3 days all the way up to a month). Their prices are great — Canon’s gorgeous 50mm f/1.2 prime goes for $1,500 new, but at BorrowLenses you can rent it for a week for $65 (plus shipping, which means it makes sense to rent several items at once). Another stunning lens, the Zeiss ZE 50mm f/2 Makro retails for $1,300 but rents for a week for $54. At these rates it doesn’t make sense to not have the best glass available for an important shoot — even if you have a kit of lesser lenses for everyday shooting.

Renting, of course, is also a great way of trying out lenses instead of spending a bunch of money to add something site-unseen.

If you are buying lenses, however, earlier in the guide I mentioned buying Zeiss ZE lenses. The problem with Zeiss’s ZE lenses, however, is that they don’t have physical aperture rings, instead relying on Canon’s internal electronics to control exposure. This means to change the aperture you have to turn a dial on the camera instead of a physical, tactile ring on the lens. This is far from ideal for video because A) you have less immediate tactile control over the aperture, and B) the motion of reaching for your camera’s dial and turning it can ruin a shot (it’s harder to keep steady in my experience than if you’re “riding” the aperture manually). The best solution to this problem would be to get the Zeiss CP.2 lenses, which come with stopless physical aperture rings, but they’re $4,000 apiece. So: is there a way to get physical aperture controls on your Canon DSLR while buying new Zeiss lenses, without spending $4k apiece? Yes! The solution is to buy Zeiss ZF lenses, which are made for Nikon’s F-mount lens system, and then convert them.

This tip comes via Philip Bloom, who recommends sending ZF lenses to Duclos, who for $250/lens (on average) will “cinemod” your ZF lens. What is the “cinemod?” Duclos de-clicks your iris ring (giving you stopless control over exposure), adds a physical gear for follow focus use, and adds a common-size front ring (for example, if you have a 77mm Fader ND, you can have all of your lenses fit with 77mm front threads). Note that the problem with sending in Zeiss ZF lenses is that Nikon lenses pull focus in the opposite direction of all other brands, so for that reason alone I have a distaste for them (pulling focus on Nikon lenses and then switching to any other brand is a pain in the ass in terms of muscle memory). So while Bloom may recommend sending in ZF lenses — which is a great option (and I should note that some follow focuses (focusi?) allow you to reverse their gearing to correct this problem) — Duclos says they can cinemod many still lenses. I emailed the company asking which lenses they offer the service for, and got a prompt response from Matthew Duclos, their Optical Technician:

Our cine-mod is totally customizable per the customer and their needs. The back bone of the cine-mod consists of three parts: an 80mm front ring with 77mm screw in thread, a 32-pitch seamless focus gear, and lastly the iris de-clicking for smooth aperture manipulation. The front rings are made of aluminum and screw into the existing filter thread on the lens. We can also cut custom delrin front rings for lenses that don’t have a front thread. The focus gear can vary in size from 2″ all the way to 4″ depending on what is needed for the lens and/or setup. Each gear is cut to size individually and installed by a technician for a perfect fit. The aperture de-clicking is pretty self explanatory. As you can imagine, this makes the cine-mod very versatile in regards to your question about which brands we can modify. Just about anything that is well suited for motion picture use. Feel free to read some of my material on as to what lenses work well for motion and why some lenses don’t.

I’m hoping to have my Contax-mount Zeiss lenses cinemodded by Duclos and will write a review here at NoFilmSchool when/if I do so.