[Editor's note: A version of this post originally appeared on Mikko Timonen's blog, and is published here with revisions and permission.]
When embarking on a new project, one of the first and perhaps most significant aesthetic decisions any cinematographer can make is your choice of lenses. Everything from flare characteristics, bokeh, distortion, contrast, sharpness all play a crucial part in creating a unique look for any given project. Becoming familiar with the intricate differences between sets of glass (both pronounced and subtle) not only helps us select the right tools for the job, but also allows us to exploit those qualities while filming.
Having recently purchased the RED Epic-W, I was curious to see how different lenses held up when filmed at 8K. I chose the 50mm as the hero simply because it is the most common focal denominator between lens sets (apart from a few exceptions such as the Hawk V-Lite, ToddAO here). Keeping the focal length consistent between lenses allowed us to better observe the nuanced differences, while a perspective change might have been distracting. Since the test was conducted on the RED Epic-W, the vertical field of view is similar for anamorphic and spherical lenses. On the Alexa 4:3 sensor, the anamorphic lenses would have appeared wider as the sensor has more vertical real estate than the RED Helium sensor.
From the standpoint of pure optical perfection, it’s hard to deny the superiority of the Master Anamorphics and Master Primes.
Note that this lens test was not designed to be an exhaustive examination, but rather like a series of "speed dates". Hopefully, it can serve as a quick reference or baseline for DPs and directors looking to familiarize themselves with these lenses. One thing to keep in mind is that vintage lenses vary greatly in quality and no two sets are alike. In any case, it's always best to conduct your own tests before filming.
With the help of AbelCine, Adorama, Hand Held Films, DuAll Camera, TCS, Scheimpflug, Simply Whang!, Fancy Deli and my fellow cinematographer Ramsey Fendall, I was able to scrounge together 9 anamorphic and 17 spherical lenses for a total of 26. Even with all of these lenses, there were definitely some of my favorites missing, which we were sadly unable to source: Hawk C-Series, Cooke XTal Express, Canon K35, Kowa Cine Prominar and pretty much all of Panavision lenses.
- Arri Master Anamorphic (provided by TCS film)
- Cooke Anamorphic (Hand Held Films)
- Elite Anamorphic (DuAll Camera)
- Lomo Anamorphic Round Front (Adorama)
- Lomo Anamorphic Square Front (Ramsey Fendall)
- Powerscope (AbelCine)
- Kowa Anamorphic (Scheimpflug)
- Hawk V-Lite (Hand Held Films)
- Todd AO (Fancy Deli)
- Arri Master Prime (Hand Held Films)
- Arri Ultra Prime (AbelCine)
- Cooke S4 (Hand Held Films)
- Leica Summicron (Simply Whang!)
- Leica-R (GL mod) (TCS film)
- Zeiss CP2 Makro (AbelCine)
- Xenon FF (Adorama)
- Celere HS (Adorama)
- Canon CN-E (AbelCine)
- Xeen (AbelCine)
- Rokinon (No Frames)
- Zeiss Super Speed Mk3 (Hand Held Films)
- Cooke Speed Panchro (DuAll Camera)
- Super Baltar (DuAll Camera)
- Lomo (Ramsey Fendall)
- Takumar 6x7 (Ramsey Fendall)
- Dog Schidt (Ramsey Fendall)
The test was divided into two parts: Part 1 focuses on characteristics like bokeh and flare, and in Part 2, we map out lens distortion, edge-to-edge sharpness and breathing. You can view the tests in this post, underneath the explanations of our methods below. Additionally, you can download the "Lens Library" PDF document from my blog, which includes stills from all of the setups for a quick reference.
Each lens was tested at Wide Open Aperture and T4. We refrained from adding filtration in front of the lens and chose to compensate for the exposure with shutter speed instead of ND. Most lenses fall apart when opened to maximum aperture. However, stopping down 1/2stop - 1stop already improves sharpness and contrast. Also worth noting is that, typically, the final 1/3 prior to reaching WOA only brightens the very center of the image resulting in some vignetting.
By T4, most lenses have hit their "sweet spot" and perform quite well in terms of sharpness and contrast. However, some other characteristics become more pronounced such as the bokeh shape. Bokeh is defined by the shape of the iris design (not by number of blades, although they do play their part), and a couple stops below wide open its shape becomes more defined. You can see samples of 3 bokeh shapes below all shot at T4.
To test out the flare characteristics, we created three lighting setups:
Flare 1 - moving 150W fresnel behind talent
Flare 2 - fixed position/angle 750W Source4 Leko
Flare 3 - blue tinted LED flashlight
Lights for Setups 1 & 2 matched the WB3200 settings so any color seen in the flares (such as the blue streaks with Lomo Round Front) are inherent to the lens. Since the LED flashlight had a blue color, naturally all the flares appear bluish as well.
Aperture Size & Flare
Aperture size also plays a role in the shape/intensity of the lens flare. To highlight these differences, we slowly closed the iris during the T4 Flare 2 test to see how the flare transformed. (As an interesting side note, on the Kowa Anamorphic we were actually able to see the iris blades moving around f2-2.8.)
The purpose of this test was to map out lens distortion. By pointing the camera at a flat wall, we were able to see how each lens curved space by using the window frames and brick pattern as a reference.
The top dark corners seen on Lomo Round Front and Powerscope lenses actually belong to the top of the window we were filming through. Theses lenses were much wider than the rest of the bunch and, as such, we didn't anticipate the window being in the way. In order to preserve consistent framing, we opted not to move the camera.
Lenses are sharpest in the middle of the frame. However, around the edges there can be significant differences, as seen here at the top right corner of the frame between Master Anamorphic and Kowa Anamorphic. Also worth noting is the difference in distortion.
The amount of breathing on the lenses varied significantly. Breathing on the Master Anamorphic was almost non-existent compared to the other anamorphics. With most lenses, the background contracts inwards when focusing closer. Strangely enough, the Lomo Squarefront anamorphic does the opposite: the background stretches outward as the lens is focused closer. Examples of Master Anamorphic, Elite Anamorphic and Lomo Squarefront below.
Lens Test Part 1
- Master Anamorphic @ 0:26
- Cooke Anamorphic @ 2:14
- Elite Anamorphic @ 4:38
- Kowa Anamorphic @ 6:37
- Powerscope Anamorphic @ 8.47
- Lomo Roundfront @ 11:02 (T4 incorrectly is labeled Squarefront)
- Lomo Squarefront @ 13:13
- Hawk V-Lite Anamorphic @ 15:37
- Todd AO Anamorphic @ 17:53 (T2.8 is actually T4)
- Arri Master Prime @ 20:55
- Arri Ultra Prime @ 23:00
- Cooke S4 @ 25:05
- Cooke Speed Panchro @ 27:08
- Super Baltar @ 29:24
- Leica Summicron @ 31:34
- Leica-R GL mod @ 33:42
- Celere HS @ 35:57
- Xenon FF @ 38:19
- Zeiss Super Speed Mk3 @ 40:40
- Zeiss CP2 @ 42:50
- Xeen @ 44:51
- Canon CN-E @ 46:51
- Rokinon @ 48:57
- Lomo Spherical @ 50:44
- Takumar 6x7 Medium Format @ 53:23
- Dog Schidt @ 54:40
Lens Test Part 2
- Master Anamorphic @ 0:24
- Cooke Anamorphic @ 0:44
- Elite Anamorphic @ 1:06
- Kowa Anamorphic @ 1:28
- Powerscope Anamorphic @ 1:59
- Lomo Roundfront @ 2:24
- Lomo Squarefront @ 2:42
- Hawk V-Lite Anamorphic @ 3:06
- Todd AO Anamorphic @ 3:28
- Arri Master Prime @ 3:45
- Arri Ultra Prime @ 4:04
- Zeiss Super Speed Mk3 @ 4:25
- Zeiss CP2 @ 4:53
- Cooke S4 @ 5:17
- Leica Summicron @ 5:48
- Celere HS @ 6:20
- Xenon FF @ 6:52
- Canon CN-E @ 7:22
- Xeen @ 7:46
- Rokinon @ 8:12
- Cooke Speed Panchro @ 8:38
- Super Baltar @ 9:06
- Leica-R GL mod @ 9:37
- Lomo Spherical @ 10:03
- Takumar 6x7 Medium Format @ 10:31
- Dog Schidt @ 10:56
Seeing the lenses perform side by side definitely helped highlight their enormous differences. Since shooting the test, I’ve been asked which lenses performed the best, but to my mind, that’s always a two-fold question. From the standpoint of pure optical perfection, it’s hard to deny the superiority of the Master Anamorphics and Master Primes. However, from an aesthetic standpoint, it really becomes a matter of subjective preference.
Ultimately, beyond any personal preference, it’s just about what lens is right for the story. Is the Cooke S4 better than Dog Schidt? Optically speaking, absolutely yes, many times over. However, does the Cooke help communicate the emotion of a scene better than the Dog Schidt? Well, that’s up to the filmmaker to decide and audience to experience.
In any case, below is a brief recap of some of the lenses and the overall impressions.
Priced around $40,000 per lens, they’re probably worth every penny. Nothing else we tested came even close. They’re almost too perfect: no barrel distortion, no flare, minimal lens breathing and impressive contrast and sharpness, even at wide open aperture. In fact, ARRI released a set of flare sets specifically designed to add flare to these lenses since they didn’t have any! Because of their perfect performance, however, they also lack some of the more esoteric qualities DPs love most about anamorphic glass.
Typical of Cooke glass, these lenses have a pleasing warm tint to them. They render faces beautifully, although at the very edges of the frame some “squeezing” can be observed. At wide open aperture, the lens produces a “peacock-esque” flare which disappears almost immediately once stopped down. All in all a superb lens. Interestingly, the 50mm has bokeh almost the shape of a rounded rectangle, although I have not observed this in the other focal lengths of the set.
Elite Anamorphic (aka “The Beast"):
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the biggest and heaviest of them all?” No competition there. The sheer size and weight of this are enormous and I would think twice before selecting this for your on the road hand-held setup (unless you’re Bjorn Charpentier). That being said, this lens has a really unique aesthetic. The barrel distortion is really noticeable, but in its own way lends an impressionistic effect to the image. The 50mm feels more like a 45mm compared to Arri and Cooke. Also, it breathes like an accordion.
Very much the favorite among MoVI ops wanting to shoot anamorphic, these lenses are really compact and lightweight. They also have beautiful flare if you’re longing for that anamorphic streak. Kowas are quite low contrast and lose sharpness drastically around the edges. Wide open they become quite soft, but stopping down helps a lot. Also, I felt the 50mm rendered the face of the model a little on the wider side, which might not be the best thing for your next beauty spot.
Powerscope and Lomo Roundfront:
Interestingly enough, these appear to be the same lens. At least according to AbelCine, its Powerscope, in fact, ct a Lomo Round Front. When observing the field of view and distortion they are very close (with the lenses we tested there was a slight discrepancy with the optical alignment of the anamorphic element between the two). Both flare beautifully, although not exactly identically, and they produce one of the most prominent blue streaks. A couple years back I shot a music video with these for Enrique Iglesias.
This lens has a lot of interesting character and packs a punch of pretty flare. The image does feel a bit beat up though, and the model's face shows significant horizontal stretching. Again, not the choice for your beauty spot but great for a lot of other applications.
Although I really love the look of the Hawks in general, the V-Lites do exhibit some “blurring” at the top and bottom 1/5th of the frame. This can be observed on the model’s hair and the bottom of her shirt.
Todd AOs have an enormous amount of character. Each set that I’ve seen in the past is a bit different. At T1.3 they are super soft and almost dreamy in quality but get progressively sharper stopped down. The ToddAOs also exhibited some of the most pronounced, crazy flare. Claudio Miranda used these to great effect on the 50 Cent music video “Get Up”
Something good can be said about almost every one of these lenses, whether it’s the performance, look or just plain cost vs. quality. Master Primes and Cooke S4s have long been industry standards, and I was drawn to both of these albeit for different reasons.
Among the vintage lenses, I found myself very fond of the Super Baltars (famously used for the first two Godfather movies), Cooke Speed Panchros and also Zeiss Super speeds. As modern cameras get sharper and higher in resolution, these vintage lenses really do a beautiful job lending a softness to the image.
Finally, in a category all of its own, it's hard not to love The Dog Schidt. Rehoused from an old Russian Helios lens, this beauty is a mess of optical flaws, but that is kind of what makes it so amazing. It's exciting to see lens options out there that really break the conventions as they offer more creative opportunities. And for a cinematographer that's what it really comes down to: choices. It's not about what's best and most pristine, but what's right for the job.
You can download the "Lens Library" PDF document from my blog . This document is a quick reference to 4K screen pulls from the entire lens test.
What's your favorite set of glass and why? What lenses have been used on the films or commercials that you like? Let us know in the comments.
Many thanks to the crew Chris Aran (IG@coocoobird80), Ramsey Fendall (IG@ramseyfendall) and Matt Jacob (IG@jmjacob) for helping with this crazy test. Never quite planned it would end up being feature length.
Also many thanks to our model Natasha King (IG@bendybombshell) for being willing to tolerate us nerds for the whole day.