The Lens Dilemma

2018 has been the Golden Era of lenses for digital cinema, mirrorless and DSLR cameras. High-quality glass used to be something that basically Hollywood used for cinema and television and the rest of us got by with high quality yet different class lenses. For me back in the day, it was a Leica Super 16 zoom lens for my Arri SR2 and B4 mount servo zoom lenses for my Betacams, Digital Betacams and eventually HD cameras.

I’ve always believed that glass was a significant differentiator in how good your image could look. As resolution moved from the SD into the HD era, this belief was magnified as resolution increased. The challenge was that good glass cost a LOT! I recall in the Betacam era, a high quality “Broadcast” level Canon or Fujinon B4 lens easily could cost $30k to $50k!

This 4K capable Fujinon B4 mount lens sells for $47,000).
This 4K capable Fujinon B4 mount lens sells for $47,000.

Never mind film camera glass by Zeiss, Leica, Cooke and their European brethren, which could and still can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single lens or a set of primes.

An interesting thing happened during the digital revolution though. As cameras themselves became smaller, cheaper and better with ever increasing resolution, the manufacturers truly innovated to make lower cost lenses perform better. Many digital cinema cameras now include internal, electronic correction to reduce or eliminate unwanted artifacts like chromatic aberration, lens distortion and vignetting when shooting with certain lenses, mostly still lenses.

Lens manufacturers also innovated with features like image stabilization (IS), others calling it optical image stabilization (OIS) and others actually moving to stabilizing the image block in the camera with In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS). While none of these stabilization schemes are a substitute for a gimbal or Steadicam, they drastically reduce and smooth out micro jitters in the image. This has always been an issue, even from tripod mounted shooting but especially with handheld shooting.

Stratification

In 2018, we’re spoiled for choices for lenses to mount to our cameras. Depending on the type of camera you use, you can choose between everything from obscure Russian Cold War era still lenses found on eBay, which can now be adapted to almost any lens mount, to modern manufacturer still lenses like the Canon EF and EF-S mount lenses to low cost Chinese and Korean transitional lenses that are still lenses but set up to perform like true Cine lenses with de-clicked aperture rings and smooth, long throw focus rings with cine markings. We can also choose from numerous higher end servo zooms, Cine zooms and primes from not only the traditional manufacturers but from still company lens manufacturers like Sigma and Tokina who are dipping their toes into the Cine lens market.

This Sigma Cine prime is fast, well made, creates beautiful images and is competitive with the established cine lens offerings on the market
This Sigma Cine prime is fast, well made, creates beautiful images and is competitive with the established cine lens offerings on the market.

It seems like every time one of the year’s trade shows like NAB, CES, CineaGear Expo, InterBEE or IBC occurs, we’re bombarded with new lens choices. Glass has become better quality with fewer compromises. No matter the camera you shoot with, you have never had as many choices in high-quality glass to mount to it.

One of the only challenges I still see in the market is when it comes to lenses for smaller, single-hand gimbal-mounted cameras. Let me elaborate. Gimbals have changed the way we approach projects.

Single Handled Gimbals like the Zhiyun Crane 2 have become very popular.
Single Handled Gimbals like the Zhiyun Crane 2 have become very popular.

It used to be, if you wanted to move your camera, your only choices were to handhold it, use a dolly or jib arm or you were restricted to tilts and pans from your tripod head. Now that the gimbal is firmly established, camera movement has become much easier to execute. Based upon its popularity, it seems like the gimbal user has broken into at least two separate, distinct camps.

The Casual, Small, “One-Man Band” user

This gimbal user typically uses a small mirrorless or DSLR camera mounted to a single handheld gimbal. This user values low cost, low weight and high performance.

Serious, Higher End Pro Level User

This user is probably utilizing a real digital cinema camera, anything from a Sony FS7 or Canon C300 MKII all of the way up to a RED or Arri Alexa Mini. Unlike the lower end user, this user needs to utilize their A camera and often is using a wireless video transmitter, wireless follow focus and larger, heavier cine primes or servo zoom lenses on their gimbal mounted camera. Keep in mind that to utilize a gimbal at this level usually requires a team consisting of the gimbal operator, a second person controlling the camera movement on the gimbal and often a third person whose job it is to pull focus, iris and sometimes zoom.

I typically fall into the first category. Our clients like me to bring a gimbal to spice up what’s mostly tripod mounted or handheld shooting, often in controlled situations like an office or recording studio. Most of these projects use the gimbal-mounted camera for just a small percentage of the overall footage shot. I have noticed that the lens dilemma for many such users like myself is the lack of wide angle, relatively fast and relatively lightweight lenses.

For me, gimbals usually look the most interesting when using a relatively wide field of view. Some prefer to use a longer focal length lens on the gimbal, which can provide interesting shots too, but I tend to use a lens in the 14mm to 18mm focal length as its wider field of view (FOV) is better for framing a moving subject and seeing their environment around them as they move and as the camera moves with them.

This is where I’m finding a hole in the lens market. For the small, one-man band gimbal operator, we typically rely on the combination of autofocus and shooting a wider angle lens with deep depth of field to keep a subject in sharp focus. Fortunately, the two gimbal mounted cameras I’ve been shooting with lately, the Canon 80D DSLR and the Fujifilm X-T3, both offer relatively sophisticated and useful autofocus, each camera has not only autofocus but also face tracking. This feature allows me to capture moving gimbal shots, keeping the subject in sharp focus most of the time. No autofocus system is perfect and some shots do suffer from being out of focus some of the time, but the percentage of keepers is actually quite impressive.

With a one-handed gimbal like the Zhiyun Crane variants or the DJI Ronin S, weight matters. A lot. The heavier the gimbal camera body and especially the lens, the less time you can shoot before your arm and body become shaky, making the gimbal work even harder to keep a shot steady enough to be usable. Mounting and balancing a camera body and lens on a gimbal, it’s essential to achieve perfect balance in order for the gimbal to function properly. As you can tell, weight and weight distribution play a big part in making the whole small gimbal equation work.

The other factor that I see missing, at least for the Canon EF mount and wide-angle lenses, is lens speed. If you search for lenses that, for instance, can be used on cameras like the Canon 80D, you notice that there’s not a lot of choice in wide angle (12mm to 16mm) and fast lenses from Canon. For the X-T3, Fujifilm offers a 16mm F1.4 lens, it’s very fast, super high quality and its weight, at 375 grams, isn’t bad. It’s not an inexpensive lens, though, relative to the cost of the X-T3, the 16mm F1.4 is $1,000.

The Fujinon 16mm F1.4 lens is gaining a huge following as a wide and fast, high-quality lens for the Fujifilm mirrorless camera line.
The Fujinon 16mm F1.4 lens is gaining a huge following as a wide and fast, high-quality lens for the Fujifilm mirrorless camera line.

For Canon, though, my current lens choice has been the inexpensive 10-18 STM IS F4.5-5.6. It retails for under $300 and has decent optical performance and gives me the 12mm to 16mm FOV that I crave when using a gimbal. But the lens is slow, really slow, and isn’t very usable in most indoor situations without boosting the 80D’s ISO to 2500 or even 3200. The Canon 80D makes very grainy images at those ISOs, unfortunately.

There are plenty of faster, quite inexpensive third-party lenses available in Canon EF mount, but for compatibility with Canon’s dual pixel autofocus system, those lenses are rare. I’ve tried utilizing manual focus lenses with our gimbal and without a separate follow focus and wireless video transmitter, they just don’t work. Canon makes some nice wide angle primes like the EF 14mm 2.8 II USM, but at $2,100, it’s too expensive for an 80D and a one-handed gimbal. Canon also makes the superb EF 11-24 F4 L USM lens, which might be usable at F4, although not a fast lens and the same issues are present, it’s way too heavy at 1,180 grams and costs $2,700.

My wish from Canon is simple. For all of the one-man band gimbal operators out there, it would be nice to make a simple 16mm prime F3.5 STM IS lens for about $700 to $900. There are a few third-party solutions like the Tokina 11-16 2.8, but it doesn’t have Canon’s USM or IS functions that most of us want and are helpful for gimbal work. This proposed lens would give single-handed gimbal operators a lightweight, affordable wide-angle lens that would be perfect for utilizing on all of the EF mount cameras flying around on gimbals out there. Keep in mind that the EF mount has become the defacto lower-end to mid-range lens mount in the industry.

For those shooting with popular M43 cameras like the GH5, utilizing this lens with a speed booster would increase the FOV as well as increase the lens speed, it would be a win-win and Canon would probably sell a lot of these lenses. Even Sony mirrorless A7 variant users like to mount Canon glass on their cameras, so there’s a demand for this lens across a wide variety of users. Is this dream lens too much to ask for Canon?

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