Optics Within Reach

Many people will argue that it’s not so much what’s behind the camera, in terms of capture medium or format, but what you put in front of the camera in the way of lenses that matters most. And while this debate rages on the set, fodder for these arguments is being offered annually by those who set the standard for high-quality glass. Motion-picture lenses are some of the finest lenses ever designed for image capture, and over the years, the bar has been raised by the likes of Cooke, Zeiss, Panavision, Angénieux and Fujinon. More recently, that bar has been challenged by some newcomers, as well as the leading lens makers themselves, offering good or possibly great glass at a fraction of the standard price.

At first, the knee-jerk reaction may be to run out and purchase these much more affordable lenses, especially those made by the leaders of the industry. But for an educated buyer, the first question to ask yourself is: How can something so complex, that normally costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, now be offered for a mere fraction of the cost? Does the old adage, "You get what you pay for," still ring true? The answer is yes and no. There are a lot of quality lenses that are close to the same price point, and it’s up to the buyer to figure out which ones they like best. It’s well agreed upon that no two lens manufacturers make the same exact lens because they all hold their own individual characteristics and personalities.

Across the board, everyone agrees that good lens quality starts with good lens engineering. In the past, it could often take years for an engineer and his or her team to build and design one good lens, which made most lenses very expensive. Today, one person can perform good lens engineering on a computer over the course of only a few weeks. In that short amount of time, a lens with high-performance virtues now can be realized.

"Some of the older lenses were great," comments Panavision Lens Engineer Dan Sasaki, "but were limited with R&D time and costs. Now with CAD and lens-optimization programs come more precise lenses that are actually much better."

So now we have more affordable, expedited engineering, but there’s still the actual assembly of the lens. Most of the lenses we use in motion-picture cinematography aren’t assembled on an assembly line; they’re painstakingly assembled by hand, measured and assembled one at a time.

According to Cooke Optics’ Les Zellan, "Cooke is not a mass-consumer product maker—we still build our lenses by hand. The lenses we make have to not only be optically as perfect as possible, but mechanically as well, across a great range of temperature."