Andrew McLean, an experienced cinematographer and now vice president of business development at broadcast equipment hire company HotCam, details some of the basic things to consider when it comes to choosing and using camera lenses.
What’s the first thing you do when choosing lenses for a shoot?
First I consider the creative direction – the aesthetic of the project. Are we doing beauty work or something more industrial? How will the camera be used? Will it be used dynamically such as for crane shots or steadicam or for static setups? Then I will consider the amount of money I have available. This will go a long way to helping me decide which path I take and will usually guide me into one of two categories: high end or low end.
After that I will start to think about both the pairing of the lens with the camera body and the environment in which I will be using it, specifically how much light I have. I will look at whether I am going to be shooting interior or exterior scenes and whether or not I can create my own light. These factors will influence the speed of the lens that I need.
As an example, if I am shooting outside and I don’t want to (or don’t have the opportunity to) add a lot of light I will choose a fast lens. That way, if necessary, I can always slow it down using ND filters.
With HD video cameras I think differently. They’re so fast that I can get away with a slower lens if that particular lens is beneficial for some other reason like aesthetic or budget.
One of the things I always do is look at the bokeh of the lens and how the lens deals with out-of-focus points of light, anything that is beyond the depth-of-field. Everyone is after a shallow depth-of-field right now for factual and reality type programming, so I look at how well the lens handles that. Some do it better than others.
Are there practical decisions to be made?
Absolutely. If it’s an interview piece I’m not so concerned with how pretty the lens looks or its functionality. I’m most keenly interested in budget and speed. And in some ways the lens becomes a non-factor.
However, if I’m doing complicated dolly shots, crane shots or steadicam work then the functionality of the lens matters a lot because I want more control and I want to know that all the peripheral equipment that we’re going to use, like remote focusing, is going to work well with that lens.
There are also logistical issues to consider. Some lenses, like the Red Pro Primes for example, are great lenses but the focus ring is very stiff. That makes it tough to use if you’re doing a lot of handheld work. Personally I like to choose something that has a focus ring that moves freely and precisely.
If I’m doing handheld work I try to find a small form factor lens because the focus barrels have less movement. By that I mean that the distance that the focus barrel travels is shorter so it’s easier to focus. Most Cooke S4s, or Red Prime lenses, for example, are so big and they rotate so far that you cannot easily manipulate them handheld.
As you can tell, often my lens choice is as dependent on the mechanics of how I am going to be shooting as it is on how I want the images to look. I can make a lot of lenses look great but if they don’t work in the environment that we’re shooting in then we’re screwed.
Do different lenses provide different looks?
They do. Cooke S4s are my favourite. To me they have a lovely soft look. They’re still sharp and when you’re in focus you know you’re in focus. But they’re very soft. I like that. Whereas a Zeiss Prime, especially the smaller, super-speed lenses, are very crisp. That can be too sharp for me but it would certainly work for a lot of people.
What checks will you make before you embark on a shoot?
I will generally look at whether or not the lenses in the set are the same speed. I’ll explain why. When lighting a shot, I have to light to my slowest lens. With a set of Zeiss CP.2s for example the lenses are all different speeds with the slowest being a 3.1. So I have to light to a 3.1 even if I don’t think I’m going to use that lens. I do this just in case the director suddenly says he or she wants to do something long. If I’m there with a 3.1 lens and if I’d lit the scene for a 2.1 I’d be in trouble. Generally, though as a rule, I try to always light the scene at least one stop up from the bottom of the lens. It’s always nice to have a one-stop safety. Most lenses don’t perform at their best wide open as well.
How important is doing a lens test?
It’s important to make sure that the lens works with the camera. A lot of the new digital film cameras have large sensors and some of the lenses people use are not designed to cover a sensor that big. The widest Zeiss in the CP.2 range will not cover a super 35 mm sensor for example. This is not a creative problem it’s about basic physics. A lens test is also important for production so they can check the look.
What do you look for during a lens test?
You need to make sure that your lens is coming in on focus. That’s critical. If those focus marks are off then marking off distances is not going to help you and everything will be wrong. Checking back focus is also hugely important. Any good rental house worth their salt will check that out for you before you arrive for the check out. I’ll also look at things like contrast and color rendition. Its good to ensure that it is consistent across the set. I like to force the lens to flare, as some lenses produce beautiful effects when they flare. I like to know if and how I can use some lens flares in the aesthetic. I’ll look for chromatic aberrations, vingnetting, breathing, and other undesirable effects. These all must be checked on the camera you intend to use for the shoot. If you’re shooting film, its not enough to look at the lens on the glass, run some film through the camera.
What is the biggest challenge when it comes to lenses?
Often the biggest challenge for me is staying true to the look without compromising other things that are important to production – budget and schedule. I’ve learned to consider these things with the creative direction and develop the look and equipment to compliment the realities of the shoot. There is nothing worse than seeing your look fall apart because you don’t have the time to make complicated focus pulls, ND grad pulls, etc. Consider the budget and the schedule, consider what is most important to the director, and choose your battles. Maybe eighty percent of the content is interview driven and twenty percent are beauty shots of objects to support the interviews. The schedule and budget may dictate that you make the beauty shots really count but shoot the interviews in a more straightforward style.
What are the favourite lens tips or tricks?
It really pays to play with the matte box and understand that you can change the dynamic of the lens. Just changing the ND in the box for example, can bring out more or less depth of field from a 50mm lens and saves me the time of flipping a lens. If I shoot it wide open, it can look like an 85mm as far as depth-of-field is concerned or like a 25 closed down. I can change this by simply using ND filters. Often I will start tight with some ND in for a beautiful shallow look but then when we reframe, go wider by simply moving the camera back. I’ll pull the ND too, close down and start to take advantage of hyper-focal effects.
What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer?
Because depth of field is such a hot topic I would say, make sure you understand the ratio between the film plane, the subject and the background and how you change it. You can take a 2/3 camera with a Fujinon ENG lens and make it look like a Prime lens by changing the ratios, moving your subject away from the background to create space there. Space is beneficial for control of light and focus. If you don’t have the budget for super fancy Prime lenses then regular lenses can do a great job but you’ve got to push them and know that everything else going on in the shot is important.
What’s in your DoP toolkit?
I tend to carry a light meter, a color temperature meter and some calculators for depth of field and sun position (azimuth) plus a few extra chamois for the viewfinder. Usually I will also have a few contrast glasses and a pair of ladies’ tights. The contrast glass is essential because it allows me to see the light, to see the ratios the way the camera sees it (or in case of film, the way the negative sees it) and then I can leave my light meter, once I know my base exposure and just look and see the relationship of the ratios - it helps me to light much more quickly. As for the ladies’ tights, you’ll have to ask my assistants!
Finally, if there was just one piece of advice you could give to someone when choosing lenses what would it be?
I would say that it doesn’t really matter what lens you’re using as long as you understand how to use it. It’s not brand or lens specific. It is about knowing how to use that lens in a non-traditional way. Using a 50mm to look like 100mm for instance. You can create beautiful images using a cheap lens. The tools are just tools. The look is reliant on the DoP’s ability to use what he has available. It’s so important to first accept which of the things in your world you can change – sometimes you’ll change your world to fit your tools and others, you’ll change the tools to fit the world. Good communication is so important. Understanding what is and isn’t important to the director in a given scene can really help influence your choices, make your work faster and ultimately put the audiences eyes on all the right things.