by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the January 2020 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)
Reviewing and analyzing the previous year’s cinema technology advancements has become an annual ritual for the DCS eNewsletter. Come January, after so many new products have come out in the last year, it seems important to assess where we stand before the onslaught of many more innovations that are sure to be coming our way at NAB.
Although there were important advancements in applying AI technology to post, some new battery technology, and a steady advancement in LED color rendition and form factor, the main thing I want to look at this year is the growing trend toward larger sensors and the lenses that have been created to cover them. The subject has been on my mind lately, since we are producing a documentary to objectively look at large sensor cinematography.
We plan to look at the benefits, the aesthetic and technical differences, as well as the challenges of shooting these new larger format sensors as compared to S35. In our quest to be brand agnostic, we are trying to involve all the major manufacturers of new larger sensor cameras, (ARRI, Sony, Canon, Panavision/RED), and we are shooting with the VariCam, so Panasonic won’t feel left out.
The format will be a series of interviews with notable Cinematographers and industry experts along with sample shots that demonstrate some of the points being made by comparing various angles of view, focal lengths, apertures, and sensor sizes. We’ve already begun shooting and collecting interviews including Steve Yedlin, ASC, (Knives Out, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Looper), Nancy Schreiber, ASC, (The Nines, Your Friends and Neighbors, The Comeback), Matthew Duclos, of Duclos Lenses, and Lewis Rothenberg, a prominent DIT and recent President of the ICG, IATSE Local 600. Many more interviews are planned, but we hope to have it complete by NAB, where a DCS presentation on the subject has been proposed.
Looking back at 2019, there were quite a few product releases related to large sensor cinematography. Let’s start with ARRI’s latest large sensor offering, the ALEXA Mini LF, which premiered in March of last year, just prior to NAB. The Mini LF combines the compact size and low weight of the popular ALEXA Mini with the same 4.5K large sensor in the ALEXA LF, which was released the previous year. This sensor is twice the size and offers twice the resolution of ALEXA cameras in 35 format, slightly bigger than full frame at 4448 x 3096. This helps to improve the colorimetry and low noise abilities for better High Dynamic Range (HDR) and a wider color gamut. The Mini LF was ideal for the highly regarded 1917, where Roger Deakins, ASC, needed a smaller camera to be operated on a plethora of mobile rigs in order to appear as one continuous shot throughout the movie, but also one with the color depth and resolution necessary for the visual effects to blend the shots together.
Just as ARRI released a smaller form factor camera with a large sensor in the Mini LF, so did Canon and Sony, who also each have large sensor full frame cinema cameras. Their flagship cameras, the Canon C700FF and the Sony Venice, have both now been complimented by smaller, (and significantly lower priced models). Canon’s new C500 Mark II features a 5.9K Full Frame CMOS sensor, user-changeable lens mounts, electronic image stabilization, and internal cinema RAW light recording. The camera is able to shoot up to 60p, 5.9K and 4K (2K recording at 120p), and is said to achieve 15 stops of dynamic range. Cinema Raw Light, first introduced in the EOS C200, helps to cut data size to about one-third to one-fifth of a Cinema RAW file, purportedly without losing grading flexibility.
Meanwhile, Sony’s new FX9 is their first small form factor camera to feature a 6K full-frame sensor and Fast Hybrid Auto Focus (AF) system. Sony has recently combined their professional camera divisions handling higher end Cine Alta Digital Cinema cameras such as the Venice, with the group handling the more budget sensitive, small form factor models such as the FS7, along with their professional mirrorless cameras like the A7 line. This new camera seems to benefit from mixing some of this DNA. It combines the high mobility of the FS7, with an advanced AF system you might expect to see on a stills camera, along with a sensor size, color science, and Dual Base ISO inherited from the VENICE.
Panasonic, Sigma, Fujifilm, and Leica all have interesting new large sensor cameras, and although they all shoot at least 4K video, I hesitate to call them cinema cameras. They are all of the mirrorless variety, and the form factors are closer to what I think of as stills cameras. The Fujifilm GFX 100 is actually a Medium Format Mirrorless Camera with a 44x33mm, 102 mega pixel sensor. The extra large sensor allows for up to 5.5 stops of image stabilization. The Leica SL2 uses Full Frame to achieve 47.3 megapixel and can shoot up to 5K.
The Sigma fp is advertised as “the world’s smallest, lightest mirrorless digital camera with a full-frame sensor”. The 24.6-megapixel camera has a 35mm full-frame Bayer sensor, and it weighs just 370g (less than a pound without the battery and memory card.) Sigma is calling the fp a “pocketable full-frame” camera, and at 4.4 x 2.75 x 1.8 inches, it can fit in the palm of your hand. Meanwhile, the Panasonic Lumix S1H camera features a full-frame image sensor capable of recording at 6K/24p, 10-bit video. The 24.2MP CMOS sensor is said to capture up to 14-stops of dynamic range, with sensitivity from ISO 100-51200. The S1H also offers Dual Native ISO settings that prioritize either low noise or low sensitivity, Variable Frame Rate (VFR) recording, and V-Log with Hybrid Log Gamma.
While not yet reaching into Full Frame territory, Blackmagic Design continues to grow the resolution and sensor size of their cameras. The URSA Mini Pro G2 now packs a 4.6K S35 sensor, and the Pocket cameras, which started out just a few years ago with a 2.5K 16mm sensor. The latest version of the Pocket camera now sports a S35 size 6K sensor.
Increasing the size of the sensor can offer significant benefits allowing for increased resolution without giving up dynamic range or color depth, but it can also present some cinematographic challenges. For one thing, depth of field. Given the same focal length and f-stop, the angle of view will be wider with the large sensor and the depth of field will be reduced. While this can be a desired effect, and shallow depth of field is currently a popular trend, it can be a double edged sword, and is not right for every scenario. I pity the poor focus pullers who must try to hold critical elements in sharp focus with razor thin depth of field. Luckily, some of the aforementioned large sensor cameras are starting to integrate very sophisticated focus assist features which give them a fighting chance. The Canon C500 Mk II and the Sony FX9 have both borrowed heavily from their stills lens technology to offer these features, but it means the lenses must be outfitted for electronic operation which most traditional cine lenses are not.
Another benefit I have mixed feelings about is the ability to crop and reframe. While this can be helpful for stabilization and to fix image problems, as a cinematographer, I hate to think of my shots being randomly reframed during post. Framing is a critical tool we use for visual expression and should not be manipulated after the fact without the cinematographer’s input.
Larger sensors create the need for lenses to cover a greater image area. With 35mm as the industry standard for over a century, most of the cinematography lenses built over the years conformed to this standard. Now, unable to fully cover the image area of these new larger sensors results in vignetting. This is seen as darkness creeping into the edges of the frame, which can be quite severe on wider angle lenses leading to an effect as if you are looking through a port hole.
While these new cameras have the ability to “window down” and use a smaller area of the sensor, most users want to take advantage of the full size of the sensor which has created a great demand for new lenses. While it is a very good time to be a cine lens manufacturer, it has been a challenging time for the owners of traditional lenses. Many, like myself, seeing how quickly digital cameras were becoming obsolete, invested heavily in lenses as a safe harbor. While still performing well on many popular cameras, their value has been diminished with the trend toward larger sensors.
The physics of lens construction generally requires lenses that cover a larger image area to be slower with smaller maximum apertures. They also tend to be physically larger, especially the zooms. Many manufacturers have stepped up in the last year to meet the demand. After the Mini LF, ARRI’s Signature Prime lenses were probably their most important product release of 2019, (although the Orbiter LED also deserves a lot of attention). There are 16 lenses ranging from 12 mm to 280 mm sharing a common T-Stop of T1.8. They also created the new LPL lens mount and a PL-to-LPL adapter in order to allow the use of legacy lenses.
Zeiss has actually been making most of their lenses capable of covering larger sensors for quite some time. Three generations of their CP, (for Compact Prime,) lenses have been delivering high quality at affordable prices. The CP.2 and CP.3 generations offered advanced lens metadata capabilities as an added feature. They have also had an even higher end of Full-Frame and Metadata capable lenses known as the Supreme Primes. The set consists of 13 primes from 15mm to 200mm all at T2.1.
Late last year, they released yet another line, the Supreme Prime Radiance lenses with even more capabilities. This set of seven high-end cinematography lenses is based on the high-speed ZEISS Supreme Prime lens family with the benefit of the new T blue coating. This special coating is said to offer a distinctive look with consistent flares across all focal lengths. The Supreme Radiance Primes are available as a set of seven focal lengths of between 21 and 100 millimeters, all with a maximum aperture of T1.5. They feature a common front diameter of 95 millimeters and weigh in at only a little over 3 lbs. on average.
Canon is another company that came out with new large sensor primes that has been making full frame lenses for quite some time, and not just for stills. They are much sought after today even though they are no longer in production. Known as K-35 lenses, they covered full frame and date back to the 1970’s. They even won an Academy Award in 1976, and have been used on such films as Aliens (1986) and American Hustle (2013). At NAB 2019 Canon introduced a new set of seven cinema prime PL-Mount lenses named Sumire, (pronounced “Soo-mee-ray,”.) They cover full frame and are designed to create an artistically pleasing optical quality that increases as the lens aperture approaches its maximum setting, (wide open). The 7 lens set from 14mm to 135mm features an 11-bladed iris and interchangeable lens mount for either EF or PL with stops ranging from T1.3 to 3.1.
Several other companies have also been releasing full frame capable prime lenses at a variety of price points. Sigma and Tokina each hit a nice balance between price and quality and have been regularly adding to their portfolios over the last couple of years. Cooke Optics also keeps adding to its S7/i Full Frame Plus series with 13 lenses from 16mm to180mm, all with T2.0 aperture coverage for Full Frame, (and slightly beyond, which accounts for the “Plus” added to the name). Leitz has likewise been adding to its Summicron and Thalia lines of prime lenses, but their bigger news last year was the introduction of two new zooms, a wide 25-75mm and a 55-125mm with a T2.8 aperture and no ramping.
One of the highlights of NAB 2019 was the release of Fujinon’s two new full frame zooms known as Premista, a 28-100mmT2.9 and a Premista 80-250mm T2.9-3.5. Both lenses cover a 46.3mm image circle, which handles all the large format digital cinema cameras available for purchase. The engineering necessary to maintain high quality and cover a large image circle at a stop that starts at T2.9 is complicated and I was figuring these new lenses would be extremely pricey, but Fujinon has managed to keep them in the same sub-$40K price range of the original Cabrios.
Since Primes are easier to make, most companies start there and move into zooms later, but Angenieux went the other way around. They have been longtime manufacturers of high quality zooms, and came up with a unique system for changing the rear elements of some of them to allow coverage all the way up to a 46.3 image circle. As with expander systems there is some loss of exposure converting to full frame coverage, but it is a good way to give lens owners versatility to use their gear on a wider range of cameras. Last year, however, they introduced a set of Optimo Primes. The 12-lens set spans 18mm to 200mm, most with a T1.8 stop and full frame coverage; (the 18mm is T2.0 and the 200mm is T2.2.). The lens mounts are interchangeable between LPL, XPL, PL, Canon EF, Nikon F and Panavision XL; again a nice option for versatility. What is really unique is an exchangeable iris assembly, allowing the cinematographer to choose a 3, 6 or 9-bladed iris for a variety of bokehs of different shapes, colors, and sizes.
Lastly, I want to talk about Anamorphic lenses, which to me is one of the best reasons to shoot with a full frame sensor. Traditional anamorphic lenses were designed to squeeze a 2:40 aspect ratio image onto a 35mm size 4:3 sensor, (actually a film gate). However, 35mm digital cameras, (with the exception of the ARRI ALEXA Open Gate), were closer to a 16:9 aspect ratio sensor. Using this kind of lens on a S35 16:9 sensor causes a great deal of loss to the available sensor area on the sides of the frame. However, using that same lens on a full frame, 4:3 sensor allows the full coverage of the lens to be captured. There is still some loss of pixel area, but you are using much more of the sensor than you could on a S35 size digital sensor because the aspect ratio is similar. Remember that the sensor is also much larger, enough to capture 4K in anamorphic. This has become a popular method to get a 2:1 squeeze and maintain 4K for a release that is approved by Netflix.
Now Cooke has taken it further, at least with their primes. They have created a line of Anamorphic primes allowing a 1.8 squeeze to take advantage of as much of the full frame sensor as possible. They range in focal lengths from 32mm to 180mm with a common T2.3 stop and all cover a full frame 36mm x 24mm sensor.
P + S Technik’s TECHNOVISION Classic 1.5X series also covers Full Frame format (36 x 24mm) with a 43mm image circle. With a 1.5X squeeze it will not give you the maximum anamorphic effect, but it can be a good choice if you desire the anamorphic look and want to maximize the whole use of the camera sensor. I personally had a good experience shooting with these lenses, allowing a more subtle anamorphic look that I find quite pleasing.
As you can see, there is a lot of new gear to assess in the realm of large sensor cinematography and new avenues for visual storytelling are opening up. That, of course, is a good thing, but not every project needs, or would benefit by employing, these tools. Like any new cinematic technique, it will probably be a bit overused until the thrill wears off. We’re bound to see more soft focus as we did when the ability to shoot movies on DSLRs emerged. We saw the kind of cycle decades ago when the zoom lens first hit the market, and to some extent again when narrow shutters and shaky-cam were the fashion of the day for covering action scenes.
Let’s try to let the story drive our choice of the tools and techniques we use, rather than rush to new technology just to follow a latest trend. In any case, I’ll continue to report on cinematic innovation, but not without offering some critical analysis. Just because you can use a new tool or technique doesn’t always mean that you should.