This all started because on a daily basis, it seems, my Twitter feed is chock full of discussions about how lens X is SO MUCH better than lens Y, etc, etc. People talk about how much better a certain lens looks over another and I just don’t buy it. I mean, I would guess that there is a difference, and I’d hope so for the difference you can pay between cheaper and more expensive lenses, but I just couldn’t imagine that on the same camera, the differences would be monumental.
So, I decided to put my money where my mouth is, get together a bunch of lenses, and see what all the hype was about. I had been talking with my buddy Chris Loughran about doing this, and he definitely wanted to hop aboard and work on this. He had more experience with higher end lenses than I did and was pretty sure I’d see a big difference across the range of lenses we were going to test. Previously, I had never really shot with any cinema lenses, and only worked with video specific lenses (Canon and Fujinon zooms) and then still lenses (with 35mm adapters, DSLRs, and then large-sensor video cameras). I was certainly aware of the mechanical advantages of the cinema-specific lenses, but was more interested in the differences we could SEE in the shots.
I thought that this would be a good opportunity to get together some Boston-area shooters, so I invited a bunch of guys over to partake in some food, beers, and lens testing.
(Disclaimer #1: Food and beer prevailed at this get-together. If you are looking for a really thorough, highly scientific test, you will not find it here. We were able to make some conclusions, but for the most part, we were just hanging out and having a good time.)
Chris and I had 2 or 3 setups we wanted to do and run each lens through the same “scene”. But (see above), due to too much frivolity we only got through one setup before we decided to call it a day. Our setup involved 2 “actors” and went from a medium-wide to a close-up shot. Our somewhat uninspired lighting, was fairly flat, but allowed us to see more detail in the scene. We ran the scene through with each of the 9 lenses a couple times (mostly re-doing if focus was ever botched).
We had a wide-array of lenses ranging in price from $450 to about $18k. With the exception of one lens, all were either 35mm focal length primes, or zooms set to 35mm. Here was our lineup from most expensive to least expensive.
-Cooke s4 35mm f2.0 (I believe retail is about $18,000)
-Zeiss Super Speed 35mm f1.3 (not in production anymore, I think they are available used for about $5-7k)
-Zeiss CP2 35mm f2.1 ($3900)
-Olympus 14-35 f2.0 ($2299)
-Nikon 17-35 f2.8 ($1699)
-Canon 17-55 f2.8 ($1099)
-Nikon AIS 35mm f1.4 (approx $899, but this was a de-clicked version, which would cost more)
-Sigma 30mm f1.4 ($489)
-Tamron 17-50 f2.8 ($459)
With the exception of the Sigma, Tamron and Canon lenses, all other lenses could be aperture adjusted on the lens (or in the camera). We mounted the EOS mount lenses to a 7D to set aperture on each. We did this test at f4 on each lens (as that seemed the most appropriate for this scene), but in comparing the waveforms on each lens, found we needed to open to about 3.5/3.8 on the EOS lenses to get the same exposure.
We used my Panasonic AF-100 to test all of these lenses.
(Disclaimer #2: Okay, I am aware that this camera has a much smaller sensor than the Super35 or FF35 image that most of these lenses can cover. I am aware that because of this I am using more of the sweet spot of each lens and am not able to assess the edge sharpness between each of these lenses. Yes, I know that. But this is the camera that Chris and I use day in and day out, and so we wanted to see the results on what we knew and what we used. Might things have looked different on an F3 or Alexa. Absolutely. I am aware of that.)
Everything was run to a KiPro Mini (awesome little device) recording ProRes from the SDI jack on the AF100. We used a Hot Rod PL adapter for our 3 PL lenses, and Lumix, Novoflex and Fotodiox adapters for the other lenses. Camera was set as follows (for all you AF-100 users):
Master Ped: -2
I don’t tend to shoot super-flat, and a somewhat more baked-in look is better for 90% of my work. Since I didn’t want to color correct any of this (to retain the original quality) I set it this way. I think a little more contrast could be added to this though for final output.
So here’s the video I put together which shows how these lenses stood up. Again, not the most thorough or scientific thing in the world but whatever.
(Disclaimer #4: Obviously viewing this on Vimeo, or even the downloadable version is not the BEST way to see the results. We all know this. Blah blah blah.)
So there you have it. A $5k camera hooked up to a wide-range of lenses. As we were shooting I kept looking at the monitor and thinking that I was hardly seeing any difference at all. In editing, the differences became more clear, but I found it hard to even be able to SAY what made one lens better than the others. I think Chris and I both agreed that the Cooke looked the best (and maybe we were skewed by the price tag), but it had a richness and detail without appearing overly sharp. I also really liked the look of the Zeiss Super Speed, which probably looked the most different to me than any of the other lenses. It’s a much older lens and I often hear people talk about the look of “vintage” lenses, and I sort of get that now. It looked soft and warm and looked really nice on the skin. It also appeared to bring out the most shadow detail of all the lenses. Maybe I’m just not that picky, but I didn’t think any of these looked bad, and for most projects (especially web-based ones) I doubt any of these would hinder the end results.
That said, a lot of what you’re buying in the higher end (especially cinema-specific lenses) is a mechanical advantage. They feel better made, they have long focus throws with smooth focus and aperture rings, are color matched across their set (which is a big deal), etc. Chris, who was pulling focus on all these shots, actually thought the Cooke, which had the largest focus throw of the bunch, was almost harder to use, because the shot required more than 2 full rotations of the follow focus. The Tamron and Canon and the shortest throw and he ended up just eye-balling it, but nailed it pretty easily. The Super Speed’s throw was somewhere in the middle which worked out well.
So this post is getting really long so I’ll stop. But before I end I leave you with 2 fun BTS videos that were put together by Rick Macomber and Michael Murie. Nowadays it seems you can’t do anything without a BTS, but I appreciate you guys doing this, and it makes us seem act marginally more prepared than we actually were.
Thanks to all who participated: Chris Loughran, Keith Wasserman, Brandon Vincent, Rick Macomber, Michael Murie, Ben Pender-Cudlip, and Matt Stapleton. And thanks to Rule Boston Camera for giving us a deal on the rental on some of these lenses.