Reflections on AbelCine's Behind the Lens: A Look at Documentary Zooms

Published on in Equipment / Tech Reviews

Matt Porwoll (Cinematographer) and Geoff Smith (Technical Advisor), the minds behind the “Behind the Lens” series

By: Geoff Smith, AbelCine Camera Technology Specialist

I was lucky enough to serve as the technical advisor on AbelCine’s Behind the Lens project, a web series looking at 11 professional zoom lenses covering the indispensable 3x wide-to-tight range, perfect for handheld shooting in run-and-gun documentary situations. New York-based cinematographer Matt Porwoll graciously agreed to helm Behind the Lens: A Look at Documentary Zooms, which launched in April. We just posted the final episode in the series and wanted to look back and highlight some key findings about each lens.

Fujinon MK 18-55
Fujinon’s svelte entry into the sub-$10,000 documentary zoom market is an outstanding short-to-medium range zoom. Available in both Sony E-mount and Fuji’s own ‘X’ mount, the small diameter of the lens’ barrel makes it an easy lens to get to grips with. Add in superb optical performance, especially for this price point, and you have a lens that feels like it was made for Sony’s FS7 and FS5 cameras.

Canon 15.5-47 & 30-105
Canon’s venerable CN-E zoom lenses deserve their stellar reputation, with excellent haptics and construction that adds a welcome sense of mass – and stability – to seemingly ever-lightening hand-held payloads. The rich optical coatings add a touch of warmth to skin tones and match well not only with one another, but also the CN-E prime lenses. The lenses’ long, 300° focus throw can make grabbing focus a little more time consuming, but the detailed witness marks and accuracy are appreciated by dedicated focus pullers.

Zeiss 21-100
Zeiss is an optics brand that needs no introduction and their new 21-100mm LWZ.3 provides more evidence of why. Covering a much longer focal length than their compact cine zooms, the 21-100 offers a “splash-proof” housing, sturdy construction and no vignetting, chromatic aberration or breathing. It does ramp its maximum aperture from T2.9 to T3.9, but since this happens over the lens’ nearly 80mm of zoom travel it’s barely noticeable. Like the Canon CN-E zooms it has a very generous focus travel. The Zeiss 21-100 is available in a multi-mount system with mounts for Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, MFT, or PL and mounts can be quickly changed in the field.

Fujinon 19-90 Cabrio
With breathtaking image quality, and a price tag to match, the Fujinon 19-90 presents a compelling package with few compromises. Perhaps the most-rented cinema zoom today, the addition of a servo hand grip turns the 19-90 into a perfect ENG-style lens. The smoothness of the focusing ring is a joy to use and the lens’ incredibly high sharpness helps you see when your subject is in peak focus. Bokeh is very pleasing as well and though flare is well-controlled, when the lens does flare it produces beautifully abstract and colorful patterns. To sum up, the 19-90 is, in a word, cinematic.

Canon 17-55 & 24-105
One might ask, “What are a couple of relatively inexpensive DSLR zooms doing on this list?” Both are “workhorses,” owned and used by legions on such a broad range of productions that it might be easier to list what genres these lenses haven’t tackled. While they don’t provide the kind of image quality, construction or feel we associate with Canon’s high end cine optics, they’re more than capable of holding their own and allow for traveling light and keeping a low profile. Both lenses also feature image stabilization, which can help make up for their low-mass designs. Together, these lenses cover the bulk of scenarios a doc shooter is likely to encounter. 

Sony 18-110
In contrast to its predecessor, Sony’s new “kit” lens for the FS7 II is an improvement in just about every way. This lens has mechanically coupled focus, iris and zoom rings as well as an internal servo with a rocker switch for power zooming. And it’s relatively free of breathing, chromatic aberration (though some is still present) and flare. The 18-110 probably won’t knock you over with its “look” as it doesn’t really have one. Instead, it has a compelling feature set tuned specifically for Sony’s FS7 and FS5 cameras, producing quietly pretty images appropriate for weddings, events, and corporate videos.

Canon 17-120
The other “Cadillac” lens on our list, along with the Fujinon 19-90, is Canon’s justly lauded 17-120. It marries shoulder-mount ENG-style ergonomics with cutting edge glass to produce some of the most cinematic imagery from a hybrid cine/servo lens that we’ve run across. Contrary to Zeiss’ approach to handling a variable maximum aperture, Canon have opted to ramp the iris (from T2.95 to T3.9) only at the telephoto end, from roughly 90mm onwards. This means that for the bulk of the lens’ travel, it’s a constant T2.95. Lastly, a macro diopter allows for close focus to near the lens’ front element for unique perspective effects. I could offer some cork-sniffing adjectives about its optical qualities, but I’ll just sum it up in one word: gorgeous.

Fujinon 20-120 Cabrio
Smaller and lighter than the 19-90, but no less capable, Fujinon’s 20-120 provides a longer zoom range (at the cost of a millimeter of focal length at the wide end), and a maximum aperture of T3.5 (about a half stop slower than the 19-90). In exchange for these (minimal) drawbacks, you get a lens with much the same image quality as the 19-90 for roughly half price (or almost a third if you opt to forego the optional servo hand unit). Virtually all the superlatives heaped upon the 19-90 apply to the 20-120: high sharpness, beautiful bokeh, rugged build, and superb handling. The 20-120 doesn’t produce the colorfully abstract flares that the 19-90 can, rather it’s nearly flare-free.

Canon 18-80
Canon’s new Compact-Servo cinema zoom takes the well-loved zoom range of the full-frame 24-105mm zoom lens (see above) and matches, more or less, the same field of view on Super35-sized sensors, such as in the C300 Mark II and brand new C200. Though not the fastest lens (it’s wide-open at T4.4), the 18-80 sports a “mini servo” hand grip with a nicely-damped zoom rocker. Optically, the 18-80 is very sharp, very flat, doesn’t breathe much and coatings match those on Canon’s higher-end CN-E lenses. Its price point makes it a very solid option for those looking to move up from DSLR lenses.

About the Writer

Geoff Smith is a Camera Technology Specialist at AbelCine in New York. Prior to joining AbelCine, he worked in production as a DIT, DP and Assistant Editor on features, web spots and corporate videos. He has an ever-growing collection of classic lenses that he enjoys adapting to modern digital still and motion cameras.

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