prime time for a zooming kind of guy
Like a lot of you I started making still pictures, with a few fixed-focal-length lenses. Zooms were "no good." To get the right composition I walked in or out, or changed lenses.
Then came movies. Ah, the Zoom lens. How amazing. I still moved around, but once the camera was on a tripod, it was so much easier to frame by zooming the lens.
Now come prime lenses for video. I would like to know from those of you who use them, how that impacts on your daily life making pictures. Being so accustomed now to getting exactly the frame that I want, I wonder whether I'm going to be as productive if I move to prime lenses.
So much depends on two factors: do you have a great assistant who can quickly changes lenses for you? And, do you know your focal lengths well enough to call the shot by eye, meaning: I want the camera here with a 75mm, or such. The latter takes years of experience, and the problem with primes on video cameras for those of us who learned on film is the field of view will be different from a prime on a 35mm film camera (or 16mm.)
Bottom line: when I have to shoot film run-and-gun, I use a zoom as a variable prime. When I have the luxury of a good AC and a full set of primes, I go with the primes. The last time I was able to do that was nine years ago....
Of course, with video and primes, there's the other consideration: getting the "film" look, which primes help achieve. So if you need that look, you are going to learn on the spot to call for the right focal length. Moving the camera a bit closer or farther away is usually easier on video, unless you are full-up, because the whole rig is lighter.
Finally, the obvious: each focal length has its own look. One of the joy of using primes is to play with that look. Do I want compression? Then I want to go with a long focal length. etc.
director of photography
and custom lighting design
[Rick Wise] "The last time I was able to do that was nine years ago...."
I hear that! A shame, too, because as you said, picking a prime is part of the creative process, which after all involves narrowing down your choices, going down certain paths, and seeing where that takes you.
I'm a big fan of primes, and use virtually nothing but them.
My main bunch is a set of PL mount Leitz-Panavision superspeeds.... not a real huge set... 18mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 80mm. On very rare occasions I use a 6mm (180° fisheye) that I have, and I also have a Russian 200mm LOMO that I'll use on occasion. I could use a few more... would like to have a 28mm and maybe a 100mm or a 120mm.
Very rarely will I use zooms... when I do, I have a Russian Foton 37-140mm, but it's pretty slow and a lot warmer than the primes. I never use a video zoom lens because I almost always use a P+S Technik converter.
I'm really fast at changing lenses (although I'd be faster if I had a swing-away matte box, which I keep promising to myself as a gift), and I usually call for a lens and my AC is ready to hand it to me. However, even by myself I'm pretty fast at it.
The upside to primes is that they just look so darn great. There's buttloads of glass in a zoom lens (as many as, say 16-18 different elements), whereas a prime lens just has a few. The less glass, typically the better the image. Also there's the lens speed factor... primes can be had with a much faster f-stop range than can zooms because all that glass eats up light. Most of my primes are T1.3, so very fast indeed... so you don't have to drag out five different HMIs for most scenes.
Bigshot DPs who have access to anything an everything (i.e., Roger Deakins, Tak Fujimoto, cinematographers of that level) will be very particular about what primes are used on each project because every model/brand/vintage has a different look. They might chose a set of late model Cookes for an action movie (very cold and crisp), or an early set of Speed Panchros for a romantic comedy (warmer and softer). Lots of flexibility, if you have the resources. Most of us don't have that luxury, though... and that's one thing I like about my Leitz primes is that they are pretty much "right in the middle" as far as lens "looks" go (not too warm, not too cold, not to hard, not too soft) so they are very versatile for pretty much most projects.
The upsides to primes are pretty obvious, as I said they just look fantastic.
The downsides, as Rick said, are firstly that you are always changing lenses. That of course can be inconvenient and eats up time. It's also a danger to the equipment. We try to be as careful as we can, but a couple of years ago my 50mm took a spill onto a set floor. I almost cried. Didn't break any glass, but still it did a couple of thousand dollars' worth of damage to it. That God for Paul Duclos of Duclos Lenses in L.A., he's a wiz of a lens tech and was able to repair it. You can bet we have very strict lens-handling protocol now.
The other big downside is the cost. Many people use cheap SLR still camera lenses for video (with DoF converters), and that's okay, but a set of real cine primes will knock a big hole in your wallet. No matter how many big bad and expensive pieces of equipment that we might take on location, that little silver case of primes is always by far the single most valuable piece of gear on the job. In the instances when we have to fly to locations, the lenses are never shipped or checked as baggage... they stay in my possession at all times.
The primes that most people consider are most likely used... as most of us (I definitely don't) can't pony up $100K+ for a set of brand new Cookes. But with the more widespread use of DoF converters today (including me), the market for primes has really dried up in the last few years. Just two or three years ago, you could find a decent set of four matched 35mm format cine primes in the $10k neighborhood if you looked hard enough. These days the prices have doubled and in some cases even tripled (especially for superspeeds) and that's when you can find them. It took me three months to find the set that I bought, and I wasn't being overly picky or price hunting... they just weren't available.
Worth the hunt, though.
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
Sorry for the silly question, but won't a nice cine-style zoom on a pro35 give you a better look than a regular video zoom, but still afford a little more speed and flexibility?
That's not a silly question at all.
The answer is yes.... somewhat. Using a cine zoom with a Pro35 (or whatever other flavor of converter) is certainly doable... and will give you an infinitely more filmic look that not using the converter and just using your stock video lens.
You still won't get quite the look of primes... a good prime just has such a clean crisp sharp look that is rarely matchable by a zoom.
There's also a light factor. You can get superspeed primes as fast as T1.2 or T1.3. Typically, cine zooms are going to be in the T3.0+ neighborhood, and that's if you are lucky. Much much slower than fast primes. For this reason, especially for use with DoF converters (which eat up a lot of light themselves), using a zoom will need tons of light. I've used my Foton zoom with my Mini35 successfully quite a few times, but only for exteriors... I'd never even try it for an interior shoot, it's just too darn slow.
Lastly, there is the cost factor. You can find a relatively cheap zoom, but you largely get what you pay for. There are really good ones out there, but a really great honest-to-goodness real PL mount fast cine zoom is going to cost you. Probably about the same as a late-model used Lexus. Or maybe even a new one. For that money, you can get several primes which (imho) look better.
But to answer your question, yes, you definitely get flexibility with a zoom. I've most often used mine on political shoots... the typical "candidates gladhanding with supporters" shots, often handheld, sort of a documentary-feel type of shot... and sometimes because I wanted to see a little bit of a pop zoom happening in a shot (although I normally always hate actually seeing a lens zoom... it's unnatural, and the only camera move that the human eye can't reproduce). But again, I've only done that with exteriors.
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
Just to add to Tadd's comments there is also the factor of MTF (Modulation Transfer Function) of the 35mm adapter. Even with the top end system like PS+Technic you will suffer sharpness of the image.
[Emre Tufekci S.O.A.] "Even with the top end system like PS+Technic you will suffer sharpness of the image."
Perhaps technically, but in practicality I've never found that to be an issue or hindrance. I shoot with primes and a P+S Technik every day and the images are always razor sharp.
That is... if the footage is in focus.
One of the challenges of shooting 35mm format with primes is that DoFs can be very shallow if you desire, and perfect focus is critical. That's why I always am an advocate of using real cine primes rather than SLR lenses... among other things, real cine lenses are infinitely easier to focus, especially when tracking is needed. A really good follow focus unit is also in order (not one of those cheap "Fisher Price" FF units, they have way too much slop in the gearboxes). The low-res viewfinder on most any camera is useless for eyeball focusing for primes... at minimum a true HD monitor is needed.... although the very best focusing is the old fashioned "Hollywood" method... a tape measure (we usually use a Stanley "Fat Max" laser tape... about a hundred bucks at Lowes or Home Depot).
Strangely enough in light of this conversation, just today I had to use our video zoom lens (after I found it) on a shoot this morning. For a variety of reasons the situation just called for that rather than the P+S converter and primes. One look at the footage and I was longing to put my primes back on as quickly as possible.
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.