Why Full Frame Lenses Expose the Future of Cinema Cameras

May 5, 2017
Gear News and Ideas
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“I think cinema dictates that we always have to get bigger, we always have to outdo ourselves, we always have to take it up a notch.”

NAB 2017, or “The Year of the Lens” as No Film School called it, featured more full frame lenses than anyone would know what to do with (literally). What the hell does this mean? To help up understand this full frame influx, we consulted Matthew Duclos and Mark LaFleur, two industry badasses who see these new lenses as a strong sign of things to come.

‍Useful chart from Yannick Ciancanelli

Matthew Duclos is the Chief Operating Officer at Duclos Lenses. Matt’s company enhances, maintains, and fixes old and new cinema glass in ways you might not even think were possible. Matt also runs the lens-obsessed blog, The Cine Lens, where most of his recent articles talk about, you guessed it, full frame glass! To Matthew, who spoke at NAB this year, the wave of new full frame glass was impossible not to notice.

“Full frame lenses were definitely the big trend [at NAB]. Cooke, Leica, Zeiss, Sigma, Tokina, all of those guys jumped into the game... Sigma, Tokina, and Zeiss, they had already done full frame stuff, but it was sort of through third party launches. That was definitely the big trend.”

Before we dive in, what does full frame even mean? As the diagram here illustrates, full frame is a larger image circle than the industry standard, Super 35mm. During the DSLR-revolution nearly a decade ago, the idea of shooting full frame gained popularity, thanks in part to the Canon 5D MKII. With a full frame sensor, the 5D MKII allowed filmmakers to achieve a shallower depth of field by using Canon’s array of full frame still lenses. Don’t know what I mean? Check out this awesome video on how full frame sensors and lenses affected depth of field. 

 

Full frame glass presents an imaging circle large enough to cover a full frame 35mm sensor (which has greater width than the more common Super 35mm sensor). While there are a lot of full frame lenses in existence due to still photography, there doesn’t seem to be a present need for full frame cinema glass. Put simply, there aren’t very many cameras to put these new lenses on, at least for now. Matthew explains:

“The only cameras that would really [currently] take advantage of the full frame glass is the [Panavision] DXL and the RED VistaVision. I suppose one could argue the Sony a7s, because it’s full frame, or the Canon 5D [Mk IV], but those aren’t proper cinema cameras... the slightly lower-end stuff, the sub $5k lenses, those I could definitely picture ending up on the front of an a7S.”

The Tokina and Sigma offerings this year, though, were only a fraction of what we saw at NAB. With companies like Leica and Cooke offering full frame glass at enormous prices, there has to be a bigger reason. To Matthew, the message from all of these announcements was clear.

“Lenses in general have sort of exploded over the last five years or so, especially in the affordable lens space, and everything is still bound by physics. So they can’t really make lenses sharper, they’re about as good as they’re gonna get. They can’t really make lenses faster without making them bigger and heavier... Really the only place to go with these lenses, if the manufacturers want to sell more products - which they do - is to make a bigger image circle.”

New Tokina full frames. Photo from Cinescopophilia.

Mark LaFleur is a cinematographer, director, and the Creative Director at a television production company. He is also the owner of Old Fast Glass, a boutique rental company specializing in, well, old fast glass. To him, the impending market for full frame lenses is obvious.

“I think cinema dictates that we always have to get bigger, we always have to outdo ourselves, we always have to take it up a notch.”

If this year's NAB showed anything, it’s that a proper full frame platform will likely exist sooner than later. Camera manufacturers see the same opportunities in full frame that lens manufacturers do, it just takes longer to develop a new camera than it does to create a new lens. Matthew Duclos explains:

“Full frame lenses certainly aren’t new, people have been using them on a7s and 5Ds for a while... but I think the camera manufacturers were fighting the same battle, trying to figure out what they could do. The next logical step is to just create a bigger sensor, get better light performance out of it. I don’t think the industry needs it, by any means, but it’s just the next logical direction.”

Although Matthew might not view full frame as a necessary advancement, he still sees huge potential in it.

“I think full frame has the potential to become 50/50 market share with Super 35.”

If it isn’t necessary, then why shoot full frame? To Matthew, the technological improvements are minor, but they do exist.

“90 percent of it is the fact that you can say, ‘Yeah, we shot that on full frame, we shot that on VistaVision. Once it becomes mainstream; once Sony, Canon, and ARRI really jump behind it with their own cameras, and it’s not just RED with their six VistaVision cameras they have out in the wild, there will be technical benefits. You’re gonna have bigger pixels so you’re gonna have better low-light performance. There are some technical advantages.”

To Mark, those technological advances are particularly exciting, as they offer sensors more room to improve as resolution gets higher.

 

“On a given chip, you can keep packing pixels on there, but there’s only so much usable resolution that you need. As the pixels get smaller and smaller, their light sensitivity goes down, the quality of the color goes down.”

To Matthew, these improvements are more of a luxury than necessity. Camera technology has become about as sharp and precise as we need it to be.

“With the way technology is these days, even with old style film... I’ve never seen an issue with how crisp it could look. If it’s shot properly with sharp lenses and clean optics, it’s as sharp as it can be.”

Matthew uses Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm-shot The Hateful Eight as an example. Tarantino and Cinematographer Robert Richardson purposely chose less clean, less sharp, lenses to pair with their large format camera. Full frame cinema isn’t about technology, it’s about choice.

“I think full frame is going to strictly be an artistic choice. Other than lens selection, I can’t imagine there being any downside to choosing full frame over super 35. You’re still looking at the same number of pixels. Just because the sensor is bigger doesn’t mean your pixel count isn’t identical.”

Mark's Full Frame Canon K-35's

Mark is a little more optimistic, viewing the opportunities that full frame sensors provide as too good to pass up on.

“If you want low light capability and you want amazing color fidelity but you also want high resolution, you’re gonna have to have a larger sensor. I think the best cameras out there will be somewhere in the middle. I think 4k/5k full frame is kind of the magic bullet for as much resolution as you need for a while, big pixels that look beautiful, and really good low light performance which means you can really light with your eye. You can really light with practicals, you don’t need as big of light sources, which keeps everything cheaper, easier, and safer. Bigger is better in this situation.”

Zeiss CP.3 and CP.3 XD

Look no further than the Sony a7s and Canon ME20F-SH as examples of the new possibilities full frame sensors bring to the table. The a7s revolutionized the low light capabilities of mirrorless (and DSLR) cameras due to its full frame and large pixel sizes. On the more extreme end, the 4,560,0000-iso capable ME20F-SH can basically see in the dark. Again, this would be impossible without the use of a full frame sensor.

On the pixel end of the equation, ARRI didn't rush to 4K the way other companies did, valuing the positive effects of larger pixels over those of higher resolution. When ARRI was finally able to fit as many of their large pixels on one sensor for 4K (and more), it was with the stunning Alexa 65 and its sensor is enormous. That's an extreme example, but it highlights the benefits of letting the sensor grow as resolution demands increase.

However, we still only have a few real examples to point to, and if more cameras aren’t out yet, why would someone buy full frame cinema glass now? Matthew interacts with lens buyers of every make and model and says it’s about staying ahead of the game.

“There are two primary people that buy lenses on a regular basis: The rental houses are sort of forced to buy whatever the newest thing is. The other is the owner/operators, who are buying it because they want to future-proof their setup. Everyone’s expecting Sony and Canon and ARRI to come out with a 35mm full frame cinema camera in the next 6 to 12 months. If DoP Joe wants to continue to sell his services with the next cool camera that comes out, he has to have a set of lenses that are going to pair up with that well.”

 

Mark agrees completely. If sensor size is going to diversify, it only makes sense to be prepared for any situation.

“I think Super 35mm is an industry standard, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. There was so much great legacy glass made for that format. But, camera technology changes a lot faster than lens technology should change, so it makes sense to buy lenses that are full frame.”

If you were disappointed with the lack of new cameras at NAB this year, fret not, filmmakers. There will almost certainly be exciting news coming soon. Whether you see full frame cinema as a necessary evolution or just a nice new option, keep your eyes open. This is only the beginning.

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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