The Prodigal Altar Boy

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Russian Lens Fetish Part 2 - My First Russian Lens

My First Russian Lens
With the XL1 Solutions PL adapter in hand, the next move was to get a suitable lens.  The adapter was less than the original list price, but not cheap, so budget was also a concern for the initial lens purchase.  I did not want to go completely bargain basement, but I also did not want to lay out an exorbitant amount of cash in case the results with the adapter were less than optimal.  With that in mind, I scoured the auctions at the time to find prices ranged from under $100 to thousands of dollars for PL mount lenses.  I found a Jupiter 11 lens the owner had adapted to PL mount.  The Jupiter 11 is not a movie lens, per se, this one was PL mount and after some bargaining, the price was right. 
Online auctions have shrunk our world and I am always amazed how things I could only dream of during the Cold War (like prime Russian optics) are now only a mouse click away.  As futuristic as the implications of international e-commerce may seem, the tried and true rules of the market place since Roman times (caveat emptor comes to mind) still apply.  While that first lens was not all that I expected, the value of that purchase as a proof of concept for the Russian lens theory outweighed any disappointment I may have initially felt.  What I learned with that purchase would shape my future purchases.
“You get what you pay for.”  Always keep that saw in mind when buying anything online.  Again, no regrets with this initial purchase, but when the lens arrived from Ukraine, the packaging reinforced that online auctions with overseas sellers is not for the faint of heart.  As primitive as the packaging was, to the seller’s credit, it did the job and the lens arrived in the condition described in the listing, no worse for the trip.  As an aside, I gave the seller good feedback, and did not obsess over the packaging (yes, I know I’m STILL talking about it).
After taking the lens out and inspecting it, I broke out the PL adapter and imagined a short trip from popping my Russian treasure onto the PL adapter to regaling in cinema-like images in my XL1s viewfinder.  Did I mention online buying is not for the faint of heart?  Does caveat emptor bear repeating? 
Online commerce, especially when it comes to discontinued products, is not for the faint of heart.  While the XL1Solutions adapter got good reviews, and the site (when it was up) was a wealth of information, when they shuttered the doors, the majority of customer service, to include instructions on how to use the adapter, evaporated with their web presence.  Looking at the adapter and recalling what I’d read on the site, the adapter was milled from a solid piece of stainless steel.  Based on that, I assumed the adapter was a single piece and that is where the trouble started.
When I tried to mount the Russian lens to the adapter, I observed the PL flange for the lens would not mate with the corresponding flange on the rim of the adapter.  After more than a few frustrating moments, I realized the adapter’s front flange actually screws on and might come out far enough to accommodate the PL flange on the lens.  Problem solved, right?
Not so fast, there, partner.  With the front flange extended as far as possible, the back of the lens will not seat evenly at the back of the adapter to allow mounting.  So close, and yet so far.  Looking at the lens, I notice that what the previous owner used to adapt the lens to PL mount used something an L-shaped bracket to attach the lens to the PL adapter and that protrusion was keeping the lens from sitting squarely in the XL to PL mount adapter. 
Repeat after me, “Used photo equipment from Russia is not for the faint of heart.”  After some trepidation, I removed the bracket from the lens.  The resulting configuration of the lens let me (finally) attach the lens to the PL adapter.  The tradeoff is that the focusing ring is disabled and the only way to focus the lens is by rotating the front of the lens.  While focusing from the front (the lens has an attached lens hood) was not an optimal configuration, it was usable for this proof of concept. 
NEXT UP:  Screen Test for the Jupiter 11

Sunday, December 5, 2010

My Russian Lens Fetish Part 1

One big advantage of Canon’s XL series of camcorders is the interchangeable lens.  While the XL1s  camera I own is far from today’s state of the art, the XL cameras are workhorses for independent filmmakers and the availability of Canon and aftermarket accessories for the platform ensure support for the camera will continue for quite a while, cementing it as a viable choice for at least a few more years.
In addition to the Canon 3X  wide-angle zoom lens, there are also the 14X and the 16X manual lenses made exclusively for the XL series, offering a range of optical choices.  The 14X and the 16X allow full analog control of focus, exposure and zoom, which make them ideal for depth of field (DOF) manipulation especially if paired with a follow-focus kit.  The 3X wide-angle lens increases framing options, particularly for single camera coverage.
As attractive as those Canon products are, one recurring theme for “prosumer” mini-DV shooters is the belief that pairing their camera with film and motion picture lenses will evoke a “film-like” quality to their shots.  Redrock is one of the larger companies in the business of adapters that let mini-DV users shoot with film lenses, and there are others as well.  Most of these adapters work with camcorders that do not have interchangeable lenses, so they also have to invert the image before it gets to the imaging CCD’s. 
Since the XL cameras have interchangeable lenses, an adapter that attaches to the XL mount on one end and has a mount for other lenses on the other is a purely mechanical solution that does not interfere with the optics of the lens, bypassing the need for image inversion.  The Canon EF Adapter does just that, allowing XL shooters to uses most Canon EOS lenses.  One consideration is image magnification (2X to 4X, depending on who you talk to) because the lens is focusing the image on the smaller CD sensors instead of the 35mm film plane.  
The Canon EOS line of lenses represent myriad optic choices for the independent cinematographer, but short of the Holy Grail, which (semi-twisted) logic dictates would be actual film lenses captured on mini-DV.  A pioneer in that arena was a company (now defunct) called XL1 Solutions that produced a stainless steel adapter that allowed the XL platform to work with (wait for it) Arri PL mount lenses, putting 16mm and 35mm film lenses at the disposal of Canon XL users.  XL1 Solution may be out of business, but at least one other manufacturer, Les Bosher of England, makes a similar mount. 
If you are still reading, you’re probably wondering, “What does any of this have to do with Russian lenses?”  The answer, as usual, is money.  The list prices of the Canon lenses were extremely high when first released, and while you can find all of them at auction for a fraction of those prices, at the time they represented a considerable investment.  Even the EF adapter was pricey and combined with the restriction to EOS lenses, was a difficult purchase for an independent to justify.  While not cheap ($399 to $499), the XL1 Solutions PL adapter fit in a price niche that could be justified if you could find a 16mm or 35mm movie lens at a reasonable price.
That is where Russia comes in.  While most of the West was converting from film to videotape, Eastern Europe, especially Russia was still making the most of 16mm and 35mm motion picture cameras.  One benefit of Warsaw Pact dissolution was the availability of quality, functional 16mm and 35mm motion picture film equipment. On any given day, hundreds of Russian lenses such as LOMO, Mir and Jupiter duke it on eBay with other prime lenses.  While the Western models have the advantage of notoriety and industry acknowledgment, the Russian lenses, many of them based on the Western luminaries, offer the independent film budget a chance to use cinematic lenses in the mini-DV format.
I was lucky enough to find an XL1 Solutions adapter at auction for a fraction of the original list price.  A suitable lens was the next piece of the puzzle.  

NEXT UP:  My First Russian Lens.