The Prodigal Altar Boy

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.