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The DSLR Filmmaker's Guide to Zeiss Optics

By David Flores

High Definition Video recording has redefined the digital SLR and opened the door to an exciting new world of imaging possibilities. Journalists, wedding photographers, and other professionals have embraced this technology-expanding services and enjoying higher profit returns. Television shows such as Saturday Night Live and Dollhouse have employed video-enabled DSLRs for their unobtrusive form factor and unique imaging qualities. In the coming months, commercial spots, independent productions, and even feature films will showcase the amazing video of these powerful new cameras.

With high resolution capture, frame rate selection, and a growing number of exposure controls, it's easy to see why the technology is gaining popularity. But in considering all of the features, there is no greater draw to DSLR filmmaking than optics. From ultra wide angle to super telephoto shooting, the imaging options are seemingly limitless. With so much diversity in the marketplace, how does one go about putting together the perfect DSLR video lens kit? Focal length, minimum/maximum aperture values, and minimum/infinity focus specifications are excellent technical starting points. There's also something to be said for the tactile nature of a lens. Responsiveness to the touch, ergonomics, and control logic should all be considered. Carl Zeiss, a long-trusted name in the photo industry, offers a variety of lenses with high end specs and a professional build quality that will certainly appeal to discerning filmmakers and DPs.

From left to right: The Zeiss 21mm Distagon ZE, 50mm Planar ZF, and 100mm Makro-Planar ZF

New T* coatings, color-matched lens elements, and other optical advancements eliminate ghosting and chromatic aberrations, reproduce natural colors, and faithfully capture subjects with high contrast and detail. Out-of-focus effects are rendered beautifully through a precision, 9-bladed aperture.

Available in mounts for the Nikon F (ZF and ZF.2), Canon EF (ZE), and Pentax K (ZK) mounts, Zeiss provides a comprehensive collection of lenses for today's most popular video-enabled DSLRs. With offerings ranging in focal length from 18mm to 100mm, the Zeiss Z-series truly has something for everyone. Handsome metal construction, smooth manual focusing, and included, dedicated hoods recall the fit and finish of classic rangefinder optics.

Pro Handling

From the moment you un-box a Zeiss lens, you know that you're working with something special. Construction is all metal-no rubber dials or plastic-y components. A sleek black finish dominates the barrel, save the silver rim at the front of the objective.  The silver rim makes it easy to attach the included metal hood or an optional screw-type filter. A protective lens cap operates with a simple pinch from the center or sides, and a well-made rear cap covers the lens mount. Nothing rattles, flexes, or bends-these lenses are built solid for years of heavy-duty use.

The Nikon and Pentax designs feature physical aperture rings for controlling depth of field. The Canon mount designs have no physical aperture dial-the diaphragm is controlled electronically by EOS bodies. The newly released ZF.2 mount for Nikon cameras have both physical and electronic aperture controls.

The electronics built into ZE (Canon) and ZF.2 (Nikon) allow lens EXIF data to be properly recorded and can even confirm proper focusing with the camera's AF system. This feature is for confirmation only-none of the Z-series lenses have autofocus capability. This isn't a big deal. The majority of video-enabled DSLR cameras do not support a practical autofocus method. Selecting optics with precise manual focusing capabilities is, therefore, a must. From a tactile perspective, Zeiss optics provide the most intimate focusing experience on the market.

All Z-series lenses feature a high-precision focusing ring. Unlike the rubber two-touch controls from other major brands, Zeiss favors an all-metal construction. Movement is silky-smooth across the entire product line, without a hint of play.

It's important to note that the focusing ring provides dedicated stops at minimum and infinity focus. Most modern focusing rings spin infinitely, which can be particularly trying during a video shoot. Though the lenses are equipped with focusing scales, the majority of DSLR video shooters focus by eye. The feel of a firm stop at infinity or the minimum focusing distance gives the camera operator a better touch sense of the focusing range.

The Nifty Fifty

If you're shooting video with a full-frame DSLR, such as the Canon 5D Mark IIrvbweavaevceev or the Nikon D3S, the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* is an amazing normal perspective lens. With a view similar to the human eye, subjects are intuitively composed and presented naturally. This normal perspective lens is excellent for creating a first-person experience.

On an APS-C body (Canon EOS 7D, Nikon D300S, Pentax K-7, etc), the lens lends itself well to medium telephoto shooting.

The Hero Shot

By separating the subject slightly from the background, the medium telephoto length of the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* adds dramatic emphasis. An excellent choice for character reveals and hero shots, this optic speaks a language all its own. APS-C shooters can get a similar effect with the 50mm f/1.4, but the 85mm is the better choice for really making a subject pop.

Establishing Space

Wide angle establishing shots create context for a scene. They consider space and time, and offer a connection between action and place. Zeiss offers multiple wide angle primes for crafting such a frame. The 35mm f/2.0 Distagon and 28mm f/2.0 Distagon are ideal wide lenses for full-frame cameras and great normal perspective optics on APS-C bodies. Of the wide angle offerings, the 35mm and 28mm have the lowest distortion, but quickly lose their "wide" powers in tight spaces.

The 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* remedies this with a wider field of view and surprisingly low-distortion. If you had to own only one wide angle, this is your best bet. You'll want to stop this glass down for infinity focus shots-sharpness from edge to edge is best between f/5.6 and f/11.

For those requiring something slightly wider, the 18mm f/3.5 Distagon T* should fit the bill. There are times when super-wide is the only way to go. Though distortion is reasonably controlled, the look of this lens doesn't quite match the magic of the rest of the Z-series. This was especially true with testing on the full-frame bodies.

The Extreme Close-Up

An extreme close-up of a door knob, a peep hole, or a mobile phone display creates elevated urgency. The details of a face, an eye, or other anatomy can bring a heightened sense of reality to any narrative. If your story requires the power of an extremely tight frame, Zeiss offers two fabulous macro lenses to take you up close and personal.

For half life-size reproductions (a set of keys sitting on a desk, playing cards in a hand, a full facial reaction, etc), the 50mm f/2.0 Makro-Planar T* is the way to go. The lens has amazing resolving power, and performs quite well with the aperture open. Stopping down will yield more detail, and provide more latitude when focusing a handheld shoot.

The 100mm f/2.0 Makro-Planar T* tightens the frame even more. This is used to pull out the details in the details-the teeth of the keys sitting on a desk, the suit of playing cards in hand, Sergio Leone eyes, and all things closer. To get the most out of the 100mm, it's really best to employ a tripod. Handholding can be a bit tricky-especially on an APS-C body.


As of this writing, most of the optics are available for all systems. Nikon (ZF) and Pentax (ZK) offer the complete line-up: 18mm, 21mm, 25mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 50mm Macro, 85mm, and 100mm Macro.

The new ZF.2 Nikon lenses are available in 18mm, 21mm, 35mm, 50mm, 50mm Macro, and 85mm. Zeiss is expecting to release updated 28mm and 100mm Macro lenses with ZF.2 electronics in Spring 2010. A redesigned 25mm is also in the works, but no details have been provided.

The 25mm, 35mm, and 50mm are also available in a universal M42 screw mount.

Canon offers the majority of the line-up, save the 25mm, 50mm Macro, and 100mm Macro. These should be released sometime in the future. If you need these particular optics immediately, you can attach a Nikon ZF or ZF.2 lens to your EOS body using a Novaflex adapter. ZF and ZF.2 lenses will require you to set the aperture on the lens. A brief aside: There are some $20 cheap-o, soft aluminum Nikon-to-Canon adapters floating around the web, but I wouldn't recommend them. Buy the Novaflex. It won't bend, flex, or shed into the body. Repairing the delicate internals of your camera is expensive. Buying the right tool the first time will save you strife, time, and money over the long term.

Final Thoughts

The Zeiss Z-series offers powerful imaging and control features to the DSLR filmmaker. Subjects are rendered faithfully, with clean natural color and quality contrast. This is important-especially on the back end of production. Pumping up or pulling down colors with Magic Bullet Looks or Final Cut Studio requires a neutral starting point. I love Canon's 50mm f/1.2L. With its warmth, sharpness, and zippy AF, it's probably my favorite "photography" lens of all-time. But when I'm shooting video, I prefer the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 T*. Footage shot with the lens is extremely neutral and much easier to color grade. These characteristics are consistent with the entire Z-series line.

Confident and purposeful manual focusing controls make these lenses a must for any serious storyteller or video artist. I work handheld or with a compact rig a lot, and have thoroughly enjoyed controlling focus right on the lens barrel. For tripod shooting, I would recommend using a follow focus, such as the Zactuto Z-FF-1 Z-Focus. This works with any 15mm rod system. If you're not currently using a rod system, there's a kit available with the follow focus, rods, and baseplate.

DSLR filmmaking is evolving every day. Whether you're a journalist or narrative storyteller, having the right tools and using them properly will keep you on the forefront of this exciting new medium. Zeiss offers a phenomenal set of optics with the construction and controls to help make your creative vision a reality.

David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. He is a member of the B&H Creative Content Team.

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