Shooting in Extreme Cold Part 1: Layering

As summer is beginning to wind to a close, you may be scheduling winter gigs or getting booked on shows that shoot outside in harsh climates. Icy environments are a great backdrop for extreme locations, and television networks are currently in love with showing tough people surviving in some of the coldest places on earth. Of course, you might also be shooting in a typically temperate place that happens to get an unusual and brutal cold snap, like what happened to me this past January on a three week shoot in Ohio. Remember that infamous polar vortex? Yeah, that was a bit unexpected.

A lot of DP’s and camera operators live and mostly work in warm, sunny climates with predictable weather patterns. But inevitably, you may be asked to travel to a location that is way outside your comfort zone. In addition to shooting out in the polar vortex, which saw temps drop down to 0°F (-18°C) this past year, I also spent several winter months shooting up in the far north of Canada, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. While there, I was working outdoors on 12 hour days in temperatures as low as -40°F, which, coincidentally, is also the same as -40°C. Sometimes I even had to sleep outside in a tent for several days in those temps when I was shooting particularly remote story segments.

Where I camped for 3 days in -40° temperatures on a brutal but extraordinary shooting expedition.

It sounds brutal, and it is. If you’re prepared, though, it’s far short of impossible - and can reward you with an experience you may have never thought you could to endure. But the key, as I said before, is being prepared. After a fair amount of trial and error, here’s part 1 of what worked for me & how I made it through the extreme freeze with all my fingers and toes:


You absolutely must layer your clothes, and layering properly is the key to staying not just warm, but also flexible enough to do your job properly. If you’re operating a camera, you can’t be clammed up so tight you can’t bend your elbow. Also, layers allow you to respond to changing conditions and keep you versatile in the field when you need to be able to pull off and put on clothing as your body temperature and the environment fluctuates.

A typical morning for me on my North Canadian shoot with nylon and fleece balaclava, wool beanie cap, down shell with coyote fur hood liner

1) Your first step, and the most important layer, is to put on your base fabrics. For this, you want to avoid cotton at all costs. The base layer is meant to wick sweat away from your body and dry quickly to keep you from getting cold. In sub-freezing temps, sweat is your worst enemy. If your clothing gets wet from sweat and it doesn’t evaporate, your damp clothes will make you very cold very fast. If it’s cold enough, the sweat may even freeze, and then you’ll basically find yourself standing in a freezer wearing an ice shirt. Not a pleasant place to be. Cotton, while being great at wicking up moisture, is notoriously slow to dry. Some people prefer wool as a base layer as it’s very warm, but I find it to be not much quicker than cotton for drying, and it has less wicking power. Synthetics like polyester make the best base layer - they wick quickly and dry fast. Just be aware that you’ll want to wash them often as they have tendency to hang on to odor. There are some wool/synthetic blends that do a good job of balancing warmth, wicking, drying, and anti-odor capabilities. I typically just stick with straight synthetics as they’re inexpensive and efficient. Look for blends of spandex, polyester, nylon, goretex and/or lycra®. You need a base layer over your entire body if you’re going out into extremes. Get base layer socks, long underwear, shirts, hands, and a balaclava for your neck, face, & head. Buy base layers that have a form fit; you want the fabric against your skin for maximum wicking ability. However, be aware that this can also cause chafing, particularly against the nipples of men. Bandaids across your nipples, or even just a bit of duct tape or gaff will prevent this. There are also some anti-chafe sticks and cream on the market that will help.

2) The next step is to prepare your mid-layer. This is usually lightweight, durable, and comfortable clothing you can wear to protect yourself when you strip down your insulating layer if you get too hot. And you will get too hot, especially when carrying a 20-30lb camera in mid-day, no matter what the temperature is. If you feel yourself sweating, take off the insulation and let the moisture evaporate; don’t stew in your own sweat. Wool and nylon can be great mid-layers, and I use cotton quite a bit for my mid layer, but if you’re a heavy sweater, it’s not optimal. Micro-fleece is also great, but the static electricity it can build up can be quite annoying and even damage digital cameras. I typically wear a mid-layer over just my torso and legs.

Balaclavas: not just for S.W.A.T. teams anymore

Balaclavas: not just for S.W.A.T. teams anymore

3) After that comes your insulating layer, and I’ve got just one word for you: wool. It’s incredibly warm, is a great insulator even when it’s wet, and is very durable. It can be bulky, but if you spring for Merino wool, it has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio due to it’s finer fibers. I use Merino wool socks, bottoms, sweater, and beanie.

4) Finally, you put on your shell. This is the layer that protects you from wind, but can also give another important insulation point. For the extreme cold, you’ll want a goose down shell for your torso. Here is where you’ll need to do some research though; some high quality down parkas can be optimal for temps in the -40° range, but will leave you burning up in -20°. Know where you’re heading and what the weather will be. In an ideal world, you’ll have a few options for a different range of temperatures and conditions. I have a heavy down coat and light down coat from North Face, with a detachable water- and wind-proof hooded shell that can fit over either of them. I also have an even more heavy duty long goose-down parka from Cabella's with coyote fur hood liner for the toughest days. For more benefit, try to get a coat with a fur liner around the hood; it does wonders for breaking up wind and keeping your face warm. Canada Goose makes what is arguably the world’s standard for extreme cold shells, but I find them to be a bit bulky. For your bottoms, get a good pair of ski or snow pants, and make sure they’re wind- and water-proof.

For your hands, mittens are great for warmth, but will leave you lacking in dexterity. Wool gloves with a fold back pocket mitt over your hand liners work great when the wind is calm and gives you finger dexterity when you need it. In the extreme cold with blustery wind, you’ll want to wear something more heavy duty, like Outdoor Research’s Alti Gloves. You’ll have more finger dexterity than you would with mitts, but they are still bulky and can make operating camera buttons and dials difficult. But they will keep your hands warm and your fingers from getting frostbite.


Lastly, let’s talk for minute about footwear. This is where most people fail with their cold weather gear, and it’s decidedly crucial to have the proper boots for spending all day outside on your feet. When you’re standing outside on snow and ice all day, that cold gradually seeps up through the soles of your feet, and once your feet get cold, you’re done, even if you’ve adhered to everything I’ve said in this post to now. You won’t die, but you’ll be very very miserable. I tend to find that boot manufacturers grossly overstate their temperature range, and if you think that shoes rated for -40° will keep your feet warm in -40°, you’re in for rude awakening. Spend the money here for quality footwear, you’ll be so glad you did. I personally prefer Baffin snow boots. They’re a high, waterproof, heavily insulated boot with a massively thick sole that allowed me to stand on a frozen lake all day without feeling the first bit of cold in my feet. However, every night when you take the shoes off, take out the liners as well and let everything dry. Feet sweat a lot, and these shoes aren’t the best at letting liquid evaporate out of them. The thick liners will absorb moisture, and if you don’t take them out to dry, that moisture will continue to build up. One day you’ll put on your boots and go outside and the liquid trapped in the liner will soak into your socks make your feet cold quickly. 

I hope your takeaway from this post is that there is no one-size fits all when it comes to outfitting yourself for working in extreme cold temperatures. Expect to have a variety of fabrics, densities, and types of cold-weather clothing on hand to be ready for ever-changing conditions. This is especially true for gloves - you're working with your hands, and operating equipment with small buttons and touchscreens and other features that aren't easy to use with protective clothing on. Having a few different options on hand is a great idea; there's a delicate balance between being protected and being able to work efficiently. It's better to have too much, than get stuck in the cold with not enough.

Next up - how to keep protect and keep your camera gear working!

A Canon C500 Test Case: Cinematic Images on a Small Scale

Recently, I shot a fun test of what the Canon C500 can do with very little support on a no-budget project. It was a very small, last minute shoot for a director friend of mine last week - a short scene to go with VO as an advert for a new book. The scene took place at night, and we had one night with the talent available to shoot it in everyone needed to be at real jobs in the morning. So, of course, time was of the essence, and we were working with minimal crew because there was essentially no budget. And by minimal, I mean a crew of 3, including the director. To really push the limits, the director & myself had planned about 15 shots, several of which included using rain & practical blood effects. Besides our on-set practicals (a table lamp and car headlights), the only instruments we had on hand were a couple of F&V 1x1 LED panels, one Lowel Omni, and one Tota. However, I was pretty confident we could pull this off because this is exactly the kind of shoot the C500 excels at.

We output 4K raw from the C500 into a Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q, and I only used 2 lenses for the entire shoot: Canon CN-E 24mm & 50mm primes. My ISO lived around 3200-4000 for the most part, except for the first & second grabs below which I believe were done at 1600. I transcoded the RMF files to ProRes 4K with Canon's Cinema Raw Development software, and did some quick preliminary grading on these frames with Final Cut Pro X's standard grading tools with no LUT applied. We plan to cut and grade the final piece from the 4K ProRes files and output a 2K master.

I'm very happy with how quickly we were able to move, and the C500's ability to retain such rich color information at high ISO is incredibly helpful in the grade. The dynamic range was very good as well, I had all the information I needed in both the highlights and shadows to create the look I wanted. Shooting uncompressed raw made the unexpected appearance of any compression artifacts a moot point, leaving me with much more room to push and pull the image as I wanted. The director, who is also editing the piece, appreciated oversampling in 4K since he could use that to his advantage in post. It allowed us to play a little more fast and loose knowing we could do some reframing and digital zoom later for added effect. We started at 8pm, and I was home in bed by 4am to get a little shut-eye before my 10am call time. We got every shot we had planned but 1 in the can, which we cut it because it was extraneous. We shot about 700GB of raw footage, which transcoded to slightly more than 300GB of ProRes 4K. The Odyssey 7Q proved to be an excellent tool for monitoring and recording the 4K raw image. There were no hiccups or errors for the entire shoot, and the image it displays was very crisp and clear and gave a very accurate reference. I also made plenty of use of it's exposure and focus aids, as well as it's LUT display option. It was also nice to be able to record on-board mxf proxy files in the C500 while the O7Q recorded master raws.

I would say that the best part of using the C500 is that it allows you be incredibly flexible in a huge variety of shooting scenarios. You can shoot stylistic or realistic with minimal equipment, and it lets you attack just about any scene with the confidence that the camera will give you a great looking image with the fidelity and resolution that even the most demanding project needs. In my opinion, it's the current swiss-army knife of digital cinema cameras.

Once the final piece is finished, I'll update the post with the video.

This was the first shot of the night, where our lead character is on a couch looking through a photo album. His key lighting is from the tableside practical with a 40W tungsten lamp inside. Outside the window I had an F&V 1x1 LED panel (daylight balanced) coming from the back right side of frame. The rain effect was done with a garden hose for the whole shoot, and here we just sprayed up and allowed it to fall naturally across the glass. The reflection in the clock is from a 13" tube TV playing static.

Here we have the same lighting setup as above in a wider shot, with the addition of a Lowel Omni as a tight, stylistic key for our actor to walk into. I had a hard time getting as tiny of a spot as I wanted with the lamp's supplied barn door, so I actually covered the front face of the lamp with blackwrap and stabbed a small slit through it with my knife. It was still too much. Finally, I noticed a tiny bright beam coming from the vented body on the back of the lamp, so I flipped the light around and used that back spill as my key. I covered it with 1/2 CTB and Lee 270 scrim to keep my exposure low where I wanted it.

In this shot, our character is searching the house after hearing a noise and noticing an open door. I put a single Lowel Tota in an upstairs bathroom, bouncing off the wall, and spilling out the door through the banister rail to illuminate and add shadow texture to the set. The front fill is coming from the 40W table lamp in the first frame grab.

Our character's investigation has taken him outside to the garage in this shot. Lit with only the headlights of the director's Jeep Cherokee and shot through the driver's side windshield. Rain, again, is done with a garden hose spraying up and falling on the windshield. There is an LED panel about 20 feet off camera right, dimmed down to about 50%, that illuminated our character coming outside and turning the headlights on, but it's not really playing at this point of the shot.

This is the reverse of the previous shot as our character steps into the garage. Lighting is super simple, and the same as before with the headlights blasting from behind, but this time the LED panel is playing slightly on our actors right side (camera left). Otherwise, bounce from the car headlights off the interior of the garage is giving me just the right amount of fill. Our rain is looking very convincing here, too, and giving a lot more interest to the background verses having only the car.

Finally, we have a shot where our character has met his demise at the hands of an unknown killer who is walking away through the vehicle headlights. This is using the same lighting scheme above, but the rain has stopped in story, so is obviously no longer playing. 

Notes on the Canon 24-105 F4 IS Lens

The other day I thought it would be fun to bring out my Canon 24-105mm F4 IS L lens and put it up against my CN-E 24, 50, & 85 cinema primes on the C300. I love my 24-105, and use it quite often. I'm often tempted by it's convenience factor, but this test really opened my eyes, & the results were quite telling. I shot everything at F4 on the zoom, and T4 on the primes. I don't have time just now to post up the results, but here are my findings:

At 24mm, my 24-105 is quite sharp and resolves very, very close to what the 24mm prime gets. I think the increased micro-contrast of the prime gives it more perceived sharpness, but the actual resolved detail between the two is nearly the same (remember, we're talking HD resolution here). The 24mm prime has a noticeable 'zing' compared to the zoom. Color is more vivid with the prime and better contrast.

At 50mm, we see the resolved detail of the zoom lens start to wane just a bit. Micro-contrast is playing a big role here, but in the finest details, you can see a definite difference. Again, the 'zing' factor is there. Color and contrast is in a different league.

At 85mm, there's a different story. The prime is considerably 'crisper' and whereas you might be able to add post sharpness to make them close, there's no denying that the prime is flat-out eating the zoom lens for lunch. Color and contrast between the two lenses aren't even existing in the same dimension at this point.

In all three focal length samples, the prime lenses give a far snappier image, with much more vivid color and very crisp details. The 24-105 looks a quite dull next to the cinema primes, but for the price, it really should, I suppose!  The more you look at comparing images, the duller the 24-105 starts to seem.

Transmittance - now here's where things get really weird. The transmission of the zoom is just a hair more than 2/3 of a stop darker than it's advertised aperture through these three focal lengths when aperture is wide open at F4. Oddly enough, at F4, there is ZERO transmission loss through the entire zoom range. If you stop down, though - even to just F4.5 - you'll begin to lose almost half a stop from widest to telephoto. By the time you stop down to F5.6, you'll be losing almost a whole stop by zooming from 24mm to 105mm! It's the weirdest thing, and I can't figure out what's going on to make that happen. By all means, go test this for yourself with a white card - set your in-cam waveform for spot and watch what happens to that area. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw it happening.

Anyway, there's always a price to pay for convenience - and I must say that the 24-105 has that in spades. If you're in a situation where you need to be as versatile as possible and have no time for lens changes, this is a very strong choice and I'll continue to use mine for a long time to come. However, if you want the best image quality, and to save yourself some time in post, you can't beat prime lenses - and especially the Canon Cinema primes! The difference in quality is really palpable, and placing these lenses up against each other really made me see that three dimensional quality that great primes bring to the table. Images from the primes have a pop that is not easy to replicate with anything less than the absolute best zoom lenses, in camera or in post. Trying to get a 24-105 to look as good as prime in color grading would be like chasing the dragon, and I think it would ultimately never be possible to catch it.

Some of my notes for those that use and enjoy the 24-105: it's strongest at the wide end, losing detail and lustre toward the long end (this could possibly be beneficial for close-up shots in docs where there is often less than flattering lighting and no make-up on the subject.) If you want to avoid losing transmittance when you zoom, stay at F4 and ride the ISO for your exposure. As soon as you stop down, you'll get varying exposures as you zoom. Color and contrast is the biggest sacrifice in using this lens, but it's a beast of a doc lens for it's range and IS. It's a poor choice for narrative shoots, pre-set interviews, and any shoot where you have the luxury of changing lenses when necessary.

I'll try to post up some of my test images when I get the chance. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Shooting a Land Speed Record in the Alvord Desert

For all the challenges with being freelance in this industry, not many jobs afford the opportunity to participate in once in a lifetime opportunities quite like camera work does. This past week, I was lucky enough to shoot a "jet car" roaring down a 7 mile track at well over 400mph in an attempt to set a female land speed record.

The North American Eagle after the first day of runs on the Alvord Desert

I was shooting for an online show by AOL Studios called The List: 1001 Car Things To Do Before You Die, and we went out to document a land speed record attempt by the North American Eagle. The team at the helm had taken a scrapped F-104 Starfighter jet body, rebuilt it and converted it to a monster of a wheeled vehicle.

They had about 7 miles of track in the salt flats of the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon, and did several runs over the course of two days. My position was in the middle of the track, somewhere around mile 4 and about a quarter mile from the lane. I was dropped off with a Sachtler tripod, Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 7D, and a nice assortment of lenses - including the incredible 500mm f4 IS L prime lens. 

Me trying to hang on to a thread of sanity while sustained 40mph winds do their best to rid me of it.

Tracking the North American Eagle screaming down the salt flats at several hundred MPH is no easy task. It's almost as hard as trying to maintain your sanity when you're alone in a huge desert being pounded by 40mph sustained winds all day with no shelter. But when I got the shot dialed in with that big glass, the results made it all worth it.

I also had great help from a Varavon "Multi-finder" that made these DSLR's much more user-friendly in video mode. I highly recommend the Varavon - it mounts quickly and easily, looks great, and has a very adequate mirror system for low-angle shooting without having to mount, power, & cable an external monitoring solution. Just about anything that keeps me from having to touch a mini-hdmi cable is a winner in my book.

In the end, one of the drivers and co-host of the show, Jessi Combs, wound up breaking a FIA record on her final run - with a top speed of 440mph! This was a big achievement for this team who are on their way to a goal of setting the overall world land speed record by reaching 800mph in the North American Eagle. These are a dedicated group of engineers, scientists, mechanics, and enthusiasts, and they are pretty much all volunteers and working on this project in their spare and vacation time. I'll update this blog post with a link to the show episode once it's available. In the meantime, here are some photos I took from the event and our shoot:

My lonely outpost at in the middle of the flats.

Southeastern Oregon, where the Alvord Desert is located, is a beautiful remote region of the country. There's almost 100 miles between towns out here, and not much to it even when you get to one.

The Alvord Desert is a 12 x 7 mile dry lake bed at an elevation of about 4000ft.

Crew and talent wait at base camp in the morning to see if the team will proceed with runs despite the high winds. Left to right, Chris Otwell (DP/Producer), Patrick McIntyre (Host), & Graham Suorosa (Producer).

Fueling up the vehicle for the first run of the day. Gas mileage is not one it's strong suits.

Inside view of the cockpit. With this car, the line between driver and pilot gets a little blurred.

Looking down the nozzle of the North American Eagle's General Electric LM1500 turbojet engine.

Checking playback from the 500mm/7D combo after a nearly 500mph run. It only takes the North American Eagle a few seconds to go end to end on the 7 mile track.

Gathering at the end of the track after the record-breaking run

My big rig: 500mm prime lens, 7D, Varavon Loupe on a Sachtler Video 18

The Arri Amira and 4K

Arri Amira from the operator side

Arri Amira from the operator side

Arri dropped some big news today at IBC when they announced their new smaller, lighter Amira camera aimed at documentary filmmaking and ENG work. It shares the same sensor as it's older sister, Alexa, and can shoot HD (1920x1080) or 2K (2048x1080) resolutions.

With the same internal components and colorimetry, you can expect to get the classic Alexa look with the Mira - including 14 stops of dynamic range and up to 8 stops overexposure latitude! The camera will record Rec709 or Log C images in all flavors of ProRes (from LT to 4444), direct on-board to CFast 2.0 Compact Flash Cards at up to 200 frames per second.

The body of the Amira is designed to be extraordinarily rugged with ENG ergonomics and a shoulder-balanced design. It includes internal ND filters, an OLED eyepiece, fold-away LCD, and "multi-channel audio options." The camera also has humidity and dust sealing along with an efficient thermal core cooling system to withstand the elements of any environment.

Sandisk's new CFast 2.0 Compact Flash card, which boasts read speeds of up to 450MB/s and write speeds of up to 350MB/s. Expect to see more camera manufacturers embrace this standard for internal 4K recording.

Sandisk's new CFast 2.0 Compact Flash card, which boasts read speeds of up to 450MB/s and write speeds of up to 350MB/s. Expect to see more camera manufacturers embrace this standard for internal 4K recording.

What's even more exciting about this camera, though, is the possibility of more lens mounting options than just PL. While PL is the cinema standard, there are some incredible lenses in a variety of mounts that users have become accustomed to using and having access to. Most notably, there is a planned EF mount option coming for the camera, which means having access to hundreds of Canon EF still photo lenses and Canon's line of Cinema Primes on an Arri sensor! 

No official word yet on shipping or price yet, but Andy Shipsides from AbelCine mentioned on Twitter that Arri is trying to stay competitive with the Canon C500 and Sony F55, and Arri has said that the Amira will cost significantly less than the Alexa - which is starting at about $44K for the body only. Based on that, I would expect the Amira to fall somewhere in the $30K price range, maybe just a little shy of that if we're lucky.

This is a bold move by Arri to expand into the middle & low budget level of production. Alexa's are often the preferred digital cinema camera for many top-tier blockbuster films, and much of that is owed to how well the camera handles color rendition, highlights, and skin tone. No doubt the Amira is going to share these qualities in a more affordable package that just works. The big question is how will the industry respond to this 2K camera given the recent heavy push by manufacturers into the world of 4K? Arri clearly sees more life ahead in HD, and are betting on it with the Amira.

Personally, I think they are making a smart move. While 4K delivery may be future (and eventually 8K), no one really knows exactly when that future is going to arrive, regardless of it's technical feasibility in capture.  Ultra HD television sets will continue to drop in price and become the norm - but that doesn't necessarily equate to consumer demand for 4K content. Considering that most people sit far enough away from their television to make the benefits of 4K over HD moot, demand on the consumer side for premium Ultra HD content could prove to be as lackluster as demand for 3D programming. There is also the issue of bandwidth and delivery for 4K content, which has not matured quite yet. No doubt high resolution video delivery is coming, but the question is, when will the consumer care enough to want to pay for it? In the same way that most people still watch SD content on their HD flat screens, consumers will likely own Ultra HD television sets long before they pay the premium for 4K content. 

If that proves to be the case, then color rendition and dynamic range performance may prove to be more important to image making than just a higher pixel count - and with the Amira, Arri is doubling down their bet on 2K and HD to stick around for a long time. 


Last Call for Last Call?

Announced today, Last Call host Carson Daly is taking a new position with the Today Show on NBC. What's unclear is the future of Carson's late night show - but for all practical purposes, the show has been put on permanent hiatus until NBC decides what it wants to do. It may continue on with a new host, be revamped entirely, or quietly ushered away to television history. Regarding the show, NBC said "plans for a transition will be announced at a later date,” but there's no way to know what kind of transition that may actually be.

The crew enjoying the 'wait' part of 'hurry up and wait' on a typical Last Call shoot.

The crew enjoying the 'wait' part of 'hurry up and wait' on a typical Last Call shoot.

For those of you who don't know, I've been a camera operator on Last Call for nearly four years, and we were actually scheduled to start shooting season 13 at the beginning of this month. Last Call has been an immensely enjoyable show for me to work on, and I've made many great friends on the show that I hope to keep for years to come. For the last few years, we've shot nearly the entire show on DSLR's, in practical locations, with a mini-van load of basic lighting and grip gear to help out. I think the show has pushed the boundaries of what is possible in an ultra low-budget late-night talk show - and we're fortunate to have been able to work on the show for as long as we have been.

It was a pretty tough pill to swallow when I first heard that Last Call was not going to continue. I quickly realized how much I'd begun to rely on the show as a big chunk of my income, and television is a fickle business. You spend a lot of time working on a single project, making friends that soon become family, and dedicating countless hours to figuring out the ropes and how to make the production hum pleasantly along - then, as quickly as it started, it's gone. That's just the nature of the best.  

The danger of being on a show like this, or anything that is relatively constant and reliable, is that you become comfortable. And I was certainly comfortable on Last Call! But the blessing in disguise for having a job disappear is the fire it lights to get you to hustle. Being complacent in this business is being stagnant. And let's face it, with today's technology and industry changing faster every day, being stagnant is basically moving backwards. So for as thankful as I am of the time I spent shooting Last Call, I'm just as thankful for the inspiration that it's sudden void has given me. It's been the catalyst to get me to work on elements of my career that I'd been postponing for a long time. If you're ever in a similar situation and on the precipice of the unknown, remember - your best work is still ahead of you.

Oh, and I'll still keep a couple of fingers crossed that Last Call will continue in some way that I can be involved in; but I'm not going to hold my breath. 


Comparison: Canon's 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II vs 85mm T1.3 CN-E

Arguably one of the best lenses in Canon's lineup is the venerable 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II. For those that shoot Canon, it's found in almost every pro photographer's bag and is at the top of the wish list for those that don't have it. It's also found a special place in the hearts of filmmakers and cinematographers that love its "breathtaking optical performance," aperture speed, zoom range, color rendition, image stabilization, and distortion control. The features and performance of the lens makes it widely considered the best in it's class, and a favorite for DSLR and large-sensor digital cinematography.

The 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II has also been widely accepted to have a bit of magic to it, too. Colors pop, bokeh is creamy, and skin tones are soft but lively. There's a certain je nais se quoi in the image that not many lenses can reproduce, especially when shooting portraits and close-ups. The question is, can we find that bit of magic in other Canon lenses as well, especially the CN-E cinema lens lineup?

Canon's CN-E series of lenses have garnered enough recognition on their own for super speed apertures, 4K resolving power, rock solid build, and focus/iris barrels designed for motion picture work. They are Canon's premiere lens for digital cinema, and should be the cream of the crop in Canon's optical offerings. When I did this comparison between the Canon 85mm CN-E prime and 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II, I knew the cinema prime would at least equal the zoom lens - but would there be any surprise differences? And what about that little bit of magic that the 70-200 has? Does the 85mm CN-E have it, too - and does that magic live in the rest of the cinema prime range? 

Below are the stills from my comparison shoot, all shot on the Canon C300 with labelled settings. My thoughts and conclusions after the jump.


The first thing that stands out to me is the framing - obviously 85mm is not always exactly 85mm. Even though the focal length on the C300 display said both lenses were at 85mm, it's clear that the 85mm CN-E sees a tad wider than the 70-200 when set to the same. However, this isn't uncommon among different makes and models of lenses, and it's generally not a concern. Sharpness of the lenses, at least at HD resolution, is dead on with both of them. I don't see how, at this resolution, you could ask for more from either lens at either f2.8 or f4. Bokeh seems equally pleasing with both lenses, although those dark bushes may not be the best test for determining out of focus qualities. 

Where I do begin to see differences, however, is in contrast and color rendition, notably along the green/magenta spectrum. The CN-E packs a little more contrast over the zoom lens, and if you look closely at the 70-200 samples, you'll see that the skin is ever so slightly more red. The 85mm CN-E renders skin tone more neutral without the very minor red color contamination, giving it a creamier and softer look. Also note the differences in color of the foliage in the background. There is more punch and vibrancy in the greens from the 85mm CN-E than from the 70-200mm zoom. Here are some vectorscope images that detail the color differences:


70-200mm @ F2.8

85mm CN-E @ F2.8

85mm CN-E @ F2.8

And what about that elusive "magic" that the 70-200 seems to have; does the 85mm CN-E have it, too? It's a subjective quality, and for my money, the color of the 85mm is ever so slightly more pleasing than the 70-200mm. So maybe the CN-E's have their own special magic that even the 70-200 can't catch. But overall, these lenses are close - very close. Their differences are minuscule - which makes it clear that Canon's 70-200mm f2.8 IS L II lens is a screaming deal that can easily stand up to big boys for motion picture work. That is, if you don't mind its lack of cinema-style features. 

 *edit: I just had a thought about the focal length differences of the lenses. The 70-200 is obviously a physically longer lens than the 85mm CN-E. Since the 70-200's front element is much further out beyond where the 85's front element was, that probably accounts for the framing difference. Had I placed the 85mm CN-E's front element in the same spot as the 70-200's, the framing would likely have been much closer. However, opted to keep the camera in single stationary position. Either way, it's a interesting lesson in lens design, length, and the framing differences that result.