Friday, January 24, 2014

Cooke miniS4/i vs Schneider Xenar III Cinema Prime Shootout

Brumar Films recently acquired a 6 lens set of Schneider Xenar III primes, Schneider Optics' flagship cinema lenses. While the Xenar IIIs have several attractive features such as uniform size, 18 aperture blade bokeh, nearly zero breathing, and near macro minimum focus, many Directors of Photography and producers are still not familiar with the set. Many DPs look to lenses like Cooke S5, S4, and miniS4, Zeiss Ultra and Master primes, and Leica Summilux and now Summicron as an accepted standard in cinema prime lenses and tend to stick with proven battle tested brands. Knowing this it makes sense to put the new guy on the block Xenar IIIs against the well known Cooke miniS4/i series in a real world shootout.

Tom Fanelle checking the light

My good buddy Tom Fanelle brought his miniS4 set to Maryland and we spent 3 hours composing a number of setups that would stress the lenses and exploit any flaws that may exist. We tested for chromatic aberration, distortion, flaring, breathing, bokeh, skin tones, and overall image. Since the miniS4s are T2.8 and the Xenars are ~T2, we never opened up more than T2.8 to keep the test consistent. We shot on the Red Scarlet-X at 4K, 23.98fps, ISO 800, Red gamma 3, with a 6:1 compression. For most tests we exposed the scene at middle grey using my Sekonic 758-cine meter, for the low light scene we exposed the subject 2 stops below. Please note that many of the scenes involved natural ambient light and for this reason there may be subtle differences in lighting between lens changes. At the bottom of this blog is a video putting all of these tests into motion, be sure to watch this as well. R3D and JPEG stills from the test are available to download below.

R3D/JPEGs Link:

This first setup tested distortion on the 18mm lenses. Pay close attention to the vertical pillars especially near the edges of frame.

click on any photo to enlarge

Looking again at the same scene lets look at the aberration that shows up from this overblown windows being shot wide open.

Note the aberration that appears along the window frames. The miniS4 renders magenta-purple while the Xenars have a greener tint. When stopped down to T4 the aberration becomes less prevalant. Now lets look at another area of the scene where aberration rears its ugly head.

And below are the same crops stopped down to T4.

This next set of crops is from another scene shot on the Cooke 100mm and Schneider 95mm at T2.8 focusing near infinity. Note the aberration that appears on the light post and trees.

Lastly for the CA test is a low light scene exposed 2 stops under. The tungsten light fixtures provide another point of comparison.

The way a lens flares is very much part of that its character. We conducted two tests, one in direct sun light and another using a lower powered LED Maglight. The Cooke renders an octagonal flare because of it's 8 aperture blades while the Xenar has 18 blades and produces a more circular flare. *1.5 IRND & Circ Pola used

Continuing along the talk of aperture blades, let's now look at the bokeh produced in defocused areas of a scene. This setup involved the 75mm lenses at T2.8 at a distance of about 6' to the tree. *Note that there is a slight difference in the brightness of the scene because a door in the background was slightly ajar during the Cooke shot.

Our skin tone test was shot on the extreme telephoto ends of each set, the Cooke 100mm and Schneider 95mm at T2.8. This test is a good example of how skin is rendered, sharpness wide open, another example of bokeh. *1.5 IRND & Circ Pola used

Lastly we conducted a test to compare breathing on both the 25mm and 75mm lenses. While the breathing on the Cookes were minimal, it is still visible; however breathing on the Xenars are nearly zero. Below are couple stills from this test but see the embedded video to watch this test in motion.

All of the above test can be seen in motion in the following video. Have a look and leave your thoughts in the comment box.

As a Xenar owner I'm hesitant to make any statements claiming a victor in this test because I'm a bit bias, so I will leave that up to you the reader to make the decision. And honestly I don't see this as a test to prove one is better than another, but to show everyone that the Xenars do hold their own against a set as established as the Cooke miniS4/i. (Shameless plug) If you are interested in using either of these lens sets, both are available for rent at our website Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Real World Lens Test - Cooke / Zeiss / Canon

It's been a while since I last updated this blog and I would like to pick things back up with a lens test between the indie friendly Duclos cine moded Zeiss ZF.2 DSLR primes and the mid range Cooke miniS4 true cinema primes. Just for fun I added the Canon L 24-70v2 f2.8 zoom and Canon L 70-200v1 f2.8 in for a couple shots. So let me set things up by first saying that this was not a comparison test of functionality because for me there is no question that the Cookes have the best user handling, breathing, and just about everything mechanical that I can discuss. The ZF.2s would be 2nd to the Cookes in this category and then the Canon zooms worst for usability. But this post is about optical performance in real world scenarios, no charts. I wanted to know just how justified is the $50k price tag for the Cookes when it comes to the final image and can you really tell them apart. Now don't get me wrong, if I had the money to put down I would buy the best lenses out there but unless your are made of money you have to try and get the most for your money.

Here are the basics of this test. Everything was shot on the Red Scarlet-X at 6:1 compression, 4K, 5000K for all situations and between 250 - 500 ISO. There was no post processing to the images with the exception of a minor FLUT adjustment (~1/4 stop) to the Zeiss and Canon images. The reason for this adjustment is that the DSLR lenses use F stops and the Cookes use T stops, therefor the Zeiss and Canon images were darker and to maintain a consist aperture value I had to tweak exposure in the raw file to get images exposed the same. Please note that images viewed via this blog have been compressed to some degree and the raw image will be your best way of judging true sharpness. All images in this post can be downloaded as R3Ds via Dropbox:

Download R3D Images:

Labeling Guide:
Cooke = Cmm-Fstop
Zeiss = Zmm-Fstop
Canon Zoom = CZmm-Fstop

1st Setup - 18mm Cooke / Zeiss - f/5.6

First take a look at the two images below and choose your favorite. You can click the image to enlarge.

>Zeiss ZF.2 
>Cooke miniS4

Want to know which is which? Drag your cursor left to right from the > above to reveal the answer. How is that for a blind comparison? Ok, let's push in a bit and really take a closer look. I have cropped out the point of focus for each image.

Notes: With this comparison I noticed a bit of distortion from the Zeiss.

2nd Setup - 50mm Cooke / Zeiss - f/2.8

Once again look closely and pick your favorite image.

>Zeiss ZF.2
>Cooke miniS4

And once again let's look at the cropped area.

Notes: I feel these images show the difference in contrast between the lenses and as I was racking the focus setting up the shot, the ZF.2s showed a bit more chromatic aberration in the blacks.

3rd Setup - 32mm Cooke / 35mm Zeiss / 24-70 @ 35mm Canon Zoom - f/2.8

The next two setups are a bit different because the Zeiss and Cooke sets don't have identical millimeter lenses meaning the frame may zoom slightly. Also I added the Canon zooms into the mix. Since the zooms tend to be better at the wider end of their range I used the two L lenses with that in mind. Now let's take a look at some skin tones. Let me apologize now for not having any gorgeous models on hand for this so you will have to deal with my ugly mug; I even left some 5 o'clock shadow to help judge sharpness :) Same deal here, pick your favorite and reveal the answers.

>Cooke miniS4
>Canon Zoom
>Zeiss ZF.2

...and the crop ins.

Notes: Take a look at the blinds in the background. Notice the magenta shift in the highlights on both the Cooke and Zeiss images. The Canon seems to hold a neutral grey a bit better than the primes.

4th Setup - 75mm Cooke / 85mm Zeiss / 70-200 @ 75mm Canon Zoom - f/2.8

Same as the last setup except swapping for a longer lens. The Zeiss is the odd ball at 85mm so I backed the tripod up about 6 - 10" to compensate with a similar framing. Last chance to guess which is which, good luck.

>Canon Zoom
>Cooke miniS4
>Zeiss ZF.2

Have you made your guess? Ok, check your answers then take a look at the crops below.

Notes: The Canon zoom proves itself for sharpness in my humble opinion.

Final Wrap-up

This test by no means is scientific and wasn't meant to be, if that were the case there would more charts. And there are certainly countless other more stressful tests to compare these lenses such as flaring, edge sharpness, and chromatic aberration but I feel this has been good start for showing average everyday scenarios. I did attempt to give a fair comparison between these lenses with as few variables as possible so that you can make up your own mind about which image you like and where you want to spend your hard earned money.  Just a reminder that you can download the raw R3D files for closer inspection using the link below. Thanks for reading and please leave your comments below.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cutting the Cord - HD Wireless Comparison

As a Steadicam operator, the ability to be disconnected from everything else and operate freely is crucial. The minute you become constrained by cables feeding a monitor you add one more element to trip you up, slow you down, or distract you from mastering a perfect shot. With that said, having a reliable wireless video solution is very important. For the first few years operating I was constrained by budget to only use SD systems on set, namely the Modulus 3000. This system gets the job done for framing purposes, but many Directors and DPs today want to see their picture in stunning full HD. So finally I made the jump and decided to pickup a new HD wireless system. The question became which one.

In the past I have had the luxury of working with the IDX Cam-Wave, an uncompressed SDI unit that simply mounts onto a standard V-mount plate. This system has always carried a high price tag around $5,000. Lucky for me BHPhoto has been carrying the unit for around $3,500 as a special offer; however, I decided to look and see what else was available. I started by reading reviews on the Teradek Cubes, but negative reviews from other Steadicam Operators turned me off, not to mention the price for both a transmitter and receiver was north of $3,000.

I then stumbled upon a new system I had not heard about before, the Switchtronix Recon Ultra. The system, which lists for around $3,000, offers many of the same form factors and features as the IDX system. Curious about this unit, I went to Google for reviews, and surprisingly enough found very little information, only one video test and a short written review from another operator. The specs all seemed good on paper, but could it hold up against the Cam-Wave?

So there I was, needing to make a decision without enough facts to back it up. So what did I do? I bought them both and put them head to head in a real-world battery of tests. And after three-and-a-half paragraphs of back story, here are my findings.

Form Factor:
This part was simple. The IDX Cam-Wave beats the Recon hands down with its more compact and more robust construction. In the picture to the right you can see the Recon on the left, standing taller and thicker than the Cam-Wave. The Recon also felt cheaper and more likely to break. Additionally, the Recon's Receiver unit boasts 4 large external antennas that protrude from the top. My first thought looking at the Recon receiver was that these things will get broken off the first day.

Recon Ultra Receiver

Here things are reversed. The Recon definitely beats the Cam-Wave by adding the HDMI ports to both transmitter and receiver. You should note that there are two models of Recon, but the Ultra is the only one that can take SDI as a source. The lower-end Recon only transmits HDMI, but can cross-convert to SDI at the receiver. The Recon also adds a tally light port giving broadcasters more options, and awards the Recon the top slot for features.

This is where the rubber meets the road. I conducted two tests with each system, the first being outdoors with line of sight between the transmitter and receiver. The second test was conducted indoors and transmitted through upwards of 3 walls with varying elevation. Starting with the Recon Ultra, I found that the system projected the signal farther, nearly 20 - 30' outdoors, in agreement with its tech specs. It also held a stronger image before losing signal, with little picture breakup. This held true for the indoors test, projecting a farther signal. One of the biggest drawbacks I found was that when the signal did drop out, it took a while to re-establish a connection. I also noticed that even at shorter ranges, the Recon would occasionally cut out from simply blocking the signal with my body. I was surprised when the unit cut out mere feet away a few different times.

The IDX Cam-Wave performed exactly as I expected from past uses. It remained solid within its manufacturing specs of 100' outdoors plus some, however still not as far as the Recon. Through walls indoors, the Cam-Wave performed well, but once again it fell a hair short of the Recon. What the Cam-Wave did that I personally preferred, was that even when losing connection, it was a much briefer period of time, reconnecting almost immediately, as long as the signal was available. I feel this is a huge plus when on set with non-technical people who just want to see a picture and don't have the patience or a care to wait for the picture to come back. Throughout a long shoot day, the less stress the system causes, the better.

The Decision:
With all the factors weighed, I had a tough choice to make. The Recon, while clunkier and bigger, is a cheaper system that performs better in some ways, while falling a bit short in others. Or do I choose the industry-proven workhorse that may not have the extra bells and whistles, but takes away some of the stress day to day? For me, and only for me, I chose the IDX Cam-Wave. I do a lot of work for other people, so considering their perception and feeling towards working with a device is important. I also rent equipment, so I wanted something reliable and trusted in the industry. The Cam-Wave meets these needs for me. I feel the Cam-Wave offers a better user experience, from handling and mounting it on your rig, to providing a consistent image for your crew. As long as you work within the system's limitations, there shouldn't be any issues. Don't get me wrong though, the Recon does have a place in the industry as well, and it is worth considering for your own applications.

Thanks for reading and I hope this article helps out the next person considering these two systems.