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Using a Vintage Schneider Zoom lens on the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera for a feature film

So, last month (August 2014), I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be the Director of Photography for the first time on a feature film. I'm a self-taught filmmaker that has done a little bit of everything: acting, writing, directing, Steadicam, editing, DVD authoring...and over the last few years have been DP on shorts, web series, actor demo reel scenes, etc.

When Arnon Shorr, the director, approached me about the project "Glimpse of the Soul" I was immediately excited about the script as it was a psychological crime thriller that called to mind such classic films as Hitchcock's "Rear Window" and Wells' "Touch of Evil". My thoughts raced about the possibility of shooting a noir thriller and after just a short conversation, Arnon and I realized we were thinking the same thing!

We knew that we were going to be on a tight budget and that meant shooting with what limited lighting and camera package we had on hand (a Canon DSLR) but it could all work in our favor if went committed to noir... and going as far as shooting for black and white.

What we hadn't anticipated was that Black Magic would suddenly cut in half the price of their already rather affordable Pocket Cinema Camera. On a daring impulse I phoned up EVS, put their last one on hold, and then drove like a lightning bolt to pick it up before they gave it to someone else.

Once I had the nifty little thing in my hand, I had to get the EF-MFT adapter to actually use it with my lenses. I had a decent little kit of primes but I felt the new camera deserved a lens that was different from what I already had. As many BMPCC owners know, there is a giant trove of old C-mount lenses to be found that adapt nicely. As my budget was tight and I knew that our schedule on set would be demanding; I entertained the idea to actually go with a zoom lens. I did a little research and came across this great video Crazy Green by Peter Prevec thru about the Schneider-Kreuznach Variogon 18-90mm f/2 zoom.

Schneider Variogon 18-90mm f/2

The lens is really old; it was made for Super 16 cameras and thus covers the BMPCC's sensor perfectly. Additionally, it didn't appear as tac sharp as something like a Zeiss Compact Prime or the new little Tokina zooms that everyone is getting. Since we were going to be shooting Glimpse with an eye toward the old noir, I decided to pull the trigger and snatched one off some guy on eBay from Bulgaria for a rather good price.

When it finally arrived, I discovered that the C-mount to MFT adapter I had purchased (the Fogta) didn't quite fit onto my camera. A short session later with my Dremell tool though and everything fit fine. There was no vignette, I could acheive infinity focus and the image looked fantastic. So, on to the nitty gritty of shooting with this lens...

Shooting Noir with the BMPCC

I would say that we shot about 80% of the film with the zoom, 15% with my Rokinon 14mm 2.8 (with the Roxsen Focal Reducer) and the other 5% with my Contax Zeiss 50mm 1.4 .

What I liked:

The Image Quality was outstanding. As I had hoped, the footage had a character to it that didn't feel digital, rather filmic. We shot almost exclusively wide-open at f/2.0, save for a few outside shots where it was too bright even with filters and the instances where we wanted that long depth of field. Even when it was perfectly in focus, there was a subtle soft but richness that I came to love and appreciate for not being sterile like so many things shot today on RED with modern prime lenses.

The Ease of having a zoom was truly priceless. We shot so much of the movie on either jib or Steadicam and not having to swap out primes really sped things up on set. And it's range was perfect for just about everything except the really wide stuff.

It's Fast!! At constant f/2.0 I had no problem shooting in low light. As we went dark on purpose and used few lights to create harsh shadows it was nice to know that I was still picking up info in those underlit areas for the colorist to play with.

It is rather Small for a cinema quality zoom. While it may seem big (and is certainly heavy) when mounted on the Pocket Camera, it's much smaller than something like a PL mount Angenieux or Cooke.

Non-click Aperature... 'nuff said.

Director Arnon Shorr, Me, and AC Nick on the jib

What I did NOT like:

It's Minimum Focus Distance is somewhere around 1-1.5 meters... that's well over 3 feet folks. For most stuff it wasn't a problem since the camera has the well known crop factor of almost 3X, I was forced to get further away from my subject than I normally would for any kind of wide shot. But whenever I needed an ECU we were forced to drop the zoom and go with one of the primes. This for me was the biggest drawback of the lens.

It's not Parfocal (meaning that if we set focus and zoomed in or out we lost focus). At least mine is not... possible it's not calibrated correctly. Luckily we only had one scene where we need to zoom while mid-shot and it was just a snap zoom out... and my AC is a wiz with the wireless follow focus.

Because of it's Softness it was hard to tell at times what exactly was in focus even with peaking on... but again Nick Forte, wiz AC nailed every shot.

Nick Forte III Pulling Focus like a Jedi


I really don't have enough good things to say about this lens.

It's a gem and a testiment to the kind of quality craftsmanship that went into lens building decades ago.

If you have a BMPCC and find a good deal on this on eBay, I say go for it!

I'll be posting some stills from the movie soon (once the producers OK it).

In the meantime, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for the Sci-Fi film I'll be directing 5th Passenger, where we'll most certainly be using the BMPCC and this awesome old zoom lens.

And on Instagram @CopernicusStrong

Take care and keep shooting!

A beautiful image from a classic lens

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