By Rainer von Rottenburg
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[Editor’s note – Rainer isn’t a native English speaker so I’ve taken the liberty of changing a few words here and there. If there is any deficiency in the quality of language or its presentation, the responsibility is solely mine.]
Why do I work as a VJ (video journalist) when I could have a big team supporting me? Of course it’s mostly the budget but there is something else. I like to work alone and turn my vision into pictures. Back in the days when I was in the editing room I was always missing footage the cameraman didn’t shoot because he lacked understanding of the story. And I had some very beautiful pictures but I couldn’t bring them into the story. Since I know what I need for my story (as an editor) I thought I might make that a little better.
Check out my Audi ice experience project (my first DSLR VJ work shot with the Panasonic GH3):
Since I have been working with DSLR equipment for only 3 years I am not really an expert. When it comes to lenses, there’s far better insight here on Wolfcrow and other blogs. But what I can tell you is, which low priced lenses proved to be very efficient when working as a VJ with the BMCC. If you want to compete with the big guys low price starts at 400-800 Euro a lens.
Since the Blackmagic Cinema Camera MFT has a passive MFT mount, you can only use lenses that have manual aperture and focus control. There are a few fine glasses out there, like SLR Magic, Voigtländer, Zeiss, etc., but they are also expensive. The other way you can go is using old lenses, which you can get for a good price on Ebay. There are a lot of adapters around, so you can adapt almost anything to the BMCC – even your Grandpa’s very old stuff. And, you might have astounding results! I have a Tokina 28-70mm from my mom’s old 35mm camera which does quite a good job.
One thing you have to pay great attention to when getting a lens is the crop factor of the BMCC sensor. When you buy a 50mm MFT lens, it’s not really a 50mm but a 117.5mm, since the BMCC has a crop factor of 2.35. That drastically reduces your options of wide angle lenses.
One way to reduce this problem is by using the Metabones BMCC MFT to Nikon Speedbooster. This is a real piece of magic. It gives the lens a 1 1/3 stop increase in effective aperture and reduces the crop factor of the BMCC MFT to 1.53, so the same 50mm would be a 76.5mm. I choose the Nikon F and G mount Speedbooster adapters because Nikon lenses are among the finest around. Some experts prefer them even over Canon. Since they are not so widely spread in the film community one big advantage is that your look is more original. Some of them are quite cheap second hand. The Speedbooster can control the manual and semi-manual lenses and some of the fully automatic ones as well. You can click-lessly control the aperture ring from the Speedbooster, not only full stops, so you have more fine tuning. With some lenses you have to switch to manual aperture on the lens first.
For me the most important lens is the Nikon 17-35mm F/2.8 wide angle zoom which was introduced in 1999. With the Speedboster it becomes a 26-54mm F/1.8. I got it second hand from Japan on Ebay. New, it’s unaffordable. If you shoot live action, this is a very good lens to start with. You have a good wide angle without distortions for overlooking shoots. You can zoom in and take a step forward and you can make some nice details or portraits. As I am working a lot in handheld mode the wide-angle makes more sense. Too much telephoto gets very shaky. You can go as close as 0.28m and make very interesting close ups too. The focus ring is rather big, so you can’t miss it when reaching for it “blindly“. Same goes for the zoom ring. The whole look and feel of the housing is like a “tank“. It’s a little heavy, too.
Here’s how the Nikon 17-35mm looks on the BMCC:
A couple of examples from the camera, one at 17mm at F/22 and one close-up at 35mm at F/2.8
You can use a 77mm Vario ND filter on it. Vario ND filters are a very important supplement to me when shooting DSLR to get the cool look with open aperture in bright sunlight. So far I was using the Light Craft Workshop Fader ND Digi Pro-HD, but now I read in some blogs that it doesn’t give true color. The experts recommend Tiffen or Heliopan in the low price sector. A tip I want to give here: Always buy the biggest filter size available and adapt with step- down rings. My first DSLR lens had a 58mm diameter for the filter, so I bought 58mm ND just to be very frustrated with my second lens, which had 62mm.
Back to lenses. My second-most important lens is a Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 which becomes a 67.5mm f/1.1 on the Speedbooster. It used to be Nikon’s standard lens in the 70s. It’s said to be one of the sharpest lenses even today. You can make lovely interview and product pictures, blur away everything disturbing in the background in a beautiful bokeh. It’s very good for making product shoots in ugly rooms when you don’t have the time to make a nice decoration. You just blur away all that is bothering you. You get these around 50 Euro on Ebay. Here’s an example of the Nikon 50mm at f/1.8:
Another lens I like is the SLR magic 12mm F/1.6 MFT, which becomes a 28mm on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. It’s a very tiny lens that looks almost like toy, but has a very beautiful look. You can go as close as 0.15m and get a nice effect with close details in wide background. It has minimal distortion and it is good for architecture, rooms etc., when they need to be clean. Very good for panning as well. It has solid workmanship, and the focus and aperture rings are big and smooth. The sweet spot bokeh-wise is at f/2.0. At F/1.6 it’s a little ‘nervous’. I call it my Manneken Pis, like the famous statue in Bruxelles, because the BMCC looks like a little boy naked.
Here’s a shot using the 12mm at f/2:
If I watch people and want to stay a little on distance, I have the SLR Magic 50mm f/0.95 MFT, which becomes a 117mm on the BMCC. This is a telephoto lens but you can still keep it steady handheld, or at least stabilize it good enough in the post. The bokeh is not high-end but OK. First I thought, wow cool, with f/0.95 I don’t need any light; but the depth of field is so small that everything that moves gets out of focus in an instant. My first interview I tried to shoot with f/0.95 to make it look extreme cool had to get a unsharp mask makeover in the post. The eyes were sharp but nothing else!
The SLR Magic 50mm at f/0.95:
I recommend not to overdo it with the open aperture, you will regret it in the post, because a lot that might seem sharp on your monitor of the camera or your EVF is not really sharp when you see it on a big screen. Start with f/4 or f/5.6 to get a feeling for the lens and then work your way down. The more motion you have the more depth of field you will need, since a VJ doesn’t have a focus assistant. Using the right aperture is a matter of years of experience, so don’t be frustrated with bad results in the beginning. Of course you can try following with the follow focus, but this is also a matter of long experience to synchronize the timing. I always tend to turn in the wrong direction first. Then I get nervous and then the action is over!
Getting the focus right was one of my biggest problems when changing from video to DSLR. On video you can be a bit neglectful concerning the focus, especially when you shoot wide angle. But the bigger sensor of your camera forces you to be more precise. This is one reason I decided not to go full frame but Micro Four Thirds, because I hardly shoot in any situations where I get to work with such a small depth of field. There’s too much movement and too much unpredictability, so I have to play it a little safe. I put the zoom-to-pixel on one of the function keys of my Zacuto EVF next to the focus assist and it’s my best friend.
In Part Three, I will talk about how I handle data while shooting, and then getting the best out of your footage low-budget-style with FCP-X 10.1.1 using Resolve to convert from Cinema DNG to Prores HQ without a LUT. I use FCP-X, but the possibilities in Premiere Pro or Avid are very similar.