Having one team shoot in two mediums, both photo and video, creates a synergy from which the concept of StillMotion was born. Aside from the obvious organizational advantages of having one team take care of photo and video, there is a tremendous benefit to having a photographer constantly giving you feedback on your video, and vice versa.
One of the biggest things we have picked up from our photo team over the years is the importance of achieving and controlling depth in all of our imagery. By depth I am referring to Depth of Field (DoF) and, in particular, trying to achieve a very shallow DoF (see Key Concepts, right), in which the subject of the shot is in focus while objects in front and behind are out of focus.
If Amina and John (our photo team) were to shoot an entire wedding at f22 (giving a deep DoF with everything in focus) they would likely lose their photography license rather quickly. At the same time, we as videographers often shoot every wedding with a very deep DoF, and so few of us realize just how unattractive that can be. When Amina and John leave for a wedding, the first thing they grab is their Canon 135 f2.0 or the 85 f1.2, both of which allow you to achieve extremely shallow images (Figure 1) and are key to our style of imagery.
Many things affect DoF, such as the lens focal length, aperture setting, distance to the subject, and the camera’s sensor size. The issue we run into as videographers is that no matter how much we zoom in or keep our aperture open, the sensor in our cameras is so small that it really limits the DoF we can obtain. Most HD prosumer camcorders today utilize 1/3" (roughly 8.5mm) CCD or CMOS sensors (the number of sensors won’t effect the DoF) compared to many digital still cameras that utilize a full frame, 35mm sensor.
Meet the Brevis
The challenge for us as videographers, then, becomes how to achieve a similar, very shallow DoF, with sensors that are much smaller than those our photographer counterparts use. The solution comes in the form of a sexy, black carbon fiber tube that attaches to the front of your camera, the Brevis 35 adapter. These adapters have a mount on the front for photo lenses and project the image from the photo lens onto a 35mm-sized screen inside the adapter. These adapters allow us to achieve the same DoF in our imagery that photographers can, and we can now shoot with the same lenses that they do. While there are several companies producing these units (called 35mm adapters), the StillMotion crew exclusively uses the Cinevate Brevis for its excellent build quality, optics, attractive price point, and the company’s exceptional customer service.
There is a tremendous benefit in bringing these units along for event coverage, but they also introduce a host of new issues that need to be thought of ahead of time. Let’s start with the advantages.
While depth in our imagery is very aesthetically pleasing in itself, and more than enough reason to add these tools to your gear bag, there are other less obvious advantages as well. In terms of storytelling, being able to isolate your subject in the frame with the use of focus, is a very effective means of directing your viewers’ attention (Figure 2). For example, as the bride is having her dress zippered and her bridesmaids watch in the background, do you want the viewer to focus on the dress being done up or all the anticipation and excitement from the girls right behind her>
Working With Specialty Lenses
When shooting locations are less than ideal, you can also use shallow DoF to make any location look much more attractive. With a bare camera you have a limited focal length range and while you can add wide angle or telephoto lenses to your camera, your options are still relatively limited. By using a 35mm adapter, you open the door to an incredible versatility. Aside from being able to shoot from extremely wide to very tight while retaining exceptional optical quality throughout, you also have access to some pretty snazzy specialty lenses to take your productions even further.
A couple of our favorites are the Canon EOS 100mm macro as well as the 45mm tilt-and-shift lens. The macro lens features a 1:1 magnification ratio, meaning the lens can reproduce an image on the sensor that is the same size as the object. In other words, it allows you to get very close to objects and open up a whole new way of seeing them (Figure 3).
A tilt-and-shift lens can actually bend, which then changes your plane of focus from the standard horizontal plane to an angled plane. With a normal lens, if the focus is set at 8", all objects 8" from the lens will be in focus. With a tilt-and-shift lens, you can have a gradient of focus (Figure 4).
Changing the Bokeh
Aside from all of these benefits, a 35mm adapter also changes the bokeh—the appearance of out-of-focus elements in the frame—and that in itself goes a long way towards the much-sought-after film look. While every type of lens has its own signature bokeh, the look you get from bare camcorders has a very videolike appearance, while bokeh coming from photo lenses has a much more organic and filmic feel. If you take the time to actually look at the bokeh in various images, the differences become very apparent (Figure 5).
Benefits and Challenges of 35mm Adapters
After considering how much 35mm adapters can add to your productions, one might wonder: Why aren’t we all shooting with them, and why don’t those of us who do use them shoot everything with them?
Well, for starters, it certainly makes your rig bigger, and for run-and-gun work, that extra heft may be too much for some shooters. The weight itself isn’t much of an issue, but it can get rather uncomfortable after a long day of shooting and these setups can be a tad more intimidating than a bare camera.
What’s more, as you add photo lenses to the end of your adapter, there will also be no option for auto focus, so you need to get accustomed to doing everything in manual focus. For the most part, this becomes very easy rather quickly, but there will be limitations on certain shots you can do, such as those involving fast-moving subjects.
To get a very shallow DoF, we choose to use a lot of prime or fixed focal-length lenses with our Brevis, as they often offer a brighter aperture setting. The downside of using prime lenses is that you lose the ability to zoom and you now need to take several lenses with you for every shoot. This also becomes second nature as you start zooming in and out the old-fashioned way—by walking back or forth.
You can also use zoom lenses with 35mm adapters, but those generally lose more light; even the most expensive zoom lenses having minimum apertures of f2.8. The better adapters out there (the Brevis and the Letus) generally lose half a stop of light through the adapter, so you usually want to shoot with the brightest lenses possible.
35mm adapters have come a long way over the past year or so, and the setups available now are more enticing than ever. Gone are the days of having to work with inverted images when you wanted to shoot with an adapter. Both the Brevis and the Letus come with an optical flip solution so that you view the image upright, as you do when normally shooting with your camera. The amount of light loss as well as the optical quality have also been vastly improved over the years, making today’s units more than ready for an HD workflow.
In the future, I would love to see adapters get even smaller and lighter, making them both easier to use and easier to hide (I’ve already been stopped once in a London train station by police who suspected me of being a terrorist for walking around with the Brevis at my side).
Assembling Your Shooting Setup
So you’ve decided to take the plunge and dive into 35mm adapters, but where do you start? The first two decisions are what brand of adapter and what type of lenses would you like to use with it. I would suggest checking out the Brevis first (www.cinevate.com) as well as the Letus (www.letus35.com; see Daniel Boswell’s March In The Field) as your prime adapter options.
As for lenses, the Canon EOS set is rather pricey for somebody just starting, and the EOS lenses offer no external aperture control, so you always have to shoot with them wide open, though workarounds are possible. These lenses also tend to feel a little too plastic when used as manual lenses on adapters. Nikon lenses are extremely sharp, well-built, and also feature external aperture control, but they don’t offer the same lens selection as Canon (no 85 f1.2, or 50 f1.2, for starters), and like the EOS set, they’re rather pricey for somebody starting out.
The best bet for most is usually the older Canon FD lens setup. These lenses are built extremely well, offer external aperture control, have excellent optics, are very small compared to more current lenses, and are also extremely affordable.
An excellent starter kit would include a 50 f1.4, an 85 f1.8, and perhaps a 135 f2.8—all of which can be found online for under $200 for the set.
The next big thing to consider after you have chosen your adapter brand and lenses would be whether or not you also went to get a full rails setup (Figure 6). Rails add improved stability by bracing the adapter and providing additional support for the lenses you attach, which can be quite long and heavy.
If you’re looking at small primes, such as the 50mm or 85mm, it would be quite easy to get by without rails. If you want to shoot with longer and heavier lenses, such as a 70-200 f2.8, you will definitely want to grab a rails setup. The stability provided by the rails also goes a long way when pulling focus or getting in really tight for macro shots.
As for the StillMotion crew, we have 5 Brevis setups with several different EOS and FD lens sets. We try to introduce 35mm adapters into our wedding work as much as possible, with certain things such as the preps being ideal for adapters. A good portion of every wedding we shoot these days is done with a Brevis. We also use it on wedding-related shoots like Love Stories (Figure 7 & Figure 8).
When it comes to corporate/commercial work, we find the look of 35mm adapters to be so much more appealing that we often shoot the entire project with adapters (see the three stacked images in Figure 9). Feel free to check our blog (www.stillmotionblog.com) for many current samples of our 35mm adapter work that demonstrate the shallow DoF we get with the Brevis and the impact it has on our wedding and corporate projects.
As with any tool—advanced ones especially—35mm adapters do take some time to learn properly and to become comfortable with. Pacing yourself and accessing the wealth of information on various forums can go a long way in getting you started.
From my personal experience as well as what we hear through many emails, it often takes very little time with a 35mm adapter to become hooked on the look. Give it a try for yourself.
Patrick Moreau (patrick at still-motion.ca), a 2007 EventDV 25 honoree, runs the "Motion" (cinematography) half of StillMotion, an international award-winning photo/video studio based in Mississauga, Ontario. He will be one of three featured presenters at Re:Frame Austin in April 2009.