Through the looking glass

Ask any camera operator in the world and they will tell you having the right piece of glass makes all the difference. To test the variety on offer Digital Studio gathered together three wide-angle offerings from leading manufacturers and two of the region’s leading cameramen for a compare and contrast. Here are the results.

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By  Marcus Webb Published  January 15, 2003

I|~||~||~|“The thing with choosing a lens is that it is very much a matter of personal taste,” explains cameraman Peter Davies. “What some people think of as an asset others see as a flaw and vice versa.” Davies and fellow cameramen Nick Cate are sitting with Digital Studio to discuss the virtues of three of the latest wide-angle lenses on the market, the Fujinon A13x4.5ERM/ERD, Angenieux’s 12x5.3 AIF.HR, and the J11ax4.5B from Canon.

The Angenieux is the oldest lens on test and on its release was the world’s first wide super zoom, combining the then widest angle — F5.3mm (79º), and the longest zoom range — 12x. Available in 2/3", the Angenieux has a range of F 5.3-64mm, reaching F128mm with the built-in 2x range extender. The lens features AIF — Assisted Internal Focus — technology, which Angenieux claims, “gives instant fluid zoom control and precision focusing capabilities.” While HR optics provide the high resolution needed to meet digital standards.

When Canon released the J11ax 4.5B they stole the widest-angle crown from Angenieux, although with an 11x zoom compared to Angenieux’s 12x. The J11 represents the third generation of the IF-XS series and this ultra wide lens follows the design concept known as IF-XS, which incorporates Canon’s power optical system and features what Canon mysteriously labels “the X-element.” IF-XS allows for a smaller more compact size, making the Canon the lightest lens in its class. The new J11Ax4.5B provides an angle of view of 88.7° at the wide end in standard 4:3 mode, 93.7° in 16:9 mode and 101° diagonal in the 4:3 mode. The focal length at the wide end is 4.5mm — 16% wider than its predecessor the J9ax 5.2B.

The newest kid on the wide-angle block is the Fujinon A13x4.5ERM/ENG. Introduced to European and Middle Eastern markets at last September’s IBC show in Amsterdam, this ‘wide power’ lens features a focal length of 4.5mm and provides the current widest angle of view (101°25' diagonal) available in the world. It also contains the highest zoom-ratio of it’s class and, like all the lenses reviewed, features a 2x extender.

The lens was designed using Fujinon’s adaption of the GO-Technology which, the company claims, “ensures highest optical quality,” and retains the well-acclaimed ‘Digi Power’ functions such as Quickzoom, Auto-cruising zoom, one shot preset and serial digital remote control by PC.

The tests we have lined up for these marvels of modern glasswork stem from Davies’ observation that the choice of lens comes equally from the heart as from the head and rather than undergoing vigorous technical tests, we aim to offer you, the reader, an idea of how the lenses feel, looks and their suitability to the Middle East market. The trial was carried out on a scorching day around Dubai. We selected scenes that a cameraman would be asked to shoot on a day-to-day basis and, after locking off the tripod, repeated the exact same shot with all three lenses. It soon became clear that all three lenses are fantastic pieces of kit, our attempts to distinguish between them led to almost hair-splitting attention to detail and a couple of very heated discussions between the jury.

||**||II|~||~||~|Look
It is fair to say that all three lenses blew our minds when attached to the Sony DSR-570WSP we are using for the test. “Blimey that is awesome!” exclaimed Cate as he took his first view down the viewfinder to appreciate the full width offered by the Canon, “and hell so is that!” when comparing it to the Fujinon and “this is going to be really tough,” when seeing what the Angenieux had to offer.

We start with the obvious question, “which is the widest?” Our tests showed that the Fujinon lens comes out on top by, as Davies so eloquently put it “a gnat’s nasty,” taking slightly more of the scene into the frame than the other two. The Canon is a fraction behind with a still impressive expanse and the Angenieux third. On pure width of view the Fujinon and Canon lenses are considerably wider than the Angenieux. That is not to say the Angenieux is particularly lacking, but in the race to offer the widest view in the world Canon and Fujinon have made major advances and the expansive sight offered by both has to be seen to be believed.

The quality of images obtained from the lenses was uniformly magnificent with all three showing a great deal of detail and depth of field. There were notable differences between each shot, which lend themselves to different styles. The Fujinon and Angenieux lenses gave off a far ‘warmer’ picture than the Canon, with an array of rich reds and yellows. In comparison the Canon's picture seemed somehow ‘colder’, which emphasises placed on the blues and greens in shot. Neither is necessarily better than the other, it is purely a matter of personal taste, a point illustrated by the fact that all three people present at the test chose a different image as the most artistically satisfying.

One thing the jury could agree on is that the level of detail obtained from the Fujinon was outstanding. Studying the footage you could really see every aspect of the scene, even in shadowed areas such as wheel arches.

||**||III|~||~||~|We tested the lenses for signs of glare, an inherent problem with wide angles, by shooting across the sun, the worst possible shot for a wide-angle lens. In such extreme conditions all three lenses held up remarkably well, with a surprisingly small amount of glare evident. That said, the Canon and the Angenieux fared better than the Fujinon with less dazzle entering the glass for a cleaner shot. This is more than likely due to the extra width of the Fujinon making it more susceptible to the sun’s glare. The flare on all lenses is kept to a low-level without an expansive hood limiting the shots available.

Examining for distortion yielded similar results to the flare test, with the Canon and Angenieux displaying marginally less distortion when we carried out a slow raise over a stationary object. Both Davies and Cate pointed out that the distortion, or rather the lack of it, on all three lenses was remarkable and this was an area that the manufacturers had made major advances in over recent years. “It really is a feat of modern engineering that we are seeing very little warping and hardly any image breakdown,” observed Cate.
When we compared focal length Fujinon emerged on top again, making it the longest and widest, with a thirteen times zoom ratio, compared to the Angenieux’s twelve and the Canon’s eleven. Although the question was asked “does size matter?” When the Canon, according to Cate, proved more positive on focus stream.

Relocating inside, we tested the lenses at low light levels with impressive results. Locking the tripod off in the corner of the front room with only one window in the corner for light we shot with all three lenses. The Fujinon handled the dim conditions particularly well, giving marginally more detail than the other two even in the corners of the frame. The Canon’s strength lay in avoiding the blow-up usually found around the light sources in such situations, while the Angenieux took the middle line, providing a good steady picture with little blow out and good detail.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Feel
Both Davies and Cate agree that the Canon and the Fujinon feel of higher quality than the Angenieux, which feels somewhat “clunky.” This is probably due to Angenieux’s offering being notably cheaper. The Fujinon offered slightly more resistance when pulling focus, a feature favoured by the jury. “It’s just that little bit firmer,” explains Davies. “You can just feel where you are going.”

The Fujinon lost out however for not having the ability to take and rotate a polar filter, a feature found in both the Canon and the Angenieux lenses. “This is a major draw back for me,” says Cate. “I do a lot of news shooting and would personally not go on a shoot without a UV lens or a polar filter that you can revolve.”

Weight was another factor that hampered the Fujinon, again probably because of its extra width. The Canon was incredibly light, weighing in at 1.75 kilogrammes the Angenieux was next at 1.8 kilogrammes, with the Fujinon coming in at 1.83 kilogrammes. “It may seem like we're splitting hairs here,” says Cate. “But if you are on an all-day, hand-held shoot you are really going to feel those extra few pounds.”

An important consideration when buying in this region is the level of back up and support you will receive. At present, Canon is the only manufacturer with trained technicians in the Middle East who will calibrate and service your equipment and provide a replacement. “This is really important to me,” says Cate. “I like the reassurance that they are on hand.”

||**||V|~||~||~|Conclusions
There are so many factors in lens choice that can only be determined by a cameraman’s personal requirements, particularly budget, their need for support and which ‘look’ they favour. Our tests showed that the Fujinon lens had the most impressive specifications, with the widest view and the longest zoom.

The picture too was superb, with an excellent saturated feel and, if you favour a warm look, good reds and yellows. The lens is hampered, however, by the inability to insert a polar filter, a susceptibility to lens flare and the lack of regional back up.
The Canon is technically well supported in this region and also boasts a weight advantage over the other two. The pictures are of first-rate quality and emphasise the blues and the greens for those who prefer a colder picture. This lens also features an impressively broad angle.

The major advantage of the Angenieux is cost; its list price is considerably less than the Canon and the Fujinon, probably due it being slightly older. The pictures quality is fantastic and very similar in look to the Fujinon in terms of depth and warmth. The zoom is also impressive at 12x. However the economic factors do show in the general feel of the camera and the width available, which is considerably less than the other two. It also does not contain the ‘bells and whistles’ of the other two, (there is no auto zoom speed or memory point for example) but for a basic wide angle lens it fared very well.

As we said at the beginning of the test, it is always difficult to carry out a test on something as subjective as a lens. I cannot see anyone being disappointed with any one of these lenses and all will provide a top quality picture. The difference comes in the details and then it is a matter of taste.
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