It was the weight in my hands that I first learned to appreciate. The solid build and unrelenting sturdiness of it drew me in to admire the precision and power of the lens.
After that it was the way I could look through it and see a different world — distorted and warped — yet clearer than my own eyes.
And though it’s a challenge to pull focus on Zeiss Superspeeds, it’s that dance between myself, the camera and the lens — when everything falls sharp as a tack — that made me fall in love.
Once upon a time in the far-away land of Richmond, Virginia, I found myself on a short student film as the 1st assistant camera (AC) shooting on the RED One with a full set of Carl Zeiss Superspeed prime lenses.
These lenses have become like babies to me since I find myself working with them so often.
But like a child, they have their good and bad side. Specifically, the ability to open up to a T-Stop of 1.3 which is both their best feature, but also their worst.
For a director of photography (DP), that gift is great news — it means the ability to shoot in lower light if needed.
For a first AC or focus puller, the news is a little more somber. Pulling focus that wide open (or even at a stop of 2.0) is a tough nut to crack. When shooting wide open on a 50mm lens at only 6 feet away, your depth of field is a meager 3 – 4 inches.
Couple that with the fact that we were shooting the entire film handheld (literally not one shot on a tripod) and things got really tricky, really fast.
The Difficulties of Dynamics
At one point, we were shooting a tracking shot that followed an actress from within an elevator, around a corner and then down a hallway where she stopped to interact with another actress.
With a shot like this, anything other than your eye and ability to guess distance is moot. You can’t get marks with a dynamic subject and a dynamic camera.
We shot that scene at between T 1.3 and T 2.0 and maybe the DP saw the look on my face when he asked, “You sure you got this?”
My first ever 1st AC gig was with this DP and a set of Zeiss Superspeeds. It was an ultra low budget feature and we shot the entire film with the lenses wide open. In fact, with this DP, I consider it a gift if the stop is set anywhere near T 2.8.
And this is why I love and why I hate the Zeiss Superspeed lenses. I cut my teeth pulling focus on these lenses in the T1.3 – 2.0 range, so there’s a sense of attachment. But the lenses aren’t very forgiving when it comes to focus and it has never been easy.
After a moment of consideration, I gave him the same reply as always, “Yeah, don’t worry about it,” and loaded the camera up on his shoulder.
The first few takes buzzed pretty hard (I wasn’t given any rehearsal time), but eventually we managed to grab a couple takes that I felt comfortable watching.
The best part about RED is that you can watch playback and see right away whether you kept the shot in focus.
Sometimes I don’t feel so good about a take and unpatch the camera from the monitor so I can cringe to myself in private. Other times, I call people over to show how great a shot looks.
It’s all in a day’s work as a camera assistant.
The Zeiss Superspeeds, they make sure that I have a challenge to meet every time I slide that iris ring to T1.3 — their gift and their curse.
What is your favorite lens set? Do you remember the first lenses you ever had to pull focus on and what it was like? Share your story in the comments!