Looking for a look

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When Leica’s Rainer Hercher talks about creamy sharpness, he is not trying to be especially eloquent. The sales director for Leica cine lenses in Germany is trying to convey how lens designers deal with an optical contradiction: how to keep your subject’s eyes in pin sharp focus and yet give their skin a texture that looks natural without throwing every pore into harsh relief.

The ability of a lens to make people look good is always listed prominently in the lens makers’ brochures although, to be clear, we are talking about something subtle about light that has nothing to do with airbrushing.

It might be subtle but the lens makers are not making it up. There is a scientific explanation to do with physics and optics, resolution and contrast, and it is important. People are at the emotional centre of every story and to have their eyes and faces looking a bit off would ruin everything.

Hercher was recently here as a guest of the New Zealand Cinematographers Society (NZCS) to talk about the design of lenses and the nature of images at an event held at Metro Films’ new Auckland rental facility.

He says creamy sharpness was an English description borrowed from a Spanish director of photography, and is just one of several key factors that the lens designers are trying to build into an image. Other lens manufacturers reinforce the same point but with different language – usually something invoking soft, warm skin tones.

The look
It’s all part of the look. Spend time around cinematographers and it won’t be long before they start talking about the look, but at times it can be hard to discern what on earth they are talking about, perhaps in part because these are visual people and don’t gush on in the way that say, wine tasters talk about hints of gooseberry or whatever.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss as airy-fairy the idea that particular lenses have a look just because it is subtle or you can’t see it on a test chart.

Test charts are universally used to check that a lens is calibrated correctly, but are of little use when evaluating how a face might look in a real-world shot, or how an out of focus background might appear.
Nor can a test chart directly tell you about Hercher’s creamy sharpness, which he is quick to point out is not just about Caucasian skin-tones. There is a lot of diversity and colour in the human race, and occasionally you even want to shoot in monochrome. The result always has to look good, and be consistent as you change one focal length for another.

“The intention of a lens is really to capture nice skin tones, in terms of colorimetry, colour temperature, the right colour balance, and resolution,” says Stefan Sedlmeier, managing director of ARRI Australia.

ARRI, in conjunction with Zeiss, produce Ultra Prime and Master Prime lenses, which are mainstays of independent rental house inventories and owner operators. Cooke, and more recently, Leica lenses have also found a good market share. The popular Panavision Primo lenses are bit different because you can’t buy them; they remain an exclusive point of difference for Panavision rental operations around the world.

Oddly enough, after telling you their lenses are high performance, high resolution, and sharp – especially important as 4K shooting becomes the norm – lens makers will inevitably tell you how good their lenses look out of focus.

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