Canon CN-E Primes - An In-Depth Look

cneclustrCanon announced their CN-E Primes back in 2011 with only a 24, 50, and 85mm. They quickly added the 14, 35, and 135mm to the line-up providing cinematographers an set of six lenses from 14 through 135mm. The lenses are plenty sharp and built rather well. Duclos Lenses saw the potential of these primes and took action. In this post, we're going to dive into what makes the Canon CN-E Primes such great lenses and why Duclos Lenses chose these particular lenses for modification to PL mount.  To gain a better understanding of the Canon CN-E Primes, I spoke with Ryan Kamata, Sr Specialist, Business Planning and Larry Thorpe, senior fellow, Professional Engineering & Solutions division of Canon U.S.A. Both gentlemen were very kind to provide me with their time and answers to my questions. After that I sat down with David Klein, ASC and Dominik Mainl right in the midst of shooting the current season of Showtime's Homeland with our prototype Canon CN-E PL mount primes. So grab a cup of coffee and enjoy some lens geekery.  

  Let's begin with the kind folks from Canon USA. I asked a series of questions, some of which warranted answers that cannot be shared just yet... Matthew Duclos: How did Canon begin the development of the CN-E Primes? Canon USA: The development of the CN-E Primes was integral to the larger strategy of the new Cinema EOS system.  Planning for this was fully underway in 2009. From the outset this system was planned as a family of digital cine cameras flanked by a range of both cine zoom and cine prime lenses.  Unique technological and aesthetic advantages emerged from this coordinated development.  The continuing large role of prime lenses has extended to the new era of digital cinematography and Canon gave a special priority to developing a family of cine primes that would eventually earn a reputation for stunning imagery and ergonomic elegance. MD: A lot of cinematographers feel these are simply re-housed L series lenses - How do the CN-E primes differ? CUSA: The cine prime lenses were designed in accordance with long-established expectations of the world’s cinematographers.  Optically, they are designed to match with our cinema zoom lenses. They are designed to be on the warmer side, providing a very organic and a natural look. This immediately set them apart from the L-Series prime lenses. The CN-E Primes were designed to 4K optical performance specifications. Optically, this means they deliver a high contrast from the center of the image to the extremities, they have tightened specs on monochromatic and chromatic aberrations, and they have minimized focus breathing. Mechanically and ergonomically they are further differentiated from the L-Series by having:
  1. 300-degree rotation angle for the focus control
  2. 11-blade iris for cinematic bokeh
  3. Unified front lens diameter of 114mm
  4. Unified mounting of 105mm filters
  5. Unified positioning of the focus and iris geared rings
  6. Highly Accurate Lens markings on both sides of the lens
  7. Manual iris control capability
  8. Durable and reliable housing that produces precise lens control
MD: What was Canon's goal when designing these lenses? CUSA: Canon had few illusions about the challenge of entering a global cinematography world that is served by long-established and highly reputable suppliers of cameras and optics.  The central design goal was to establish a distinct imaging “personality” for the Cinema EOS system – that would have an aesthetic appeal to the world’s creative communities in both television and in theatrical motion picture production.  It is our quest that over time the unique imaging qualities of the primes will establish Canon as a major supplier of contemporary digital cine optics. MD: I know that Canon places a generous amount of value in the character of a lens. Is there a specific look to this “personality”? CUSA: Specifically, the spectral transmissions of the CN-E primes are closely matched to each other and to the Cinema EOS zoom lens while also being optimized in conjunction with the Cinema EOS CMOS image sensor and associated color filter array to achieve a highly pleasing cinematic color reproduction – most especially on skin tones. The prime lenses have a warmth to them which some people describe as a "Golden Look".   The contemporary optical coatings used on all of the glass elements endow the primes with a vivid contrast.     The tight management of the 4K optical performance across the image plane in combination with that high contrast imparts superb picture sharpness.  The four primes covering 24mm to 85mm are unusually fast and this allows an extremely shallow depth of field to be achieved when wide open. MD: That all sounds like the perfect recipe for an excellent set of cinema primes. Cinematographers are all looking to future-proof their kit. How well will the CN-E Primes grow with the ever-increasing sensor resolution?   CUSA: The recent move by some camera manufacturers to introduce professional cameras having significantly higher spatial sampling than the current 2K/HD and 4K/UHD is regrettably accompanied by a troublesome arbitrary increase in the physical dimensions of the image sensor – and in the associated optical image circle. The 2K/HD/4K/UHD digital formats are all supported by industry production standards that are internationally recognized.  5K, 6K formats are not standardized.   This poses difficulties for optical manufacturers, especially when the traditional consultation with professional camera manufacturers is bypassed.  Accordingly, Canon will advance with considerable care when it comes to developing future CN-E primes (and indeed cine zooms) MD: Does Canon consider resolving power and the character of a lens to be a delicate balance  CUSA: Resolving power (that is, limiting resolution)  has little to do with the imaging character of a cine lens.  Central to the character of the lens is the degree of high contrast that can be achieved.  Closely allied with that is the characteristic of the modulation transfer function (MTF) of the lens.  MTF describes the behavior of the contrast of the lens as the spatial detail is progressively elevated and this very directly determines the character of the subjective image sharpness of which the lens is capable.  The goal is not to maximize the resolving power of the lens  but rather to optimize the shape of the MTF characteristic across the imaging passband of interest.  In the case of the 4K CN-E primes this means holding the MTF as high as possible up to 1080 line pairs (optical Nyquist frequency for 4K) in both the horizontal and vertical directions. What takes precedence is achieving the sought-for MTF for 4K and then managing the optical design of the lens to sustain that MTF as high as possible from picture center to the image extremities. MD: It sounds to me like quality is a priority. How does Canon handle manufacturing of these lenses? CUSA: Many processes in lens manufacturing are automated today – such as the shaping of individual lens elements and their associated initial grinding and polishing.   Yet the intervention of the skilled hand of the optical artisans remains paramount.   Grinding liquids – which deeply affect the polishing result – are compounded from a range of polishing powders by the artisans many times in a given day on all of the polishing machines.  These vary with the different glass materials that constitute a single optical assembly.   The hundreds of base polishing plates on the polishing machines are manually polished and fine-tuned by the skilled artisans.  The final polishing – which establishes the extremely tight tolerance on lens surfaces – is still largely a manual process.    The final assembly of the lens optical and optomechanical system as well as the associated adjustment processes – both of which require extreme skill and know-how – is also done by highly experienced human hands.  MD: I agree - a skilled artisan in a world of CAD and CNC is necessary. What were some of the key decisions made in terms of design?  CUSA: The most key decision was establishing the operational specifications of the limited initial set of our new cine prime lenses.  We sought a modest range (six) and placed a high priority on having these cover the most popular cine focal ranges.  Allied with this was the decision to make all of these lenses meet 4K optical specifications, be high speed, be compact and lightweight, and have a distinct Canon “personality” in terms of their image making.  Last but not least, we set a very attractive pricing goal for these unusually high performance lenses. We had decided to make the new cine zoom lenses and the C500/C300 cameras available in both PL and EF mounts.  Zoom lenses are not yet widespread in the global cinematography world and we wanted to service these two constituencies. We made a quite different decision on the CN-E prime lenses.  Because of the huge worldwide inventory of PL mount primes from multiple established optical manufacturers in today’s marketplace, Canon was fully cognizant that it would take quite some time for our new cine prime lens offerings to penetrate the industry.   We narrowed our sights for the near term by offering these primes only in the Canon EF mount. MD: Duclos Lenses is engineering and manufacturing a PL Mount conversion for the CN-E Primes - How well will these primes work with something like an Alexa or a Sony? CUSA: ARRI’s and the various Sony cameras offer PL mount versions of their cameras, and as such, they meet an industry standardized and tightly specified optical mechanical interface (in terms of diameter and of flange focal distance) .  The PL mount converted CN-E primes also meet these tight mechanical specifications.  Accordingly, they will work quite perfectly with the ARRI and Sony cine cameras. MD: How does Canon handle the service of the CN-E Primes?  CUSA: Canon offers a 1 year warranty. There are basically 4 Factory Service Centers in the US that offers full service on all Cinema Products. Also a free hot-line for customer support is available 24/7. The CPS Membership Program provides various benefits in terms of service. Short turn-around period, free of charge equipment loan and Exclusive member hotline are just some examples of those benefits. MD: Are there plans for additional focal lengths?  CUSA: If the industry calls for it...that's when we start thinking about it.  
    I do plan on following up with Canon so if you have any questions, drop them in the comments below and I'll hound them a bit more. ;-) The next portion of this post dives into the practical experience of the Canon CN-E Primes with David Klein, ASC and Dominik Mainl, respectively. David heard about our conversion through the grapevine and came to us to get his hands on the Canon CN-E primes. At the time, we had just finished our first proof of concept prototype for a camera test being conducted by HBO who needed a baseline lens for testing the new crop of digital cameras for the upcoming season of shows. During our initial tests, we found that our conversion didn't quite clear certain camera lock-downs and went back to the drawing board. The problem was solved very quickly and the lenses went on to shoot the tests that HBO needed. David had some experience with the Canon CN-E lenses and knew that he wanted them, but needed the PL mount. He had already decided that he was going to be the owner of set number one, even before we had a product to deliver. With a deadline for the principal photography of Homeland rapidly approaching, we were motivated to complete the conversion project. The lenses went out and have been successfully shooting full-time ever since with the exception of a quick flange depth tweak during hiatus. The season wrapped and I had a chance to touch base with the two guys and their experience so far... [gallery size="medium" ids="3145,3146,3147"] MD: David, can you give us some insight into your career as a cinematographer? DK: I started my career with the independent feature film “Clerks” in 1994. After that I shot 2 more feature films for Kevin Smith before being pushed out by a studio system that wanted him to work with more experienced cinematographers. This period then lasted almost 10 years until he insisted on bringing me back for the feature films “Clerks 2”, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”, “Cop Out” and “Red State”. Prior to us being reunited, I worked on numerous low budget features and the odd TV series. Michael Weaver, ASC brought me on to Pushing Daisies during this time as his 2nd unit DP and I ended up shooting several episodes of that series when he wasn’t available. Since the feature film “Red State” – I’ve been lucky enough to land in cable TV and have been going back and forth between the series “True Blood” and “Homeland” for the past few years. MD: What do you look for when choosing lenses for a project? DK: That depends. For a very long time, and in feature film production, I generally stick to prime lenses. When the Cooke S4’s were introduced, they were the perfect lens for the look I liked. Sharp with a mellow falloff and they performed perfectly well at my favorite stop, which is between a T2 and 2 ½. In television, the flexibility of zooms is important because there simply isn’t as much time. My combination of lenses for the past 15 years has been Cooke S4’s and Optimo zooms. That has recently changed with Canon’s new line of zooms and Cine primes. MD: What made the Canon CN-E Primes so appealing? DK: I was introduced to the Canon cine zooms last season on Homeland and found that they were not only sharper than zooms I’d been using in the past, but also did not breathe. They can tend to be a focus pullers nightmare because of how sharp they are and they simply are not forgiving, but after getting used to the quality of these zooms and testing the Canon Cine primes I was sold. I’ve been using Canon still lenses my entire life and so basically knew what to expect from them in terms of lens quality. I’ve shot them against other primes and simply found that they are as sharp as anything on the market, but because of Canon’s history of lens making, there is a maturity to them that gives them their own character. How sharp they are is complimented nicely by the wonderful falloff and one of the most gorgeous bokeh’s I’ve ever seen. MD: After shooting the current season of Homeland with these lenses, what are your thoughts on their quality? DK: These lenses are bulletproof. They’re built like tanks and as I’ve said, are as sharp as anything I’ve used. The maturity I refer to is hard to describe, it’s a combination of sharpness and smooth transition to de-focused falloff that really gives the image a unique and dynamic edge. I’m constantly amazed at how sharp they are without the brutal perceived sharpness that comes along with shooting digitally. You can feel the years of engineering and photographic experience behind them. The PL adaption by Duclos Lenses has been flawless, and we are not easy on these lenses. We’re constantly putting them in harms way and banging them around as is the style of this show and they’ve held up as well as any lenses could. MD: Adoption of the Canon CN-E primes has been a bit slow in the world of episodic and feature films - did you have an reservations about introducing such a new set of optics? DK: None. After using the Canon zooms and testing the primes with their native Canon mount, I had no reservations whatsoever. The zooms now have been used by me on 2 ½ seasons of television and the primes have been a perfect compliment to them. My only comment on this is that there aren’t enough focal lengths, and the introduction of these lenses to features and TV will be slow until there is a more complete set – but they continue to impress me and I would use these primes on any series or feature I shoot. [caption id="attachment_3178" align="aligncenter" width="700"] David Klein, ASC on the set of Homeland framing a shot with the Canon CN-E 50mm T1.3 PL Mount lens.[/caption]  
  Now on to Dominik Mainl, the man actually pulling focus with these lenses on a daily basis. Dominik is the First AC for Homeland and probably works more closely with these lenses than anyone else on earth considering these were the very first set out the door.
MD: Dominik, can you give us some insight into your career and experience with cinema lenses?
DM: In 1998, after completing ARRI Munich’s training program, I left Europe and moved to Los Angeles to work as a freelance camera assistant. Originally on a path to become a Director of Photography, I realized that my interests are more of technical nature - cameras, lenses, all supporting technologies and their synergy captured my attention more than the politics involved with being a Director of Photography, so I focused on… focusing. I love the challenges of keeping everything sharp and am always interested in new technologies, so I figured I can serve the industry better as a ‘career focus puller’ and I have never looked back...
I have worked on countless commercials, motion pictures and television projects, amongst them “HOMELAND” and “TRUE BLOOD” with EMMY nominated Director of Photography David Klein, ASC.
Over the many years behind the camera I’ve come across virtually every lens you can imagine - from anamorphic rarities like the Panavision 65mm C-Series macro (there’s only one left in the world) to the newest version of the Leica Summilux Series, although most DP’s seem to stick to the industry standards like Cooke S4/S5’s and Zeiss/ARRI Master Primes. I was pleasantly surprised that, given most DP's hesitance to test new lenses on Set, David introduced me to the new Canon Cinema Zooms while already in production during Homeland’s Season 3.
Little did I know how this would change my view on Zoom lenses… not to mention my excitement when I heard that we get to test the first ever Set of Canon PL primes!
MD: You’ve worked with a lot of professional cinema lenses - did the Canon CN-E PL mount primes meet your needs? 
DM:
Did the new Canon CN-E PL primes meet my needs? Yes.
Did they exceed my expectations? Yes.
Can they be improved? Yes.
From a focus puller’s point of view, they are pretty awesome. The Canon CN-E PL primes are just as sharp as every focus puller who is familiar with Canon's Still-Lenses has feared: violently crisp but coupled with a befittingly smooth fall-off…
The Good: very light (compared to industry-standard rivals Cooke S4/S5 and MasterPrimes), very precise, extremely sharp. Much sharper than Cooke S4’s. The ø114mm front element makes switching from Canon’s Compact Zooms to Primes much faster than other lenses (Cooke S4 feature a ø110mm front element and requires the Matteboxes to change their respective ports). Small in size but not too short, just about perfect.
The Bad: the Iris scale needs to be expanded. It’s very hard to dial in the T-Stop precisely. The overall T-Stop really should match all lenses. It can’t be that some lenses are T1.3 and others T1.5 (this requires us to re-calibrate the wireless Iris-controller as the marks don’t line up between lenses). Ideally even the 135mm and 14mm should be a T2.
Infinity is not infinity. When using a wireless focus control (such as Preston or ARRI wireless, which is pretty much 95% the case on Set), the focus puller is unable to pull to the end of the lens as we are limited at the infinity line on our hand units. This should be addressed by moving the infinity line as close as possible to the physical end of the focus barrel.
The focus spread is ok, not great, but more importantly is the minimum focus distance on the 85mm and 135mm lenses, respectively. Both lenses should be able to handle at least a 2’ minimum!!
MD: How do the Canon CN-E Primes compare to other much more expensive lenses you’ve worked with in the past?
DM: The quality of the Canon CN-E Primes are on par with other, more expensive lenses I have been working with over many years. In fact, Canon CN-E Primes are probably the sharpest prime lenses I have ever worked with, leaving MasterPrimes and Cooke’s in their dust. The focus fall-off is crisp and unrivaled although they keep every focus puller on their feet. Unforgiving, yet beautiful. Other lenses seem slightly soft compared to CN-E lenses. But as long as Canon cannot offer a full range of CN-E lenses, Directors of Photography are forced to ask for other manufacturers products.
  MD: Do you see a place for these lenses among feature film, commercial and high-budget episodic work? DM: Yes. In fact, I am surprised there have not been more requests already, asking Canon to produce a wider range of CN-E Prime Lenses. The only thing that is holding the CN-E lenses back from being a staple in professional motion picture, television and commercial / music video productions is the fact that there are only 6 focal lengths available. As soon as Canon completes what would be a standard 'production set’ of lenses I fully expect them to pop up everywhere. The minimum amount of focal lengths needed are 18mm, 21mm, 27mm, 40mm, 65mm, 100mm in addition to the existing 14mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm. I sure hope they will find their way to more Sets soon.  

  So there you have it. A glimpse into the world of Canon cinema primes - both from the conception and design point of view, as well as practical, set life experience. I've been putting this post together for a while because I truly feel that the Canon CN-E primes are the underrated, dark horse of the cinema lens world. There's a lot to be said for the "Producer Factor" which is that mythical law that says a professional motion picture production must have a Zeiss, Angenieux, or Cooke lens affixed to the front of the camera. While I have the utmost respect for the industry classics that have earned their place in cinema lens history, there's no denying that Canon is dedicated to producing some truly beautiful lenses. From what I can tell, the Canon CN-E Primes are a strong contender that simply need some time to mature with a few additional focal lengths - that said, a six-lens set is still a lot better than some other manufacturers can claim.

 

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