35mm Lens Adapters 101: The Basics of Using Lens Adapters for Microfilmmakers
When I teamed up with Eric Henninger on our first 35mm lens adapter film it was to shoot a short film Eric had written called The Message, a story about two lovers who had separated and then, as if by kismet, end up leaving one another a message of reconciliation at the same moment. Because of the dreamy style of the film and its somewhat softer sentiments, we really wanted to look at getting a film-like look for it.
Our production camera: a DVX100B rigged out with the Redrock Micro M2,the microFollow Focus, and a microWhip. However, the 200mm telephoto lens proved to be too powerful for the look we were going for!
Since film was clearly out of the budget, we quickly looked to the next best thing: the film-like field of view and slightly soft visuals that a 35mm lens adapter allows you to achieve. (For those new to the terminology, a 35mm lens adapter is a special front attachment for a digital video camera that uses 35mm SLR or motion picture lenses and, through an intermediate projection screen, allows the digital camera to record an image that looks very much like footage recorded on 35mm film.) Our production camera was a DVX100B which we had equipped with a Redrock Micro M2 35mm lens adapter, both of which we had chosen due to their reliability and accessibility to the low-budget film community. We had done a lot of work to prepare, but because it was our first foray into this strange limbo which bridges the waking world (“digital”) with the dream world (“film”), we ran into a number of things that we learned the hard way through the experience.
One thing we noticed while preparing for this article, as we looked on the internet and in magazines, is that the majority of the articles on 35mm lens adapter use were anecdotal, as opposed to giving readers some concrete things they could do to prepare and be ready to use the 35mm lens adapters themselves. (Even worse, most of the articles were told from the perspective of hardcore film users who were getting into digital through using a 35mm lens adapter. This is very different than the typical microfilmmaker, who starts completely in the digital spectrum and then has to learn the basics of film production when they add a 35mm lens adapter to the equation.) The other place for information was on large user forums like those at DVXUser.com or Redrockmicro.com. While people could definitely find information here, it was simply such a large place to cull that many users might miss useful elements. As such, it seemed logical for us to make this article an introductory one that could easily be read and could cover the basic things to watch out for.
Hopefully, this article will provide the microfilmmaker with concrete ways to get ready for moving from pure digital to the film-like experience that lens adapters make possible.
Now, before we get into what you need to do when setting up a 35mm lens shoot, we need to clarify something: a digital video camera with a 35mm lens adapter is not a completely digital system any more than a cyborg is completely a robot. Instead, the marriage of digital video camera and the 35mm lens adapter is more like shooting your production with two completely different cameras lined up back to back. The lens adapter behaves more like a traditional film camera, holding a 35mm lens in front of it and focusing the image on a pre-arranged glass plane in the rear. While a film camera exposes film to this light silhouetted image, a 35mm lens adapter instead focuses the image on a piece of ground glass. To simulate film with its moving grain, this piece of glass either spins or vibrates so that the ground glass “grains” never stay in the same place. (The Redrock Micro M2 and new M2Encore use a spinning element whereas adapters like the P+S Technik Mini35, which is much more expensive, use a vibrating element.)
As you can see, the glass screen inside of the lens adapter is where the image the 35mm lens is focused on is projected. The camera then focuses on this screen and records the image. (Original illustration by Tom Stern.)
The image that’s acquired by 35mm lenses is always upside down. Now, some 35mm lens adapters flip the image via a prism before it’s projected on the glass element, like the LetUs 35 and the P+S Technik Mini35, whereas others don’t mess with the image, like the Redrock Micro M2. (For users of the M2 by itself, it’s a fairly simple matter to flip the image in post and solutions like Adobe OnLocation CS3/CS4 will flip M2 footage for you in the monitor. However, Redrock now offers an optional accessory called the microX which flips the image through a prism, which decreases the amount of work you have to do in post and makes it much easier to frame shots with your actual camera viewfinder.)
a. The LetUs35 and the microX use a prism that flips the footage that's recorded in-camera. b. Without a prism setup, the footage that's recorded with a 35mm adapter is upside down and must be flipped in post.
Once the image is projected on the ground glass, we leave the “film” camera and move into the “digital” camera. From here, the digital video camera, which has a specially added macro lens called a “diopter”, focuses on the ground glass element and records the image that’s displayed there.
Because you’re dealing with both an analog system and a digital system, you have more things you have to watch out for than you do with either system. That’s why we created the list on the following page that you can print out and use before, during, and after your shoot!