on July 16, 2014

Make your own “Digital Bolex” for $300

When I was at the Cinegear Expo at the Paramount Lot in LA, all I could think was: This is like Disneyland for filmmakers. There were exhibits, balloons, hotdogs and rides… and by rides, I mean vendors with the latest and greatest equipment all set up and practically begging for to come try them.

I got my hands on a 30 foot super technocrane. I got to play with all sorts of Gimbal stabilizers- which are very popular right now- thanks to the Movi. It’s also nice as an independent filmmaker to see what the big hollywood budgets are using, and to think abstractly about what I can do as an independent filmmaker to replicate the nsame effect.
As many camera guys know, one of the most important decisions you make is what lens to shoot with. Zoom or prime? Photo or Cine? Vintage or new? Then you have the decision of what brand you want to use. For anyone who has had the pleasure, there are few lenses that compare to Cookes. While part of it is great marketing of the “Cooke Look”, a lot of it has to do with the really soft roll-off in the focus and the very specific feel that these lenses deliver. Along with that, comes a steep price tag. An individual cooke s5 lens will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of $23,000, while you can get their much more affordable younger siblings, the cooke mini s4, for about $8 grand apiece.
A steep price tag to be sure, even when renting, but there is a reason why these lenses command such a steep price tag: they are gorgeous.
Then I stopped by the digital Bolex vendor. Bolex is reinventing their brand with a digital image of their handheld camera. It has a super 16 size sensor, and some great output options. The advantage here, is that the super 16 sensor is smaller, and can take advantage of the very out-of-favor “c-mount”. Then he showed me the beauty of it: He was suing a vintage Cooke lens with a C-mount that he got on ebay for $300 dollars. While still not a cheap lens- $300 dollars for the cooke look is a steal.
However, the machine still runs $3,300, which is a great value, but also in the striking range of the 5DmkIII and the Black magic, and past the cost of a 4k GH4 or A7s.
It did get me thinking: how could i take advantage of those long-forgotten c-mount lenses. Because of the flange distance on DSLRs, there is just too much vignetting to be usable. Micro four thirds cameras are PERFECT for this lens size, but I have never been blown away with the bokeh and DOF of this smaller sensor size.

Many Sony NEX users have been able to adapt these c-mount to their cameras, however. The mirrorless design and aps-c size sensor make this a PERFECT companion. The sony NEX series is truly a great series of mirrorless cameras that offer a great price to performance ratio.

But I’m a canon shooter- not just that- but a Magic Lantern shooter. I can’t imagine my production flow without it. If only there was a canon mirrorless camera that would fit the bill:

Enter the canon Eos-m. Now stay with me- the Canon Eos-m has been generally jeered as an afterthought by Canon- a camera that showed up late to the mirrorless party, and with a lackluster feature set. The first version of the firmware had laughably slow autofocus, and the camera adapter for EF lenses made made a lot of Canon users hesitant to pull the trigger- especially at the price point when it was introduced: $800.

Now the good news: The firmware has been updated, and the autofocus is much more usable (not that that matters to you, video shooter). The poor sales and reviews caused Canon to ease back on the marketing platforms here in the US, while it recently released a second generation of the camera in Asia and Europe. WHat does that mean? It means that Canon is still supporting the format; albeit with a limited development, and that prices in the US has fallen rock bottom. A little bit of research will yield you a body only version in the neighborhood of $265.

Yes. $265.

That makes this a great B-cam. It has the same APS-C sensor as the t5i- same picture profiles that you can load on your a- cam. and best of all: It will take Magic Lantern and shoot raw.

Granted, it is not the full frame 1080p raw as the 5DmkIII, but it will shoot in raw small enough to do a 640×640 pixel raw video- which happens to be the exact ratio for instagram.

It’s also small as hell, and practically pocketable. If you can swing the extra few dollars, its not too hard to get this camera with the 22m f2 for aroud $300. This configuration puts it in direct competition with the Venerable Fuji x100s. (It will lose to the fuji, but nonetheless, you’re in the same race.)

But of course, I digress. One the great features about this camera is no mirror, which means a shorter flange distance. which means I can get a $5 dollar adapter and use c-mount lenses. I highly suggest getting acquainted with some of the cheaper Fujian c-mount lenses. They run around $25 dollars a piece with f-stops from 1.4-1.7. The 35mm lens is almost- if not exactly- identical to the one cold by SLR Magic. Yes, these lenses are a little soft at the edges, and there is a bit of vignetting on a sensor this size, but it produces BEAUTIFUL images, nonetheless, with great character and a very organic feel. Anything wider than 35mm starts to get a definite image circle, which is fine if you don’t mind cropping. Your other option, of course, is to use the “3x crop” in Magic Lantern. This uses the pixels at the center of the sensor, and you get the 1080p image at the crop factor of a lens three times the length.

Because of the size of these cameras, they are also very light. I bought a small pistol grip handle for a mounting option, and screwed it right into the base.

A cheap Cowboy Studios optical viewfinder adapter with magnifier gave me another point of contact, and all of a sudden, I’m off to the races having spent only another 30 bucks or so.
In the field, I have noticed that, although I definitely prefer my full size dDSLR to the Eos-m, I often don’t’ bring my DSLR because it is too bulky or heavy. The Eos-m barely larger than an iPhone. And if you consider that the best camera is the one that you have with you, it is much easier to have this one with me, than my beast that I use for all my production work.

I love shooting with this setup.

It’ so light, so easy to use, and the retro look to it always gives people a smile when they see it. If there’s a camera guy in the room as you’re shooting, invariably they will want to come look and see your setup. The unpopularity of the eos m is one of the greatest things going in your favor, and its a very affordable way too bring your filmmaking with you on the road.
Now you can do a little ebay hunting, and there you can find many c-mount Cooke lenses under the name Taylor Hobson or Cooke. (Taylor Hobson handles the metrology gear now, while Cooke handles cinema and lenses.) Angenieux makes some great lenses in C-mount that are also a steal in the $300 category, but the Fujian lenses have a price to fun ratio that is hard to beat.
While it will never be a replacement to the full feature set of a DSLR and rig, this setup gets me shots that I might now get otherwise. For me, it’s a no brainer: put it in the bag, and forget it. For a little bit of fun this summer- put together your own “Digital Bolex” with all the fun for a fraction of the cost.