I’ve always been of mixed mind regarding zoom lenses, though there’s no longer any reason to be that way. It probably goes back to my early training when their optical quality fell short of primes and cinematographers regarded them warily. For a long time zoom choices were limited – the 1970’s and ’80’s workhorses were the 20mm-100mm and 25mm-250mm – and they were slower than primes. However, there were conditions for which they always came out of the case (and still do!): crane and dolly shots, stunts, use of the B-camera and any unpredictable situation. For years now Steadicam and other moving camera platforms have become synonymous with lightweight zooms; that has proven a versatile, time saving gift. Unless, that is, you’re a stickler for the special magic delivered by fixed focal lengths.
I generally fall in with the latter category. Along with a particular look, there’s a discipline associated with primes that’s often underestimated. They impose a physical restraint upon your working method and force you to think more precisely. If only for an instant, you have to slow down and plot through what you’re doing before committing. Often I’ve found that a better idea comes to mind in that moment. On the flip side there’s the option of using the zoom as a variable prime, but for me the temptation to violate that oath is too strong. Once you start making small exceptions bigger ones soon appear. Things can derail quickly and that’s the last thing any of us wants to happen.
Except for their low light capabilities, many zoom lenses are now the equal of their prime cousins. You can split hairs about fine characteristics all day long, but I’ve had plenty of experience on both sides of the fence. I once shot a feature with only two primes; later the same year I used a zoom for a director whose senses were so frenetically tuned that we probably used every millimeter between 24 and 290! But as with so many of the choices we make, the issue comes down to a balance of taste and practicality.
ASC legend Vilmos Zsigmond was a longtime proponent of zoom lenses, having helped bring them to prominence on low budget exploitation films during the 1960’s. Their self-conscious use became a trademark of that era and bled well into the ’70’s, especially in the TV world. But variable focal length glass had been around for a long time prior to then. Check out the following bits of trivia:
– Robert Kurrle, ASC used a zoom lens in The Four Feathers (1929; directed by Merian C. Cooper)
– in Frank Capra’s Dirigible (1931; Joseph Walker, ASC), there’s a zoom-in on the ice encrusted face of the expedition leader that reveals his crew has been wandering in circles; also, in Capra’s American Madness (1932; Joseph Walker, ASC) there’s a zoom-in that reveals a clock face that’s been shattered by a bullet (Walker, by the way, was a brilliant optical technician who greatly contributed to the development of the zoom)
– Victor Milner, ASC used a zoom for parts of Love Me Tonight (1932; directed by Rouben Mamoulian)
– Tay Garnett used zoom-ins on Prestige (1931; Lucien Andriot, ASC) and One Way Passage (1932; Robert Kurrle, ASC)
– on Richard Wallace’s Thunder Below (1932; Charles Lang, ASC), a zoom-in was used to create the POV of a woman plunging from a cliff
– Sid Hickox, ASC used zoom-outs in the climactic battle scenes of Edge of Darkness (1943; directed by Lewis Milestone).
Not to shortchange prime lenses, during the industry’s earliest years both the 65mm and 75mm lenses were considered the ‘normal’ focal lengths. From the 1920’s through the 1940’s it was the 50mm. In the ’50’s it became the 35mm. Because he felt it enhanced the illusion of space in the restricted set, Hitchcock chose it for his continuous-take experiment in Rope (1948; William Skall, ASC and Joseph Valentine, ASC).
Never one to go with prevailing trends, during the 1970’s through the ’90’s, the lenses Gordon Willis, ASC considered ‘normal’ were the 40mm in 1.85 aspect ratio and the 75mm in anamorphic 2.39.
Plainly, this’s a deep rabbit hole to dive into. I’ll return to the subject in more detail at a later date!