17 Dec 2017

Christmas gifts for the camera crew

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If we're lucky, that's a universal lens mount under the tree just there If we're lucky, that's a universal lens mount under the tree just there Shutterstock


Christmas replay: Throughout history many cultures have historically found several good reasons for a feast, with associated drinking and gift-giving, in the middle of a long, grim winter. Phil Rhodes has found his own: the desire for new camera kit that works the way it should do. Here begins his fantasy wish-list of the things he'd like to find gift-wrapped under his tree in the near future.

Our purpose here is to dream big, but crucially, none of this is strictly impossible. A lot of it is quite unlikely, due to practicality or, more often, politics, but still: if nobody ever asks for these things, they'll definitely never happen.

Present one: a universal lens mount

We have lenses. We have cameras. What's frustrating is that we have standards which allow multi-gigabit signals to be exchanged between equipment, standards which allow complex mathematics to be used to reduce image storage space, and we have standards (oh, so many standards) to describe colour and brightness. What we don't have is a standard to hold a piece of glass in front of a microchip.

The idea of a universal lens mount hardly bears further explanation. It's long been common, even fashionable, to use lenses designed and made long before the camera in question was even dreamed of, but that only helps lens owners get more out of their investment. It doesn't encourage lens manufacturers to abandon vendor lock-in. What does encourage them to do that is the expanded potential market. Lots of non-Canon cameras use EF mounts, for instance; there's no reason for Canon to object to this market for their glass.

Sony made a brave stab at universality with their FZ mount, which is large enough in diameter that even very short flange focal distance designs, particularly Panasonic's micro four-thirds and Sony's E mount (found on the FS7 and FS5), can sit inside it. This makes FZ a better bet than something like micro four-thirds, which is short enough to be adapted to more or less anything but can't be adapted to Sony E and isn't as physically robust as FZ or PL, a consideration we'll discuss more below.

First there are issues of coverage, which is fairly straightforward: either a lens projects an image large enough to cover a sensor or it doesn't. We can sometimes use optical correction for image sizing, or for issues associated with three-chip cameras, but coverage will often be the arbiter of suitability, regardless of mount compatibility.

The second problem is the electronics. This principally affects micro four-thirds and, crucially, Canon EF mount lenses, which are practically unusable without compatible control gear. Companies such as Sigma and Tamron have reverse-engineered Canon's lens control protocol, and there's really no reason for secrecy other than a forlorn attempt to continue vendor lock-in. There isn't much value in the actual design work; anyone can come up with a reasonable design for this. What's far more important is reliable compatibility, especially given how easy it is to affect consumer confidence when things are flaky.

The third issue is mechanical strength. A B4 mount on a conventional EFP or ENG camera is a breech-lock type that's part of the whole ergonomic design and must withstand large loads without causing problems with optical alignment. PL mounts with even bigger, heavier cameras and lenses such as an Amira with a Canon 17-120 or Fujinon 19-90 involve even more stress. No still photography mount (Canon EF, Sony E, Nikon, Micro Four-Thirds) is designed to deal with this, and yet an FS7 might approach the same sort of mass when fully rigged.

Sony's FZ design solves all of this, and might be a candidate for a universal lens mount. It's a bit big, which might make manufacturers of the smallest cameras balk, but it's wide, shallow, and breech locking. Go on, Sony. Propose it. Release the drawings. Again, anyone can come up with a suitable design; what matters is that everyone comes up with the same design. It may seem impossible, given the corporate interests involved, but then again, ten years ago there were three battery mounts and we more or less seem to have solved that.

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Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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