ShareGrid, a peer-to-peer gear rental service, has published the results of its Ultimate Anamorphic Lens Test, which evaluated 42 'vintage' anamorphic lenses representing lens families from 13 companies. Using ShareGrid's 'quad player' interface, it's possible to compare video test results from up to four lenses simultaneously, and the results can be very interesting.

Brent Barbano, a cinematographer and ShareGrid co-founder, emphasizes that these aren't just casual tests, but result from a full-blown three-day production shoot that took months of planning and involved producers, directors, DPs, and production managers, including many technical experts and cinematographers from the filmmaking industry.

The test is a follow-up to the company's 2016 Ultimate Vintage Lens Test, which evaluated 40 classic circular lenses. By using an identical setup for both tests, right down to the same model in front of the camera, it's even possible to compare results from anamorphic lenses with circular lenses. Want to compare a 50mm ARRI / Zeiss Master Anamorphic with a 50mm ARRI / Zeiss Master Prime Spherical? No problem!

Think anamorphic lenses are just for motion picture work? Not so fast. As the test's Director Mark LaFleur points out, "Any photographer who wants to make a big splash within the photography world should start shooting anamorphic, because your work will immediately stand out from the pack."

The producers used an identical setup, including the same model, for both anamorphic and circular lens tests, making it possible to compare results between both types of lenses.

Courtesy of ShareGrid

According to Barbano, one of most important factors contributing to the success of the project was enthusiastic support from the filmmaking community, including dozens of volunteers. "The overwhelming amount of people who wanted to be involved in some way was the coolest part about the whole thing," he says. "We had people donating their time. We had people donating their lenses. We ended up absorbing crew members out of nowhere, which was really, really cool."

If you want to learn more about anamorphic lenses, ShareGrid has also published a great explainer page, and Director Mark LaFleur has written a detailed overview of the testing process.

We had a chance to spend a few minutes with Barbano and LaFleur to learn more about how the tests were performed and what they discovered along the way.

What inspired you to test all these lenses?

Mark LaFleur: I'm a cinematographer. And I'm kind of obsessed with lenses. I wanted to get tests out there because I was using my equipment for my own jobs, but was also renting my equipment to other people. I knew that with a really good test video, I wouldn’t have to convince someone about the look of a lens or try to describe it to them. We live in a time when a lot of people are able upload decent video, but sometimes when you find a test, you don’t know if the data is accurate.

But when you compare lenses on a level playing field, you really see differences between them. ShareGrid’s idea for a quad player to play lenses simultaneously, combined with the way I wanted to conduct and present the tests, really created one of the better lens tests that exists.

Director of Photography Kyle Stryker and 1st Assistant Camera Seda Kisacik set up a shot with their model, Kori.

Photo by Joseph Adams

Why test vintage anamorphic lenses?

Brent Barbano: We were obsessed with vintage lenses from our last test. Mark owned a set of Lomo anamorphics at the time, so we included them in the spherical vintage test. When those went up and everyone was looking at the screen, everyone was just like, "Wow!" It just renders everything completely different.

Anamorphics are incredibly popular. It’s what everyone is yearning for. So we’re giving our audience exactly the types of tests they need. We wanted to put something out there to set the bar, the standard for real, accurate, good information. There are no winners in this test. Every brand fits its purpose. Whether it's price, availability, or size. They're all beautiful in their own unique way.

"There are no winners in this test. Every brand fits its purpose. Whether it's price, availability, or size. They're all beautiful in their own unique way."

How did you select the lenses you tested?

Brent: There were some categories we wanted to hit. We wanted to get benchmark lenses, the best of the best, like the ARRI / Zeiss Master Anamorphics and the Cooke Anamorphics. But we also wanted to get really cheap, very affordable options, like the Iscorama Pre-36 Adapter. That's a very popular option in the indie budget film community. We wanted to cover really old lenses, which we got with the old Panavision Auto-Panatars, which should be in a museum. We also have the Atlas Orion 65mm prototype lens, which was announced this year at NAB. It's not even out in production yet. So we have the newest anamorphic you can get vs. one of the oldest.

Mark: Also, any set that's included in this test is something you can either buy or rent. Even something that’s rare like the Todd AOs or the Cineovisions. You can get them from a rental house even if you’re in a smaller city in the middle of the country. They can ship them to you.

What was involved in testing each lens?

Mark: We had a few tests including a real-world test, which is with a model in a room that gives us a lot of depth so we can see what out-of-focus elements look like, with bright highlights and straight lines. In that one setup, you really get a good sense of the character of a lens. We also did a couple lens flare tests and a distortion test. We also put every lens on a lens projector. In the cinematography community, every lens tech has a projection room. And that's how they can basically diagnose a lens, by just shining pure light through it from the rear element out the front and onto a wall.

Each lens was subjected to several tests, including 'real-world' and technical evaluations.

Courtesy of ShareGrid

How can someone use these tests during production planning?

Mark: You can go out and take any lens in this test, bring it home, and shoot beautiful images. You can even go to a rental house and they'll take every lens off the shelf for you and you can sit there in that rental house and test them all out. But you're in a rental house, under fluorescent lighting with white walls and focus charts. It's not the environment you're going to be shooting in. We wanted to create a test that made the characteristics of a lens pop. Its bokeh, its sharpness, its breathing, its color, its vignetting, its distortion. The only way to do that is to have a side-by-side, A-B comparison. Or, with the quad player that ShareGrid's doing, an A-B-C-D comparison.

What about people who may be using a DSLR or mirrorless camera instead of an ARRI or RED? Will the results of these tests be useful to them?

Brent: Absolutely. I think the problem is that anamorphic is intimidating. I think optics and visual cinematography can seem intimidating. And we believe that this resource will hopefully demystify everything and open the doors. And yeah, if you can't afford some of these lenses, you can afford an Iscorama if you're doing an indie production. But like Mark said, Cineovisions, Lomos, these lenses are up on ShareGrid. They're pretty affordable, and they get rented all the time by music videos, commercials, indie productions, and young filmmakers.

" this point, the indie filmmaker with a DSLR is shooting more anamorphic right now than anybody else."

Mark: I would say at this point, the indie filmmaker with a DSLR is shooting more anamorphic right now than anybody else. There are a lot of people getting these anamorphic adapters and doing DIY anamorphic lens building and using a Panasonic GH4 which has a four by three sensor. Anamorphic is getting to a point where it’s completely acceptable for, I would argue, almost any budget. Even the smallest budgets. If you’re a DSLR owner, you can rent anamorphic lenses for a very small amount of money and go out and shoot.

Lens tests were run as a full production shoot, including experts representing every step of the production process.

Courtesy of ShareGrid

Can you provide some guidance for people who aren’t experienced with anamorphic lenses? What should they look for in the test results?

Mark: If you're a photographer, I mean, an image is an image, and I think any photographer could jump in and make pretty well-informed judgment calls on things that they like or don't like. Any photographer who wants to make a big splash within the photography world should start shooting anamorphic, because your work will immediately stand out from the pack.

We conducted our test procedure exactly the same as our spherical test, so we have the same location, the same model, the lights... the same everything. Someone who doesn't know anything about anamorphic lenses can use the quad player to pick lenses from the spherical test, so it's possible to view a real side-by-side comparison of what a 50mm spherical vs. 50mm anamorphic looks like.

What did you learn from testing all these anamorphic lenses?

Brent: Lenses are beautiful. No matter if old or new, they're all amazing in their own unique way. Lenses are not perfect, they're never going to be perfect. And that's okay. Because when you look at how they manipulate the world that we see with our eyes every day, they make it look just so beautiful. That was the really cool takeaway for me.

Mark: I couldn't put that any better. People will tell you, "This is the best lens," or, "Use this one," or, "This one's good," or, "This one's bad." And what I really liked about the test was that there really was no winner. Every single lens, regardless of how expensive it is or how much clout its name brand gives it, if you took a blind test, if you took these 13 lens sets, and you asked 13 people to pick their favorite, you'd get 13 different answers. Including the cheapest lens.

A crew shot along with some of the lenses included in the test. According to cinematographer Brent Barbano, community support was one of the most important aspects of the production.

Courtesy of ShareGrid