For the last few years the Super16 format has been enjoying a real renaissance, mostly due to the very popular BMPCC and now we also have a good bunch of Super35 cameras with S16 crop modes. Recently Arri Alexa Mini has joined the club, bringing the Super16 format back to the higher end level and this is where ARRI CARL ZEISS VARIO-SONNAR 11-100mm T2 PL (long name, I know) comes in!
WHAT IS IT?
11-110mm is a vintage Super16 cine zoom, that (on paper) is capable of catering for most needs. Originally designed as a fast, compact, parfocal zoom for cameras like ARRI SR3, it’s still respected and used by many Super16 users.
For those of you who prefer modern FF equivalents, this lens will give you the 31.5-317mm FF equivalent when used on a camera like BMPCC, so while it might not be super wide at the wide end, the range is still incredible considering that it has the constant speed of T2.2 thought the zoom range. Although officially it’s called “11-110mm T2”, in reality “2” is the f-stop rating and t-stop is in fact T2.2.
Being a proper cine zoom, this lens was built to last, so no plastic parts here. At 1.5kg it also feels very solid and rugged. All rings have the industry standard focus gears and there is also the industry standard PL mount at the back. One important thing missing though is a filter thread, so the only way to add filters is to use a matt box.
This lens also has some cool and quirky features: Although official closest focusing distance is 1.5m/5ft, you can rotate the focus rings beyond that point, which takes down to 1m/3ft, but it does affect the sensor coverage negatively as described in this official leaflet, where you can find all the other specs and some other useful info. A more usable way of getting close focusing distance with this lens is to engage the MACRO mode, which unfortunately only works at 11mm, but it will let you focus right up to the front of the lens, so it’s still quite useful for proper macro style shots with surprisingly little distortion.
This is not exactly a cheap lens, so one would expect top performance in every department and image quality is where this lens starts to show some weaknesses. Although it’s usable wide open, images are a little dreamy, so I always prefer to stop it down to T2.8-4 where it looks great. Then there is a Chromatic Aberration, which is again most noticeable wide open, but sometimes visible even if lens is slightly stopped down. Lastly, this lens “breathes” quite a bit, which almost looks like a gentle zoom when racking focus at the wide end.
All these downsides would be perfectly acceptable on a $100 lens, but this lens generally costs between $3000 and $5000, so I think it’s something that has to be kept in mind when considering this lens.
On a positive side, the actual real life images produced with this lens are absolutely beautiful. It has that classic Zeiss T* coated look with rich, punchy colours, great contrast in controlled lighting conditions and beautiful flares when pointed at the strong light source (as below test hopefully demonstrates)
SO WHY CHOOSE IT?
When using this lens on a small camera like BMPCC, it does feel large and heavy, but imagine a Super35 equivalent of such lens, like the Fujonon 25-300mm and suddenly Zeiss looks super compact and very cheap too!
Of course not many Super35 users would buy the Fujinon beast and same goes for many Super16 users. Even though 11-110mm costs 10 times less that Fujinon, people also expect to pay at least 10 times less for Super16 equivalents and at that price 11-110mm still works out too expensive for most indie shooters.
This brings me back to the idea of using such lens on a Super35 camera with a Super16 mode, like the Alexa Mini. Here we have a camera that was designed to be compact and portable, so sticking a massive zoom onto it somehow destroys the whole idea of such compact camera, but with something like the 11-110mm, in S16 mode you suddenly have a very compact combo that caters for most needs. It’s not just my theory; since the addition of the S16 crop mode on Alexa Mini, I’ve already seen a bunch of DOPs pick up various S16 lenses, including the 11-110mm to produce some amazing images, but it must be noted that Super16 lenses of course have their own look. It’s not a replacement for a Super35 lens, but rather an alternative. Less shallow depth of field means that this lens is great for documentary, run & gun work , where you would step the lens down anyway. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it for highly creative projects though. When you get to know this lens and know how to get the best out of it, you can achieve some very cinematic results and use it for pretty much full projects without swapping out, expect maybe for the widest shots where Zeiss Superspeed 9.5mm or even Kinoptik 5.7mm will do a better job at capturing a wide field of view.
- Number of Elements: 19
- Number of Aperture Blades: 6
- Closest Focusing Distance: 1.5m (5ft)
- Mount: PL
- Weight: 1.5kg
Before I can make a conclusion let’s break down the PROS and CONS:
- Great focal range
- Solid built
- Integrated follow focus rings
- Classic Zeiss T* look
- Fast at T2.2 thought
- MACRO mode
- Compact alternative to S35 lenses
- Chromatic aberration
- Sharpness wide open
- No filter thread
Zeiss 11-110mm is certainly not for everyone and not only because it’s limited to the S16 user group. Not everyone can afford or want to pay $3-5k for a lens. I’d almost call it a “specialist” lens. It will suit someone who is very passionate or heavily invested into the S16 system/look and shoots a lot of documentary or run&gun work. I don’t quote fall into either of these categories, which is why I decided to let this lens go. Even though I really like it, in 2-3 years of owning it I haven’t used it for a serious project once. If a suitable 1-2 day project eventually comes along I might as well rent it, but if you are about to head off to a remote country for month shooting a documentary, owning would make much more sense and I can’t think of many lenses that would do a better job in demanding conditions where you need a solid, reliable lens that can handle just about anything.
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