By Jonah Rubash
I first checked out the Schneider Xenon FF prime lenses at NAB in 2013. I was impressed by the barrel design, unnoticeable breathing, and their approach of building a cinema lens derived competitor to Zeiss CP2 lenses and Canon CN-E prime lenses, which are both adapted from still lenses. However, I didn’t have much of a sense of how they would perform otherwise, so it was difficult to get excited about them. After working with the Schneider Cine-Xenar III’s with the Epic, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on their siblings, the Xenon FF.
I hesitate to call the Cine-Xenar IIIs “creamy” only because they somehow manage to smooth out the harshness of 4K & 5K sensors, especially in the skin tones, without losing resolution or clarity. The focus fall-off, low diffraction, consistency, skin tones and contrast were far more appealing then the CP-2s and CN-E lenses, but Cine-Xenar IIIs are far more expensive. I was hoping that the Xenar’s siblings would bring a similar level of performance and when Magnanimous acquired the Xenon FF primes I found that DNA in a smaller package.
Corey Lillard made some observations after a comparison of the Xenon FFs with their main rivals:
Corey notes, “I noticed the Canon L Series lens starting to soften up at F8 while the Zeiss and CN-E lenses began softening up around T/F 11. The Schneider, however, stayed sharper throughout the range when compared to the other 3. Even at T16 it seemed to keep the resolution and contrast at a higher standard than the rest.”
While the Zeiss and Canon glass may soften up sooner, they remain quite valuable by bringing variety to the fastest growing part of our industry, which is often underserved in optics. To tell a story properly, you must have the right tools for the job; the primary instrument in creating character is the glass you choose. So, look at the Xenons as another tool in the basket that provide a different look compared to other glass in their range.
Schneider Xenon FF
Corey made these observations: “The Canon glass doesn't run quite neutral, it tends to shift warmer in the blacks while leaving the midtones (skintones) a tad cold in my opinion. The CN-Es add a little more warmth to the midtones while drastically improving image sharpness and contrast when compared to L Series. The Compact primes run on the cool side but provide great contrast and color that play well with many, if not all, cameras on the market today. The Schneiders, however, bring the quality to the next level. They manage to create a creamy look while maintaining a high resolution.”
Another way to compare this glass is built.
Schneider Xenon FF
The Canon L-Series glass has 8-blade iris construction, CN-E lenses have 11-blade irises, and both the CP2s and Xenon FF lenses have 14-blade irises. Build quality does contribute to smoother fall-off. The additional blades in the CP2s and Xenon FFs gives them an edge with a slightly more circular bokeh, though the Schneiders out of focus areas are smoother. The L-Series have a bit of color bleed in the bokeh. The Schneider’s bokeh is more consistent while the CP2 and CN-E lenses are a bit softer around the edges and are not quite as smooth.
The CP-2s and CN-Es share a very similar build. Their compressed barrel is quite useful, especially on drones or the new Freefly Movi, though the compression tends to make for cramped lens control and matte box setups. The CN-E and CP2 lenses do not have entirely consistent barrels across the range, which can complicate lens swaps. The Schneiders have nearly identical barrels and a length more at home on a professional set, making lens swaps more easily negotiable. There is plenty of rod space. Matched focus and iris control mean that your lens control might not even need to move off the teeth. All of the cinema lenses have smooth and quiet operation, which is a big improvement over the noisy, infinitely-turning focus on L-Series lenses. The CN-E and Zeiss, however, are quite tight where as the Xenon FF lenses have resistance comparable to higher end cinema glass. So, the Canon and Zeiss glass will make you work a bit harder to pull focus and lens control will need a tad more torque, which could lead to a bit of lens torque depending on your setup. The Schneiders feel far more solid and while the CN-E and CP2 glass is nothing to scoff at, they are a bit lighter and not quite as well constructed.
All that being said, I think the Schneiders are better all-around lenses. All other glass should be on the table for their unique characteristics, but I find that the Schneiders play better with everything. The warmth of the Xenon FF glass actually plays well with the F55, which tends not to like warm glass (at least, to my eye). While I still apprieciate the qualities of the Canon and Zeiss offerings, the Schneiders could herald a new direction in the medium/indie market: purpose-built cinema lenses that deliver all that you expect from cinema glass.