Mirrorless, Around the World — Travel Filmmaking with Sony a7S II: Part 2. Lens & Filter Selection

Five months through 15 countries, here’s what I learned.

Lenses

I choose a set of vintage prime lenses, here’s why:

Size

Banana for scale — enough said.

Clockwise from the top, that’s my 135mm f/2.8, 28mm f/2.8, 12mm Voigtlander, and 50mm f/1.4 PG.

Price

Let’s face it, if you've just spent $3000 on a camera body, the thought of spending another $2000 on Sony’s 24–70mm GM lens is more than you can stomach. For less than a hundred bucks per lens, price is a big reason to go with vintage glass.

KEH Camera, the biggest site for used camera gear, currently has Minolta 50mm’s starting at $17.

Availability

Ebay, craigslist, your grandma’s closet — you can find these lenses everywhere. Even while traveling I found shelves full of affordable vintage lenses in Tokyo’s camera district, Bangkok’s Megamall shopping center, and for sale on the streets of Hanoi. Check your local camera stores, thrift shops and vintage junk outlets; you might get lucky.

Left — The 4th Floor of Mega Plaza Mall in Bangkok. Right — Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku Tokyo.

Image Quality

Do your own research here, but I’ve been shooting 35mm film with my Minolta lenses long enough to know that I love the images they produce. Great bokeh, sharp detail, good contrast and color reproduction. If you’re interested specifically in Minolta lenses, take a look at the Minolta Rokkor Survival Guide.

Build Quality

From the 1960’s to the 80’s, Japan produced some of the finest lenses ever made, even by today’s standards. They’re solid and built with precision, their focus throws are long and smooth. Since they’ve likely been around longer than you have, there’s not a huge chance they’ll fail during your shoot.

My a7S II and a Minolta 50mm f1/.4 mounted with a cheap ebay MD to E-Mount Adapter

Notes

  • *Using any non Sony E-mount lens will require an adapter, don’t worry, they’re cheap and easy to find.*
  • *I’ve also got one modern lens in my kit– the f/5.6 Voigtlander 12mm, which is now avalible in E-mount. I looked around for a vintage(cheaper) super-wide lens, but ended up buying this in Bangkok for around $600 USD.*

Some other useful resources:

Filters

Most people are under the impression that lens filters are a thing of the past, and for the most part they are. Many filters made popular in the 60’s and 70’s — warming, cooling, and diffusion filters, have been replaced by digital image editing. For our purposes there are two filters that are still relevant.

Neutral Density Filters

ND filters are a must have and the reason for this is simple: you bought an aS7 II so you could shoot S-Log3 and enjoy 13 stops of dynamic range (see Part Four: Shooting Tips for the Real World). With S-Log3, the minimum ISO is 1600 (or 3200 @ 120fps) so your “low-light monster” now overexposes the hell out of everything. To solve this, an ND filter blocks light from entering the lens. These filters come in various intensities, and in most cases an ND8 has worked well for me. I could shoot ‘ND free’ in low light situations or outside with a higher f/stop until right before sunrise, after that, an ND filter was mandatory on all my lenses at all times. Consider getting more than one filter, so you don’t waste precious seconds of your illegal Taj Mahal boat ride screwing and unscrewing your one ND filter.

ND Filters– they’re like sunglasses for your camera.

Another advantage to using ND filters is that they allows you to shoot at a lower f/stop, giving you a more shallow depth of field. Below, Gavin Thurston, former Camera Operator on Planet Earth, talks about the importance of shallow DOF –

[…] we are shooting as near to wide open as possible on the lenses to protect that shallow depth of field to really draw the viewer’s eyes into what you wanted them to see. — Gavin Thurston for Videomaker Inc.

If you want to be shooting at f/1.4, in full sunlight, at 3200 ISO, you’ll need more than an ND8. Another reason to buy more than one ND filter they are stackable.

Polarizers

A polarizing filter is some kind of magic that I don’t fully understand, here’s the wikipedia, good luck.

It’s that simple!

In practice, anytime I was shooting through glass — at an aquarium, out the window of a train, or skyscraper — I had a polarizer on. They’re great at removing unwanted reflections. They’re also useful for shots involving water, giving you control over the look of the water’s surface. Depending on the rotation of the filter, you’ll see the sky reflected on the water’s surface or the natural color of the water below. Something that’s not possible to duplicate in post.

Next up Part 3. Camera Setup

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