HD Lenses For All

Camera makers had an advantage when they answered the call for lower-cost high-definition ENG video cameras: The incessant Moore’s Law drop in price for processors and other electronic components needed to build those products.

Lens makers, who have been similarly challenged to lower the prices of their professional HD optical wares, have found their task more difficult. There has been no Moore’s Law-like drop in the price of exotic glass, optical coatings and precision-machined mechanics of their lenses.

Nonetheless, lens makers knew that customers for these lower-cost HD camcorders were not likely to be willing to spend more for the lens than for the camera itself. If they were going to sell into that market, they had to bring out lenses that fit in a lower price range.

(click thumbnail)The Canon KJ10e, part of the company’s lower-cost HDgc line of lenses.“Each of them would sit down with us and disclose what they were planning,” said Canon Broadcast & Communication Division national marketing executive, Larry Thorpe, of camera manufacturers. By knowing the characteristics of the new HD camcorders, the lens makers would know where they could make compromises that would have the least effect on the ultimate video image.

Thorpe noted that a good example of this is the analog to digital processing spec on a camcorder. A faster processor can capture a greater dynamic range, and thus contrast, than a slower processor.

“What analog-to-digital conversion are you going to use?” said Thorpe. “10-bit? 12-bit? 14-bit? If they say 14-bit, we say ‘whoa,’ we’ve got to watch it on contrast. But if it’s 10-bit, we can relax a little.”

A range of other parameters also figure into the equation. In the imaging process, there is imager size and pixel count on the imager, which directly affects resolution. Getting to the recorder, there’s the compression step.

“These guys are getting 4:4:4 from the camera, but they’re making that into a 4:2:2, a 4:1:1, a 3:1:1 or a 2:1:1, then reducing the bits down to maybe an 8-bit depth on the recorder, and that affects contrast,” Thorpe said.

Three companies supplying lenses to broadcasting’s ENG market have each taken a somewhat different approach to delivering lower cost lenses.

(click thumbnail)The Fujinon HTs18x4.2BRMCanon has introduced an entire family of these types of economical ENG lenses, the HDgc family that includes 14 lenses.

The company has two tiers within the HDgc family. One that encompasses all of Canon’s established operational innovations such as enhanced digital drive unit for zoom, focus, iris, and a 2x range extender; and a second, less expensive tier that excludes the extender system and replaces the e-Drive system with the Shuttle Shot drive unit.

Fujinon has two categories of lenses, but the difference between the two is not as noticeable.

“We make our H-series, which is our highest quality series, and our X-series, which is just under that,” said Dave Waddell, Fujinon. marketing manager.

Fujinon does make two lenses with a sharply lower cost for the JVC 1/3-inch imager camcorders, but also makes an H-series lens for those camcorders.

To shave the price of their lower-cost lenses, both Canon and Fujinon have looked to lower cost optical glass and coatings.

“You could also say that the manufacturing process or the assembly process isn’t as stringent,” Waddell said.

But both companies emphasize the importance of the integrity of the lens mechanics. High definition demands precision positioning of the lens elements throughout the zoom and focus ranges, and ENG demands a ruggedness to match the rigors of day-in and day-out field use.


At present, Thales Angenieux has no plans to introduce lenses for the 1/2- or 1/3-inch imager camcorders, but does have an economical option for 2/3-inch camcorders in its HD-e line.

(click thumbnail)Thales Angenieux 19x HD-e“In keeping with Thales Angenieux’s superior quality and performance benchmarks, we do not select lenses that are good enough for some HD cameras and not recommended for others,” said Chris Beauparlant, the Americas sales manager for Thales Angenieux.

“We simply try to reduce some of the features of the lenses that the operator many not effectively use in order to provide some cost savings,” he said “This means that the lenses are exactly the same in terms of optics inside hence the same high level of HD performance. The HD-e line is essentially the HD line of lenses but without a 2x extender.”

Though some of the lowest-priced lenses are made for the 1/3-inch camcorders, the fact of the matter is that everything else being equal, it takes a better lens on a 1/3-inch imager camcorder to achieve the same image quality that could be had from a 2/3-inch imager camcorder.

“If everything was equal, you would need a better lens for 1/3-inch, because your pixel density would be higher, they would be packed in more closely,” Waddell said. “Believe it or not, we’re selling a lot of H-series lenses [for the 1/3-inch imager camcorders] simply because it looks so much better on the camera than the lower priced lenses.”

Thorpe predicted that some broadcasters may retreat from the smaller imager camcorders.

“I think there’s going to be a marketplace floor established, where people are going to get some of these low-cost camcorders and shoot with them for a while and say, ‘Now I see what I can and can’t do compared to the old days when I shot with 2/3-inch,’ and I think you’ll see them going back to 2/3-inch for certain levels of news and production,” he said.

All of the lens makers would agree that when it comes to their products, you get what you pay for.