Creating unique video portraits with Canon cinema zooms

How BAFTA Breakthrough filmmaker Diana Olifirova used Canon Flex Zooms to create a stylised cinema short.
Filmmaker Diana Olifirova holds a picture frame in front of her to take a video self portrait using a Canon camera and cinema zoom lens.

As well as her role behind the camera, filmmaker Diana Olifirova stepped in front of it to portray the second of three characters in her film, In. "My trainee jumped on the camera. I would look at the monitor and correct things accordingly, but everyone was a bit more free to experiment." The film was recorded using two of Canon's cine zoom lenses, on a Canon EOS C300 Mark III and EOS C70.

While some cinematographers and directors work principally with prime lenses, the flexibility and convenience of a zoom lens can be a real asset.

As Ukrainian filmmaker Diana Olifirova puts it: "Zooms can be a creative tool as well as a technical one, and they allow you to consider how to use some kind of zoom action as part of the visual language of a film."

Diana, who moved to London in the UK to do a Cinematography MA at the National Film and Television School, is a BAFTA Breakthrough UK 2022 participant and the recipient of the British Society of Cinematographer's Emerging Cinematographer 2017 award. She's worked on a diverse range of productions, including ALL of Me (2017), BAFTA-winning Channel 4 comedy We Are Lady Parts (2021) and Bridgerton season 3 for Netflix.

For her latest film – and directorial debut – called In, Diana employed two fast Super 35mm Canon Flex Zooms. The Canon CN-E14-35mm T1.7 and CN-E31.5-95mm T1.7 lenses blend cinematic image quality with a versatile zoom range – two attributes that Diana was keen to explore in her stylish, stylised short.

These lenses also bring a groundbreaking T1.7 speed and warm colour, all of which Diana appreciated. "It was really pleasant to see the bokeh and the smooth focus roll-off. They also showcase minimal focus breathing when you change the focus from foreground to background."

The concept for the film comes from its title, Diana explains: "We're zooming in to look at the lives of three artists and how they see and capture the different parts of the city that they experience. So the idea was to capture each portrait at a different time of day, and to use different zoom actions to complement each character."

For the first person – a photographer – Diana used a slow zoom to suit the early morning mood. "She's by herself drinking some coffee, then she starts taking pictures and we cut to a city slowly waking up."

The second character required a lighter touch. "She lights up her world and metaphorically lights up the city too, so it's sunny and bright and there are many people walking around the streets at midday. There's a lot of movement and the zoom is becoming fast and capturing moments in a more sporadic way.

"After a day-to-night time-lapse, we see the third character in her room, where it's quite dark but colourful. Then we cut to the city at night with cars flashing by." Diana opted to treat the Canon Flex Zooms like prime lenses for this night-time portrait. "The setup was quite slow and static, so I didn't use any zoom action. I wanted to show a different way of using the lens, so we just moved the camera instead."

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Flexible filmmaking

The two-day production was based at a studio in London. Diana also spent some additional time shooting the time-lapse sequences by herself, using the Canon EOS C70.

Although the shots had been precisely planned, Diana says she didn't want the shoot to be "robotic", but to be free-flowing instead. "As I was both shooting and directing, I'd just keep rolling and try different options as we went," she explains. "There were so many things to orchestrate – the zoom, the focus change, the movement of the camera, maybe a tilt or pan, as well as multiple lighting sources changing, that it was very much a game we were playing and we kept turning over and trying different things."

The nimble nature of the Canon Flex Zooms enabled Diana to react quickly and keep things moving. "Sometimes to save time I would zoom in to capture other things that I thought would be useful for the edit. As I was doing two jobs, it was easy for me to make decisions on the day rather than having to talk to someone else."

A person sits in an armchair, light coming through shutters and the scene bathed in an ochre glow, a Canon camera and lens pointed at the scene from the right.

Diana used the Canon CN-E14-35mm T1.7 and the Canon CN-E31.5-95mm T1.7 for her short film, In – a cinematic zoom into the creative lives of three artists and their relationship with the city that surrounds them. The lens' fast aperture helped Diana create the soft, moody morning feel for the first character, the 11 aperture blades producing soft beautiful light rays and depth-of-field falloff.

Beautiful bokeh effects

Maintaining an industry-leading light transmission of T1.7 throughout their zoom ranges, the Canon CN-E14-35mm T1.7 and the Canon CN-E31.5-95mm T1.7 Flex Zooms are the fastest cinema zoom lenses in their class. It's a feature that Diana was pleased to be able to take advantage of in the studio and on location.

"The fact that the iris goes to T1.7 is amazing for a zoom," she says. "Wide open, the very smooth bokeh gave a very intimate image. So I used T1.7 a lot for the first character, as I wanted it to create a soft, moody morning feel and be quite specific about where the focus is.

"T1.7 also worked really well for some of the late night city sequences, where I was shooting cars passing by. I was going off-focus to capture just the bokeh, and it looked beautiful with the wide-open iris."

Diana Olifirova sits behind a Canon camera filming a figure in silhouette behind a curtain.

The Canon Flex Zooms produce superb colour rendition and detail, with sharp images from the centre to the outer edges. The lenses render beautiful and warm colour tones, which Diana enhanced with a filter to create a moody look for the first section of her film.

Cinematic image quality

The Canon Flex Zooms are designed to deliver an image with warm natural skin tones. This natural base provides a great starting point for finessing the image via third-party filters or during the grade.

"I prefer to use filters for studio work," Diana says, "I like to be able to create the look while I'm shooting because often you just don't have time to micro-manage everything in post. So it's nice to be able to have that option to be able to do it all before then.

"I wanted the first scene to be slightly softer and more moody, so I used a Tiffen Glimmerglass filter. The image looks shimmery and slightly less sharp, and I really liked the look it created."

For the second scene, Diana wanted to explore the quality of Flex Zoom flare. "It's one of the main things that I look for in lenses when I'm shooting in bright daylight or with practical lights," she says. "So I wanted to see how it looked at different ends of the zoom ranges and at different iris settings." She was very impressed with the results from the Flex Zooms. "It was a very nice organic look, and beautiful colour as well, and skin tones."

The Flex Zooms offer a well controlled subtle soft flare, but Diana also used a diffusion filter on one character to add more haze. She wanted the scenes with the third character to be more clean, so she didn't use any filters: "I was curious to see how the lens behaved by itself, and it's sharp, but not overly sharp – it has a nice smoothness to it that gave a really beautiful look to the different skin tones throughout the film."

A filmmaker stands behind a cinema camera with a Canon Flex Zoom lens attached.

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Filmmaker Diana Olifirova stands over a Canon cine camera, recording a person's face in close-up.

The two Canon Super 35mm Flex Zooms allowed Diana to capture a range of shots during the filming. To get a close-up image of an eye, she used the Canon CN-E31.5-95mm T1.7 at 95mm to film intricate detail. The Canon Flex Zooms also offer advanced lens metadata support, which meant she was able to record all the important settings for future reference. "It's really good for VFX that all the information is saved from the lenses," says Diana. "As it's really useful to have all the details about the f-stop and the white balance and everything we used on the day."

Filmmaker Diana Olifirova holds a Canon EOS C300 Mark III on a shoot in the city of London.

Diana says that doing lots of walking was a direct inspiration for the city life theme. "I always take lots of pictures and I always have a bunch of things that interest me in the moment, in terms of lighting and things in the city I want to explore," she says. "So I looked at what I'd captured on my phone for the previous couple of months and then thought about what I could do as a narrative story." She was able to explore the streets freely without being loaded down with equipment, mostly using her Canon EOS C300 Mark III handheld.

From wide-angle to telephoto

Used together, the Canon CN-E14-35mm T1.7 and the Canon CN-E31.5-95mm T1.7 offer a convenient range of focal lengths to meet the needs of a diverse variety of productions.

"With the 14-35mm lens, it felt amazing to have that variety of angles as well as being a really comfortable lens to use," Diana says. "If I had to choose one focal length to shoot a film, I would always go to 35mm because it can do a really good portrait and really good detail shot as well as a nice wide. The widest 14mm focal length is amazing too. It almost feels like a fisheye, so you can have quite an impressive wide-angle view.

"With the longer zoom lens," she continues, "31.5mm is still a very good wide, and the other end of the range was more than enough for me to capture things in close-up. We wanted to get a very close shot of an eye, so we used the lens at 95mm with a +3 diopter, and that worked really well and meant we could capture a lot of macro details."

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Shooting on the go

The versatile nature of the Canon Flex Zooms is complemented by their compact construction and quick operation. Diana took advantage of their lightweight design to predominantly shoot handheld.

"The main city scenes were shot on a Canon EOS C300 Mark III and then the time-lapse and night sequences were on the EOS C70," she says. "I only had a little rig, which was handheld. There were a couple of shots from a tripod, but I felt it was so much better to be able to be more flexible.

"It was really easy to move around and capture things as we went, with what was basically a bare camera with a separate wireless focus puller unit for the focus puller who was following me around.

"On the studio day I used a zoom control, but on the city shooting day I had to operate the zoom by hand and adjust exposure on the go. The lenses are the same size and quite easy to operate, so when you change from one to the other you don't really notice a difference in terms of how you work with them, and in terms of balance. I also really appreciated that there's not much movement in the image, in terms of focus breathing and things like that."

As Diana discovered, regardless of whether you're shooting on location or in the studio, the Canon Flex Zooms are fast, flexible and produce a refined cinematic image that holds up beautifully to further adjustments. It's easy to switch between full frame and Super 35mm formats using the Canon relay kits RL-F1 and RL-F2, and combined with the availability of interchangeable EF and PL mounts, the lenses really are ready for anything.

Marcus Hawkins

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