Hands-On With Canon’s New Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF Lens

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Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF

Canon’s new 18-80 Compact Servo lens is a unique new lens for several reasons. Canon took the best features from three of their other lens lines and magically blended them together into something incredibly useful to anyone who shoots handheld event and documentary footage.

Canon recently shipped me an evaluation copy of the 18-80 Compact Servo to evaluate for a few days. I had a chance to put it through its paces using both the Canon EOS Cinema C300 and C100 cameras. I didn’t have a chance to use the lens on a 4K camera like the C300 MKII, unfortunately, but others have reported that the performance that I observed on my 1080 cameras is pretty much the same as they have experienced when shooting with a 4K camera and the lens. The competing digital cinema cameras from Sony, Panasonic, Blackmagic Design and other brands also utilize Super 35-sized sensors and with lens mount adapters; many non-Canon camera users utilize Canon lenses. In my market, I’ve even seen a few Sony FS7 users with the 18-80mm attached.

Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF

Canon Invents A New Category Of Lens?

Many Canon digital cinema camera doc/event/reality shooters typically mount Canon’s still lenses from the EF or EF-S series, which are high quality and relatively affordable, but have no cinema markings, measurements or servo zoom controls, but some still lens models utilize features that are handy for video like IS (image stabilization) and autofocus. Or, if the user has a decent-sized checkbook, they can buy or rent Canon’s CN-E line of cinema zoom and prime lenses and expensive, third-party lens servo motors and controllers. But Canon’s cinema zooms begin in the $25,000 range for a shorter-range zoom lens and go to well over $100,000 for the top-of-the-line lenses. Most documentary, reality and event shooters don’t have the kinds of budgets it takes to buy or rent Canon’s CN-E zooms, and even if they did, these zoom lenses are large and heavy, designed for narrative filmmaking, not a practical tool for run-and-gun-style shooting.

Canon saw an opportunity to create a lens that would perfectly serve the documentary, event/ENG and reality handheld shooter, and the end result is unlike any other lens I’ve used before. The Canon 18-80mm Compact Servo zoom lens ($5,500 list price) is definitely compact for what it is. Without the optional ZSG-C10 grip, the lens itself only weighs 2.7 pounds and is surprisingly small when you unbox it and hold it in your hands before mounting it to the camera. One spec that’s hard to avoid is that it has a modest, but very useful for handheld/event/doc work 18-80mm focal range.

The Perfect Focal Length And Field Of View For Handheld Shooting

Many would say that 18-80mm is just about ideal as far as focal range for the average handheld shooter. Much longer than 80-85mm on a S35 imager, field of view tends to be a bit long for steady handheld shooting. I shoot quite a bit of handheld footage in my work shooting behind-the-scenes footage on TV shows and features, and I’ve discovered that many newer camera operators who have moved up to S35 digital cinema cameras have had much of their experience shooting full-frame DSLR and DSLR-type cameras like the Canon EOS 5D MKIII and the Sony A7 cameras, and to them, a minimum of 24mm on a zoom lens sounds plenty wide for handheld shooting. The challenge is when you’re placed in a small room or tight hallway, following your talent in a walk-and-talk or impromptu standup when using a 24mm lens on an S35 camera. Most of us with a still photography background know what the field of view of a 24mm lens looks like on a full-frame sensor. But on a S35 sensor, a 24mm field of view is equivalent to a 38.4mm field of view on a full-frame sensor, not really a wide FOV at all. I’m always mystified by the popularity of Canon’s 24-105mm F4 IS lens with the same audience this new 18-80mm Compact Servo Zoom is aimed at; 24mm isn’t wide enough for many, if not most handheld scenarios. If you consider that the 18mm widest focal length on this lens is the full-frame equivalent of a 28.8mm field of view on full frame, this focal length makes so much more sense for handheld video work.

Is T4.4 Too Slow?

Rated at T4.4 (this lens is rated in T-stops like Canon’s cinema lenses, actual light transmission, not arbitrary F-stops), it’s not a fast lens, but most modern S35 cameras this lens will be used with can easily up their gain a bit without having the picture fall apart. My Canon EOS C100 has a native ISO of 850 and the image holds together pretty well up to about ISO 1600, although plenty of users successfully shoot this camera at ISO 2000 or even 2500. So shooting this lens at F4/T4.4 wide open and stopped down to T5.6 will be the most typical scenario for many users.

Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF

Fortunately, the images at T4.4 and F5.6 with both of my cameras at ISO 850 to ISO 1600 covered the majority of my tests and the one client project I shot with the lens. The 18-80mm also has Canon’s Image Stabilization (IS) and Dual Pixel Auto Focus (DPAF) technology built in. Lastly, the lens features a cinema-like 180-degree, smooth, manual focus ring so you have a much larger focus scale to create smoother rack focuses than you could with a typical still lens. While I used the lens mostly with the Dual Pixel Autofocus on both the C100 and C300, I did shoot a few sequences using manual focus, and the lens’ focus ring is decently smooth and even feeling, allowing effortless, smooth rack focusing. The manual focus wasn’t as smooth as my older Fujinon B4-mount lens I used to use on Betacam and Digibeta cameras, but that lens cost four to six times what this lens costs so that’s to be expected. Others have described the manual-focus feel as a cross between the better EF lenses like Canon’s 70-200mm 2.8 IS II and Canon’s high-dollar CN-e cinema lenses, not a bad place to be for a $5,500 lens.

Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF

Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF

In The Field

I recently had a chance to put this production 18-80mm Compact Servo lens through its paces, mounted to a Canon EOS Cinema C300, and I was impressed with how usable this lens is if you want to shoot run-and-gun style. Images were crisp and pleasing, distortion was minimal, and flare resistance was good, even when shooting directly into late-afternoon sun. The lens was parfocal, holding focus from one end of the zoom range to the other. Distortion was minimal. Chromatic aberration was not visible in the images we shot, at least in 1080 on a decent monitor; I would be interested to see the results when shooting in 4K, which I’ll be doing in the near future. The autofocus was responsive, and of most interest, the servo zoom was extremely smooth and well modulated. Besides all of the other features, this lens is the only way on the market to achieve smooth-as-silk servo zoom moves at a reasonable cost. It should be noted that when doing full-speed zooms that the lens does emit some motor noise that could possibly be picked up on the talent’s microphone if the lens was close enough, but the sound isn’t overly loud or objectionable unless you were possibly in a small, very quiet room.

The client project I shot took place at a Comedy Club where we shot impromptu stand-up interviews with the audience as they exited a comedy festival. Being able to subtly re-frame the cameras field of view in and out as the interview subjects shifted and moved was a pleasant experience, with the finished footage gaining a perceptibly smoother quality than I would have had if I had been using my typical Canon EF-S 17-55mm 2.8 IS lens I would have normally been using in this situation. The zoom scale on the 17-55mm 2.8 is super-compact, and it’s almost impossible to make framing changes as subtly with manually zooming the lens versus using the servo on the 18-80mm. The lens has a small, manual lever on the bottom of the lens barrel that allows the user to switch off the servo and go to fully manual mode for crash zooms, if that’s needed. Even when going fully manual servo, the mechanics of this lens were still superior to the uneven, compressed feeling on my 17-55mm 2.8 IS lens.

Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF

Control Quandary?

I evaluated the 18-80mm using the optional Canon ZSG-C10 grip and while the grip felt good and functioned fine, this lens and grip present an interesting dilemma for Canon’s design engineers. Let me expand on that a bit.
As you can tell from looking at Canon’s EOS Cinema line of cameras, they weren’t really designed with shoulder-mounted operation in mind; they work best on a tripod, gimbal or in a sort of handheld hybrid mode with the camera held in front of the operator like a still camera would be. Of course, ingenuity has provided almost an entire industry that sprung up to turn Canon’s EOS Cinema line into shoulder-mounted cameras—base plates, rods, shoulder pads and the like. One problem that mounting these cameras to the operator’s shoulder is that the handgrip on the camera, which is very integral to the operation of the camera when shooting handheld, in particular, becomes awkward to access with the camera mounted on the operator’s shoulder. Manufacturers like Zacuto and a few others introduced grip relocaters, which allow the operator to relocate the Canon’s hand grip closer to the front of the camera and lower so that it could function as not only a control for the camera, also as the right hand grip on a shoulder mounted set up.

Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF

The Canon handgrip not only allows the operator to start and stop recording, on some of the EOS Cinema cameras like my C100, a small joystick on the handgrip allows quick access shortcut to the cameras ISO, white balance and shutter speed also, all of which are crucial to handheld operation. The ZSG-C10 grip only offers record start and stop and a One Touch Autofocus button—no control joystick. So I found when operating that when I needed to quickly shift the camera’s white balance, I would have to remove my hand from the ZSG-C10 grip and find the cameras handgrip, which was awkwardly placed back on the body, hunt down the joystick, change the white balance, then remove my hand and place it back into the ZSG-C10 grip. Frankly, this was quite an inefficient way of working. Keep in mind this only applies to a Canon EOS Cinema camera user, not a Sony, Blackmagic or ARRI camera user since if Canon had included the joystick on the ZSG-C10 grip, it still wouldn’t have worked with a non-Canon camera anyway. But for Canon users, I really wish that they had built in the same joystick included on the Canon handgrip so that us Canon users wouldn’t have to do the dual handgrip control dance.

The Value Equation And Future Proofing

The 18-80mm Compact Servo also presents an interesting financial dilemma to those who will consider it. While the lens is an excellent value at $5,500 for the lens sans the ZSG-C10 grip, $5,500 is a decent amount of money for most us. The question you have to ask yourself is, will my clients be willing to pay a day rate or a higher package rate for this lens? When I compared images shot on my cameras with the 17-55mm 2.8 IS versus the 18-80mm Compact Servo, the images from the 18-80mm were better but perhaps not at a level easily recognized by a client viewing a compressed web video online; the differences were subtle. Some of the value equation on this lens is improved image quality, but some of the value is also from the operator improvement in ease of use and the ability to reframe shots smoothly and professionally. In my own business model, I own a decent array of Canon still lenses that I utilize for video shooting. I seem to have just about every lens focal length, speed and field of view that I need for 90% of my projects. For the other 10%, we often rent expensive Canon, Cooke, Zeiss or Angénieux lenses. But the lenses I own are all still lenses, and while the image quality on most of them ranges from adequate to superb, from an operator standpoint, I often find myself wishing I had the ability to do servo lens moves when shooting handheld.

If you buy the Canon 18-80mm Compact Servo lens and your clients are willing to pay a nominal day rate for it or if you can increase your rate on your camera package, this may be a non-issue. As we all know, camera bodies in 2017 are not so much an investment as a financial liability. No matter which one you buy, you know that it’s going to be outdated and “last year’s technology” soon. Which means that you need to charge and pay off your cameras as soon as possible. If you have a 1080-only camera today, you may be hearing from your clients that they would like to be able to shoot in 4K. If you own a 4K camera today, you’re nervously eyeing new cameras like RED’s 8K Helium sensor line, realizing that your 4K camera, while fine for now, has a clock ticking over it. This “State of the art today, completely outdated by tomorrow” paradigm with cameras will continue for the foreseeable future.

With lenses, you are somewhat future-proofed. Lenses are generally a better long-term investment than cameras or computers. The Canon 18-80mm Compact Servo lens is a quality piece of gear that should last for many years if taken care of. Factors to consider are to think about if the S35 imager size will be your choice for your next few cameras. The 18-80mm is a S35 sensor lens so if you end up buying a full-frame camera, this lens won’t be able to cover a full-frame image circle. But other than that consideration, the robust construction and quality construction of the 18-80mm Compact Servo should make it a good investment. Whether or not it will be a good financial decision to purchase will depend on your clients and your business model. If you can’t charge your clients an additional line item rate for the lens or increase the cost of your camera package including this lens, you’ll have to decide if the greater quality over still lenses and the operational improvement of having a servo zoom lens is worth it to you as a camera owner/operator.

Reflections After The Shoot

The 18-80mm is a truly hybrid lens with the best features from Canon’s still lens, broadcast and cinema lens lines at a reasonable cost for what it offers. This lens should be a top seller for Canon. While $5,500 is by no means inexpensive, if you examine the value, features and build quality of the 18-80mm T4.4 compact servo zoom, the value equation makes total sense for pro documentary, event, reality and other run-and-gun shooters. Canon has stated that we’ll see other upcoming models in this product line; we’re eager to see which other focal lengths, speeds and features they introduce. Kudos to Canon for building a useful, much-needed lens that none of their competitors offers or have even conceived. I’m still evaluating if the investment in this lens will be in the cards for me, but I’m leaning toward purchasing this lens for a reality show project my company will be producing. Our budgets won’t support cinema lenses and the 18-80mm will present an improved final image over using our own still lenses. We can increase our camera image quality considerably without spending tens of thousands of dollars, and our camera operators will be able to spend more time being creative rather than fighting using the wrong tool for the job.

My suggestion for you: If you’re on the fence about whether or not this is the right tool for you, rent it, try it and look at the end result and see if it will work within your business model. Just a warning, though; once you use this lens for a while, going back to a still lens is difficult, it’s that good.

Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF

Learn more about the Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF lens at usa.canon.com.

Check the price and availability of the Canon Compact Servo 18-80mm T4.4 EF lens at B&H.