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Are regular 16mm cameras worth investing in?


Brett Allbritton
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I work in TV, so when it comes to 16mm I'm just an enthusiast, and all of my 16mm footage so far has been on my Krasnogorsk-3, which has served me well. Having said that, I would like to eventually shoot some more ambitious projects on film (requiring sound, longer takes, etc), but unfortunately the closest place I could rent a film camera from is about five hours away.

Because of this, I occasionally find myself browsing eBay for cameras, and often Regular 16 cameras such as Arri SRs, Aatons, or CP-16s are available. I can't help but wonder how worthwhile buying a Regular 16 camera is though; Super 16 seems to be preferable in every way. I guess Regular 16 is good if you want a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it seems like most people would prefer to shoot Super 16 and crop the sides instead. Likewise, if you wanted a wider aspect ratio, you could crop the top and bottom of your Regular 16 image, but Super 16 would require less cropping and give you a bigger image area. It's also worth noting that many Regular 16 cameras can be converted to Super 16, but for the cost it seems like you might as well have just bought a Super 16 camera in the first place.

As I said, I'm not a professional when it comes to film, so I'm not sure if I will ever be able to justify purchasing my own professional-level 16mm camera. However, the (generally) lower cost of Regular 16 cameras does make it a little tempting sometimes. What do you guys think, are Regular 16 cameras worth investing in?

 

Note: Yes, I recognize that both Regular 16 and Super 16 would widely be considered "obsolete" these days, so strictly speaking they probably aren't worth "investing" in. I just mean this in the context of those who enjoy shooting celluloid.

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In my opinion if you want 16:9 or want to crop even wider, S16 is the best option. Having said that, current filmstocks have the finest grain there has ever been. Keeping that in mind cropping R16 is not as bad as it might have been once. After all, some Kodak V3 50D in super-8 looks like 16mm of the past, or so they say.

Converting cameras to S16 is becoming more difficult, as there are less shops that'll do it. Cameras like Eclair ACL and Bolex still have such services available and they are relatively cheap, but if I was buying a S16 professional camera now, I'd probably try to get an Aaton or Arri that already was S16. Servicing them might be more expensive though.

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Heikki is right... there's not so much of a reason now to shoot S16 if you're using 50D. The grain can look quite respectable when cropped 16:9.   And I agree with Simon too.  The old 4:3 ratio in some ways is becoming more desirable artistically perhaps, as we are  swamped with 16:9 images everywhere.

Edited by Doug Palmer
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9 hours ago, Simon Wyss said:

Film is not obsolete. [...] 4:3 isn’t obsolete, either. It’s still the most dynamic aspect ratio.

Point taken. I was actually thinking about this after I posted and regretted using the word "obsolete;" it's much stronger than what I meant. I was really just anticipating responses from the point of view that film is outdated and we should all move on.

As for 4:3, I happen to really like it and appreciate when modern films use it. Too many young filmmakers seem to think that in order to look "filmic" you need to put Cinemascope letterbox bars on everything, so it's refreshing when I see aspect ratio being recognized as a creative tool. It's strange to say but I find myself occasionally having to remind people that some of the best movies of all time are in Academy Ratio. I'm also quite curious, why do you say that it's the most dynamic aspect ratio?

This is another reason why I find myself considering a Regular 16 camera; 4:3 is just not a deal-breaker for me. I might add that my K-3 is regular 16 and I'm quite content with that. I've seen so many people insist on converting their K-3, but to me, considering the benefit versus the effort, that just feels like trying to make the camera into something it's not.

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OP...if reg 16 is your budget...then that is it.

I want a Lasergraphics scanner but the Retroscan is my budget...so I make due. 

Either rent or buy. And if you can't afford to buy what you want, then go digital. You don't want to be stuck with putting gear above art. Whether it be film or cameras.

Good luck!

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The fate of us techs is that we depend on the wording. We are trained and used to call a spade a spade, just to get along with all the things in the first place. But flexibility of mind can handle a lot of unhappy terms.

The triangle 3/4/5, image sides and diagonal, has the smallest whole numbers as those lengths for a right-angled one. That gives it a unique tension. You either feel it or you don’t.

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Here's something shot on an Arri SR1 standard 16mm. I left it as standard format but I could have had it scanned to 16:9 with no grain problem. Don't remember the stock but it was probably 50D or 100t. Lens was a Zeiss 10-100 T2. Scanned to HD on a Spirit with a good colorist.

Some of it is a little shaky as I was getting used to shoulder shooting when zoomed in. I would say if you get a good deal on an SR1 standard go for it. Super 16mm is more practical but not at double the cost unless you're a professional and that's a requirement.

 

b157.jpg

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There are a lot of benefits to standard 16mm; cheaper cameras, cheaper lenses, more lens selection, more camera selection. The tiny sliver of image increase of super 16 ain't the end of the world. I've been matting standard 16mm to 1.85:1 for 30 years without a problem. Nobody would know the difference. 

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3 hours ago, Will Montgomery said:

Here's something shot on an Arri SR1 standard 16mm. I left it as standard format but I could have had it scanned to 16:9 with no grain problem. Don't remember the stock but it was probably 50D or 100t. Lens was a Zeiss 10-100 T2. Scanned to HD on a Spirit with a good colorist.

Some of it is a little shaky as I was getting used to shoulder shooting when zoomed in. I would say if you get a good deal on an SR1 standard go for it. Super 16mm is more practical but not at double the cost unless you're a professional and that's a requirement.

 

b157.jpg

Beautiful!!

Where did the grain go though? Was that the Spirit that smoothed it out or was it you in post?

 

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I've done what Will and Tyler describe. Shoot regular-16, use slow film stock like 50D or 100T (I've even gotten by with 250D) and have it scanned to HD with a Spirit. It's very do-able if a regular-16 camera is all you can afford. Try to use good lenses, like the 10-100 Will listed above, or any of the first generation Zeiss Super Speeds with the bayonet mount, or if you can find a decent set, I always had great luck with the Cooke Kinetal line of lenses, and the Cooke Varokinetal 9-50mm T2.5 cine zoom is excellent.

Best, -Tim

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On 4/16/2021 at 3:08 PM, Raymond Zananiri said:

Beautiful!!

Where did the grain go though? Was that the Spirit that smoothed it out or was it you in post?

 

Thanks Raymond. There was no grain reduction...just exposed properly on a sunny day with low speed stocks. Between the Spirit and Resolve it was definitely color corrected in transfer of course. If you want grain there's always 500T and my favorite B&W Double X!

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Nothing wrong with shooting in 1:33/R16.  If seen quite a few films shot on 1:33 and the audience is not jumping out of their seats.  Actually shooting in a different format makes you stand out. And yes, a well maintained R16 camera is worth investing in. 

Edited by CJ Wallace
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On 4/23/2021 at 3:24 PM, Will Montgomery said:

Thanks Raymond. There was no grain reduction...just exposed properly on a sunny day with low speed stocks. Between the Spirit and Resolve it was definitely color corrected in transfer of course. If you want grain there's always 500T and my favorite B&W Double X!

Also keep in mind that modern film stocks are designed NOT to show a ton of grain if properly exposed...even 500T; especially in 35mm. For many years Kodak was pouring millions in research dollars into reducing grain and perfecting color. Now in 16mm we love some grain...but just enough to remind people that it's film. 🙂

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If you have an amazon prime video account (Netflix's compression is way to aggressive), have a look at some of the interior and night scenes in Mississippi Burning. I could not get such a grainy image on 16mm, even if I pushed 500T by a stop.

Edited by David Sekanina
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Thanks for the input, guys. That footage is lovely, Will!

The more I've thought about it since posting this, the more I'm set on investing in a sound-sync regular 16 camera in the near future. The 4:3 aspect ratio really wasn't a problem for me in the first place anyway, and as you guys said, it can be cropped if needed. I tested this recently after I had some 200T and 250D developed (shot with my Krasnogorsk), and I think it looked pretty great when cropped to 1.85:1. I doubt anybody would notice the difference, and I can certainly imagine that if I had shot with some really nice prime lenses, then people especially wouldn't notice.

I guess this raises the inevitable question then; what are your recommendations? Having just read Jon Fauer's Arriflex 16SR Book, I'm leaning towards an SR 1 or 2 at the moment, but I do find Aatons to be quite lovely, and Eclairs seem to be very affordable. My big concern is their longevity, though; considering these cameras are already old, I'd like to ensure that I get the most use I can from whichever I end up deciding on. Any guidance is highly appreciated!

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50 minutes ago, Brett Allbritton said:

Thanks for the input, guys. That footage is lovely, Will!

The more I've thought about it since posting this, the more I'm set on investing in a sound-sync regular 16 camera in the near future. The 4:3 aspect ratio really wasn't a problem for me in the first place anyway, and as you guys said, it can be cropped if needed. I tested this recently after I had some 200T and 250D developed (shot with my Krasnogorsk), and I think it looked pretty great when cropped to 1.85:1. I doubt anybody would notice the difference, and I can certainly imagine that if I had shot with some really nice prime lenses, then people especially wouldn't notice.

I guess this raises the inevitable question then; what are your recommendations? Having just read Jon Fauer's Arriflex 16SR Book, I'm leaning towards an SR 1 or 2 at the moment, but I do find Aatons to be quite lovely, and Eclairs seem to be very affordable. My big concern is their longevity, though; considering these cameras are already old, I'd like to ensure that I get the most use I can from whichever I end up deciding on. Any guidance is highly appreciated!

the options are pretty much the Arri SR1 & SR2,  Aaton LTR, Eclair NPR and ACL and the Cinema Products CP16R.  The other cameras are quite noisy or have other disadvantages which make them unsuitable for shooting serious projects by my opinion and the newer ones are all S16 so more expensive.

Do you already have the lenses you would want to use? with these older cameras you can be pretty limited lens wise... most cheaper Arris are with Arri Bayonet mount. the Aatons are probaly Aaton mount but it allows adapters so less of a problem. The Eclairs have their own mount and most have C-mount too (lenses are easy to adapt to C-mount but it is not mechanically optimal for cine use (rotating and too weak mount).  The Cinema Products cameras have their own proprietary mount and good lenses are very rare and you will not going to get a good lens set for them so you will need to get the mount converted to PL mount or similar to get the most out of the camera.

As long as the camera is mechanically working it is good to go. Regular service is a must with film cameras.  The old electronics may be in bad condition but they can be updated with modern ones if needed (there is technicians able to do this for Arri, Aaton, Eclair. I am building a crystal update for the CP16R at the moment so Cinema Products can be updated too)

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Appo Lettinen. How is it progressing? Will your final CP16R system be contained within the camera body. I think I saw a post somewhere that suggested you were thinking about a box outside of the camera. A tidier solution might be to take out pre-amp and amplifier board out of the Crystasound amplifier attached on the right of the RA models and put the extra electronics in there. 

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36 minutes ago, Robert Hart said:

Appo Lettinen. How is it progressing? Will your final CP16R system be contained within the camera body. I think I saw a post somewhere that suggested you were thinking about a box outside of the camera. A tidier solution might be to take out pre-amp and amplifier board out of the Crystasound amplifier attached on the right of the RA models and put the extra electronics in there. 

Yes the current system with 12 preset crystal speeds is installed inside the camera body. I will have a external box which can be plugged in if one needs more speeds (any speed can be set in 1/1000th fps increments)or a display with footage counters etc. This is because the back panel of the camera is relatively small and does not allow installing much more than a simple rotary selector and couple of buttons.

Probably the ext box electronics could be fitted inside the crystasound cover. Not all users have the crystasound unit but could maybe be an extra option if someone would want it :)  the 12 speed version fits inside the camera body in place of the original circuit board so it is very compact 

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1 hour ago, aapo lettinen said:

The Eclairs have their own mount and most have C-mount too (lenses are easy to adapt to C-mount but it is not mechanically optimal for cine use (rotating and too weak mount).

Lens mount -wise Eclair ACL is like Eldorado for budget oriented film makers. There are no lenses for the ACL's own mount (TS) - instead, it is a mount for using adapters like TS-PL or TS-Nikon or TS-EF. While those adapters can be expensive, the C-mount allows one to use smaller and lighter lenses like Switars or those C-mount to X adapters.

Unfortunately Eclair ACLs are currently rather expensive on Ebay. There are several people looking for them. NPRs are not as expensive, but they are heavier (and sturdier). Those have C-mount and Cameflex mount, but some have replaced the Cameflex mount with PL.

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57 minutes ago, aapo lettinen said:

Do you already have the lenses you would want to use? with these older cameras you can be pretty limited lens wise

I haven't invested in any cine lenses yet, just a handful of still lenses here and there. Generally, I've been looking for camera packages that come with a good zoom lens. I figure that will be sufficient for most of my personal projects.

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4 hours ago, Brett Allbritton said:

I'm leaning towards an SR 1 or 2 at the moment

I would for sure go towards an SR1 or SR2 vs an older Aaton, mostly because of the Arri B mount. You really want a hard Arri B mount for the older lenses. You don't want to deal with adapting and the high-cost PL mount, both issues with the older Aaton mount cameras AND PL mount cameras. I would stay away from most of the other cameras unless you're ok with a louder camera. Where I do like the CP16R quite a bit, they have electronic issues which are expensive to deal with. I frankly don't care for the Eclair's, stay away in my opinion. 

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6 hours ago, Tyler Purcell said:

I would for sure go towards an SR1 or SR2 vs an older Aaton, mostly because of the Arri B mount. You really want a hard Arri B mount for the older lenses. You don't want to deal with adapting and the high-cost PL mount, both issues with the older Aaton mount cameras AND PL mount cameras. I would stay away from most of the other cameras unless you're ok with a louder camera. Where I do like the CP16R quite a bit, they have electronic issues which are expensive to deal with. I frankly don't care for the Eclair's, stay away in my opinion. 

All of the cameras discussed have electronics which are over 50 years old. Of course they can have issues. The advantage of the cp16r is that the camera body itself is relatively cheap so you can afford throwing in about 1k of extra money to update the electronics right away and then they wont bother you anymore. The update I have designed does not use any of the old electronics except the motor itself and the original batteries if you want to keep them. Even the speed sensor is new. 

If you pay from 4 to 5k for a used arri or aaton + x amount of money for servicing it  and THEN if develops electronic issues you are totally screwed budget wise compared to the cp16r which can be got for less than 1k with a zoom lens and then maybe 500 ?? for mechanical overhaul and 1k for crystal update . 

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