JON FAUER: I am an enthusiastic reader of your blog, lens tests and have been a happy customer of Lensrentals. How did all this impressive work begin?
ROGER CICALA: I was born in New York. My father’s from the Bronx and my mother from Long Island. We moved to Memphis when I was in the third grade.
You trained and worked as a medical doctor?
I started in trauma critical care. After six years of that, I retrained in pain management, anesthesia and worked in a neurosurgery group. I wrote five textbooks on medicine and about 60 scientific articles. All that time, my hobby was photography and that’s how I ended up shifting over to what I’m doing now: writing, testing and working with camera equipment.
How did Lensrentals begin?
As you can imagine, some of us who go into medicine are kind of obsessive-compulsive and anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. My hobby was photography and I had already bought far too much equipment. I was going on an Alaskan cruise and wanted a 500mm f/4 lens. I was quite convinced that photographing wildlife and whales would be best with a good telephoto lens and I looked for a place to rent one. This was around 2005-2006, and I quickly found out that it was not possible to rent unless you lived in New York, Los Angeles or perhaps Chicago. And so, I bought one. I went on the cruise, came home and had massive buyer’s remorse at paying the astronomical sum of maybe $5500.
I felt terribly guilty and thought maybe I could to rent it out. At the time, you could buy pre-made web pages for $50. I put the 500mm f/4 lens on the website and that looked kind of lonely, so I put all my other equipment on it as well. I talked about it in local camera meetings and the next thing I knew, all my gear was out on rental. I took that as a message to buy more stuff so I bought more equipment, put it on my webpage, and within a couple of months, it spiraled out of control. It was an accidental thing. Within a couple of years, I left medicine and did this full time.
And today you have at least 100 employees?
Closer to 200. I think there are 150 people here in Memphis. We have the Boston LensProToGo office and Nashville. Meanwhile, I have been what we call “promoted.” Drew and Tyler each own a third of the business now. They’re business people and run it. I do my thing testing and writing, but we’ve expanded many times and it seems that every time we expand, my office goes into the new area furthest away from theirs. Drew, by the way, is my son. He’s an attorney and CPA. Tyler is an MBA and my son-in-law. So it’s a family-run business.
Nepotism is fine as long as you keep it in the family, as they say.
It actually works out well. The part I love is the quality assurance, testing, research and writing. So it works out very well.
And the Fed Ex hub is right near you in Memphis?
Yes. There’s an airport drop off. We can get there at 9 pm and usually have it delivered to you at 8 am the following morning.
Are rentals mostly cine or still photography these days?
It’s about 60/40 cinema compared to still photography rentals.
You are famous for your lens testing and custom metrology.
Although the cinema world has been using projectors for a long time and they work great, it’s hard to tell somebody you could do it better with a half million dollar optical bench. To be honest, with our volume of testing, we have to check at least 800 lenses a day. You can’t do that with projectors. It takes too long. We’d have to dedicate half a dozen projectors and staff in a darkened room.
We designed our own testing machine, named Olaf. It is a vertical bench on which you can rotate the lens at different angles and quadrants to test the MTF again and again. Lenses are rotationally symmetrical in theory, on a computer, but of course in the real world they’re not. The results can be different—the result of manufacturing variations or wear and tear in the field. We wrote software to automate the rotation of the lens, measuring at numerous points and angles. It prints out an entire map of the lens.
How has the nature of the Lensrentals business evolved?
We were a photo rental house and suddenly realized a lot of our renters were doing video work. We had to start stocking the proper support equipment: lighting, heads, stabilizers, tracks and true cinema lenses. That led us into the cinema world. As you are well aware, the expectations of a cinema renter are very different from the expectations of a photographer. Where photographers are often supplementing their existing equipment, cinematographers often put in much bigger orders. That puts a little more pressure on us to be perfect because one bad piece of gear can ruin the entire shoot. We added an entire department to ensure compatibility, for example, to ensure customers have the cables they need.
On the cinema side, pendulum’s the right word because whatever is hot now is going to be passed over in two or three years for something different. There will always be a certain baseline of established lens sets. But then the requests come in for flaring lenses, antique-looking lenses, anamorphics, higher resolution, less resolution. What’s next? We’re going to have to be ready.
(This is a “reprint” from August 2020 FDTimes issue 104.)