Investing in DSLR Lenses for Cinema Use? Here Are Some Tips for Picking the Right Ones
Cameras, cameras, cameras. It seems like every day a new camera body is announced (and sometimes lenses, too). While there are always new features to entice us, we know that in this world of planned obsolescence every piece of technology has a finite shelf life. Even RED builds cameras with the knowledge that technology can improve rapidly (which is why they are offering sensor upgrades a few months from now). So what’s a filmmaker to do? What’s the safe investment? Lenses. Specifically, lenses that can be adapted to a wide range of cameras right now, and also in the future. We’ve already got some great info from lens genius Matthew Duclos, but here’s another great piece on which SLR lenses are the best for long-term cinema usability.
His first suggestion is to get a good set of prime lenses, but not the L series lenses from Canon, as they don’t have accurate distance markings, have more looser internal parts, and are harder to service than manual focus prime lenses. While there’s nothing wrong with them optically (they are amazing), if you are going to invest in lenses, you want something that will be easy to service but will also allow the most flexibility on the most camera systems — and that means manual focus and manual iris. If you don’t want primes, and prefer zooms, he’s got a checklist of six features that he looks for in an SLR zoom that’s going to be used for cinema work:
- Manual Focus
- Manual Aperture
- Constant Volume
- Quality Materials
- Repeatable Focus
- Stability (zoom/focus)
He goes over a number of options in a post on his website — but I’ll just feature the one I think makes the most sense for a number of reasons: the Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 (which can be had for a lot less money used). This lens fulfills 1-4, but does not pass on numbers 5 and 6. Here’s a little bit from Matthew about this lens:
The image shift is going to be a problem with just about any auto focus still lens. It’s simply the nature of the beast. I chose to decline the repeatable focus feature of this Nikkor 17-35mm because it simply won’t nail the same mark every time you pull focus. It’s not a problem if you’re eye focusing or if you’re pre-focusing and then shooting, but if you’re going to be taping out marks and racking focus during a shot there is a good chance you’ll miss your mark more often than not…One way or another, there’s usually a way to get a Nikon lens mounted to any given camera.
That last point is the reason I started investing in Nikon lenses awhile back and why I recommend them so highly. Many people don’t like them because they focus in the opposite direction of nearly every other lens out there (except for Leicas). Speaking of Leica, another good (but slightly more expensive) option is the Leica R series of lenses, which can also be adapted to a wide variety of mounts thanks to its flange distance. Obviously Zeiss makes some great, simple manual focus primes (ZF.2 and ZE series), and some that can be adapted to virtually any lens mount (the CP.2 series). The downside, however, is that you’re going to pay for that quality — new or used.
If you’re one of the many that has pre-order the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, lenses are going to be the biggest choice that you have to make. While there is already a user group dedicated to that camera, if you don’t already own them and you’re looking for a good, fast set that won’t break your bank, you can’t go wrong with the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, the Samyang 24mm f/1.4, and any fast 35mm (Samyang has a good one) or 50mm prime you can find. If you want to compare what these lenses would look like on a full frame camera like the 5D Mark II, you must multiply by a crop factor of 2.3. The Tokina will look like a 25.3-36.8mm, the Samyang will be a 55.2mm, and the 35mm and 50mm lenses will look like 80.5mm and 115mm lenses, respectively. I recommend these in Nikon mount, for obvious reasons, but the only issue with the Tokina is that it does not have an iris ring, so you would need an EF to F mount adapter that has an iris lever. Getting the Canon mount Tokina 11-16mm is also an option, but I’ve found that it’s extremely frustrating trying to deal with two different sets of lenses that focus in different directions.
Be sure to head on over to Matthew’s blog for the full scoop.