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Investing in DSLR Lenses for Cinema Use? Here Are Some Tips for Picking the Right Ones

06.18.12 @ 9:00AM Tags : , , , , , , ,

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:

  1. Manual Focus
  2. Manual Aperture
  3. Constant Volume
  4. Quality Materials
  5. Repeatable Focus
  6. 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.

[via Matthew Duclos' Circle of Confusion]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 55 COMMENTS

  • Great article from Mathew Duclos and a great bit of advice from Joe on considering glass before dying to upgrade your body. I’d like to add a few things to the discussion, namely, that AF-D lenses are a secret Nikon treasure because their focus rings have hardstops, longer focus throws (about 1/2 turn), and MUCH better feel than the AF-S focus rings on the newer lenses. Plus they’re all small and light! The only downside is that a few of them telescope as you focus but usually only about 1-1.5 inches and a lens donut or bellows on a mattebox works fine for me. Here’s my list of must-haves:

    - Tokina 11-16mm f2.8
    Ok ok it’s a zoom but it’s really a necessity

    - Nikon 18mm f2.8 AF-D
    $800 used. All metal, iris ring, 1/2 turn focus with hard end stops

    - Nikon 20mm f2.8 AF
    $560 new, $300 used, telescopes 1″ while focusing

    - Nikon 24mm f2.8 AF-D
    $360 new, sharper than $1400 equivalent zoom

    - Nikon 35mm f2 AF-D
    $420 new, $275 used, telescopes 1.5″ while focusing

    - Nikon 50mm f1.8 AF-D
    $150 new, extends a little with focus

    - Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF-D
    $650 new, $400 used, internal focusing

    - Nikon 105mm f2 DC
    $1000 new, manual bokeh control and amazing optics, internal focus

    - Nikon 135mm f2 DC
    $1400 new, same as 105mm, amazing, internal focus

    - Nikon 80-200 AF-D
    $1000 new. This is a zoom, sure, but it’s internal focusing, constant length while zooming, built like a tank, has a focus ring that DOES have hardstops, and is exactly the same as the newer 70-200 f2.8 VR lenses quality-wise, minus the VR and the $1400 you pay for it

    So if you bought all of these you’re looking at having a really high quality set of extremely sharp lenses, often sharper than the zoom counterparts, for possibly less money than if you covered 11 to 200mm with a handful of zooms. They’re lighter as well so your rigs will be less burdensome which I’m always thankful for. Lastly, you can certainly go with faster alternatives for things like the 24, 35, and 50, but I like that I can light everything to f2.8 and not feel like I spent 4x as much money to get f1.4 lenses that I wouldn’t be able to hold razor thin focus on anyways.

    • Sorry I forgot to mention that the Nikon 80-200 AF-D is an f2.8 lens. I’d also like to point out that the 18mm is considered exotic-ish for Nikons and frankly not worth it when the 11-16mm + 20mm combo gets you plenty of options.

      Oh and I own the 11-16, 20, 24, 35, 50, and 85 and absolutely LOVE them, all in for about $2,400. I usually rent the 80-200 because I’m waiting on one used to pop up in the $500-600 range. And I wholeheartedly recommend Adorama or Cameta for used lenses (a number of mine were bought gently used).

      Anyhow, hope this helps someone out!

      • Hi Alec,

        Any good recomendation for budget Nikon to Canon EOS adaptor ring ? Whenever I buy one from ebay the lens usually has a little bit of will and does not stay firmly locked in while I am pulling focus. Any thoughts would be much apreciated. Thanks!

      • I actually own the Nikon 80-200 AF-D and can properly say it’s a beast. I got it for stills but also to fit on my Red Rock M2 35mm adapter for my video camera. It’s pretty big, but man the image quality is ridiculous. I know a lot of people are all about the shallow depth of field shots and they won’t be disappointed with this lens. I did a shot with a katana blade pointed at the camera and only the very, very tip of the sword was in focus. Super cool.

    • Daniel Mimura on 06.26.12 @ 2:58PM

      I would add the Nikon 28mm 2.8.

      The differences between the 24mm and the 35mm are just enough to warrant something in between.

  • How about the tokina 12-24 for canon. I’ts an f/4 not a f2.8 but it’s easy to use.

    • Yeah my lens recommendations at the bottom was specifically geared towards the Blackmagic Cinema Camera – a camera which need faster lenses for available light shooting since you’ll probably be stuck around ISO 800 or ISO 1600 at best. 24mm on that Tokina would be 55mm on full frame, and F/4 would be unbearably slow for a 55mm lens unless it was a specialty lens. That seems like a decent lens for APS-C and Super 35mm sensor cameras as long as you’ve got a bit more light to work with.

      • Lens multiplication factor: the standard super 35mm size, what the vast majority of films re shot on, is more like a Canon 7D’s smaller sensor, not the 5D (which is more like Vistavision). I really think you need to put that in there, Joe, because otherwise you’re confusing a lotta folks. Otherwise, loving your work!

        • Well, the only reason I say it that way is because crop factors really only started because people were using SLR film lenses on digital cameras and they needed an easy way to figure out what those lenses would look like on an APS-C sensor – in cinema it’s always been Angle of View. With the introduction of 35mm adapters like the Letus and Brevis, people were back to using the full diameter of the lens (or at least some people were). Now with cameras like the 5D Mark II, Mark III, and D800, more and more people are shooting with the full diameter of the lenses. You’re absolutely right that a majority are shot on Super 35mm sized sensors or smaller (like the 7D), but I think it actually gets more confusing if you use crop factor factors between sensors that aren’t full frame 35mm.

          We’ve got articles describing the crop factors, so I think if people are confused they can either refer back to those or ask a question in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer.

          • Daniel Mimura on 06.26.12 @ 3:10PM

            I understand people going to full frame for crop factors coming from stills, but most people on a film oriented site are coming from motion picture film or video, so I argue that it confuses things *more*. Those people that didn’t come from motion picture film just sort of assumed full frame was what motion picture film was using. In 35mm motion picture film a “normal” lens is a 32mm or a 35mmm, not a 50mm… (so a 7D has like a 1.1x crop factor).

            I use the crop factor to super-35 to keep it with the motion picture standard that’s been in place for the last 90 years or so…but of course doing that also confuses things now because so many people erroneously translate to 35mm full frame…so it will always be confusing.

            • Still frame 35mm has been around for almost as long – which is why I make that argument. Really people just have to do the research and understand that a lens is a lens, and a bigger sensor will use more of the image circle and a smaller sensor will use less of it. It’s much more commonplace around the internet to consider crop factor in terms of 36mm x 24mm sensors (thanks in part to the 5D Mark II). I think if people are really having trouble, they should just learn what the normal lens is for all sorts of given sensor sizes, and then they can add half of a normal lens for telephoto, and subtract half for a wide angle (25mm, 50mm, 75mm for full frame 35mm, or 18mm, 35mm, and 50mm for motion picture 35mm). It’s not perfect, but for a lot of filmmaking those three focal lengths usually end up being different enough from each other to be versatile for all sorts of situations.

              Maybe I should start the Angle of View trend in the DSLR filmmaking world and then we can stop worrying about crop factor – and we’ll have to do the math by sensor size and focal length.

  • Joe, I really appreciate your concerns with “future-proofing” your gear as much as possible. I have the same frugal-minded concern for all of my purchases; its one of the reasons I switched to Adobe products for its cross-platform abilities, and I’ll be moving to Windows so my machine for post can be upgradable.

    We work in a very expensive industry, and frugality is an increasingly important skill for me to have.

  • I only have a few older nikon lenses, but whenever I adapt them to my canon dslr I can’t use the aperture rings. Once the adapter goes on it’s so snug against the aperture ring that you can’t turn it anymore. Of course I can set the aperture I want and then put the adapter on, but it’s a frustrating process. Does anyone else have this issue?

  • I have the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8, Sigma 17-50 f/2.8, Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 and the Canon 50mm f/2.8

    I use all of them on my 60D but I’ve been seriously contemplating buying a Black Magic in the near future, I wonder if these lenses will cover all basic needs..

  • Hm, what about old M42 lenses? I am using Sony DSLR and I don’t know about working adaptor for Nikon lenses, so I’m considering buying old M42 lenses such as 30mm f/2.8. I need something wider than 50mm ;)

    • The Super or SMC Takumar 35 2 is a great M42 in that focal range.

      • The Super Takumar seems to be the common denominator for DSLR filmmakers wanting to use quality M42 lenses. You can get a grab-bag’s worth of quality and usefulness out of whatever’s sitting on your local camera shop’s shelf, but the SMC set has the same consisten quality across all the avaialble focal lengths, making it a great option for a lens set.
        I’m picking up a 35 f2, 50 f1.4, and a 135 f2.8 this weekend from Craigslist of all places for $400.

    • M42 lenses will work on Canon, Pentax and Sony, but not on Nikon

      Lens compatibility chart here:

  • Lliam Worthington on 06.18.12 @ 11:58AM

    LOVE my Contax Zeiss.

  • john jeffreys on 06.18.12 @ 12:56PM

    i prefer a set of duclos modded zeiss zf primes; with declicked aperture ring movement and proper focue gears. its as close to a cine lens you can get without breaking the bank. and yeah, canon L primes are way too soft on the big screen, at least in my opinion. but i have shitty eyes anyway

  • Canon glass is too milky for my tastes, they flatten the background into one plain of blur. I feel like I get more depth with zeiss as far as photography glass in concerned.

  • thanks Mr.Marine! I think lens are as important as cameras! Your list is a great start since I´m thinking about BMD cine cam! :)

  • My set is build from Leica R glass and it went up 50% in value , just in the last 2 years.
    It’s the closest match to film glass for me. I have 19,24,35,80. Planing to get 50,100macro,180 to be complete :)

    it’s magical (

  • Interesting the article mentioned the Samyang 24mm f/1.4. I picked one up, not really expecting it to be all that good, but I’ve been extremely impressed with it. Really, really sharp, almost no flare, nice solid build quality with hard stops. It kind of reminds me of the build quality of Bronica/Zenzanon’s later models which were mostly metal with some plastic used in construction.

    On that note, I have experimented with stacking a m43-nikon adapter with a nikon-ETR adapter and using the Bronica glass directly on the GH2. Holy cow those things are sharp. Lovely colour too. But not fast — the best you get is the 75mm f2.8 (which is tack sharp wide open), but most of the rest are f3.5 or worse. I have a 30 fisheye, 40, 55, 75, 100, 100 macro, 200 and also the 45-90 and 100-220 zooms. But, OMG sharp, all of them, including the zooms. One lens I’ve not attempted to use like that (because I need to figure out how to support it somehow because it is enormous and solid metal) is a super-rare ETR mount 55mm f3.5 Schneider shift/tilt. One of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used. It’s odd, really — you’d assume that a lens intended to cover 70mm film wouldn’t be so sharp on a smaller sensor, but the Zenzanon and Schneider glass I’ve tried has beaten my more modern lenses and taken their coats.

    My one grump is that my Nikon 24mm f3.5 shift/tilt won’t stop down below wide open unless it’s used on a Nikon body that dates from roughly the D5000 onwards. Really nice lens, but it is one of the few that has an electrically operated iris. Bah.

    • Sorry, my brain is leaking. Make that 30 fisheye, 40, 55, 75, 100 macro, 150, 250 and the zooms.

    • Yeah, that’s the only issue, many are slow, but they are sharp at the wide apertures. It will be interesting to see what happens to Medium Format lenses if anyone releases an affordable Medium Format Digital Cinema Camera. RED’s wouldn’t be affordable if they do release. I have to imagine those lenses will all go way up in value.

      • Artemis Jaen on 06.19.12 @ 7:26PM

        Indeed — I’m not parting with them any time soon. I have a 4k monochrome digital back for my ETRS that is basically 36x36mm (square format), and wow is that thing sharp. The results from a 4k sensor with no Bayer pattern are mindboggling — basically you get monochrome stills that are as sharp as 4×5″ film or sharper. I don’t use it so much these days, but it was my main camera back when fine art stills was my thing. If someone does a 645 format sensor at 8k+, then the debayered 4k footage from that is going to look amazing.

        One other thing I’ve not tried yet is a bit crazy, but within the realm of doable when bored one weekend is to take a m43 adapter (doesn’t matter what for), then make a Sinar lens board with the adapter fixed to it. I could then put together a frankenrig with my Sinar F to see what video looks like shot through really high end large format glass. I have a 49mm Schneider which is actually an extreme ultrawide on 4×5″, but will allow ridiculously extreme camera movements with a small sensor. It’s just so wrong and inappropriate that I have to do it sometime… ;-)

  • “His first suggestion is to get a good set of prime lenses, but not the L series lenses from Canon, as they aren’t built to last ”

    This is the first that I’ve heard of this… The Canon EF L Series are their top of the line lenses. They’re heavy and well built. Since when are they not built to last?

    Please substantiate this claim.

    • Yeah, that’s not quite what he said, my mistake.

      “My first suggestion would be a good go-to set of prime lenses and I don’t mean the season’s crop of Canon L lenses. Those will do fine for shooting family vacations and the baby taking it’s first steps but they really aren’t going to cut it for good cinematic results. Sure, their image is decent but they just don’t have the guts to keep up with the rest of the industry.”

  • Every professional unit I’ve worked with over the last 5 years in DVSLR time, use canon L lenses, so why does this guy not recommend them? They have amazing build quality and my oldest is 10 years old with not once needing a service. Also its probably the most used lenses on the RED system too.

    • Mr. Awesome on 06.19.12 @ 12:42AM

      the majority of lenses I’ve purchased are Nikon mount specifically for their upgradability. EF mount lenses require expensive adapters to electronically control which means that they’ll be more of a pain to work with and adapt to non-canon bodies. Nikor lenses can be used with nonelectronic adapters that are much cheaper.

    • mark london on 06.19.12 @ 1:16AM

      …and they look pretty crappy. Ask any RED shooter and they’ll tell you they love their L glass! Its amazing! And do you want to buy some of it because they’ve just bought some Zeiss lenses….
      They do not stack up against even the older Nikons. Its quite amazing. They are ‘use them if you have to’ glass.
      Put 4k Scarlet/L glass up against 4K Red One/Nikon and you’ll be shocked.

    • mark london on 06.19.12 @ 1:19AM

      …and they look pretty crappy. Ask any RED shooter and they’ll tell you they love their L glass! Its amazing! And do you want to buy some of it because they’ve just bought some Zeiss lenses….
      They do not stack up against even the older Nikons. Its quite amazing. They are ‘use them if you have to’ glass.
      Put 4k Scarlet/L glass up against 4K Red One/Nikon and you’ll be shocked.

      On the wider topic, the Rokinons are pretty damn good for the money, and you can now build a whole ‘set’.
      I have a full set of Nikon, and probably doing the same with Rokinon, with some Zeiss here and there. Also keen to try some Hasselblad glass. Looking forward to adding a BMDCC to my D800.

      • Artemis Jaen on 06.19.12 @ 7:42PM

        I’m impressed with the Rokinons. I have the 24, 35 and the 85. I don’t really have a bad thing to say about any of them. Stunningly good for the money, and realistically they would be good at any price. Only slight niggle is that the 85 doesn’t focus very closely, but meh, not a big deal.

        I plugged the gap with an old Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AIS, which is really nice too. No complaints there either.

        I feel the need for 1 or 2 more fast primes at the 12mm and 18mm focal lengths. The new Voigtlander is tempting me horribly (particularly as I’ve got a night shoot with a car rig planned on my next project that it would work well for I think). I’ve looked at the sample footage from that 12mm Hyperprime, and I’m afraid to say that it looked really nasty to me. The rumors that it’s just a rehoused CCTV lens seem plausible. I do have zooms that cover that range, but they are just the Panny 7-14 and 14-42, both of which are plenty sharp (particularly the 7-14), but not fast.

        As an aside, I just yesterday ordered a load of parts so I can start on a DIY wireless follow focus project. My intention is to use a belt drive, rather than a gear, so it will work with unmodified stills lenses. Belts are inherently backlash free and relatively cheap. It’ll be driven by a servo with quite a large drive pulley so there shouldn’t be any slip at all in practical use. I’m intending using a couple of Arduino microcontrollers with XBee modules for the radio link, and I’m intending cannibalizing an old follow focus to get a nice knob for the controller that will have the right kind of look and feel (and ability to use a whip or crank). If it works well, I might go the Kickstarter route if there is interest — it would be doable to make a run of them if needs be.

      • Artemis Jaen on 06.19.12 @ 7:48PM

        PS: The Hasselblad V series glass is typically Zeiss, and pretty good, though not as sharp as the Zenzanon/Schneider stuff I have in ETR mount. When I was shopping for the digital back, I had the option of going the ‘blad + V series Zeiss or ETRS + Zenzanon, and was persuaded by the results of tests that Megavision (the back’s builder — they only ever built a handful of the B&W version like the one I have) did. They also go for much less money on EBay. With a 4K (slightly bigger than 35mm full frame) bayer sensor, you couldn’t see a huge amount of difference, but with the monochrome sensor the difference was quite noticeable.

  • When I saw the “but not L series” I immediately shot down to check out the comments… I’m biased; I’m heavily invested in L series glass but I got started in them on the advice of the pros I’ve worked with. The images you get from the 85mm L with a full frame mark ii sensor can be stunning, and I’ve not been able to produce similar image quality using either Nikon nor Zeiss lenses.

    Admittedly, I haven’t tried as many of those lenses, but off-handedly dismissing L series glass, for me, throws the credibility of this whole article in doubt. Either you haven’t shot with L series glass or don’t know how to use it.


    • The L lenses produce a beautiful image – I think people aren’t understanding quite what Matthew is talking about. The L lenses do not have accurate distance markings and have a focus ring that rotates freely. It’s much better to have a lens with hard stops.

      Those lenses were made for photography where you’re letting the camera do all the work. You should read Matthews post to understand exactly why they aren’t recommended for real cinema use.

  • While there are some beautiful lenses out there, I’m also curious about the cheaper end of the market. Given the more extreme crop factor on the Blackmagic, what cheaper, faster, wider lenses are sharp in the center but with lousy corners on other cameras? Something normally overlooked, not necessarily a long term investment but potentially handy for this camera, if not the next one?

    Bonus points for IS to make handheld work a little smoother.

  • Hi Im just getting into dslr video and was looking to get the Tamron SP AF 17-50mm F/2.8, to take place of the 600d kit lens. I would love some advice as to if this lens will be fine until I can afford something better or should I just save the extra hundred or so pounds and get the Tamron spoken about here.

    Many thanks


  • Can someone with a clue please tell me what the “obvious reasons” are for recommending the Nikon lenses? I thought this camera was EF mount. Please forgive me if this has already been addressed.

    • It’s not just about this camera, it’s about investing for the longer term, and Nikon lenses with aperture rings are more adaptable than newer Canon and Nikon lenses which don’t have them.

    • Herbie – just as an example off what Joe said, I currently have a few old Nikon lenses I use with my GH2s (Micro Four Thirds mount). If I decide to pick up the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, I could adapt & use the lenses on that as well, even though it’s an EF mount.

  • I also don’t get why you’ll be stuck at ISO 800 or 1600. Sorry again if the has already been asked.

    • Different ISOs don’t actually exist, they have to build them into their firmware and software. The sensor has one sensitivity level, and then to get to the other ISOs, you have to add gain or clamp down on the information. It could have to do with their knowledge of this process – they may not be getting good results at some of the other ISOs. If you think about it though, you don’t necessarily need that many in-between ISOs, since 400 to 800 is one stop, and 800 to 1600 is one stop.

  • Useful advice. We wrote something similar, with recommendations on building a lens collection, on Self-Reliant Film about a year ago. Here’s the post:

  • Why even bother with these cameras is these are your best lens choices?

    • When I purchase my set of Leica Summilux-C or Arri/Zeiss Master Primes I’ll let you know how they perform on my DSLR.

  • One lens has been overlooked. The Voigtlander 15mm f4.5. The trouble with smaller sensors or the S35 sensor is that crop factor – 1.5+. Getting a good wide angle is tough. But this baby is so far ahead it is like a secret weapon – OK, only f4.5, but what an incredible image – and cheap too! The reports all say it is better than the Zeiss f2.8. The Leica uses it and charges about 3X more for the name on it! Or something like that. So, with the Canon 5D, you have true 15mm – no distortion and with a S35 you get 21mm. Works for me!

  • I’m still a bit confused. Can a Nikon DX (non full frame) lens work on the Blackmagic camera? I know the cropping will be different but will I get usable full frame video using these lenses? Any know issues with DX lenses?

    • They work fine but you’ll need an F to EF mount adapter that has a level to adjust exposure since the Nikon DX lenses don’t have an iris ring and thus will not interface natively with the Canon mount on the camera.

      • Thanks. That’s good news. You wouldn’t happen to know the crop factor since DX lenses. I would image it would be less than the 2.4X for that’s stated for full frame lenses.