May 28, 2015

Can You Tell the Difference Between a $150 Stills Lens & a $15K Cine Prime?

Zeiss Ultra Prime Lens Test
If you were tasked with a picking out cheap stills lenses from an array of expensive cinema lenses in a blind test consisting of real world footage (not focus charts), would you be able to do it?

The fine folks over at RocketJump Film School recently put together one of the most informative and wildly entertaining lens tests that you've ever seen. In it, they pit cheap Canon EF primes against both mid-range cinema lenses like the Zeiss CP2s and a set of Ultra Primes, each of which cost upwards of $15,000. You're probably thinking that this is going to be the easiest test ever, but I can assure you that it's not.

Also, if you have a pathological hatred of focus charts, these videos will bring you more joy than you could have ever imagined.

And here's the blind test in full with much longer shots and without all of the commentary. Plus at the end, you'll get the answers.

Outside of the sheer entertainment value and hilarity of that first video ("Deakins really nailed that focus chart"), this is an incredibly valuable test for up-and-coming filmmakers to see because it helps dispel the myth that expensive gear is required to create high-quality images.

For the sole purpose of capturing images that are clean and sharp, you really can't go wrong with any modern lenses (vintage lenses, on the other hand, can be hit or miss). Whether you're working with super cheap lenses designed for stills cameras or obscenely expensive lenses designed for cinema use, you can get acceptable images no matter what, particularly if you're somewhat stopped down. Of course, when you start shooting wide open, lenses begin to show their true character, and optical flaws and quirks become more visibly apparent. That, of course, is where more expensive options begin to shine. Well, that and the fact that they're built better and so much easier to pull focus with.

The most poignant takeaway from these videos is something that's applicable to every aspect of your gear, not just your lenses, and that's that you should know it inside and out. You should know the strengths and weaknesses of your gear so that you can take advantage of the strengths and work around any flaws or weaknesses that might make your final images suffer.       

Your Comment

56 Comments

Yes, Master Primes is what I shoot web videos for all the time.

May 28, 2015 at 7:54PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1190

First thing I thought when I saw that the tests were videos posted on YouTube haha!

May 28, 2015 at 8:20PM

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Matthew Devapiriam Emmanuel
Camera Operator
342

Actually what I said is not entirely true. Some of my Youtube videos are shot on Fujinon Premiere Zooms.

May 30, 2015 at 3:32AM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1190

Fkn youtube... why does anything but content shot on a phone end up there instead of Vimeo?

June 10, 2015 at 6:41PM

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Been missing freddiew glad to see him doing some film school videos.

May 28, 2015 at 8:06PM

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Charles C.
Editor/ Director/ Director of Photography/ Wannabe Thinker
1003

The king is naked. Those DPs made clowns of themselves.

May 28, 2015 at 8:30PM, Edited May 28, 8:30PM

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Alex Zakrividoroga
Director
3815

They're judging lenses off of a TV, showing footage shot at optimal aperture. I'd say even we as the audience watching the compressed video at home on Youtube have an advantage. The lesson they aimed to teach the audience was that during good conditions the differences between lenses are minimal.
Any DP will know as well how much easier it is to argue for fast professional lenses that are tack sharp wide open, as opposed to arguing for the truck load of HMI lights you need to light say a street in order to shoot at f5.6 at night. In the end it's all about what you have, what you need and the story you're trying to tell.
Saying the DPs made 'clowns of themselves is a bit rude and unneccessary.

May 29, 2015 at 9:25AM, Edited May 29, 9:29AM

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Tobias N
1227

Right, because Ultra Primes look AWESOME in sodium arc lighting!

May 29, 2015 at 9:56AM

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I meant the need for fewer lights as opposed to a Truck Load ;)

May 29, 2015 at 1:08PM

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Tobias N
1227

Sorry.. weird glitch on NoFilmSchool site. Clicked "post" once which resulted in a cascade of duplicate posts. Someone else had this problem elsewhere. Guys, just use Disqus.

May 29, 2015 at 11:39AM, Edited May 29, 11:52AM

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Optimal aperture? Half the shots were wide open!

May 29, 2015 at 11:39AM

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I had the same problem as have several others. Has it become more common recently?

May 29, 2015 at 2:55PM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
889

the best equipment in the world won't make a difference if the operator doesn't have enough skill to use it

May 28, 2015 at 8:44PM, Edited May 28, 8:44PM

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Anna Maria Kilian
Filmmaker
74

Wow. Just goes to show... Write good stories/characters!

May 28, 2015 at 8:50PM

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Donovan Vim Crony
Director, DP, Editor, VFX, Sci-Fi Lover
489

What about the color aberration on highlights of the Zeiss CP at the street-night scene?? (watch min. 5:50 on 2nd clip, at street lights). Because of that, I thought that lense was the Canon...
Anyway, both videos are so much "illustratives", thanks a lot.

May 28, 2015 at 8:53PM, Edited May 28, 8:53PM

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Tico Rodríguez
Filmmaker
81

For the EF lens, the giveaway in that scene for me was the shape of the bookeh in the streetlights. You'll notice an imperfect circular shape caused by the inferior iris blades... it also had the worst chromatic abberation with a noticeable amount of cyan, which i've observed in many L-series lenses. The Ultra Prime in that shot was sooo clean! No aberration at all, zero focus shift, and beautiful bokeh.

May 29, 2015 at 5:56AM

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J.M. Anderson
Director of Photography
102

double posted and can't delete. [edit]

May 29, 2015 at 5:56AM, Edited May 29, 6:01AM

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J.M. Anderson
Director of Photography
102

If you see the second vídeo, the cheap iris and the chromatic aberración you talk about is from the 5000 Carlos zeiss compact prime.

May 29, 2015 at 8:41AM

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How would the Canon EF compare to the best of the equivalent Nikons?

May 29, 2015 at 2:56PM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
889

I got 9 right, feel pretty good right now lol

May 28, 2015 at 9:04PM, Edited May 28, 9:04PM

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Matt Battershell
Web Developer / Graphic Designer / Filmmaker
105

lol

May 29, 2015 at 12:03AM

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Harris
81

If I ever win an Oscar, I'm thanking NFS, my nifty fifty, and baby Jesus.

May 28, 2015 at 10:16PM, Edited May 28, 10:16PM

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Best lens per dollar spent!

May 30, 2015 at 4:49AM

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Kayode
895

I've never shot on the really high end cinema lenses but imagine that the price is not only for the quality of the glass (though that's a big part) but also for the build quality and the convenience of things like parfocal lenses, fixed apertures, longer focus travel, and other features rarely if ever present on the less expensive photo lenses I'm using.

May 28, 2015 at 10:32PM

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mlitty
88

The parfocal thing is a BIG DEAL a lot of the time to me. And the long focus pulls and fixed apertures are nice. But I was pretty shocked at how good our latest film looks- we did it in NY, and had a Canon nifty fifty, a big 70-300mm, and a 17-35mm zoom. And one light- a 1x1 LED by Visual Buddha. If your story supports it, you don't need much. Then again, I'm doing a Capital One spot where we will have a ton of stuff beyond that. Right tools for the job, you know?

May 28, 2015 at 10:50PM, Edited May 28, 10:50PM

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Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money. Sometimes, not.
598

Optically, there isn't much difference between good stills lenses and let's say, entry level cinema lenses. You're paying for the standardized bodies and cinema features. Many of the Zeiss and Canon CN-E's are in fact rehoused versions of their stills lenses. Some are tweaked, some are exactly the same optically.

I ended up with 9/18, but I picked out the Ultra in 5/6 shots. To me that's where the jump really is. Those ultras are so buttery smooth and ever so slightly soft. They produce a really nice, organic feeling. Never shot with them, but I really want to :)

May 28, 2015 at 11:18PM

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seanmclennan
Story Teller
886

Shouldn't this be obvious though?

It makes sense to me that the image quality is going to be the similar across all three lenses when shooting in the ballpark of f4-f8. Aside from extremes, Cheap EF lenses are made to resolve the high resolution of digital photography. We're still way behind on resolution for cinema compared to photography (even if we're about to go 8k Weapon), so why wouldn't cheap EF glass look just as good -- sharpness wise-- as ultra primes at those stops? Clarity/color are important, but in my opinion, are and have been more subtle to discern. Anyway, a necessary test, I just feel like really should be obvious because of what cheap EF glass was originally made for.

I think you're also paying for R&D for color matching across cine primes and zooms of a set too which, as I'm guessing, may not be easy to do or even cared about for cheaper glass.

May 29, 2015 at 12:17AM, Edited May 29, 12:20AM

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Erik Lu
Director
78

Interesting as to how good the EF lenses are (and certainly what good value for money). I've got an EOS-M with some EF-M lenses of course (18-55 and and 2 22mm). I set the camera to aperture priority and shoot fully open (f/2 for the 22mm). I should have shallow depth of field yet I don't really . Look at my Comic Con images http://imgur.com/user/CaveArtFilms/submitted. Yet I can get the results that I want using my old vintage lenses. A Google search for EOS-M depth of field produces a video test. Excellent, only he is using an old Super Takumar just like mine. Any thoughts as to why?

May 29, 2015 at 5:08AM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
889

The video certainly proves it's point. I picked out the CP every time. Then I mixed up the Ultra Prime and the Canon every time. At least I'm consistently wrong.

May 29, 2015 at 1:45AM, Edited May 29, 1:44AM

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Frank
349

absolutely briliant!

I suppose it will be possible to make a test where the differences between these lenses come out more pronounced. The message remains the same, tell your story!

May 29, 2015 at 3:01AM

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This is a silly test which proves nothing and just spreads more confusion among people who never experienced the real life advantages of cine optics. The argument against using current DSLR lenses on productions is almost never the optical quality; even though if you know what to look for and care for detail - the difference in that field too - is apparent.

May 29, 2015 at 3:04AM

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Gleb Volkov
Director of Photography
379

Wonderfull and very funny video. On my own experience, very early on I realized that any "flawless and sexy" video I could shot, it was basicly to show it off in front of fellow filmmakers, industry-related people or "advanced viewers". And that apart from them, the average viewers (which account for most people who at the end are going to watch anything we shot) don't even realise all those subtle details I was taking so much care of. This is another prove of that.
At the end what really matters are storytelling and character-driven stories: moments people can dive in, and stories people can empathize with.

May 29, 2015 at 3:40AM

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Jupiter de la Bâtardise
writer/filmmaker
204

I think that you have hit the nail squarely on the head. In some circumstances, you may need the extra that the $$ lenses give and there are guys here who can certainly do that. Spending money on script and skills will probably pay greater dividends than spending on any hardware.
If you have "weaker" hardware, then the trick must surely be to avoid putting it into situations where those weaknesses are shown up.

May 29, 2015 at 5:36AM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
889

1) What he said......"when is the last time you saw a focus chart in the movies?"
2) It's about the story and the way the image is processed by each individuals brain.
3) What is this obsession with "bokeh"? If over used it can actually detract from an image and is a dead giveaway that the DP is a "rookie".

May 29, 2015 at 6:32AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
966

If the punter can notice bokeh, then it is overused.

May 30, 2015 at 7:08PM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
889

Bokeh is the QUALITY of the out-of-focus region. Thus it can't be "over-used" or "under-used."

June 9, 2015 at 3:37AM

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David Gurney
DP
1565

Ha! I got three. I'm only slightly surprised by that.

In my own experience, a Zeiss photo lens is about as good as I need/want. A $1500 manual focus lens gets a step up in usability from anything with autofocus capabilities for video, and they also put out some damn nice images. It'd be interesting to see if people would be able to tell the difference between a Zeiss Distagon photo, a CP.2, and an Ultraprime. My guess is that these scores would be even lower. (I'd probably get a 0.)

May 29, 2015 at 8:05AM

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Alec Kubas-Meyer
Writer/Director/DP
236

Zeiss Distagon ZE or ZF.2 and CP2 both uses the same optics, it's really a matter of construction. The only difference is in the aperture blades, just like the Canon Photo primes and Cine primes.

May 29, 2015 at 8:33AM

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Danny T
Photographer
577

This is a piss poor test that proves little. All of the shots - except one - are daytime. Most are f4-5.6 and at infinity focus. No shots into bright sources to check lens flare. If you wanted to hide the weaknesses of a cheap lens, this is how you would do it. In the only difficult shot - the wide open shot at night - the cheap Canon looked terrible, muddy with massive amounts of breathing on the rack focus.

May 29, 2015 at 9:09AM

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d shay
377

I will only be impressed with this test if these filmmakers are willing to have their cake and eat it too. Guaranteed they will NOT be using the nifty-fifty for any real filmwork. Give me a nice close-up at f/1.8 in difficult lighting and we'll see which lens wins...

May 29, 2015 at 9:56AM

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Joseph Arant
Writer
230

The trick is not to get into a situation where you need f/1.8 in difficult lighting.

May 30, 2015 at 7:10PM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
889

Not for nothing but this video was a bit useless to me, the compression won't allow an accurate appreciation. I can say for experience that although the lens doesn't matter when it comes to story telling, a good prime lens will make your life easier and will give you a much better quality image. Having said that, a cheaper photography Zeiss lens will look pretty darn good if you're on a budget, but like I mentioned before keeping focus and swapping lenses will be a lot harder.

May 29, 2015 at 10:16AM

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nifty 50

May 29, 2015 at 11:11AM

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A big question I have is if it's $5,000 to $30,000 harder to make a lens cinema-ready: parfocal, fixed aperture, geared, long focus travel, etc. My sense is that these markets (film and photo) were historically so segmented that the lens designs totally diverged. photo lenses are small and light for single operator use, with short focus throws so autofocus can be quicker (older manual photo lenses have long throws) Film glass went higher upmarket because of the nature of the filmmaking process being so absurdly expensive. When you're paying $5-30 million for talent, what's an extra $100k for a few lenses? Now that the world's are increasingly merging, and filmmaking is getting much cheaper and more accessible, we should see a trend towards cheaper cinema housed versions of photo lenses. Someone was recently telling me that some RED lenses are literally just rehoused Canon L glass and marked up an extra $20k. I think the market is ripe for already disruptive lensmakers like Sigma to create cinema versions of all its lenses without the massive markup. If I could get the ART lenses with cinema housing for a 50% premium, I'd be making it rain.

May 29, 2015 at 12:55PM, Edited May 29, 12:55PM

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You are right on the money. During NAB I met a lens maker at the poker table. He had no qualms in admitting he takes Nikon glass, rehouses it, and charges $30k+ for his fancy cinema lenses.

May 29, 2015 at 1:05PM

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Movie glass has always done this. Panavision has been doing this since the 50's...

May 29, 2015 at 8:05PM, Edited May 29, 8:05PM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2270

Nfs, I'm sure you're aware of this problem lately...everything is getting double or quadruple posted...this is my edit of a redundant post right here. It's not just my laptop/desktop/phone/tablet. I've seen many other people's double posts too.

May 29, 2015 at 8:05PM, Edited May 29, 8:07PM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2270

RED Lenses might be rehoused Canon glass (I have no idea) but they are not marked up $20K. The most expensive lens RED makes (or did make, because they are basically discontinued) was the 18-85 T2.9 Zoom. Parfocal and just under $10K. Used, they can be had for $5K. Regardless, the focus, iris and zoom smoothness alone make them easily worth that dough. Ever shoot with a Fujinon Cabrio 19-90? The macro focus alone on that lens is like butter. It's not just about the glass shot at 5.6....(like this lens test) it's what the glass does when you shine light into it, when you run it wide open, when you need a beautiful focus pull that doesn't breathe. That's where the higher end lenses shine. BTW the Fujinon clocks in at $38K, which makes RED lenses look cheap.

May 29, 2015 at 9:46PM

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Scot Yount
Director/Editor/Photographer/Motion Graphic Artist
352

Double posted and can't delete.

May 29, 2015 at 9:46PM, Edited May 29, 9:49PM

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Scot Yount
Director/Editor/Photographer/Motion Graphic Artist
352

It is also a question of how many lenses can there be sold. Canon L glass is sold by the millions because every serious amateur these days wants to own a set of L lenses.
On the other hand a set of anamorphic cine primes will probably sell a few hundred world wide. In that case, the cost for developing and making these lenses is MUCH higher per lens.

June 7, 2015 at 7:46PM, Edited June 7, 7:47PM

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True, but Canon won't cannibalize its cine lenses. The Rokinons and their alternately branded versions are utter shit, unfortunately. So for now we're stuck adapting SLR lenses or overpaying.

June 9, 2015 at 3:40AM

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David Gurney
DP
1565

From the video it's clear that the filmmakers aren't huge fans of focus charts, doesn't look like they're big fans of white balance or skin tones either. Next time use a Macbeth or a One-Shot it will make it way easier to nail the colors.

May 29, 2015 at 7:27PM

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Howard Roll
Boss
209

There are differences. Coatings are a big deal and can totally change the look of a lens. For a more interesting lens shoot shout I shot a Jupiter 9 against a Rokinon 85 1.5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUkQFA4pUzU

The results are interesting in how the J9 with lower contrast opens the shadows up more…. actually expanding your dynamic range. This includes shots with the sun right in the lens. Both lenses flare nice, maybe the J9 better thanks to its 12 or 14 blade iris.

Also another vintage lens shoot out with lens charts. To be honest, the charts are kind of useless, and they were shot @ 5K. Its what you get in real world shooting situations that matters. Have a look here where I shoot wide open and stopped 2.8 and 5.6 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykw_LqI8iOI and maybe the more interesting thing is seeing the differences in color rendition of older lenses. That said, with minor tweaks the color of one lens could easily be matched to the other. This isn't the days of shooting film and worrying about printer points…

In the end…. most modern glass does pretty well wide open or one stop down. - rokinon… with older lenses its hit or miss which ones flare / soften just a little, or a lot. personally I own a fairly full set of both vintage and modern primes so I can grab the lens I want that fits the shot. Right tool for the job… oh, then you put a 1/4 or 1/2 black promist or black net in front of your modern glass to tame it down from being too sharp and contrasty :)

May 29, 2015 at 10:40PM, Edited May 29, 10:57PM

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Steve Oakley
DP • Audio Mixer • Colorist • VFX Artist
356

there was more sun when he shot with the Jupiter in the first shot...

May 30, 2015 at 11:49AM, Edited May 30, 11:49AM

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As they pointed out: you pay a lot of money in professional cine lenses for build quality, quality of focus mechanics, no focus breathing, perfect bokeh and super sharp, perfect images with the aperture wide open.
Also at the top end, even minimally better quality can cost a few thousand dollars more.

It's the same with different dslr lenses: the Canon L are often not that much better in picture quality than say a Tamron which costs a fraction of the L glass. However the L can take much more abuse and it's waterproof and it will probably last a lifetime, plus the Canon L will focus much quicker and more silently.

Do you necessarily need the more expensive lens? No, you don't. But if you are a professional, things like ease of use and build quality can be time saving, and time is also money!

June 7, 2015 at 7:38PM, Edited June 7, 7:39PM

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Can't wait to start seeing focus charts integrated in films like they do with Wilhelms.

June 8, 2015 at 12:17AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
445

Geez, would it be possible that we mainly pay for brand and reputation? And that cinema gear makers sell expensive equipment because their market generally has the budget to afford to pay for it all?

I would have never thought so.

PS - not to say that cheap lenses are worth it, but it's just that the differential in price isn't reflective of the differential in quality. Not in the least. The power of marketing makes it that way...

June 9, 2015 at 12:39AM, Edited June 9, 12:40AM

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Raph Dae
Screenwriter & attempted director
298

This is one of the most misleading, uninformative, and insulting videos. I hope no one heeds this, as it does nothing more than make an ass out of the people who put it together.

July 18, 2015 at 1:33PM

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BMata
74