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Lenses: Using Primes, Choosing a Brand

One of the beauties of DSLR moviemaking is being able to change lenses. Up until this point in history, every video camera below $5k has had one fixed lens that you shot everything through.1 No longer!

But wait, what’s the advantage of having interchangeable lenses, you ask? After all, many people buy their first DSLR and only use the all-purpose lens that came with it (sort of defeating the purpose of having a SLR in the first place). Well, there is no such thing as an “all-purpose lens.” It’d be like wearing an all-season outfit — you need winter clothes for when it’s cold out, summer clothes for when it’s hot out, and no clothes for when it’s nudist out.

With DSLR moviemaking, if you want your films to look like everyone else’s, use the stock lens. Fine. But the stock lens is not best suited for narrative filmmaking. It’s cool for documentary, but for a shallow depth of field and better low-light sensitivity, you’re going to want Prime lenses. Wait, let me stress this a bit more:


Yes, for narrative filmmaking, primes are your BFF. Documentarians will probably want more zoom lenses in their kit for flexibility, but primes (meaning, lenses with a fixed focal length) are generally faster (in terms of light, I mean, not “how many shots you can get in an hour”) and less expensive. They also make you reposition the camera and put some thought into getting a shot rather than automatically reaching for the zoom, the latter of which is the hallmark of home movies.

Primes are less expensive than more mechanically complex zoom lenses, and because they’ve been around for years, “buy used” has seldom been more true than when it comes to DSLR lenses. New DSLRs come with autofocus lenses, which work great for still images, but in video mode they’re stuck using a contrast-detection method which is too slow to be viable; no one should be using autofocus on narrative films anyway. If you buy the camera with a bundled lens, you’ll get a solid all-around lens for taking still photos; however, if you’re on a tight budget and are mostly interested in shooting movies, you can skip the bundled lens, buy the body-only version, and spend the savings on used lenses. Here’s where the great advantage of “obsolete” technology comes in: there are thousands of manual focus-only lenses out there with a deflated value because of their relative uselessness on modern DSLRs — except when it comes to video mode, where they’re suddenly useful again. While you can’t beat good cine lenses, at this price point it’s a blessing to have so many interchangeable lenses available at bargain prices. Because many of these older manual lenses may not be up to the task of resolving 21 megapixels with aplomb, they don’t need to; in video mode, 1080p amounts to just shy of 2 megapixels, and any old halfway-decent SLR lens outstrips this resolution. For the web almost any SLR lens will be sharp enough, but if you’re planning on going to the big screen (theatrical, a festival run, etc.) then you’ll want to make sure you’re getting a sharp enough piece of glass.

When it comes to assembling a kit of lenses, most filmmakers like to choose a brand and stick with it, so the visual characteristics of the lenses match up from shot-to-shot; with the same brand lenses in your kit, the lenses will also handle similarly (some have dampened focus rings and true aperture rings, whereas others rely on the camera for aperture selection electronically and have looser focus rings designed for autofocus). Matching a lens brand to your camera — a common practice in the still world, and often a necessary one given the differences in lens mount electronics between manufacturers — is not nearly as important for video.2 And thanks to the widespread availability of quality, low-cost lens adapters (pictured right) that allow one manufacturer’s lenses to work with another’s camera, you don’t have to put Canon lenses on a Canon — you can generally interchange manual lenses at will with the right adapters. More on adapters in a bit, but first, let’s take a look at the particular characteristics of each lens brand, for which I’ll defer to DP Shane Hurlbut (Into the Blue, Terminator Salvation), who summarized them nicely on his blog:

  • Canon lenses “produce wonderful skin tones, have medium contrast and give you a wonderful gradation into the blacks.” The problem is, any recent Canon lens relies on the camera’s electronics to control the aperture (not a good thing; most camera operators, myself included, would rather have instant, tactile access to exposure controls), and older manual Canons are generally thought of as being slightly optically inferior to their Nikon counterparts. However, if you’re buying a Canon EOS and going the hybrid route — you plan on shooting a lot of stills in addition to video — you will definitely want some quality, modern Canon glass.
  • Zeiss lenses “produce a colder, contrasty feel. They are incredibly sharp… Be sure to use more fill light when using these lenses and also control your highlights.” Shane’s absolutely right; one of the disadvantages to a DSLR movie when compared to, say, 35mm film is the DSLR has less dynamic range (and, to date, lacks some of the gamma knee options of a sophisticated video camera to control highlights). A very saturated, contrasty lens like the Zeiss would often be an advantage, and I do appreciate their aesthetic (I own a Zeiss set myself), but you have to be even more careful with Zeiss lenses to protect your highlights from blowing out harshly (tip: use the Magic Lantern zebra stripes). Zeiss lenses are famous for having very large, all-metal focus rings with a lot of fluid drag, which many DPs like (I actually find the action a tad too heavy for handheld work), and they share many rendering qualities with Zeiss cine lenses, which is to say: they’re beautiful.
  • Nikon lenses “are sharp with a little softer contrast than the Zeiss lenses.” In my own experience, Nikon lenses are generally the most widely available and least expensive. They have manual apertures and a light touch to their focus rings (which I happen to like, but some don’t), but they have one main problem: their focus rings turn in the opposite direction of every other lens (which can be confusing for operators or focus pullers). This means instead of turning the focus ring clockwise to focus nearer, you turn Nikon lenses counterclockwise. I can’t explain how infuriating this can be if you’re used to the “standard” configuration; there are reversing gears for use on a follow focus, but it’s a consideration regardless.
  • Panavisions, of course, “are the ultimate lenses.” But you can’t afford them (in fact, you can’t even buy them). If your production has a sizable budget and you’re planning on renting equipment (and are shooting on a DSLR for some reason), by all means check them out, but know you’ll need special adapters as well.
  • Leica lensesdelivered beautiful contrast and color throughout. They felt the closest to the Panavision Primo primes and had more of a cinema focus throw, even more than the Zeiss ZE primes. These lenses resolve so well on the big screen.” I haven’t used Leica lenses myself, but shooters love them; there’s some more on Leica lenses in the next section.

Finally, Zeiss has released a complete set of Compact Prime CP.2 lenses tailored for DSLR filmmaking. These lenses are no joke, and as you can see, neither is their price. But compared to, say, their complete set of DigiPrimes, the Compact Prime 2s are a bargain! Especially considering they are Zeiss’s first set of cine lenses to offer full-frame coverage (this means you, 5D Mark II owners, as well as future RED full-framers). So, what are some of the advantages of these Compact Primes? Geared focus and iris rings, smooth aperture adjustment (no mechanical stops), 14 aperture blades (which equals a smoother bokeh than their 9-bladed counterparts), and an interchangeable EOS/PL lens mount — it’s enough to get a filmmaker like myself, who (present guide otherwise excepted) often wants to scream “enough about the minutiae of the technology, how good was the writing?!? And what does it mean?” excited about spending money I don’t have. Here’s the thing to keep in mind with lenses in general: of all of the gear covered in this guide, lenses just might be the best investment, because good optics will never be obsolete. So say you mortgage the house and drop $20k on these Compact Primes? They’ll work on your DSLR, a full-frame RED, a 35mm film camera, and basically any cinema camera going forward (and they hold their value well if you one day decide to, or need to, sell). Just something to keep in mind as you budget for the various components listed here.

  1. There might be exceptions to this rule, but it’s basically true. []
  2. The newest version of the Magic Lantern firmware includes auto rack-focusing as a feature of software; it remains to be seen how practically important it is, but it does offer a compelling reason to stick with Canon autofocus lenses, if you like the idea of automated focus pulls. Personally, I’m not interested, but there may be some follow focus devices coming down the pipeline that use the Canon internal electronics. []