More Lens Options Than Ever

Photo by Phil Holland
Photo by Phil Holland @ Salt Test II Duclos Lenses

In a recent post I declared that it’s better to invest in glass than in cameras since new cameras come out every few months. I wasn’t just saying that to get people to buy glass, I meant it. Just this year there have been at least half a dozen cameras released or announced, if not more. With more cameras there comes more choices for lenses. Wether it’s a BlackMagic camera with it’s mighty little crop sensor or the new 5DMk14B-R whatevermagig. Lenses will always be required for cinema and in todays economy it’s all about compromise. So where do you compromise and what lenses make the most sense for you? 

Well… It’s a bit more complex than that. It depends on what you’re shooting and how you shoot it. If you’re doing nothing but corporate interviews with nothing but static shots tied to a tripod, you’re probably going to be okay with the minimum amount of gear investment. If you’re shooting low-budget features or even high-budget music videos or the like, you’re going to want something a bit more dedicated to motion picture work and will probably be a higher point of entry and a higher cost all around in terms of glass. To keep things simple, we’re going to go with the budget-concious, all around shooting setup that should be good for just about any type of work. A sort of general setup if you will.

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. I’m a huge proponent of the Zeiss ZF.2 series and the Leica R series. They’re both very similar in that the materials used are high quality and their build quality is nothing less than premium in terms of DSLR lenses. Their price is high compared to primes from Nikon or Canon but they are less of a compromise and that’s really the goal here: to minimize the effects of compromise. The Zeiss ZF.2 lenses are still begin produced by Zeiss and their range of primes continues to grow. The Leica R lenses, on the other hand, are no longer produced by Leica and can be a bit tricky to find since they’re pretty much all used lenses or old new stock. They also have the word Leica engraved on them which automatically adds at least 50% to any price tag 😉

If primes aren’t your thing because you need more versatility for run and gun shooting or you simply want to select a focal length and shoot, zooms may be your best option. There are very few photo zooms that will work well for motion picture for the same reasons that photo primes don’t work well. Image shift caused by cheap, loose components can devastate a shot and really separate the pros from the newbs. A photogs go-to set of zooms would be something like a 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. That covers you from 14mm all the way to 200mm, seamlessly in just three lenses. A task that would require 186 different prime lenses and would likely cost you more than a house (or two). The problem with the standard set of zoom lenses is they really aren’t well suited for motion picture with the exception of a few lenses which I’ll go over now.

I have a few requirements that must be met for me to consider a lens “good” for cinema applications.

  • Manual Focus
  • Manual Aperture
  • Constant Volume
  • Quality Materials
  • Repeatable Focus
  • Stability (zoom/focus)

If you look for a lens that has all six features, you’re going to find yourself purchasing an Angenieux Optimo zoom lens. You’re simply not going to find all of these features in a still photo lens. The best thing to do is to decide which features are most important to you and aim to meet no less than half of the required features. As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, using still lenses for cinema is a compromise. The goal here is to minimizing the compromise and figure out what works best for you. A lot of shooters starting out are using Canon L lenses on an Red Epic or a Canon C300 which is fine, but lets look at the features, for example, of a common Canon L zoom lens, the 24-70mm f/2.8 L: Let’s go through out check list of features and see how this common Canon L zoom holds up…

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L
  • ✓ Manual Focus
  • ✗ Manual Aperture
  • ✗ Constant Volume
  • ✗ Quality Materials
  • ✗ Repeatable Focus
  • ✗ Stability (zoom/focus)

The Canon 24-70mm only has one out of six of the features listed above. This lens won’t work well for motion picture but it will still get the job done. Lenses like this can be helped a little bit by adding a Cine-Mod package but it won’t benefit entirely. For example, it can’t be de-clicked which means you can only select an aperture through the cameras controls which are restricting at best. It can benefit from a focus and/or zoom gear to attach motors or a follow focus, but this won’t improve image stability at all. Overall, in my opinion, this lens is too much of a compromise. The same can be said for just about any of the Canon L series lenses. Another example would be the Canon 70-200mm L which everybody loves for sports, nature, and just about any telephoto shooting. There’s no doubt that it’s an amazing lens for still photography, but how does it do with our checklist?

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L
  • ✓ Manual Focus
  • ✗ Manual Aperture
  • ✓ Constant Volume
  • ✓ Quality Materials
  • ✗ Repeatable Focus
  • ✗ Stability (zoom/focus)

So the 70-200mm comes out right in the middle with three of the six features passing. I would say that this lens would work well enough for motion picture work but it’s obviously still a compromise in several ways. Again, the goal is to decide which three features are most important to you and your style of shooting. This 70-200mm does feature Canon’s image stabilization which does wonders for still photography at fractions of a second but isn’t going to correct large jumps in the image while focusing or zooming a lens with poorly executed materials and components. On top of the disappointing feature set offered by Canon lenses, they’re lack of versatility is a killer for me. They will only work on cameras that feature an electronic Canon Eos mount which is quite limiting, but slowly broadening with the release of electronic mounts for the Red Epic and BlackMagic camera. So we have two pro level Canon L lenses, one of which didn’t pass the feature test and another just barely makes the cut. So what zoom lenses will work well?

I’ve found that the most desirable compromise (sounds odd…) is pre-gelded Nikon zoom lenses such as the 17-35mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, and 80-200mm f/2.8. All three of these zoom lenses were well built using mostly alloys and reliable materials instead of plastic. They all feature a fully manual zoom, focus, and iris, and they can all fully benefit from the Duclos Cine-Mod by accepting 80mm front rings, zoom and focus gear, and a smooth de-clicked aperture. They do still have their drawbacks but certainly less than the previous Canon lens lineup. Nikon no longer produces these lenses which means that you’ll have to find them second hand and sort through what may very well be some dubious eBay and Craigslist ads. But it may be worth it if you require more cinematic lens features. Let’s explore…

Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8
  • ✓ Manual Focus
  • ✓ Manual Aperture
  • ✓ Constant Volume
  • ✓ Quality Materials
  • ✗ Repeatable Focus
  • ✗ Stability (zoom/focus)

Still not perfect but four out if six is getting pretty close to a cinema 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. Auto focus lens manufacturers stopped caring about focus mark accuracy since the camera hunts, finds, and nails focus every time with the help of their dedicated auto focus systems. These same feature sets can be found with the other two Nikkor zooms I mentioned above, the 28-70mm and the 80-200mm. the only exception is the 28-70mm which does not maintain it’s volume throughout the zoom. It does telescope forward a bit which can be a pain if you’re using a matte box or filter tray. The other benefit to the Nikkor lenses is their legacy Nikon F-Mount that can be adapted to a  variety of other mounts including Canon Eos mount. And if it can’t be adapted to the mount you need, there’s a good chance there is a replacement mount for the camera that accepts Nikon F-Mount lenses. One way or another, there’s usually a way to get a Nikon lens mounted to any given camera. However, there is an exception. Nikon introduced their G series lenses recently which still uses the same mount but lacks a manual aperture ring. Not a deal breaker if your adapter is G-lens compatible, but it’s just one more feature that the newer style Nikon G lenses lack. A perfect example would be the 17-55mm Nikkor which replaced the 17-35mm lens we just covered. The specs are very similar but in my opinion, not quite acceptable.

Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 G
  • ✓ Manual Focus
  • ✗ Manual Aperture
  • ✓ Constant Volume
  • ✗ Quality Materials
  • ✗ Repeatable Focus
  • ✗ Stability (zoom/focus)

Only two out of six in this case. Sadly, Nikon used cheaper components in it’s newer series lenses to cut costs which is great for consumers, but as with any price reduction, you’re going to lose features. The same, for the most part, goes for their newer generation zooms in this same series which are also gelded and lack a manual aperture ring, the 14-24mm,  24-70mm, and 70-200mm. Don’t get the wrong idea… These lenses are amazing for still photography with their lightning fast auto focus motors and advanced anti-reflective coatings. But they simply don’t hold up when it comes to motion picture applications. All of the lenses I’ve gone ver so far are usually about $2,500 or less and this plays a big part in their feature set. Canon saw the need for quality motion picture zooms and announced their new cinema zoom lenses and primes that actually look quite nice. But of course, the price tag follows their features. I’ll be doing more reviews on those later…

The only other alternative that comes to mind is a very narrow selection of Leica R series zooms which can be quite quirky. I can’t say enough good things about Leica R-Series primes, but their zooms are another story. While they are capable of producing some stunning images, they simply aren’t very well suited for cinema. Different reasons for different lenses but it’s safe to assume that at least two of the required features won’t be met when it comes to the Leica R zooms.

The best thing to do is to go out and try as many lenses as you can. See what works for you and find your ideal compromise. That is, unless you’re looking to spend upwards of $20k for a cinema quality zoom lens or set of primes. If you ARE looking to drop tens of thousands on a true cinema zoom, I suggest you do your homework first. 😉

26 thoughts on “More Lens Options Than Ever

  1. Hi Matt-

    What is your recommendation for a relatively inexpensive set of cinema primes. Like one step up from a Leica-R set or ZF.2 Set?

    1. The next step up from Leica R or Zeiss ZF lenses would be something along the lines of Zeiss CP.2 or Red Pro Primes. If you can stretch it a tad more, the new Cooke Panchros are awesome.

      1. Thoughts on Zeiss Standard Speeds? Extra stop over the Panchros (although I am sure the panchros have a better design, and I hate giving my focus pullers the torture of 2.1).

        Matt- You should really do just a huge lens overview post. I know you have stuff sprinkled about through your blog but it would be great to get it all in one place. Even a pdf would be cool. Too much knowledge.

        I wish there was something where people could trade days of lens rental usage. Lets say I owned a set of panchros but they weren’t what I wanted for a certain job. I could trade with someone else set of lenses for the shoot. Then later, they could borrow my set. This on a bigger scale. Man that would be great. The Lens XChange.

  2. I find your post extremely helpful, interesting and enlightening. Thank you for your great work!

  3. What is your opinion on old Canon FD mount lenses, that have good quality build, manual focus/aperture, and some that have a constant volume? Example of one I have is the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm FD.

    I also look forward to your review of the new Canon lenses with the auto-zoom in video mode.

  4. Hi Matt! Great post, as always!
    How would ZF.2 rate with your checklist before your cine-mod?

  5. Matt, absolutely love the ZFs. However since they seem so vibrant in contrast. What other lens do you think will match well with them? Specifically for zooms.

    I own the Tokina 11-16mm and Tokina 28-70 F2.6-28 which are great.

  6. Matt: Great post and thank you for all your info and work! I’m glad someone is out there making sense about what is/isn’t a good investment especially for filmmakers just getting into the game.

    My own perspective is as someone who has gotten into film through photography, and trying to do so on the cheap, while investing in quality glass, has been hard. My different take on things has been this: Nikon AF-D lenses. They’re small, light, sharper than the zoom in a lot of cases, and relatively cheap while being built very well. More importantly, I’ve found that the focus rings offer two HUGE advantages: they have hard stops at infinity and close-focus, and they have longer focus throws (usually 1/2 turn). Below are the lenses I have and love:

    – 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

    And last but not least, an alternative to the current crop of tele-zooms:

    – Nikon 80-200 f2.8 AF-D, $1000 new, $600 used. This is a zoom and it was first released in the early 90’s but they STILL make them! 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. I’m not a huge fan of VR for filming and would rather just shoot from a tripod.

    Let me know if you have any experience with these lenses! All told you can score a very nice starter-set of primes for a very reasonable price. I use adorama for used glass and have had very good results there btw.

    1. Nikon primes do make a very good alternative as well. However, the AF-D series don’t always work well for every situation. They will certainly get the job done and the optics in them is very nice. But their mechanical build quality and components simply don’t hold up over time. Most of the lenses have plastic housings and won’t last very long. But still, a very good, relatively cheap alternative.

      1. Yeah I can definitely see your point about the build quality. Even though they’re definitely higher quality than the Canon equivalents I’ve worked with, the plastic on a number of them could definitely stand to be improved. Would definitely recommend some of the older Nikon AF lenses in the higher price category like the 18mm which is a chunky metal beast. I think at the prices those lenses go for it might make more sense to just go Zeiss ZF.

        Thanks again for all your hard work demystifying these things!

    2. Alec, you seem to know quite well the Nikkor D lenses. What do you think about the Nikon 20-35mm f/2.8 D? Have u own this lens? I’ll shoot mainly action video (military training) and environnemental portrait (picture). I’ve read the 20, 24 and 28mm primes D and Ais wasn’t outperforming the wide angle zooms. I’m also considering the 18-35mm G (but no aperture ring). What’s your opinion? I’m a novice in video.

  7. In regards to zoom lenses, it seems that the Nikon AI and AI-s 35-70mm f3.5 are the only still glass that covers all 6 requirements. It is unfortunate that the focal range isn’t to great, but then again, in my personal experience I use zooms very little, better to stick to primes for the work I do.

  8. Just as an aside, would you know how I would handle digital files from an Alexa Studio/Anamorphic lens material? Would I have to desqeeze the image in computer or would the projector in the cinema hall be equipped with anamorphic desqueeze?

  9. What’s your opinion on the work by groups like GL Optics who have redone many of these stills primes and even a zoom or two?

    1. Sam, I would imagine that I’ve seen more lenses than your average person… Of all the lenses I’ve ever seen, I’ve never been impressed with anything that came out of China. There are some pretty cool options such as the 18-35mm Sigma. However, as I’ve said many, many times before – you get what you pay for.

  10. I have a Canon 70D DSLR camera and would like to know the single best prime lens, regardless of cost, that would produce the best cinema image on a 40 ft. screen for a film to be shown at film festivals. Thank you.

  11. “I’m a huge proponent of the Zeiss ZF.2” , again I don’t understand, they look so bad compared to te competition

    1. This is a completely useless comparison. Some of the Zeiss Zf.2 primes utilize a very old optical design and don’t perform very well at all while others in the lineup (15mm, 25mm f/2, 135mm, etc) perform extremely well. To say that Canon is better than Zeiss by comparing only two lenses is simply inaccurate. These days, the curve of quality throughout a lens set is vast. I’ll have an article showing these exact issues shortly. Standby.

  12. Great article, there’s not that much infos about cine lens alternative over the internet. What do you guys think of the Nikon 20-35mm D f2.8? Is it a better option than the Nikkor 18-35mm G? Thank you

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