2013 Cine Prime Lens Buyers Guide

Cooke Mini S-4i • Zeiss CP.2 Compact Prime • Canon CN-E Prime
Cooke Mini S-4i • Zeiss CP.2 Compact Prime • Canon CN-E Prime

So you bought a new Sony F5 or even better, an F55. Or you’re upgrading from a 5D to a C100 or C300. You’re Red Epic needs some better glass for the upcoming Dragon sensor. Regardless, congrats. Now you need some lenses to get the best performance out of your new camera. But where do you start? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a new camera almost every month these days. Sensor tech continues to improve and grow. However, lenses are a lifetime investment. Unless you jumped on the 2/3″ train and bought some lenses that are useless now you may have also noticed that a set of, now vintage, classic Zeiss Super Speeds is still $50k and they’re almost 40 years old!!! Let’s explore some options that won’t break the bank and still give you some amazing performance.

Price Bracket

This is probably the most common factor for users looking to invest in cinema lenses. Rental houses and studios don’t care so much about the price since they have to have the newest, sharpest lenses regardless of the price – but you’re looking for something a bit more affordable. When I say affordable in terms of motion picture optics, I mean a new breed of lenses that have a price tag of less than $50,000. The high-end of the market, which includes lenses from Arri, Zeiss, Leica, and Cooke, is going to be the stuff you want to just rent for a project and let the rental houses maintain. In the past few years the cinema lens market has become fairly saturated, driving down prices and providing more options and competition – great for buyers.

Of this sub-$50k range, there is an even more refined category of lenses which we’ll just consider the Entry-Level-Pro lenses. I know… It sounds like an oxymoron. How can you be entry level and pro at the same time?! These lenses are for those who are making a living shooting motion picture projects like commercials, music videos, corporate spots, web material, interviews, etc. They’re for the cinematographer moving up from a DSLR with a few still photo lenses, maybe tricked out with Cine-Mods™. They’re also for the shooter who may have been renting glass on a regular basis but wants to add a good, reliable prime lens set to the kit and rent it along with their services.

Sub $50k Prime Options

Let’s begin with the prime lenses. First you have to decide if you’re looking for a traditional set of primes or if you want to reach for a zoom lens. The prime lens option can be more economical if you choose your lenses  carefully. It’s not uncommon to see a set of three or four prime lenses these days. You choose the focal lengths that work best for your needs and start with three prime lenses. For example, a 25mm, 50mm, and 85mm. Then you observe which focal lengths you find yourself looking for more often. If you just can’t seem to get wide enough with the 25mm, add a 14mm or 18mm to the set. Same goes for the telephoto end. If you have a favorite focal length like 21mm, add accordingly. The point is to get a good baseline and build up from there. Currently, the choices for your Sub-$50k primes are generous. The primary options are going to be Canon CN-E Primes, Zeiss CP.2 Compact Primes, and the Cooke Mini S-4i, Schneider Cine-Xenar III, Schneider Xenon-FF, and the Sony CineAlta 4k Primes. Let’s explore some features of these options.

COOKE(18, 25, 32, 50, 75, 100, 135mmThe Cooke Mini S-4i primes, formerly Cooke Panchro, you’ll have plenty of focal lengths to choose from and proven build quality, not to mention the Cooke Look. A complete set of six Mini S-4i will tally up to just under $50k. The downside to the Panchros is their T2.8 speed. It’s a great consistent speed for the price considering the quality and reliability you’re getting with these lenses, but it may be a bit slow for some shooters. These are basically scaled down Cooke S-4i primes. They’re hefty little chunks of glass and aluminum. Possibly the most expensive options at around $50k for a set of six primes, the Mini S-4i primes are going to be a very high quality option that’ll last a career. Cooke also offers these lenses in an un-coated flavor to embrace your inner hipster. The Mini S-4i primes will cover a Super35 format sensor perfectly and will provide some very well rounded cinematic images.

ZEISS (15, 18, 21, 25, 28, 35, 50, 85, 100, 135mm) The next option is the Zeiss CP.2 which offers a great range of focal lengths including macro and close focus primes. The CP.2 are essentially Zeiss ZF.2 primes in a bigger, better housing. Most of the primes in the CP.2 series are around a T2.1 which is a tad faster than the Panchros. the wide end of the range which is a 15mm is a decent T2.9, but dips to a T3.9 in the 18mm, then evens back out to T2.1 throughout the rest of the lenses. If you’re looking for more speed, Zeiss does offer the CP.2 in a Super Speed version for the 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm which feature a max aperture of T1.5. The CP.2 also offer interchangeable mounts to swap from Canon EF, Nikon F, Micro 4/3, and PL and a 35mm full-frame image circle. The CP.2 are arguably the most versatile primes available for those two features alone. With such a wide selection of focal lengths, the price is entirely determined by which lenses you choose. On average, you’d spend about $20k on a good set of five or six lenses.

CANON – (14, 24, 50, 85, 135mmThe Canon CN-E primes are very similar to the Zeiss CP.2 in terms of size, weight, and image quality. However, the Canon CN-E can be a bit faster in some focal lengths. Overall, the CN-E primes are faster thanks to the 50mm and 85mm being a T1.3, the 24mm T1.5, the 14mm T3.1, and lastly the 135mm a T2.2. Canon is expected to release their 35mm to fill out the set within the year. The Canon CN-E also provide a 35mm full frame image circle which can be quite useful with todays larger sensors, just like the CP.2. The primary drawback to the Canon CN-E is the fact that they are strictly available in Canon EF mount. A Canon EF mount can be adapted to the Sony cameras opening them up to an army of Canon EF lenses. The mount may not be an issue for much longer. Duclos Lenses is developing a clever mount conversion for PL cameras soon. The complete set of five lenses will run just over $20k for the Canon CN-E primes.

SONY (20, 25, 35, 50, 85, 135mm) Another option in this price range is the Sony CineAlta primes. The newer version of the Sony cinema primes are actually not too bad. If you recall the original lenses released alongside the Sony F3 they weren’t very pretty with large clunky plastic housings. I didn’t consider these a professional option until they re-released them in more robust aluminum housings and better mechanical design. Now with their nicer housings, this set of six primes with a consistent speed of T2.0 is decent option at around $20k for the set. Sony has a huge range of products and their cameras are great. If you’re considering these primes as an option, I highly recommend getting your hands on some and trying them side-by-side with any other option. Similar to Schneider, it seems like Sony listened to their customers and put their resources to good use in these new primes.

SCHNEIDER(18, 25, 35, 50, 75, 95mmSchneider has been making some great products as of late. The third version of the Cine-Xenar primes hit the nail on the head. They’re built really well and perform right up there with Cooke and Zeiss at a fraction of the cost. The Cine-Xenar III primes addressed all the issues users had with their previous versions. These primes are pretty heavy with some beefy housings and glass. Their speed varies a bit but is still pretty good overall with the 18mm and 25mm at T2.2, the 35mm at T2.1, and the 75mm and 95mm at T2.0. If the Schneider Cine-Xenar III aren’t your cup of tea, maybe too heavy, too expensive, whatever… Schneider is set to release their Xenon-FF primes. Limited to a 35mm, 50mm, and 75mm at first, all three lenses will be a decent T2.1. They’ll be about the same size as the Cooke Mini S-4i or Leica Summilux-C. The nice feature is their 35mm full-frame coverage and interchangeable Canon EF and PL mount. Oh and the price, for the inital three lenses, expect a price around $10k. Which means when they introduce additional focal lengths, a complete set should be right around $20k. Not a bad choice for someone looking for that happy medium.

Schneider Cine-Xenar III Primes
Schneider Cine-Xenar III Primes

The convenient part about primes is that you can choose exactly which focal lengths you want and spend even less money or take the opposite route and go for well rounded full set and still come in around $50k. Considering all of these lenses can be purchased one at a time it makes sense to choose your lenses based on quality and reliability over price. It’s much easier to buy one lens at a time than it is to buy an entire set of primes that are cheap only to realize you want to upgrade shortly after buying them. There’s no substitute for experience. Go out and beg, borrow, or beg more and shoot with these lenses. YouTube and Vimeo samples are practically useless with all the different cameras, settings, compression, post methods, etc available. Most of these lenses can be found at a rental house if you’re willing to fork over some cash or swing by Duclos Lenses on a slow day and you can try out most options. There is no one product that is best. Buying lenses is all about compromise. You evaluate which features are important and relevant to your needs and refine your choices until you find the product that works best. You may very well be fine shooting with your Canon kit lens.

13 thoughts on “2013 Cine Prime Lens Buyers Guide

  1. Hey Matt,

    Really appreciate your articles. This most recent one too.

    Good to have an expert weigh in on all this stuff. Especially one without bias.

    Thanks and please keep them coming.

  2. Very, very, very interested in the EF for PL camera adapter that was mentioned in passing. Any info on possible time tables?

  3. I’m in the market for a set of primes right now and considering my options. Top of my list is a used set of RPPs – which people seem to be appreciating more and more these days.

    The $20,000 question: How will they cover at 6K AND at 5K on Dragon?

    Answers on a postcard please… 🙂

    1. Michael,

      I’m not a fan of the RPP. We’ve seen them breaking down over time and they simply don’t perform as well as they should. They are extremely large and heavy for what they are which makes transportation a task. The lenses are not service friendly which will be an issue in the future. There are so many other options out there in a similar price range. I would highly recommend exploring other options.

  4. Great guide Matthew! Thanks for the effort. The only thing I am not sure about are the CN-E’s – I have shot with them many times now on the C300, and I was told by Canon that the mount is indeed swappable to PL, but Canon need to do that themselves (which is a very unpractical solution). However, a buddy who purchased a full set of 5 negotiated with them and now got the permission to swap mounts with their original kit without voiding his warranty. So they are listening …

    1. Nino,

      We have a kit that is approved by Canon to swap the mounts on the zooms. To my knowledge, Canon does not offer a mount swap for the primes. Which is why I am pursuing the modification myself. We’ll see what happens 😉

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