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A Guide to Lenses for DSLR Filmmaking

It used to be that the cameras an indie filmmaker could afford had one lens, and it was stuck on. Sure, you could do complex hacks with lens adapters, but they cut down on light so that meant more time and money spent gaffin’ and grippin’. Indies did what they always do: made due.

No longer. We now live in a world where camera bodies with interchangeable lens systems are standard. The prices on camera bodies have fallen a great deal, but the lenses are still expensive. If you’re buying — really, investing — in lenses, you better know what you want. It’s going to cost an arm and a leg and/or several thousand dollars. (The good news is, lenses go obsolete a lot lot slower than camera bodies, and thus hold their value. The bad news is, that means used lenses are still expensive.)

Having just produced a shoot where I had to put together a fairly complicated package of lenses, I thought it might be worthwhile to do a brain dump. I want to organize the categories of lens by cost and use so that I can easily reference it for the next shoot. I’ll also talk about the different types of lens mounts (EF, PL, B4 etc.) and adapters therefor. D.P.s and A.C.s out there, leave your comments and corrections below.

Lens Packages (organized by cheap to expensive)

Kit Lens

Purchase: $80-300
Rent: Don’t bother

Your cheapest option will be the lens that comes bundled with the camera body from the manufacturer. On small sensor Canons like the T3i, it’s an 18-55mm IS II zoom. On larger bodies, like the 7D or the 5DmkIII, it’s a 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS zoom. I’ll be frank: these lenses are not good. But they are a good value. They beat all comers in the price-range Pro photographers who wind up with one sell them, so you can usually find good deals on used ones. At prices lower than a few hundred dollars, it’s rarely cost-effective to rent. You can rent a much better zoom.

As you’ll see below, zoom lenses are really great for run-and-gun indie filmmaking, because they save lots of time on set that would normally be spent changing out and cleaning lenses. The problem that you’ll run into when you compare the images that you get with these lenses is that they are a) slow (don’t let in as much light) and b) soft (don’t give you tack-sharp focus) and c) color unfaithful (washed out and fringing colors).

MORE:
I don’t shoot Nikon but you can read about their kit lenses in this article from Camera Labs

Three Cheap Primes

Buy: $1,100 – $4,500
Rent: ~ $300/wk

For crop sensors, a wide (24mm or less), a normal (35mm) and a telephoto (85mm or more). For full-frame sensors, a wide (35mm or less), a normal (50mm) and a telephoto (100mm or more). This is a bare-minimum prime kit that will require you moving the camera a lot more often (to get the framing you want with the lens you have), but covers the three basic ways a lens tells a story. Wides give you that Sergio Leone-style distorted close-up, teles give you that nice soft-focus closeup. Normals are neutral, giving you about what the human eye sees.

The advantage of primes over a zooms is that they are ‘faster’, meaning they let in more light, allowing you to do more with depth-of-field as well as spend less time and money on adding light to a scene. The disadvantage is the time it takes to change them out and the chance of getting dust on the sensor every time they are changed. Having only three lenses will minimize changes while maximizing the advantages of primes. However, some shots will still be impossible, especially when shooting in tight spaces. You’ll wish for a full set of primes every time you have to move the camera but not change the angle.

Wide Examples

Normal Examples

Telephoto Examples

Purchase Example: The cheap basic set for a Canon T3i will run you $1,070 (24mm $360 + 35mm $350 + 85mm $360), and remember these are photo lenses, so they aren’t designed for pulling focus or racking exposure.

Rental Example: Lensrentals.com will do a Zeiss ZE 35mm for $78/wk, Zeiss ZE 35mm $99/wk, Zeiss ZE 100mm Makro Planar $98/wk plus $29 shipping for a total of $279. (Or course, be sure to get quotes from several rental houses. Most places promise they can beat the competition.)

Decent Photo Zoom(s)

Buy: $1,300-$3,000
Rent: ~$140-200/wk

Example: The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM Zoom, for example, gets you a basic range of lens lengths with a fast f-stop for $1,300. I wish it went wider and longer, but it will cover what you get with the basic prime kit and save you time spend changing lenses.

Disadvantages: Because these lenses are for stills, they are not designed to zoom or change focus while filming. You’ll basically have a lot of the drawbacks of the photo primes, and it won’t be as fast (allow in more light).

Zeiss CP.Two Prime Lenses for Cine Shooting, Canon EF or PL mount kitZeiss Compact Prime Kit

Buy: $24,000 (B&H)
Rent: $1200/wk

The CP.2 Primes are the cheapest cine lens that make a full kit currently available, as far as I know. I’ve worked with them and they’re great. D.P.s accustomed to Zeiss Master Primes might look down their noses on them, but it’s my opinion that they are more than adequate for low-to-medium budget films.

Cooke Panchro Prime Kit

Buy: ?
Rent: $1600/wk

PL mount only. (See below for information on this mount.)

Cine Zoom

Buy: $44,650 (B&H price for Canon CN-E 30-300mm T2.95-3.7 L S EF Mount Cinema Zoom Lens
Rent: $???/wk

Cine zooms are designed for use in filmmaking. They ‘breathe’ less when racking focus, and they maintain the same f-stop throughout the zoom range, so you can zoom while filming. They are, consequently, insanely expensive.

Macros & Super-Telephoto

Buy: $600-$1360
Rent: $100-$350/wk

Consider also renting a macro lens (for taking extreme close-ups) and super-telephoto (really long lens, generally 300mm or more) for your shoot. Prime kits often don’t cover these extreme possibilities.

Macro Examples

Super-Telephoto Examples

Mount Types

A mount is how the lens attaches to the camera. You should know what kind of mount your camera takes. The good news is, if there is a lens that you like but it is not available in your mount, there is probably a mount adapter that you can use. You have to keep in mind that the cameras are designed to work only with lenses that focus light in a certain place, so the mount adapter may have to bend the light, meaning loss of exposure and sharpness.

Canon EF

This is the standard modern mount for Canon DSLR cameras. Lenses with EF mounts will work on both the T3i and 5dmkIII, for example, although the same lens will show more image on the Mark 3 because the camera body has a larger sensor. That’s why the image you see on a 35mm lens on the T3i will approximate framing (“field of view”) on an image seen through a 50mm lens on the 5d.

The conversion factor is 1.6 for crop-sensor Canons and 1.5 for Nikon DXs. Example: 50mm x 1.6 = 80mm. (So use an 85mm lens — the closest to 80mm — to approximate the field of view of a 50mm on a full-frame sensor.) Beware “EF-S” lenses that are made only for APS-C (crop-frame) sensors. These will not work right on full-frame cameras. I expect full-frame cameras to drop in price, so I wouldn’t invest in any lenses that weren’t forwards compatible.

Just to throw another wrinkle in, when shooting video on these cameras, it doesn’t actually use the whole sensor. So if you are being really precise in planning a shot, you’ll need to take the video crop into account. You can see why most big productions just carry a full set of primes and pick the lens on the fly for each shot.

Note on Canon FD: FD was the standard canon mount from 1971-1987 (citation) and there are adapters available to allow you to use these lenses on an EF mount. Focus and exposure will all be manual, however.

MORE:
Video showing different lenses on different sensors from Petapixel.
Digital Picture’s table of crop frame multipliers

Nikon

There are adapters that will let you use Nikon lenses on Canon EOS bodies, like this one by Fotodiox.

I haven’t used them, and I don’t know much about the various kinds of Nikon mount. Here’s a Wikipedia link if you need to learn more. [LAST UPDATED 3/30/12)

PL

Standard mount on standard film cameras, like Arri’s 16mm and 35mm cameras. Consequently, the widest range of cinema-designed lenses have this mount.

The Canon C300 and RED’s cameras can be ordered with this mount. As far as I can tell, no one yet makes a solution to adapt PL lenses to an EF camera.

B4

A bayonet mount that seems to be mostly used on ENG-style cameras. RED cameras can be fitted with this mount. Honestly don’t know much about this or some of the other rarer types of cinema mount.

Adapting Still-Photo Lenses for Follow-Focus Use

Lots of still-photo lenses ‘breathe’ when you rack focus which means objects changes size. Some cinema lenses ‘breathe’ too, so you may find this effect is not noticeable/not too bad. The other thing cinema lenses have is the distance markings so the AC or camera op can see where the focus is pulling to. This can be fixed by using a follow focus that has the white ring and manually marking each shot or by having a third-party company mark the barrel of the lens.

Anyway, there are a number of ways to add gears to cinema lenses so you can pull focus. I haven’t had time to research them, but I will post links to the recommended solutions once I have.

Recommended Lenses

Celebrity DSLR shooters like Philip Bloom, Stu Maschwitz and Shane Hurlbut recommend lenses all the time. Based on their recommendations and my own experiences, here are some lenses that seem to be popular purchases among independent filmmakers…

Canon 5DmkII / 5DmkIII

Canon 7D / T3i / 60D / T2i

1 Comment

  1. Awesome writeup again! This page has all the information I needed. Well done.

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