This article was originally written by Matthew Duclos, posted at www.NoFilmSchool.com. Ryan Koo runs a great resource for cinematographers of all walks. I highly recommend subscribing to his weekly email which also gives you access to his versatile DSLR Cinematography Guide. You can view the NFS version here.
Red hit the ground running. …Again. The new Scarlet camera is an impressive little hunk of metal and silicate. The ability to choose your mount at the time of purchase is certainly a nice way to open up the options for a growing generation of cinematographers. I do find it a little funny that Canon announced their C300 camera only hours before Red, then Red trounced Canon, featuring a Canon mount on their new Scarlet camera. Well played, sir. There’s no doubt that all of the new cameras announced in the past couple years are very capable in their own field and will prove to produce many, many beautiful images. Regardless of your camera choice, everyone is going to need to find a lens that really fits their style and fills the needs for a range of productions. Whether you’re shooting a film school project or shooting a feature film, there is a balance to lensing your imagers. I’ll make things a little more simple by dividing the options into three categories. Don’t feel obligated to throw yourself into one category or the other, it’s not the tools that justify a creative project, but they way in which they are utilized. I’ll split the options even further into two sub-categories base on the mount of choice. Traditionally, PL mount lenses have been the more professional option for cinematography. Alternatively, the Canon Eos mount has been making waves ever since the 5D MkII became a common cinematic tool. Now that even Red is offering a native Canon mount for their new Scarlet camera, it’s certainly become a more competitive option.
Indie - Low budget lenses suitable for users transitioning from still photography or new to cinema altogether.
Intermediate – A medium between entry level lenses and exotic, professional glass. Higher build quality, lower cost.
Professional – High end, exotic glass traditionally rented. Sometimes owned by career cinematographers.
So you just blew your entire savings on a new Scarlet with an Eos mount and only have a few bucks left over for a lens to make images. Possibly the most cost effective option for such setup would be to use lenses intended for still photography. This would include coveted Canon L Series lenses and other Canon Eos mount lenses from manufactures like Tokina, Tamron, and Sigma. I used to write off such lenses since the auto focus was useless and you couldn’t adjust the aperture unless the lens was being used on a Canon with an electronic mount. I still don’t think that auto focus is a good idea for cinema, but then again, I haven’t seen it work with the new Scarlet camera yet. A single zoom lens can be had for a couple thousand dollars and would cover a range of focal lengths that would suit your needs the most. If you’re shooting a lot of scenic landscape images, you might want to opt for a professional wide-angle zoom lens, like the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L. If you are going to be shooting a lot of documentary material such as interviews and product features, you might want to consider something a little bit longer like a mid-range zoom such as the standard 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. Choosing a go-to zoom can be a cost effective option over having a set of individual prime lenses as you can just zoom in or out to obtain the desired field of view instead of changing the lens altogether.Try to avoid zoom lenses that ramp (vary in maximum aperture from wide to tele). For example, the Canon 70-300mm might seem like an awesome range, but the maximum aperture is f/3.5-5.6. The last thing you want is to zoom in a bit between shots to change your field of view and mess up your entire lighting because the lens ramped to a different aperture. A zoom lens may not suit your needs and you may want to step up to a set of prime lenses. For several reasons prime lenses can be a better option for cinematographers. They can potentially have faster apertures and higher overall image quality. Traditionally, a set of cinema primes consists of an 18mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. It’s pretty easy to comprise a similar set of lenses from a vast array of manufacturers but it’s best to pick one manufacturer and stick with them to match the overall look and feel of the lenses. Some still photo lenses are better suited for cinema than others, a more in-depth review of these features can be explored here: Still vs. Cine. There are a myriad of lens adapters that can be utilized on a range of cameras to get the lens you want on the camera you have. There are quite a few fundamental flaws that still photo lenses possess that can really hold back a cinematographer. Still photo lenses will get the job done, but may not meet the expectations of a working professional. Modifications can be made to still photo lenses to give them a little boost up the the intermediate level, which we’ll go over below.
You’ve tried using your still photo lenses for cinema but you just aren’t getting the consistency and quality you want. The modifications I spoke of in the indie section would include adapters for older lenses, including Nikon, as well as the popular Cine-Mod that can be applied to just about any lens. A lot of older lenses can be found that are actually a lot more similar to cinema lenses than current still lenses. These can be updated by applying the Cine-Mod and adapting mounts to work with the Scarlet camera. For example, a set of older Leica-R series primes can be wrangled and modified to work perfectly on a nice new Scarlet. By adding focus gears, common front rings, and adapting the mount to a native Canon Eos mount, Leica-R series primes can be an excellent addition to a cinematographers tools. The same can be done for a wide range of still photo lenses including the older Nikon Ais series and even the new Zeiss ZF line of lenses. The Zeiss ZF line of lenses shares the same optical design with the CP.2 lenses but in a lesser housing. These lenses can be compared in more detail here: ZF.2 vs. CP.2. The Zeiss CP.2 lenses sort of straddle the line between intermediate and professional. The fact that they use glass from the ZF series and the aperture is limited to a mere T2.1 make them slightly less desirable. But their well built, consistent housings are a very nice feature.A step up from auto-focus still lenses, full manual control still lenses are usually built better with stronger more reliable materials. Focus scales are usually much larger and feature a longer throw from close to infinity, and the marks are usually more accurate since there is no auto focus to rely on. Obvisouly a bit more expensive than a common still photo lens, and usually a bit more difficult to find, manual still lenses along with a Cine-Mod are a great intermediate option. To recap, this would include the Nikon Ais series, Leica-R series, and Zeiss ZF series, all very similar but vary in price and availability. Buying used lenses can be tricky so it’s best to be careful when purchasing and always request a test period to avoid scams. There are a couple of newer lenses that can be had in a PL mount that still fall into the intermediate category. The Red zoom lenses, while the housings are nice and the lenses look professional, fall a little bit short in the optical performance department. These lenses can be found used and new at a very reasonable price. They will perform well enough and will allow an experienced user to get the most bang-for-the-buck out of such a lens. With optical and mechanical quality relatively similar to that of still photo lenses, Red zooms employ features found on many cinema lenses such as integrated focus, zoom, and iris gears, a PL mount, and large, easy to read focus distance scales. A little bit less accurate and not as reliable as a traditional cinema lens, the Red zooms are a pretty good way to get into the traditions and procedures found in a cinema environment. On top of all that, there is a slew of old PL mount glass just floating around. The possibilities are vast.
Full-time professionals need lenses that can stand up to constant use in a working environment that may not always be in the lenses best interest. High budget, costly shoots demand repeatable precision from lenses. The last thing a cinematographer wants is to hold up a shoot because a lens isn’t working properly. Exotic manufacturers such as Zeiss, Cooke, and Angenieux have been in the business for decades and have refined their tools to produce high quality, precision lenses for the most demanding professional. Very few professional cinema lenses are offered in anything other than a PL mount. Angenieux and Zeiss have recently embraced the Eos mount and offered a few of their lenses with an interchangeable mount and older Cooke zooms utilize a standard neutral mount that can be swapped to Eos as well.Leica recently entered the professional cinema lens market with their Summilux -C lens series, yet to be released to the public. Angenieux makes a wide range of lenses, from their relatively budget conscious Rouge DP series, to their award winning Optimo line of lenses, Angenieux makes some of the best cinema zoom lenses in the world. Zeiss is known for their unrelenting precision, most recently found in the form of Master Primes. Cooke has marketed their old “Cooke Look” in a variety of options including the Cooke Panchros and the elite Cooke 5i primes. These professional lenses can range in price and quality quite a bit but all utilize standard features found in true cinema lenses. To go in depth in each lens would take several pages of writing, to be explored in the near future in a set of articles featuring manufacturer lens profiles. There are a number of underdogs in the world of professional cinema lenses including companies like Red, UniqOptics, Schneider, and Elite. All of these options will provide high quality optics, but may have a few features that are slightly less desirable than the others. Regardless of the manufacturer, professional cinema lenses are defined by their precision accuracy, high quality optical-mechnical design and, unfortunately, a generally high price tag.
The options are becoming more and more vast with all the new technology being introduced to the world of cinema. Cameras come and go fairly quickly these days, but a good investment in high quality glass can last a lifetime. Choose the lenses that are right for you and don’t be afraid to experiment a little bit. There are different lenses for different needs. Find what works best for you and use it until you can’t achieve the results you’re looking for. If upgrading to the next level will allow you to obtain the desired results, then you might want to consider the next step in motion picture lenses.