Still vs Cine (Lenses of Course)

One might assume that a lens is a lens and you can simply adapt any lens to suit ones needs. This is usually a matter of changing or adapting the mount just so the square peg fits in the square hole. The fact is that still lenses and chine lenses are very different and can’t always be interchangeable. Still lenses are defined (in my opinion) as lenses that were designed and built for use with an SLR still camera whereas a cine lens would be one designed and built for use on a motion picture (movie) camera. I’ll go over why the two aren’t interchangeable and what can be done to reduce the differences between the two. Modern still lenses are designed for two things… Speed and ease of use.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4 modified with focus gear for a follow focus and an 80mm front for common motion picture accessories. This particular lens also had its manual aperture de-clicked for smooth, seamless rotation.

Manufacturers are always looking for a way to make the auto focus faster and simpler and over the past several decades this has been accomplished by making the focus components lighter and looser in order to make actuations easier for the tiny motors found in the lens or camera. The often plastic mechanics move in very loose, dry, and all together sloppy methods. The same can go for the zoom mechanics in a still zoom lens. This isn’t an attempt to make it easy for a motor, but just a fact of mass production at low cost. This isn’t a bad thing for a photographer taking still photos since the camera focuses nice and quick and then stops all adjustments when the photo is snapped at a fraction of a second. Another issue is that many new still lenses are abandoning manual aperture control rings for several reasons. The camera can control the aperture with no problem and it makes manufacturing cheaper. Lastly, still lenses continue to use focus distance marks, for the most part. But still lenses aren’t calibrated very well and the marks are often just a general guess rather than a reliable reference. Again, not a big deal if you are just depressing the shutter half-way to activate autofocus that doesn’t care what the distance is.All of these “issues” are only issues if you attempt to use still lenses to record motion. With the loose, easy mechanics, the image rendered by the lens on the film plane will jump around and jiggle if you try to adjust focus or zoom while recording. Nothing takes you out of a piece of art more than a jolt of motion similar to that of my moms video tapes of my school parade from 1990. Then there is the zoom. If you try to zoom or out while recording, forget it. Because still lenses aren’t calibrated and don’t hold focus, your picture will go from tac sharp to mush in a few millimeters. The lack of an aperture ring can be neglected since it’s still adjustable in the camera, but not always adjustable while recording. And even when a nice camera allows aperture adjustment while recording, you’re looking at adjustments in half or third stop increments that will simulate the exposure compensation that my phone exhibits.. Not pretty. There are a few other snags with still lenses that can be circumvented. The difference in standards is small, but detrimental. Still lenses don’t utilize external gears for use with a follow focus. Many people have turned to aftermarket add-on gears that simulate a focus or zoom gear. These can be garbage… Some of them use a block or clamp that interrupts the rotation and limits the user to a certain range.

The closest alternative... Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZF, a prime lens that come so close to being a cine prime. With a solid aluminum housing and metal components it's a great compromise.

That just about sums up a majority of the modern still lenses for motion use but alas, there are a few remaining still lenses that are fairly well suited for motion. The first that comes to mind is the Zeiss ZF series lenses. They are completely manual lenses that feature a nice, solid metal construction that eliminates the common image shift and focus loss. And then there are older manual lenses from back when auto-focus was just a myth. But those are hard to find in good condition. That’s about as close you can get to a chine lens with a still lens. The major aspects that make chine lenses more expensive and higher quality are things like build faulty and materials. The tolerances used for designing and making a chine lens are much tighter than a still lens. The components in a chine lens are almost always metals and alloys. The mechanical designs have become extremely complex to avoid the dreaded image shift and to maintain proper calibration even with the severe abuse of modern Hollywood users. For example, a chine zoom will be a para-focal lens (maintains focus throughout zoom range) whereas still lenses can be vari-focal since you just refocus and snap the photo. This is important with a cine lens because the distances referenced on the focus scale are critical to the cinematographer and/or focus puller. These marks must be dead on every time or someone is going to have a heck of a time doing their job.

A true motion picture lens, a Zeiss 85mm Ultra Prime T1.7 provides all the features one would need for shooting motion picture material. With a proper PL mount and superb design it stands tall against still lenses. However, its price tag stands out almost as much as its quality.

Cine lenses also take “breathing” into consideration. Breathing is a characteristic exhibited by a lens while focusing. The image will appear to zoom in and out very slightly, but enough to distract a viewer. Again, still lenses will do this a lot because you don’t focus the lens while the mirror is up and the shutter is open. A lot of the unwanted characteristics that come with still lenses can be overcome for use with motion picture. However, not always economical and usually mickey-moused… Obviously the more expensive, higher quality still lenses will have these flaws reduced and could very well be used with minor restrictions. But if you want to shoot motion pictures, you need motion picture lenses. So go ahead shoot your 5D MkII with the kit lens but don’t expect to produce anything on par with that of material shot with proper gear.



Categories: Uncategorized

25 replies

  1. Hi Matthew:

    Thank you for your articles. I still use the Zeiss ZF Duclos “Cine moded” and I am very happy with them. I recently tested the CP2 side by side with the ZF and against almost all opinions I couldn´t see any difference between them (image speaking of course) not even what I feared (focus breathing). Both lenses perform the same way and pulling focus the breathing and sharpness were very similar if not the same. I still think the Canon sensor doesn´t resolve the optics…We still have to wait for a DSLR sensor that makes justice to lens quality from such a different price range.

  2. Thank you. Things I sort of knew but couldn’t put into words.
    I will share this with my friends.

  3. You might want to spell and grammar check this post. Remember that, “It’s” means “it is”. Seeing this misspelling repeated makes it harder to read your article.

  4. In the third paragraph, “cine” is suddenly replaced by “chine” in a few places. Please fix it as it detracts from the reading.

    Otherwise, great article!

  5. Im one of those people that thinks none of this really matters. The gear is cheaper than ever and everyone is trying to copy the hollywood look instead being punk rock and revolutionary. Movies like enter the void and the holy mountain werent amazing because of the lenses. They were mind fux… To hell with mainstream traditional cinema and filmmaking for $$$ thats what all of this is about imo. love your blog though :) luckily i inhereted almost a set of leica r primes from old granpa hahah

    • I certainly don’t disagree with you. There’s something to be said for content especially in todays vast void of mindless video. Thankfully there will always be room for both ends of the spectrum. A great story can be told with well crafted talent. At the same time, the proper equipment can add an irreplaceable amount of quality and character to a motion picture. In the end, it’s all about what works for any given situation, be it acting talent, skillful writing, or beautiful images.

  6. Everyone loves what you guys tend to be up too.
    This type of clever work and exposure! Keep up the superb works guys I’ve included you guys to our blogroll.

  7. Matt,

    DON’T change the spelling of “Chine” with “Cine”. I understood what you were saying. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who mis-spells in public. ;). Keep up the good work!

    • I think I’ll leave it just the way it is. I’m a professional lens technician sharing my knowledge and experience with a wide range of motion picture optics. Not a professional writer blabbering on about bull shit.

  8. Good, Better, Best and There is no perfect lens ??? back to square one.

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