The New World of Digital Cinema Lenses
In the past five to six years, camera technology has advanced by leaps and bounds and, in that time, cinema-quality video has become significantly more accessible. Consider the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K. This camera has a Super-35mm-sized sensor with a global shutter, and it shoots 4K raw. Ten years ago, a camera with specs like that would cost more to rent for one day than to buy the Blackmagic Production Camera outright. It is safe to say that digital cinema cameras are now as accessible as still photography cameras.
But what about lenses?
Still photography lenses have always been a significant investment, but cinema lenses are in a whole other league. Some cinema lenses can cost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, relegating them to the strictly rental category. In fact, Panavision lenses literally cannot be bought. There’s a good reason for that, too. The best cinema lenses are masterpieces of optical and mechanical design. Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many filmmakers use lenses designed for still photography.
However, manufacturers have caught on to this new market trend and have started to produce more affordable lenses designed for motion pictures. Many times, it’s a matter of simply re-housing an existing lens in a cine-style body, and this is a great option. Generally speaking, most optical designs will serve you equally well for either photo or video. It is the mechanics of the lens that really benefit from optimization for one or the other.
With that in mind, we’ll take a look at some of the more accessible digital cinema lenses. We’ll discuss some entry-level options and also some more high-end lenses. Hopefully, this article will help you to figure out which lenses might be right for you.
Rokinon Cinema Lenses
Thanks to their progressive feature set, the Rokinon cinema lenses have emerged as an entry-level favorite among filmmakers. Rokinon’s original cine-style lenses gained a lot of interest with their industry-standard gears for manual focus and iris control and a stepless, “de-clicked” aperture; both staples of motion-picture-style lenses. The new Cine DS lineup, however, adds a number of features usually reserved for more high-end lenses.
Rokinon’s Cine DS lenses have been designed to function as a significantly more cohesive set. Available in 12, 14, 24, 35, 50, and 85mm focal lengths, each lens in the set features focus and iris gears that are positioned so as to require minimal readjustment of accessories when swapping out lenses. This is critical on film sets where time is money.
Each lens in the set also benefits from a multi-layer coating process that helps ensure consistent color and contrast. This is a very nice touch. Lenses are well known for rendering color and contrast in a variety of different ways, and it is so important to have a set of lenses that won’t give you continuity issues. You don’t want to end up wasting time in post production trying to color-match shots so everything cuts together smoothly.
The 35mm T1.5 Cine DS is one of the true gems of the set. At T1.5 it’s very fast and, even at its maximum aperture, it enjoys a reputation as one of the sharpest 35mm lenses available. If you’re looking to create a lens collection, this would be a great place to start. 35mm is one of the most versatile focal lengths. It will render a normal field of view on APS-C sensors and a medium-wide field of view on full frame.
All of the Rokinon Cine DS lenses will cover a full-frame sensor, so they are a great pairing with any camera, from the 5D Mark III to the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. The set is available with mounts for Canon, Nikon, Micro Four Thirds, Sony A-Mount, and Sony E-Mount. The 12mm T3.1 Cine DS—a fisheye lens—is also available with a Pentax K mount.
Tokina Cinema Lenses
The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 ultra-wide zoom lens has proven to be popular with filmmakers who shoot on APS-C or smaller sensors. It suffers very little distortion and it’s one of the widest, fastest, and sharpest rectilinear lenses on the market. However, when it comes to motion pictures, it has some potential limitations—perhaps most notably, its lack of manual iris control.
Thankfully, in recognition of its popularity among filmmakers, Tokina has recently begun making a cinema-style version of this lens. The Tokina Cinema 11-16mm T3.0 features the same great optics in a totally reëngineered body. The new lens reduces breathing and is parfocal throughout the zoom range.
Limited focus breathing is one of the hallmarks of a great motion-picture lens. As you may know, breathing is an apparent shift in focal length when racking focus. This is not so much of an issue in still photography, but it can be distracting in motion pictures. Many cinematographers work very hard to “make the camera disappear,” and focus breathing can remind the audience that they’re watching the action through a lens.
It is also essential to have a parfocal lens if you plan to zoom during a shot. This ensures that your subject will remain in focus when executing a zoom. A parfocal lens can also help you save time when setting up a shot, since you can zoom in quickly to check focus and zoom back out before recording.
Tokina’s other new cinema-style lens, the 16-28mm T3.0, is another major redevelopment of a lens designed for still photography, namely the 16-28mm f/2.8 Pro FX. Like the 11-16mm, this lens is parfocal and dramatically reduces breathing. Unlike the 11-16mm, this lens will cover a full-frame sensor. The Tokina 16-28mm T3.0 cinema lens is available with a Canon EF or PL mount. If you’re interested in learning more about this lens, you should definitely check out this very comprehensive B&H hands-on review.
Canon L-Series Cine Prime Lenses
Canon’s Cinema EOS cameras represent a serious push into professional motion-picture production, and to support its new digital cinema cameras, Canon now makes a comprehensive set of L-Series cine prime lenses. These are not merely re-housed still photography lenses. These lenses were designed from the ground up for motion pictures.
The L-Series cine prime lenses have meticulous markings on both sides of the barrel, so focus pullers can operate just as easily from the left or right side of the camera. Each lens in the set has a strictly standardized form factor, with not just identical placement of focus and iris gears but also identical dimensions for height, width, and length. Only the ultra-wide 14mm and telephoto 135mm have different lengths, but both are within half an inch of the other lenses in the set. Canon has even gone so far as to standardize the rotation angle—or “throw”—of the focus ring. The focus throw for each of these lenses is an extremely long 300 degrees, enabling precise adjustments.
The 50mm and 85mm each has a very fast maximum aperture of T1.3, and the 24mm and 35mm are nearly as fast, with T1.5 max apertures. Moreover, all of the L-Series cine primes have 11-blade diaphragms, which will render beautiful, rounded bokeh at all aperture settings.
The L-Series cine primes feature the Canon EF mount, so they are ideal for use with C-Series cameras or even Canon’s full-frame DSLRs. These are very high-end lenses, and many users will probably only rent them. Of course, they are built tough, which helps ensure that rental houses will realize a good return on their investment. Even then, they are still more accessible than many cinema lenses of comparable quality.
Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 Super Speed Lenses
Speaking of comparable quality…
Carl Zeiss has long been a legendary name in both still photography and motion-picture optics, and the company's Compact Prime Super Speed Lenses uphold that legacy. When comparing them to the Canon L-Series Cine Primes, the choice between the two is one of subtle aesthetic distinctions. That is the true beauty of interchangeable-lens systems.
The Zeiss and Canon sets are remarkably similar mechanical designs, and that’s not by accident. Again, consistent spacing of the focus and iris gears, meticulous barrel markings, and 300-degree focus rotation are de facto industry-standard features. Where the Zeiss lenses distinguish themselves is in their characteristic “look.” While Canon lenses have a reputation for great skin tones, Zeiss lenses are known for somewhat cooler color temperature and a distinctive contrast rendition.
The Zeiss CP.2 Super Speed lenses are available in 35, 50, and 85mm focal lengths. All three have a fast maximum aperture of T1.5; hence the name “Super Speed.” These lenses are designed to cover a full-frame sensor and they are available with several different mounts, including Canon EF, PL, Nikon F, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony’s E-mount.
SLR Magic Cinema Lenses
Among cinema-lens manufacturers, SLR Magic is the new kid on the block, and for what the company may lack in terms of legacy, it makes up for with innovative design and progressive features. SLR Magic has made a name for itself silencing critics of the Micro Four Thirds system. The critics said that the Micro Four Thirds format is too small. They said it is too hard to get wide angles and shallow depth of field. SLR Magic has answered with lenses such as the ultra wide 10mm T2.1 and the blazingly fast 35mm T0.95 Mark II.
These lenses more than make up for the limitations of a smaller sensor size, and in keeping with the whole philosophy of a more compact camera system, the lenses themselves are also considerably smaller and lighter. In a sense, SLR Magic has reframed the whole argument, making it less an issue of size and more so one of scale.
In addition to the 10mm and 35mm, SLR Magic also offers a 12mm T1.6, a 17mm T1.6, and a 25mm T0.95. All of these lenses are designed to cover a Micro Four Thirds-sized sensor; however, the 35mm T0.95 will also cover an APS-C sized sensor. The lenses also feature industry-standard gears for manual focus and iris control.
These lenses would be an ideal pairing with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4. Much like the Canon and Zeiss sets—and any lens for that matter—lens choice is primarily an issue of character. While you can adapt nearly any lens to a camera like the BMPCC and the GH4, there is something to be said for using a lens that is specifically designed for your camera’s format. In the end, it’s all about knowing the look that you want and picking the lens that will help you achieve it.
As we wrap up our discussion of cinema lenses, there is one other item in which you might be interested. The SLR Magic Anamorphot isn’t exactly a cinema lens but it is a cinema-lens accessory. When mounted on the front of your lens, via 77mm filter thread, the Anamorphot applies a 1.33x horizontal squeeze to your footage. This means that footage shot in 16:9 can be “unsqueezed” in post for a classic cinematic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The SLR Magic Anamorphot is also available as a kit with diopters for improving minimum focus distance.
Hopefully, this article has helped you to evaluate some of your many options when it comes to cinema lenses. Of course, there are many more lenses than we could ever possibly discuss in a single article. If you would like more information on these and other lenses, please visit the B&H SuperStore in New York City or contact our experts online via Live Chat.