9 Tips for Selecting a Cinema Lens Package

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Whether you’re assembling a personal lens kit or compiling the equipment-rental list for your next film, selecting a lens package is an important decision. It can also be a daunting one, especially if you’re new to the game. So what lenses should you get? A complete set of primes? A couple of zooms? Both? The answers aren’t always clear. Ask ten DPs what their favorite lenses and focal lengths are, and you’ll likely get about as many answers.

The fact is that everyone has his or her own preferences, from focal length to build quality, to a particular look. While lens selection often comes down to personal preference, you also need to balance that against the needs of the production. For example, you may not like to shoot with zoom lenses, but there are times when having a zoom lens available can be indispensable to a production. In this article, I attempt to offer some useful tips to help you put together a lens package with a focus on narrative film.

1. Find your “normal”

"If you were to ask several directors and DPs what their normal and most-used lens is for motion-picture 35mm, you’ll get answers ranging, roughly, from 24mm to 50mm."

If you were forced to choose only one prime lens to have in your kit, then it would be a “normal” lens. A lens is considered normal when it produces images with a similar angle of view and perspective as human vision, thus resulting in a natural, true-to-life feel. Shorter and longer focal lengths result in wider or narrower angles of view, respectively, while also distorting perspective.

So what focal length is considered normal? The answer isn’t necessarily a straightforward one, as it is determined by the size of the image sensor, as well as personal taste. On a full-frame 35mm-sized sensor, a 50mm lens is often considered normal, but there are many shooters who prefer a wider focal length, such as 35mm (I personally like a 40mm as my normal lens on full frame). On smaller-sized formats, such as Super 35 and Super 16, you’ll need a wider lens to get an angle of view equivalent to the full-frame normal lens.

A typical "normal" lens might be a 50mm. At the end of the day, you want to get a normal lens that speaks to how you (or your director) see the world. This example is the Canon CN-E 50mm T1.3 L F Cine Lens.

If you were to ask several directors and DPs what their normal and most-used lens is for motion-picture 35mm, you’ll get answers ranging, roughly, from 24mm to 50mm. Director of Photography Roger Deakins, for example, prefers a 32/35mm, while director Terrence Malick tends to like the wider end of the range, such as a 24mm lens. Steven Spielberg is a known fan of the 27/28mm lens; Wes Anderson shot almost the entirety of Bottle Rocket on a 27mm Panavision Primo, before turning to the 40mm anamorphic as his staple.

Some directors, such as Alejandro González Iñárritu, have shown a tendency to go even wider. Iñárritu shot the majority of his film, The Revenant, on a 14mm lens while others, like Ridley Scott, prefer longer lenses, such as a 75mm. While not normal lenses in the truest sense, these lenses effectively become the normal lens of the production. At the end of the day, you want to get a normal lens that speaks to how you (or your director) see the world.

2. Add wide-angle and telephoto lenses

While you can shoot an entire project with just your normal prime lens, that isn’t often practical or desirable. You’ll want to put together at least a basic three-lens kit by adding a wider lens and a longer telephoto lens to go along with your normal lens. A three-lens kit is a pretty versatile package, and more often than not can get you through an entire shoot. Let’s quickly look at the benefits of wide-angle and telephoto lenses.

Wide-angle lens: 20mm at f/4 (full-frame)

A wide-angle lens is useful for exaggerating distance between subjects, to emphasize and separate a character in the foreground from the world behind him, or to give a room/location a sense of presence. It can also be used to create some interesting effects with close-ups, such as distorting an actor’s face, creating a sense of confusion or disorientation, or to give the lens a presence, where the audience feels the close proximity of the lens to the actor.

"Normal" lens: 50mm at f/4 (full-frame)

Beyond effect, a wide-angle lens is also often required for practical reasons. Walk into a tight interior location or alley with only a normal or wide-normal lens on hand and you may not be able to get the master shot that the director wants. Not good. The wide-angle lens is also a great choice for Steadicam or other stabilization systems when following action.

Telephoto lens: 105mm at f/4 (full-frame)

In contrast to wide-angle lenses, telephoto lenses have the effect of compressing distance and making the background appear closer to foreground subjects. Telephoto lenses also have a shallower apparent depth of field than a normal or wide-angle lens will have when matching framing and aperture, making th em good at singling out an actor or object. The most common use of a telephoto lens in film production is for close-ups, as a slight telephoto effect is pleasing on the face by “flattening” or compressing facial features. A common focal length for close-ups is 85mm, but the focal length can be shorter or longer based on personal preference and on what your normal lens is.

Left to right: Wide (18mm), normal (32mm), and telephoto (75mm) miniS4/i cine lenses from Cooke

So what would a three-lens kit look like? For full-frame 35mm, a common kit could be 24mm, 50mm, and 85mm. For Super 35 format, a three-lens kit could look more like this 18mm, 32mm, and 75mm. But, if I haven’t emphasized it enough, how wide and how long you want to go will come down to personal preference.

3. Fill in the gaps and extremes

Once you have your wide-angle, normal, and telephoto lenses selected, you can being to fill in the gaps between your focal lengths, as well as the extremes. Let’s take the three-lens Super 35 lens kit from above (18mm, 32mm, and 75mm) as a starting point. While the 32mm is the workhorse lens, there may be times when you want to get a bit wider or a bit longer without going all the way to the 18mm or 75mm. In this case, you may want to add a 25mm and a 50mm to create a well-rounded five-lens kit: 18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 50mm, and 75mm.

Filling in the gaps with 25 and 50mm lenses.

Now, you could fill in the gaps even further by adding, say, 21mm, 40mm, and 65mm lenses, but then you begin to collect lenses of focal lengths that aren’t necessarily all that different from each other. Some directors and DPs like to have a large selection available; especially those who appreciate the subtle differences between focal lengths, like 35mm and 40mm. Others are more than content and prefer working with a smaller and limited lens package. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of having those extra focal lengths available. But hey—sometimes you just need (want) that 40mm lens.

At this point, your lens kit may be complete. The only additions you may want to make are at the extremes by adding an ultra-wide and/or longer telephoto lens. Continuing our sample set, you could add 12 or 14mm lenses at the wide end and 100 or 135mm lens at the telephoto end, if your style or production calls for it. A complete kit would then be: 12mm, 14mm, 18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 75mm, 100mm, and 135mm. For reference, these are the focal lengths available in Cooke 5/i, S4/i and miniS4/i spherical primes.

If your production has the budget, you can spring for a complete set of lenses for extra versatility.

4. Get fast lenses

Once you know what focal length you want, you’ll want to consider the speed of the lens. A “fast” lens is one that has a wide maximum aperture, which is measured by a low f-stop number, such as 2.0, 1.8, and 1.4. So just how fast do you need to go? I’d recommend going as fast as you can afford. While the benefits of a fast lens will be obvious to many, I’ll quickly summarize.

There are two main benefits of faster lenses. The first, and perhaps most important, is that the wider the aperture opening, the greater the amount of light that is passed through to the sensor. This allows you to shoot in more dimly lit settings without having to increase the ISO and potentially add unwanted image noise. The second main benefit of fast lenses is increased control over your depth of field. As the aperture opening increases, the depth of field becomes shallower, allowing you to you isolate your subject against an out-of-focus background.

Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 85mm/T1.5 Super Speed EF Mount 

If you can, try to purchase lenses that have a similar maximum aperture, because you’ll need to be able to cut between them within a scene without having to increase or decrease the amount of light. At the very least, you’ll want your core lenses (wide, normal, telephoto) to offer a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or faster. That way, if your ultra-wide or longer telephoto lenses are a little slower, you still have a set of lenses that can cover a scene.

5. Pick zoom lenses for the right reasons

At this point you may be thinking, “Hey, Justin, what about zoom lenses?” OK—I hear you. While I’m not a personal fan of zoom lenses for cinematic work, they do offer some benefits. First of all, a zoom lens can, in theory, replace multiple prime lenses and eliminate the need for having to fill in gaps between focal lengths. You also don’t have to worry about changing lenses as often while shooting, which is particularly useful when a camera is mounted on a crane or in other setups where quick lens changes are difficult or impossible.

One of the biggest downsides to zoom lenses is that they usually don’t match the image quality of a good prime lens at a given focal length. Zoom lenses tend to be slower than prime lenses, and if you want a high-quality cinema-caliber lens that is parfocal (maintaining focus as you zoom) and features a relatively fast maximum aperture that is constant throughout the zoom range, then you’re going to have to drop a pretty penny. The lens will also be large and heavy, which might not benefit your production or setup. You can read more about cinema zoom lenses here.

Canon CN-E15.5-47mm T2.8 L SP Wide-Angle Cinema Zoom Lens (PL Mount)

If you’re set on zoom lenses for your production, then you’ll probably want one wide-angle zoom, such as a 24-70mm (for full-frame cameras), and one telephoto zoom, such as a 70-200mm. This covers wide-angle to telephoto with only two lenses. You’ll probably want to supplement this with a fast normal lens, such as a 50mm f/1.4, and possibly also a fast portrait-length lens.

My advice on zoom lenses is this: make sure you’re choosing them for the right reasons. If you’re working on a run-and-gun-style production, on a larger-scale project with a lot of remote-operated camera setups, or have a Paul Greengrass-type style (think the Jason Bourne movies), then zoom lenses are a must. But if zoom lenses aren’t crucial to your production or shooting style, you’ll be better served with a nice set of prime lenses. I find that primes lenses make me think more about the focal length and what it means for the shot, forcing me to move the camera to get the optimal shot, rather than falling into lazy habits.

6. Why you want true cinema lenses

While lenses designed for still photography can be used for motion-picture applications and produce excellent results, the fact remains that they lack certain features that are native to true cinema lenses. Being purpose-built for image acquisition in a motion-picture world, cinema lenses offer extra features that distinguish them from their still-photo brethren. Let’s examine these characteristics.

A cinema lens is built for life on set and usually has a durable all-metal body. It tends to be larger and heavier than a still lens, with internal focusing designs so the lenses don’t physically change, making them easy to use with matte boxes. On the body you’ll find geared focus and iris rings that allow the lens to interface directly with follow focus systems for smooth and repeatable focus pulls by a camera assistant. The focus ring usually has more rotation (focus throw) than a still lens, having to rotate 270-degrees or more to go from the minimum focusing distance to infinity, which lets you be more precise with your focus. It will also have greatly reduced focus breathing (shift in angle of view when focusing) compared to still lenses, which can be an odd and less-than-pleasing effect, especially during rack focuses.

Leica SUMMILUX-C 25mm Lens

The iris ring on cinema lenses is also click-less, so you can adjust aperture smoothly during a shot without the audience noticing (hopefully). With a lens designed for still photography, you have clicked-increments for stopping down your aperture, resulting in sudden and noticeable exposure changes that will take the audience out of the story, which is the ultimate crime of cinematography. Even worse, many modern DSLR lenses lack manual aperture rings completely, with aperture controlled electronically on the camera body.

You’ll also notice that the iris ring on cinema lenses will have T-stop markings, rather than f-stops. An f-stop is a mathematical measurement of the focal length divided by the diameter of the lens opening, but doesn’t take into account the amount of light that gets lost on the way to the sensor. A T-stop is a corrected measurement for that exact amount of light passing through the lens. This is important in the cinema world, because when you’re switching between lenses you don’t want there to be an exposure shift, even though you have them set at the same aperture. Aperture and focus marking are found on the side of the lenses to benefit camera operators and focus pullers.

Another benefit of cinema lenses is that, within a given series, they are usually color-matched for consistency across the set, while still lenses are designed with less strict tolerances. Consistency among cinema lenses is also often found in front diameter, length, and gear ring placement, making swapping lenses easy without having to adjust your matte box or follow focus position.

If there is one major flaw with cinema lenses, it’s the price, which can range from expensive to astronomical. The top-of-the-line options are really meant only for renting, so if you’re looking to own your own set then you may need to select more affordable options. There has been a rise recently in modern “digital cinema lenses,” some of which are designed from the ground up for cinema use, while other are basically re-housed still lenses, which can still be a great option, especially for compact camera systems like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and compact cinema cameras that may be a bit overwhelmed with large cine glass mounted on them.

Veydra 12mm T2.2 Mini Prime Lens (MFT Mount)

Another alternative is to cine-mod a set of manual still lenses, such as Nikon-mount Zeiss lenses; either with a completely new housing and mechanics by a professional re-housing company, or by simply adding one of the many lens gear options around the focus ring. Some still lenses, such as Zeiss Loxia lenses, even have aperture rings that can be de-clicked using an included key.

7. There’s value in vintage still lenses

If you’re looking for good-value lenses for a first lens kit, then I’d recommend looking at used vintage SLR glass from manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Minolta. While they lack the benefits of cinema lenses (see tip #6 above), you can put together a complete set relatively affordably (the B&H used department is never a bad place to start). I’ve owned Canon FD lenses in the past and had great results with them, and currently own a set of Nikon AI-S F-mount lenses. The Nikon lenses are particularly useful, since they can still be used natively on Nikon DSLRs and can even still be bought new.

Nikkor manual SLR lenses are a great value option for cinema capture.

What I like about older SLR lenses is their versatility because they are compact, lightweight, and can be adapted to be mounted on most camera systems—especially Nikon F-mount lenses, with their long flange focal distance (distance from the mounting flange to the film/sensor plane). This makes them a great set to have around for personal projects, or when there isn’t a budget for lens rental. They also produce a lower-contrast, classic look that can be appealing for aesthetic reasons. If you do decide to go with Nikon lenses, be warned that they focus in the opposite direction than most lenses.

In case you’re wondering, my recommendations for Nikon lenses are:

  • 20mm f/2.8 AI-S
  • 28mm f/2.8 AI-S (a personal favorite)
  • 35mm f/1.4 AI-S
  • 50mm f/1.2 AI-S
  • 85mm f/1.4 AI-S
  • 105mm f/2.5 AI-S

8. Test lenses first

Before making any decision and whether to purchase or rent a set of lenses, do yourself (and your film) a favor by testing them ahead of time. First, you want to make sure that the lenses have the optical quality and look that you’re seeking. Where one set of lenses might yield warmer and softer images, another might produce cooler and clinical images. You’ll have to decide what your personal preference is and what the production calls for.

During your testing, you’ll also want to check for things like sharpness and contrast across the frame, color consistency (particularly skin tones), collimation (accurate focus distance markings), and resistance to flares. If you’re renting lenses, be sure to test them on the camera you plan on using for your shoot, because the sensor and color science will play a major role in the final look of your images.

Ready to roll!

9. Read the script!

My final tip is something that I’ve been trying to beat home throughout this article—and that’s to pick the lenses that suit your production. There’s no point in dropping money on lenses that will never be used. As a cinematographer reading the script, you’re concerned with all visual aspects of the film, as well as the gear needed to make it a reality. While reading, you should be taking note of any special requirements that might influence lens selection, such as Steadicam or crane shots. Also consider the overall tone and time period of the film, which may lend itself to a specific series of lenses. With notes in hand, you can then meet with the film’s director to discuss their vision, which might be similar or different than yours. You should walk away from this discussion with a fairly good idea of what lenses you will and won’t need.

6 Comments

Wonderful article. So helpful and I can say I've surely learnt a lot. Thank you for sharing

Thank you for exploring Explora! We are pleased that you have some good information to take away from this article. We are here to help as much as we can.

this is very helpful thank you for taking time to share your knowledge.

Thanks Justin, good article. One thing needs to be clarified though.  In the first section when you're talking about sensor sizes, it should be made clear that "full-frame 35mm-sized sensor" is refering to a still photography camera. In the film world standard 35mm (academy 35mm) is actually a smaller frame than super35, just as a normal 16mm frame is smaller than super16.  The film (gate) size is different in stills and motion picture photography, of course, because the widest length of the image is parallel to the sprockets in still photography and between the sprockets in cinema cameras (the film is pulled down from above in a cinema camera). To confuse things even more, what is considered a "normal" lens in still photography (the length of the diagonal of the frame) is different in motion pictures because of the distance the viewer is sitting from the screen in a movie theater. I think it's generally considered one and a half the diagonal of the film frame or sensor. So the same 50mm lens on a Canon 5D MK3 is going to be a normal lens  for a still photo shoot but slightly wider than normal for a filmshoot!

Hallo Jeffrey, I was looking on the internet just the answer you just gave. Please can you clarify even more? I've been using full frame digital cameras, micro four third and film cameras (Arri SRII), could you please telle me where I can find good comparisions regarding lenses? I know that an 10mm lens in supe16 is not the same for a 35mm camera or even super35. Where can I get enough literature to know more about this differences? (I'm talking even about 65mm film) Please help, thanks! Giuseppe

Thank you for such a helpful article. I appreciate having the knowledge shared here at B&H. 

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