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DSLR Lens Buyer's Guide

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Is there really anything more enjoyable than making videos? If you're like a lot of our readers, then you already know the answer.

Let's face it, one of the greatest inventions to hit this industry since VHS is the advent of the DSLR camera. Digital technology has truly brought the power of Hollywood to the people. Did you write the next Citizen Kane and hope to film it yourself? Now you no longer need to rent a 35mm camera and pay a fortune for a few hundred feet of leftover film. For a few thousand dollars, you can own your own hi-def video camera - or rent one for significantly less. Also, unlike equivalently priced prosumer camcorders, you now have your choice of lenses!

Are you looking to get that film look that has been so elusive to users of video since the beginning of the industry? Are you hoping to shoot everything from extreme closeups to ultra-wide shots with the same camera? Do you love the feel of new electronic toys in your possession? Then you friend, are in luck!

One of the great things about being a professional photographer is the toys, especially the wide array of lenses available on the market. And now that you are utilizing the same camera bodies, you will be able to have the same fun experimenting with different lenses. Of course, lenses cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, so maybe we should get an overview of what's available so that you can make a more informed decision before you make that investment.

Focal Length

Focal length will be the most important consideration when purchasing a new lens, so let's start there. Focal length is the angle of view that will be seen through the lens and it is measured in millimeters. A longer focal length will give you a narrower angle of view. The magnification that most closely resembles the view of the human eye is 50mm. Therefore, any focal length greater than 50mm is considered telephoto and a focal length shorter than 50mm is wide angle. There are also super-wide and super-tele lenses, but those are much better suited for still photography than video.

Fixed Versus Zoom

Focal lengths can be either fixed or zoom. Fixed focal length lenses, also called prime lenses, are a set focal length, such as 50mm, 85mm or 400mm and cannot be adjusted. One advantage of prime lenses is that they often give a sharper image quality than a zoom lens, particularly in the lower price ranges. Higher end zoom lenses are made of high quality optics and offer extremely sharp images, rivaling the quality of prime lenses.

If you are being very budget conscious, you may be thinking that you should just stick with wide-angle lenses and merely adjust the camera location for tight shots. However, that may still cause problems for your production, as telephoto lenses have a great number of advantages to them as well. Filling a frame on a closeup using a wide-angle lens can be very problematic, especially if your subject is already conscientious about their nose. The wider lens causes the nose and face to look wider. It is for this reason that many professional portrait photographers use telephoto lenses in their line of work (food product photographers use them for the same reason).

In videography, zoom lenses are usually your best bet because, unlike still photography, a video camera often finds itself following the action around, so keeping the subject matter on the focal plane would require the shooter to change focal length on many shots. Photographers like zoom lenses because a quality zoom lens can be as good as having two or three prime lenses. However, cheap polycarbonate zoom lenses will not be as good as less expensive prime lenses - and they'll scratch easily, too.

Aperture

Running a close second to focal length in importance is aperture, which is essentially the measurement of light that enters your lens. Aperture is measured in f-stops, which is the ratio of the focal length to the aperture diameter; therefore, the larger the diameter, the smaller the f-number. Aperture is the feature of interchangeable lenses that is changing the way that the public feels about movies shot on video versus those shot on film.

Depth of Field

One aspect of the industry that made film the dominant medium over video is the shallow depth of field that gives the director almost complete control of where the audience looks. The great directors know how to manipulate the audience using this technique. Have you ever watched a movie where two characters are talking and the focus switches from one character to the other? That is manipulation of depth of field - and now you can use it, too!

Remember: Smaller f-number = bigger aperture opening = smaller depth of field = the film look. With practice and a large aperture, you can learn to isolate the foreground and the background from the focal plane.

Shutter Speed

On most camcorders, there isn't an option to adjust your shutter speed, as the manufacturer often presets it, usually at 1/60. This number refers to the amount of time that each individual frame is exposed to light. When shooting video, the general rule is that the denominator of the shutter speed should be double the frame rate. This means that if you are shooting at 30 fps, you will want your shutter speed to be 1/60th of a second. This refers to the amount of time that each individual frame is exposed to the light. For special effects, you can always change your shutter speed, but be sure to change your aperture accordingly; slower shutter speeds, which let in more light, require a smaller aperture to balance the light. Toying around with your settings before you shoot will teach you how to get the desired effects.

Manual Focus Versus Auto Focus

Just a few years ago, manual focus lenses on consumer cameras were particularly rare. As auto focus lenses became faster and more precise thanks to digital technology, photographers were dropping the manual focus lenses in droves. However, the genesis of the DSLR halted the death knell for MF lenses and now they have begun to flourish. Why? Because of videographers, who prefer the more precise focusing abilities of the manual lenses, as well as the ability to change the focal point of the image. Although there is a learning curve to manually operating a lens, many videographers are finding that it is worth the effort.

Brands

So, who are the players in the DSLR game? Would you be surprised one bit to learn that the big boys are Canon and Nikon? Probably not. You can expect that the big players in still cameras would make the great video cameras. The best part is that both of these manufacturers make cameras that offer HD video output in several different price ranges!

For instance, Canon makes the 1D and 5D high end cameras, the 7D and 60D in the midrange and the highly acclaimed Rebel models at the lower priced end of the spectrum.

Nikon offers the D4 and D800 at the top of their line. For less expensive, but still amazing cameras, they offer the D300 and the just-released D600. For those on an even tighter budget, there's the popular D5100.

But these two are by no means the only players in the DSLR game. Sony's Alpha cameras have been taking the market by storm in recent years. Along with massive support from Carl Zeiss lenses, the critically acclaimed cameras are some of the best on the market, rivaling equally priced competitors from the "Big Two." Olympus, Pentax and Sigma also offer inexpensive solutions for videographers on a budget.

These cameras and more all work with interchangeable lens technology. Let's take a closer look at a few on the market today.

Lenses

Always remember the adage: "you get what you pay for" when shopping for camera lenses. Cheap lenses are just that - cheap. Most of them are made of polycarbonate barrels and lenses (as opposed to metal barrels and glass lenses on higher-end products). However, we all have budgets and some are smaller (and no less important) than others, so we'll cover a wide range of camera lenses.

The camera manufacturers named above all manufacture their own lenses however, Sigma makes lenses to be lower-cost alternatives for Nikon and Canon cameras, and then some. For example, Sigma makes an 18-200mm zoom lens for Canon, Nikon, PENTAX and Sony, as well as their own Sigma cameras. Additionally, German lens manufacturer Carl Zeiss, one of the best lens makers in the world, makes all of Sony's high-end lenses. Since most Sony and Konica Minolta lenses use the same mounting system, chances are good that there is a Carl Zeiss lens for your Minolta. Obviously, you should always check to make sure that a lens will fit your camera body but you also need to check that a lens will work properly on your camera. Just because it fits, doesn't mean that it works. For instance, a Canon 1D with a full-frame sensor uses an EF mount. A wide angle lens with an EF-S mount won't work on this camera because the sensor is too big. EF-S mounts will work on Canon Rebels, due to their crop sensors. There are adapters available for many lens types to fit your camera, but check into how they fit. An auto-focus setting, for instance, might not work with an adapter and you will need to work the mechanism manually.

Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) lenses on your camera, as the computer systems in the camera, are designed to properly communicate with the parts in the lens. However, most high-end lenses (such as a Carl Zeiss for your Canon 5D) have been tested, designed and approved to work with the cameras listed by the camera manufacturer's suggested lens lists and you can generally assume that it is made properly.

If you are looking to buy lenses on a budget, there are aftermarket companies, such as Vivitar, Bower, Rokinon and Samyang that may be able to fit your needs.

Your Needs May Vary

Many video or still shooters use DSLR cameras for the ability to have multiple lenses. Your lens choices are very personal decisions, usually based on needs and budgetary limits, but if you are new to DSLR videography, consider yourself warned that purchasing lenses can be a very addicting, expensive, exciting and fun habit!

Sidebar: To Shake or not to Shake?

In still photography, the anti-shake lenses are optional depending on the type of photography that you do. For instance, a portrait photographer who exclusively shoots with a tripod will never need to spend money on an anti-shake lens system. While shooting video, it is always best to purchase a lens that has the anti-shake feature. You never know when you'll need to follow a subject around and a little shake to the camera operator may look like an epileptic seizure to the viewer.

However, image stabilization (IS) systems are not all rainbows and sunshine either. Optical image stabilization systems work by making adjustments when the camera feels a wobble. Panning is a "wobble" to some systems. Some of the more modern IS systems realize that panning is not shaking and will adjust accordingly. Other units have a "panning mode" which allows you to manually inform your camera that you are panning, so that it doesn't attempt to adjust for you. However, if you have an older lens that doesn't have either of these features, you can turn stabilization off altogether when you need to have that wobble.

Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's DSLR Lens Buyer's Guide

John McCabe runs a small production company dedicated to giving hands-on experience to students while making quality video

Tags:  February 2013
John
McCabe
Wed, 01/09/2013 - 8:00am

Comments

Not mentioned here, nor mentioned by manufacturers specs, which of these zoom lenses hold focus through the zoom range of the lens?  Video and film lenses must hold focus. Still lenses do not as the autofocus sets focus at a given focal length before shooting.  Video lenses must focus during the shot.  In my experience almost all of the still photo zooms shift focus when zooming, even some very high end lenses.  Please apprise us of what lenses to look for that can hold focus while zooming.  Especially in the wider zoom ranges like 10:1 which are needed for documentary work or event videography.  Thank you.