Lenses are key to making your favorite camera create the images you envision.
Many shooters will stress that investing in good lenses is more important than buying fancy camera bodies. In general, lenses have a longer lifespan than camera bodies, because while new video cameras are being made every year, the technology in optics just doesn’t advance as fast. There are lenses made decades ago that, with proper adapters, can be mounted to modern cameras and still produce stunning results.
So where do you begin in buying lenses? This article will help you understand some of the features that separate lenses as well as get a feel for a sampling of lenses on the market today.
The mount type is the first thing you need to consider with lenses. Every camera manufacturer has a different system for connecting lenses to their cameras. This connection is known as the mount. When you get a new lens, you need to make sure it will attach to your camera. Some of the most common mount systems for DSLR and mirrorless systems right now are: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E mount, and Micro Four Thirds (MFT).
Another important factor of your lens purchase is the sensor format of your camera. The main types of sensors to consider here are, from largest to smallest: Full Frame, Crop Sensor (APS-C) and Micro Four Thirds. MFT is both a sensor size and a mount type. Since full frame sensors are the largest, lenses made to cover a full frame will provide an image large enough to cover a smaller sensor, meaning they’ll work fine. But, if you use a lens made for a crop sensor on a full frame camera, the image will only cover a portion of the sensor, creating heavy vignetting of your image. Unless you very specifically want this look, avoid using a lens made for a smaller sensor on a larger format camera.
The main types of sensors to consider here are, from largest to smallest: Full Frame, Crop Sensor (APS-C) and Micro Four Thirds.
Some manufacturers use different mount subsystems that represent the sensor size as well. For example, the Canon EF mount is a full-frame mount, while the EF-S is for Canon crop sensors. EF mount lenses will work on an EF-S cameras, but EF-S mount lenses will not even attach to an EF mount system.
Adapters can be used to attach a lens made for one mount type to a camera with a different mount. They can be found for almost any combination of mounts. Although they allow you a wider range of the lenses you can use for a specific camera, they also have drawbacks. Most adapters don’t allow digital communication between the camera and the lens, although some do. If you lose digital communication, you lose the ability to autofocus, and on newer lenses, possibly the ability to change your aperture. Adapters also can affect the light that passes through the lens to the sensor, often cutting a full stop from your exposure. They’re a handy tool, but if used, the drawbacks should always be considered.
Another key element to lenses is focal length. It is usually the first number denoted in a lens description and is measured in millimeters. The lower the number, the wider the angle angle of view, allowing more of the scene to be captured. A lens with a longer focal length will bring the viewer in closer to the action. Prime lenses have one fixed focal length, while zooms can be used to cover a range. The trade off is that often prime lenses have a faster, or wider, maximum aperture than zooms.
The aperture is the part of a lens that opens and closes, allowing light to enter the camera. It is a key measurements and is noted with the maximum width it can open to. It is measured as the F-stop of a lens, for instance f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6. The smaller the f-stop, the more open the aperture becomes, allowing in more light. Also, the wider the opening of the aperture, the more shallow your depth of field will be, meaning the plane of focus will be thinner. Think of a shot where the subject is in focus and the background is very blurry; it was probably done with a wide open aperture like f/2.8.
F-stop vs T-stop
T-stop is a similar measurement to F-stop, but is slightly different in that T-stop represents how much light hits the sensor of the camera, rather than how wide the aperture is. This difference makes T-stops more consistent for cinematic applications. A certain amount of light that comes in through the aperture is lost as it moves through glass elements and other parts of the lens and camera. A lens that has an F-stop of f/1.2 might have a T-stop of t/1.4, which would represent a .2 loss of light. You’ll usually only find T-stops on higher-end Cine lenses.
Special Options for Lenses
AF: Autofocus can be a useful feature, but unless the camera supports continuous auto focus, it’s just not as useful for video work as it would be for stills. With continuous AF, your camera locks onto an object and maintains focus while the subject moves through focal planes — clearly, a highly useful function. While it’s becoming more common, some cameras don’t offer good continuous AF, making autofocus features on a lens somewhat limited for video.
IS: Image stabilization is useful in taking some of the jitter out of handheld camera work. While it is definitely a handy feature, it doesn’t replace a steadicam or gimbal. It does help with minor shakes, however
Aperture Control: Older lenses had manual aperture control in the form of a ring, just like the focus ring, that twisted to stop up or down. This can be a handy feature when using lenses on a camera that doesn’t have digital communication. Most Cine lenses offer manual aperture control, but still photography lenses might not.
Here are some of the lenses currently available. We’ve highlighted each of their key features to help you choose one that fits your needs.
Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master
$2,200 (E Mount)
Sony’s versatile 24-70mm zoom is a great all-around lens for E-mount full frame cameras. With a fast f/2.8 aperture, this is a good lens for low light, and its Direct Drive SSM autofocus can be super handy with Sony cameras’ continuous AF systems. The lens provides a 1.25-foot minimum focusing distance, but what will draw in most users is its sharpness and image quality.
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC DN Contemporary
$340 (E mount or MFT)
This prime lens comes in versions for APS-C Sony E Mount and Micro Four Thirds systems. Overall, it is a fast lens with autofocus at an affordable price point. It’s great for low light situations and provides a reliably sharp image.
Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS
$1,000 (E Mount)
The range of focal lengths covered by this zoom lens means it can serve a wide range of applications. Whether you need an establishing shot or a tight close-up, this lens can get you there with it’s 24mm-240mm range. Optical SteadyShot image stabilization helps reduces camera shake. The reasonable price can make this an attractive option as an all-around go-to lens for E mount full frame systems.
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
$1,750 (EF Mount)
This lens is one of the most popular in Canon’s line and anyone who has used it understands why. It’s a robust build on a lens that offers great image quality and a fast aperture. Add in covering a solid range of focal lengths at a consistent f/2.8, and this lens deserves a spot in any Canon shooter’s bag.
Rokinon 50mm f/1.4 AS IF UMC
$360 (EF mount) $400 (E Mount or F Mount)
This fast prime lens from Rokinon is made for a range of full frame cameras. Max aperture of f/1.4 means you can rest confident shooting in low light and with a paper-thin depth of field for stunning cinematic images. This 50mm prime is available in EF, E, F, A, and K mounts, ranging between $350-400, depending on which mount you need.
Tokina AT-X 24-70mm f/2.8 PRO FX
$880 (EF mount) / $980 (F mount)
Another lens that hits that sweet spot for versatility: 24-70mm at f/2.8. Tokina’s lens also offers a f/2.8 aperture and autofocus. This lens (with full frame coverage) is available for Canon EF systems for $880 as well as the Nikon F Mount system for $980.
Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD
$600 (EF mount or F Mount)
The ability to move from 28-300mm gives this Tamron glass enough versatility to get almost any shot you’d want. Plus, Vibration Compensation provides optical image stabilization to help reduce camera shake. With a price tag under $600, this lens could be a great place to start in building a rig, and it covers full frame sensors.
Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR
$1,070 (F Mount)
This lens for Nikon F Mount has respectable focal range, Vibration Reduction image stabilization, and Silent Wave Motor autofocus system. It’s a handy zoom lens for Nikon’s crop sensors.
Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR
$500 (F Mount)
This is an all-in-one lens for Nikon F-mount crop sensor cameras. Features include autofocus and Vibration Reduction systems for image stabilization. The broad focal range coverage give it versatility, and a price point of $500 makes it worth considering for Nikon shooters.
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm f/2.8-4 ASPH. POWER O.I.S.
This is a standard zoom for MFT systems. It has image stabilization and a rugged build for inclement shooting conditions. A well rounded lens, it can find use in a wide range of situations.
Cine lenses are different from still lenses in a few ways: they often have a more robust build and lower tolerance for variation in their specs. They have longer focus throw for smooth racking and smooth, de-clicked manual apertures. Cine lenses are made for use in bad weather. Because of these demanding specifications, they are often considerably more expensive than similar still lenses.
Rokinon 24, 35, 50, 85mm T1.5 Cine DS Lens Bundle
$1,740 (E mount, EF mount) $1700 (F mount & MFT)
This Rokinon kit offers a range of prime Cine-style lenses at a very affordable price. T/1.5 of course means they can achieve thin depth of field and can handle low light. While they’re a great place to start out, they don’t have all the features that might be associated with other Cine lenses.
Veydra Mini Prime Cine 6 Master Kit T/2.2
12mm, 16mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm with Hard Case
Veydra’s kit of six prime lenses for MFT mount covers a wide range of focal lengths. All the lenses in the kit have a T-stop of t/2.2 and common 80mm front diameter, which makes it convenient to switch lenses and accessories quickly during production. The Veydra Mini Primes each exceed 4K resolution and can be purchased individually at around $1,000 each.
Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 T/1.5 Super Speed Planar Series
$4,500 per lens (Interchangeable Mounts)
The Zeiss Compact Prime Super Speed series lenses are powerful Cine lenses that offer fantastic image quality and a great build. The series comes in 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm options, all with an impressive t/1.5. They feature interchangeable mounts for compatibility with PL, EF, F, MFT and E systems and cover a full-frame sensor.
Zeiss T/2.9 Compact Zoom CZ.2
$20,000 (Interchangeable Mounts)
The Compact Zoom lenses from legendary optics-manufacturer Zeiss are purpose built for motion picture production. Wide open, they offer t/2.9, and their minimum focus distance is only 2.67 feet or .83 meters. Like the Zeiss Compact Primes, these lenses offer interchangeable lens mounts. They have a robust cine housing and give no focus shift during zooming. These lenses costs a pretty penny, but they offer world class performance.
There are a number of considerations in picking the right lens. Some of the big ones are: how you plan to use it, which camera systems its for, and of course, price. There’s not a single lens that suits every possible need; each has their own benefits and drawbacks. By being informed and aware of the options, video producers are able to find a lens that suits their need.
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Sigma Corporation of America
Erik Fritts is an award winning writer, photographer and filmmaker. He graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BA in Film Production and has worked in TV, Film, and Corporate Video. He has awesome dogs.