Are you shooting with a DSLR, cinema camera or camcorder with an interchangeable lens? Choices in your optics can be mind boggling. What each lens does varies by price, type and ability. This primer on lens families should point you in a new direction, giving you abilities you never had before in depth of field, bokeh and control over your imaging.
Camera lenses vary widely in price, type and abilities. This page has helpful descriptions of many common lens families and explanations of what they offer. To learn more generally about which lenses you should use, check out our Lenses Buyer’s Guide feature.
Cine Lenses and F-Stop vs. T-Stop
What is the difference between T-Stop and F-Stop? You will notice that it’s common for cine lens manufacturers to list the T-Stop value instead of F-Stop and still lens manufacturers to list the F-Stop value and no T-Stop value. F-Stop is a mathematical (theoretical) value describing the ratio of the aperture (lens opening) to focal length, where the focal length is divided by the lens aperture. A 100mm lens with an aperture opening of 50mm would have an F-Stop of f/2.0. A 100mm lens with an aperture of 100mm would have an F-Stop of f/1.0. Assuming virtually no loss of light from the glass optics, it would also have a T-Stop of t/1.0.
Cine lenses are described in T-Stops because there is always a loss of light in an optical system. T-Stops are physical measurements carefully taken with scientific instruments which indicate the amount of light that actually comes out of the lens and onto the sensor. So an f/1.0 lens will actually have a different T-Stop value. Cine lenses are generally more expensive because you do get what you pay for which is a very accurate indication of light loss through the lens, and they are usually matched to each other so that one lens has exactly the same light loss as another. That way when the cinematographer is shooting with multiple cameras, each lens provides exactly the same amount of light to the sensor.
Although suitable for video production Canon EF L lenses are intended for professional still photography. Solid, robust build qualities along with fast apertures contribute to their popularity among pros, but amateurs can find these lenses useful as well. They are heavy and tend to balance well on larger camera bodies. These autofocus lenses generally have Ultra Sonic Motors and are designed to “snap” in focus for action shots, but that might not be desirable in video production in which smooth focusing is needed. It’s best to use an off body follow focus rather than the built in autofocus for rack focus. Flare is well controlled but, unlike inexpensive lenses, when L-series lenses do flare, it tends to be a pleasant and well defined pattern. Some lenses have image stabilizers which can be heard by the mic during production.
Canon EF-S lenses are intended for use on APS-C sensor bodies such as 60D, 70D, 7D and Rebel bodies which are thinner and have smaller mirrors due to the smaller sensor. S-lenses are not intended for full-frame Canon bodies. With prices ranging from $199 to $880 S-lenses are constructed mostly of plastic, and some even have plastic mounts. These inexpensive lenses are not professional caliber, have no weather seals and are intended for light duty use. Optically they are not as refined as L-series lenses and the apertures tend to be a bit small except for the EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM which has an aperture of 2.8.
Canon has configured the video friendly EF-S 55-250 STM and f/4-5.6 IS STM with both image stabilizer and Stepping Motor Technology focusing, which is intended to focus smoothly. USM is optimized for still photography and snaps into focus which creates jerky focusing.
MP-E 65mm Macro is a specialized macro lens for life size (1x) to five times life size (5x) without extension tubes. These manual lenses are optically designed for closeups and are not intended for general purposes.
EF 100 Macro IS USM and EF 180mm Macro USM are designated as macro lenses and are optimized for close range photography, but perform very well at infinity. They both feature USM (Ultra Sonic Motor) auto focus which is extremely fast, accurate and silent during use. A favorite of both professional and amateur photographers and videographers, macro lenses tend to have slower apertures but make up for that with exceptional image quality, flare control and image sharpness.
Canon TS-E lenses are specialized manual focus lenses which allow for tilting and shifting the optical axis of the lens away from the optical axis of the sensor plane. With prices ranging from $1,400 to $2,500 these professional lenses are not cheap, but they do satisfy a specific need. Available in focal lengths ranging from 17mm to 90mm, these versatile lenses offer many creative and technical solutions to focusing challenges. Shifting a lens off axis allows the camera to remain level while the lens “looks up” rendering scenes with parallel lines to remain parallel. This is good for wide shots across a street scene. Tilting a lens off axis allows the lens to “select” focus, rendering a scene with either full depth of field or very thin “slices” of depth of field much like a Lensbaby.
Nikkor AF-S lenses are autofocus lenses designed for the FX sensor camera bodies, which are larger than DX frame sensor bodies. All Nikon FX cameras support older legacy lenses and have two motors. One that mechanically drives the autofocus screw-drive in legacy lenses, and another that drives the lens aperture.
Nikkor AF-DC 105mm f/2 and 135mm f/2 lenses are autofocus lenses designed for FX sensor camera bodies. These professional lenses provide De-Focus Control which allows the user to control the out of focus bokeh in the background even at smaller apertures like f/5.6 and f/8. Getting to such a closed shutter allows for greater depth of field to cover the subject while maintaining excellent bokeh. These can be clumsy to use, but are well worth the extra effort.
Nikkor PC-E Micro [lenses] 24mm f/3.5, 45mm f2.8 and 85mm f/2.8 are specially designed manual focus lenses that allow for perspective control and tilt functions. With prices ranging from $1900 to $2,200 these professional lenses, while expensive, satisfy a variety of specific needs. Designed to allow for perspective correction on camera rather than in post, these versatile lenses offer many creative solutions as well as solve many focusing challenges. The 85mm lens is perfect for Scheimpflug focusing where the lens and focal plane are deliberately set not perpendicular, which allows the plane of focus to be adjusted from just a few inches to infinity which might be necessary when shooting video of very small items such as jewelry, small food sets and scientific imagery like insects or plants. When panning across street scenes, shifting a lens off axis allows the perspective to be corrected or exaggerated in the camera, thus allowing the photographer to create long pans which look normal and less confusing.
AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED and AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D are extreme wide angle lenses capable of covering a full 180-degrees. The 10.5mm lens is designed for DX cameras and has the G designation which indicates that it does not have an aperture ring and the aperture is controlled through the camera body, while the 16mm lens is designed for the FX bodies and has a mechanical aperture ring which can be set manually or, when set to f/22, controlled automatically by the camera. Professionals and semi-professionals alike find endless uses for these extreme wide lenses ranging from utility photos, which simply document a large area, to creative expressions such as dramatic scenics, action sports video and exaggerated portraits due to the excessive curvature of image field. They produce a circle in the middle of the frame for an image rather than a rectangle, hence the name fisheye.
Nikkor 1 lenses are designed for a new breed of large sensor, mirrorless cameras which don’t have the reflex mirrors found in digital single lens reflex cameras. Since there is no mirror, and, thus no need for clearance between the sensor and the mirror, the lens designers have greater latitude when designing the optics because the lens elements can be much closer to the sensor. This allows for very high quality optics that are very compact and available at very modest prices. Since professional mirrorless cameras have large APS-C size sensors, they deliver nearly the same image quality as DSLRs. Available in prime focal lengths ranging from 10mm f/2.8 to 18.5mm f/1.8 and zooms like VR 30-110 f/3.8-5.6 with built in vibration reduction, Nikon clearly sees these systems having a bright future.
The Sigma Digital Neo (DN) Line of lenses are specifically designed for mirrorless lens Micro Four Thirds cameras and APS-C cameras. Available in focal lengths of 60mm f/2.8, 30mm f/2.0 and 19mm f/2.0 and perfect for wedding and event shooters, they are designed to deliver exceptional quality with very fast apertures on consumer grade mirrorless and APS-C cameras.
The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Lens is fast becoming a favorite with indy filmmakers who shoot on full-frame DSLRs and Blackmagic cameras and for good reason. With it’s ultra fast f/1.8 aperture, excellent zoom range and affordable price of $800 it offers budget minded filmmakers, wedding videographers and documentary filmmakers the incredible flexibility of a zoom while delivering good results in low light conditions.
Schneider-Kreuznach PC-TS: Perspective Control Through Tilt/Shift lenses are exceptional quality, specialized lenses that provide for shifting as well as tilting of the lens thereby allowing the videographer full control of perspective as well as selective depth of field using the tilt feature. These lenses offer more image coverage (image circle) than standard lenses and have no vignetting even at full tilt and shift. Offered in focal lengths of 50mm, 90mm macro and 120mm, which are specially designed for medium format digital cameras. Each can work well for video imaging and should be considered a great choice and investment for the professional.
Perfect for shooting in very low light, the Zeiss Otus line of DSLR lenses utilize the company’s traditional Distagon wide angle lens formula in a standard focal length lens to provide nearly flawless performance at ultra-fast f/1.4 apertures. Intended for professional use, they are mainly considered still lenses but exceptional quality at f/1.4 is wonderful on a full-frame DSLR shooting video.
Specialized lenses like Zeiss CSC lenses intended for mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX and Fujifilm X series cameras demonstrate the company’s vision of the future of digital imaging, while their DSLR line up of ZE, ZF.2 and ZA lenses continues the company’s commitment to the past. Zeiss is first and foremost an optics company and nothing demonstrates this better than its Master Prime line of cine lenses. Partnering up with ARRI, Zeiss has developed a line of Master Prime cine lenses that span 16 prime lenses ranging in focal length from 12mm to 150mm. Ranging in prices greater than $20,000, they offer focal length differences as little as two millimeters to provide a lens for every need.
Zeiss Compact Zoom CZ.2, CP.2 and LWZ.2 lenses are true cine style lenses that can be adapted to EF and F mounts as well as PL, MFT and E mounts for uncompromising video on pro and prosumer cameras. They are available in three focal ranges from 15mm to 200mm. They may be considered affordable by cine standards, and comparing the price between a DSLR and one of these Compact Zoom lenses with a cinema camera setup, the combined price is quite inexpensive.
Zeiss Master Anamorphic Lenses are designed to achieve that cinematic, anamorphic look in a modern digital imaging system, complete with blue flare that spans the entire image field, soft, oval, out of focus bokeh highlights and well controlled distortion without anamorphic mumps, a phenomenon whereby a closeup shot distorts a subject and creates a “fat face” look that increases as the subject moves from the side of the frame to the center. These lenses feature 15 blade apertures, robust construction and f/1.9-f/22 apertures.
When the Lens is also a Camera
Sony DSC-QX10 and DSC-QX100 Digital Cameras are lenses that attach to your smartphone and connect via Wi-Fi. The PlayMemories Mobile app on the smartphone controls the camera wirelessly effectively providing the feel of a mirrorless camera. It has a bay for microSD/microSDHC/microSDXC and Sony’s Memory Stick Micro and Memory Stick Micro (Mark2). The QX10 has a 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor while the QX100 sports a Carl Zeiss f/1.8lens and 1-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor. Both are capable of detaching from the phone and capturing HD video as well as high quality stills.
Contributing editor Terry O’Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.