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. Additionally, 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 for stunning results. So where do you begin in buying lenses? This article will help you understand some of the key features that distinguish different lenses. But first, let’s take a look at the best lenses currently on the market.
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Best budget prime
Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 Lens
- Good image quality
- Max aperture of f1.8
- Low price
- Image soft wide open
- Narrow focus ring
Lenses are a major investment and not everyone can afford to shell out over a thousand dollars for a high-end option. If you’re a hobbyist looking for a more affordable alternative, the Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 Lens may be a perfect fit. It lacks some of the more advanced features of its expensive rivals, but for everyday shooting, there is little this lens can’t do.
The Yongnuo YN 50mm is very similar in design to the Mark II version of Canon’s famous “nifty fifty” with the body and lens mount made of plastic. The narrow focus ring is at the front of the lens body and you would struggle to attach a focus gear for use with a follow focus.
With a maximum aperture of f/1.8, this lens works great in low lighting. Plus, its seven blades iris means it will operate admirably with selective focusing techniques. The image is a little soft when the aperture is wide open but closing down a stop or two brings good quality and sharp image.
Priced reasonably, this is the ideal starter lens for the amateur photographer.
Best budget zoom
Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary Lens
- Constant max aperture of f/2.8
- Full-frame format
- Nine-blade iris for round bokeh
- No image stabilization
Though the Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary Lens isn’t the most refined lens on the market, it’s undoubtedly the best bang for your buck. This highly versatile wide-angle to portrait-length zoom lens offers a lot for much less than its competition.
The Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary Lens’ features an f/2.8 constant maximum aperture and a light optical design. Inside, the lens houses two FLD, two SLD low-dispersion elements and three aspherical elements. Together, these elements reduce aberrations, resulting in a sharper, clearer image. Plus, its nine-blade iris creates beautiful, round bokeh. In terms of its weight, the Sigma 28-70mm’ is lighter than other similar 24-70mm lenses. The lens includes just one lightweight focusing element, keeping its payload minimal.
Filmmakers needing a lightweight, fast lens should check out the Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary Lens.
Best budget cine lens
Irix Cine lenses
- Great image quality
- Solid build quality
- Limited focal length offerings
Irix Cine lenses are a good choice for novice to professional filmmakers and they retail for a fraction of the cost of higher-end lenses. They’re designed with full-frame cameras, covering the full sensor. Plus Irix Cine lenses are available in most of the major mounts like EF, E, MFT and PL.
The whole Irix cine lens line is built with a stout construction and has rubber seals for rain or dust protection. The Iris has 9 blades, so bokeh is nice and round. The optical system has 11 optical elements in 9 groups — including 4 HR lenses, 1 ED lenses, and 1 ASP. They ensure a low level of distortions and aberrations.
Irix cinema lenses are available in additional focal lengths, including 11mm, 15mm and 150mm.
There are other cinema lenses that are half the price of the Irix Cine lenses. However, we would advise most filmmakers shopping in that price range to buy a higher-quality stills lens for a comparable price and modify it with a follow focus and other lens accessories to get the cinema functionality you need.
Best wide prime
Sony FE 20mm F1.8 G
- Fast maximum aperture
- Aperture click on/off
- No image stabilization
The Sony FE 20mm F1.8 G is a large-aperture ultra-wide-angle prime lens meant for portraits, astrophotography, landscape and street photography, as well as video.
The lens features two advanced aspherical elements and three extra-low dispersion glass elements. These suppress chromatic aberration and promise corner-to-corner image quality and minimal distortion even at the maximum F1.8 aperture. The lens features a minimum focus distance of 7.5 inches and max magnification of 0.2 times.
The FE 20mm F1.8 G comes with two extreme dynamic (XD) Linear Motors to offer quick, precise and quiet autofocus for both stills and video shooting.
In total, the lens weighs just 13.2 oz (373g). Its small size should make it easy to carry around. The FE 20mm F1.8 G is dust and moisture resistant and has a fluorine front element coating. Additionally, it features a customizable focus-hold button and aperture ring with a click on/off switch. Furthermore, it’s compatible with a variety of 67mm filters.
Best normal prime
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM
- Super fast f1.2 max aperture
- Extreme shallow depth of field
- Stunning bokeh
With a bright maximum aperture and eight blade diaphragm, this is another lens well-suited for working with low lighting and provides a stellar bokeh. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 USM can be a difficult lens to master as its low aperture will easily lead to overexposure but, for those confident in their abilities, the degree of control and precision provided by this lens is unparalleled. The lens’ built-in CPU allows for quick auto-focusing, though it can also be focused manually.
The Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 USM offers a usable level of sharpness even at maximum aperture and filmmakers will looking for extremely shallow depth of field won’t be disappointed. Canon’s L-series glass and Super Spectra coatings limit flare and ensure the highest image quality in terms of color and contrast.
This lens isn’t cheap but its robust, weather-sealed construction makes this a solid investment for the discerning photographer.
Best telephoto prime
Sony FE G Master 85mm F/1.4 GM
- Sharp image even at max aperture
- Clickless aperture ring
- Superb build quality
Ideal for portraitures, the Sony G Master 85mm features a maximum f-stop of 1.4, providing a stunning depth of field effect and making this another lens well-suited for low light shoots. A part of Sony’s high-end G Master line of lenses, a great deal of work went into to correcting a wide variety of spherical and chromatic aberrations resulting in a clean, crisp image.
The lens’ 11 blade diaphragm ensures a well-rounded bokeh. The Sony G Master 85mm has a manual aperture ring that can be set to operate for smooth, stepless changes, essential for video where you need to adjust for changes in light levels.
Build quality of the Sony G Master 85mm is very high and while the lens isn’t fully weather-sealed it offers dust and moisture resistance.
This lens focuses quickly and easily while providing a great deal of control, making it a good choice for both amateurs and professionals. However, the high quality comes with a higer cost.
Best wide zoom
Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art
- Constant f1.8 max aperture at all focal lengths
- Versatile zoom range
- Full-time manual focusing override
- Not suitable for use with full-frame sensors
As a part of Sigma’s Art line of lenses, the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art is built for use in creative endeavors. Featuring a breadth of apertures, from f/1.8 to f/16, this versatile lens is one of the most popular go-to lenses for filmmakers seeking a wide-angle zoom lens with great low light credentials. Important for video, the maximum aperture of f1.8 is constant throughout the zoom range.
The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art lens has numerous measures against aberrations that will ensure crisp, clean images for users of all skill levels. The lens features a Hyper Sonic Motor for powerful focusing capabilities and full-time manual focusing override. The nine-blade diaphragm provides for a well-rounded bokeh in your shallow depth of field shots. One point to note is that the lens is designed for use with APS-C sensors and will vignette on a full-frame DSLR.
A good fit for both photography as well as movie recording, this flexible lens can be tuned to whatever your project calls for. There’s little the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art can’t do.
Best normal zoom
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art
- Image stabilization
- Solid build quality
- Constant max aperture of f2.8
Another lens from Sigma’s well-regarded Art line, the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art features a flexible zoom and a variety of focal lengths making it adaptable to just about any shooting environment or project. Its f/2.8 max aperture is constant throughout the full range of the zoom, providing an admirable shallow depth of field. The lens maintains good levels of sharpness, even when shooting at the widest aperture.
The Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 also has a number of protections against aberrations and an optical stabilizer system which is a great aid to help steady your footage when shooting handheld. Like its wider counterpart, this lens also features a Hyper Sonic Motor to improve its performance when focusing along with a nine-blade diaphragm which delivers a smooth bokeh.
The Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 has a solid build quality and weighs in at nearly 2lbs. The lens mount has a rubber weather-seal ring but the barrel isn’t weather-sealed
The Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art is a great all-purpose lens.
Best telephoto zoom
Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS III USM
- Exceptional image quality
- Optical image stabilization
- Good low light performance
The Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS III USM is a massive lens but, with its aperture range of f/2.8 to f/32, this monster provides the highest quality zoom. The beautiful bokeh (complemented by a well-rounded, eight blade diaphragm), fast and accurate focus and numerous measures against aberrations make the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS III USM one of the most versatile zoom lenses on the market.
The Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS III USM features 4-stop Image Stabilization which will help to deliver stable footage when shooting handheld. The constant maximum aperture of f2.8 gives a great low light performance and image sharpness is excellent even wide open.
The Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS III USM weighs over 3lbs and it comes with a tripod mount ring to relieve the strain from your camera’s lens mount. The build quality of the lens is superb and the body is sealed to be water and dust resistant.
The quality doesn’t come cheap, however, and purchasing this lens will set you back. A cheaper and lighter version is available with a maximum aperture of f/4 for $1,100.
Best cine lens line
- Optical performance
- Build quality
- Color-matched to other Zeiss cinema lenses
The follow-up to the highly regarded CP.2, this line of cine lenses is one of the highest quality available on the market. Available in 15mm T2.9, 25mm T2.1, 35mm T2.1, 50mm T2.1 and 85mm T2.1, each lens in the line features improved ergonomic design compared to the line’s CP.2 predecessors, 14 blade diaphragms and improved protection against aberrations and reflections.
The ZEISS CP.3 lenses feature advanced lens coatings, painted lens rims and special light traps within the barrel to eliminate unwelcome veiling glare and flares. The result is higher contrast, richer blacks and more saturated colors. The ZEISS CP.3 lenses are also color-matched to other Zeiss cinema lenses. The lenses are designed with standardized positioning of the focus rings and a consistent 95 mm front diameter to allow for fast and easy changeover between lenses while on set
If you only want the best for your set, the Zeiss CP.3’s performance is unparalleled.
Factors to consider
The lens is the most important part of a camera. It’s no wonder so many people agonize over new lens purchases. A good lens is expensive and specialized. Whether you’re buying your first or your twentieth lens, it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking. Here are the main factors you’ll need to consider before investing in your next lens.
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 shop for a new lens, make sure the one you choose 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, Fujinon X mount and Micro Four Thirds (MFT), used in most Panasonic cameras. Some lens mounts pair exclusively with cameras from the same manufacturer, but you’ll encounter cinema cameras using the EF mount, for instance, even outside of the Canon ecosystem. There are also manufacturers such as Sigma, Tamron, Rokinon and Fujinon that offer the same lens across several different mounts. Higher-end brands like Zeiss and Cooke even offer interchangeable lens mount options.
When investing in lenses, consider which cameras and mounts you anticipate using in the future so that you can continue to use you collection of lenses after your next upgrade.
Once you determine compatibility, focal length will likely be the deciding factor in which lenses you purchase. Focal length is usually the first number denoted in a lens description and is measured in millimeters. The lower the number, the wider the angle of view, allowing more of the scene to be captured. A lens with a longer focal length will bring the viewer closer to the action with more space compression in the image.
Focal length is one of the main determinants in the appearance of your image. It’s a useful storytelling tool when used deliberately. Lenses at the extremes — super wide or extreme telephoto — are generally only used to achieve a specific creative effect. Very wide lenses will often distort the image, which can be distracting in the wrong context. Lenses with focal lengths between 20mm and 100mm are much more common in video production, with 50mm lenses more or less approximating the field of view of the human eye.
You’ll also find that most manufacturers, including Canon, Nikon, Sony, Sigma and Tokina, make very similar 24-70mm zoom lenses. This zoom range covers the most commonly used focal lengths. It’s also generally affordable with prices ranging from a several hundred dollars to a couple thousand depending on mount and manufacturer.
Effective focal length
When choosing a lens based on focal length, you’ll also want to consider your camera’s sensor size. Sensors smaller than full frame come with a crop factor that will increase the effective focal length of your lens. Paired with an MFT sensor with a 2x crop, a 35mm lens will have a field of view equivalent to that of a 70mm lens. On a camera with a APS-C sensor with a 1.5-time crop, the same lens will have a field of view approximately equivalent to a 52mm lens. Know the crop factor for your camera to be sure you’re getting the lens you need.
Prime vs. zoom
Prime lenses have one fixed focal length while zooms can be used to cover a range. They can have a long or a short throw, covering a wide range of focal lengths or only a very narrow range. Zoom lenses are typically more expensive, especially as the zoom range increases. However, they can take the place of several prime lenses and are convenient for run-and-gun situations where you’re reframing often. Zoom lenses come in two varieties: internal zooming and external zooming. External zooming lenses are more common and more affordable. Internal zooming lenses are a better choice when accessories such as matte boxes are a factor.
Prime lenses have one fixed focal length while zooms can be used to cover a range.
On the other hand, prime lenses will often have a faster, or wider, maximum aperture than zooms. Fewer elements in prime lenses also leads to generally sharper images compared to equivalent zoom lenses.
The aperture is the opening in the lens that allows light to enter the camera. The size of this opening is controlled by a multi-bladed iris. The iris also influences the appearance of bokeh — or blur— in your image. More blades lead to a more circular opening, producing smoother, more pleasing bokeh in the defocused areas of the image.
This size of the aperture is a key measurement. It’s noted as the maximum width to which it can open. You’ll usually see this measured as the F-stop of a lens, for instance f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6. The smaller the F-stop number, the more open the aperture can become, allowing in more light. Also, the wider the opening of the aperture, the more shallow your depth of field will be. This means 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 or wider. When shopping for a new lens, look for maximum apertures of f/4 or wider. Zoom lenses will often feature a variable maximum aperture depending on the focal length used. This means you’ll likely need to adjust your exposure when zooming.
Zoom lenses with a constant aperture are easier to work with, but they typically come at a higher cost. Likewise, lenses with wider maximum apertures will usually be more expensive. However, moving from f/4 to f/2.8 can make a big difference for videographers working in low light situations. It’s also a good choice for those who want the cinematic look of super shallow depth of field.
Another important factor of your lens purchase is the sensor format of your camera. The main types of sensors to consider here, from largest to smallest, are full frame, APS-C and Super35, and Micro Four Thirds. MFT is both a sensor size and a mount type. Since full frame sensors are the largest, the image from a full frame lens will cover a smaller sensor. Full frame lenses work fine on any camera. But, if you use a lens for a crop sensor on a full frame camera, the image will only cover a portion of the sensor. This will result in heavy vignetting of your image. Unless you specifically want this look, avoid using a lens made for a smaller sensor on a larger format camera.
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 EF-S cameras, but EF-S mount lenses will not even attach to an EF camera. While lenses with full frame coverage are generally more expensive, they’re also more versatile. This makes them more likely to keep their place in your arsenal over time.
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 to use a wider range of the lenses, adapters also have drawbacks. You’ll still need to consider sensor size and lens coverage when using an adapter. Plus, few adapters allow for digital communication between the camera and the lens. If you lose digital communication, you lose the ability to autofocus. On newer lenses, you might even lose the ability to change your aperture. Adapters also can affect the light that passes through the lens to the sensor. Using one can cut up to a full stop from your exposure. They’re a handy tool, but if used, the drawbacks should always be considered.
Cine lenses are different from still lenses in a few ways. For one, they often have a more robust build and lower tolerance for variation in their specs. They also 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.
Cine lenses will also measure aperture in T-stops rather than F-stops. Unlike F-stops, T-stops represent how much light hits the sensor rather than how wide the aperture is. This difference makes T-stops more consistent for cinematic applications. A certain amount of light that comes into the lens is lost as it moves through the lens and camera. A lens that has an F-stop of f/1.2 might have a T-stop of t/1.4, representing a .2 loss of light. You’ll usually only find T-stops on cine lenses, since filmmakers especially value the consistency in exposure they provide.
Cine primes are much more common and affordable than cine zoom. It’s important to note that cine zooms are parfocal. This means that they are able to maintain consistent focus across the throw of the lens. This feature makes cine zoom designs much more complex and expensive to manufacture. Because cinematographers value consistency, cine primes are often sold in sets. These lenses share similar image quality characteristics and physical design, making it easy to switch lenses between shots.
Special options for lenses
AF: Autofocus can be a useful feature, but unless the camera supports continuous autofocus, 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.
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 it’s for, and of course, price. There’s no single lens that suits every possible need; each has their own benefits and drawbacks. By being informed and aware of the options, you’ll be able to find a lens that suits your needs.
Contributors to this article include Erik Fritts, Robin Cripe and the Videomaker Editorial Staff.