The Cinema Lens – What It Is & What It Isn’t

Zeiss Super Speed MK-III, awesome cinema lens

Marketing is everything in the film business. Don’t believe me? Do you know what Batman Vs. Superman spent on TV ads? $28 million. And it comes as no surprise, seeing as how there’s so much money involved in Hollywood pictures these days. This allure of big money and big success trickles down to the indie film market. Buys this item, it’ll make you a pro. Get this gear, or you ain’t the real deal. Welcome to the marketing of the cinema lens.

This may have started off cynical, but make no mistake: I’m a huge advocate of the buy-once-cry-once philosophy when it comes to filmmaking gear. However, don’t kid yourself if you think that purchasing a high-speed low-drag cinema lens that costs more than your camera will make you a good filmmaker, or “legitimize” you as a cinematographer.

What a cinema lens is: a professional standard

What constitutes a “pro” cinema lens is highly subjective. But the good news is that over the past 20 or so years, cinema technology has become so affordable because of competition in the marketplace. So there exist endless choices when it comes to lenses. The bad news is, just like every field of study, you can find groups of end-users that will claim any specific lens as the best or worst in it’s category.

If you were to talk to any camera professional (ones that actually work for money), I bet they’d list the following for what they consider when choosing a lens set:

  • Consistent color across lens set
  • Constant max aperture across set
  • Matched size/weight across set
  • If lens is a variable focal length, consistent exposure through focal range
  • Geared focus/iris rings
  • Professional mount
  • Minimal distortion, aberration, breathing, and vignette

These qualities are the meat and potatoes of what a high-quality cinema lens brings to the table. I may go in to each of these in more specificity later, but for now understand this: cinema lenses are designed from the ground up for motion picture. That’s 24 pictures in one second, or more. Even the highest-quality photography lenses are designed around viewing a single image.

What a cinema lens isn’t: magic

Cinema lenses will not make your movie more “cinematic”. Good use of lighting does that. Good framing does that. Expensive gear and technology do not magically create a cinematic experience.

So why invest in a cinema lens at all? Because it removes roadblocks from the creation process. The reason professionals opt for expensive gear is with a specific purpose in mind. In the case of cinema lenses: after shooting hundreds of videos with photography lenses, a director of photography has hopefully sharpened their skill enough that they have outgrown the equipment. They understand the benefits of pitched 0.8 focus rings and a wireless follow focus. They understand the time they can save in post production if all their lenses are color-matched.

A cinema lens is just a tool. A specific tool, to solve specific problems in production.

What it is: impressive looking

Irix 150mm T3 macro cinema lens
The awesome Irix 150mm T3 Macro

Cinema lenses are big, sexy, and usually start discussions on indie film sets or lower-budget projects. This is a legitimate reason to be interested in a cine lens, especially if you do a lot of client work. Ever heard of the mantra “fake it ’till you make it”? If you show up with pro-gear, people that aren’t in-the-know sometimes treat you like a pro. Funny how shallow the biz can be, but it’s true.

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a Cooke S4/i just to be cool.

What it isn’t: cheap

These things are expensive. Even the cheapest cinema lens worth anything comes in at well over $500 new, and personally I haven’t seen anything I’d buy for under $1000. And big-name cinema lenses go way north of $10,000.

These figures, of course, come from the perspective of an owner/operator attempting to purchase gear for a kit to…well, own and operate. The types of gigs you’d be working to justify the purchase of big-name cinema lenses would likely have the budget to rent expensive lenses anyway.

What it is: more important than your camera

Well, the lens in general is. This is why if you had to choose between an expensive lens or an expensive digital camera body, always choose the lens! The lens can last your entire career. The camera will be outdated by next Christmas.

If we factor in the benefits of a professional cinema lens, such as high quality standards and warranty support in many cases, the lens could quite literally last the working professional’s lifetime. My favorite lenses are from the 1980’s. And if I had my way, I’d buy an $120,000 set of Zeiss Master Primes and wouldn’t give a rip about the camera body.

What it isn’t: worth worrying about

I have a feeling this section will get repeated in many WIIAWII articles. The truth of the matter is this: if you even know what a cinema lens is and how they compare to photography lenses, you’re probably ahead of the curve. At least to the point that you don’t need my advice. You likely understand why it’s worth the investment upfront if you are constantly working. On a movie, time is money. A thought-out lens package can save a lot of time. But if you’re just starting out, what is way more important is to get what you can. And then learn every single detail of what you own. If you do that, you’ll be way beyond the rich kid that buys expensive wiz-bang stuff but doesn’t know how to tell a visual story.

Author: Karland Paez

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