If you are getting into shooting video with your camera, you might wonder whether you need to use cine lenses instead of your regular lenses for video. Damien Demolder explains the differences.
One of the challenges of moving into any different area of photography is that we usually need a whole pile of new kit, and that is truer in no other area than when we begin shooting video.
You may not need a new camera, as most modern mirrorless models and many DSLRs shoot great quality footage, but microphones, gimbals, cages and filters all come to the surface as items of equipment we may need to look into.
The lenses we use also need to be considered, and it is natural enough to question where we can continue using our existing stills lenses or whether we now need to invest in lenses designed specifically for filming. Cine lenses exist for a good reason surely, so what benefits do they bring and what will we miss out on if we just use the stills lenses we already have?
What is the difference between a cine lens and a stills lens?
The first thing you will notice is that cine lenses look quite different to normal stills lenses. They tend to be bigger all over and they have a wider filter thread around the front element. They also have rows of teeth on their aperture and focusing rings, and focus distances are marked prominently on their barrel.
Cine lenses don’t use f/stops either, preferring T-stops which denote the amount of light that passes through the lens rather than just a mathematical figure that refers to the relationship between the physical diameter of the aperture and the focal length of the lens.
You’ll also notice that they are all manual focus-only, and that they don’t have electronic contacts on the mount to communicate with the camera. Some can communicate with the camera, but only high-end cameras and from high-end lenses.
Cine lenses don’t come in a wide range of mount options either, as historically cinema cameras have used a standardised mount system. These days you’ll find most cine lenses come in the PL mount or at least with a PL option, and users are expected to buy an adapter to fit the lenses onto non-PL cameras.
With mirrorless cameras this is easy as the distance between the sensor and the mount is short, allowing plenty of room for a PL adapter. As other camera systems have become popular for filming you’ll also find plenty of lenses in the Canon EF mount, Sony’s E mount and a host designed for Micro Four Thirds.
Lenses designed for full frame sensors are still relatively few as the full frame sensor is relatively new to digital film making. The most popular format has been Super-35mm, or S35, which quite neatly corresponds to the size of an APS-C sensor, so it works nicely with APS-C format cameras and full frame models that offer an APS-C crop for filming – which most do.
The benefits of using cine lenses for video
Plenty of people make great and successful films with regular stills lenses, but here are some of the benefits of using cine lenses.
- They come in a set
You can buy or rent the whole set, but you can also just get the focal lengths that you need for your project. These sets are what are known as ‘matched’, which means they should all have the same look, produce the same colours and usually have their control rings in exactly the same places.
The idea of matched sets is that when you switch lenses during filming it only effects the angle of view of the shot, not the colour or the contrast. In stills photography it’s fine to have a slightly different look from one shot to the next, but in a film such changes create a jarring effect and can distract the audience from the story.
Having said that though, in this age of streaming TV services it isn’t unusual to see dramatically different looks for some shots to create a particular effect – but it is still jarring and distracting.
The matched positions of the aperture and focus rings make it easier to switch lenses when the rig around the camera has control systems designed to adjust focus and apertures. These motors or manual ‘follow focus’ systems won’t need to be repositioned when you switch lenses, as the rings they control are in the same place on every lens in the set. That makes life much easier.
Cine lenses use T-stops which are a measure of Transmission – or how much light that aperture allows to pass to the sensor. F-numbers are just the answer when we divide the focal length of the lens by the physical diameter of an aperture – so they don’t tell us how much light is lost inside the lens.
F-stops are fine for stills photography as we don’t notice slight the difference in exposure from shot to shot when we change lenses, but in a movie, brightness changes in different shots of the same subject will really stand out. Using the T-stop system allows users to know that when they set T5.6 on two different lenses the brightness of the image will be the same from both.
- Easier manual focus
If you are focusing manually there’s little doubt that using a cine lens will make your life easier. You can manually focus a regular lens too of course, but a cine lens will have an over-sized focusing scale, and will very often have the focus mark on the side of the lens to make it easier to see when the camera is mounted high up.Prominent and detailed focus markings are also useful when we need to accurately pull focus from one part of the scene to another on repeated occasions Cine lenses tend to have a long ‘focus throw’ – the degree of rotation required to get from infinity to the closest focus. This makes small and gradual focus changes easier to achieve, and allows us more control over the speed of transitions and how consistent that speed is. Focusing manually offers a lot more creative control.
- Clickless apertures
If you need to change the aperture during filming you don’t want the click sounds of the aperture ring to come out on the audiotrack, so cine lenses have clickless aperture rings.This also makes aperture shifts smoother, as there are no hard stops to create sudden jumps in exposure. Some stills or hybrid lenses have clickless apertures too, such as the Lumix 10-25mm and 25-50mm f/1.7 zooms for Micro Four Thirds, but they are a bit of an exception.
- A softer look
Modern stills lenses are usually designed to produce a sharp, contrasty and detailed image, as that is what stills photographers want.
Those shooting fiction and looking for atmosphere though tend to look for a less-interrogating style, and value a flattering lens that doesn’t show too much detail.
Not all cine lenses are the same of course, but they are more likely to invite a little flare, to offer a slight glow and perhaps be happy to darken a little in the corners. Usually all the lenses in a set will have similar ‘fault’ characteristics.
The benefits of using modern stills lenses for shooting video
While there are many good reasons to look into cine lenses, there are also a very many good reasons to stick with what you have already. It won’t cost you anything extra, and if you need another focal length stills lenses tend to be quite a lot cheaper than professional cinema lenses. They are also often smaller and lighter, and take smaller filters – that also cost less.
Although you may want to try and focus manually, for filming, modern AF systems are excellent at tracking a moving subject, and some mirrorless cameras, such as the Panasonic Lumix series, can be programmed to transition focus automatically from one distance to another.
Touch screens, and automatic subject detection, also make keeping on the right subject much easier than before. You will also find many more zooms in the stills world than in the cine world, and these relatively compact lenses make working on a gimbal much more practical.
Using specialist lenses
Some particular looks and styles we see in cinema can’t be replicated with regular stills lenses. You will be able to find old stills lenses that flare and which have a nice soft look, and you can use soft focus or black mist filters to make a regular lens more ‘cinematic,’ but you can’t simulate the look of an anamorphics lens as the effects is created optically.
A cylindrical element in the lens captures a view that’s wide on the horizontal axis but normal on the vertical axis, and then compresses that wide view to fit on a regular shape sensor.
The view is ‘de-squeezed’ in post-production to produce the letterbox shape image we associate with old westerns and a lot of modern day cinema. You can crop a regular image to the 2.4:1 aspect ratio, but it won’t have the same look as a shot taken with an anamorphic lens.
Cine vs stills lenses – think about the job in hand
As is very often the case, the kit you ‘should’ be using depends very much on the job in hand. If you are shooting a holiday video, a video diary, nature or any form of informational video, shooting with your regular stills lenses will be absolutely fine, and in many cases actually the very best option.
If you are a one-person band too, shooting with the benefits of a good AF system that you are truly familiar with will save time and effort, and allow you to concentrate on your composition and not tripping over while walking around with the camera.
However, if your film needs a dose of atmosphere, romance, emotion and a dreamy feel – so you are fictionalising a real life situation or actually shooting a drama – cine lenses will help you to get the look you are after more easily.
They will help you to create a consistent characteristic from one focal length to another and allow changes of viewpoint that transition so smoothly the audience will hardly notice them. Regular stills lenses tend to produce a more factual and neutral look, while cine lenses tend to lay on the romance and produce an image that might be a little more beautiful.
I say ‘tend to’ because not all cine lenses and not all stills lenses are the same, and it’s pretty common to find old stills lenses rehoused in a cine body for their classic characteristics. Hopefully we’ve cleared up the key differences between stills and cine lenses for shooting video, but do get in touch if you have any further questions – email firstname.lastname@example.org
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