Lenses For Still + Motion

While both photography and videography are visual mediums, video and filmmaking add an extra level of complexity. Essentially, you’re creating a motion picture from many sequences of still images, and while many of the same rules apply when it comes to composition, exposure and aesthetics, motion adds several other challenges like sound, camera movement and continuity.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Red Scarlet, Canon EOS-1D C, Nikon D800

RED pioneered the professional 4K and 5K still and motion workflow with their DSMC (Digital Still & Motion Camera) concept. Other manufacturers have followed suit, and as still photography and motion capture merge for many professionals, lens choices are impacted. In particular, with motion capture, there are several additional considerations, such as how focal length, angle and lens choice will affect story, subject and mood. At the same time, for still photographers, resolution and imaging quality matter above all else. This is one of the reasons why RED offers their cameras with different mounts. Depending upon your emphasis—still or motion capture—you might find one line of lenses better-suited than another.

The last couple of years have also seen the introduction of a new class of large-sensor camcorders that offer the imaging quality of DSLRs and mounts for DSLR lenses to be able to cover these larger imaging circles. While it’s true that current DSLRs excepting the Canon EOS-1D C only offer up to 1080p at a little more than 2 megapixels in resolution by each frame, 4K, and at 16 times the resolution of HD, even 8K video formats are on their way. What all of this means is that putting together a comprehensive set of lenses that will be able to future-proof high-resolution video projects while still providing enough versatility for stills is no simple matter.

Why Primes?


Prime lenses are much more compact and they’re lighter, which makes them ideal for use with low-profile, video-capable DSLRs, especially as many offer a much closer minimum focusing distance over zooms. One of the principal advantages of a DSLR over a traditional camcorder, after all, is the low-profile body construction for better scene placement. Primes are designed to cover a single focal length, and to do so efficiently, while zooms include several lens elements that also enhance light scatter and aberrations while reducing overall contrast and sharpness. But perhaps the primary advantage to using primes over zooms is that they force you to make a conscious decision on which lens to utilize previous to a shot. The flexibility of a zoom is certainly an advantage, but it also can lead to lazy compositions. Primes force you to think ahead as to what the most effective composition will be in terms of the storytelling process. This helps to firm an understanding of how focal length, angle and lens choice will affect story, subject and mood.


The L-series is Canon’s line of superior optics, and several primes in the L-series are worthy of a look, including the very fast EF 24mm ƒ/1.4L II, the EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L USM, the EF 50mm ƒ/1.2L USM, the popular EF 85mm ƒ/1.2L II and several telephotos in 135mm, 200mm and 300mm. Canon also offers prime options in the supertelephoto class; however, too much throw is often limiting in filmmaking. The Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8L Macro USM includes a short focusing distance of less than a foot, as well as image stabilization and 1x magnification, which makes it great for close-up work alongside use as a medium telephoto throw. The 85mm L is a worthy alternative, ideal for portraiture with a minimum focus distance of only 3.2 feet. The EF 14mm ƒ/2.8L II is the widest prime that Canon currently produces. Many of these lenses offer a universal front diameter of 72mm or 77mm for using one set of filters across the set.

Primes also offer much better low-light capabilities, as well as imaging quality that surpasses a zoom in the intermediate apertures. This is important because the shutter speed and frame rate must stay the same when capturing video. The larger the aperture, the more leverage you’ll have in low light, as well as normal light. In addition, the sweet spot of image quality starts a couple of stops from wide open or closed down whether using a zoom or a prime. This means that primes offer a better range of sharper apertures thanks to ƒ-stop ranges that routinely start at apertures larger than ƒ/2.0. An ƒ/1.4 prime, for example, would start to hit the sweet spot of sharpness at ƒ/2.8 or smaller, around two stops in, while a zoom with a base constant aperture of ƒ/4.0 wouldn’t provide an optimal image until ƒ/8 or so. Despite the limited 2-megapixel resolution of each 1080p HD frame, sharpness and image quality will show in the video. Working with a prime set of lenses with matching apertures will also give you a swappable lens system that won’t require changes to exposure every time you change the lens. This can save you considerable time if lighting a set or working with optical filters, which are seeing a resurgence in popularity thanks to video.

Why Not Zooms?

Affordable interchangeable lenses are one of the principal reasons why video-capable DSLRs achieved such popularity in the video and filmmaking community. Previously, camcorders with interchangeable lenses were a very expensive proposition at the same time that most affordable pro solutions offered only a single affixed zoom lens coupled with a smaller camcorder sensor. So zooms have application in video, but whether shooting for motion or stills, they’re used more or less for one reason: convenience. This makes them a better choice for event coverage and wildlife while primes are the best option for most other aspects of videography and filmmaking.

Zooms are problematic for motion capture, as well. The zooming rings on a still lens are designed for a fast range of zoom to quickly track randomly moving subjects, so a slight turn equals a relatively massive change in angle of view. This makes zooming during a take difficult to perform smoothly unless you look at follow-focus systems with oversized gears for more gradual rotation of the lens. Follow-focus units and oversized lens gear rings almost always require a camera cage or rig of some kind to mount to the camera, as well. Zooms also need to be refocused if zooming in or out during a take, which is especially difficult to perform because focus is so difficult to achieve on the diminutive LCD screen of most DSLRs. The use of variable-aperture zooms also means changes to your exposure when zooming during a sequence. Zooming with motion is extremely prone to vibrations and subtle movements, as well, and for these reasons professional cinematographers often employ stabilization systems, sliders, rails, jibs and even cranes for moving a camera over choosing to zoom with a lens.

Choosing Your Kit

For DSLR filmmakers, the system you decide on is probably going to mch your camera system, but you should take into consideration several factors. The first is imaging quality. The best glass will provide the best resolution and color fidelity, and you shouldn’t skimp on getting the best lens you can afford. Secondly, a lens set should have the same relative imaging quality across the board so the visual characteristics of footage matches between shots. Cinematographers tend to prefer that the lenses handle the s
ame with similar torque and barrel rotation so they don’t have to relearn a lens every time they make a lens swap. The same-sized front diameter is also an important consideration when using threaded filters across the line, especially since step-up rings can cause vignetting.


Older Nikon manual primes are popular choices for filmmakers for their affordability and availability; however, you lose most of the automatic functions when it comes to stills. AF-S lenses offer current Nikon DSLRs automatic abilities, but for video that isn’t a necessity, so you’ll have several options for most focal lengths. The AF NIKKOR 50mm ƒ/1.8D is a popular prime for its economical pricing and fast aperture, but the AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm ƒ/2.8D offers a similar view coupled with a 1:1 macro reproduction. The AF NIKKOR 50mm ƒ/1.4D is even better in low-light situations. With a minimum focusing distance of 3 feet and 4 feet, respectively, the AF DC-NIKKOR 105mm ƒ/2D and AF DC-NIKKOR 135mm ƒ/2D offer a great medium telephoto that’s doubly useful as a high-quality portraiture lens, especially thanks to the Defocus Control bokeh abilities of both lenses. The AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED is a similar solution that also incorporates Vibration Reduction (VR) and 1:1 macro capabilities. Great wider choices include the AF NIKKOR 20mm ƒ/2.8D, with a minimum focus of only 0.85 feet, and the AF-S NIKKOR 24mm ƒ/1.4G ED for its very fast aperture and Silent Wave Motor.

The system doesn’t have to match the camera, however. Most video work is done with manual focusing, and though you often lose automatic functions, there are numerous adapters available for converting lens mounts from different manufacturers. Options include manual Nikon F-mount lenses on Canon cameras, cinematic Zeiss and PL-mount lenses on DSLR mounts and many more. Used lenses are available on the Internet, and it’s also an option to rent, as cinematic lenses, even older models, are quite expensive.


Sigma makes several Canon-, Nikon- and Sony-mount prime lenses, as well as two prime lenses for the Micro Four Thirds mount of Olympus and Panasonic, the 30mm F2.8 and the 19mm F2.8. Many of Sigma’s primes are offered with similar features as their mainstream counterparts, but at a reduced rate. Options include the 19mm F2.8 EX DN, the 20mm F1.8 EX DG ASP RF, the 24mm F1.8 EX DG ASP Macro, the 28mm F1.8 EX DG ASP Macro, the 30mm F1.4 EX DC HSM, the 30mm F2.8 EX DN, the 35mm F1.4 DG HSM, the 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM, the 50mm F2.8 EX DG Macro, the 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro and the 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM. EX signifies the pro line, and many of the longer lenses also pack OS optical stabilization, like the 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro, 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro and 150mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro. Their super-telephoto primes include the 300mm F2.8 EX APO DG HSM, 500mm F4.5 EX DG APO HSM and 800mm F5.6 EX APO DG HSM, though all three lack stabilization.

With motion, you’re not always going to be able to control the subject’s movements, and you won’t necessarily be able to recompose as you would with stills. Therefore, the minimum focusing distance and hyperfocal distance of a lens will matter quite a bit more with motion. You want a close working distance for detail and macro shots, as well as separation of nearby foreground elements from the background, and you also want a good hyperfocal distance when choosing aperture for covering any play as subjects move through the plane of acceptable sharpness. You can’t go wrong with image stabilization in a lens, either. Image stabilization eats up a bit more of the battery life of your camera, but otherwise there are few disadvantages to employing a lens with optical image stabilization, especially when working with literal moving pictures.


The Micro Four Thirds system mount that several Olympus and Panasonic cameras sport promises a much longer focal-length reach thanks to the 2.0x crop factor of the sensor, as well as much smaller form factors thanks to a shorter flange distance from the lens mount to the sensor. Olympus produces several popular mirrorless cameras with 1080p capabilities in the PEN and OM-D series, including the E-M5, E-PM2 and E-PL5. Panasonic produces the extremely popular Lumix DMC-GH2 camera and its successor, the GH3, as well as several other DSLRs and even a large-sensor camcorder, the AG-AF100, which combines the imaging quality of larger DSLR sensors with Micro Four Thirds-mount lenses. Micro Four Thirds lenses can be used interchangeably between the systems. There are several primes available to work with across the board, but keep in mind that each lens has a 2.0x 35mm equivalence value, so the Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12mm ƒ/2.0, for example, is actually equivalent to a 24mm, which is the widest non-fisheye currently available. There’s also the Panasonic LUMIX G 14mm ƒ/2.5 ASPH pancake wide-angle lens, the Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 17mm ƒ/2.8, the LUMIX G 20mm ƒ/1.7 ASPH, the fast 50mm-equivalent Leica DG SUMMILUX 25mm ƒ/1.4 ASPH, the Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm ƒ/1.8 and the telephoto Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 75mm ƒ/1.8 with 150mm equivalence. Particularly useful for video, there are also two manual-focus lenses with insanely fast apertures from Cosina’s Voigtländer line, the NOKTON 17.5mm ƒ/0.95 and NOKTON 25mm ƒ/0.95, while Tokina offers the 600mm-equivalent Reflex 300mm ƒ/6.3 MF Macro lens at a body size of only 66mm in length. There are also several adapters for using Carl Zeiss, Voigtländer, and Leica R and M mount glass.

A basic set across all formats should be able to cover wide, intermediate (50mm is a good starter) and telephoto fields of view. Often, these three key primes accompanied by a good standard zoom will cover the majority of situations whether shooting motion or still. A single prime set actually can give you twice the versatility in focal lengths if choosing to use both an APS-C and full-frame camera body, which is an option with both Canon and Nikon DSLRs. Thanks to the crop factor, a moderately wide 35mm on a full frame approximates a normalized 52mm to 56mm field of view on an APS-C camera, for example, while a 300mm would yield 450mm to 480mm approximately.


Sony currently offers two distinct lens-mount systems with video recording in the Alpha lines, the Sony A-mount for full-frame and APS-C lenses and the E-mount with APS-C equivalence for Sony’s NEX mirrorless cameras and its line of large-sensor, interchangeable-lens camcorders. First introduced with the NEX-3 and NEX-5, the 1.5x crop E-mount system is relatively new, so there’s a somewhat limited selection of glass with primes, including the 50mm ƒ/1.8 (so a 75mm equivalent), 30mm ƒ/3.5 macro, 35mm ƒ/1.8, 24mm ƒ/1.8 and 16mm ƒ/2.8 for a wide 24mm equivalence. The 10-18mm ƒ/4 zoom is also very wide. Sony’s Alpha line has had a lot more time to mature, however, and there are adapters for using Alpha-mount lenses on E-mount NEX cameras and camcorders
. Alpha-mount prime options include the incredibly affordable DT series of non-full-frame lenses like the DT 50mm ƒ/1.8, DT 35mm ƒ/1.8 and DT 30mm ƒ/2.8 macro. For both full-frame and APS-C use, there are also several available primes, including the 20mm ƒ/2.8, 24mm ƒ/2.0, 35mm ƒ/1.4, 50mm ƒ/1.4, 50mm ƒ/2.8 macro, 50mm ƒ/1.8, 85mm ƒ/2.8, 85mm ƒ/1.4, 100mm ƒ/2.8 macro, 135mm ƒ/1.8, 300mm ƒ/2.8 and 500mm ƒ/4.0 supertelephoto. Sony originally bought the A-mount from Minolta, so Minolta’s A-mount lenses are also compatible.

Cinema Lenses

Choosing lenses for future-proof resolutions

Putting together a video project for the big screen will require the very best in lens technology because any aberrations will be magnified, literally, by the projection. Still lenses can achieve the kind of resolution required by large theatrical projections as long as you’re working with the very best lenses. Motion-picture lenses are built to be as optically precise as possible in short run sets, with a cost that often reflects the limited demand and demanding construction. Because of the precision build, these lenses have a lot of attention paid to numerous optical performance standards like spectral and color transmittance, contrast ratio with excellent black reproduction, optimized MFT measurements throughout the picture center, as well as the edges, light distribution, minimized aberration and geometric distortion. Lower cost lenses have the potential to resolve to the demanding needs of 4K and beyond, but the MTF results and other factors won’t be as reliable as top-of-the-line cinematic lenses. Cinematic lenses are also built for frequent focusing between two or more points. The oversized barrel construction often features distance scales and large rotation for placing enough space to smoothly rack focus between multiple or moving subjects. Cinematographers often work with a separate focus puller who can perform these focal adjustments while the camera operator is freed to concentrate on working with the camera.

Canon. Introduced with the Canon EOS C300 dedicated large-sensor, interchangeable-lens camcorder, Canon’s Cinema lenses include four precision zooms that are available in PL mount for use with filmmaking cameras and an EF mount for use with EOS cameras whether still or motion: the CN-E15.5-47mm T2.8 L, the CN-E30-105mm T2.8 L, the CN-E30-300mm T2.95-3.7 L SP and the CN-E14.5-60mm T2.6 L SP. There are also currently three primes in the line that feature fast apertures: the CN-E24mm T1.5 L F, the CN-E50mm T1.3 L F and the CN-E85mm T1.3 L F. (T-stops are more accurate aperture measurements for filmmakers as they have been adjusted to compensate for any light loss in the lens.) These lenses work on Canon EF-mount DSLRs, and the camcorders also work with the full family of EF and EF-S lenses.

Carl Zeiss. Carl Zeiss has been a big name in motion-picture lenses and optics for a long time. The company offers a few different lens sets, including the popular Zeiss ZE primes and the more recent CP.2 lenses, which are optimized for full-frame DSLR videography. The CP even stands for "Compact Prime," and they offer an interchangeable-lens mount for use with PL (cinema cameras), Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E-mount and Micro Four Thirds cameras. Aperture adjustment is smooth without mechanical stops for fluidly changing depth of field during a take, and there are several matching features across the majority of the line, including calibrated focus scales, 14 aperture blades for nice and buttery bokeh, a consistent front diameter of 114mm, a close-focusing distance of 12 inches or less and a large, fast aperture of T2.1.

RED. RED’s PRO PRIME lenses are available in ARRI PL mounts for their series of highly regarded digital cinema cameras: the 4K-resolution RED ONE, 5K-resolution RED EPIC and hybrid still-and-motion-capture SCARLET, which offers your choice of Canon EF or PL mount and 4K resolution for video, plus 14-megapixel, 5120×2700-resolution stills. Currently, there are seven RED PRO PRIMES available and two RED PRO ZOOMS: the 17-50mm and 18-85mm with T2.9 apertures; the set of primes (the 18mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm and 300mm) offers a bright T-stop of T1.8 and a universal front diameter of 110mm across the board (excepting the 300mm with a T2.9-T34.6 range and 117.4mm diameter). The lenses have been optimized to minimize any breathing from focus changes, which helps to maintain perspective and composition even during a large focus rack between two points. Mounts are available for adapting RED cameras to Canon EF and EF-S lenses, Nikon AF-S and AF-D lenses, and Leica M lenses larger than 50mm.


Creating a set of lenses will depend heavily on the kind of content you’re pursuing and the system you’re invested in. Some even may prefer to have a heavy concentration of wide primes or telephotos, which certainly can be useful on motion projects. They normalize the relative size of subjects to the background, compress distance, narrow your view, flatten perspective and give you considerable throw, making them a compositional necessity for wildlife, sports, landscapes and situations that need to show scale or exaggerate the density of your subjects. (Compression of the scene will emphasize numbers because it makes subjects appear closer together.) Telephotos also can be used for exaggerating bokeh effects with an out-of-focus background since they magnify backgrounds in ratio to the foreground. Telephotos compress and, therefore, make viewers feel as if they have been removed from a scene.

A wide-angle exaggerates the size and distance of objects because more distant objects become a smaller portion of the ratio in the overall angle of view. This helps to emphasize the foreground while incorporating and enhancing expansive backgrounds. The effects are quite dramatic depending on how wide of a wide-angle you’re using. Keep in mind that any foreground movement will be exaggerated, and converging lines also become very pronounced, so composition will take some care to master. Exposure levels across such large scenes also can vary greatly, which makes grad neutral-density filters helpful. A wide-angle is great for working in close-focus or interior situations where the subject is very close to the background because many of them provide a short minimum working distance so the subject will appear separated from the background. This can help to make a scene feel far less claustrophobic.

Other Lens Options

Some filmmakers choose to make a piecemeal kit from the best lenses available, even across alternate systems, while others are concerned with pricing. Several focal lengths aren’t available through the major manufacturers, as well.

Available with or without Vibration Compensation, Tamron’s 90mm F/2.8 Di Macro lens edges out most manufacturers’ 85mm primes with a small jump in telephoto reach. That amounts to a bit more on APS-C cameras at about 135mm-144mm while an 85mm offers around 127.5mm-136mm. Ideal for portraiture, it also provides 1:1 magnification and a minimum focusing distance of less than a foot. Tamron also has the telephoto SP AF 180mm F/3.5 Di LD IF macro with 1:1 magnification. Tokina’s AF 100mm F/2.8 AT-X PRO D is a macro telephoto with 1:1 reproduction and a minimum focus distance of a foot. The focus
limiter switch is a nice touch for quickly achieving focus. Available in both APS-C and full-frame mounts for Canon and Nikon, the AT-X 107 AF DX fisheye zoom is a great choice if you’re looking for that capability, as the zooming ability of the lens also makes it a wide-angle solution, with an angle-of-view range from 180º to 100º at 17mm.