Say you’ve purchased a hot new interchangeable lens camera (happy dance!), and it’s got the image quality, form factor, and settings that dreams are made of. But, let’s be honest: that camera will probably become obsolete in the not-so-distant future, due to something newer and better hitting the market (sad face). Regardless of how your camera changes though, there is one piece of gear that *can* last you for years and years — good glass.
Because of their staying power, choosing a good lens kit is crucial, but it isn’t always easy. Which is why one of the top questions we get in the Academy of Storytellers from filmmakers is, “Which lens should I buy?” Sadly, there isn’t one correct or all-encompassing answer: there are so many specs at play when buying a lens, such as aperture, focal length, size, and minimum focus distance. And when you combine all that with your projects details — like the cameras you have access to and your budget — it can get, well, overwhelming.
So instead, let’s take a step back. Because there are still best practices that can help you navigate all of these things. Here are our top three tips to help you focus on the bigger picture when choosing a lens.
Tip 1: Lenses come before cameras
This is a point that we will continually come back to shop for lenses before buying your next camera. It’s easy to be seduced by all of the specs and test footage from new cameras that roll out on a seemingly daily basis. And if you’re filmmaking nerds like us, you may already be saving up for the newest camera model, which will give you even prettier images and higher resolutions.
But hold up a second! Before committing to that camera, get to know what lens choices there are. Shop around and read the reviews of your camera model’s compatible lenses. For example, the choices for native E-mount Sony lenses are not nearly as plentiful as EF-mount lenses across all manufacturers, such as Canon (below you can see just how many lenses they offer!), Sigma, Tamron, Zeiss, Rokinon, and so on — and not all of the native E-mount choices can fit your budget and your uses.
You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll just get an adapter,” and you’d be right in the sense that adapters are a great way to expand your lens choices. But there is a drawback. Some of the great features of these new cameras, such as the Sony A7RII’s amazing autofocus speeds and features, just won’t work nearly as well using Canon lenses with an adapter (if you couldn’t tell, we kinda geek out over this stuff). Then there is the multitude of other potential problems, such as the adapter getting loose, internal flaring, and electronics failure that can cause the camera to crash.
The bottom line? Know your lens choices and acceptable compromises before you rush into buying that camera.
Tip 2: Think focal length vs. sensor size vs. story
Before digging into the nitty-gritty lens details, let’s first explore the kinds of stories you want to tell. Are you filming an epic, larger-than-life story with sweeping vistas and dynamic movement? Or are you telling an intimate narrative drama that calls for tighter shots and more cinematic bokeh? Or perhaps you’re just shooting an event and you need to move quickly.
Well, the epic film may call for a full-frame camera with some quality wide-angle lenses, while the drama might call for a cinema industry standard S35 sensor size camera or an APS-C or smaller sensor. These lenses have worked beautifully for Hollywood films in the past, and they should work for you. Paired with medium focal-length primes between 24mm and 85mm and a nice wide aperture for beautiful, soft bokeh, your cinematic drama will be worthy of the silver screen. And what about that quick-paced event? This likely calls for a flexible zoom lens allowing you to move as fast as possible, while the sensor size is of less importance.
Take note of how the sensor size will not only affect the focal length of the lenses you’re eyeballing, but also how it affects what lenses you can use in the first place to tell that story. And then fit all of that into your budget.
Full-frame sensors are amazing in that they’ll give you much more field of view with your focal-length choice, and they’re really helpful for landscapes, time-lapses, and achieving maximum bokeh when paired with a nice prime. On the flip side, your choices for lenses are a bit more limited as you’ll need to find more expensive, full-frame compatible glass.
If you do choose an APS-C or S35 sensor camera, your doors open up to tons of lens choices at more affordable prices — although this is at the expense of field of view when you take into account the 1.5-1.6 crop factor. Plus, it becomes a bit harder to achieve the same shallow depth of field, so make sure you also have on hand some wide aperture lenses to get that bokeh.
Tip 3: Consider resolution
1080p vs. 4K, 5K, 6K, 8K and beyond — it’s easy to get lost in the sensor-resolution craze and think of resolution as the biggest deciding factor when it comes to investing in new gear. But remember, all that resolution doesn’t add up to much if you don’t use optics that are sharp enough to make use of it. Shooting on a 1080p camera with superior sharpness optics — i.e., a really good lens — will always look better than shooting with an inferior lens on a Red at 8K.
And of course, going for 8K-worthy lenses costs a pretty penny more than the already pretty penny you pay for high-quality lenses for 1080p and 4K cameras. All this is to say, when you’re investing in resolution, you need to invest in the glass as well. And in the time-honored tradition of respecting your budgets, ask yourself if your story and production really call for greater than 4K, as that delivery is still being figured out.
So when might you want to invest in 4K and the super sharp lenses to go with them? Shooting interviews in 4K and punching into a tighter crop in a 1080p timeline in post has been more and more popular. With this method, a documentary filmmaker can turn one camera angle into two, allowing you to edit interviews with ease. But the viewer will notice a change in quality on that closeup if inferior lenses are used. So what’s a filmmaker to do? You don’t need to spend $5000 on a single lens to get great croppable 4K footage. There are more affordable sharp lenses, such as the Zeiss Milvus and Sigma Art series, which give amazing sharpness at nearly one-fifth the price of Cinema Primes.
Still, it is still costly to go sharp. But if you know your future is to moving into 4K and cropping in post, investing in superior glass could last you a while. But if your target audience can still be wowed with your 1080p camera and solid DSLR lens, stick with what works!
So take a step back from the nitty-gritty of lens specs and sharpness charts. Instead look at the big picture: the stories you want to tell will guide your lens choices (and, in turn, camera selection), and wind up eliminating a lot of the overwhelming factors behind the question, “Which lens should I choose?”
Filmmaking isn’t all about technology. It’s about telling stories, and we shouldn’t be guided exclusively by gear. Gear is your storytelling toolkit and, just like going to a home improvement store for lawn care, you don’t need to leave with the hot new lawnmower while you’re there. Choose the tools that fit the need for the job.