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Still Lenses That Can Grace The Big Screen

On the still lens front, you have a variety of options. I am addressing this topic from a 40 foot screen digital projection perspective, not a still photography one.
 

ZEISS ZE PRIMES

 

21-Zeiss-ZE

21mm-Zeiss-ZE


 
Zeiss ZE primes rock. Their resolution is spectacular and they are lightweight. Their focus is a little more cinematic than a Canon or a Nikon, so it gives your focus puller a chance.
 
28mm-Zeiss-ZE

28mm-Zeiss-ZE


 
The lenses do breathe, which means they zoom in or zoom out when you rack focus. This aesthetic bothers some people so you should see if you like it and or can deal with it.

Buy ZEISS ZE PRIMES:
B&H
 

CANON L SERIES PRIMES

 

EF 35mm

Canon L Series 35mm

EF 85mm

Canon L Series 85mm


 
Canon L Series Primes deliver very beautiful, sharp images. They do not resolve as well as the Zeiss primes, so you will lose a little detail and color gradation choices in post. If you are fine with that, then the Canon primes are a great choice. Their zooms are not as sharp as the primes and they don’t hold contrast as well.

Buy CANON L SERIES PRIMES:
B&H
 

Canon L Lenses

Canon L Series Lenses


 
The Canon EF lenses cannot hold up on the big screen. I used them on the first two shooting days of the Navy SEAL movie, Act of Valor, and they were just plain soft. When I went into color correction, I was not able to have the full range of detail of the 8 BIT compressed color space that I had with the L series or the Nikons. Canon lenses also have one tricky issue: the endless focus wheel. It is amazing for a still photographer but not a trained focus puller. Companies like Zacuto have put lens stops on their zip gears to try and correct the problem but it is still something to contend with.
 

NIKON AI SERIES PRIMES

 

Nikkor 28mm

Nikon AI Series 28 mm

50mm

Nikon AI Series 50 mm


 
Nikon glass delivers well with the AI series. They were the cream of the crop back in the late 1970s and early 1980s and still are in my book. They deliver images just like the Zeiss in contrast but the glass has a warmer tone. However, their focus range is short like the Canons.

Buy NIKON AI SERIES PRIMES:
B&H
 

LEICA R SERIES PRIMES

 

Leica 1:2.8

Leica 35 mm R Series


 
I tested Leica and found that they delivered beautiful contrast and color throughout.  They felt the closest to the Panavision Primo Primes and had more of a cinema focus throw, even more than the Zeiss ZE primes. These lenses resolve so well on the big screen.

Buy LEICA R SERIES PRIMES:
eBay
 

HASSELBLAD MEDIUM FORMAT ZEISS PRIMES

 

50 mm Hasselblad Medium Format

150 mm Hasselblad Medium Format


 
Hasselblad medium format lenses were very interesting on the 5D. It had the same contrast and color of the Zeiss ZE Primes. You need to check it out. They have an amazing cinema focus throw, but  breathe like the Zeiss. I like the large focus markings and the weight. They felt really nice on my Red Rock Micro shoulder rig.  As long as you feel comfortable shooting above a 4.0, these lenses are a great choice.

Buy HASSELBLAD MEDIUM FORMAT ZEISS PRIMES:
B&H

With all of the lens options out there, these are still just tools. The story and the characters are KING! These players all have a back story that never makes it to the screen, but it is the thread, the tapestry that binds the film.  Find that thread, follow it to dream and create your next work of art!!!!

Author: Shane

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354 Comments

  1. Hi Shane,

    I’m a big fan of your work. It’s great to see how A list DPs have embraced digital. My question is, what should an underground filmmaker do if they are using a 60d which only has an EFS fitting. Won’t convertors from EFS to alternate fittings compromise the metering & in camera aperture? I know that in Stop Motion when you switch over to a manual Nikon lens it does, which complicates things slightly but can be overcome as the camera and lighting setups are stationary. But if I am shooting live subjects in an evolving environment I would think that the disadvantages on the fly of using an adapter would outweigh the gains.

    Is it possible to sharpen the image in post? With the 60D’s sensor even the stock lens over realizes the image for 1920×1080. It’s meant for a much larger image. So if we’re already maximizing the pixel spread by shooting an image much smaller than the sensor is built to handle, how does the breakup occur due to glass? Could the EFS issue you ran into be because the 5D Mark III is meant for L fitting glass (though I am not entirely sure what camera you tested the EFS glass on)? You would have to use an adapter to use EFS on a 5D, right?

    Ideally I would like to avoid adapters if at all possible. Thank you for taking the time to read my question.

    Thanks,
    Scott

    Post a Reply
    • Scott. Thanks for the kind words and support. That is true, when you use a lens adapter you can no longer meter in camera. I never use histograms or in camera metering. I expose by eye and use a light meter. You can sharpen a little bit in post, but it doesn’t work great. When shooting with DSLR’s I always bake in my look, and get the image where I want it on the day of shooting. Not in post. The quality of the lenses you use are what give you a sharp image. EF lenses are great for shooting stills, but not for filmmaking. Hope that helps.

      Post a Reply
  2. Hi Shane,
    Great blog!! I’ve learnt so much from your site. Thank you.

    I noticed in your ACT OF VALOR blogs that you used a few different lens makes, such as Panavision, Canon and Zeiss. Did you find any issues mixing lenses in scenes, such as different temperatures and contrasts and if so, how did you overcome the differences and ultimately match your shots?

    Thanks,
    George

    Post a Reply
    • George. Thanks so much for the kind words and support. Yes we used all different types of glass with all different qualities of color temperature. In our grading sessions we we’re easily able to balance all the different lens types and have the visuals feel seamless.

      Post a Reply
      • You completely disregarded the takumars the smc’s the super taks and the helios,
        Which in my humble opinion could even blow a CZ deadclear out of the water.
        Or am I wrong here. E.g. super tak 50mm 1:1.4 is a gem imho and a hidden one at that as well…

        Post a Reply
  3. Shane,
    First, I am a HUGE fan! If you are ever in need of a PA please keep me in mind. Second, I am looking for some lenses with a manual iris controls, but when I contacted Duclos they said there weren’t any adapters that they would recommend. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?

    Thanks,

    Ryan Bradshaw

    Post a Reply
    • Ryan Bradshaw, what lenses do you want to adapt? Fotodiox have the best adapters I think.

      Post a Reply
      • I have a few Canon FD lenses that I’d like to use. I’ll look into Fotodiox. Thanks Shane!

        Post a Reply
        • To clarify, I’m trying to go FD to EF.

          Post a Reply
  4. Hi Shane, Love your work. I’m looking to invest in manual nikkor lenses and would like to know if there is any real dif. In image quality between the non-ai version compared to the ai versions? Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Mendel, not really, I like both and have both types and love them

      Post a Reply
  5. Hi,

    fantastic advise!

    I’m shooting what will be my second feature and aiming for the big screen

    I have a canon d650 and upon reading about cinema friendly lens have opted for either one of the Nikon A1 series primes (budget dictating)

    will these bad boys be compatible with my camera?

    regards

    Kenny

    Post a Reply
    • beefthemovie, thank you for your kind words. Yes as long as you have a Nikon to Canon adapter from fotodiox you are good to go.

      Post a Reply
      • thanks for the reply!

        just bagged a Nikon AI 50mm as above f1.8 for a decent price.
        seems ok, aperture feels a bit gritty on certain f stops, glass looks good and no signs of fungus however, on closer inspection I noticed what looks like a small hair inside the lens (center) can this cause a problem as I intend to use this for video? if not panic over otherwize can I open this puppy and clean it myself? regards, Kenny

        Post a Reply
  6. Have you used Zeiss Contax Yashica Lenses before? What are your thoughts?

    -Thanks

    Post a Reply
  7. Hi, Shane

    Does it matter the Zeiss ZE lenses do not have a manual aperture ring or does it make more sense to use the Zeiss ZF.2′s with an adapter? Also, do the improvements in the Mark III justify the price or is the Mark II still a viable investment even with the aliasing and more issues?

    Thanks.

    RobG

    Post a Reply
    • RobG. I prefer the ZF lenses to have manual control over the Aperture and have all my manual lenses cine moded from Duclos http://www.ducloslenses.com/pages/cine-mod to to be able to dial in the aperture in 1/10th of a stop increments. With this you have more control over the exposure and be able to do Iris pulls. I still use and love the image of the 5DMkII, but the 5DMkIII has some nice features over the MkII. Longer record time, ability to save your settings on an SD card, More audio control, and better light sensitivity. Thanks for the comment and support.

      Post a Reply
      • Hi, Shane

        Thank you for your response. I have one other question. I have pretty much decided on my 5D cinema package. I know there isn’t one magic pill that does everything but, I have decided to go with the Zeiss ZF.2′s (21, 35, 50, 85) and will go through the cine mod. I read you like these lenses but they have more contrast than others. Are there ways to tone down the contrast and would that be a reason not to buy these lenses? My head is spinning from all the research. :)

        Thanks again for all you do.

        RobG

        Post a Reply
        • RobG. I do like the ZF’s but if you have the budget for them Leica R’s with the leitax mount is the best hands down. Lower contrast and sharper. The Zeiss glass is sharp, but too contrasty at times.

          Post a Reply
  8. Mr. Hurlbut,
    Thank you for taking your time to do this blog. It has helped me a lot.

    I am about to buy my first DSLR (Canon T3i) and I was wondering what two or three lenses I should buy. I heard that you should start off with a zoom and a 50mm. Is this what you would reccomend?

    -Rafel

    Post a Reply
  9. Hi Shane,

    Really love the work that you do. I’m just getting into DSLR video and don’t necessarily have the means to afford the newer Zeiss glass yet being a broke college grad and all :p .. What are your thoughts on some of the older Contax Zeiss lenses? Do they hold up as well?

    Thanks again for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us,

    Regards,
    Hari

    Post a Reply
    • Hari, thank you for the kind words and I have not used those lenses but many bloggers say they rock and look very cinematic.

      Post a Reply
  10. Hi Shane,

    Thank you again for your awesome posts. I think we both agree that Primos are the best cine lenses ever made. However, since we can’t own em, what would you say is the best cine lens set money could buy?

    Post a Reply
  11. Hi Shane,

    I was wondering what adapter do you use for getting Nikon AI lenses on Canon mounts?
    By the way, keep up the good work.

    Dominik

    Post a Reply
    • Dominik Belancic. I use Fotodiox adapters. Thanks for the comment and support.

      Post a Reply
  12. Hi Shane,

    I was curious if you have any experience with Contax Zeiss lenses. I’ve read they lend a more organic look to video.

    Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Randy Rubin, I have not tried those, I am sorry to say. Will try to check them out.

      Post a Reply
  13. Shane, thank you for your work on this blog. I’m about to buy set of leicas 19 2.8 (36xxxxxx), 35 1.4 (32xxxxxx), 50 1.4 (36xxxxxx), 80 1.4 (32xxxxxx). I noticed on wide apertures (except the 19mm) they have bit ninja star like aperture. 85 has more blades and it is bit irregular when stopped down. I checked many of these lenses and they all seem to exhibit this ninja star and irregularity. Is this a problem? Were these lenses like this when they were new or is this just a wear from use? Is this a reason not buy them and try to find better copies?

    Other question is that do these lenses produce similar images with each other? The serial difference is quite big in manufacturing years. 50mm is ROM version, but it is still E55, not E60. This 50mm lens is also quite expensive, would it be better to go with older version for achieving the same look?

    I was also considering 90 2.0 but I was told 80 1.4 produces more dreamy images and is more flattering to the skin for women.

    Does the image quality stay good if i use Leica’s 2x APO-EXTENDER? Is it worth buying to get more focal length options for the listed lenses?

    Post a Reply
    • I’ll withdraw my questions as I already bought a set of them… inspired by this blog I’m now happy part of the Leica filmmaking family. I went with:

      19 2.8 (2nd gen), 24 2.8, 35 1.4, 50 1.4 (E55), 60 2.8, 80 1.4 and 80-200 4.0

      I know 24 is no where near as good as the new 28, but new 28 costs at least three times the old 28′s price and new 24 was just bit more expensive than old 28. So I went with 24 cause I felt 28 was too close to 35 and too far from 19. It also seemed that 24 had been bashed around the internet just because it was originally Minolta design, but the word is that Leica improved the design over the time and for minolta components they had rejection rate of 85% when Leica assembled them. Time will tell was this a smart move. Now need to think if I should cinemod or rehouse them. I’m still thinking if I will need the 15mm but for that I could only afford the old f3.5 version

      Post a Reply
  14. I recently went ALL-IN into the HDSLR world from more traditional videography cameras. I got the rail system, matte box, 5DIII and external monitor. I have a set of 28mm, 50mm, 100mm, 70-300mm Nikkor lenses old E series. I was surprised you mentioned them in your post. Very surprised. Are these legit? They say the lenses should be the most expensive part of your setup. In other words, can I do video on them with confidence?

    I’d like to use my matte box for ND filters. Any you recommend?

    Post a Reply
  15. Hi Shane,

    I just purchased a Canon 5D mk III body for filmmaking and am looking for lenses. I have the tiniest of budgets. I’ve always wanted Zeiss, as my friends have and use, but I have a budget of about $1000 for lenses all together.

    It looks like Nikon is my best bet. However, searching for an AI series has been problematic. Most places have AF. This post is from two years back, what’s an updated way to find lenses that fit my 5D and are good quality?

    Thanks,
    Olivia

    Post a Reply
    • Olivia, you can find the adapter for Nikon to Canon at Fotodiox.com. Then go on e-bay for the AI and AI-s lenses, they are very affordable and you can get a nice kit for 1000, it just takes patience and you have to be like a treasure hunter, this is how I found all of mine. I hope this helps

      Post a Reply
  16. Hi Shane,

    Your blog is fantastic, You have taught me so much over the few months I have been reading it… Amazing work!!

    Post a Reply
    • Sam, thank you for your kind words and support.

      Post a Reply
  17. Hello Shane, thanks for this article, it’s really interesting. Have you try the Rokinon lenses? I read goog reviews about the 35mm and 85mm, but I don’t know how they response in big screen. Cheers, and congrats for your work.

    Post a Reply
    • Vince,I have on the new BMPC camera, not very happy with their sharpness and their field of focus fell off to the point where the lens never felt in focus

      Post a Reply
      • Thank you Shane!

        I’m looking for a set of lenses for the BMPC4K. I would like a wide lens, something close to 28mm in FF35. I suppose that one of this could be a good option:

        -Contax Zeiss F-Distagon T* 16mm F2.8
        -Carl Zeiss Rollei Distagon HFT 16mm F2.8
        -Leica Leitz Fisheye Elmarit R 16mm F2.8

        Thank you again for your answer.

        Post a Reply
        • The Contax 16mm is excellent and the Leica 15mm will be better but that baby cost a fortune. I say go with the Contax

          Post a Reply
          • Hi Shane, love your work, love your ideas and enthusiasmn in finding easier ways to achieve high goals. You absolutely rock the business!!!

            I use a set of vintage Canon FD S.S.C. glass together with a LensTurbo on the FS100, and am – so far very happy with the results. Only thing bothering me is the clicky aputure – do you know anyone who has selfdeclicked the aputurering of a FD lense and can give advice on how to do it?

            Best regards Costa

          • Konstantin “Costa” Konstantinou, yes send it to Duclos lenses in Chatsworth, CA. They will de click you lens for you, they call it the Cine Mod

          • Thanks Shane, Yes, I saw that the Leica 15mm is really expensive, but the Leica 16mm has a good price, so for this reason I was considering it. In the other hand, I think would be better to have all the lenses with the same brand, same glass, same coating, same color… right? Thank you again for your reply.

          • Vicente Gil Ginestar, yes keep the same glass. Try that 16mm out. Not sure

  18. Hi shane, thank you for your helpful posts. You wrote that the nikon ai are good lenses but that sounds weird to me because they are so cheap.. You can get one around 400$. How can a lens that cheap compare to the zeiss? Or even grace the big screen?

    Post a Reply
    • Shai, because it did, on Act of Valor I shot many scenes with the Nikon AI, love the color and the antique quality. Nikon makes great glass

      Post a Reply
  19. Hi shane
    i always appreciate the amount of knowledge you share wit us n am sure we are all thankful for that.
    Let me ask ,
    *whats the real difference between a photo zoom and a cinema zoom?

    thanks in advance all the way from Nairobi|Kenya.

    Post a Reply
    • mathenge, a photo zoom lens is one that will breathe huge when you focus it will actually zoom in or zoom out, it also has a very short range of focus, much slower in f-stops, do not hold focus when you zoom in. Cinema zooms are tailored for filmmaking. They hold focus when you zoom all the way in, they do not breathe that much, their focus range is vast

      Post a Reply
  20. Hello Shane, I always look forward to reading your amazing insights into filming because of the straight forward approach to describing the often complex nuances of your work. You share great technical info and inspiration in equal parts. My question is related to your comment about using instinct and a hand held meter to judge and “bake” the look of your films. When I first started to shoot video content for still clients two years ago I was pretty intimidated by the learning curve one needs to master to get to where I wanted to go. I also used to use a handheld meter but that was way back in the film era. Instead I rely on the histogram exposing to the left without loosing to much highlight detail because I thought that was a pretty good way to interpret a digital sensor. So, could you expand a bit on your approach to exposure? Do you go for a “feel” obviously based on lots of experience with film and the particular digital camera used and just ignore the histogram?

    Thank you, David

    Post a Reply
    • David, I have never been a histogram fan, you cannot tell where you are with your image. Try false color, this shows you every value on the screen and you can decide whether you want to hold that highlight or let it go. Perfect example I was lighting a scene the other day on Fathers and Daughters, If I had gone off the histogram or a waveform you would have seen a clip over 100 and you would have brought that down so that it would hold it, problem was it was a highlight on the desk from a backlight, that looked perfect on the back of Amanda’s head but hot on the desk, I will let that go, because that is a nice blowing highlight I would never want to hold. I hope this helps

      Post a Reply
      • Thank you, that certainly makes sense. Sorry for diverging from the subject of lenses. More on point, I have been using a few older single coated Nikkor lenses which can be used for a nice vintage look. To my eye they have an even warmer, glowing quality especially in contra light yet still retain plenty of sharpness otherwise.

        Post a Reply
  21. Someone has experience with the sigma 35 mm art? Any ideas how strong the breathing performs?

    Post a Reply
    • Julian, so sorry cannot help with that, ANYONE???

      Post a Reply
  22. Hey Shane,

    I only have one question. i’m completely new to all of this but i just pre-ordered the new GH4.. i dont have a big budget and i was just wondering whats a good all around lens to buy for it? People have told me to start off with the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 O.I.S. lens but i’m still having trouble. if you could please give me your quick opinion on it that’d be great. Thank YOU

    Post a Reply
    • Jesse, I wish I could but I am not a big fan of that camera so I have not done much research on it. You really need prime lenses to start to train your eye and to learn how to compose. Zoom lenses make lazy filmmakers and I know you are not that. So grab a 24mm,50mm and 100mm and kick some ass.

      Post a Reply
      • Hey Shane thank you so much. i have one more question. What camera would you recommend? i’ve saved up a lot of money on my deployment and i still am, and just figured id go ahead and buy the newest Camera out there. I understand i won’t need the 4k but i thought if i had the cash then why not.

        Post a Reply
    • I’m not familiar with the MFT lens choices so I can’t make actual recommendation but if you start of with that lens you are going to have a big trouble on tight spaces and generally on getting wide shots anywhere… it’s like having 5D with only 70-200 zoom. I’m sure that in that case most of the people would pick up 24-70 instead, but to be honest I think for most shoots need the range of both of them.

      Post a Reply
  23. Hi Shane

    Can not thank you enough for your amazing info to help me get my learn on! I was just wondering what you mean when you say that certain lenses don’t resolve well?

    Post a Reply
    • rashad, Resolution is a big deal. If you are taking a highly compressed image like the Canon 5D and projecting with Still lenses that cost you about 200 bucks, the resolution will not be enough to cut through all that digital compression. SO using a very sharp, lower contrast lens like an Leica R or Zeiss ZE will deliver a shaper look and resolve better.

      Post a Reply
  24. Hi Shane,

    I’ve been told you cant use the witness marks on the Canon CN-E Primes as the EF mount is usually out. I can see you have used them in your films. Have you had trouble with these lenses? Or using witness marks with EF lenses?

    Best,

    Mark

    Post a Reply
    • Mark Williams, We use all of these lenses with Bartech Remote follow focus systems so that we can set in and out points, because of the EF endless ring of the Canon L series Primes

      Post a Reply
  25. Hi Shane,

    Thanks for all the great advise. I would just like to know what lens (or lenses) you would recommend. I’m looking at picking up a canon 5d mark 2. My budget is in the hundreds and not the thousands for the lenses so that is something to be considered. I would mainly be using them for documentary film making but want to have lenses that would also be good all round. I do a lot of photography as well so if there is a good lens for both that would help me a lot.

    Thanks,

    Post a Reply
    • Alan, you are very welcome and thank you for your support. I would look at the Nikon AI and AI-S lenses of the 70′s or the Zeiss Jena series, which all of these would be found on E bay

      Post a Reply
    • Hi Alan,
      If you can save up the cash, I’d get yourself some Canon L Series glass. If you’re going to be doing a lot of “run-n-gun” style shooting the L series zooms will give you more speed and you can save some money. Canon makes three lenses that run at an f2.8 constant, a 16mm-35mm, a 24mm-70mm and a 70mm-200mm. There is also the option of the L series 24mm-105mm that is an f4 constant. Keep in mind that if you choose the route of mixing and matching lenses, it will make things more difficult to match the footage, especially if you are strapped for cash and can’t get yourself a good color chart. Plus, those L series lenses are still lenses to begin with, they’re great lenses.

      Post a Reply
  26. hey shane,
    i’m a big fan, and been following you for some time now. I appreciate all of your insight. You really are a big help for us younger cinematographers that are looking for some guidance. I have a question for ya.

    Im about to shoot a feature and i am going to use a set of Leica summicron-c glass. they open to a t2. The have been housed by vanDeiman in the uk. These will be my primary lenses.

    I also own a set of leica R glass that are still photography lenses, cine-modded. I would like to use these sets of lenses interchangeably. Now there is a big difference in functionality of the 2 lens sets, but i was wondering if i should expect a huge difference of quality in the actual glass? Think i’ll be able to use both sets and they will intercut just fine?

    my leica r glass range from summicron to elmerit most open to a 2.8

    I am doing a test on matching these 2 sets in about a week, in the meantime i just wanted to get your opinion on mixing such slr lenses vs true cinema lenses.

    any information about mixing glass would be a big help.

    we will be shooting on 2 c300. 2 cams all the time…….. Thanks:)

    Post a Reply
    • Your rehoused VanDeiman lenses are originally Leica R still photography lenses. The glass is the same, it is just rehoused… of course there are natural differences between each lens depending on the original model, design, age and the wear but this has nothing to do with the mod. This is same as asking can you combine a random Leica R lens with any other random Leica R lens. Some designs are better than others.

      Post a Reply
      • Ok, I have to post correction.. I check Van Diemen website again and the photos of the lenses. From the placement of the aperture ring and the selection of focal lengths they have, I think it is possible that some of the lenses are made from Leica M mount lenses. Hard to say, as far as I know there’s no 19mm on M mount, but then again there’s no 75mm on R mount. You better contact them directly and ask.

        Post a Reply
  27. Hey Shane, I was looking into the nikon ais glass for my next 50mm. I managed to find this lens in different maximum apertures, the 2, 1.8, 1.4, and 1.2, which was surprising to me. I will be using the lens on short films, web series’, and maybe my first feature, who knows. I never shoot below a 2. Would it affect my image overall if I went with a 1.8 instead of a 1.4 or 1.2? Thank you so much for taking the time to read this question.

    Post a Reply

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