The Minimalist Guide to Camera Lenses (For Filmmakers)

Regarding buying camera lenses, some are better for photography, and some are better for cinema. You are choosing a particular lens, an aesthetic decision based on your needs as a filmmaker. So you will want to become friends with the cameral rental house, rent some lenses and then run many tests.

To start the process, you’ll need to know the camera sensor size and the specific lens mount for your camera body.

The sensor is the part of your camera that translates the image you see into the 1s and 0s of digital video. Filming in different resolutions affects how much the sensor is in use. My Sony A7S II, for example, has a full-frame sensor, but the entire sensor is only used when I film in 4k resolution. If I were to shoot in 1920 x 1080, I would only use a portion of the sensor to capture the image.

Keep sensor size in mind when you buy a lens. 

I made the mistake of buying an excellent Zeiss zoom lens for my camera and was dismayed to discover that when shooting in 4K, there was a heavy vignette around the image. This is because I didn’t buy a full-frame lens. A full-frame lens allows the picture to cover the entire surface area of the sensor. A non-full-frame lens only allows the image to cover a portion of a full-frame sensor.

When you look through a lens meant for a smaller sensor, you will see the inside edges of the lens, which are black. If you were to use a full-frame lens on a smaller sensor, you would not be capturing the full image. Know your sensor size, and then buy camera lenses designed for that sensor.

camera lenses

The Minimalist Guide to Camera Lenses (For Filmmakers)

The lens mount is how your lens locks onto your camera. 

Different companies make their cameras with specific mounts. Sometimes you can order your camera body with the camera mount you want,t but if not, donation’s! Some companies make excellent adaptors to fit almost any lens to any camera.

My Sony A7S II has a Sony E-Mount receiver. This means that when I buy camera lenses, I need to be sure to purchase one that has this type of mount. And since I mostly use my equipment for making films, I needed to find cinema-style camera lenses.

One attribute of a cinema lens is that it has teeth around the focus ring, and the aperture ring. These ‘teeth’ ‘a be combined with a follow focus to allow the AC (Assistant Camera) to pull focus during a shot. Cinema lenses also tend to have a more significant amount of pull needed to adjust focus. This is useful when filming, as a tiny focus pull can be much more challenging to get right during a shot.

A prime lens is a set lens instead of a variable lens (zoom lens). 

The advantage of a prime lens is that the image generally is sharper, and exposure does not require as much light as a zoom lens. A zoom lens is a long tube, and the glass elements can slide closer or further apart to change the lens size. A variable lens is handy in a fast-paced scenario but requires more light. A variable lens is helpful in run-and-gun situations.

When buying camera lenses, sharpness is also an important consideration. Sharpness is determined, in part, by the quality of the glass and how that glass is ground to create the lens. I chose five lenses made by a Korean company called Rokinon. These lenses are relatively cheap, but the craftsmanship and the quality of the image they produce are impressive.

The 14mm lens creates unbelievably wide images and allows you to get a shot in a small work area. The 24mm lens is still a relatively wide angle, but it makes an image that looks more normal to the eye. And the 35mm lens is known for Hollywood close-up. Grab this lens if someone says they are ready for their close-up.

If you’re looking for a much narrower field of view, the 50mm and 85mm lenses are the way to go. These telephoto camera lenses are great for capturing fine detail or an extreme close-up. Remember that a telephoto lens will also have a much shorter focal length. (The focal length is the amount of distance that you can have in focus at one time.) A short focal length is fantastic when you want the background to be much more out of focus than your subject.

Like all aspects of filmmaking, the creative decisions you make regarding camera lenses and gear should always serve the story.

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John Graham is an LA-based filmmaker. His feature films’ Home Sfilms’ me’, ‘Catching’F ‘h’ and ‘Wish F’r Chr’stmas’ are available in the USA and worldwide. John attended the Savannah College of Art and design, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BFA in Film and Television. Check out his website or Instagram for more.

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