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Choosing lenses for filmmaking

  • 50mm lenses are usually great value and let you blur the background
  • Wide and ultrawide lenses are good for handholding and getting in close, but they distort closeups
  • Telephoto lenses are big, heavy and need a tripod

Looking to buy or hire lenses for a system still camera? Here’s a guide to the advantages and disadvantage of different kinds of prime and zoom lenses.

The information in italics shows the focal length you should be looking for to get this effect on cameras with different sized sensors.

  • Full-frame sensors are about the same size as 35mm still camera film. They are used on some professional cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II/III and the Sony A7S.

Sensors that are smaller than this are sometimes called crop sensors:

  • APS-C sensors are used on many mid-range SLR cameras like the Canon T5i/700D. They are about the same size as a 35mm movie camera frame.
  • Four-thirds is a smaller sensor size used on Olympus and Panasonic cameras.

You can use lenses designed for full frame on cameras with smaller sensors, though you may need an adaptor. (For compact cameras, it’s best to find out what the 35mm equivalent is.) Many Panasonic users get the optical Metabones Speedbooster adapters, which let them use – and get the effect of – full-frame Canon lenses with the smaller Panasonic sensor.

The first three focal lengths here roughly cover the same range as the ‘kit lens’– a cheap zoom lens – that comes on many system cameras.


WIDE 16-24

Wide angle
Focal length: Full-frame around 24-40mm; APS-C 15-24mm; Four-thirds 12-20mm
Very useful for filming master shots of the whole scene, or getting in close and working in cramped spaces. Easy to handhold, with strong perspective and good depth of field. Drawback: closeups will be distorted. If you want to shoot with just one prime lens, this may be the one to have.


STANDARD

Standard
Focal length: Full-frame around 50mm; APS-C around 35mm; Four-thirds 25mm.
These lenses offer natural-looking perspective. They are good for two-shots and mid shots (hips to head) but they give slight distortion if used for closeups. 50mm prime lenses are usually small and ‘fast’ (they have a wide maximum aperture which lets in a lot of light). f/1.8 versions are compact and give excellent image quality for the money; faster versions (1.4 or 1.2) are bigger and more expensive.


Closeup of girls face

Medium telephoto or ‘portrait’ lens
Focal length: Full-frame around 85-100mm; APS-C around 50-60mm; Four-thirds 40-50mm.
These are the shortest lenses that will give undistorted closeups. They are usually quite ‘fast’ (they have a wide maximum aperture) which makes them good in low light. They are tricky to handhold and are best on a tripod.

These lenses seem to flatten perspective (which is good for strong, graphic compositions) and let you get nice shallow depth of field effects.

If you’re using a Canon or Nikon crop sensor camera, a 50mm f/1.8 lens – which would be a standard lens on a full frame body – makes an excellent, affordable medium telephoto.


TELE

Telephoto lenses
Focal length: Full-frame, 135mm and above. APS-C 85mm and above. Four-thirds, 60mm and above.
Longer telephoto lenses are good for flattening perspective, isolating the subject from the background and bringing distant objects closer. But they are usually big, heavy, slow and need to be used on a tripod or monopod.


ULTRAWIDE 10-16

Ultrawide
Focal length: Full-frame less than 24mm; APS-C less than 16mm; Four-thirds less than 12mm
These lenses will fit a lot into the scene. They are very easy to handheld and to move smoothly, with very good depth of field. But closeups and the edges of shots will be very distorted, and it’ll be very obvious if the lens isn’t level. These lenses are great for fast, fly-on-the-wall documentary work because they let you get really close to the subject, and the dramatic perspective can make pretty much anything look interesting. But good quality ultrawide lenses for system cameras are expensive.


Which lenses to buy?
You could buy one or two zoom lenses, or you could get ‘prime’ (fixed focal length) lenses. These are slower to use, because you need to change lenses, but many filmmakers like the image quality and shallow focus effects you get with them. They are usually better in low light because they have wider apertures than equivalent zoom lenses.

To start with, you probably need a wide-angle lens (maybe a zoom), a ‘standard’ lens and a medium telephoto lens. If you need more ‘exotic’ lenses, like ultrawide or fast telephoto lenses, it’s best to hire them until you’re sure you will be using them regularly.