What’s the best lens for filmmaking with a DSLR, mirrorless or cinema camera? These pictures show how the different focal lengths will affect your image.
Scroll down for my recommendations of what kinds of lens to buy, and important things to consider when you’re choosing a lens.
There’s more about using lenses on this page.
Focal length: Full-frame around 24-40mm; APS-C 15-24mm; Four-thirds 10-17mm
These lenses are very useful for filming master shots of a whole scene, or getting in close and working in cramped spaces. They’re easy to handhold, perspective looks dramatic, and there’s good depth of field (a lot of the shot is in focus at the same time). The big drawback is that closeups will be distorted. If you want to shoot with just one prime lens, this may be the one to have.
Focal length: Full-frame around 50mm; APS-C around 35mm; Four-thirds 20-25mm.
These lenses offer natural-looking perspective. They’re good for two-shots of people, and mid shots (hips to head) but they give slight distortion if you use them for closeups. 50mm prime lenses are usually small and ‘fast’ (they have a wide maximum aperture to let 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. The wide maximum apertures make for shallow depth of field: good if you want to use focus creatively, not so good if you need everything to be sharp.
Medium telephoto or ‘portrait’ lens
Focal length: Full-frame around 85-100mm; APS-C around 50-60mm; Four-thirds 35-50mm.
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. But they’re tricky to handhold, so they’re best on a tripod.
These lenses seem to flatten perspective (which is good for strong, graphic compositions) and they let you get nice shallow depth of field effects. You’ll need to be accurate with your focusing.
If your camera has an APS-C or Super 35 sensor, a 50mm f/1.8 lens – which would be a standard lens on a ‘full frame’ body – makes an excellent, affordable medium telephoto.
Focal length: Full-frame, 135mm and above. APS-C 85mm and above. Four-thirds, 60 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.
Focal length: Full-frame less than 24mm; APS-C less than 16mm; Four-thirds less than 10mm
These lenses will fit a lot into the scene. They’re easy to handhold and have 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 good 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. Good quality ultrawide lenses for system cameras are expensive.
Which lenses to buy?
If you’re on a budget and you have an APS-C sensor camera with the kit lens, your next buy should be a 50mm prime (non-zoom) lens. It’ll give a medium telephoto effect, which is ideal for closeups with shallow focus backgrounds. These lenses are great value and usually very good optically. You could even pick up a good quality old manual focus 50mm lens for $20-$30 (£20-30) and mount it to a mirrorless camera or Canon SLR with a similarly priced adapter.
For creative and narrative filmmaking, a set of prime lenses will give higher quality and more ‘cinematic’ shallow focus effects than zoom lenses. You can buy matched ‘cine primes’ which will give you precise control over exposure and focus, but they’re expensive. On a budget, go for used manual focus primes with an adapter.
For news, events and documentary, one or two good zoom lenses will be quicker to use. If you can afford it, get a constant aperture zoom that covers the range from wide to medium telephoto. You won’t have to change lenses, and the exposure won’t change as you zoom in and out. You could also get a wide to ultrawide zoom for close range, handheld shooting.
If you need a more exotic lens – such as a full-frame ultrawide lens or a fast telephoto – it’s best to hire it unless you’re sure you’ll use it regularly.
Other important features
This is important if you need to work fast. The best stabilised modern lenses can allow you to handhold without a tripod, if your camera also has ‘in-body image stabilisation’ (IBIS).
Electronic or mechanical focusing
Many modern camera lenses are ‘fly-by-wire’: you turn a physical focus ring, but an electronic motor adjusts the focus. The focus will change differently depending on how fast you turn the focus ring. This is OK if you mainly use autofocus, or if your camera allows preset focus pulls. But it doesn’t work well if you want to pull (change) focus manually. So you might prefer lenses with mechanical focus rings made by third party manufacturers, or vintage prime lenses which are designed for manual focus.
A parfocal lens holds its focus when you zoom in and out. This can be important when you’re working quickly.
With some lenses, image size can change very slightly as you adjust the focus. This isn’t a problem when you’re shooting stills, but it can be distracting when you pull focus. More expensive, higher quality modern lenses are designed to minimise this.
Focal length and sensor size
The information in italics below the pictures shows the focal length you should be looking for to get this look 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 and the Sony A7S.
Sensors that are smaller than this are sometimes called crop sensors. Crop factor means how much smaller the sensor is than a ‘full-frame’ 35mm still camera frame. This lets you compare lenses on different sensors. So an 18mm lens on a camera with a crop factor of 1.6 will have the same field of view as a 29mm lens on a full frame 35mm still camera. (18 x 1.6 = 29)
- 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. Canon APS-C cameras have a crop factor of around 1.6; with Nikon, Sony and Fujifilm it’s 1.5.
- Some cameras, such as the Canon Cinema EOS range, have slightly larger Super 35 sensors with a 1.4-1.5 crop factor. They can usually use lenses designed for APS-C.
- MFT (Micro Four Thirds) is a smaller sensor size used on Olympus and Panasonic cameras. The crop factor varies from 2.2-2.6 depending on which camera you have and whether you’re filming HD or 4K (more on this page).
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.
I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots.