One of the nicest features about todays digital SLR cameras is that most can shoot not only still photos, but record video as well. This is great for both hobbyists and professionals alike, because it allows you to capture high quality (often full 1080p high definition) video and great still photos in one device. It also allows for more versatility, because SLRs have the ability to change lenses, while many camcorders do not. Different lenses create different perspectives, and gives you great creative control over how you can film. So the question arises: “What lens will I need/should I get if I want to shoot video?” The answer is very open ended, and depends on several factors, such as what type of filming you’ll be shooting, what sensor size your camera has, and what your budget is. It’s much like asking “What’s the best lens for still photography?” This article will go over some of the things you should look for in a video lens and offer some suggestions based on the aforementioned factors.
When shooting still photography, auto focus can be your best friend. With video, however, the AF on most cameras will be sluggish and jumpy. For this reason, most that shoot video will be manually focusing their lens, so the more the focus ring rotates on a lens, the better. This allows you to fine tune your focus more precisely than with a lens that has a very short rotation “lock-to-lock” (the distance the focus ring rotates from infinity focus to minimum focus distance). Another disadvantage of using AF is that it creates noise – noise that can easily be heard later if you use the camera’s built in microphone, and the environment is quiet.
Another noise that can be captured if you’re not careful is the motor used for image stabilization in some lenses. Using a lens with IS turned on is great if you’re shooting handheld video. If you’re using a tripod, however, turning the IS off will eliminate any noise generated by the IS motor. Another advantage of not using the IS is battery conservation. For still photography, IS is usually used for short periods of time, right before the shutter button is pressed. Video shooters, however, would be using the IS constantly, whenever video is being recorded. IS can be great if you’re not using a tripod or otherwise bracing the camera steadily. It will smooth out the film and reduce camera shake for a smoother, more pleasing recording. Again though, it will drain battery life, and if you’re shooting in a quiet environment, the motor might be able to be heard. I highly recommend using an external mic if you’re going to be doing any kind of extensive videography.
Unless you’re shooting a lot of sports, video is often recorded with a wider lens than when shooting stills. For this reason, I suggest investing first in a lens with a wider focal length, and choosing a more telephoto lens second. With still photography, you will want a fast (wide aperture) lens for the more versatility in low light situations. Remember, with video, you’re limited to 24-60 frames per second, which equates to a shutter speed of 1/24 or 1/60 – which means that aperture and ISO are all you have to play with. So a lens with a wide maximum aperture allows for more light gathering, and also gives you more creative control in regards to depth of field.
Quality of a lens will also make a difference in your video, naturally. I dare say that a lens’s quality isn’t quite as important as with still photography, but for the highest quality color, contrast, and bokeh (the out of focus regions of a picture), a lens with better glass elements will produce a more pleasing film than a lesser quality lens. Build quality is also a factor. A chintzy focus ring compared to a smooth focus ring will be affect how easily you can focus manually. A jittery and jumpy focus ring will be more difficult to smoothly rack focus from one point to another than a damped ring with a solid, positive feel to it. Canon’s L lenses are known for their excellent optic and build quality – they come at a much higher price than their non-L counterparts, however.
There are two major options you have with lenses, zoom lenses (variable focal length, ie, 24-70mm), or prime lenses (fixed focal length, ie, 50mm). A zoom lens will give you more flexibility over a prime in terms of framing and perspective, but almost always at the cost of aperture, so there’s a tradeoff in that department. I recommend having at least one prime lens with a wide maximum aperture (the 50mm f/1.8 is a great place to start) for low light situations and also creating interesting effects with depth of field. The most important factor to choosing a video lens is determined by what you film. Are you filming expansive and sweeping landscapes? Get an ultra wide lens. Sports and wildlife? A telephoto zoom will do a great job. Close up videography? A macro lens is what you need. Filming a little bit of everything, or just want a walk-around lens? There are plenty of great choices there too. Lastly, one other thing to consider is the type of camera you have. Does your camera have a full frame sensor like the 5D or 1DS series? Be aware that EF-S lenses will not fit on a full frame camera. Cameras with an APS-C sensor will accept EF-S lenses, but it is to note that their field of view is 1.6 times that of a full frame camera, meaning that a 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera will have the equivalent field of view of an 80mm lens on a full frame sensor camera. 24mm on a full frame camera is fairly wide, but will “appear” to be a not-very-wide 38mm on an APS-C sensor, so keep that in mind when choosing a lens as well. Below are several good options for video lenses, categorized by camera type and budget. On a final note unrelated to lenses, I definitely advise the use of an external microphone for any video shooting – it’s an accessory that can be purchased rather inexpensively, and will dramatically improve the audio of your films over using the built-in mic. Good luck in your search for a cinema lens – lights, camera, action!
EF-S 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS II – the “kit” lens for Rebel bodies. A great lens to start experimenting with.
EF-S 55-250 f/4-5.6 IS II – Another great “bang for your buck” lens – may be too long for many types of videography, but a great first long lens.
EF 50mm f/1.8 II – Almost everyone’s first prime lens – good optical quality, and very inexpensive.
EF-S 10-22 f/3.5-4.5 USM – Great ultra wide lens for APS-C sensors, and really, the only ultra wide zoom available for the smaller sensor size.
EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM – High qualiry and fast, with a fixed maximum aperture of f/2.8 and IS, it is considered to be “the” walkaround lens for APS-C sensor SLRs.
EF 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 IS USM – Another good option for a general video lens, but being an EF mount, it will fit on full frame cameras, unlike the 15-85 or 18-135.
EF 24mm f/2.8, EF 35mm f/2, EF 50mm f/1.4, EF 85mm f/1.8 – these are all great prime lenses that won’t empty your wallet too quickly, but image quality is still great. Being faster than the zoom lenses, you have more options in terms of low light videography and depth of field control. As you can see, there is a myriad of options as far as focal length, so choose whichever will fit your needs.
EF 16-35mm f/2.8L – Canon’s best ultra wide zoom, and a fixed maximum aperture of f/2.8.
EF 24-70 f/2.8L or EF 24-105 f/4L IS – two great general purpose lenses, with excellent image and build quality, and fixed maximum apertures. Starting at 24mm, they may not be wide enough unless filming with a full frame body.
EF 70-200L (version depending on budget) – If you need anything longer than the above lenses, the 70-200 is the lens for you. In four different varieties, there’s one for nearly everyone’s specific needs and budget.
Any prime L lenses, depending on desired focal length – Canon’s L primes are the cream of the crop, from the ultra wide 14mm, to the super telephotos reaching as long as 800mm, you really can’t go wrong with any of them.
**Two lenses which aren’t yet available for purchase, but have been announced by Canon are the EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM, and the EF 28mm f/2.8 IS USM. Both should be very promising video lenses, with a wider perspective, large aperture, and IS, they will likely be favorites among video shooters. At the time of writing, however, they have not been properly reviewed.